Tuesday's Tales - A Retelling of 'The Black Bull of Norroway' Part Two

Meg and the Black Bull

Part Two

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?”

“I promise.”

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.

“Meg …”

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.

Tuesday's Tales - A Retelling of 'The Black Bull of Norroway' Part One

I’ve always liked the Scottish fairy tale, ‘The Black Bull of Norroway’, because of the image of the bull, I think.  Lately though, whenever I’ve read it, I end up wanting to flesh it out.  Having played around with a few ideas, I’ve come up with this re-telling.  As it’s fairly long, I’ve split it into two parts.  Hope you enjoy it …

Meg and the Black Bull

Part One

She stared at her hands, cracked and dry from being constantly immersed in water.  Flinching, she said softly, “Such is the lot of a washerwoman.  Mother was one and her mother before her.  I never believed I would be anything else.”  Pressing her scarred hands against her lower back, she tried, in vain, to ease the ache that refused to loosen its grip on her.

The sound of laughter caught her attention.  She turned her gaze to the three young women, their hair bound and covered, standing before the washing tubs, splashing one another.  An involuntary smile graced the woman’s thin lips.  “My girls … my blessing.  This is not the life I want for you … washing for others with little thanks, to have you grow old before your time.  Your father, god rest his daydreaming soul, at least he taught you your letters.  But how can I afford an education for even one of you?  We make barely enough money to live on.” Taking a deep breath, she straightened her frame, wincing at her aches and pains.  “No matter, there must be a way.  I will find a way to give my girls a better life …”

 

“Mama was worrying again,” said the slender young woman as she continued to knead the dough.

“Oh, Beth, Mama is always worrying,” said the younger one, her hair hanging in twin braids over her shoulders.

“Yes, Meg, that is true, but she was worrying about us.”

“How can you tell?” said the slightly taller one, her knife poised over the carrot she’d been slicing.

“She kept looking at us, smiling then frowning.  Oh, you know that look, Gwen, we’ve seen it so many times.”

“I wish she wouldn’t worry,” said Meg. “There’s no need.”

Beth sighed.  “No matter how often we tell her we’re happy, she cannot seem to understand that we are.”

“It’s always to do with money,” said Gwen. “And it’s true, our life is hard.  Just as it’s true that it would be nice to have more money …”

“More food,” said Meg, popping a piece of carrot in her mouth.

“Nice clothes …” Beth gazed into the distance as Gwen murmured in agreement.

Then with a firm shake of her head, Gwen said, “But we have each other.”

Smiling, her sisters nodded firmly.  With their pale skin, dark hair and brown eyes, their resemblance to one another was striking.

“Mama always works so hard,” said Meg.  “It would be lovely to make life easier for her.”

“But how?” said Beth. “We can’t wash any more clothes than we already do.”

They fell silent, each caught up in her own thoughts.

“What about that … woman?” said Gwen, forming her words slowly.

Her sisters looked at her, both frowning.

“The one who lives on the edge of the woods …”

Their frowns disappeared as they stared, wide-eyed, at her.

“She lives with her daughter–”

“We know who you mean,” said Beth. “But why even mention her?” Glancing over her shoulder, she lowered her voice and continued, “They say she’s a witch.”

“We don’t know that for certain.  Maybe she can help.”

“How?” Beth was clearly unhappy.  “If she is a witch then maybe … but if she’s not–”

“I don’t know,” said Gwen. “But we’ve heard talk that she’s able to do things … unusual things … out of the ordinary …”

“Surely there’s no harm in talking to her,” said Meg, moving to Gwen’s side; the two younger ones stared hopefully at their sister.

“No,” said Beth.  “People tend to leave her alone.  There must be good reason.”

Meg clasped Beth’s dough-covered hands.  “Oh, please, Beth.  For Mama’s sake.  I’ll go.  I’m not afraid.”

Beth pressed her lips together, her frown deepening.

“Beth …” said Gwen, placing her hand on Beth’s arm.

In the face of their pleading, Beth’s shoulders slumped.  “Alright.  But I’ll go.  No, Meg …” She shook her head to silence Meg’s protest.  “I’m the oldest, and it is my duty.”

