The Woodcutter and the Witchwife

Owen G. Tabard

Story image for The Woodcutter and the Witchwife by Owen G. Tabard

L ong ago in the Danelaw, when heathens still dwelt there in large number and magic was abroad in the realm, there lived a young woodcutter named Halfdan. Halfdan was a tall man, handsome and ruddy complected, with hair and beard the color of barleycorn, but poor. He was strong, and as a youth he had gone in viking with his Jarl to the far islands, but he won no wealth nor glory there. When he returned it was only to his simple wattle-hut with a roof of sod at the edge of the forest that covered the Jarl’s lands, where he set about to ply his trade.

His life then was simple and free, and he earned enough to eat well, but he grew dissatisfied. So one night, on the eve of Yule-tide, he departed his wattle-hut and trekked through the dark wood. Clouds smothered the starlight and he became lost in the cold, and for a time he thought that he might die. But at last he came upon a clearing where lay a hovel which was the abode of a witchwife.

The witchwife appeared to him as an old woman, hair wild and gray, and eyes that burned with a power beyond human ken. Her name was Vedra, and she knew Halfdan already, although they had never met before. When she asked why he had come, Halfdan opened his palms to her and spread his arms wide, saying, “I am a poor man of low birth, but I am strong and able. I am sure I could earn the wealth and fame of a great Housecarl, if I had only the opportunity.”

“I could make this for you,” said Vedra, “but at a cost.”

“Name it, and I will pay,” said Halfdan.

She named to him a large sum of gold and said that in ten years’ time would she return to him to collect her due, and Halfdan readily agreed. Vedra bade him, “Go down to the beach in the spring, and there a ship and crew will await you. But remember that your debt must be paid, else all you have obtained by my magic shall be lost.” Then she vanished along with her hovel, and Halfdan was alone in the cold of the dark wood.

When spring came, Halfdan did as the witchwife had instructed and went down to the beach, where he found a splendid longship with a dragon carved into its figurehead and great crimson sails. Waiting beside the ship were two score of stout men, fine warriors all, each in helmet and byrnie. All hailed him as their leader, though he knew them not at all.

Halfdan took the crew and with them went in viking to the far islands, and by summer the longship was laden heavily with plunder. On their return the Jarl, who was much impressed by Halfdan, took him into his fold and raised him up to Housecarl, giving him great gifts of gold and lands.

It was in the house of the Jarl that Halfdan caught the eye of the Jarl’s beautiful daughter Signy. But when Halfdan paid her court she was aloof and made as if to despise him. So Halfdan inquired after Signy to the Jarl, and learned that she could not take a man, for she was under a wicked curse to transform each night into a bear, and thus would devour any man who sought to share her bed. This curse hung heavy upon her heart, for she had come to love Halfdan dearly, as he did her.

So it was when, on the Yule-tide of the tenth year, Vedra the witchwife returned. “Halfdan,” said she, “you have the great fame and wealth of your heart’s desire, now I have come to collect my due.”

Halfdan was indeed wealthy and had enough and ten times again to repay the witchwife, but in his heart were thoughts of Signy, so instead he held his open palms spread forth asking that she should lift the curse from Signy that he might win her heart. “If you do this,” said Halfdan, “I shall repay you what I owe tenfold.”

And so Vedra named a heavy sum of gold, saying that she would return again in ten years’ time to collect her due, and Halfdan readily averred that he would so pay. Vedra produced for him a small leather pouch and bade him thus: “Take this magic powder to the bedchamber of Signy Jarlsdottir. Sprinkle it upon her and the curse will be lifted.”

“But how will I go to her?” Halfdan asked. “For she is locked in her room each night, and surely the Jarl’s men shall bar my way.”

Vedra said, “By my second-sight, I tell you a secret passageway leads through your Jarl’s house to her bedchamber. Go to her thereby.”

Taking the pouch from her, Halfdan set out at once for Signy’s bedchamber, for the witchwife had already vanished. With the knowledge imparted to him, Halfdan made his way through a tunnel of frigid earth beneath the Jarl’s great hall, up a narrow spiral of stone stairs, and into the bedchamber of his love. But when he opened the hidden door he found that Signy was transformed already, and a great bear stood before him on hind legs with snarling maw. Without hesitation he cast the magic powder upon the bear, and in an instant the curse was broken and the bear became Signy. She fell into his arms.

When the Jarl heard the news that his daughter’s curse was lifted he was greatly pleased, and Halfdan and Signy were soon thereafter married. The ageing Jarl, having no other children than Signy and thinking of Halfdan now as his own son, made Halfdan his heir. And so, when the Jarl died a short time later, Halfdan inherited his estates and title.

