The Weird Witch of the Willow-Herb lived in a pink cottage on the top of a hill. She was merry and beautiful and wise and kind; and she was all dressed in pink and green, and she had great eyes that were sometimes filled with laughter and sometimes filled with tears, and her round soft mouth looked as though it had done nothing but smile for hundreds and hundreds of years. Her pink cottage was the most charming place in the world to live in; the walls were made of the flower of the willow-herb, and the roof was made of the green leaves, and the floors were made of the white down; and all the little lattice windows were cobwebs, spun by the spiders who live in Fairyland and make the windows for the Fairy Queen’s own palace. And no one but an elf or a fairy could have said how long the Weird Witch of the Willow-Herb had been living in her cottage on the top of the hill.
Now, any one might think that this wonderful Witch was so sweet and so wise that all sorts of people would be coming, all day long, to ask her to help them; for, of course, that is what a witch is for. But this particular Witch, who lived in her pink cottage on the top of the hill, had not been living there all that time for nothing.
“If I did not keep a few spells lying about at the bottom of the hill, I would never have a moment’s peace,” chuckled the Witch of the Willow-Herb. And that is why most of the people who came to ask her for spells never got as far as the pink cottage at all, for they found what they wanted at the bottom of the hill; and no doubt that saved everybody a great deal of trouble.
“Poor people!” said the Weird Witch, with her voice full of kindness; “why should I make them climb up all this way, just to see me?”
Sometimes, however, it did happen that somebody got to the top of the hill; or else it is clear that this story would never have been written. For, one day, as the Witch sat on the doorstep of her pink cottage, looking out over the world with her great eyes that saw everything, the little Princess Winsome came running up the white path that twisted round and round and up and up until it reached the cottage at the top; and she did not stop running until she stood in front of the Weird Witch herself. She looked as though she must have come along in a great hurry, for she had lost one of her shoes on the way and there was quite a serious scratch on her dimpled chin; but, of course, it is difficult to walk sedately when one is going to call on a witch.
“I am Princess Winsome,” she announced, as soon as she had breath enough to speak.
“To be sure you are,” smiled the Weird Witch, who knew that before; “and you have run away from home because—”
“Because I want to find the bravest boy in the world,” interrupted the Princess, who never liked to let anybody else do the talking.
“Are there no brave boys in your country, then?” asked the Witch.
“That’s not it,” answered Princess Winsome; “the boys in my country are so brave that it is no fun playing with them. They stop all the games by fighting about nothing at all; and it’s dreadfully boring when you’re a girl, isn’t it?”
“Perhaps it is,” smiled the Witch. “Then why are you looking for the bravest boy of all?”
“Ah,” said the little Princess, wisely, “the bravest boy of all would never fight unless there was a reason, you see; and so we should have lots of time to play. But how am I to find him?”
“The only way to find him is to let him find you,” said the Weird Witch; “and the best thing I can do for you is to trap you in the middle of an enchanted forest, where no one but the bravest boy in the world would ever come to find any one. Now, go quickly, or you won’t get there in time!”
And the Princess with the scratch on her chin must certainly have made haste, for she had quite disappeared by the time the Witch’s next visitor came up the winding white path; and that happened the very next minute. This time it was a boy who came along,—a tall, strong, jolly-looking boy, with his hands in his pockets and his cap at the back of his head, whistling a strange wild tune that was made up of all the songs of all the birds in the air, so that, as he whistled it, every bird for miles round stopped to listen.
“I am Kit,” he said, pulling off his cap to the Witch.
“To be sure you are,” smiled the Weird Witch, “and you have run away from home because the other boys think you are not brave, and you want to show them that you are as brave as they are, only you won’t fight without a reason. Isn’t that it?”
“Of course it is,” answered Kit, who liked to have his talking done for him; “but how shall I find something worth fighting about?”
“That is not difficult,” said the Weird Witch. “All you have to do is to go to the court of King Hurlyburly, and ask him to give you something brave to do. The King is always going to war about something, so you will soon have as much fighting as you want. Now, be off with you, or else someone will get there before you!”
“All right,” said Kit. “Which is the way?”
“Any way you like,” laughed the Weird Witch.
“But in what direction?” asked Kit.
“It doesn’t matter,” laughed the Weird Witch.
So Kit made another bow and marched away again down the hill-side, whistling the same tune as before; and all the birds of the air came flying along when they heard it, and they flew in front of him to show him the way, and he followed them over meadows and streams and orchards and cornfields, until they brought him to the walls of King Hurlyburly’s city. And they would not have left him then, if he had not pointed out to them, most politely, that although it was very obliging of them to have come so far with him, he would find it a little inconvenient to travel any further with so many companions. So they flew away again; and Kit marched into the city and up to the gates of the King’s palace.