 

The next day, Beth went to their mother and said she was going to bake some buns, and boil a little beef from their store, as she was off to seek her fortune.  Her mother refused to allow her to go, but Beth said she had to for she would never make anything of herself by staying in the cottage, washing clothes.  Only her sisters knew how hard it was for her to say the hurtful words.  But it had the desired effect.  Her biggest worry having been given voice, the woman tearfully agreed to let her daughter leave.  It was an unhappy farewell with their mother refusing to come out of the cottage.  As she hugged them, Beth whispered to her sisters that, no matter her fate, she would try to send word to them.

Feeling sick with grief, for the sisters had never been apart, Beth turned for one last wave before she stepped on the road that led to the woods.  Her sisters stood with their arms around each other, struggling, like her, to hold back tears.

Beth walked all day and all night, and all day again until, at evening, she came to the house of the uncommon woman by the wood.  Endeavouring to ignore her loudly pounding heart, still Beth’s hand trembled as she raised it to knock on the door.  A moment later the door opened, and she gasped.

The woman standing in the doorway was beautiful beyond words.  Glossy black hair framed a face that was almost heart-shaped; black eyes regarded Beth coolly, while her perfectly shaped lips held a hint of a smile. 

The woman raised a brow, and Beth realised she was staring.  “Forgive me, mistress,” she said, hurriedly gathering her wits.  “I have heard that … I was wondering, um …”

“Speak, girl.” There was a grating quality to the woman’s voice, putting it at odds with her beauty.

Taking a deep breath, Beth said, “I wish to provide a better life for my mother and sisters.  Is there anything … can you help me?”

“Help you?”

The only words that came to Beth were, “Help me … better myself?”

The woman’s eyes widened momentarily.  “You seek your fortune?”

Beth thought a moment then nodded. “Yes.”

“If it is your fortune you seek then, by all means, stay here.  Sit by the window and watch.  You will know it when it comes.”

Beth blinked, unable to believe her ears.  “That is all that is required of me?  To simply sit?  You do not require me to do anything?”

“Why would I require anything of you, child?”

As she returned the woman’s smile, Beth noticed that her eyes remained cold, but she put it out of her mind.  The woman asked Beth for her name as she entered, then gave hers – Lamia.

In the house, a young woman, about Beth’s age, rose from her seat.  Lamia introduced her as Lilian, her daughter.  She was as beautiful as her mother but remained silent, all the while regarding Beth with malice in her eyes. 

Again, Beth mentally pulled a sheet over her anxiety, forcing herself to think only of the wellbeing of her mother and sisters.  I am the oldest, she thought to herself.  I must be brave.

For the first two days, nothing happened.  Beth began to relax in Lamia’s company.  She seemed to be the perfect hostess, treating Beth as if she were her most important guest.  If it were not for the silent stares of Lilian, Beth would have been completely at ease.

Then, on the third day, a carriage drew up at the door, with four prancing horses, a coachman and two liveried footmen.  Beth watched them from the window, and, almost at once, decided she did not like the look of them.  If anyone had asked her why, she would not have been able to explain her reasons; all she knew was there was something about them that caused her stomach to tense.

The newcomers remained where they were.  They did not look around but continued to stare straight ahead.  One of the horses tossed its head, turning slightly in her direction.

With a cry, Beth jumped to her feet and stumbled back; the horse’s eye was red.

“Come,” said Lamia, “your fortune has arrived.”

“What?” Her breath came out in gasps.  “But … but whose carriage is it?”

“Your future husband’s.”

“My … husband?” Beth could barely hear her own voice, her heart was hammering so loudly in her chest, pounding in her ears.  “But I have no wish to marry.  And I cannot … I will not without my mother’s blessing.”

“You should have thought of that before you ventured here, my girl.”

In that moment, Beth realised that Lilian was smiling.  But, instead of enhancing her beauty, the smile twisted her features into something cold and cruel.

Beth protested, she struggled, but there was nothing she could do to stop mother and daughter dragging her out and forcing her into the carriage.  She called to the coachman; he turned and her blood turned to ice.  His eyes, solid black with no pupils, dominated a long, thin face with a cruel gash of a mouth.  She tried to scream as they bundled her into the carriage but could barely draw breath.  Lying half on the seat, half on the floor, she was vaguely aware of the carriage moving.  But it was as if she were floating on air; this carriage did not bump and jolt on the ground.  She could not move; her limbs were numb.  Thoughts of her mother, her sisters filled her mind; how would she get word to them?

 

“It has been almost two weeks,” said Gwen.  “Still we have heard nothing.  The witch … that woman’s house is not that far.”

