Mother of Witches Part Three
The Sultan’s Son and the Witch’s Sister
There was a sultan who ruled the lands of Zeif in peace and fairness under the bright light of Al’Hatha’s truth. He stood firmly upon the Four Feet of the Dragon, and he had the satisfaction in his later years to see the son of his favored wife prove himself a worthy imitator of those virtues and a worthy heir of his sultanate. Only one matter troubled the old sultan, namely that his son had taken no wife. True enough, generosity, honor, and piety handsomely adorned the young prince, but without family, what does one truly possess? This lamentable deficiency gave the sultan much concern, for his other sons all married powerful houses, daughters of chieftans, pashas, and beygrafs from foreign lands who brought with them rich dowries, exalted titles, and strong alliances.
On an auspicious day, the Sultan said to his son Hussin, for that was his name, “I have consulted the rashaw and learned that you must seek a bride beautiful and powerful beyond all the daughters of Zeif. Do not marry a daughter of Zeif; do not seek a maid of Ekbir, be not seduced by the wiles of a Tusmit woman, and do not look on the dancing girls of Ull. Saddle up your steed, take your men at arms, and go questing into the far-off rebellious land of Ket. Beyond Lopolla, beneath the boughs of that dark forest, take a Ketite maid for wife. Her power and fame will eclipse all the daughters of the Bakluni. Istus has decreed it, and the rashaw has foreseen it.”
Since the young prince was always submissive and obedient to the sultan’s will and since he was much flattered that fate had so favored him with such a magnificent bride surpassing all other women, he consented to undertake the quest. Before departing, he asked, “And how shall I know which girl Istus has decreed for my destiny?”
The sultan said, “Ask the goddess for a specific sign. Let it be the maid that sets before you a princely gift of unmatched beauty. She should be the one Istus has chosen.”
This seemed reasonable to Hussin. He saddled up his steed and took six of his men at arms to questing. They rode many days, weeks, and months over many lands until they came at last into the land of Ket, beyond Lopolla, beneath the boughs of the Bramblewood. Then the men of Zeif grew frightened and their steeds skittish, for they were not accustomed to ride beneath any wood so thick and oppressive in their own lands. They seemed to hear whispers and chitterings on every side, and they saw devilshine shadows duck among the trees. Glad they were to emerge into a wide clearing beneath the open sky. “Let us inquire at the cottage that sits on the edge of this clearing and see if we might find hospitality, bread, and a bed,” Hussin suggested.
His six men replied, “Better than sleeping out under these forsaken trees.”
As they drew near the cottage, however, they turned to a different mind. The horses neighed and whinnied in protest, and indeed, the men protested too when they saw the bone fence that closed in the yard set with skulls all lighted from within. “My lord, we must flee this cursed place!” they said.
“Show yourself to be men and not cowards,” the prince chastised them. “Behold that lass who feeds the black geese in the yard. She is no phantom or hag.” The prince called to the fairheaded young woman, “Maid. Has your father lodging for seven weary travelers? We have plenty of coin to pay for what we eat and more to make it worth his trouble.”
“Indeed, we have lodging aplenty and fodder for your steeds in the stable too, even if we have no father,” the young woman said. “Only let me fetch my mother.”
Leaving off with the black geese, the beautiful girl addressed her words directly to the cottage, “Little hut, little hut, turn your door to me.” Hussin and his men gaped in astonishment as the cottage lifted itself up on a gigantic pair of hen’s legs and rotated itself so that the entrance faced them before settling itself back to the ground. “Alas! This is the home of a powerful djinni!” they lamented.
The fair-haired maid disappeared through the door and reemerged a moment later with another young maid (this one dark of hair) and her skinny old mother. The two maids wrapped their fair faces behind scarves in the manner of the Bakluni daughters, but Baba Yaga bared her own terrifying face with the long nose and mouth full of gang-teethed ogre’s fangs. Her visage so frightened the horses that the riders had all they could manage to keep their mounts from rearing up and bolting. At the same time, the beauty of the two daughters, now partially veiled behind diaphanous scarves, so enchanted Hussin and his men that they wondered if they had fallen under the eyes of the Houris.
“Have you come here on your own accord or did somebody send you?” the terrifying old woman demanded.
Hussin thought to himself, Surely the djinn themselves tremble in the presence of this old woman. But he said aloud and bravely enough, “We have come on our own accord, and we seek lodging. I am the sultan’s son, and these are men of generosity, family, honor, and piety. Moreover, we have coin to compensate you for your trouble.”
