The Tale of King Henry and the Witch

[The Castle had suffered a grievous loss. One of the young maids had fallen victim to the coughing sickness, and it had hit everyone from the King to the cook with a sorrow that seemed impossible to dispel. Moreover, it had struck the Court storyteller especially hard, and that made everyone even more miserable, for there was no one to help take their mind off their sorrows by a tale of happier times.

Two weeks after the funeral, things took a turn for the worse. Roger had agreed to tell a story after dinner, and had not even uttered a score of words when a child started to cough. The monk fell silent; he started to sob, and no one could persuade him to stop. Finally, the King himself dismissed the assembled audience, and led his friend to his cell. That was the last time anyone had seen Roger leave his chambers.

No one knew what to do. Roger confined himself to his sleeping room. The cook would send food to him, and when the page returned later for the tray, it was untouched. Even offers of cookies and snacks, which the monk was famous for consuming in mass quantities, went uneaten. The entire castle was afraid that having suffered one tragic loss, they were about to have another.

One afternoon there was a soft knock on the monk’s room door. The knock was persistent. After ignoring it for a good minute and a half, the monk finally uttered the single word “Enter,” and hoped the visitor would leave quickly. In walked Geoffrey, a young Page of the King’s household.

“I’m so very sorry, Roger, would you please forgive me?” the little boy said plaintively.

“What forgiveness do you need? said the monk; “You have done nothing to me that I know of.”

“I was the one who spoiled your story by coughing. I did not mean to hurt you, honest.”

“You did not hurt me,” said the old monk; “I know you were not trying to cough; it just happens sometimes. My problems are not your fault; they are mine alone.”

“Will you tell another story if I promise to stay away?”

The old monk looked stricken. “I don’t want you to stay away! I really am not mad at you; I am just very tired. I do not seem to have any stories inside me anymore.”

“Can I tell you a story then? When I broke my arm last summer, you told me a story, and it made me feel better. Maybe I can make you feel better.”

“It has been a long time since I have been told a story; maybe that is what I need. I would love to hear your story.”

Before Geoffrey could utter another word, the door to the room burst open, and a dozen children ran in, covering the bed, and surrounding the poor monk on all sides.

“What in the Lord’s Holy Name are you all doing?” asked the bewildered monk.

“Geoffrey is going to tell a story; we want to hear it!” replied the child climbing onto his lap.

“I see,” said the monk; “did anyone put you up to this?” he inquired.

“We’re supposed to say no if you asked that!” answered his legwarmer; “It is spuntamious!”

“Spontaneous,” corrected Roger; “Well, if this is all a big coincidence, then I guess this must be story time!”

After everyone was settled, Geoffrey began with a warning; “I don’t want to have any interruptions, so no talking or fidgeting!” The children all laughed, for that was how Roger frequently started a story; even Roger had to smile at that so serious statement.

“It was in the days of Good King Henry, and throughout the Kingdom . . .”]

. . . There was peace and contentment in every corner of the land. Good King Henry looked out from the battlements of the North Tower, and everywhere he could see seemed just bursting with happiness and good will. So it was that on the next day he was quite amazed to have at his court a delegation from one of the villages in the Eastern part of the Kingdom, for they reported to him that a great evil had entered their midst.

“What is the nature of this evil?” inquired King Harold; “Have raiders from the sea troubled you again?”

[“Do you mean King Henry?” asked Roger; “you said ‘King Harold’ there.”

“Don’t be silly,” said Geoffrey in his best Roger voice; “I said ‘King Henry!’ Now as I was saying before I was interrupted . . . “

“No raiders have visited these shores since before your father died, “replied a villager; “Our evil comes in the form of a Witch!” and all the other villagers nodded their heads.

“A witch? That is odd; we have never had a witch cause trouble in our Kingdom before. How do you know that this person is a witch?”

“He said he was a Witch!” “He Looks Like a Witch!” “Everyone Knows he’s a Witch!” The villagers all tried to answer the King.

