Long ago, beyond the mists which lie just inside the forest’s edge, among the gnarled roots of the most ancient of yews, sat the forest witch upon her verdant mossy throne. At her feet perched three giant hares, nibbling upon tender young grasses and berries.
None knew from which she came, nor how long she had lived, and most residents of the rolling hills and villages outside the forest had never known of her before the tragedy which eventually befell her and the other denizens of the shady dell where she had made her home.
The forest witch had a special kind of magic, giving her the ability to heal those who appealed to her by ringing the bell at the center of the dell. It was said that any who should ring this bell would be healed of their afflictions – no matter how dire or severe – with the promise that they would be forever unable to leave the shady dell. The sick were healed, the infirmed were again firmed, and even the dead were said to once again live when someone had rung the bell on their behalf. The inhabitants of the dell were many, and they lived in perfect peace and harmony. However, upon entering the dell each may never again leave or the gift of healing would be reverted and they would once again fall prey to their grievous afflictions.
The dell was cloaked in a permanent covering of mist to protect it from discovery by unwary travelers who may have lost their way or wandered too deep into the forest. In order to penetrate the mists and enter the dell, the seeker must carry their own bell, and ring it while in the mist and listen for the echo. Only by following the echoes of the answering bell could the dell be located and entered. Within the clearing, the mists parted and the sun shone a bright ray upon the dell. Within the dell were three dens – at the edge of each a giant hare sat in quiet stillness. Above each of these dark holes was a sign to designate their intended purpose. One was marked by a sign which read “illness” while another read “injury,” and the last one was marked “death.”
The seeker must bring an offering to the hare from which they wished to receive a blessing, and must enter the appropriate hole, and in the case of death, the bringer of the corpse must lower the body into the hole. The corresponding hare would then deliver the request to the forest witch, who dispensed the requisite spell, calling the seeker forth into the center of the dell where they would emerge from the hole to receive its gift and be healed upon ringing the bell. Once the blessing had been revealed and the seeker healed, their soul would be bound to the ancient yew whose magic would sustain them eternally while within the reach of its underground roots which stretched to the very edges of the shady dell and not a step further.
For untold eons this dell had existed, its denizens in a tranquil state, in perfect health and wanting for nothing. The yew provided all nourishment to sustain them, and they henceforth lived a monastic life free from pain, illness and death within the bounds of the idyllic meadow.
Until one day, when the men had come from faraway places, building their stone roads which crossed the hills and connected the villages and various settlements. With the foreign men came a system of trade routes and increased traffic, and along with that, the faith of foreign lands. Their faith compelled them to build temples for their congregations to gather and worship, and one was built atop nearly every hill. They would drag away the stone circles of the ancient people and erect stone chapels in their place, where they would then gather to worship their modern god. The nomadic tribes of the countryside who wished to still practice the old magic were either driven away into hiding, converted to the new ways, or they were slaughtered like animals in the fields where their bodies were left to rot. Only the shady dell was left undiscovered and undestroyed, cloaked in its protective mist deep in the shadowy ancient forest.
As the villages in the surrounding countryside grew more dense and populated, more land was needed to convert into farms to feed them, and the men began chopping away at the edges of the forest, hauling away the trees to be burned for fuel or turned into lumber. The nearest village continued to grow in size, and the modest house of worship which stood on the hill was growing as well. More and more people moved to the area, and began attending the little church on the hill. As their ranks swelled in number, the church had to be expanded to accommodate them all, becoming bigger and bigger until the typical gathering size was well over two hundred people.
The leader of this church, a proud man, a bishop in both name and in title, was becoming well known across the countryside for his inspired speeches and sermons. People began to come from all around to gather in his church and listen to him preach the word of their new god. Upon the conclusion of each of his sermons, he would collect their tithings in a large copper plate and use the money to further expand his ministry. First, with more seating and a larger main chapel, next with building the highest bell tower from which the tolling of the church bell could be heard from far and wide across the countryside.
Although he professed humility before his god, this bishop was a proud man and wanted his growing congregation to grow even further. He was forever building a higher and higher belfry on the larger and larger church, so that his bell might rise above the sky itself and ring throughout the very heavens high. When the bell was rang, it would be heard by the angels themselves, who would no doubt bestow upon the bishop their highest blessings and praise.
Indeed was the bishop blessed, his god gave him a large brood of children who all enjoyed good health and prosperity. The humble villagers respected them and treated them like lords, bringing them offerings of food and meat in exchange for prayers and blessings which they bestowed upon them in the name of the lord’s gratitude and grace. Indeed, the Bishop family wanted for nothing, and their life was a testament to their virtue. They worked hard every day, traveling the surrounding countryside to spread the word of their holy gospel and to perform healing miracles and blessings in exchange for a modest rendering to the church. As their clergy grew, their coffers filled and overflowed with copper coins and the bell tower grew and grew until its pinnacle seemed to rise above the clouds.
