In a village, not too far away, there lived a young woman. She was young, fair, and truly loved by her village. But there was one who loved her more. He was a strong and handsome youth. He was never happier than when she was in his company. And it was the same for her. She also loved him back.
The village made a great celebration for their wedding. All of them blessed them and wished them well. The young woman and the youth blessed themselves as well, after the wedding feast was done. Both were very happy, but only for a short time.
Several weeks passed, when the village was threatened. They came like a thundering storm across the golden fields. Burning their way to the center, there was a great battle. Many died, including the youth.
The sorrow and grief of the village was ten-fold. They had lost many people they loved. But they also lost the harvest, which imbued a sense of dread for the coming winter. The young woman, who had lost her lovely youth, was cast into an immortal night. For she, was with his child and had no other to care for her. In fear and sorrow, late into the Immortal Night, she crept silently through the village to the Mill Pond. As the moon climbed the sky, she sat near the waters and wept.
“Beautiful woman, why do you cry at the edge of my water?” asked a croaking voice.
“My man is dead and so I cry,” said the maid. “The harvest is gone and the winter comes. Death will take us all.”
A large toad creature lifted his head from the water. “I was just now wondering why there was no offering to turn the mill wheel. The time is at hand, yet none comes. At first, I thought it was you. But the moon is high and it was not right. I came to the surface to see.”
The maid looked at the large wet toad, with his dripping beard on his chin. “I know you,” she said. “You are a vodnik, a water grandfather.”
He swam to the edge of the water and sat in the soft muck. “Yes, those are two of my names. Are you not afraid of me?”
“No,” said the maid. “If you drown me, I go in peace. To drown is better to starve. To drown is better than watching the child to be, die in my arms.”
The vodnik began to sing to her.
If ever thou gavest meat or drink
the fire sall ne'er make thee shrink,
If meat or drink thou ne'er gavest one,
The fire will burn thee to the bare bone
This one night, this one night
Every night and all,
fire-hearth and Beeswax light
And I shall receive thy soul
“You do me great honor,” said the maid when he was done. “I will do as you ask and return.”
“I do you no honor, maid.” The toad croaked. “There is still a price, for that advice and the other. One cannot get something for nothing, even for one with such beauty as you.”
“What price can I pay? I have nothing,” she said. “But if it is within my power to give, I shall give it.”
“You are free give it,” croaked the toad. “Give me your trothe. I will take your child as my own. I will love him as my own.”
“Marry you?” asked the girl. “But why?”
“Can you not see that I might be lonely?” asked the toad. “Be my bride and my companion. Let my loneliness die with yours. If you choose nay, I shall drown you as you wish. Your soul will be released and you may pass. Bring to me an offering of a little grain. If you choose yes, I shall take you into my watery home to be my bride. There you shall live and be as happy as I can offer it.”
“Let me think and I will return as you sang. I will give you my answer then,” she said.
The toad retreated into the pond. The young woman went home.
On her way home, she met a crying beggar man on the road. He sat wet and shivering.
“You poor man,” she said. Her tears forgotten for the moment. “You are wet and cold. Please come with me to my house. There is little food, but there is fire to warm yourself.”
“You are so very kind,” said the beggar. The two went to the house of the maid.
She stoked the fire and gave him a little bread and ale. While he ate she asked him, “Why are you out so late and why are you so wet?”
“I am a beggar ma'am,” he said. “I was traveling on the moor and fell into the water.” He looked at her closely. He could see her distress by the firelight. “You are troubled. That must why a young woman was out so late in the dangerous night.”
The woman nodded. She told him the story of the invasion, the burned harvest, and the death to come.
The beggar stopped eating. “I am very sorry,” he said. “I feel guilty for eating what little you have.” He pushed away what was left of the bread and ale.
She shook her head. “No, you may have it. I will not need it.”
“Oh, lady,” whispered the beggar. “That can not be true.”
She shook her head. “It doesn't matter now, I must.” Then, she told him of the water grandfather.
The beggar pulled the food closer to him and began to eat again. “You are right. You have made a deal with one who will not let you go. This food doesn't matter. You must chose.”
The maid sighed. “But what will I chose? And will he keep his word?”
The beggar huffed. “He will keep his word, either way you chose. But his song, it was wrong. He was telling you something. There is another choice. That is how I know.”
“How so?” asked the maid.
“He was generous in sending you home to make a choice. As I travel I hear many tales, but there is always one ending. The water grandfather takes the bride. Whether she lives or not, makes no difference. But he didn't do that with you. Instead, he sang you a song with wrong words. The first parts are right. The parts about charity, the giving of meat and drink. But the last part, Fire-hearth and beeswax light,” he shook his head. “The song says Fire, fleet, and candle light. And Christ receive thy soul. I wonder why he changed the words to be so specific?”
The maid spoke her thoughts aloud. “Fire hearth, not hearth fire, you are right. I didn't notice that until you said something. And the beeswax light, My grandmother used to say that bees are holy things. They are sacred to god and man. The light of a beeswax candle is the light of heaven.”
The beggar nodded. “I, also, have heard it.”
“Those two things refer to light, home, and comfort. We cook and bake by the fire hearth. We see and are comforted by the light of heaven.”
The beggar nodded. “That could be.”
The girl nodded. “Thank you, sir. I think I know what to do.”
The beggar smiled and finished the bread. “I must also thank you. But now, I must go.”
“But you are still dripping wet! You cannot leave now, you will catch your death,” she said.
The beggar smiled. “Lady, you do me a great service of charity. To think of me in my hour of need. But I cannot stay, a strange man staying in the home of a young and beautiful woman overnight, would disgrace you to your village. You have done enough.” He gave a little bow. Then, he turned and left, leaving behind a trail of water behind him.
The next day the maid asked all the villagers to gather what grain they had. They took it to the edge of the mill pond. Then, she told them to leave her at the water. In the morning everything would be better. Confused and concerned, they pleaded with her. But she only shook her head. “You will see,” she said. “Everything will be made right.” The villagers reluctantly left her at the mill pond.
At the rise of the moon, the toad's head popped up from the water. “You have returned like you said, you would. You are a brave woman, indeed,” he said. He swam to the water's edge and sat in the muck.
The maid knelt down to him. “I have brought you all the grain from the village. But to you I bring my trothe.” Without hesitation, she leaned in and kissed him.
At her kiss, the toad shimmered with a golden light. He transformed into a handsome man and stood before her. “You guessed the riddle,” he said. “You are beautiful, generous, and wise. You are a wonderful woman and I am happy to take you as my bride.” He took her hand and lead her into the water.
The next day, the villagers came and were shocked. The grain was gone and the woman was not to be found. They began to panic, wondering what to do. But one pointed to the mill wheel and shouted, “Look! The wheel turns!”
The villagers went inside the mill and found it overflowing with flour, enough to last the winter and more. A great deep voice shouted upon the ether, “The bride price is paid!” The wheel stopped and all was made silent. Finally, the villagers knew what had occurred in the night.
The next year and every year that followed, when the village celebrated the harvest they also celebrated the Water-widow who saved them winter's death.