Handsome and the Hag

    
    

       Once upon a time, there were three brothers. The first and eldest was named Gerhart, which meant “strong.” The second brother was named Conrad, which meant “clever.” The third and youngest brother was named Hans, which meant “gracious,” but he was so fair to look upon that everyone called him “Handsome.” 

     They lived in a bustling city with their mother, Ingrid, who was a renowned seamstress. She was often employed by wealthy ladies to create gowns of unparalleled beauty. Their father was a well-to-do merchant who imported fantastic fabrics and costly jewels for Ingrid’s creations. Gerhart was apprenticed to a famous silversmith and Conrad was attending the university. Hans was not employed, nor did he go to school, but instead helped Ingrid with her sewing, took care of the house, and did odd jobs around town wherever he was needed. He was curious about everything, and as a result, Hans became a jack-of-all-trades with knowledge of many skills, but was the master of none. Although Gerhart and Conrad sometimes teased Hans about his lack of focus, it really didn’t matter. The family was well-off, so Hans wasn’t required to settle on one talent, and that was fine with him.   

     But nothing lasts forever. Tragedy struck the family. A great storm sank the entire merchant fleet, killing their father and devastating the family, both emotionally and financially. The city fell on hard times and soon no one was calling for fancy dresses, silver trinkets, or the services of scribes and scholars. One by one, Ingrid and her sons stopped finding work. Hans managed to bring a little money in with his odd jobs, but it was not enough to support the entire family and no one was willing to take on an unskilled apprentice. 

     Finally, they were forced to leave their nice house in the city and move to a little backwater village near the Schwartzwald, a thick forest that covered the mountains and valleys for miles around. Gerhart found work with the local blacksmith, supplemented by farm work. Conrad offered his services as a mail carrier and letter writer for the townsfolk, and also helped the local priest and money-changer keep records. Hans did all of the housework, chores, and more odd jobs so Ingrid could focus on sewing. She found work with the local weavers and laundry maids, but still managed to receive a few orders from wealthy people who had heard of her work and were not in as dire straights as many others. She often ended up traveling to such houses in order to take the fittings and make the clothing, and Hans insisted that he or one of his brothers should always go with her so she wouldn’t be traveling alone. 

     But Ingrid didn’t like inconveniencing her sons, feeling responsible for their misfortunes (even though there truly was nothing she could have done.) One day when she received a request for a dress to be made, Ingrid waited until her sons were out of the house, then packed a bag, left a note for Conrad to read to the others, and set out on her own. 

     It was a three day journey on foot through the Schwartzwald. Paths wound through the forest, leading to various hamlets, and Ingrid never met a single bandit or thief; they stayed away from the Schwartzwald, claiming it was cursed or haunted. But nothing bothered Ingrid and she reached her destination on the other side of the forest safely. Three more days were spent working on her customer’s request. Then, purse plump with her payment, Ingrid started the journey back to her village. 

     This time she was not so fortunate. On the second day, a terrible early spring storm tore through the Schwartzwald. The winds howled, thunder boomed, and torrents of rain fell from the skies. Poor Ingrid wasn’t sure if she would be swept away by a flash flood, crushed under the falling limbs of a tree, or struck by lightning.   

     Drenched, lost, and desperate, Ingrid staggered through the storm, searching for shelter.  Just when she thought she could go no farther, Ingrid stumbled upon an iron gate set in the side of a tall, tightly interwoven hedge of thorn-bushes.  The gate had no padlock or bolt of any kind, and it seemed as if it was attached to a fence that had long since been swallowed up by the hedge.  Hoping to find a house or lodge of some kind, Ingrid opened the gate and went in.  Beyond was what seemed to be a garden, and beyond that loomed the dark, brooding facade of a grand mansion.  She reached the relative shelter of the great porch leading to the main door, but despite her dire need, Ingrid was not comfortable with begging for shelter at the entrance to such a place.  A flash of lightning illuminated a nearby side door, a modest one undoubtedly used by servants.  Mercifully, it was unlocked and Ingrid slipped inside. 

