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Catananche and the Artesian Well (youngsters:fairy tales, 2961 words)
Author: Ian HobsonAdded: Dec 25 2005Views/Reads: 3200/1583Story vote: 0.00 (0 votes)
'Witches can look any way they like,' said Malus. 'Maybe it's time we left, before she puts a spell on us…' Another story from the fairytale land of Astrantia.
 



Click here to read the first 75 lines of the story

watched and listened, spellbound by the sight of the strange people 
within the circle of firelight. 

Catan had travelled widely but these strangers were like no others he
had ever seen.  They were undoubtedly wealthy, as they were dressed 
from head to foot in garments fashioned from a fine silk-like cloth 
that shone in the firelight like silver; and men and women alike wore 
jewelled necklaces and bracelets, and on their fingers were golden 
rings set with precious stones.  And Cytisus was surely right about 
them being merchants, for they had with them five strange wheeled 
carriages, long and narrow with handles and ropes for pulling.  Three 
of which were filled with goods covered with more of the silvery 
fabric.  But all this was as nothing compared to the people themselves; 
for their skin was also a silvery colour and reflected the light even 
more than their clothes and jewellery did. 

Beside one of the fires sat a very beautiful woman.  On her head was an
interwoven crown of gold and between her feet was a large golden harp, 
on which she played the most beautiful music that Catan had ever heard. 
 And all around her, her companions - about sixty in all, including 
several small children - seemed to be dancing as they went about their 
tasks; adding more wood to the fires; preparing their evening meal; 
unloading two of the strange wooden carriages; and laying silken 
cushions in a circle around the beautiful woman who played the harp. 

Before long, the woman stopped playing, and her companions, each in
turn, starting with the smallest of the children, came and bowed to her 
before taking their place on the circle of cushions.  The woman was 
obviously their leader, probably their queen, yet strangely it was she 
that served the food to each of her seated followers, speaking to each 
in turn, in a language that Catan could not understand. 

'Why are we waiting?'  Malus whispered to Catan.  'Why don't we eat them
and take all their gold and jewels?' 

'But there's too many,' said Cytisus.  'Can't we just wait for them to
go to sleep?  Then we can steal the jewels while they're sleeping.' 

'We are outnumbered, but we could easily frighten them away,' whispered
Ginkgo Biloba.  'If you three run at them, and I fly at them, and we 
make a lot of noise, they are sure to run off into the night.  Then we 
can just help ourselves to whatever they leave behind.  Some of those 
long handcarts may be full of treasure.' 

But before Catan could reply, the beautiful woman began to play the harp
again, only this time as well as playing she sang, not in her own 
language but in a common language that Catan and his three followers 
could understand.  It was a merry song, and as she sang she seemed to 
be laughing. 

'Tonight we have four guests But our guests are very shy They hide
behind the bushes I can't help wonder why 

'One of them is golden Another one has wings One has very sharp teeth
But their leader walks with kings 

'Perhaps they'd like some food and drink There's plenty here to spare
Whatever they would like We would be very glad to share 

'So come three loyal comrades Come fearsome but kingly beast We wish to
make you welcome Please come and join our feast' 

As she finished her song, her followers applauded and laughed.  But then
all were silent as she stood and held out her hands in a gesture of 
welcome towards the bushes behind which the four unexpected guests were 
still hiding. 

Catan stood on his hind legs and looked over the top of the bushes. 
Feeling more than a little foolish.  He stuck out his chest, trying to 
look fearsome but kingly. 

'It might be a trick,' warned Ginkgo Biloba. His skin colour suddenly
changing so as to blend with the shadows. 'She might be a witch!' 

'She doesn't look like a witch,' said Cytisus.  'She is very beautiful.'


'Witches can look any way they like,' said Malus.  'Maybe it's time we
left, before she puts a spell on us.' 

'Be quiet!' ordered Catan.  The words of the song were still going
through his mind.  'Walks with kings,' he said.  'Kingly beast...  She 
obviously knows about my royal blood.' 

