My work in progress, Kikimora, contains several short stories within the story, which serve to illustrate various points. Innessa and the Terrible Witch is one. Its meaning, and the motive of the storyteller are deliberately ambiguous – although should become clearer by the end of the novel. What do you think its meaning is?
Innessa and the Terrible Witch
From the moment she was born, everyone knew that Innessa would grow up to be heartbreakingly beautiful. Her mother and father were not rich or important, but the whole town turned out to Innessa’s christening. And they sighed and blessed the tiny infant, and foretold only the happiest, luckiest fates for her.
But when the oldest and wisest woman in the town came to Innessa’s cradle, and peered down at the angelic little face, she gave this prophecy, “Innessa will marry the richest, most handsome and bravest man in the world – if the terrible witch doesn’t prevent her.”
Innessa’s parents and the townspeople were all thrilled to hear this. They didn’t worry too much about the witch, because everyone knows that stories like this always turn out right, and the handsome prince vanquishes any obstacle to his true love.
Innessa grew more beautiful with each passing day. Her skin was like fresh milk, with apple blossom at her cheeks. Her eyes sparkled like warm and tranquil seas. Her long, gently waving hair was like sun-ripened wheat, just before the harvest.
News spread far and wide about Innessa’s beauty. Many princes and knights came to visit the town, just to catch a glimpse of her. The town grew larger and more prosperous with all the visiting nobility, and the people knew it was all thanks to Innessa, and so they loved her even more.
When there came news of a powerful witch living in the next Kingdom, the townspeople decided that they could not risk any calamity befalling Innessa, and so they all came together to build a strong tower. Innessa went to live in the tower, where she would be safe from the witch, and she could look down at all the brave and handsome men who came to claim her hand in marriage.
So many men wanted to marry Innessa that it was decided tasks should be set for them, to find the bravest and cleverest. So the men were sent to fight dragons, seek fortunes, vanquish evil wizards and find magical objects.
Many of them never came back to Innessa’s tower, but one who did was Prince Alexander. He had successfully found the water of life, and brought back a vial of it for Innessa, so that she might live forever.
Innessa thanked him graciously, and drank the little vial of burning liquid. She invited Prince Alexander up into her tower so that they could drink tea together and discuss what kind of wedding they might have.
But as they drank their tea, Alexander slurped his. He ate more biscuits than Innessa could count, and got crumbs all over his cloth-of-gold tunic. Innessa decided that after all, he was not the most handsome or clever man in the world, and that a better one would come along soon.
Some time later, Count Yuri came to the tower, having killed a fierce wyvern in the nearby mountains. He carried its huge, horned head back to Innessa slung across his shoulders. He was immensely strong, and very handsome, and was certainly brave, so Innessa invited him to come and dine with her in the tower and to discuss their future life together.
They ate roast chicken and peacock steaks, provided by the townspeople, and Count Yuri said it was a long time since he’d eaten anything so good. He admitted that his estate was in a very poor way. His peasants were starving, and his house was in sore need of repair.
Innessa looked around at her richly furnished tower, and thought it would be a shame to have to move into a draughty old hall with leaking ceilings and damp cellars. She decided that after all, Count Yuri was not the man the wise woman had in mind to marry her.
The following year Prince Igor brought her a magical looking glass. He was both fabulously rich and extremely handsome. But he was afraid of the dark, and he whimpered and trembled as he climbed the spiral stairs up to Innessa’s chamber. It transpired that he’d paid some other, poorer knight to steal the enchanted glass from a powerful magician.
Innessa sent him away. The knight who had really fetched the enchanted glass was no longer poor, thanks to Prince Igor’s payment, and so he presented himself at Innessa’s tower. But his legs were rather short, and his face a little coarse, and Innessa didn’t much care for his haircut.
Seasons passed, and none of the men who came to claim Innessa’s hand in marriage were quite up to scratch. Innessa grew from an angelically pretty girl to a ravishingly handsome woman. Her parents grew old and frail, and began to urge her to perhaps look past the odd crooked nose or ignoble birth. They feared they would never see any grandchildren if she didn’t consent to marry one of her suitors soon.
In time her mother and her father died, and they were buried with great sadness by the townspeople. Innessa watched the funerals from her window, for she was too afraid of the terrible witch to leave her tower.
Fewer and fewer suitors came to call at the tower. The little town went into decline without all its rich and powerful visitors. People still left the odd pot of stew or baked potato at the foot of Innessa’s tower, but they grumbled while they did so.
Innessa’s beauty faded. Her skin grew sallow and wrinkled. Her back stooped over. Her once golden hair grew knotted and grey. But she had drunk of the water of life, and no matter how old she grew, she could not die.
Innessa still lives in her falling down tower in her quiet, little town. The local children dare each other to knock upon her rotting door, telling each other tales of the most beautiful girl in the world who once lived there – until she was swallowed up by the terrible witch. The witch who lives there still.