“She says nothing, but Mama is worried,” said Meg.  Her gaze flicked away from her sister as her frown deepened.  “What if–?”

“No.” Gwen shook her head, stopping Meg voicing their constant worry that harm may have befallen their beloved sister.  She straightened her frame.  “There is only one way to find out.  I will go to that … woman’s house.  See what news she has of Beth.”

“Oh, Gwen, let me go.”

“No, Meg.  You stay with Mama.  After Beth, I am the oldest …”

Clearly unhappy, still Meg did not argue.

So Gwen went to their mother and said, “Mama, I know you are worried about Beth.  So, please, cut me some cake, while I slice a bit of sausage, and I will be on my way to find out news of our sister.”

“No, no, my daughter,” she cried.  “I cannot have you leaving also.”

“I will find out about Beth, and I will return.  Do you not wish to know her fate?”

There was nothing her mother could do or say, for she did want news of her oldest girl, so she and Meg took a tearful leave of Gwen.

Gwen walked all day and night, and all day again until, at evening, she came to the house of the uncommon woman by the wood.  Swallowing hard, she pushed her shoulders back, and knocked on the door.  Like her sister before her, Gwen was left speechless at the sight of the eerily beautiful woman standing in the doorway.

“Forgive me, mistress,” said Gwen, quickly dropping a curtsy.  “Have you seen … I was wondering … um, my sister.  Have you by chance seen my sister?” The words fell from her mouth as if Gwen had no control over them.

“What is her name?”

“Beth, her name is Beth.”

“And your name?”

She hesitated for a moment then said, “Gwen.”

“Beth was here, my dear.  She stayed with me for three days.  Then a rich carriage arrived and she left.”

Gwen started, then frowned. “She left?  But why?”

“She did not say.  She said it was her fortune, and she left …”

“She said that?  She had no word for her family?”

The woman turned away momentarily.  “Words for her family?” She shook her head.  “No, nothing.”

Scared and confused, Gwen clasped her hands together, unsure as to what she should do.  But the one thing she did know was that Beth would never have left without, at least, letting her family know her fate.

“Why don’t you stay awhile?  Maybe Beth will send word, or a traveller might pass by with news.”

Believing she had no other choice, not knowing what else to do, Gwen stayed.  Like her sister before her, she found she wanted for nothing.  Lamia was the perfect hostess.  The only thing that Gwen found unsettling was Lilian’s silent stares.

On the fourth day, a carriage drew up with a coachman, six prancing horses and four liveried footmen.  Like Beth before her, the sight of the carriage left Gwen feeling inexplicably fearful.  She remained at the window until Lamia called her.

“Go to the carriage, Gwen dear.”

“Why?”

“This is the same style of carriage that came for Beth; they may have word of her.”

Overcome with excitement, Gwen exclaimed and ran out to the carriage, calling her sister.  “Beth!  Beth, is that you?  I’ve been so worried …”

The carriage door opened, and Gwen stared at the empty interior.  Before she could say anything, Lamia shoved her in.  Ignoring Gwen’s protests, she shut the door.

“Fret not, pretty Gwen.  Soon you will be reunited with your sister.”

The coach started to move, Gwen’s cries muffled inside.

“My debt is settled,” said Lamia, her voice harsh.  “Tell your masters, my debt is settled.”

 

“Mama, I will find them, I promise.  I will find them and bring them home.”

“No, Meg, my baby.  I cannot lose you too,” said her mother, weeping.

Meg clasped her mother’s hands in hers.  “I must do this.  And you must stay strong.  Promise me you will stay strong and be here when we all return.  We will be a family again, like before.”

“If only I had not wished and wished so many times for a better life.  This would not –”

“No, Mama.  Do not blame yourself.  No one is to blame.  Only promise me you will be here when I come home with Beth and Gwen.”

Taking a tearful farewell, Meg left her mother in the care of a kindly neighbour.  She set off to the supposed witch’s house with the buttered bread and cheese that her mother had sadly prepared for her.

Like her sisters before her, Meg walked all day and all night, and all day again until, at evening, she came to the house of the uncommon woman by the wood.

Lamia, kindness itself, told Meg that her sisters had left in rich carriages with nary a thought for their mother and little sister.  Meg frowned, knowing her sisters would never do such a thing but kept her silence.  Yet she wondered why Lamia would lie … as she wondered why the daughter regarded her with such ill-concealed envy and malice.  Even though Lamia’s home was small, still it was filled with comfort, and their clothes were rich enough.

