The well, the well, the well,
That could tell.
Inside, it is said, all hope has fell.
Don’t go very near, or it’ll ask you your soul to sell.
The well, the well, the well,
That could tell.
After three days that seemed like endless nights—such was the shadow of the forest—Bramian reached the well. It was smaller than he had imagined, a mere stony projection over musty earth, not much taller than his four-year-old daughter.
He dropped his satchel to the ground and stood there for a moment, the words of the song ringing in his mind like a never-ending rhythm. He had traveled so far to find it, and now that he had, he dared not go near it. Yet he knew that he had no choice; the king had given him only a week to carry out his bidding.
And that bidding was an urgent one, for a great misfortune had befallen the king’s daughter. An illness no healer in the realm had witnessed before had burned the child’s forehead for days and nights, sweeping her fragile body with bouts of shivers. By the third day, the child could speak no more—faint moaning was the only sound that left her crusted lips.
When all the remedies of the healers proved worthless, the chanting of the priests empty carcasses of words, and the magic spells of mages mere plays of imagination, the king had summoned Bramian.
The order was simple, yet it was one that filled Bramian’s heart with dread: Find the well—the well that could tell. Give it anything it asked in exchange for knowledge of the sickness that was devouring the king’s daughter, and a healing that would restore her to the land of the living.
The servants put together a satchel filled with all kinds of offerings from the kingdom: golden coins engraved with the sigil of the king, garnet rings with stones that simmered with magic, the rarest books that carried knowledge of ancient times, and so much more. To save his beloved daughter’s life, the king, who was well-known for his miserliness, had sacrificed everything he held dear.
And Bramian was certain that the king was ready to sacrifice him too. He was his greatest soldier, the commander of his mighty army, yet when it came to saving the heir to the throne, he became just a pawn in the king’s hands—a messenger who had been ordered, loud and clear, never to return without the well’s words of salvation.
Bramian sat on the blanket of fallen leaves that covered the forest floor. He was a simple man-at-arms and had never mingled with magic or the ones who wielded it, and he didn’t trust this well. Wells should have no voice, nor should they give advice about the world of humans.
The burning sting of thirst tickled his throat. His waterskin had dried up a day ago, and there he was, standing in front of a well, the very source of water, afraid even to go near it.
He crawled to the brim, stood slowly, and took a stealthy glance down the well’s shaft. Darkness spread as far as the eye could see. He picked a rock and released it into the dark void, straining his ears for a splashing sound, only one never came. It was as if the ever-open maw had swallowed the stone.
A raspy voice cracked the silence of the forest, making Bramian leap and snatch his sword. “Who disturbs me?”
For a moment, Bramian looked around, swaying his sword by his side, ready to face the owner of the voice. When nothing stirred, he eyed the well. As much as he refused to believe that wells had a voice, there was no other living soul around, and he resolved to suspend his disbelief, if only for a moment. “Here goes Bramian, commander of the king’s army, tasked by the king himself to find you. Show yourself.”
A hollow laugh echoed from the bowels of the well. “Are my humble stones not to your liking, Commander Bramian? Not all of us are made of flesh and bone.”
“I do not trust that which I cannot see.”
“Then there’s nothing for you here,” the well returned. “Go forth and leave me be.”
Bramian shuffled his feet and put his weight on the hilt of his sword. “Would that I could. The king would have my head.”
“Then the king must not like his commander all that much.”
Bramian flinched. “The king demands a cure. His daughter’s fallen ill, and the sickness isn’t lifting.”
“Ah, what would a stony well know about sickness?”
“They say there’s nothing you can’t tell.”
The well granted him no response.
“I bear gifts,” Bramian said, reaching for his satchel. He took out the chest that held the offerings, and opened its lid, presenting the treasures to the well. “The greatest things the king has to offer.”
Bramian waited, all the while feeling strange holding the treasures out like this, presenting them to something when he didn’t even know if it had eyes to see.
“Treasures bear no meaning for me,” the well retorted. “You made it all this way here for nothing.”
Bramian closed the chest and threw it to the ground. “What is it you wish, then? Speak, and do not waste my time. The princess is fading away, and I would sooner die than return to the king empty-handed.”
The well’s voice sounded like the slither of a snake across the forest floor. “If you had listened to the songs about me, then you would know. It is a soul that the well seeks. Give me one, and I shall grant your request.”