“I see. This is serious; what has he done to harm you?” asked their monarch.

The villagers fell silent.

“Surely he must have done something to get you all upset?” the King went on.

“He Put up a sign on his door, threatening us all!” was the response of the oldest villager; “Surely he means to do us harm!?”

“Well, you are my people, and I am your Protector, I will send my Best Knight to vanquish him!” stated the King.

[“Is this my ‘King Henry and the Witch’ story?” asked Roger; “If it is, you are telling it wrong. The King asks his wife, the Blessed Queen Eleanor, to ride out and see what was going on. There was no talk of ‘vanquishing’ anybody!”

“Who is telling this story?” responded Geoffrey; “I was just checking to see if you were paying attention. Of Course Queen Eleanor rides out, but the King’s Best Knight rode with her!”

“Well, it is true that the Queen’s Guard went with her;” mused the old monk; “I’m sorry for interrupting, go on.”]

“Well, you are my people, and I am your Protector, I will send my Best Knight AND MY QUEEN to, er, TALK to him!” stated the King.

The villagers all cheered when they heard the King’s word, and on the very next day the Queen and her guard went riding East to find out what was happening. The villagers rode in a wagon that the King thoughtfully provided.

[“The King’s Best Knight caught a cold, and couldn’t go,” explained Geoffrey.

“Hmmm, I did not remember that part,” said the old monk; “my memory must be playing tricks. Tell on!”]

As they had the villagers with them, the Queen’s party rode slowly, and spent the time asking the villagers about their home. It seems that their village was a poor one, and they lived more on what they fished from the sea than what they grew on the land. They caught eels and carp, and were quite hungry all of the time.

[“No that was not so!” said the old monk sternly; “they caught sea bass and bluefish, and fed the village quite well! Where did you get the idea that they starved?”

“If you are going to interrupt me so much, maybe YOU should tell this tale!” said Geoffrey, in an irritated voice.

“I think I had better, before you have the King’s Champion getting sick from eating eels!” The monk cleared his throat, and took over the storytelling. “As I said . . .”]

The villagers lived well on their fishing, for what they did not eat themselves they traded to other villages for grains and meat. Even so, theirs was a hard life, and no one in the village grew rich at their labors.

When the Queen arrived the first thing she noticed was that the village was not very clean. The cottages were well-lived-in, and there was animal refuse in the streets. The walls all were noticeably missing care, and the thatch of the roofs could use work, she reflected to herself.

There was a noticeable change when they got to the Witch’s cottage. The cottage was recently re-thatched, and everything looked neat and tidy. There was a sign near the door to the cottage, and on it in large letters were the words “John of Gaul, Healer; Herbs, potions and remedies for sale or trade.”

“This is your Witch’s house?” inquired the Queen; “It does not look very threatening.”

“Make him come out,” said one of the villagers; “He’ll tell you himself!”

The Queen bade one of her guard to knock on the door. After a moment, the door swung open, and an old man in his late forties greeted them. His hair and eyes were brown with hairs of gray intermixed into his beard; his clothing was simple but well cared for. The Queen noted that he had clean hands and face, something that the villagers themselves lacked.

“Are you John of Gaul?” asked the Queen.

“Yes, milady; may I ask who you are?” responded John.

“This is the Queen of the Land!” shouted one of the villagers, “and she will soon fix YOUR wagon!”

“If you do not mind,” spoke the Queen with a voice that could freeze water, “I will answer for myself. Yes, Goodman John, I am Eleanor. You say you are a healer?”

“Yes, your Majesty, I was trained in Constantinople, and served my King in Vienna, until those like me were told to leave.”

“Those like you? What group are you a part of, such that you were asked to leave Vienna?”