     The door led directly into a kitchen with a cheery fire dancing in the hearth and a stool set before it.  No one seemed to be about, nor did anyone answer her nervous introduction to thin air, so Ingrid sat on the stool by the fire, which quickly warmed and dried her.  Then, just as she finally felt dry and started to realize how hungry she was, a globe of pale blue light like a will-o’-wisp bobbed into the kitchen.  It gave Ingrid a fright, but the will-o’-wisp did not seem threatening at all.  It waited until she calmed down, then ushered her along a hall to an elegant dining room.  Despite the length of the table, there was a place set for only one person.  More will-o’-wisps of various pastel shades appeared with food and drink, and soon Ingrid’s hunger eased.  Then a pink will-o’-wisp led her to a sumptuous bedchamber, complete with a hot bath and fresh night clothes.  Confused and a bit nervous, but deeply grateful, Ingrid slept.

     The following morning, Ingrid found her clothes clean and pressed, along with a lovely breakfast.  Deeply grateful, Ingrid began looking for the owner of the mansion in order to thank them for their aid.  But as Ingrid searched the house, she saw no one, not even the will-o’-wisps, and all of the doors, save for her bedchamber, the dining room, the kitchen, and the main hall were shut and locked. 

     Finally, Ingrid decided that she could no longer search for her elusive host; her sons were probably already worried about her.  The storm had subsided into sunshine; it was time to go.  As Ingrid stepped out of the mansion, she caught sight of a lovely pebble glistening among the gravel of the walk.  It was perfectly smooth and round like a pearl.  “Gerhart would like this,” Ingrid said to herself, so she scooped up the pebble and put it in her pocket.  The air grew cooler and Ingrid glanced up to see that clouds had started gathering, dimming the sunshine.  Worried that another storm was brewing, Ingrid hurried onward.   

     She was about halfway through the garden when she saw a long grey-and-white striped feather caught among a patch of ferns.  “Oh, that would make a perfect quill pen for Conrad!” said Ingrid, so she scooped up the feather and put it in her pocket.  A cold gust of wind caught her skirts and she shivered as she looked up.  The sky was darker still and the air grew chill.  Ingrid wrapped her shawl more tightly around herself and continued through the garden. 

     Just as the iron gate came into view, Ingrid noticed a nest of ivy coiling over a low stone wall.  She recalled how much Hans liked the ivy that used to grow on the garden wall at their old home in the city and decided to take a vine home with her to plant for him.  As she cut free one of the strands, the wind howled, the sky grew black, and an inhuman roar filled the air.  Ingrid whirled towards the sound. 

     Lurching towards her was a monster.  It had a lupine face filled with canine fangs framed by long, tangled hair, like river weeds.  Quill-like pinions like half-formed wings ran down its hunched back and broad shoulders.  Most of its body, including the small feminine swell of its chest, was covered in short grey fur, but snake-like scales covered its arms and legs.  The hands were almost human, but tipped with bird-like talons and the legs faced backward like the rear limbs of a wolf or goat, complete with cloven hooves.  A horse tail lashed behind the creature.  It wore a sash of torn red cloth around its waist, the only concession to human modesty. 

     Ingrid ran for the gate, but try as she might, it refused to open even though it had no lock.  Terrified, she turned back to face the creature coming towards her.  Then, to Ingrid’s amazement and horror, the creature spoke in a rough yet female voice. 

     “Tell me, how should a thief be punished?” the creature asked.

     “Th-thief?” Ingrid stammered. 

     The monster stomped one cloven hoof.  “Yes, thief!  I grant you sanctuary.  I give you food, drink, shelter, and three small tests of your honesty.  You failed all three.  No one steals from the Hag and lives!”” 

     “I did not think that taking a pebble, a feather, or an ivy vine would be seen as stealing,” said Ingrid, trembling.  “Please, I meant no harm.  I only wanted to bring something to my sons.” 

