The wood so softly singing
In a language strange to hear
And the song it sings will find you
As the twilight draws you near


Three Golden Heads in the Well

This version from English Folk and Fairy Tales, by Joseph Jacobs. There is a slightly longer version in the Norton Collection. Is the king of Colchester Cunobelinus – later popularized as Old King Cole? It is interesting that the quest narrative, usually the part of a young male, is here undertaken by a female. Who are these fairies of the well? Or rather well spirits being not uncommon in faerie lore, why are there three of them? The story is referred to in some verses by George Peele in his play The Old Wive’s Tale (1595). These are discussed HERE

LONG before Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, there reigned in the eastern part of England a king who kept his court at Colchester. In the midst of all his glory, his queen died, leaving behind her an only daughter, about fifteen years of age who for her beauty and kindness was the wonder of all that knew her. But the king hearing of a lady who had likewise an only daughter, had a mind to marry her for the sake of her riches, though she was old, ugly, hook-nosed, and hump-backed. Her daughter was a yellow dowdy, full of envy and ill-nature; and, in short, was much of the same mould as her mother. But in a few weeks the king, attended by the nobility and gentry, brought his bride to the palace, where the marriage rites were performed. She had not been long in the Court before she set the king against his own beautiful daughter by false reports. The young princess having lost her father's love, grew weary of the Court, and one day, meeting with her father in the garden, she begged him, with tears in her eyes, to let her go and seek her fortune, to which the king consented, and ordered her mother-in-law to give her what she pleased. She went to the queen, who gave her a canvas bag of brown bread and hard cheese, with a bottle of beer. Though this was but a pitiful dowry for a king's daughter, she took it, with thanks, and proceeded on her journey, passing through groves, woods, and valleys, till at length she saw an old man sitting on a stone at the mouth of a cave, who said:

"Good morrow, fair maiden, whither away so fast?" "Aged father," says she, "I am going to seek my fortune."

"What have you got in your bag and bottle?"

"In my bag I have got bread and cheese, and in my bottle good small beer. Would you like to have some?"

"Yes "said he, "with all my heart."

With that the lady pulled out the provisions, and bade him eat and welcome. He did so, and gave her many thanks, and said: "There is a thick thorny hedge before you, which you cannot get through, but take this wand in your hand, strike it three times, and say, “Pray, hedge, let me come through,” and it will open immediately; then, a little further, you will find a well; sit down on the brink of it, and there will come up three golden heads, which will speak; and whatever they require, that do." Promising she would, she took her leave of him. Coming to the hedge and using the old man's words and the wand, it divided, and let her through. Coming to the well, she had no sooner sat down than a golden head came up singing:

"Wash me and comb me,
And lay me down softly.
And lay me on a bank to dry,
That I may look pretty,
When somebody passes by."

"Yes," said she, and taking it in her lap combed it with a silver comb, and then placed it upon a primrose bank. Then up came a second and a third head, saying the same as the former. So she did the same for them. Then, pulling out her provisions, she sat down to eat her dinner.

Said the heads one to another: "What shall' we weird for this damsel who has used us so kindly?"

The first said: "I weird her to be so beautiful that she shall charm the most powerful prince in the World"

The second said: "I weird her such a sweet voice as shall far exceed the nightingale."

The third said: "My gift shall be none of the least, as she is a king's daughter, I'll weird her so fortunate that she shall become queen to the greatest prince that reigns."

She then let them down into the well again, and so went on her journey. She had not travelled long before she saw a king hunting in the park with his nobles. She would have avoided him, but the king, having caught sight of her, approached, and what with her beauty and sweet voice, fell desperately in love with her, and soon induced her to marry him.

This king finding that she was the king of Colchester's daughter, ordered some chariots to be got ready, that he might pay the king, his father-in-law a visit. The chariot in which the king and queen rode was adorned with rich gems of gold. The king, her father, was at first astonished that his daughter had been so fortunate, till the young king let him know of all that had happened. Great was the joy at Court amongst all, with the exception of the queen and her daughter, who were ready to burst with envy. The rejoicings, with feasting and dancing continued many days. Then at length they returned home with the dowry her father gave her.

