Deep in a tangled forest, there dwelt four sisters whose mother, a wood-wife, had died by the bite of a werewolf years before. Still they spun her magic through potion and spell, healing and weaving with color and light, and villagers brave enough to venture into the forest depths would seek favors from them. They never turned anyone away without a meal from their cauldron nor a cloak from their spinning wheel.
But forces of evil were at work who sought their powers for their own ends. A robber king made camp on the far end of the wood, and learned from his own gnarled soothsayer that mating with any one of these sisters might grant him power to reign supreme in the forest and over the villages beyond it. So he took it upon himself to capture them and bring them to his camp.
His cohorts found them collecting roots and berries. At first, the sisters fought with their magic, blinding their attackers with beams of light shooting from their eyes, and proceeding to transform them into snakes and toads. But the soothsayer of the robber king, with her dark powers, proceeded put the three sisters into a death-like sleep.
When they awoke as prisoners in the camp, the robber king, dressed in his finest stolen cloak, told them his intent. He would mate with one of them, or have all of them killed in the most brutal fashion he could devise. He ordered that they should be untied, and took the eldest away to a glen with him.
She was the most beautiful of the four, with hair as black as onyx stone, and eyes that resonated a deep fern-green. Her skin was smooth as cream, and lips rich and red. His desire for her grew, the heat of lust cracking through his heart of ice. He tried to pull down her red garment, but she clung to it fiercely and used her magic to make it burn his fingers.
“Give me your body, or you she shall know the death of fire!” he growled.
“You shall not have my body, and death shall have no dominion,” she replied defiantly.
“We shall see,” he spat.
He called over his men, and together, using thick gloves devised to avoid the sting of her powers, they strapped her to an oak tree and placed a pile of kindling at her feet. Then they took oil used for lighting lamps, and poured it over her and the wood. Then the torch was thrown upon the pile.
The flames flared about her billowing dress, and she felt them singe her legs and thighs charcoal black. She felt them crawl up her bodice and lick the oil from her flesh. They danced the dance of death around her, and she moaned as it seared her skin. The sparks flew to her hair and made it their new torch. She listed as her face melted away, and her soul was consumed and carried off with the swirling smoke.
Next, he took the second eldest sister to the edge of a deep marsh. She had soft brown hair, like the willows, and matching eyes, with flecks of red in them that gave them an otherworldly glint. Her lips were pale as her skin, but the robber king desired her with all the same ferocity as he had her ruby-lipped sister. He tried to pull down her silky white wrap, but she made his fingers freeze to the bone.
“Give me your body, or you she shall know the death of water!” he threatened.
“You shall not have my body, and death shall have no dominion,” she retorted.
“We shall see.”
He bound her arms and took her in a small boat to the deepest section of the marsh. Once there he cast her overboard. The water was cold and dark, and the weeds wrapped her in their deadly embrace. Sometimes she sank, sometimes she broke the surface for breath, but soon her dress grew heavy and pulled her under. The fingers of the current pressed in upon her, drawing her into their watery caress.
Resigning to her fate, she parted her lips and let her last breath run out of her in bubbles streaming to the surface. And then she inhaled the water deeply, letting it fill her lungs and draw her into a sickened slumber. The numbness of death rushed through her body and prickled along her skin, until her mouth remained agape and her eyes became dark, sightless holes from which the light of her soul swam away.
Next, the murderer took the third sister to the side of a precipice. She had hair so fair it shimmered white as the mountain snows, and eyes of turquoise, like a robin’s eggs. He reached out for her blue dress, but she cast a circle of the wind that thrust his hands away from her.
“Give me your body, or you she shall know death in the air!”
“You shall not have my body, and death shall have no dominion.”
“We shall see.”
He bound a rope about her hands and a longer one around her swan-white neck and hurled her off the edge. The knot tightened beneath her windpipe and she gasped at the strain of suffocation. She swung to and fro, gazing listlessly at the ravens flying beneath in waiting for her to be their feast at eve.
Her face changed to a seasick green to a desperate blue as she wheezed to draw a few final gulps of air. At last, her face drained a mushroom gray as her neck-bone snapped, sending a shudder along her spine and her soul flying away on ebony wings.
Finally, the fiend seized the youngest sister and brought her to the part of the camp where the butchering of animals was done, and showed her the pit where the parts were thrown away. Her hair was wild and red, her skin ruddy, and her hazel eyes afraid. He took hold of her hair, and tugged it hard.
“Give me your body, or you shall know death in the pit of the earth!”
“You shall not have my body, and death shall have no dominion,” she declared, though her voice was shaking.
So furious was he that he seized a butcher’s knife himself and thrust it through her belly and slit it open. She screamed as he cut out her bowels and liver and cast them into the pit for the feast of the forest wolves. Dark blood spilled over her lips, as he slit open her lungs, and white flesh slithered out of her mouth like white worms.
Then he cut all around her tiny beating heart and ripped it out with his hand. She released a final groan as it was torn from her bosom and he squeezed the blood from it into her mouth and eyes, and then felt nothing more. Scarlet-stained tears gleamed in her dulling eyes and carried her soul in their journey down her ashen cheeks. He then submerged her corpse in the mud of the nearby marsh, where the black muck filled in the gaping crimson crevice in her breast where her heart had once been lodged.
That night, with the blood of the sisters still fresh on his hands, a great tumult was heard in the robber king’s camp. Streaks of fire shot through the sky, scalding all who stood in its path. Next water invaded the camp in a sudden flash flood, drowning all who stood in its path. Next there came a wind, carrying away anyone who stood in its path. And lastly the earth itself rebelled, and quicksand pits formed in the ground, pulling down anyone in their path.
With all his men slain or scattered, and only the soothsayer standing beside him, the robber king’s jaw dropped in horror at the sight before him. Standing in front of him were a dragon, a seal, a raven, and a horse, with the eyes of the murdered maidens blazing through him. Their ghosts had returned to haunt him. And then they parted and made way for the fiercest of them all: their matriarch, the werewolf.
She leapt forward and slew the soothsayer with a single bite to the throat. The robber king watched as the hag gurgled in death-agony within the animal’s jaws and then fell silent, her seer’s eyes still open but seeing no more.
“Death shall have no dominion,” the werewolf growled.
And at that moment he recognized her eyes as his shape-shifting lover from many years afore, the queen of faery enchantment with whom he had mystically wed in the circle of summer light that served as a portal to the Otherworld. He had been pure then, before he had taken on the soothsayer who turned his thoughts to greed and lust and violence, and abandoned his wife.
And then his glassy heart sank and shattered in his breast, as he realized that the murdered maids were his own four daughters. All the horrors of his crimes flashed before him, and he fell to his knees with his face buried in his hands.
“I ask but one boon!” he cried out, rending his cloak. “Let me die within the cauldron of the universe.”
So the cauldron from the sister’s hut appeared before him, into the cauldron he cast himself and felt the flesh boil from his bones as he was submerged in its fathomless depths of justice. But the flame of transformation was also upon him, flickering through his ribs, and melting his heart that fell in drops of sorrow like tears of wax.
And by those drops, there formed a seal, singed but not consumed by hellfire. It spelled out a word that had been cooked in the cauldron of the four elements for eons, for one whose acts deserved the depths for eternity…and yet found itself shape-shifted by eyes softened by saltwater and shame, and a pleading, not for the self to be spared, but to express the inexpressible sorrow for evils that had no bottom.
This word upon the seal we will not say; you must stir the cauldron of your own soul to find it, or else find it scratched upon the sands of time, if you dare. It may burn your lips, or moisten them, if you choose to speak it or break it open. The choice is yours alone.