Bramian felt a cold shiver down his spine. He had been afraid it would come to this, had even told his king the same, but the king was quick to dismiss the verses of the songs as empty threats parents used to convince their mischievous children not to stray deep into the forest or far from home. “Whose soul do you wish for?”
The well thought for some moments before it spoke again. “The king claims to love his daughter dearly, so he should not object to giving his own. Yes, yes, a royal soul. What a fine offering.”
“How can you ask for such a thing?”
“It is only fair. Denying a soul to the realm of the dead requires a sacrifice.”
Bramian thought long and hard about the well’s words and how he ought to find a way to change the wicked thing’s mind. “How can I offer you something that I do not possess? The king’s soul isn’t mine to give.”
“Tell him to find me himself. Then I shall do the rest.”
“It took me three days to reach you. By the time I return with the king, it might be too late for the princess.”
“You speak the truth,” the well said. “The odds aren’t in your favor.”
“Take my soul,” Bramian said, letting the words out faster than he had time to think. He bit his tongue and waited with bated breath.
When the well finally spoke, his heart was almost bursting with anticipation. “Hmm, what would I do with a tormented soul like yours? A tainted soul that has seen the war and killed innocent and guilty alike. No, it is not a fair trade for my knowledge.”
Bramian didn’t know if he should take offense or feel relief at the well’s words. He resolved to keep his patience and press forward. “That leaves us with no other choice. Give me your knowledge, and I’ll return with greater gifts. I’ll bring you the kingdom’s mages so they can summon any soul you want from the dead and claim it for your own.”
The well’s chuckle echoed in the forest, sending crows flying into the red sky. “You think me a fool? It is a living soul I crave, not a mere shadow of the past.”
Bramian raised his hands in despair. “Then there’s nothing I can give you.”
“So you would think, Commander, only because you know no better. There is one soul you could give me, and once you do so, I’ll gift you all my knowledge about the princess’s disease.”
“Speak, then. Whose is this soul?”
Bramian grabbed the sword and sliced the air. “Curse you! I would never!”
“Yes, a soul like your daughter’s, pure as a crystal, luminous as a star, would make me ever so happy to have. A precious possession. Worthy of an exchange.”
“I swear, I will kill you!” Bramian kept swinging his sword until he had no breath in his chest. He fell to the ground, panting and full of despair. “I’ll be damned if I ever so much as think of giving you the light of my life.”
The well scoffed, “Your arrogance is taunting, and I will waste no more words on you. Come to me again when you are ready.”
Bramian wept until the light had given way to the thick veil of the night, which felt like an iron weight on his chest.
The next day, he spoke to the well, begged in despair for it to change its mind and accept him as a trade. But the well did not speak. Even when he scratched and clawed and painted the stones with the blood of his fingers, the well remained silent. He cursed the fates that had led him here, cursed the moment he had been summoned and burdened with this impossible task.
What good could ever come of this? If he left the well behind and disappeared forever, the princess would die, and he would condemn his own daughter to punishment for his misdeeds. If he returned to the king bearing the news of the cruel well’s demands, he would be condemned for treason.
Bramian’s love for the king he’d served all these years was great, but not enough for him to sacrifice his own daughter. Yet he could not bring himself to let the princess die. He’d seen her grow since she was only a baby, watched her blossom into a beautiful and elegant child destined to make a great queen when her time came.
Then the solution to his predicament came to him, as clear as the sky, and he rested his weary body next to the well. He grabbed the hilt of his sword with both hands and turned the blade to his belly. Just as he was about to thrust the blade through his stomach, the well ceased its silent treatment.
“If you wish to take your life, Commander, do not lean against my walls. I would not have your blood on my beautiful stones.”
Bramian shook his head. “It is exactly on your stones that I wish to end my life, for when the king’s men come to find me, they will see that I kept my promise; I came to find you. I came seeking the cure, only my life was ended before its time, and that was the reason for my failure to return. Then they will spare my family.”
“You show great courage, Commander,” the well said with a hint of hesitation in its voice. “Perhaps I have misjudged you. Perhaps your soul could interest me. Yes, yes, if only …”
Bramian threw his sword to the ground and grabbed the brim of the well. “If only what? Speak, you cursed thing. There is not much time.”
“If only you repented. If only you righted the wrong you’ve done. Yes, a repenting soul. This is a rare possession.”