     That made the Hag pause.  “Tell me of your sons,” she ordered. 

     Shaking with fear, Ingrid described Gerhart, Conrad, and Hans and told of their troubles that had led to this sorry state of affairs.  The Hag listened.  When Ingrid was done, the Hag said, “Very well.  I will release you, unharmed, with the pebble, feather, and ivy, and a chest of silver coins.  In return, each of your sons must spend three months with me in my domain.  Each time they return to you, they will bring another chest of wealth with them and may have one week rest before the next must attend me.  If this is not done, all of you will forfeit your lives.” 

     Ingrid had no choice but to agree.  The Hag made her return to the mansion and then vanished.  At nightfall, a cart pulled by a glowing green-white horse waited at the front steps.  In the back of the cart was the chest of silver, just as the Hag had promised.  This time Ingrid was able to leave and, thanks to the glowing horse, she reached home just before the first rays of the sun peeked over the horizon.  Then the horse disappeared, leaving the cart and chest behind. 

     The three brothers were overjoyed to see their mother again; they had feared something terrible had happened with the great storm.  But she began to weep as she explained the Hag’s conditions.  When Ingrid was done, the little family sat in stunned silence for some time.  Then, Hans stirred and said, “Mother, I will go to stay with the Hag first.  Perhaps I can persuade her to change the bargain and set us free.  And if things go wrong… well, I have no employment or prospects like Gerhart and Conrad.  They will be able to take care of you, should anything happen.” 

     Ingrid wept harder but all of her tears and protestations were to no avail; Hans was determined to go.  His brothers were sad, but also secretly relieved by the reprieve.  Perhaps they could come up with a plan while Hans distracted the Hag.   

     Within a day, Hans set out for the Hag’s mansion.  When night fell, the glowing fae horse that had pulled the cart appeared, clad in a milk-white saddle and bridle.  Hans mounted the horse and it took him along secret paths to the mansion. 

     When Hans arrived, dawn crept over the forest and the horse disappeared, leaving him alone at the foot of the mansion’s steps.  As Hans began to ascend, he saw something move in the gloom beneath the eaves of the porch.  It was the Hag.  She stood there and glared at him with bloodshot eyes as if daring him to comment on her appearance.  Even with Ingrid’s warning, the Hag’s visage was still a shock, but he tried to hide it.  Straightening his shoulders, Hans walked right up to the Hag, bowed politely, and said, “Good morrow, milady.  Thank you for taking care of my mother when she was in need.  My name is Hans.  How may I be of service?”     

     Although the Hag’s expressions were difficult to read, she seemed taken aback by this calm, polite manner and offer of help, as if he were a hired servant rather than a hostage.  In a gruff tone, she said, “You are my… guest and therefore are not expected to work.” 

     Hans frowned.  “I’ve already been a burden to my mother by not mastering a single trade.  I will not be a burden here, not if there are things to be done.” 

     The Hag snorted, lashing her tail.  “Do as you please,” she said.  “Make yourself at home and do not attempt to open any locked doors.”  Then she turned and left. 

     For the first few days, Hans tried to be a good, traditional house guest.  He enjoyed the comfortable bed and fine food, although he ate a little too much of the latter and was sick the first night.  Like his mother, Hans found that most of the doors in the mansion were locked, and, as per the Hag’s instructions, he did not attempt to open them.  The only rooms within the mansion he had access to were his bedchambers, the kitchen, the Great Hall, and a small but still opulent sitting room.  He found all of the clothes in the wardrobe were designed for a gentleman of rank, but fit perfectly.  So much of it was far fancier than he was comfortable with, and Hans found himself always choosing the simplest and hardiest of what he was offered. 

     Exploring the house took hardly any time at all with so many doors locked, but the grounds were another matter.  Hans had spent some time as a gardener’s assistant, so he could appreciate the beauty and work needed to maintain it.  But he never saw any gardeners or workers of any kind, only the glowing will-o’-wisps, and he soon learned that they only came out at night. 