Despite her misgivings, Meg asked to stay awhile.  Lamia did not seem happy with the idea, but Meg pleaded and pleaded, in case her sisters came by again, or a traveller brought news, unknowingly using Lamia’s own words against her.  The woman finally agreed, but said that Meg would only be allowed to stay for one week.

A week passed … despite Lamia’s lack of friendliness, Meg wanted for nothing, and was treated well enough.  But, to her sorrow, no one, not one traveller passed the house.  At the end of the week, Lamia told Meg that she had to leave for she had no use for her.  Meg begged her to tell what had really become of her sisters; Lamia insisted they had left in rich carriages of their own accord.

“You are lying,” said Meg, unable to stay silent on the matter any longer.  “My sisters would never do such a thing.  They would never make our mother worry so.”

“Believe what you will, you ungrateful wretch.  I allow you to stay for one week, you partake of my kindness, and this is my payment, to be accused of lying.  Leave.” She pushed Meg out of her house and slammed the door shut.

Meg stared at the door before slowly turning and stumbling towards the road.  Falling to her knees, she buried her face in her hands.  “What will I tell Mama?  I promised I would find Beth and Gwen …” Her shoulders shook with weeping.

“Why do you weep?”

Meg jumped; so caught up in her sorrow, she’d failed to hear anyone approach.  Quickly wiping her face on her sleeve, for her mother always insisted on good manners, she looked up to answer the deep-voiced man before her.

With a cry, she fell back and stared.  This was no man standing in front of her, but a bull … an enormous black bull.

“Well … why do you weep, girl?”

“You … you speak?”

“Yes, I can speak.  I am the Black Bull of Norroway.  Have you not heard of me?”

Eyes wide, Meg nodded.  Who had not heard of the black bull?  But she and her sisters had thought it nothing more than a tale – the huge bull that never hurt anyone, and was fabled to have speech.

“I ask again, why are you weeping?” The bull looked towards the house.  “Did the witch cause you harm?”

“I-I am looking for my sisters.  I promised our mother I would find them … They came here, the … witch does not deny it.  But to say they left in rich carriages with no thought for our mama …” Meg shook her head.  “That is a lie.  I know it is.”

The bull looked from her to the house, and shook his head.  “Most likely the witch had something to do with their disappearance.  It is a pity that your sisters crossed her path.” He returned his gaze to Meg, and stared at her a long while.  “Come with me, and I will help you find them.  It may be that we are able to help one another.”

Meg looked into the bull’s liquid eyes; she had to admit, he had a kindly demeanour.  She wondered how she could possibly be of help to such a creature.  Yet she could not discount anything that might help her find her sisters.

She agreed, and when she made to walk beside him, he urged her to climb on his back.  Quieting her misgivings, Meg carefully climbed onto the bull’s broad back, and he carried her away from Lamia’s house.

 

After five days, they came to a grey-green castle in a river valley.  “This is my brother’s house,” said the bull.  “We will stay here tonight.”

It wasn’t a large castle but still looked big enough to Meg, and appeared welcoming and homely.  The people of the castle approached, curtsied and bowed to the bull, then helped Meg from his back.  Two of the men escorted the bull to the field.  As Meg watched, they spoke for a while before the bull trotted away, and began to slowly gallop around the field.

The women invited Meg into the castle to eat and rest.

Aware of her poor status, she stood with hands clasped before her.  “I am a washerwoman’s daughter …”

“You are companion to the Black Bull,” said one of the women, as if that explained everything.  “Come.  Do not be afraid.  Allow us to see to your needs,” she said with a smile, waiting for Meg to ascend the steps into the castle.

Still feeling awkward, Meg entered the castle before coming to an abrupt stop.  She turned to face the woman.  “Please, can someone take a message to my mother?”

The woman nodded, still smiling.

“Tell her I am well, and still searching for my sisters.”

A look of concern flickered across the woman’s features, and she assured Meg the message would be delivered.

By the time she sat at the table, facing the feast they had prepared for her, Meg felt more at ease.  Wondering if he also was a bull, she asked where the Black Bull’s brother was.  But those who attended her shook their heads, clearly saddened, and said nothing, leaving her even more mystified.