In the decade that followed Halfdan ruled wisely and well. His love for Signy blossomed and brought forth a son whom they named Rolf. Though a small and sickly child, Rolf was as ruddy-faced and bright-eyed as his father, and was the joy of Halfdan’s life. Thus when Rolf took ill in his tenth winter and it seemed that he might die, Halfdan was greatly grieved.

Halfdan’s woe was such that he had nearly forgotten his bargain with Vedra, but she had not. When Yule-tide came, she appeared in his hall saying, “Halfdan Jarl, you have lifted the curse and won the love of Signy, and now hold great fame and wealth beyond the dreams of your youth. Now I come to collect my due.”

Halfdan opened his palms and knelt before her, asking that she might intercede to save the life of his beloved son. “If you do this,” said Halfdan, with tears in his eyes, “I shall repay you what I owe tenfold again.”

So Vedra named a sum of gold so vast that it staggered his mind, for it would empty the coffers of his jarldom, and she said that she would return again in ten years’ time to collect her due. Halfdan readily agreed, and his heart swelled with hope as Vedra vanished from his hall.

He ran to the sickbed of young Rolf, where Signy tended the boy, and when he flung open the door he found the room filled with song and laughter, as Rolf danced and japed to the delight of his mother, the sickness having all at once departed.

In the decade that followed Halfdan and Signy watched with wonder as Rolf grew into a man, strong of back and stout of heart, and it was not long before he went in viking with Halfdan’s men to win great glory in the far islands by dint of his prowess.

But, although Halfdan knew contentedness of hearth and home, he knew not peace, for his great jarldom had roused jealousies in his neighbors and he was harried always by the armies of Arthgal, King of Strathclyde. Halfdan recalled Rolf to his side to lead the defenses, and kept Signy ever safe in her bedchamber, for the war soon reached their very gates.

When the witchwife appeared upon the Yule-tide that tenth year, Halfdan greeted her warmly, with palms out and arms spread wide. Vedra said, “Halfdan Jarl, your son is well and has grown into a mighty warrior of the highest valor. You have the love of your Signy and such fame and wealth as is the envy of all. And I come to collect.”

Halfdan told her of the troubles brought on by his rivalry with Strathclyde, then asked that she raise him up a great war-host to smite down King Arthgal and win peace for his jarldom. “If you do this for me,” said Halfdan, “I shall repay you what I owe tenfold.”

Vedra shook her head, for the debt had now been so many times multiplied that such a sum would be more than the wealth of all the Danelaw put together. “No,” said she, “it cannot be done. Now I must have my due.”

Halfdan did not expect to be so rebuffed, but greatly fearing the witchwife’s power he bade Rolf to raise a tax in order that he might make recompense to Vedra. Halfdan’s people were loyal and paid gladly, but Arthgal had wrought havoc and the realm was poor. When at last the sun set on that feast of Yule, Halfdan had laid much gold and silver before Vedra’s feet, but not enough, for he fell short of her sum by one farthing.

Vedra’s face bore a look of sadness even as she shook her head, and thus she vanished, Halfdan’s debt having not been paid. A cold wind blew, and Halfdan turned to look upon Rolf, but he saw not the recognition a son might give to his father but instead a kind of puzzlement, as one might turn upon an impertinent stranger.

“Who is this sits in my chair?” Rolf demanded of him.

Halfdan pleaded with Rolf to recognize him as father, but Rolf knew him not. Halfdan then sought out Signy, but she was secluded in her bedchamber and his way was barred. Rolf, taking Halfdan for a madman, had the Housecarls eject him from the great hall.

His people had been robbed of the memory of Halfdan Jarl by the witchwife’s magic, to them he was merely Halfdan the woodcutter once more. He had no choice but to return to his wattle-hut at the edge of the forest and ply his trade. For some time he lived a simple life and free, but his thoughts returned ever to Signy. His son had become a great Jarl who needed his father no longer, which made Halfdan proud, but he was sure that his beloved, alone in her bedchamber, pined even now for him as he did for her.

By the next year Rolf had defeated Arthgal of Strathclyde in a mighty battle. Yule-tide came and all the people, in high spirits after a great victory, thronged to the house of their Jarl in celebration. Thus did Halfdan make his way back to the great hall that had once been his.

When the moon rose on that longest of nights, and his heart was swelled with hope, Halfdan sneaked behind the great hall, and into the secret passageway beneath that was filled with the stench of dampened clay, then went up stone steps and through the hidden door into the bedchamber of Signy, where he was met by a fearsome bear, and devoured.

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Owen G. Tabard

Author image of Owen G. Tabard Owen G. Tabard is a writer and lifelong fan of science fiction and fantasy, as well as ancient mythology. He draws on these interests in his own stories. His hobbies include kayaking and bird-watching.

© Owen G. Tabard 2022 All Rights Reserved

The title picture was created using Creative Commons images - many thanks to the following creators: GioeleFazzeri twice, analogicus, KEREM_TASER, and Ash _ Ismail.

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