There was a widow and she had three daughters all of whom were beautiful and accomplished. She was looking forward to the time when they would be a comfort and support in her old age, but now, as her youngest daughter’s eighteenth birthday approached, she lived in fear.
Three years ago, on the morning of her oldest daughter’s eighteenth birthday, there had come a knock at the door. The widow answered and there stood a, handsome, well dressed young man. There was something disquieting about the visitor, his eyes had a feline quality – she could imagine him, as a small boy, pulling the wings off of butterflies and being cruel to small, furry, animals. But, at the same time, her mind seemed to be filling with a thick fog that smothered these feelings. The young man smiled and his, amber flecked, eyes glittered.
“Good morning mistress. I believe it is your daughter’s birthday today.”
“Aye it is.”
“Is she in?”
“No – she’s away at the washing. She won’t be home for hours,” and then she remembered her manners. “Will ye come in?”
“Thank you, no. I will wait outside.”
And the young man turned, crossed the road, and walked out onto the moor. Some distance from the widow’s cottage was a green hill with a great, grey, granite stone atop it. The villagers avoided this place, if they could, they didn’t even look directly at it. It was rumoured that many, many years ago – in the times before the coming of Christianity – the hill and the stone had been sacred to older, darker beings. Sacrifices had been made on the stone, it was believed, and not all those sacrifices had been animals. The young man walked straight up the hill, as if he owned the place, and sat himself down on the stone.
Hours later, when her daughter came home with a basket of clean laundry, the widow told her of her visitor.
“A young gentleman came knocking for you this morning.”
“Did you ask him in?”
“Aye … but he said he preferred to wait outside. He’s sitting on the Devil’s stone.”
So, her daughter went to the door and stood with her hands shading her eyes. There was the young man sitting, straight backed and cross legged, on the stone. When he saw her, he rose and came over.
“Will you come in?” asked the girl.
The young man entered the house, the daughter sat him down, offered him food and drink and at the end of the day a bed was prepared in a spare room.
That night, as she drifted off to sleep, in the room she shared with her two sisters, Margaret – the youngest daughter – thought she could hear distant music. Somewhere, a plaintive tune was being played on a reed pipe. Next morning, Margaret and her sister found that their sister’s bed was empty. Fearing that she was with the stranger, and that their mother would catch them, they crept into the spare room. The bed had not been slept in and their sister was never seen again.
A year passed and on the morning of the middle daughter’s eighteenth birthday there was a knock on the door. There stood the, well dressed, young man with the feline eyes, filling the widow with a lurking feeling of unease. But, once again, everything was dulled by the, mind numbing, fog.
“I believe it’s your daughter’s birthday today. Is she in?”
“No, she’s away at the baking and won’t be back for hours. Will ye come in and wait?”
“Thank you, no. I’ll wait outside.”
Many hours later, when the daughter came back from the bakehouse with a basket of fresh bread, her mother told her about the young man. “He’s sitting out there on the Devil’s stone waiting,” she said.
So, the daughter came to the door and invited the young man in. He came into the parlour, she brought him food and drink and that night she made a bed for him in the spare room. As Margaret drifted off to sleep, she thought she could hear music, somewhere in the distance. In the morning, her sister, and the young man were nowhere to be seen. After that, the widow wept every day for her missing daughters.
Now Margaret was a canny lass and spent the year before her eighteenth birthday with her eyes and ears wide open. She talked to the old people living in the village and the surrounding countryside and she listened to their stories, because, as we all know, every story contains a grain of truth. On the day before her birthday she visited the blacksmith’s and, after she had finished at the forge, she went up into the hills where the rowan trees grew.
Next morning, there was the dreaded knock on the door, and, when the widow answered it, there stood the young man. His smile was now a leer.
“It’s your daughter’s birthday, is she in?”
“No, she is away at a wedding and she won’t be home until late.”
“Then I’ll wait for her in my usual place,” he replied.
It was dark when Margaret came back from her friend’s wedding. As she walked along the road, past the hill and the Devil’s stone, she called out, without turning her head, “Well are ye coming in or not?”
The young man followed her into the house, but she offered him no hospitality. Not a crumb of food nor a drop of drink passed the young man’s lips and his bed, that night, was made but unaired.
As she lay alone in the room that she had shared with her sisters, Margaret heard the music of the pipes clearly and distinctly, as she was meant to. Before she got out of bed, she picked up two objects. A small leather pouch containing three newly forged horseshoe nails which she hung around her neck under her nightdress, and a wand made from a rowan twig wrapped with red thread. She tucked the wand up her sleeve and eased the door open.
