Once upon a time there was a country ruled by an empty crown. It was a simple circlet of gold that floated over a wooden throne in a great hall. Though the empty crown never spoke, nor even moved, when the servants of the state came into its presence, they left knowing exactly what it wanted them to do. They carried out its wishes and the kingdom prospered.
In a quiet corner of that same kingdom, far from the center of power and the empty crown, lived a bold, bad man, who made his living fighting in taverns and stealing when he couldn’t find a fight. His only redeeming quality was that he very much loved his widowed mother and cared for her as well as any son in the land. This was why, when the day before her birthday came round and he found himself with neither money nor prospects for a gift, he was most distraught.
All day, he went from tavern to tavern looking for a fight, but he had already beaten every local lad, some more than once, so no one would take him up for love or money. He challenged every stranger wayfaring that way, but they all saw the locals steering shy and so were wise and let the bold, bad man be.
“My mother is a saint,” he at length said to himself, “and she shall have a present. If fighting won’t buy her one, I know what will.”
He walked along the road, intending to rob the first rich man he came upon. At a crossroads, he met a beggar leaning on a crutch and holding out a bowl.
“Coin for a poor man?” the beggar asked.
“Hobble on down, Spindleshanks,” the bold, bad man said and brushed the beggar out of his way. Or rather, he would have brushed the beggar out of his way, but he found the other man harder to move than he might have guessed.
“I know you,” the beggar said. “You fight for gold in the taverns and steal when you can’t fight. Care for a go? Winner takes what’s in my bowl, loser is the winner’s slave till sun-up tomorrow?”
The last rays of the setting sun glinted at the bottom of the beggar’s bowl. The bold, bad man thought “Easy gold!” and agreed to the terms as set.
The two fighters squared off at opposite corners of the crossroads. The beggar tossed aside his crutch. He swayed on his weak legs. The bold, bad man laughed and counted the coin that would soon be his. He strode up to the beggar and struck him with a mighty blow.
To his surprise, the beggar did not fall down. In fact, he seemed to stand up a bit straighter. His legs filled out and his shoulders unstooped. The bold, bad man punched him again, harder than the first time. Again, the beggar took the hit and seemed to grow six inches taller. In a whirling flurry of blows, the bold, bad man flailed at the crippled beggar, until he could hit no more. Panting, he bent double and braced himself on his knees.
The beggar stood tall, completely healed of his infirmities. He blew one puff at the bold, bad man, and the strength left the proud fighter’s arms and legs and he fell to the ground.
“Well,” said the beggar, picking up his crutch and bowl. “I guess you know what this means.”
The bold, bad man was too weak and confused to object. He had never lost a fight and did not know how to behave.
“Your first task, as my slave till sun-up, is to rescue my sister. She was seized for vagrancy by the town guard and now languishes behind cold iron bars. You must go to town and, by hook or by crook, find a way to win her free and bring her to me.”
The bold, bad man was very familiar with the town’s gaol. He made his way there with all haste, hoping to be free of the beggar’s tasks with enough time to buy his mother a birthday present still.
He knew that the cells were in the basement, with a barred window at the street level. He peered into the dim dungeon. Within, he could see a withered crone in rags. When she saw him, she tapped the wart on the side of her nose.
“You smell like my brother’s slave,” she said. “Though you hardly look strong enough for the job.”
“I’ll show you strong!” The bold, bad man grabbed the cold iron bars. He strained and strained, pulling at them with all his strength.
“Put your back into it,” the crone said. “Show some will, Noodle-arm!”
The bold, bad man grunted. He pulled until black spots swam in his eyes and his head felt like it was going to explode. His arms burned. The bars did not move.
“My brother should have sent a strong man to do the job, not some newling infant with fat, soft arms.”
Barely able to spare the effort to speak, the bold, bad man gasped: “I’m the strongest man in town, maybe the strongest man a hundred leagues round.”
“Pah!” spat the crone. “Step back and I’ll show you how it’s done.”
She hooked her crooked pinky finger around a bar. She tugged and it popped loose into her hand. She dropped it to the ground and, one, two, three, popped out the other bars with her spotted little finger.
“I loosened it up for you,” the bold, bad man said, as she leapt nimbly up and out the window. “Anyway, let’s go to your brother. I’ve still got to get a present for my mother.”
“Not just yet,” the crone said. “When the Law pinched me, they sold my cauldron at auction to pay my gaol fee. The Mayor’s cook bought it. I want it back.”
The bold, bad man objected, but to no avail. The beggar’s sister would not budge an inch until she had her cauldron back. So he crept through alleys and over rooftops and under shadows until he came to the Mayor’s manor kitchen door.