“I have come to fight for the King,” said Kit, when the guards came out and asked him what he wanted. And he looked such a fine strong fellow, that they took him at once to the King.
“You have come in the very nick of time,” said King Hurlyburly, “for the Commander-in-Chief of the royal forces has overslept so often that I had him fired this morning. The army is in consequence without the Commander-in-Chief; so if you will become their General and invade the country of my neighbour King Topsyturvy, I shall be much obliged to you.”
“Why do I have to invade the country of King Topsyturvy?” demanded Kit.
The King pushed his crown on one side, which he always did when he felt puzzled. “Now that you mention it,” he said, “I believe there was a reason, but for the life of me I can’t remember what it was. However, the reason is of no importance—”
“Oh yes, it is,” interrupted Kit. “I can’t possibly fight without a reason, you know.”
“That’s awkward,” said King Hurlyburly. “Perhaps the army will know.” And he sent a message round to the barracks to ask the soldiers why they were going to war. But although the soldiers were all ready to begin fighting, they had not the least idea what the war was about. So the King’s crown became more crooked than before.
“Would you be able to invent a reason?” he asked Kit, for he could not help thinking how nice it would be to stay at home while his soldiers were being led to war by someone else. “You may marry the Princess Winsome, if she agrees, when you come back victorious,” he added as an afterthought.
But Kit only shook his head. He had never heard of the Princess Winsome, and he was not going to fight anybody without a very good reason for it.
Then King Hurlyburly had a brilliant idea. “Go and declare war on the enemy, to begin with,” he said; “and perhaps they will remember the reason.”
There was certainly no harm in declaring war; so Kit rode off at once on one of the King’s fastest horses, and arrived the next morning at the court of King Topsyturvy, just as his Majesty was sitting down to breakfast.
“I have come from King Hurlyburly to declare war,” said Kit, who always went straight to the point.
“What for?” asked King Topsyturvy.
“I don’t know,” said Kit. “That’s what I want you to tell me.”
The King ate two eggs before he replied.
“Well,” he said presently, “I believe I said Hurlyburly was a shocking old muddler. I suppose that’s it. All right! When do you want to begin?”
“I don’t want to begin at all,” answered Kit. “Why did you say he was a muddler?”
“Oh, just to make conversation,” said King Topsyturvy, helping himself to marmalade.
“Then you don’t really think he is an old muddler?” asked Kit.
“Dear me, no,” said King Topsyturvy. “I never thought that.”
“Then write that down on a piece of paper, and there needn’t be a war at all!” cried Kit.
The King stroked his beard. “Perhaps there needn’t,” he agreed. “But I never write.”
“I do, though,” said Kit, who had learned to write while all the other boys were making catapults; “you’ve only got to sign your name here.”
King Topsyturvy stopped eating his breakfast, just long enough to sign the beautiful apology Kit had written on a sheet of note-paper; and then Kit jumped on his horse again and rode back to the palace of King Hurlyburly.
“Well,” said his Majesty, “did you discover the reason?”
“There wasn’t any reason, and there isn’t going to be a war,” answered Kit; and he held out the beautifully written apology from King Topsyturvy.
“What!” cried his Majesty, in alarm. “Do you mean to say you’ve stopped the war?”
“Of course I have,” said Kit. “And I have come back victorious, as you see. Didn’t you say something about a Princess?”
“But,” stammered the King, “how am I to appease the army? The army has set its heart on a war.”
“So did I,” answered Kit, sadly; “but I never can find anything worth fighting about. Meanwhile, where is the Princess?”
“You have not earned the Princess,” said King Hurlyburly, who was now thoroughly cross. “I believe you are not very brave at all!”
“That is what the other boys say,” answered Kit, smiling. “It is not my fault that there is nothing to fight about. Will you please send for the Princess so I can meet her?”
“The Princess has run away from home, so I can’t send for her,” said the King, irritably. “She is trapped in an enchanted forest, and surrounded with wild beasts and magic spells and giants. It is not at all a nice place for a Princess to be in, but how am I to get her away?”
“Why,” exclaimed Kit, laughing, “here is something for your army to do. Let it go and rescue the Princess.”
“Nothing would convince the army to go near the place,” explained the King, sorrowfully; “the army is too afraid of being bewitched.”
“Hurrah!” shouted Kit, laughing more than ever. “At last I have found something brave to do! I will go and rescue the Princess.”