     After the first few days of exploring, relaxing, and seeing no sign of his hostess, Hans grew restless and bored, so he started to work in the garden.  He found a shed of gardening tools and cleaning implements and began tidying up after himself.  He forewent the rich food laid out in the Great Hall and started taking his meals in the kitchen instead, often cooking them himself.   

     One evening the Hag stormed in during his evening meal and demanded to know what he thought he was doing.  Hans trembled, but stood his ground.  “Honest work keeps me occupied,” he said, “and eating alone in the Great Hall is just too overwhelming.  I would rather stay in the kitchen.  It’s cheery and comfortable here.  Of course, if this displeases you, I will stop, but that would make for quite a long and boring visit.” 

     The Hag frowned.  “Have you no other interests to occupy your time?” 

     Hans spread his hands, indicating his simple garment.  “I am not a landed gentleman,” he said.  “I do not care to hunt for sport and there is no need to hunt for food here.  I have no skill in the arts and even if I had a partner, I only know country dances.” 

     “What of books?” 

     Hans looked away.  “I don’t know how to read.  My brother Conrad keeps meaning to teach me, but it hasn’t worked out yet.”  He laughed, although it sounded a little forced.  “So you see, I am a jack-of-all trades, master of none.” 

     The Hag watched him for a moment, then lumbered out of the kitchen without saying a word.  Hans continued cleaning up the sections of the mansion he used and enjoyed spending the warm spring days outside.  Sometimes, he noticed the Hag watching him.  As the days passed, she stayed longer and came closer.  Towards the end of the third month, she even sat in the kitchen with him and accepted the occasional mug of tea or loaf of bread from him, although she never ate or drank in his presence.  Sometimes she even talked to him, asking about the kinds of jobs he had or the properties of the plants he cared for. 

     At the end of the allotted time, the Hag sent Hans home in a cart drawn by the will-o’-wisp horse with another chest of silver coins.  Although he was happy to see his family again, Hans worried a little about the Hag being left by herself.  It had to be lonely in that mansion with only the silent night-time will-o’-wisps for company.   

     At home, there was a mixture of good and bad news.  The good news was that Conrad had found a good position with the local magistrate and was making good use of his talents.  The bad news was that he would probably lose that position and his prospects would be ruined if Conrad was forced to leave for three months.  So Hans volunteered to go back to the Hag in Conrad’s place.  Ingrid worried that the Hag would be angry at receiving the same son, but Hans assured her that all would be well. 

     The Hag was surprised to see Hans return, but not angry.  In fact, she even seemed a little pleased.  This time, Hans noticed that more of the doors in the mansion were open, allowing him to explore further.  He found that many of the rooms had small things wrong with them: a table with uneven legs that wouldn’t stand level; a closet with warped doors that wouldn’t shut; squeaky hinges that needed oiling; a broken clock.  Little things.  Hans employed the various skills he’d acquired at the different trades to fix them.   

     But he found something else in the newly opened rooms as well.  Each room had, in addition to something that needed mending, an item that seemed incongruous to the Hag’s person:  a lady’s hairbrush with broken teeth; a bent hat pin; a pearl necklace in need of restringing; a torn dress.  All of these things were disturbingly normal and human-sized.  And Hans began to suspect that the Hag was probably human once, but ran afoul of some spell or curse and was transformed into her current state.  But when he asked the Hag outright, she refused to speak on the subject, either because it was too painful or because of the spell itself; Hans couldn’t tell which.  The only thing that he did learn was that the Hag, like her “guests,” could not leave the grounds of the mansion unless certain terms were met.  In Hans case, he could leave when his three months were up.  But the Hag did not divulge what conditions had to be met for her own release. 

     Summer drew to a close and Hans returned home for a second time, but his eldest brother Gerhart had also found a good position with the local craftsmen.  Leaving to stay with the Hag for several months would wreck his prospects.  The family seems to be doing better, so Hans took his leave for the third and final time as the leaves changed into their fall colors.

