Meg and the Black Bull
When Meg arrived at the witch’s house, to her surprise, the witch actually seemed glad to see her.
“Just the girl. You are a washerwoman’s daughter; see if you can clean this.” Lamia thrust what appeared to be leather into Meg’s hands. “A prince has left this suit of black leather, stained with blood, to be cleaned. He has said that whoever can clean it is to be his wife. But, no matter how hard my daughter or I try, the stains sink in ever deeper. Now, get it clean.”
“Only if you tell me what happened to my sisters.”
“Do not defy me, girl.”
But Meg would not relent. In the end, the witch angrily told her that her sisters had ‘kindly’ paid a debt that Lamia owed. Now, Lamia planned to seal her daughter’s fortune by marrying her to this melancholy prince.
“How do I find my sisters?”
The witch laughed. “You can never find them. They are in the realm of the ‘others’; no one leaves.”
“You are a cruel woman. What did my sisters ever do to you that you would condemn them to such a fate?”
“It was them, or my daughter and me. Now, clean that leather.”
“Clean it yourself. Why should I help you after what you have done?”
The witch grabbed Meg by the hair. “Do as you’re told, or your mother will pay the price.”
Blinking back tears, Meg clutched the leather, and dragged herself to the cleaning stones. Laying the leather flat, she began rubbing them with a wash-leather, as her mother had taught her to do. As soon as Meg’s tears fell on them, the bloodstains began to vanish; soon the leather was shining as new.
Meg stared at the leather, not wanting to take it back to Lamia. But what choice did she have? She had failed her mother and her sisters. Unable to keep her promise, how would she now face her mother? Getting to her feet, she made her slow way back to the house, and handed the leather over.
Lamia snatched them. “Thank you, my dear. You have made my daughter’s fortune. But where are you going?” she said as Meg turned to leave.
“Back to my mother.”
“No.” Lamia grabbed her and pulled her back in. Dragging the struggling young woman up the stairs, she shoved Meg into the attic.
“What are you doing?” said Meg, trying to fight free.
“I cannot take the chance that you might see the prince or talk to him. You will stay here until my daughter is married.”
Ignoring Meg’s cries, she shut and locked the door.
When the prince arrived at the house for his clothes, Meg could hear him, but couldn’t see. She heard Lamia tell him how her daughter, Lilian, had cleaned his leathers. She frowned when she heard the prince question the witch repeatedly, as if he didn’t believe her. He kept asking if she was certain it had been her daughter who’d cleaned his leathers, or if there was anyone else in the house who might have cleaned it instead. Even though Lamia kept insisting with clearly rising irritation, still the prince kept questioning her. Until finally, he had to relent. He agreed that he would marry her daughter within the week, once the preparations had been completed.
Meg wondered why the thought of the prince marrying Lilian saddened her. “I do not know this prince,” she said softly to the empty room. “Why would I care what happens to him?” Sighing heavily, she closed her eyes. No matter how hard she tried, she could not stop thinking about her bull, and how much she missed him. Remembering the last time she saw him, blood-spattered, she hoped he was safe. Concern for one became concern for another as her thoughts turned to her mother, and she prayed the woman remained well. Meg wondered if she could trust Lamia to free her.
The thought sprang to her mind with such suddenness, she gasped – might this prince help her find her sisters? If she could prove to him that she had been the one who had cleaned his leathers … Not that she wanted to marry him, but she was prepared to do anything to find her sisters and return with them to her mother.
Clasping her hands together, then fiddling with her dress, Meg tried to think of a way to get out of the room. She put her hands in her pockets; her fingers closed over the fruit she had been given. Drawing them out, she remembered what the people in the castle had told her, to only cut the fruit when she was in great need. Meg put the pear and plum back in her pockets, and stared at the apple. Surely this had to be the first great need of her life.
She ran to the tray of food Lilian had brought to her earlier, and grabbed the knife. She cut the apple in half, and, to her surprise, instead of pips, found it to be filled with pearls. “Oh, how easy our lives would be if we had these beauties,” she said softly. But what use were these riches without her sisters?
By the time Lilian returned to retrieve the tray of untouched food, Meg had devised a plan. She showed the pearls to Lilian, whose eyes widened at the sight.
“Let me talk to the prince, and these pearls are yours.”
Lilian agreed, and reached out to take them.
“No,” said Meg. “Let me see the prince first.”
Lilian’s gaze darted around the room. “How do I know you will give them to me?”
Lilian shook her head. “Why should I trust you?”
Meg was on the verge of retorting that Lilian and her mother were the ones who lied but held her tongue for she needed the girl’s help. She let Lilian have the pearls.