The bishop’s insatiable hunger for the expansion of his ministry grew unchecked for many years. Every Sunday they would ring the bell from the mighty tower, which could be heard for untold distances, calling all of those within earshot to come and kneel before the mighty god and beg forgiveness for their wicked ways. The bishop wrote moving and emotional sermons for his clergy, instructing them all that their hardships were a test of their spirit, a punishment handed down from god almighty for not following his word. The bishop called them heathens, pagans, and sinners and beseeched them to repent in their primitive ways and kneel to the one true god, begging forgiveness.
As time went on, the bishop and his ministers became familiar with the old legends spoken by the peasants and pagans, and had heard about the shady dell in the forest. The thought of this strange and magical place deep in the forest haunted his dreams and consumed his waking thoughts. He tried to imagine the demonic horrors which must be taking place in this secluded forest dell hidden in the mists and it made him afraid. Most offended was he by the notion that a pagan witch had taken souls in exchange for healing miracles, and he secretly feared that perhaps her magic was more powerful than his own. After all, faith healings were a part of his regular service, in exchange for which he received payment necessary for the building of his bell tower and the unwavering devotion of his swelling congregation. If it was healing they were after, they must come to him or his clergymen, seek their holy counsel, and render a tithing in exchange for a prayer which essentially did nothing but assuage the mind. He would even tell them that he wasn’t a healer, but merely a conduit for the healing power of the Lord.
He heard more and more about this foul forest witch and her feral lair, until one day his anger got a hold of him, and he could stand it no longer. He called together his older male children and the most trusted minions of his ministry, in a council to decide what to do about this evil presence. They together concluded that the witch was a threat and must be located and dispatched with the most fervent of religious zeal. Her “pet” rabbits were to be captured and boiled into a stew. The witches head was to be severed and brought to him in a bag. He steamed with a furious anger as the hunters disappeared into the woods to locate this den of wickedness. The bishop returned to his gilded quarters to pray silently and await their return.
Off into the woods they rode, bells in hand – ringing in the mist as they had been instructed – pausing and listening carefully for the echoes returning to their ears. It did not take them long to locate the shady dell, where the three giant hares sat timidly at the edge of their holes. The riders approached, and without hesitation drew back their bowstrings and releasing a volley of arrows which found their targets in the soft meaty flesh. As they expired with a gasp and a twitch, a ghostly howling began coming from the trees. The ground trembled as a shiver went through their roots. The men continued on their horses to the center of the dell, where they found the witch nestled into the roots of the ancient yew, her limbs entwined with the roots in an unholy symbiotic structure.
The leader of the hunters, the eldest of the sons of Bishop, unsheathed his gleaming silver sword, and with a single swing, he severed the witch’s head. Picking it up, he held it so he could look into her eyes as the life drained from her. With her last gurgling, hissing gasp, he stuffed her head into a burlap bag and set the ancient yew on fire. As the yew burned, the most hideous of wailing screams issued forth, echoing through the forest as the denizens of the dell all howled and collapsed upon the ground, dead and dying. The men covered their ears and rode off into the mist once again as the fire jumped from limb to limb across the ancient yew, as eventually the entire dell was consumed in flames, leaving behind only a large patch of blackened soil and ash littered with scorched bones.
The witches head and three hares were returned to the bishop, who instructed his servants to make a hearty stew from the giant rabbits. The witches head he promptly delivered to the bellfound who had been hired to pour the brass bells which hung in his tower stretching beyond the clouds. He instructed the bellist to cast the witches head into the clapper for his newest bell, still cooling in its massive mold, which he would hang atop his heavenly belfry. When it was done, he stood proudly in awe as the bell was hoisted up the tower with a system of ropes and pulleys – a task requiring fifty men – and was rung for the first time. As the bell echoed loud and clear across the countryside, the peasants and villagers all were summoned to the little church on the hill where they were offered a large bowl of freshly made rabbit stew before the day’s sermon.
A light shone down from the heavens upon the bishop that day, but the patch of forest remained blackened and dead, still shrouded in the mists, lost to the ages of time, never to return.
Every first Sunday of the new month the little church on the hill would serve a pot of warm rabbit stew. After all, they were charitable men who cared deeply for their congregants. They were saving them. And every Sunday for many generations the bell-ringer would pull the rope and ring the bell.
DING! DANG! DONG!