Once upon a time, a scholar set out on a journey to visit a country that he had only read about. He brought as company only an empty book (which he would fill with notes on his trip) and his dog. He was not even sure where the country was, because maps in those days were not so good. He knew enough to head east until he reached the water and then to take a ship until the ship found land again. Beyond that, he was trusting that as he got closer to the unknown country, people would know better where it was.
Unfortunately, he never even made it to the first port. At the end of the first long day of walking, he camped a ways off the side of the high road, sheltered from the night wind by a copse of ash and willow trees. In the deepest part of the first night of his journey, his dog woke him from dreams of the unknown country. She stuck her wet nose right in his ear and snuffled until his eyes fluttered open. In an instant, he realized that he had been so weary from walking all day – for in his studies he had lost the habit of regular exercise – that he had forgotten to feed his beloved dog.
Before he untied his pack to get her (very late) dinner, he smelled wisps of a savory delight on the fresh midnight breeze. The dog pointed her nose towards it, opened her mouth, and tasted and sniffed all at once. Led by her, the scholar took up his pack and crept out of the ash and willow grove, up over the high road, and down again. There he saw a distant red smudge of a low cook-fire. The smell of food got stronger. His belly reminded him that he had forgotten to feed himself as well. Heedless of the uneven ground, the scholar and his dog made all haste towards the delicious dinner smell.
They found a cauldron, bubbling with thick meat and root stew, over a fire. There was no one around tending it.
“Hullo?” the scholar called out to the dark. “I say, may we join you for dinner?”
No one answered. The scholar picked up a bowl beside the cauldron. He ladled out a generous portion for the dog and set it before her. She sniffed it, cautiously. Though great drops of drool spattered the ground around the bowl and at her feet, she backed slowly away. Her hackles went up.
“Silly dog,” the scholar said. “Strange food is better than no food.”
The dog was unmoved.
“Fine,” the scholar said. “I will feed you your own usual dinner. But first—” he seized the bowl and wolfed it down.
The world went black and that was all he knew.
He woke in a very tight iron cage. His knees were pressed to his chest and his arms pinned to his side. He could hardly turn his head to look around. The cage sat in the corner of a cave. His faithful dog was nowhere to be found.
“Silly dog,” the scholar thought. “Ran all the way back home. She’s sitting by the study fire right now, gnawing on a bone.”
Just then a beautiful young woman carrying a bouquet of herbs came into the cave.
“Help! Help!” cried the scholar, as best he was able, being all compressed in the cage.
“Oh my!” the woman said. “You poor handsome man, all pent up.”
“Can you open the door? My arms can’t move to undo the latch.”
The woman rushed to the cage. “The door is locked.” She looked around the cave. She fetched a jar from a rock shelf. “Here,” she said. “I’ll rub this goose grease all over you, so you can squeeze through the bars.”
Even greased with goose fat, the scholar could not manage to wriggle through the tight bars. The woman held up her bouquet of herbs. “I’ll rub your arms and legs with rosemary and sage,” she said. “That will make them more supple and surely you will be able to escape then.”
Even greased with goose fat and made supple by herbs, the scholar could not manage to wriggle through the tight bars. “I know!” the woman said. “I’ll put the cage over the fire. That will soften the metal bars and you can use your muscles to pry them apart.”
The scholar knew this was a bad plan. But he was trapped in the cage and the beautiful woman would not be dissuaded. She hoisted him effortlessly over her head and carried him towards a large cook fire at the center of the cave.
Just then, a terrific baying and barking echoed through the cavern. Fur a-bristle, the scholar’s dog ran in to the rescue. She bit the very strong woman on the leg. Enraged, the woman threw the cage, scholar and all, right at the dog. The faithful hound was too quick and dodged out of the way. The cage burst asunder. The scholar lay stunned on the cold stone floor, in a pile of twisted iron. The dog and woman circled one another, and it was hard to tell who was growling more ferociously. Once she had placed herself between the fierce dog and the mouth of the cave, the woman turned tail and ran as fast as she could. The scholar’s dog followed as far as the entrance and shouted many doggish insults at her as she fled.
The scholar had been badly hurt when the cage had broken. He wanted nothing more than to lay on the cold stone floor of the cave and wait until he was healed. His dog would have none of it. Once she had chased the cannibal off, she returned to her scholar and began nosing him sharply. He groaned.
“Leave me be, silly dog,” he said. “Can’t you see I’m dying?” She would not relent. She poked his every bruise and sore spot with her snout, until he rolled over and stood up. She barked at him, happily, and herded him hobbling out of the cannibal’s cave.
Though the scholar truly did feel as though he were dying from his injuries, his dog’s persistence proved the wiser course. As soon as he got to the edge of eye-shot from the cave entrance, he spotted the cannibal woman. Her courage renewed, she limped back into her home. When she found her dinner missing, a terrible howl echoed across the countryside. She emerged, glaring every which way in search of her meal.
“I don’t know why I thought she was beautiful,” he whispered to his dog. “She looks quite ugly now.”
The dog’s only response was to herd him further on, from hiding place to hiding place, while the cannibal hunted after.
The scholar soon realized that they were in the middle of a vast ruin – an ancient city whose name was just on the tip of his tongue. Every hillock had been a splendid house, and every tangle of vines grew over what once had been a broad street. He could even picture the map of the place, a faded and spotted page in an enormous old book. When they came to a crossroads, where a great oak tree split what had once been a statue of the city’s mightiest king, the scholar knew where they were and had a plan.
“If we can get to where the old palace stood,” he said, “we should be able to hold out, even if she lays siege to us.”
The scholar’s dog would have none of it. Led by her nose, she tracked her own route, down through the ruined town, towards a wide, slow river.
“Silly dog,” the scholar said, and set about his plan.
Unfortunately for him, the cannibal knew every nook and cranny of the ruin all about. She had laid many traps in the most attractive places. When he got to the palace, he was struck down by a deadfall. Pinned under rubble and crying for help, he made easy prey for the hunting woman. She found him right quick. She tossed him over her shoulder, carried him to her cave, popped him in her cauldron to cook him till he was a fine good stew.
As for the scholar’s dog, when she reached the river, she found what she was sniffing for. A group of witch-hunters (she had smelt them from the cave) had made camp on the far shore, intending to scour the ruins for the cannibal. She swam straight cross. She scampered into their midst and shook herself down to wake them up. At first they were angry at being covered by dog-water in the middle of their afternoon nap, but she paced growling along the shore and pointed at the ruins, and soon they took her meaning.
The witch-hunters gathered up their things. Led by the wise dog, they were at the cave in no time at all. The dog barked an angry challenge, and the cannibal witch came roaring out. She was most surprised by the dozen witch-hunters waiting behind the dog. Though she fought with tremendous strength, they won the day. They trussed her up and prepared to take her back for trial.
The dog, however, had other ideas. She ran into the cave and, though it burnt her paws quite badly, she tipped over the just-bubbling cauldron. The stew-covered scholar fell out. He weakly called for help. The witch-hunters came to see, and were shocked by what they found.
“A witch is one thing,” they said, “but a cannibal is quite another. You have a very good dog there.”
They agreed to a man that a trial would be a waste of the state’s resources. They tossed the witch in her cauldron, clapped the lid on, weighted it down with stones, and tossed it in the river.
And so the wise dog was named a hero and honorary witch hunter by all in the land, and so the humbled scholar returned home without finding the unknown country, and so the witch perished in her own cauldron.