The Prince and the Witchfinders

All villages have their witch.  It is well known that these malignant women are the cause of all the ills within the neighbourhood.  A crop failure, a devastating storm, the birth of a two-headed goat — all these blights can be attributed to the demonic practices of the local witch.  But the culprit can be difficult to identify.  In these modern times, witches have become more cunning, and shun the telltale pointed hat, the black cat and the warty nose, and blend in unnoticed amongst the respectable people of the parish.

It is therefore not surprising that such villages always welcome the travelling witchfinder whenever he comes to call, for he is guaranteed to leave the town cleansed and freed from the evil forces generated by the concealed conjuror.  One such practitioner rode into the village of Flipperwaldt and was greeted accordingly by local dignitaries and feted generously.

‘Tell me,’ he said, whilst tucking into the succulent pheasant that had been roasted especially for him.  ‘What curses does this village currently endure?’

One of the town elders said, ‘There is a strange howling coming from my barn.  I cannot explain it, and nor can anyone else who has investigated it.’

‘The communion wine has lost its flavour,’ croaked the priest, and he sneezed into a grotty cloth.  ‘Clearly, it has been taken by the very devil himself.  And I, myself, am beset with a malady.’

Mrs Brotmann, the baker’s wife said, ‘And my husband has been suffering mysterious disappearances.  He goes regularly to bible class but lately has not been seen there.  He is unable to explain how his time is spent, ain’t that right Father Hoffmeyer?’

‘I can attest to that, yes.’

‘Fear not,’ smiled the witchfinder.  ‘I shall remedy all these woes, and shall dispatch the heretical harridan that is their cause.  And for nothing more than the paltry fee of five gold coins!’

‘We will be happy to pay you for your admirable work,’ sniffed the priest.  ‘What methods do you employ in order to reveal the witch?’

‘The procedure is simple,’ said the witchfinder, ‘although, of course, can only be carried out by a skilled and experienced practitioner.  After this fine repast, I want you to gather all the womenfolk together and command them to stand in a circle, each holding a collection of stones.  I will then place a goose in the middle of the circle and order the women to throw their stones at it.  Whichever woman the goose flees towards to make good its escape is the witch!’

‘An ingenious plot,’ said the town elder.  ‘I will arrange for a fire for her to be burned upon.’

And so, the plan was carried out.  The witch was identified and summarily burned at the stake.  The village was freed from its afflictions.  The wind changed direction and the howling in the barn ceased, the priest recovered from his sickness and the wine regained its flavour.  And when it was time for the next bible class, the baker was found at Mrs Strumpet’s house but couldn’t explain the loss of his trousers.

The witchfinder was paid his due and rode away for many miles until he sought rest at the Guild of Witchfinders.

‘Five gold coins,’ he said to his peers.  ‘They didn’t even haggle.  I ought to have asked for ten.’

A few weeks later, another witchfinder entered Flipperwaldt.  Like the first, he was well received, and learned that the village was now troubled by a demonic voice calling up from the bottom of the well.  The people were afraid to draw water from it.

‘These evil spirits are a pestilence amongst all good and righteous people,’ said the witchfinder.  ‘For only ten gold coins I shall seek out and destroy the foul miscreant that has summoned this abomination.’

‘How will you determine the identity of this diabolist?’ asked the priest.

‘The women must lie down in a row and be trampled on by donkeys.  The one that is least marked by the hooves is the witch.  But, of course, you are not to attempt this without the supervision of a fully accredited member of the Guild of Witchfinders.’

Once again, the witch was uncovered and duly disposed of by means of fire.  Under cover of the night, the witchfinder helped his accomplice out of the well, and together they rode off to the guild, where they told their tale to their fellows.

As a result of this, the village of Flipperwaldt found itself beleaguered with a new burden.  Repeatedly, witchfinders came, chose a witch by their own personal method, took their money and left.  Gradually, the little town was getting poorer and shorter of women.  One day, a handsome prince arrived from the north.  He had been hunting with his dogs and required lodgings for the night.

He was astonished to discover that only two women lived in the entire town.  One was a very old, wizened woman with a hunched back and crooked nose.  The other was young and beautiful, but both were afraid for the next time that a witchfinder would come.  The story of the witchfinders was explained to the prince who, in his wisdom, said, ‘It is my belief that these inquisitors are not all that they claim to be.’

‘How so?’ asked the elder.  ‘Are they not qualified members of the Guild?’

‘Not all that is gilded is pure of heart,’ said the prince.

The prince remained in Flipperwaldt until the next witchfinder came.  He observed as the priest asked his usual question, ‘How do you tell who is a witch?’

The witchfinder explained, ‘I am gifted with the ability to smell witches.’

The prince interjected and asked, ‘And what do witches smell of?’

‘Er. . . aniseed,’ said the witchfinder.  ‘Bring forth your women and I shall sniff them and tell you which one you should burn.’

While this was being done, the prince slipped into the kitchen and retrieved a pouch of aniseed.  He presented it to one of his beagles to sniff, and then while the witchfinder was distracted, he slipped the pouch into his pocket.

The witchfinder commenced his drama.  ‘I must insist that no man ever attempts this himself.’

‘What about dogs?’ asked the prince.

‘Dogs?’ queried the witchfinder.

‘Yes,’ said the prince.  ‘Dogs have a very keen sense of smell, and it is also said that they are able to detect things of a mystical nature.  Would you indulge me by allowing one of my beagles to sniff out the witch?’

Of course, the witchfinder didn’t care who was chosen as the witch.  He would receive his payment either way, and so he agreed to the prince’s request.

‘Come on, boy,’ the prince said to the beagle.  ‘Find the witch!’

He led the dog to the wizened old hag, but it turned its head away.  He showed it to the beautiful young woman, but again it showed no interest in her.  Abruptly, the dog bounded towards the witchfinder.  It jumped up at him, barking and wagging its tail frantically

‘There’s the witch!’ cried the prince.

‘No, no!’ protested the witchfinder.  ‘I cannot be a witch, you foolish prince.’

‘My dog does not lie,’ said the prince.  ‘But you and your guild do.  Burn him, everybody!’

Pitchforks were brandished and the villagers forced the imposter out to the pyre that they had prepared earlier.  And as the charlatan was engulfed in flames, the prince taught the villagers other tricks that they might use to catch out future spurious witchfinders.

They thanked the prince hugely and offered him all the gold they had left for saving their village.

‘I require nor desire any payment,’ said the prince.  ‘However, I am seeking my one true love who will marry me and become my princess.  I believe I have found her here in your village - one who has captured my heart with her radiant beauty.  I know you have lost many of your women but I would dearly like to take her to be my bride.’

‘Oh, yes please,’ said the hag.

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