“I will return later and unlock the door when Mother has gone to bed,” said Lilian as she scurried out of the room.
Meg waited, what seemed to her, an unconscionably long time before she heard the key in the door. The silence that followed was so great, it made her want to shout. When she tried the handle, the door opened. Her heart hammering in her chest, she crept down to the room where the prince slept.
Sitting outside his door, she said, “Please, kind prince, listen to what I say. It is I, Meg, who cleaned your leathers. I am the one who washed the blood off, not Lilian. I am not seeking to trick you, or to marry you, only please, I beg you, help me find my sisters.”
Meg waited for his response, but there was none forthcoming. She pressed her ear to the door; all she heard was soft snoring. Tapping at the door, but not too loudly for she did not want to alert Lamia, Meg repeated her words. Still there was no response. “Oh! How soundly he sleeps …” said Meg under her breath.
What she could not know was that Lilian had betrayed her and had given the pearls to her mother. Lamia, intrigued but amused, had prepared a sleeping potion for the prince, which she had slipped into his wine cup.
Not suspecting anything, Meg continued to try to wake the prince. But, as dawn broke, she had no choice but to return to her room, where Lilian soon appeared to lock her in.
Yet Meg did not give up. The next night, what she saw as the second great need of her life, she sliced open the pear. And stared. The core was of twisted gold. Again, when Lilian appeared, she offered her the gold under the same conditions. Again, Lilian promised to unlock the door. Again, Meg crept to the prince’s room and pleaded for his help. And again, the prince did not awaken.
The following night, Meg’s third great need, she cut open the plum, and exclaimed. Twinkling and reflecting the candlelight was a diamond as big as a pigeon’s egg. This time, Lilian appeared earlier than usual, greed twisting her pretty features. Meg held out her hand, the diamond resting on her palm. “Take it. Take it for your wedding crown …”
Without a word, Lilian snatched the diamond and ran out of the room.
“And if I fail tonight, then … then …” Meg shook her head, unable to utter the words.
Standing by the open window, the wine cup in his hand, the prince stared at the darkly clouded sky. With a sigh, he raised the cup of drugged wine to his lips but paused when he heard cattle lowing. Putting the cup down, he leaned against the sill, and looked out. Two bulls approached, looked up at him, and called, “Brother.”
He smiled, tears pricking his eyes. “Patience, my brothers. Soon we shall all be free. When I marry this girl who has washed the blood off my leathers, the curse will be broken and we will finally be free. Though I prayed that it would be my Meg …” he finished softly.
Stepping back, he reached for the cup but misjudged, and knocked it over. He contemplated asking for another, but the thought of having to talk to Lamia or Lilian stopped him.
He climbed into the bed, and closed his eyes, waiting for sleep to swiftly claim him as it had done the previous two nights. But it eluded him. As he tossed and turned, he heard a voice outside his door … a soft voice, a familiar voice. The prince sat up. The voice was saying something about Lilian not being the one who had washed the blood off his leathers. His heart beat that little bit faster; he thought he recognised the voice, but did not dare hope. Striding to the door, he pulled it open.
Already on her knees by the keyhole, Meg quickly bowed her head.
“Meg!” said the prince, and knelt beside her.
Surprised, she raised her gaze, but did not know this man kneeling before her, smiling at her.
“Meg, it is I,” he said, grasping her shoulders. “Do you not know me?”
“Forgive me, sir, I-I … I do not …”
“The Black Bull. I am … was the Black Bull of Norroway.”
Meg frowned. “You are not, sir. You are no bull.”
“I was a bull, but now I am my true self again. After I defeated the Guardian of Glass Valley, I regained my form.”
Still Meg seemed unconvinced.
“Remember what I said to you before I fought the Guardian? I told you to sit on a rock, and look to the sky. If it turned blue and sunny, it meant I had won, but if it turned blood-red, then I had lost. I told you not to move, that if you changed your position by so much as a hair I would–”
“You would never be able to find me,” finished Meg, tears filling her eyes.
Smiling widely, he nodded.
She clasped her hands to her mouth, smiling through her tears. “Oh, forgive me, I did not mean to move, but I was so happy when the sky turned blue, I forgot myself.”
“I looked and looked for you, dear Meg. But none of that matters now, for we have found one another again. Though I believe I should explain how it was that I was changed into a bull.”
Meg followed him into the room, and sat on the bed, while he pulled the chair closer to tell her a strange, sad tale.