     The Hag was openly pleased to see Hans return, and almost all of the rooms, save the Hag’s own chambers, are open to him.  As the days cooled, she took Hans into the mansion’s library and taught him to read and write.  With fine materials brought from Ingrid’s stores, Hans sewed a red velvet cloak trimmed with ermine for the Hag as a solstice present.   

     At the end of autumn, the Hag grew quiet and sad, for it was nearly time for Hans to go.  He had fulfilled the bargain; no one would die and his family had recouped their fortunes, thanks to the chests of silver given by the Hag.  On the final day, the Hag released Hans with her blessing and a chest of gold.  She watched him from the parapets, clutching the lovely cloak he had made for her. 

    Hans returned home to the great joy of his mother.  His brothers both had good positions and were happy in their work.  Thanks to the chests of gold and silver, the family would be better able to weather hard times.  Ingrid was once again receiving requests for her abilities, and even better she’d begun courting one of the local villagers, a good honest man.  As for Hans, he felt torn.  Hans was glad to see his the fortunes of his family so improved, but it did leave him a little out of place.  He could help, but wasn’t really required.  While he was gone, everyone had moved on, adapted.   

     And Hans realized that in the time he’d spent away, he’d come to relate to and enjoy the company of the Hag more than anyone else.  Her willingness to share her learning, to answer questions or discuss ideas that no one else bothered with was refreshing.  He worried about how she was doing out there all alone, and he missed her.  So, after a short stay, Hans decided to return to the Hag’s mansion. 

     However, the will-o’-wisp horse had vanished with the dawn at his return to the house and since the three visits were up, a new one would not appear to escort him.  Hans tried to find his own way, but soon found himself lost deep in the Schwartzwald with winter coming on.  When his food ran out, Hans subsisted as best he could on stream water and what berries, nuts, or roots he could find.  But winter caught up with him.  With no food or shelter, Hans was driven to ground, huddling in the measly shelter of a lightning-struck oak, slowly freezing to death.  As he started to lose consciousness, Hans thought he saw the bobbing light of a will-o’-wisp and, with the last of his strength, called out for the Hag. 

     Hans flickered in and out of consciousness for a time.  He had fleeting impressions of being held, carried by something warm.  He finally awoke fully, weak but alive, in his bed at the Hag’s mansion.  She was curled on the floor next to him, looking about as weak as he felt.  Her skin was oddly waxen and cold, despite being wrapped in the red velvet cloak.  The Hag told him that she’d heard his call for help relayed through the will-o’-wisps and forced her way through the magic barrier surrounding the mansion to save him.  However, breaking the barrier also shattered the protective magic that kept her misshapen body alive.  She had saved Hans… but was slowly losing her own life in return.  Hans began to weep, for he’d only ever wanted to help, not cause more pain.  Tears streaming down his face, Hans cupped the Hag’s face in his hands and gently kissed her forehead.   

     In that instant, the twisted form of the Hag split in half to reveal a beautiful young woman.  She said her name was Gisela, and explained to an astonished Hans that she had been courted by a sorcerer years ago.  But she had been young, spoiled, and quite vain, and this cost her dearly. When Gisela spurned the sorcerer due to a petty dislike of his appearance, he cursed her to be trapped in this mansion and turned her into a hideous Hag.  The terms of the spell were that she could only leave if she did so out of unselfish love for someone else, but that leaving would kill her.  The only way she could survive and be returned to her proper form was if the person she loved and saved also loved her in return, despite her appearance.  Everyone else who once lived in the mansion had fled years ago, leaving only the sorcerer’s will-o’-wisps as her companions and servants.   

     As soon as Hans was well, he and Gisela gathered what they needed from the mansion and traveled back to the village.  There, much to the delight of his family, Hans and Gisela were wed, then set off together to see the world.  And so they lived happily ever after. 

— 

By Hikari Katana 

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