A Truly Magical Tale by Jenny Moore
Illustrated by Margaret Dyer
“It’s the wrong kind of juice,” Gertrude said critically. “Tomatoes don’t belong in a love potion.”
Posy, Gertrude’s stepmother, peered at her recipe book. “It says fruit juice. Tomatoes are a fruit.”
“Not a very romantic one.” Gertrude hated to hurt her stepmother’s feelings but, when it came to witchcraft, Posy did not have good instincts.
“Oh, dear.” Posy looked ready to cry. The love potion burbled unenthusiastically and Gertrude dreamed of being apprenticed to a witch whose spells actually worked.
At that moment, a prince rode into the forest clearing. “Good morning, fair ladies,” he said. “Could you kindly direct me to the nearest road? I’m on a quest to find the most perfect princess in the land.”
Gertrude couldn’t help wondering how perfection was defined. Would the princess be fair and graceful, or dark and sultry? What about brains and a kind heart?
“What a coincidence!” Posy said merrily. “Gertrude is a princess and I often think she is the most perfect one I’ve ever met.”
Gertrude blushed. She loved Posy like the mother she had never known, but there was no denying that mothers had a knack for turning their daughters into suicidally embarrassed wrecks.
“Ah.” The prince eyed Gertrude warily.
“Luckily,” Posy babbled on, “We have just mixed up a love-locating potion. One sip will show you the whereabouts of your heart’s desire.”
Gertrude couldn’t believe her ears. “Posy, don’t you dare!”
Posy handed the prince a ladle of potion. Before Gertrude could warn him, he took a sip. “Interesting flavor,” he murmured. Then he turned into a tomato worm. He made an exceptionally ugly one, with a tiny crown hooked around his horns.
There was a blank silence. Finally, Posy said, “Oops!”
Gertrude slowly recovered her breath. At least he hadn’t fallen in love with anyone. “I told you tomatoes didn’t belong in a love potion!” she said. “And I can’t believe you tried to set me up like that!”
“What love potion?” the prince asked in a rather slimy voice. “Did you both grow, or is it me?”
“It’s you,” Gertrude said.
“He looked like such a nice young man,” Posy said. “I only want you to be happy, dear. You might have really liked him.”
“What have you done to me?” The prince finally realized that he was a different shape than the one he had started out as. “I demand that you take this foul spell off!”
Gertrude sighed. “Let’s go home,” she suggested. “We must have some back-to-normality potion around somewhere.”
“You had better,” the tomato worm said nastily.
Gertrude bundled him into her pocket. Then they rode the prince’s white horse back to the castle. A few minutes later, they watched anxiously as the tomato worm drank a drop of back-to-normality potion.
He drank another drop.
Even less happened.
Posy dunked him in the potion but the worm only choked and said he was drowning.
“Kisses are very powerful magic in their own way,” Posy suggested. “You could”—
“Not a chance,” Gertrude said flatly.
Posy looked at the transformed prince. “No. I suppose not.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” the tomato worm asked.
Gertrude ignored him. “We’re going to have to ask for help,” she said. “There must be a witch somewhere who has experience with spells gone wrong.”
Posy gnawed on her lower lip. “There is one—a very good witch. Skilled, I mean. Not actually good in a moral sense…” Her voice trailed away.
Interested, Gertrude put the tomato worm back in her pocket. She had wanted to learn more magic. “Where does she live?”
“In the deep forest.” Posy hurried after Gertrude as the princess headed for the stableyard. “But I should tell you”—
Gertrude remounted the prince’s steed, visions of adventure dancing through her head. “See you later!” She clattered out of the courtyard.
The trees in the deep forest blocked out the sky, and things rustled in the underbrush. It was a relief when the horse stepped into a clearing, although the vegetable house was a surprise. Carrot-stick logs formed the walls, the roof was tiled with cucumber slices, and curtains of the finest lettuce leaves hung at the windows. A witch sat on the front steps, a crow perched on her shoulder. She was beautiful but her smile was snake-cold.
“What have we here?” Her voice was as sinuous as a boa constrictor meeting a lost explorer. “A stray vegetarian, perhaps? Come nibble at my house while I give you directions, my dear. I always provide a snack for weary travelers.”