“There are other … beings who inhabit a world alongside our own, Meg. Outwardly they may resemble us, but inside … inside they are empty, devoid of joy, soulless. My brothers and I were out hunting and were waylaid by some of their women. They tried to entice us, but we knew what they were. They had caused the death of our beloved mother and father. We refused to dally with them. They accused us of humiliating them. To punish us, they turned us into bulls. And so we would remain until one of us, at least, found a woman who would love him as the bull he appeared to be. The only way that bull could regain his human form was by killing the guardian of Glass Valley. That woman who loved him as a bull, she would be the only one able to clean any blood on the bull-leather. And if she agreed to marry him, then and only then would the curse, as a whole, be broken.”
He took both her hands in his. “When you agreed to come with me, Meg, I wondered if you might be the one to help me. The longer I spent with you, the harder I prayed that you would be the one able to clean the bull-leather.” He was about to say more; instead he lowered his gaze and frowned as if in pain. “I have no right to ask this of you. But … I hope that you love me as I have grown to love you. And that you will … consent to be my wife …”
When she remained silent, he raised his gaze. To find her smiling, tears in her eyes. All she did was nod.
He kissed her hands.
“But I must have my mother’s blessing.”
“Of course,” he said, smiling. “Now–”
“Wait. The fruit I was given … they seemed so real, and yet …”
He nodded. “I do not know if they would have tasted as real fruit if you had tried to eat them. All I know is that they were in my family for many years, but I do not know their origin. My brothers and I were each given one, and told to use them only in dire need. I hoped they would somehow help free us …” Again, he smiled at Meg.
And she returned his smile. “And they have.”
After long moments of gazing into her eyes, he said, “Now, let us leave.”
“No. My sisters. I must find them. The witch, Lamia, she knows where they are. She said they are with … she called them ‘others’.”
His features darkened. Taking Meg by the hand, he strode out of the room towards the far end of the corridor, and banged on Lamia’s door.
The woman slowly opened the door and peered out. When she saw Meg, she narrowed her eyes and hissed.
“Tell us, woman,” said the prince. “Where are Meg’s sisters?”
Throwing the door open, she tossed her hair back, hands on her hips. “No! You promised to marry my–”
“I said I would marry the one who cleaned the blood off my leathers.” Advancing on her, he glared. “You told Meg her sisters are with what you call ‘others’. They are the ones who cursed my brothers and me, are they not?”
Stepping back, Lamia held her hands up as if to ward him off.
“Tell us …”
“Leave my mother …” Her voice little more than a squeak, Lilian had stepped into view, but she made no move towards Lamia.
The prince reached out and grabbed hold of Lamia’s arm. “You will tell us, woman.” He pulled her out of the room. Dragging her behind him, he made his way down, Meg and Lilian following.
Lamia tried to free herself, but he only tightened his grip. “I made a deal with them, with the ‘others’, to augment my powers.” The words fell from Lamia’s mouth as if desperate to escape. “The payment they wanted … two women, men, children, they did not care, they wanted two to serve them. If I could not deliver then they would have taken me, my daughter …”
“You gave them my sisters?” Meg’s horror was evident in her voice.
“They were foolish enough to come to my door.”
“They were seeking help.”
“What were they to me that I should help?”
“Then you should have simply turned them away,” said Meg.
“You will go now and free them,” said the prince.
Lamia’s disdain swiftly changed to terror. “No,” she mewed.
“You will free them by taking their places as you should have done.”
“No. I will not. And I have enough riches now that you cannot make me.” She turned to Lilian. “Show them. Show them the jewels …”
Lilian ran back upstairs. Moments later, she howled and came running back down, in tears. “She tricked me!” Lilian pointed at Meg. “I knew you couldn’t be trusted …”
“What are you talking about?” said Meg, shaking her head.
“Where are the jewels?” said Lamia.
“There are no jewels,” wept Lilian. She opened her clenched fist to reveal apple pips, a pear core and a plum stone.
Meg stared. “But … but what happened …”
The prince laughed, but there was no humour in it. “Enough talk. You will go now and free Meg’s sisters.”
“No! No, I will not–”
A loud lowing interrupted Lamia; Lilian screamed.
Crossing the room, the prince pulled open the door. Standing outside were the two bulls who had led Meg from the valley. “You may believe you can defy me, witch, but what of my brothers?”
The cream-coloured bull attempted to enter, but the doorway was too narrow. Still he tried to shoulder his way in, shaking his head and snorting; the door frame began to splinter and the house trembled its agitation.
Lilian screamed again.
“Stop. Stop,” cried Lamia, her brief display of defiance crumbling. “I will do as you say.”
“No, Mother. You cannot. I won’t go. I won’t!” Lilian backed away, eyes wide, shaking her head. She tried to run, but her mother grabbed her arm, her grip so tight, Lilian cried out.