After a very comfortable night’s sleep, Meg was sorry to leave.  Before she left, the woman gave her a grey-green apple, sweet-scented and unblemished, and said, “Do not cut it until you are in the first great need of your life.” Meg kept her confusion to herself, and thanked the woman and the people of the castle.  Then she climbed on the bull’s back, and they left.

 

As they travelled, Meg found the bull to be most attentive and kind, given that he was an animal.  At ease in his company, her fondness for him grew.  He asked about her life … her mother and sisters. 

“I envy the simplicity of it,” he said, causing her to view her life anew.  “I myself have two brothers whom I miss dearly.”

“Where are they?”

“Not with me.” He stopped and turned his massive head slightly.  “I was not always a bull, dear Meg.”

As he continued to walk, Meg silently wished for him to continue, for she wanted to know what had befallen him and his brothers, but he said nothing more, and she did not know how to ask.

 

One day, they approached a yellow castle beside a stream.  “This is my second brother’s house,” said the bull.

Before she could stop herself, Meg asked if his brothers were bulls also.

“Yes,” was his only reply.

Like before, there was no sign of the bull’s brother, but Meg was treated the same as she’d been in the house of the first brother.  Like before, she asked if they would be kind enough to deliver a message to her mother.

In the morning, she was given a sweet-scented, unblemished pear, with the words, “Do not cut it until you are in the second great need of your life.”

 

In time, Meg and the bull came to a third castle, a purple one.  This was the Black Bull’s own castle.  His people greeted him, but there was no denying the sadness that surrounded them.  They took care of him, and of Meg.  And in the morning, Meg was given a sweet-scented plum, unblemished.  “Do not cut it until you are in the third great need of your life,” she was told.

After leaving his castle, the bull travelled down a road that led to a dark valley so overhung with cliffs, no daylight penetrated.  He stopped at the entrance to the valley.  “There is a task I must undertake, Meg,” he said.  “I can no longer ignore it.  I must fight the Guardian of Glass Valley.”

Meg’s heart tightened in her chest.  “But why? Can we not just go?”

“I must, Meg.  It is the only way I will be free, and my brothers will be free.  And when I am free, I will help you find your sisters.” He set her down by a rock.  “Sit here.  If I do not fight and kill the guardian, we will never get out of here alive.  Sit on this rock, and if the sky turns blue and sunny, you will know that I have won.  But if all turns blood-red, you will know I have lost.  Most importantly, Meg, you must not move.  If you alter your position by even a hair, I will never be able to find you again, for this valley is an enchanted one.”

Anxiety welled up in Meg for she could not bear the thought of the bull being harmed, yet she managed a small, tight smile and nodded.  The bull looked at her long and hard, then lumbered away, out of sight.  It felt as if she had sat there an age when her surroundings gradually began to lighten; slowly the sun began to shine in an ever brightening blue sky, and she knew her bull had won.  In her happiness, she forgot herself and changed her position, crossing one foot over the other.

The bull slowly came into view, his black coat spotted with blood from the battle.  She could see him perfectly well, and called out to him, but he looked right through her.  He stared at the rock, and looked around.  Meg called and called to him, but he seemed deaf to her cries.  She reached out to him, but he could not feel her touch.  Shaking his lowered head, he said, “Ah, Meg, did I not tell you to stay as you were, that you were not to move?  Now I will never see you again.”

Meg cried and cried, and called to the bull but to no avail.  The bull walked away, and she was left alone.  After a while she pulled herself together for she still had to find her sisters.  She walked the way the bull had gone, but soon realised she was walking in circles; she couldn’t seem to find her way out of the valley.  For days, she saw nothing and no one.  Finally, she pulled the apple out of her pocket, and stared at it.  Was this the first great need of her life?

As she lifted it to her mouth, wondering if it would taste as sweet as it smelled, someone hailed her.  Looking up, she saw a pair of bulls, smaller than her bull; one was cream-coloured, and the other, a rich brown.  She stared, but wasn’t all that surprised when they spoke.  They asked if she had seen a big, black bull, and knew then they must be brothers to her bull.  She said that he had fought the guardian of the valley, and, having won, had left, but she could not find her way out.  They seemed overjoyed, as overjoyed as bulls could be, and offered to lead her out of the valley.

Once out, and with barely a backward glance, they kicked their heels up and galloped away, leaving Meg standing on her own.  With a sigh, she thought she might as well return to the witch to try and find clues to her sisters’ whereabouts, for she could not think what else to do.