'Ha!' said Malus. 'Everyone knows you just made that up,' 

'Made it up!' exclaimed Catan, angrily.  'Don't be so insolent.'  He
swiped Malus across the side of his head, almost knocking him into the 
brambles, then he dropped back onto all fours and walked, as regally as 
he knew how, into the circle of firelight and towards the woman and her 
people. 

As he drew closer, he was again taken aback by how unusual they looked. 
Their skin was so silvery and their eyes so large and round.  But he 
was pleased to see that, at least, the children were afraid of him, as 
they were all now hiding behind their mothers and fathers.  'You are 
right to call me kingly,' he said, sticking out his chest.  'I am 
Prince Catananche, and you are crossing my territory without my 
permission.' 

The woman bowed towards Catan.  'I am sorry, your highness.  Please
accept my apologies...  I am Osmunda, queen of Artesia.  Perhaps you 
would like to introduce your friends.' 

'They are of no consequence, your highness.  Just three of my foot
soldiers.'  But he waved them forward into the firelight before 
speaking again.  'Did you say Artesia, your highness?' 

'Yes,' replied Osmunda.  'We have been on a pilgrimage to the Falls of
Valerian and are returning to our home.' 

'Valerian.  I know that name,' said Catan.  'But where is Artesia?  'I
have never heard of it.' 

'A few days travel to the north-west,' answered Osmunda.  'Do you know
the river to the west of here?'  Catan nodded.  'To the north there is 
a small tributary.  Artesia is close to there.' 

'I see,' said Catan, wondering if perhaps he knew the place by another
name. 

At that moment Malus, still smarting from being cuffed by Catan, said 
'Enough talk!  If you cross our lands without permission, then you must 
pay the price.' 

'Be quiet,' said Catan, angrily.  'I was just coming to that.' 

'And what is the price?' asked Queen Osmunda. 

'Well,' replied Catan, 'perhaps some gold or jewels.  As you have
already guessed, I have royal blood and I like that sort of thing.' 

'Of course,' said Osmunda, 'but first you must eat.  Please be seated.' 
Her people brought cushions for their four guests to sit on, and 
Osmunda served them food from silver platters and wine from silver 
goblets, and the food and wine was the best that Catan and his 
followers had ever tasted; and soon they fell asleep. 

*** 

Cytisus was the first to awaken; he had eaten and drank less greedily
than his three comrades.  He got to his feet and stretched, at first 
wondering if the previous evening had been nothing but a dream; for the 
comfortable silken cushions he had been lying on were gone, and there 
was no sign of the travellers from Artesia.  Catan lay on the ground 
snoring loudly, and beside him were Malus and Ginkgo Biloba.  Cytisus 
approached Catan and nudged him cautiously.  'Wake up Catan, wake up.  
The queen and her people have gone.' 

Catan slowly opened his eyes and looked blearily about.  'Queen? People?
 What are you talking...' Suddenly he came to his senses and leapt to 
his feet.  'Wake up, you fools!' he shouted, 'we've been tricked!'  He 
kicked Malus in the ribs and did the same to Ginkgo Biloba. 

'I told you we should have eaten them!' snarled Malus, as he too
realised what had happened. 

'My head hurts,' complained Ginkgo Biloba.  'I've never drunk wine
before.' 

'I'll hurt more than your head, Gink, if you don't get up in the air and
see if you can see them.  They can't have gone far.  Cytisus, Malus; 
start looking for tracks!' 

Ginkgo Biloba soon returned from his airborne scouting expedition to
report that he could see nothing of the travellers.  'They've 
completely disappeared,' he said, 'as if by magic.  I knew all along 
that that Osmunda woman was a witch.' 

But Malus had picked up a scent and then found a single faint cartwheel
track leading north-west.  'Look,' he said, pawing at a groove in the 
ground left by a cartwheel and then gesturing at the dusty earth around 
the track which looked as though it had been swept.  'They've been 
brushing away their tracks to fool us.' 

'Then there's no time to loose,' exclaimed Catan.  'Osmunda said that
they were returning to their home in the north-west, and that's where 
this cart track is pointing.  Come on!'  And with that, Catan and his 
three cronies set off once more in pursuit of the Artesian travellers, 
and before long they found more cart tracks, and footprints.  But no 
matter how fast they ran - or flew, in the case of Ginkgo Biloba - they 
could not catch up, or even catch sight of their quarry. 