Bramian thought of all the people he had hurt in his life, the men who had fallen under his sword in the time of war, and the ones he’d had to punish in the name of the king for disturbing the peace that had come right after. He thought of the beggars he’d had to chase away from the cold cobble roads of the castle, and all the meals he had denied to the ones who had been hungry, to keep the scarce food for his soldiers. “What would you have me do?”
“It is simple, really,” the well said. “You will ask for forgiveness, and only if it is given, will I consider taking your offer.”
“Many are the people I have wronged …”
“That is true, yet there is only one whose forgiveness I need you to seek.”
“Tell me, then, and I shall do it.”
“No, Commander, I need not tell you. Look into your heart and you will know. I need you to choose the one you have hurt the most. The one who haunts your dreams and chases away your troubled sleep. Get your absolution. And only then, return.”
Bramian closed his eyes. The words of the well were like a knife in his heart, for as much as he wished to forget, he knew very well the person the well was speaking of. And it was true; her pale face with begging eyes kept coming to his mind, her mouth twisted in a sorrowful frown, lips tightly sealed, never speaking, but always judging him for what he’d done. “It is a long journey there,” he whispered. “There will be no time for me to grant your wish and save the princess.”
“Time won’t be an obstacle. I will give you the cure for the sickness, and you shall complete your task when the princess’s fever has dropped and she’s back on her feet.”
Bramian opened his eyes and looked into the darkness of the well’s maw. “How do you know I will return?”
“People sing of me. They say I am the well—the well that could tell. Trust the songs. The truth always lies in them. You will return to me, Commander. Sooner or later.”
Bramian returned to the village, bearing the recipe for the concoction that would lift the illness from the princess’s weary body. The healers shook their heads in disbelief when Bramian told them the ingredients for the potion, but they were quick to oblige when the king threatened to put their heads on spikes. And so the medicine was made, and day by day the girl got stronger, until she was on her feet again, with rosy cheeks and playful eyes, as if she’d never had one foot in the grave.
It was then that Bramian remembered the promise he had made to the well, and he packed his satchel for a road that was longer than the one he’d taken before.
He traveled for days on end, stopping at inns by the road to quench his thirst and rest his bones in one of the hard beds they gave him. When he finally arrived at the small village where he had been raised, memories of old filled his heart, happy and sad alike. He smelled the fresh air that stroked the grass, and heard the sweet singing of the birds that celebrated the rising sun. All seemed bright and well, as if nature were celebrating his return to the soils he had trodden when he was a boy. This soil held his history, and all his dreams and hopes. Dreams of a better future in the kingdom’s castle, next to the king. Dreams that had come true when he had left his home behind to chase them.
The eyes of curious peasants narrowed as he crossed the paths between the houses made of brick and thatch. Some gasped as his face woke distant memories in their minds, and some waved their hands and granted him greetings, delighted that a stranger had finally arrived in their village, where nothing ever happened.
When he arrived at the door of the house he used to call his own, he paused as dread filled his heart. He knew not what he would say. He didn’t know how he would face her after all these years of never returning to see her, how he would give her a word of comfort, ask how she was getting by.
He stepped through the open door. Everything was in the same place as his memory had stored. It was as if time had never touched this place: The wooden swords he used to play with were carefully arranged over the chest that held the toys of his youth. The woolen quilts were spread neatly over the two beds, one for him and one for his mother. There was only one thing missing: his mother was nowhere to be seen, nor could he smell the sweet aromas of her cooking. He wondered if he had just missed her.
The door creaked, and he turned, heart full of hope, expecting to see her, only it wasn’t her but the butcher’s daughter, Emilia. She had grown plump and beautiful, leaving behind the scrawny girl she used to be. “Bramian, you’re back.” Her voice was full of wonder.
“Greetings, Emilia,” he said, scratching his long beard. “I was looking for my mother. Have you by chance seen her?”
Emilia’s eyes grew big, and she brought her palm to her chest. “It is true what they say, then.”
Bramian looked at her, confused. “Whatever do you mean?”
“You really do not know. That is why you didn’t come.”
Bramian’s heart sank, and bile rose to his throat. “Speak now, Emilia, and torture me no further. Where is my mother?”
“Your mother’s dead. Passed away last winter during the war. Fell ill with sorrow.”
Bramian wasn’t ready to hear these words. His own mother, dead, and he away from her, leaving her alone in her last moments. While he had been fighting to save the king’s people, he had lost one of his own.