“I’ve heard of this place!” the prince squeaked. “She traps passing vegetarians in her house, and eats them! She likes her meat lean!”
“I think I’m safe,” Gertrude whispered back. Her favorite food was steak and she was anything but lean. Aloud, she said, “Thank you, but I need help with a spell gone wrong.” She fished the tomato worm from her pocket.
The witch frowned. “A prince, is he? They always get themselves into the worst fixes. I might have an antidote for this.” She looked sharply at Gertrude. “I happen to be in need of an apprentice. Temporary, of course. If you work for me, I’ll give you the run of my cupboards. You can try to find a potion that turns your worm back into a prince in your free time. How’s that?”
That took thinking about. Gertrude had wanted to be apprenticed to a skillful witch, but did she want to be apprenticed to an evil, cannibalistic one?
Still, she might learn some truly wonderful magic. And this was an adventure, after all. “Very well,” she said. “I shall be your apprentice until I turn the worm back into a prince.”
“You have a bargain.” The witch smiled as the crow swooped from her shoulder, snatched the tomato worm from Gertrude, and flew away.
“Oh, dear,” the witch purred. “I suspect that my crow has eaten your worm. He obviously won’t be turning into a prince now, so you’ll be my apprentice forever. Fortunately, I have plenty of work for you to do.”
“You—you can’t”—Gertrude gaped at the witch. “The prince is dead?” Not that she had liked him but he hadn’t deserved to be eaten by a crow. “That’s not fair!”
“I don’t have a reputation for being fair,” the witch said smugly. “You agreed to serve me and have bound yourself to your word.”
Gertrude tried not to burst into tears. She had let the prince get eaten, and she was going to be a servant to a cannibal for the rest of her life! She should have known that she was not cut out for adventures!
A crow cawed in the distance.
Gertrude pulled herself together. She was bound to her word—but there were always more words to say. “I hereby bind myself to my word and promise,” she said formally. “As your apprentice, I shall be a hindrance to you. I shall pull up the vegetables and leave the weeds to grow. I shall say the wrong word at the worst time so that all your spells shall be ruined. I shall eat the house down and warn those that you would harm. So I swear.” She watched the smirk fade from the witch’s face.
“Go then!” the woman snarled. “Your prince is long dead by now and his horse is eating my curtains!”
Gertrude galloped away before the witch could curse her.
The forest grew even darker as Gertrude rode hopelessly in the direction the crow had flown. Of course the prince was dead. What chance did a tomato worm have against a crow? But she rode on anyway. Five minutes later, she found the crow being eaten by a dragon.
Gertrude didn’t have long to stare at the stirring and gory scene because the horse bucked her off and bolted. As she lay on the ground, wondering if she would ever breathe again, she noticed a small green shape in the grass in front of her eyes. An irritating voice said, “About time you got here! This is all your fault. I almost got eaten!”
“You’re alive!” Gertrude gasped, reaching for the enchanted prince.
A huge claw curved delicately around the tomato worm and picked it up. “What have we here?” The dragon spat feathers from between its teeth.
Meeting a dragon was definitely an adventure. Gertrude wondered why she had wanted adventures in the first place. In the future, she would be happy with a boring life. If she had a future.
“An enchanted prince!” the dragon exclaimed. “Done by a very inventive witch, too! A tomato worm is so much more revolting than a simple frog. You weren’t planning on kissing it, were you?”
Gertrude stood up warily. “I was hoping to find some other antidote.”
“Very wise.” The dragon studied her. “You are a princess, I believe? Well, I might be able to help you if you would care to do me a favor in return.”
Here we go again, Gertrude thought. It would be simpler to leave the prince a tomato worm forever!
“I am in need of a refined servant for a week,” the dragon said. “I am entertaining guests at the end of that time, so I have many jobs to do around my home. And it adds so much to the ambience of a dragon’s cave, having a princess waiting at the table.”
Gertrude hesitated. It didn’t sound like a very exciting job, but she had just decided that she was done with excitement for good.