The hump-backed princess, perceiving that her sister had been so lucky in seeking her fortune, wanted to do the same; so she told her mother, and all preparations were made, and she was furnished with rich dresses, and with sugar, almonds, and sweet meats, in great quantities, and a large bottle of Malaga sack. With these she went the same road as her sister; and coming near the cave, the old man„ said: "Young woman, whither so fast?"

"What's that to you?" said she.

"Then," said he, "what have you in your bag and bottle?

She answered: "Good things, which you shall not be troubled with."

"Won't you give me some?" said he.

"No, not a bit, nor a drop, unless it would choke you.

The old man frowned, saying: "Evil fortune; attend ye!"

Going on, she came to the hedge, through which she espied a gap, and thought to pass through it, but the hedge closed, and the thorns ran into her flesh, so that it was with great difficulty that she got through. Being now all over blood, she searched for water to wash herself, and, looking round she saw the well. She sat down on the brink of it, and one of the heads came up saying: "Wash me, comb me, and lay me down softly," as before, but she banged it with her bottle, saying, "Take that for your washing." So the second and third heads came up, and met with no better treatment than the first, whereupon the heads consulted among themselves what evils to plague her with for such usage.

The first said "Let her be struck with leprosy in her face"

The second: "Let her voice be as harsh as corncrake's."

The third said: "Let her have for husband but a poor country cobbler."

Well, on she went till she came to a town, and it being market-day, the people looked at her, and, seeing such an ugly face, and hearing such a squeaky voice, all fled but a poor country cobbler. Now he not long before had mended the shoes of an old hermit, who, having no money, gave him a box of ointment for the cure of the leprosy, and a bottle of spirits for a harsh voice. So the cobbler, having a mind to do an act of charity, was induced to go up to her and ask her who she was.

"I am," said she, "the king of Colchester's daughter-in-law."

"Well," said the cobbler, "if I restore you to your natural complexion, and make a, sound cure both in face and voice, will you in reward take me for a husband?"

"Yes, friend," replied she, "with all my heart!"

With this the cobbler applied the remedies, and they made her well in a few weeks; after which they were married, and so set forward for the Court at Colchester. When the queen found that her daughter had married nothing but a poor cobbler, she hanged herself in wrath. The death of the queen so pleased the king, who was glad to get rid of her so soon, that he gave the cobbler a hundred pounds, to quit the Court with his lady, and take to a remote part of the kingdom, where he lived many years mending shoes, his wife spinning the thread for him.



Here is another gem from the pages of the Pagan Movement Ethos Group. This one is from the latter part of the 1970's and is well worth making the effort to read.