Although she did not like Lilian, still Meg’s heart ached in sympathy … that the daughter had to pay for her mother’s ambition.
And so they left, the curious little group flanked by two bulls. Meg wondered why they had yet to change back to their human forms but did not want to ask in front of Lamia.
Having thought their journey would take a few days, Meg was surprised when they stopped before day’s end at a mound in a small field surrounded by trees.
In the hour when it was neither day nor night, Lamia spoke words Meg did not understand. She looked towards the trees, expecting the creatures to appear from the forest. Instead, the mound began to tremble. Meg staggered back, hand over her mouth, as the mound gradually opened.
The ‘other’ that stepped out was not the monster Meg had pictured. Instead here was a creature that looked like a man but who was so achingly beautiful, she wanted to weep. And yet, there was something about him that she found unsettling. She couldn’t say what it was, but her senses begged her to look away.
Meg could not understand what Lamia said to him but there was no mistaking the dread in the witch’s voice. The creature shook his head and turned to leave. The two bulls lumbered forward, lowing loudly, and knocked him to the ground. The brown bull made as if to enter the open mound while the cream-coloured one stood over the creature, snorting into his face. Meg knew fear when she saw it and the creature did indeed appear fearful.
Another one appeared from the mound and stared at them, but kept his distance. The brown bull stepped towards the newcomer who raised his hand and backed away.
Strange, thought Meg. They are the ones who cursed the brothers to be bulls yet they seem frightened of them.
The second ‘other’ inclined his head as if listening for something … A few moments later, more appeared.
Meg gasped, her hands covering her mouth. In their midst, unkempt and ragged, were Beth and Gwen. The second ‘other’ who had appeared pointed at Lamia and Lilian. Lilian made as if to run, but the Prince of Norroway was behind her; taking both mother and daughter by the arm, he strode forward with them.
Meg blinked. One minute they were facing a group of ‘others’, then it was only her, her sisters, the prince and his brother-bulls. Slowly the mound closed. Meg shuddered; she was sure she could hear an echo of Lilian wailing. With a cry, she rushed forward and embraced her bewildered sisters.
Once they realised they were free, Beth and Gwen were able to assure Meg that they were unharmed.
“How is Mother?” asked Beth.
“She is poorly, but she promised she would stay strong, and look for our return,” said Meg.
“Then we must hurry home,” said Gwen.
She turned to the prince. “I have not forgotten,” she said with a smile. “But we must return to our mother.”
“I understand.” His gaze did not leave her face.
Aware that her sisters were staring at her, Meg lowered her gaze, blushing.
In that moment, the prince’s brothers cried out. As they stepped from side to side, shaking their heads as if in pain, a mist enveloped them, and all that could be heard was their lowing … which gradually changed. The mist cleared and two young men were revealed, covered in bull-leathers. Blinking slowly, they stared at themselves, then at each other. They began to laugh as their brother ran up to embrace them.
“Meg,” said Beth softly, having moved to stand beside her. “Who are these men?”
“What happened to the bulls?” said Gwen, eyes wide.
“Remember the tales of the Black Bull of Norroway? That is he, and those are his brothers. They were cursed by the creatures that stole you.”
“Oh …” was the only thing Beth could manage to say.
“How do you …?” Gwen glanced at her before her gaze was drawn back to the brothers.
“We helped each other. Now come, let us return to mother.” Meg’s words hid her inner battle – she wanted to see her mother again, yet she did not want to leave her prince.
As if he could hear her thoughts, the prince of Norroway stepped away from his brothers. “Meg, ladies, will you permit my brothers and me to escort you home to your mother?”
She giggled, as did her sisters. “It is not far …”
“Then come, show us the way.”
Beth and Gwen were surprised when Meg told them over a month had passed; for them it had been barely two weeks. As they walked, the sisters explained that they had been the creatures’ servants, slaving for them. Seeing themselves as superior beings, the creatures had nothing but contempt for humans. Then Meg and the prince recounted all that had happened in their quest to rescue their respective siblings.
When their humble home was in sight, the girls picked up their skirts and ran, all the while calling to their mother. She appeared at the doorway, tired and gaunt … first staring, then weeping and laughing as her daughters ran into her embrace.
Having seen them safely home, after they were introduced to the mother, the brothers left, promising they would return. And they did. The prince asked for the mother’s blessing, and permission to marry Meg; she readily agreed. His brothers asked if they would be allowed to court Beth and Gwen; she agreed to that also.
No longer did the washerwoman have to worry about her daughters’ futures, for she knew they were no longer destined to wash clothes for the rest of their lives. The better future she so dearly wished for them would soon become a reality.