“It’s only seven days,” the prince said urgently. “Surely you’ll do it, if it means freeing me from this undignified shape your stepmother put me in?”
“I don’t get eaten by the guests?” Her experience with the witch had made Gertrude cautious.
The dragon looked shocked as it picked another crow feather from between its teeth. “It is the height of bad manners to eat the servants!”
“And it’s only for a week, at the end of which time, you will help me turn this troublesome worm back to himself?”
“Of course,” the dragon said.
Gertrude nodded her agreement and then stifled a scream as the dragon lifted her onto its scaly back. They flew over the forest but Gertrude kept her eyes tightly shut and wondered again why she had ever dreamed of adventures.
When they arrived at the dragon’s cave, even Gertrude had to admit that the flight had been worth it. The walls were tiled with gold coins, winking jewels, and silver filigree. The occasional human skull seemed to be a matter of decoration and could be gotten used to quite quickly, Gertrude discovered.
“I did it all myself,” the dragon said modestly. “Interior design is a talent I rather pride myself upon.”
“With good reason,” Gertrude said, and she meant it.
“Everything must be dusted and polished before the feast,” the dragon continued. “And the bedrooms must be cleaned…”
Gertrude set to work.
It was not a bad week. The prince complained constantly about the boredom of housework, but Gertrude found scrubbing, mopping, and dusting oddly satisfying. Besides, there was lots of roast mutton and beef for meals and the dragon provided sophisticated conversation, which Gertrude found rather daunting but interesting.
On the evening of the banquet, she served enormous meals to a host of multi-colored dragons. The conversations ranged over knightly nuisances, the scarcity of princesses and the practicality of animal husbandry.
“It would make us more popular amongst the humans if we raised our own food, rather than stealing theirs,” a radical hot pink dragon remarked.
“We have always been marauders!” an elderly male bellowed. “I don’t like these newfangled ideas about turning into farmers! And as for princesses, where’s the harm in kidnapping any you run across?”
“That’s a nice one you have,” another dragon remarked to its hostess. “On the fat side, but with excellent manners.”
Gertrude’s dragon sighed. “Yes, I’ve enjoyed her company, but she’s not staying long. I promised her a little help in exchange for a week of her services.”
“What sort of help?” the elderly dragon grumped.
Gertrude felt that it was time to speak for herself. “An antidote to a spell gone wrong.” She fished the tomato worm out of her pocket. “There was a small accident”—
“Your stepmother poisoned me!” the prince snapped.
Gertrude stuffed him back into her pocket. “An accident,” she repeated firmly.
The dragon’s roared with laughter. “Are you sending her to the gnomes?” one of them asked.
Gertrude’s dragon bowed its head. “That was my plan.”
“The gnomes?” Gertrude asked. A week of hard work seemed like a lot in exchange for directions.
“The gnomes possess everything worth having,” the hot pink dragon explained kindly. “Gold, silver, machines, toilet paper…They’re bound to have something to help you.”
Gertrude’s dragon tapped the diamond floor with its tail. “I built my home on top of the gnome kingdom. To enter, you simply turn around three times and say ‘Gnomes, please let me in’.”
Gertrude repeated the instructions carefully. “Thank you. I’ll do it as soon as I’ve finished washing up.”
And she did.
Instantly, a hole opened under her feet and she fell through. The hole turned into a long, stone chute, which carried her far under the mountain and shot her out into another cavern and a huddle of gnomes.
They were small people, but they had wise faces. None of them seemed surprised to see Gertrude. The one with the kindest face said, “We heard you coming from the moment the chute opened. You have a remarkable set of lungs, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“Er—thanks.” Gertrude was not sure that an adventurer should be complimented on her lungs, but it was nice anyway.
“My name is Faber,” the gnome said “What can I do for you?”
Gertrude pulled the tomato worm from her pocket and told her story for what felt like the fortieth time. “Do you have an antidote?” she finished at last.
Faber frowned thoughtfully. “We have a vast store of potions that we recently bought from the witch in the deep forest. There might be something helpful there.”
Gertrude’s jaw dropped. “She told me that I could look through them if I was apprenticed to her. You mean, she’d already sold them to you?”