                         TRAVELLER'S REST by Janian Richardson
   Old Lilah Heron awoke with a start, as though something light as a leaf blown from the woods had brushed her cheek.  She had fallen asleep while carving chrysanthemums with long, curling petals from the sticks she had gathered that morning.  Now the wood in her little stove had fallen apart into a mass of grey ash, without warmth or light, and the long shadows of early evening filled her caravan.  She would have to move quickly to gather more wood before it grew dark.
   She wrapped her brown woollen shawl around her thin shoulders and pushed her feet into ancient, awkward-looking boots.  Though old, she was straight and tall yet, and her grey hair still carried streaks of raven black.  Taking her basket and hazel stick, Lilah climbed down the three little steps outside her front door and made her way towards the woods behind the caravan.  Solitude held no terrors for Lilah: she had been alone for fifteen years since Nathaniel had died, and the high-speed way of life that most of the travelling folk had adoped, whirling around in caravans harsh with chrome and drawn by cars instead of the proud horses of yesterday, was not for her.  She much preferred to stay here, on the border of the great forest, in the little wooden caravan Nathaniel had built with his own hands.
   In the soft grey light the woods looked magnificant, reaching high into the air and blazing like a great fire with the reds and golds of October's end.  As she picked her way across the pitted surface of the field, Lilah smiled to herself.  She was remembering Octobers long past, when all her relations would be gathered on country farms.  Hopping was ended, and most of the fruit safely in, and it would soon be time to forage for potatoes in the rich damp Earth.  The hedges, then as now, were entwined with travellers' joy, its fragrance like woodsmoke and smoky, too, its delicate grey fronds.  And there were spindleberries, clear and pink, and rose hips for jam, and a thousand gossamer webs strung with jewels in the sunrise.  Then stars at night, and a snap of frost, and the comfort of a fire shared with her loved ones under the glittering sky.
   Lilah felt a lump of pain rise in her breast.  Those Autumn evenings had never been the same since Jasper-John, her dearest brother only two years older than herself, had drowned in the weir at Nettlestead.  Cold that evening had been, and raw, flayed by grey thongs of mist . . She would not think of that now.  But as Lilah skirted the forest, ever watchful for dry wood, and as she stooped to gather sticks, or paused to admire a slender tree shimmering with golden leaves, she felt as though she had company, and could imagine Jasper-John, with his black curly hair and eyes alight with mischief, running beside her.  Once, the sensation was so strong that she swung round - and started a large hare, who cocked his ears at her and lolloped off into the shelter of a thorn bush.
   Now Lilah was within the great woods, treading bracken and pine needles, and fallen leaves like a store of treasure all about her.  The light was very dim, and Lilah's eyes were not as keen as in years gone by, so now and again she would seize a swatch of dead fern or an old puffball, powdering between her fingers, in mistake for the wood she sought.  However, on she foraged until her rush basket was heavy with wood and she was quite out of breath.  Panting, Lilah leaned against a tree.  High it loomed into the darkening sky, seeming almost to penetrate it; around its trunk coiled a thick rope of ivy.  How strong it felt to Lilah, almost comforting, and her old eyes became moist.  Nathaniel had reminded her, many a time, of a tree, sturdy and sheltering in times of trouble.  Now he, too, was gone: a fall from a ladder had damaged his back and his strength had never returned.  In the thickening darkness, with her arms tight around the trunk of the tree, it was easy to envisage him striding through the woods towards her, brown as a hazel nut and love gleaming in his dark eyes.  Lilah spent several minutes in bittersweet dreaming, until she suddenly realised how cold it had grown.  She opened her eyes.  It was completely dark: a thin mist was threading between the trees, which showed as strange black clusters against the night.  Some had lost all their leaves, and pointed stark horns and bony fingers towards a sky unbroken my moon or stars.  Lilah, who had spent a lifetime among the woods, now felt afraid.  She had ventured far deeper into the forest than she had meant to, and it was many years since she had been alone in the woods by night.  She breathed deeply, and gradually became calmer.  Swathes of the love of the forest returned to her. She would not be able to retrace her steps by sight, so perhaps, if she could hear the stream that ran through the forest, she could follow that?  And sure enough, as she let her mind relax and wander along the woodland paths, Lilah heard a very faint trickling away to her left.  Step by step, her hazel stick seeking the pathway, and clutching her basket of wood, she came to the stream.  She was trembling now: her age was heavy upon her and the cold ate into her bones.  Each step seemed to last for an hour.  As she picked her way along the bank of the stream, twigs and thorn tore spitefully at her limbs and her feet sank deep into oozing mud, which slithered icily into the tops of her boots.  The mist had thickened to a dense pall and not even the tree-shapes were visible.  Owls cried like frightened children, and once, when Lilah walked full into a prickly bush and was blindly struggling to disengage herself, she heard a thick grunting and crackling, as of a large animal pushing through undergrowth, close behind her.  In a surge of panic she stumbled forward and fell headlong into the mud.  She had not released her stick, and it aided her in rising, but her basket of wood was lost and a jagged pain tore at her chest.
   A few more steps, weaker now, and at last Lilah could see an opening in the wood's dark curtains.  Now she stood outside, shivering with pain and cold, and a strange slapping sound carried across the field.  Lilah knew it well: it was the sound of someone washing in the stream, slapping the clothes against the stones as she had done so often herself, and her mother before her, and her grandmother before either of them.  Who on Earth would be washing at the darkest hour of a cold October night?  Then the Moon showed pale and wan through a tear in the clouds, and Lilah saw that she was beside the little brook that crossed the fields about a mile from her caravan.  And there, by the side of the stream, crouched a figure, and in the moonlight her hair flowed down her back like a midnight waterfall, and it was Rebecca, Lilah's own daughter who had been taken from her at the age of fourteen, burning with a fever on the coldest night of the year.
   "Rebecca!  Oh, my own!"  Forgetting the pain in her chest, Lilah stumbled across the field, tripping and tearing her ankles in the long grass whose edges were as sharp as knives.  At the edge of the stream she fell on her knees, weeping, her frail arms flung wide in welcome.  The figure raised her head from her task with a terrible laugh, and it was not Rebecca at all, and it was not long black hair that hung down her back, but garments as shapeless and murky as Fear itself.  She raised her eyes to meet Lilah's, and they were black pits like the spaces between the stars in a face no more than bone, a face of bottomless sorrow and desolation that had been ancient when Lilah was yet a child.  Her bony fingers loosed the white, clammy thing that she was washing, and she seized the old gipsy woman to her shrunken breast in an embrace of iron.  Lilah felt the pain bubble up from her chest, filling her throat with its red, salty taste, and she fell down, deep down into the chasm of the other's gaze.
   How long Lilah had lain there beside the stream she could not tell, but it was upon the Moon that she opened her eyes, riding high in a sea of tattered clouds.  She felt warm, and the pain in her chest had gone.  A deep peace was upon her then, and she lay quietly until the sound of hoof-beats, coming from the wood, aroused her.  She sat up, and saw a magnificent stallion, pale and shining as the Moon herself, and a great star of midnight black on his forehead.  And Nathaniel was leading him by the reins, tall and brown and supple as the larch, and on his back sat Jasper-John and Rebecca, with room for one more besides.  "Come, my Lilah," said Nathaniel, "to the green and secret places, and learn the mysteries of Mother Earth.  And we will dance in the circles of the Sun, and in the Moon's silver avenues, until the time comes for us to begin travelling once more."  So Lilah got to her feet, as easily as if she had been a young maid, and behold, she was as naked and lithe, with long black hair free-flowing.  She joined her loved ones upon the back of the great horse who shone like the stars, and together they galloped into the windy night, and what remained on the bank of the stream held no more meaning for Lilah than a heap of dry sticks and withered leaves.