“Hmm, perhaps you have eyes for one of my daughters,” Baba Yaga said suggestively. She opened the boney locks on the gate and invited the men to dismount and stable their horses. The Zeifite men looked apprehensively to the thatch-roofed shack which appeared scarcely large enough to stable a single plow horse much less the seven proud Paynim steeds, but when the riders stepped inside they found the stable far larger than they expected. Three fine stallions, each superior to any warhorse bred by a Paynim lord, already stamped their hooves within the stable: a white horse, a red hose, and a black horse. Yet the Zeifite men still had room enough for all their horses and plenty of fodder too.
Likewise the hut of Baba Yaga appeared at first to be a single room affair scarcely large enough for the three women to live comfortably together, but the men found spacious accommodation—room after room. Each chamber opened into another, and each one seemed more magnificent than the one before. They found bedrooms with soft beds, down-filled mattresses, and clean sheets already made up. Baba Yaga told Natasha to heat the water, and she told Elena to fill the baths. The men delighted to find a bath chamber to rival the finest bathhouses of Tyran or Zeir-I-Zeif. They soaked in the hot pool, lingered in the warm pool, and rinsed in the cold pool. The grime and weariness from the many miles of their journey washed away, and the aches and pains of the road left their bones.
After the baths, Baba Yaga called the guests to recline at her table. The table appeared not but a small wooden plank a few inches above the floor which three persons might crowd about to recline for a meal, but as each man took his place another cushion was found next to him until all seven reclined at table across from their hostesses, and all had room to spare. Still more wonderful, unseen servants served the meal, setting out before the men fine chalices and pitchers of mint-flavored water, bowls of soup and cooked vegetables, flat breads fresh from the oven, garlics and oil, baked onions, baba ganoush, and a platter of steaming venison. Only gloved hands showed visible to the eye as the otherwise unseen servants busied themselves around the table. If the water in any man’s chalice fell low, the disembodied hands lifted a pitcher and refilled his cup.
“Truly we have seen surpassing wonders here today, beyond the magic of my people,” Hussin admitted to the old woman. “But the bewitching beauty of these two daughters of yours eclipses even these enchantments.”
“Yes, but you must choose only one and lose only one. You cannot have them both,” Baba Yaga croaked and scolded. “Choose carefully! If you choose wrong, I will surely devour you, your men, and all your horses too in a single go.”
The prince’s men leapt up from the table in alarm but the prince assured them, “Stay my brothers. You have nothing to fear. I will choose well, for I will choose the maid that sets before me a princely gift of unmatched beauty.” It was clear enough which girl the prince favored most; his eyes remained ever lingering upon Elena, nor did she cease from blushing beneath her gauzy scarf each time his eyes lit upon her. Nonetheless, he looked for the design of Istus, and he challenged the girls to a contest, that both should set before him a princely gift of unmatched beauty before he made his choice.
The maids retired to their chambers to think upon the matter and devise just such a gift. Now it should be mentioned that the girls had hardly been idle during their years under the tutelage of Baba Yaga. The old witch schooled her daughters well in all the classics and essential subjects: Abjuration, Alchemy, Algebra, Arcana (both Unearthed and Earthed), Astral Projections, Astrology, Augury, Apothecaries, Biology, Conjuring, Channeling, Charms and Spells, Deities and Demigods (Legends and Lore), Demonology, Divination, Dweomercraft, Enchantment, Evocation, Geography, Herbology, Hexology, History of Oerth, Incantation, Languages, Literature, Lycanthropy, Metallurgy, Metamorphology, Necromancy, Oneirology, Philosophy, Physiology, Planography, Poetry, Rune Reading (Modern and Ancient), Summoning, Theurgy, Transmutation, Warding, Wyrmlore, Xenology, and a variety of handicrafts, such as the spinning wheel and the weaver’s loom.
Both girls applied themselves diligently and excelled in all subjects of study, not less for the competition between them. But Natasha demonstrated uncanny mastery and full retention of even the most obscure information, and she showed a curious knack for conjurations. She proved herself the more clever of the two by far and certainly the more devious. Many years she had spent learning all that Baba Yaga would teach her of dark arts, and when that proved insufficient to slake her insatiable thirst for devilshine, she looted sealed vaults of arcane treasures which Baba Yaga intended kept locked away from the ill-intentions of mortals like her dark-haired daughter. Natasha ever turned her gaze toward deeper and darker spells, incantations, and conjurations. She made a game of experimenting on her unsuspecting sister by vexing her with hexes, plagues, fiends, and all manner of dark sorcery, but Elena never guessed at the true source behind the many woes and unfortunate accidents that befell her. Instead, she sought her sister out for the cure and anecdote to whatever vexation she suffered. She believed Natasha wise and kind and always in possession of whatever solutions there might be to life’s unforeseeable problems. Indeed, Natasha always had the answer ready at hand.