The gnome sighed. “We don’t like to do business with her either. You risk losing your fingernails every time you shake her hand, but she does have interesting goods for sale. I don’t know how you’ll find the right potion amongst the lot we have, though.”
Gertrude gulped. She hadn’t thought of that.
“You’re a witch, too,” the tomato worm said plaintively. “You can use your magical senses, or—or something.”
Gertrude suspected that she had no magical senses. She squared her shoulders and said, “We’ll try each one until we find something that works.”
Over the prince’s shriek of horror, Faber said approvingly, “A sound, scientific method. I’ll help.”
He led the way to a wall shelf filled with bottles. There were thousands of them. Still, sitting and staring would do no good. Gertrude started opening bottles.
The first potion gave the prince a headache. The second made him giggle and slither in circles. The third potion put him to sleep, which was helpful as the fourth turned him into a three-headed cobra when Gertrude dipped him into it. The next potion woke him up, and the next tied his forked tongue into a knot.
“This could take awhile,” Gertrude said. Faber got muffins and tea, and they went back to work.
Early the next morning, the prince was bright orange shading to sickly yellow, sprouting roses from one nostril, and vaguely shaped like a horse with very sharp teeth. “If you don’t find the right one soon,” he snarled, “I’ll tear you to bits!”
No one thought he was joking.
“Try this.” Gertrude shoved a bowl of pale lavender potion at him. He slurped a few drops between his teeth. There was a faint popping sound and a handsome prince stood before them, rose free and only faintly yellow.
There was a long sigh from the watching gnomes, and Faber applauded. The prince bowed gracefully to them. “Yes, I know I look much better now,” he said.
“My applause was all for the princess,” the gnome said gently. “She worked long and hard to undo a spell that was not hers, and refused to give up.” He beamed at Gertrude.
Gertrude felt a blush coming on. Faber made it sound as if she had done something very special.
“A thank you would not be amiss,” the gnome told the prince sharply.
“Oh, very well,” the prince muttered. He did not sound at all gracious.
“Your welcome.” Gertrude felt strangely light and confident. She had escaped from an evil witch, served a table full of dragons, fallen into an unknown kingdom, and smelled more magical potions than she cared to remember. She felt as if she could face ordinary life without blinking.
“Perhaps,” Faber said shyly, “when you return to your home, I might visit you?”
“Please do,” Gertrude said. She was never going to let Posy try to set her up with anyone again, and the gnome was kind and only a little shorter than she was.
“My cousin is a nearly perfect princess,” she told the prince kindly as they made their way out of the gnome kingdom. “You might try her—two kingdoms over and to the right.”
“Maybe.” The prince sounded unsure of himself for a change. “You—er—won’t tell her about the tomato worm episode, will you? I wouldn’t want her to think that I’m not a perfect prince myself.”
Gertrude smiled. “Of course not.” She was glad that she didn’t have to worry about being perfect herself.
Author Bio: Jenny Moore grew up on a small ranch in Eastern Oregon and decided at the age of 8 that she wanted to be a writer. Her first story was published 15 years later. When not writing fairy tales, she works as an aide at the local elementary school. Her work has appeared in Cricket Magazine, Spacesports & Spidersilk, and Teach Kids. Her short story 'Old Man and Coyote' was included in the anthology Writing Home.
Illustrator Bio: Margaret Dyer is a fine-artist, having made her living for over 20 years selling her pastel paintings and teaching. She is a Master Pastelist with the Pastel Society of America and an award-winning member of the American Impressionist Society.Since childhood, however, illustrating for children has been one of her goals.
The Pastel Journal (Feb. 2011, Dec. 2005, Mar. 2002, Mar. 2001, Mar. 2000, May 1999)
American Artist Magazine (2010 Cover Competition, Jun. 2001)
International Artist Magazine (Jun. 2005, Aug. 2003, Sep. 2002)
The Artist’s Magazine (June 2002)
Pastel Artist International (Jan. 2001)
“How Did You Paint That? 100 Ways to Paint Figures” (2005 and 2004)
“Pastel Highlights 2” (2004)
“Pure Color: The Best of Pastels,” (2006).