“I am a what your Majesty would call a Pagan, your Majesty; all Jews, Moslems, and other non-Christians were made to leave the town when I did, those who were not chased out with scythes and pitchforks. I managed to avoid that honor.” He added ruefully. “I had heard that your Kingdom does not hate those who do not follow the White Christ. My neighbors seem to give evidence to the contrary.”

“Your neighbors, I am afraid, fear things that they do not understand. I do not think that this village is a good place for you to live.”

“May I arrange to buy a wagon, so that I may take my property when I depart, or shall this be like Vienna and I am to run to the first ship that will carry me away from this land?”

“Neither,” responded the Queen. “We need you in Oxenford, there are others like you there, and they are setting up a place, a 'college', to train healers. Your skills are wasted on this village. You may use the wagon that we used to carry the villagers home. I daresay you will have to clean it first.”

“Others like me? I will not renounce my beliefs,” said the healer.

“Nor will you be expected to. However, you may find learned men and women who will want to discuss the nature of God with you, and by learned reason perhaps change your mind, where force would be wasted.”

“May it be possible that they might be entreated to see things my way?” smiled John.

“All things are possible, but at the least, you will have a good time talking with your peers.”

“But what about us?” one of the villagers asked; confused by the talk between the Healer and his Queen. “Our lives have been ruined by this witch!”

“I am putting the Witch where he will never harm you again.” Said the Queen, murmuring under her breath, “Not that he ever harmed you in the first place.” However, the thought made the Queen pause, and she turned back to John; “How did you incur the wrath of all your neighbors? You seem to be a sensible man. What went wrong?”

“I would not let them into my home unless they bathed, or at least washed. I have found that most diseases are influenced more by the cleanliness of a person rather than by the ‘stars’ and ‘evil signs’ that they seem to believe trouble them.”

“You will do well in Oxenford, but you will need help when moving there. I will have two of my men stay with you and help. I assure you,” the Queen added dryly, “they have recently bathed.”

After having a lovely cup of herb tea with John, the Queen told the villagers that the Healer would be on his way in a week, and that they were to provide food and shelter for her men.

“Let them stay with me, your Majesty, They will no doubt prefer my loft to a night in one of the villagers hovels. There are fewer crawling companions to share their sheets.”

So then, the problem of what to do with the witch was solved, and the villagers were quite proud of the fact that they had gotten the Queen to run him out of town.

[“And the King was quite happy when he was told all that his Queen had accomplished,” finished Roger.

“Now then, who sent you here?” asked the monk. “And don’t tell me that this was all ‘spuntamious,’ I know better.”

“But the cook said if we told, we would not get any cookies!” one of his friends blurted out.

“Well, let us all go down to the bakery, and get our reward; I think I deserve some cookies, also!” and the monk escorted the young ones to the cook, and demanded (and got) a fine summer snack.

Later that night the monk went to visit the King. “The cook is not clever enough to arrange such an ambush,” said the monk; “and does not know the meaning of the word ‘spontaneous,’ let alone ‘spuntamious.’ You had something to do with this.”

“Roger, you needed help. You could not hear your friends, your fellow Priests, or me. I had to use the best weapon I knew of to open your ears; the sounds of a child laughing. Please forgive me.”

“There is nothing to forgive. I know Teresa is happy now, indeed, she is happier than she had ever been before. But all I could think of was ‘If you had not insisted that you tell her that silly story when everyone else was waiting in the Great Hall, she would not have gotten worse and died!’ and the thought was killing me.”

“God knows you did not cause her death, or even make her sicker in any way. You most likely made her last days happier, and that is a gift of great value.”

The two old friends sat for a while in silence, and prayed for the souls of their loved ones, both those still on earth, and those with God. Then the monk stood, and smiling at his King, said; “I think it is time for a cookie run; I have a week or two of snacking to make up!”

And as the King sat, he thanked his Lord God for returning his friend to him. “We still need Roger,” he reminded his Savior; “for who else will tell us how wonderful you are?”]

Roger of Belden Abbey

Copyright © 2005, Daniel A. Thompson, Jr.

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