Two Trees

Timbertoes was a mighty old oak and Silvertoes was a graceful young birch. He grew on the edge of the forest and she grew near a lake. One day Wind said to Timbertoes “I gave you a wild night last night, old friend, I hope you stood up to it”.
“I think I lost a small top bough, but it was damaged anyway and that’s the first to go for years”.
Silvertoes butted in: “I only lost a few leaves, my branches are light enough to dance when you blow. I’m not old and heavy.”
Wind replied “Do you know you’re growing across the path?”
“What path?” But Silvertoes checked herself (you need to be careful how you talk to Wind). “We-ell, it doesn’t go anywhere”.
“Doesn’t it?” said Wind. “If I were you I’d grow the other way”.
“But then I couldn’t see myself in the lake”.
Wind sighed and went away.

One day a swineherd came with his pigs and kicked Silvertoes, complaining that she was blocking the path. His pigs grazed under Timbertoes and were thankful for the acorns. As the swineherd  left he kicked Silvertoes again and grunted that, although she was a pretty tree, he didn’t like witches brooms.

On another occasion a stag butted silvertoes and said the same about not liking witches brooms. She complained to Timbertoes that other animals had done the same thing. But he told her “You are still just young enough to grow away from the path”. But she wouldn’t listen.
“I wouldn’t be able to see myself in the water” she said, “and if anyone else says anything about witches brooms, I’ll tell them about that ugly bush hidden in your branches”.
“They all know it’s there”, he replied “it’s been growing for 500 years”.
But Silvertoes was not listening and just admired herself in the water.

On another day a tiny wren settled on one of Silvertoes’ branches and whispered to her “Don’t you think you should move off the path a bit?”
“It doesn’t go anywhere” she insisted.

After a time a band of men came along the path and stopped right where Silvertoes was blocking the way. They made camp. Then, with a sharp axe, Silvertoes was cut down . Timbertoes shivered, but he knew why they had come. They built themselves a fire and settled down for the night. The next day they climbed Timbertoes and used a golden sickle to cut some of the bush with the white berries on it that he guarded in his branches. But they were reverent to him and departed with a blessing. When they had gone he sighed. Silvertoes was nothing but a pile of ash.

Collected in the Welsh borders by Ruth Tongue in 1909. It was said to have been passed down within the same family at least since c.1770. It does not contain any standard folk-take motifs so may be a specific local story rather than a local version of a generalized type as is usual