'I'm tired,' complained Malus, as the sun began to go down.  'Can't we
rest?' 

'Not till we find them,' replied Catan angrily.  He too was tired, and
in a foul mood.  'I'm going to tear them all limb from limb, when we 
catch them.'  But soon it became too dark to follow, and the four had 
to give up their pursuit until morning. 

The next day and the next, Catan and the others continued to follow the
tracks and footprints left by the Artesians, but not once did they 
catch sight of them.  But then, on the fourth day, they found 
themselves beside a great river.  And to their dismay, here, on a sandy 
beach, the tracks and footprints vanished, as though the Artesians had 
pulled their carts straight into the river and swum away with them. 

'Gink!  Get up in the air,' ordered Catan.  'See what you can see.  They
can't have just vanished.  And, Gink, if you find them, don't let them 
see you.' 

Upstream the river was wide and winding, and the land to either side was
heavily forested.   So guessing the Artesians had gone this way, and 
with his skin turned pale-blue to match the sky, Ginkgo Biloba followed 
its course.  And soon he found what he was looking for and returned to 
Catan and the others.  'They're boats!' he exclaimed, as he glided back 
onto the sandy beach.  'Boats!' 

'Boats?' replied Catan.  'What do you mean they're boats?' 

'Those strange looking carts!  The travellers have taken the wheels off,
and now they're boats, with silken sails; and they're sailing upstream 
in them!' 

'That's it then,' growled Malus.  'We've come all this way for nothing.'


But Catan, who was angrier than he had ever been in his whole life,
lashed out at Malus, almost knocking him into the river; and he let out 
a great roar, that frightened a whole flock of birds from the treetops. 
'We follow on foot!' he ordered.  'Gink, fly ahead and act as guide.' 

So once more the pursuit continued, with Ginkgo Biloba flying ahead and
reporting back to Catan as best he could, for the forest was very thick 
in places, until finally he saw the Artesians lower their sails and 
begin to slowly row up a smaller river that flowed into the great one.  
Fortunately for Catan and his cronies, this tributary was on the same 
side of the main river as they were, and soon they drew nearer to the 
boats and caught glimpses of them through the trees.  And at last, as 
they overtook the boats to look for a good place for an ambush, they 
saw to their surprise that the tributary came to an abrupt end. 

'How odd,' remarked Cytisus, as he peered from behind a tree.  'This
little river is still quite wide and yet here it ends... or begins, 
because the water seems to flow up from out of the ground.'  And 
Cytisus was quite right, for the water did indeed well up from a huge 
cavity in the ground.  In fact, what they were looking at was an 
artesian well. 

'Hide,' whispered Catan, as Ginkgo Biloba who had landed in a clear
space in the trees came up behind him.  'Keep out of sight.  The 
travellers are coming, and when they row to the shore we will have 
them.' 

And, soon enough the travellers arrived, rowing five sleek looking boats
with tall masts, and in the lead boat was Queen Osmunda.  But instead 
of rowing the boats ashore, they turned each one until they formed a 
circle.  And then, one by one, every man, woman and child dived 
laughing from the boats and disappeared beneath the surface of the 
clear waters of the artesian well, until only Queen Osmunda remained, 
standing in the prow of her boat.  Then, as a shaft of sunlight caught 
her face and arms, revealing the almost scale-like texture of her 
silvery skin, she turned to look directly into Catan's eyes as he 
peered angrily over the top of a fallen tree. 

'Goodbye, my dear prince,' she said, in a clear voice that carried
across the water.  'Where we go now you cannot follow.  For we are the 
people of Artesia and we live beneath the waters.  Goodbye and good 
hunting.'  And with that, she dived into the water and was gone.  And 
as the boats began to drift downstream, a mist emerged from the far 
shoreline and enveloped them, and they too were gone, leaving the four 
tired and unhappy hunters to a long journey home. 

*** 

You don't have to live in Astrantia to visit an artesian well.  But if
you do, don't dive too deeply or you might discover too many of its 
secrets. 


   


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