Once upon a time there was a Queen who lived under the sea. She was very powerful, but her reach extended only as far as the waves. Her fleetest and most trusted servant was Turtle. In those days Turtle was very different from today: she had four long, strong legs that she used to kick through the water and run on land. Her body was soft and vulnerable, but she could outrun or swim any animal who tried to catch her.
One day Turtle brought some bad news to the Queen. "Your Majesty! Some fish are conspiring to overthrow your government!"
"Lead me to them!" ordered the Queen, and Turtle did so.
Turtle pointed out the guilty fish to the Queen, and she quickly ate them, thus ending the rebellion. Unfortunately for her, the guilty fish caused even more trouble after their executions than they had caused before.
The Queen became very sick. Her doctors told her that she would be dead by the next sunrise, and could only be healed by a potion brewed at midnight from the liver of a rabbit.. The Queen summoned her loyal servant Turtle, and told him that she needed a rabbit liver by sunset, or she would die. Turtle swore to do her best, and quickly swam towards land.
Turtle knew that she would never find Rabbit's home, because in those days rabbit had short legs, and survived by her wits and by hiding well. So Turtle ran quickly and quietly until she spotted Rabbit grazing in a thicket. She cornered Rabbit, and told her, "I need your liver to save my Queen! Give it to me, please, or she will die!"
Rabbit was a quick thinker then as she is today. She replied, "I cannot give you my liver! I keep it in a box in my home so that it does not get lost!"
This made sense to Turtle, as she knew how valuable a rabbit liver could be. "Then let us go to your home, and you can give it to me!"
"Surely not!" protested Rabbit. "If the other animals see us, they will follow us to my home and eat up my family!"
Turtle was at heart very kind and compassionate. Though she needed Rabbit's liver, she did not want Rabbit's family to suffer. "Then you go fetch your liver, and I will wait here for you!" suggested Turtle.
"Thank you!" said Rabbit. "I should be back here by this time tomorrow."
Turtle was dismayed. "That is too long! My Queen will be dead by tomorrow! What can I do?"
Clever Rabbit realized that not only was she going to keep her liver, but that she might gain something from Turtle's need. "I've got an idea! Why don't you lend me two of your long, strong legs? Then I can get to my home and back in no time at all!"
Turtle was so relieved that she immediately agreed, and gave Rabbit her back legs. Rabbit put them on, and bounded off, laughing as she went.
Turtle thought about this as she waited. She came to the conclusion that Rabbit was not going to return, but by then Rabbit was out of sight.
Turtle didn't know what to do. She stumbled her way up to the cliffs overlooking the sea, wanting one last glimpse of her home before leaping to her doom. Her path was watered by tears for the Queen she loved, but could not save.
As Turtle stood at the brink, she was surprised to hear a voice behind her.
"What's the matter, dearie?" She turned around and was surprised to see a wrinkled, old woman cooking soup in a cauldron over a fire, where previously there was nothing but grass. The woman spoke again. "I can help save your Queen, but it will cost you."
Turtle was by nature conservative and slow-thinking. She would normally have nothing to do with witches and their magic, but this time was different. "Anything!" she said with no hesitation. "Everything I have is yours! Just save the life of my Queen!"
"This potion will cure your Queen when it is done, but it still needs one thing."
Turtle's heart sank. "I know. You need a rabbit liver."
"Mercy me no!" laughed the witch. "It just needs more stirring! Can you do that?"
"Of course!" Turtle looked around. "Where is the spoon?"
"There is no spoon. You must use your leg," the old woman said with a sad smile. "The power of the potion will come from you."
The potion appeared brown at first, then blue. Then pink. It was difficult for Turtle to look at, actually. It was also bubbling and steaming, making noises that almost sounded like words. The smell was less suggestive of something to be eaten than of something that did the eating.
It was late afternoon, and the sun was starting to go down. Turtle sighed, and gingerly put her left front leg into the potion and began stirring.
It hurt. A cold, deep burning. After just a few minutes she pulled her aching leg out to find that it was only half as long as before. "Keep stirring," encouraged the old woman. Turtle used her other leg for a few minutes, then switched again. When the witch finally told Turtle she could stop, both of her front legs were barely long enough to reach the potion.
The old woman filled a clay jug with the potion, put in a stopper and gave it to Turtle. "A noble sacrifice is never in vain," the old woman told her.
Turtle looked at her short legs and vulnerable body, then down the long path back to the sea. "This sacrifice may prove to be in vain," she sighed. "Without my long legs, I will never get back to my Queen in time!" She turned back towards the witch. "What shall I...?"
The hilltop was empty. The witch, the fire, and the cauldron were gone. The only sign that they had ever been there was a wisp of smoke from the fire, twirling in the breeze. Twirling in circles, actually. Circles that moved faster and faster, until Turtle felt herself picked up off of the ground, and lifted out to sea.
When the wind slowed enough, Turtle fell gently into the waves from just above the surface. She swam to the palace as quickly as she could, and into the Queen's chambers. The Queen was weak, but able to drink the potion.
As the Queen recovered her strength, Turtle collapsed to the floor. "Turtle! You have saved me! But what has happened to your legs?"
"It is nothing, your majesty! I am only pleased that you are well." Exhausted from her ordeal, Turtle fell into a deep sleep.
The Queen could not bear to see her trusted servant broken as she was. She cast about for a reward, and spotted the clay jug, which still had a little of the potion in it. The Queen ground it into powder, together with the remaining potion, a little sea water, and a few drops of her own blood. They made a thick paste which the Queen applied to Turtle's back and chest as she slept. She then took her to the surface to dry in the sun. When Turtle awoke, she was so thankful to be alive and see her Queen that she decided to forget her long legs and be happy with her new body.
To this day Turtle still has short legs and a hard shell, and she needs to spend some time in the sun. Rabbit is still tricky, with long hind legs and a hidden home. Of course, Rabbit and Turtle never got along well after that. Eventually their feud came to a head in a foot race, but that is another story.