A Talian tale

Princess Florabella of Montemurato grew up knowing she was loved. Her father was a sad grave man except when he was with his child and she loved to make him smile. Everyone in the palace wanted to spend time with the laughing, rosy child with the brown curls. But her special favourite was Maga Margherita, who came regularly to the palace to tell her stories.

At first, when Florabella was a babe-in-arms, the witch's stories were very simple — no more than little songs or rhymes or teaching her the names of her toes. But as the princess grew older, so Maga Margherita told her more and more of the legends and beliefs of Talia, as well as teaching her the skills she knew of herblore and spellcraft. There were some in the city who were uneasy about this, since the child was a baptised member of the church. But no-one in the palace doubted the good influence of the witch and the princess thrived.

Many years passed, sixteen in fact, and during this time the two witches' paths never crossed. Selvaggia continued to flourish on her ill-gotten gains and rarely had to exert herself to cast a spell or throw the evil eye on anything or anyone. Maga Margherita went about her daily work and took care to discharge the wish of the dying princess.

But gradually the lives of the people of Montemurato fell under strain. There was a bad summer, when heavy rain destroyed most of the crops, followed by a murrain which carried off many of the animals. Food was scarce and families had to draw their belts tighter. At such a time, it was harder to give Selvaggia her dues and yet they believed they could not afford not to, lest she wreak a terrible revenge on them.

As people's lives got harder, Selvaggia became more demanding. She wanted a bigger house, finer linen, more food in her larder. And such was her power over the local people, that she got her way. And that made her even worse. She made up her mind that she must have her own personal maidservant.

Over the years, several young women had worked for a while in Selvaggia's house, sweeping her floors, washing her linen and cooking her food. But they never stayed for long, so cross and demanding was their mistress. And of course she didn't pay them a single scudo.

But Selvaggia did not want just any girl. No, Selvaggia wanted the best-loved young woman in the city. And if she didn't get her, then all the young women would lose their looks and Selvaggia would ensure that they never married or bore children.

The news spread fast through the city. No-one was prepared to send their own beloved daughter yet no-one wanted to risk her future happiness either. It was not long before word reached even to the palace. Princess Florabella, who had grown into a pretty and kind-hearted young woman, immediately volunteered herself.

"What?" raged the Prince. "Go and live with a bad witch for the rest of your life? Out of the question. I couldn't live without you." 

"It won?t be for the rest of my life, Papa," said Florabella. "I shall think of a way to make the witch take back her threats."

"What do you think, Margherita?" asked the Prince, who had become very reliant on her judgment.

"I think it is just like Florabella, Your Highness," said Maga Margherita. "You should trust her."