High on a hill in an enchanted garden, enclosed by tall walls and protected by strong magic, flowed the Fountain of Fair Fortune.
Once a year, between the hours of sunrise and sunset on the longest day, a single unfortunate was given the chance to fight their way to the Fountain, bathe in its waters and receive Fair Fortune for evermore.
On the appointed day, hundreds of people travelled from all over the kingdom to reach the garden walls before dawn. Male and female, rich and poor, young and old, of magical means and without, they gathered in the darkness, each hoping that they would be the one to gain entrance to the garden.
Three witches, each with her burden of woe, met on the outskirts of the crowd, and told one another their sorrows as they waited for sunrise.
The first, by name Asha, was sick of a malady no Healer could cure. She hoped that the Fountain would banish her symptoms and grant her a long and happy life.
The second, by name Altheda, had been robbed of her home, her gold and her wand by an evil sorcerer. She hoped that the Fountain might relieve her of powerlessness and poverty.
The third, by name Amata, had been deserted by a man whom she loved dearly, and she thought her heart would never mend. She hoped that the Fountain would relieve her of her grief and longing.
Pitying each other, the three women agreed that, should the chance befall them, they would unite and try to reach the Fountain together.
The sky was rent with the first ray of sun, and a chink in the wall opened. The crowd surged forward, each of them shrieking their claim for the Fountain’s benison. Creepers from the garden beyond snaked through the pressing mass, and twisted themselves around the first witch, Asha. She grasped the wrist of the second witch, Altheda, who seized tight upon the robes of the third witch, Amata.
And Amata became caught upon the armour of a dismal-looking knight who was seated on a bone-thin horse.
The creepers tugged the three witches through the chink in the wall, and the knight was dragged off his steed after them.
The furious screams of the disappointed throng rose upon the morning air, then fell silent as the garden walls sealed once more.
Asha and Altheda were angry with Amata, who had accidentally brought along the knight.
“Only one can bathe in the Fountain! It will be hard enough to decide which of us it will be, without adding another!”
Now, Sir Luckless, as the knight was known in the land outside the walls, observed that these were witches, and, having no magic, nor any great skill at jousting or duelling with swords, nor anything that distinguished the non-magical man, was sure that he had no hope of beating the three women to the Fountain. He therefore declared his intention of withdrawing outside the walls again.
At this, Amata became angry too.
“Faint heart!” she chided him. “Draw your sword, Knight, and help us reach our goal!”
And so the three witches and the forlorn knight ventured forth into the enchanted
garden, where rare herbs, fruit and flowers grew in abundance on either side of the sunlit paths. They met no obstacle until they reached the foot of the hill on which the Fountain stood.
There, however, wrapped around the base of the hill, was a monstrous white Worm, bloated and blind. At their approach, it turned a foul face upon them, and uttered the following words:
“Pay me the proof of your pain.”
Sir Luckless drew his sword and attempted to kill the beast, but his blade snapped. Then Altheda cast rocks at the Worm, while Asha and Amata essayed every spell that might subdue or entrance it, but the power of their wands was no more effective than their friend’s stone, or the knight’s steel: the Worm would not let them pass.
The sun rose higher and higher in the sky, and Asha, despairing, began to weep.
Then the great Worm placed its face upon hers and drank the tears from her cheeks. Its thirst assuaged, the Worm slithered aside, and vanished into a hole in the ground.
Rejoicing at the Worm’s disappearance, the three witches and the knight began to climb the hill, sure that they would reach the Fountain before noon.
Halfway up the steep slope, however, they came across words cut into the ground before them.
“Pay me the fruit of your labours.”
Sir Luckless took out his only coin, and placed it upon the grassy hillside, but it rolled away and was lost. The three witches and the knight continued to climb, but though they walked for hours more, they advanced not a step; the summit came no nearer, and still the inscription lay in the earth before them.
All were discouraged as the sun rose over their heads and began to sink towards the far horizon, but Altheda walked faster and harder than any of them, and exhorted the others to follow her example, though she moved no further up the enchanted hill.
“Courage, friends, and do not yield!” she cried, wiping the sweat from her brow.
As the drops fell glittering on to the earth, the inscription blocking their path vanished, and they found that they were able to move upwards once more.
Delighted by the removal of this second obstacle, they hurried towards the summit as fast as they could, until at last they glimpsed the Fountain, glittering like crystal in a bower of flowers and trees.
Before they could reach it, however, they came to a stream that ran round the hilltop, barring their way. In the depths of the clear water lay a smooth stone bearing the words:
“Pay me the treasure of your past.”
Sir Luckless attempted to float across the stream on his shield, but it sank. The three witches pulled him from the water, then tried to leap the brook themselves, but it would not let them cross, and all the while the sun was sinking lower in the sky.
So they fell to pondering the meaning of the stone’s message, and Amata was the first to understand. Taking her wand, she drew from her mind all the memories of happy times she had spent with her vanished lover, and dropped them into the rushing waters. The stream swept them away, and stepping stones appeared, and the three witches and the knight were able to pass at last on to the summit of the hill.
The Fountain shimmered before them, set amidst herbs and flowers rarer and more beautiful than any they had yet seen. The sky burned ruby, and it was time to decide which of them would bathe.
Before they could make their decision, however, frail Asha fell to the ground. Exhausted by their struggle to the summit, she was close to death.
Her three friends would have carried her to the Fountain, but Asha was in mortal agony and begged them not to touch her.
Then Altheda hastened to pick all those herbs she thought most hopeful, and mixed them in Sir Luckless’s gourd of water, and poured the potion into Asha’s mouth.
At once, Asha was able to stand. What was more, all symptoms of her dread malady had vanished.
“I am cured!” she cried. “I have no need of the Fountain – let Altheda bathe!”
But Altheda was busy collecting more herbs in her apron.
“If I can cure this disease, I shall earn gold aplenty! Let Amata bathe!”
Sir Luckless bowed, and gestured Amata towards the Fountain, but she shook her head.
The stream had washed away all regret for her lover, and she saw now that he had been cruel and faithless, and that it was happiness enough to be rid of him.
“Good sir, you must bathe, as a reward for all your chivalry!” she told Sir Luckless.
So the knight clanked forth in the last rays of the setting sun, and bathed in the Fountain of Fair Fortune, astonished that he was the chosen one of hundreds and giddy with his incredible luck.
As the sun fell below the horizon, Sir Luckless emerged from the waters with the glory of his triumph upon him, and flung himself in his rusted armour at the feet of Amata, who was the kindest and most beautiful woman he had ever beheld. Flushed with success, he begged for her hand and her heart, and Amata, no less delighted, realised that she had found a man worthy of them.
The three witches and the knight set off down the hill together, arm in arm, and all four led long and happy lives, and none of them ever knew or suspected that the Fountain’s waters carried no enchantment at all.