“The winter was hard for us,” Emilia said, a silent tear tracing the curves of her cheek. “Supplies were short and soon became extinct. We starved, and we spilled lots of tears for the ones we lost.”
“Why didn’t I hear of this? Why didn’t you come to me?”
Emilia looked at him as if she thought he’d lost his mind. “She came to you, Bramian, and it was you who turned her away.”
“Why do you speak such lies?” Bramian buried his fist in his chest and tried to swallow the sob that climbed to his throat. “She never came to me. Never.”
“I’m so sorry,” Emilia whispered, lowering her gaze.
“Where did you bury her?”
“Underneath the oak, by the river. She always loved that place.”
Bramian placed a thanking palm over her shoulder and plodded through the forest until he reached the tree that held his mother’s remains between its roots. He kneeled and dug his fingers into the musty earth. “Mother,” he whispered. “Why didn’t you come to me? Why?”
Suddenly he lost his breath, as if a cold hand had clutched his throat, threatening to squeeze the life out of him. The vision of a woman, dressed in rags, kneeling outside the castle’s gate, passed in front of his eyes. Her hair was a damp tangle, and her face covered in dirt. Her bony hands were clutching his robes, pulling and demanding his attention. He had shoved her aside before she’d had a chance to speak, as he had done with all the beggars that had flooded the castle in the time of war.
Only this woman’s stare would visit him at times of reflection, when his daughter and beloved wife were fast asleep by the hearth and he was left alone with his thoughts. At the time, he believed it only to be his conscience, coming to punish him for the cruelty of his heart.
Yet now his heart knew the words of Emilia were true; this woman, this beggar, had been his own mother. Begging him not for food or water, even though she had seemed like she desperately needed it, but for his attention. For the love and comfort of her own flesh. She had traveled all that road to find him, and he had only turned her away in the cruelest of ways, not recognizing his own mother.
The echoes of the crying voices of the beggars as the castle gates were closing behind him filled his ears. His mother’s voice mingled with them, making her one of the poor souls condemned to lose their life on the cold streets outside the castle.
His body was overcome with sobs that tore his heart. He struggled for a relieving breath that never came. He clawed the earth like a wild animal, screaming and making the birds abandon their happy songs. He threw himself into the river and dipped his head under the surface, letting all the water in, willing it to crush his lungs and take his life. Yet try as he might, he couldn’t kill himself. A lifting current pushed him to the surface time and time again until he gave up and swam to the shore. He placed a cold hand on the tree’s bark. “Please forgive me, dear Mother.”
He had been walking for days and nights without rest or shelter when he finally reached the well. He took the last steps and collapsed against its stones.
“I’ve done what you asked,” he said with dry eyes. There were no more tears left in him.
“So I see,” the well said.
“You should have left me to die, rather than give me this wrenching pain.”
“You forget your promise, Commander. You cannot die, because your soul belongs to me.”
Bramian nodded. He stood and looked into the abyss that filled the well, then climbed over the brim and sat with his legs dangling over the darkness. He raised his body, ready to plunge into the void.
“Commander,” the well said. “Do you know how the songs started?”
“What are you saying?” Bramian asked, sitting over the brim once more. “I have no more time for your games. I’ve learned my lesson, and I am ready to meet my fate.”
“But what is your fate, Commander? Death? Is this why you are preparing to jump into my bowels?”
Bramian was confused. “Wasn’t my repentant soul what you wanted? Why won’t you take it now, then? Why must you torture me more with your words and not put an end to my suffering?”
“The men,” the well said. “They hear the songs but cannot see their meaning. They sing of me as the well—the well that could tell. They come to me with requests only when they’re in dire danger or they cannot stand to live with themselves anymore. When I ask them for their souls, they refuse and run and call me evil. No one has taken my offer but you, Commander. You have given me your soul, and for that, I shall repay you. Go forth. Take your wife and daughter, and return to your mother’s home. Drop your weapons, and sorrow will be a burden for you no more. You will grow old and see your daughter marry and give you grandchildren. Name the first child after your mother.
“And remember to make a new song for me. One that doesn’t paint my existence with the evilest of colors—one that talks about forgiveness. And when you make it, teach it to your children, and tell them to teach it to their children too. So that one day, this song of sorrow will be forgotten, and I will be free to rest once more from the burdens of the world.”