Without warning, the door of the ramshackle hut flew aside as a filth-covered man stormed in from the darkness.
His eyes darted about furiously in the firelight before locking onto the hut’s sole occupant.
“Witch,” he snarled.
The old woman took no notice of him. She remained in her seat and calmly continued to grind her mortar, each turn of the pestle also grating upon her visitor.
“I followed your instructions,” he said, “and look what has become of me.”
The woman sniffed the mortar, grunted, then spat into it before resuming her work.
“Do you not recognize your king?” the man seethed. “A king, once loved and obeyed by all? I wished to rule forever, so I came to you, vile creature, and you put an enchantment on me.
Only afterwards did you inform me of the final requirement.”
Finally satisfied with her grinding efforts, the woman stood. Moving to the fireplace, she dumped the contents of the mortar into a large cauldron of boiling liquid.
“You told me I had but to destroy the one who loved me most, and I would never die,” the man continued. “And I believed you! First, I strangled my mother. Then I slit my wife’s throat.
I slew my unsuspecting brother by the sword, when he thought we were merely practicing. And then… then I turned my attention to my children.”
The old woman muttered to herself as she bent to reach for a large wooden spoon. She gave the cauldron a vigorous stir.
“Nothing changed!” cried the man. “You said I would know, but I felt no different! So my search expanded. Lifelong friends were executed.
I declared foolish wars, and ordered loyal knights into hopeless battles. Thousands went to their doom, and I came to be hated as a bloodthirsty madman.”
The woman brought the spoon to her mouth, cautiously tasted the bubbling concoction, and nodded happily while the man shook with rage.
“Now the kingdom has risen against me,” he said. “Mobs, cutthroats, and assassins have dogged my heels, even to this very spot. Thanks to your lies, instead of living forever, I will die tonight.
But by my soul, you shall die first!”
He unsheathed his dagger and sprang forward, only to slip in his mud-caked boots. With a crash he fell to the ground, landing in a graceless heap.
The old woman came and stood over him.
“Foolish king,” she said. “You have ended your search where you should have begun. But you have at last finished destroying the one who loves you most.”
He did not reply. Instead, he was staring in astonishment at the hilt protruding from his chest. Despite the terrible pain, he lived.
“Now then,” said the woman, offering him the spoon, “would you like some stew?”
“But… the mob is outside,” he gasped. “They seek my head.”
The old woman clucked her tongue.
“Yes, that is a pity,” she said. “Forever is a long time to go without a head.”