The young man was sitting on the bed, playing a small reed pipe as she opened the door of his room. He took the pipe from his lips and shivered, slightly, as she crossed the threshold. “Follow me,” was all he said and, playing all the time, he led her out of the house, across the road and out onto the moor. The hill loomed before them in the darkness. Reaching its foot, the young man called out, “Open in your master’s name.”
The side of the hill split open to reveal a pair of large, bronze doors, which swung open, silently, as the young man approached. He led Margaret into the hill, down a dark, winding passage and into a large chamber set in the heart of the mound. The chamber appeared to be illuminated by moonlight and starlight and, when Margaret looked up, she could see a huge jewel, that glowed with a pale light, suspended from the roof on four, long, silver chains. The walls of the chamber were of rough-hewn rock, the floor was beaten earth and heather and grass roots straggled down from the roof like an old man’s wispy beard. Seated around the walls of the chamber were dozens of young women spinning, weaving, and sewing in silence. Close to the chamber’s entrance sat Margaret’s two sisters.
“Welcome to my collection Margaret,” laughed the young man, “you will be a worthy addition.”
“If you want me in your collection, you will have to win me,” replied Margaret.
A look of anger flitted across the young man’s face and his hand lashed out as if he would strike her. The hand froze an inch or two from Margaret’s cheek and he shuddered.
“Cold iron,” laughed Margaret, showing him the pouch with the nails. “As I suspected, you are an elven knight and, judging by the clothes worn by some of these women, you are far older than you look. As I said, if you want me in your collection you must win me – I challenge you to a riddling contest.”
“And if I choose not to take part?” asked the elven knight sulkily.
“The challenge has been made; you have no choice. The rules are ancient and binding, like the one that states that you can only cross a threshold if invited to do so – by your intended victim. Or the one that says they put themselves deeper into your power by offering you hospitality. So, you will ask me nine questions – if I get them right, we all leave. If I get one wrong, I stay in this hole in the ground.”
“Hole in the ground!” spluttered the elven knight. “Do you not admire my marble walls, the rich tapestries, my golden pavement!”
“I see through your glamour and illusion,” replied Margaret. “When I look around, all I see is cobwebs and shadows and bare earth. Now get on with it.”
The elven knight thought for a moment before starting.
“Now answer me these questions nine or surely you will all be mine.
Oh, what is sharper than a thorn and what is louder than a horn?
What is greener than the grass and what is smoother than crystal glass?
What is keener than an axe and what is softer than melting wax?
What is higher than a tree and what is deeper than the sea?
Then answer me this or you’ll never leave, who was worse than the woman Eve?”
Margaret took a deep breath,
“I’ll answer your questions three times three, then I and my sisters will all be free.
Hunger is sharper than a thorn and rumour is louder than a horn?
Envy is greener than the grass and flattery smoother than crystal glass?
Revenge is keener than an axe and love is softer than melting wax?
Heaven is higher than a tree and Hell is deeper than the sea?
I’ll answer your last and then I’ll leave, the Devil was worse than the woman Eve.”
As she named the Devil there came a low rumble which Margaret could feel deep in the pit of her stomach. There was a noise like stone being torn apart and the great jewel shattered into a thousand pieces. The chamber was lit by a shaft of sunlight that came through a hole in the roof.
“What have you done?” shriek the elven knight.
“Broken your spell,” replied Margaret. She slipped the wand from her sleeve and struck the elven knight across the face with it.
It was if a dam of time had been broken. His hair turned from raven black, to grey then white – it fell from his head in great clumps, revealing a liver spotted scalp. His handsome face became pinched, lined, and wrinkled – his fine hands became bony claws. His body collapsed in on itself and soon, all that was left of him was a small heap of dust that blew away in the cold draught that crept across the chamber floor.
Margaret led her sisters and the young women back up the passage. When they reached the bronze doors Margaret struck them with her wand. They flew open and, as the last girl passed through, they slammed shut with a clang, never to be seen again. As they emerged from the hill, Margaret noticed that the Devil’s stone had been riven from top to bottom.
Sadly, many of the young girls had been held captive in the hill for far longer than the usual span of human life. As they stepped from the passage, they faded and dissipated like the morning mist. Soon, the only people left were Margaret, her two sisters and one old lady, blinking in the soft light of dawn.