What he did not know was that a foreign prince was passing through, and the Mayor was having a banquet for him. The prince had been summoned by the servants of the state, who understood that to be the will of the empty crown. Being wary, as princes will sometimes be, he had agreed to come, but brought a large retinue of bodyguards and spies to ensure that he would not be assassinated.
One of these, seeing the bold, bad man creeping up to the Mayor’s manor, didn’t think twice. He threw a net at the presumed assassin and raised a ruckus that brought everyone running. Strong as he was, the bold, bad man was no match for a dozen soldiers. He was trussed up quickly and brought to the dining hall to face the wrath and justice of the foreign prince.
Though he was tied up in so many ropes and nets that he looked like a giant ball of string, the bold, bad man could just barely see out of his bonds. What he saw would give him nightmares for many years to come.
Just as the guards dragged him in, the cook entered the hall with the crone’s cauldron, filled and bubbling with a beef stew that was a local specialty. The cook presented a silver spoon to the foreign prince and offered him right of first taste. The magic of the crone’s cauldron, however, turned what would have been delicious broth into a vile poison. The moment it touched the foreign prince’s lips, he began to twitch and change. Great bulges burst out of his back, erupting into scaly wings. His fingers grew three more joints and nails hard as iron. His teeth shot out in all directions, gnashing and slashing. Quicker than it takes to tell, a monster stood where once had been the foreign prince.
The bold, bad man watched through his bonds as the monster did what monsters will do. Everyone in the hall who was not able to flee was horribly slain – except for the bold, bad man, whom the monster did not see, all trussed up like a ball of string.
When he had devoured everyone in sight, the monster-prince stomped out of the Mayor’s manor. He ravaged the countryside for a while, then returned to his home kingdom, far away. Perhaps I’ll tell you his story another day.
In the meanwhile, the beggar and the crone had arrived at the dining hall. The crone took up her cauldron, while the beggar unraveled the bold, bad man’s bonds. As soon as he was free, the bold, bad man looked to run away. The beggar just tapped his crutch and rattled his bowl.
“Till sun-up,” was all he said, and it was enough to stop the bold, bad man’s flight.
The crone poured all the stew out of her cauldron. “Feh,” she said. “Disgusting.”
She wiped it clean with a bloody table cloth. “Get on in then,” she said to the bold, bad man. “We’ve only got all night.”
Prodded by the beggar’s crutch, the bold, bad man stepped into the clean cauldron. It grew in size as he got in, until it fit him nice and snug.
“Fly you off and hie you on,” said the beggar. “Bring me what was lost, before the dawn.”
The cauldron rose into the air. It sailed through the window, picking up pace as it went. At a terrific speed, it rushed above the countryside. Terrified, it was all the bold, bad man could do to cling to the sides and hope it did not up-end, dropping him to his death. On it flew, until it came to the great city at the center of the kingdom, to the great palace at the center of the city, and, at last, to the great throne room at the center of the palace.
There, it tipped over, sending the bold, bad man tumbling out in front of the wooden throne. Above him, he saw the empty crown, floating. No one else was around and there was nothing else in the room.
No one said anything, yet he knew, sure as he knew the sound of his own heart beat, that the crown did not want to be stolen. But he was a bold, bad man and not a servant of the state, and therefore he felt no obligation to what an empty crown might want. Quick as dice, he pinched it and tucked it in his shirt. He leapt into the cauldron and flew back across the country to the crossroads where he had lost his first fight.
The beggar and crone were waiting there. The bold, bad man dismounted the cauldron and tossed them the crown.
“Are we good and quit now?” he said. He feared he would never find a present in time for his mother’s birthday.
The beggar took the empty crown and placed it on his head. For just a moment, the bold, bad man saw him as he truly was, but he would never speak of that and so I won’t either. At any rate, the first rays of the sun shot over the curve of the east and the bold, bad man found himself alone at the crossroads, no sign of beggar nor crone.
There was, however, a small cauldron on the ground next to him.
“You’ll do, I guess,” he said. He took it to his mother and gave it to her for her birthday.
Without the empty crown, the kingdom soon fell into confusion and ruin, but the quiet corner where the bold, bad man lived with his mother did not see much of the worst of it. There, life continued as it had, indifferent to empty crowns and servants of the state.
Though the cauldron never showed the same kind of magic again, it did make perfect stew every time and, if you ate the stew hot from the pot, it made you feel light as a feather and almost, almost able to fly. The bold, bad man quit fighting and became a tavern cook the rest of his days. And his mother was delighted with such an unusual gift.