But this night Natasha had no ready answer. Despite her breadth of learning and all her natural advantages over her sister, Natasha could not produce a thing of beauty adequate to set before the prince. She went to work in her laboratory conjuring up lying spirits and deceiving images, each one more fantastic than the last. Every work of beauty she created turned vulgar, course, and hateful in her eyes. Indeed, she had no art for true beauty; the powers with which she dabbled only traded in obscenities.
Meantime Elena went straightway to her spinning wheel and then to her loom to weave together the fabrics of a marvelous cape. She spun the thread from the light of the setting sun, the shining of the bright stars, the radiance of Luna, and pale glow of Celene. She sang spells as she worked, lacing into the fabric many charms and dweomers with every stitch. When Natasha saw her sister’s finished work, she sighed over it dejectedly. Truly the marvelous cape was a princely gift of unmatched beauty. Her own sorcery could conjure up nothing so lovely nor so pure.
Natasha said to her sister, “Sweet Elena, I must tell you what I learned from behind the door. I heard mother say to old Vladimir, ‘If he chooses the one or the other it makes no difference to me, I will surely devour both the sultan’s son and also his men and their horses.’ We both know that mother will never willingly let either one of us leave her hut so long as we are breathing. No suitor will ever have us unless it be a fiend of her choosing.”
“Dear sister,” Elena sobbed, “Whatever shall we do? My affections have set themselves so firmly on the sultan’s son that my heart is all acarked and my tongue is all acclumsid. If I cannot have his love, I will surely lay me down and die.” Tears filled her pretty blue eyes and ran down her fair cheeks, glinting like diamonds on her pale flesh.
“If you really want to leave our pleasant home to live out your days in a sultan’s arms within the Palace of Peh’reen, Vladimir and I will help you,” Natasha consoled as she wiped away her sister’s tears. “The old cat has given me a certain potion that puts the feign of death upon a person such that not even a wretched priest would see through the guise.”
“And how should that prove useful to me?” Elena asked amidst her sniffles.
“Baba-Yaga will think you have perished of a broken heart. She will bury you in the cow pasture, wrapped in the marvelous cape of light that you have made. I will tell that Zeifite prince to dig you up; then off you go together.”
“Sister! Truly you have always cared for me and looked after my welfare, but this last kindness surpasses them all. Give me the potion and wrap me in the cape of light.”
When the prince and his men arose from the night’s rest, they washed and prayed. Baba Yaga bade them recline for breakfast. The invisible servants set before the men a hearty platter heaped with boiled goose eggs and ham (or such that tasted like it) with hard loaf and cheese, and they poured hot tea from an iron kettle. After the platters, plates, and cups had been cleared, Baba Yaga said, “Now make your choice so I can get to my own breakfast.”
“Let your daughters set their princely gifts before me,” the prince said. “Then I shall make my choice and leave you the sultan’s bride price.”
Baba Yaga whistled through her fangs, and the door opened. Natasha entered alone, cradling an awkward bundle in her arms. On the table before the prince she laid out a cape of scintillating light woven and stitched with threads from all the colors of sunset, the sparkle of the stars, the radiance of Luna, and the glow of Celene.
“Now this is a splendid princely gift, surpassing all beauty,” the prince said. “You have surely done well Natasha.”
“Nay my lord,” Natasha demurred from behind her scarves. “This cape is only the wrap I have devised. My true gift unto you is cloaked within it.”
The prince opened the cape and beheld the beautiful bared face of Elena, unbreathing and unmoving.
“Alas! Alas!” the sultan’s son cried. “How has Istus utterly deceived me!”
“When my sister saw the cape of light I made for you my prince,” Natasha explained with quivering voice, “She despaired of winning your heart, for she had no fairer gift to offer. She took her own life rather than suffer a broken heart. Now I set her fair face and lovely form before you, for truly she is a princely gift of unmatched beauty.”
“Well that ruins my fun,” Baba Yaga growled in disappointment. “One’s alive and one’s destined for the cow pasture. Which one do you want for your queen?”
When Elena awoke in the cow pasture, she picked herself up out of the manure and called for her sister. Natasha did not answer. She was already far away on the back of a Paynim warhorse with her bare arms holding tightly around the waist of the sultan’s son; his scintillating cape of light was wrapped over her shoulder and fluttered in the west wind that tossed the tresses of her long dark hair.
Read the next chapter: Iggwilv’s Wedding
Joseph Bloch, “The Baklunish Pantheon,” in Dragonne Magazine.
Roger Moore, “The Dancing Hut: An AD&D Game Adventure for High-Level Heroes,” Dragon 83 (March 1984): 31-50.
John “Ross” Rossomangno, “History Check: The Iggwilv Gaz’zt Affair,” Dragon 414 (August 2002).
Jake Robins, The Player’s Guide to Zeif.