smallhead and the King's Sons (Celtic Folk Tale)

Folk Tales, Celtic Folk Tales1386

Long ago there lived in Erin a woman who married a man of high degree and had one daughter. Soon after the birth of the daughter the husband died.

The woman was not long a widow when she married a second time, and had two daughters. These two daughters hated their half-sister, thought she was not so wise as another, and nicknamed her Smallhead. When the elder of the two sisters was fourteen years old their father died. The mother was in great grief then, and began to pine away. She used to sit at home in the corner and never left the house. Smallhead was kind to her mother, and the mother was fonder of her eldest daughter than of the other two, who were ashamed of her.

At last the two sisters made up in their minds to kill their mother. One day, while their half-sister was gone, they put the mother in a pot, boiled her, and threw the bones outside. When Smallhead came home there was no sign of the mother.

“Where is my mother?” asked she of the other two.

“She went out somewhere. How should we know where she is ?”

“Oh! wicked girls ! you have killed my mother,” said Smallhead.

Smallhead wouldn”t leave the house now at all, and the sisters were very angry.

“No man will marry either one of us,” said they, “if he sees our fool of a sister.”

Since they could not drive Smallhead from the house they made up their minds to go away themselves. One fine morning they left home unknown to their half-sister and travelled on many miles. When Smallhead discovered that her sisters were gone she hurried after them and never stopped till she came up with the two. They had to go home with her that day, but they scolded her bitterly.

The two settled then to kill Smallhead, so one day they took twenty needles and scattered them outside in a pile of straw. “We are going to that hill beyond,” said they, “to stay till evening, and if you have not all the needles that are in that straw outside gathered and on the tables before us, we”ll have your life.”

Away they went to the hill. Smallhead sat down, and was crying bitterly when a short grey cat walked in and spoke to her.

“Why do you cry and lament so?” asked the cat.

“My sisters abuse me and beat me,” answered Smallhead. “This morning they said they would kill me in the evening unless I had all the needles in the straw outside gathered before them.”

“Sit down here,” said the cat, “and dry your tears.”

The cat soon found the twenty needles and brought them to Smallhead. ” Stop there now,” said the cat, “and listen to what I tell you. I am your mother ; your sisters killed me and destroyed my body, but don”t harm them; do them good, do the best you can for them, save them obey my words and it will be better for you in the end.”

The cat went away for herself, and the sisters came home in the evening. The needles were on the table before them. Oh, but they were vexed and angry when they saw the twenty needles, and they said some one was helping their sister

One night when Smallhead was in bed and asleep they started away again, resolved this time never to return. Smallhead slept till morning. When she saw that the sisters were gone she followed, traced them from place to place, inquired here and there day after day, till one evening some person told her that they were in the house of an old hag, a terrible enchantress, who had one son and three daughters that the house was a bad place to be in, for the old hag had more power of witchcraft than any one and was very wicked.

Smallhead hurried away to save her sisters, and facing the house knocked at the door, and asked lodgings for God”s sake.

“Oh, then,” said the hag, “it is hard to refuse any one lodgings, and besides on such a wild, stormy night. I wonder if you are anything to the young ladies who came the way this evening?”

The two sisters heard this arid were angry enough that Smallhead was in it, but they said nothing, not wishing the old hag to know their relationship. After supper the hag told the three strangers to sleep in a room on the right side of the house. When her own daughters were going to bed Smallhead saw her tie a ribbon around the neck of each one of them, and heard her say: “Do you sleep in the left-hand bed.” Smallhead hurried and said to her sisters : “Come quickly, or I'll tell the woman who you are.”

They took the bed in the left-hand room and were in it before the hag”s daughters came.

“Oh,” said the daughters, “the other bed is as good.” So they took the bed in the right-hand room. When Smallhead knew that the hag”s daughters were asleep she rose, took the ribbons off their necks, and put them on her sister”s necks and on her own. She lay awake and watched them. After a while she heard the hag say to her son:

“Go, now, and kill the three girls ; they have the clothes and money.”

“You have killed enough in your life and so let these go,” said the son.

But the old woman would not listen. The boy rose up, fearing his mother, and taking a long knife, went to the right-hand room and cut the throats of the three girls without ribbons. He went to bed then for himself, and when Smallhead found that the old hag was asleep she roused her sisters, told what had happened, made them dress quickly and follow her. Believe me, they were willing and glad to follow her this time.

The three travelled briskly and came soon to a bridge called at that time “The Bridge of Blood.” Whoever had killed a person could not cross the bridge. When the three girls came to the bridge the two sisters stopped they could not go a step further. Smallhead ran across and went back again.

“If I did not know that you killed our mother,” said she, “I might know it now, for this is the Bridge of Blood.”

She carried one sister over the bridge on her back and then the other. Hardly was this done when the hag was at the bridge.

Bad luck to you, Smallhead ” said she, “I did not know that it was you that was in it last evening. You have killed my three daughters.”

“It wasn”t I that killed them, but yourself,” said Small-head.

The old hag could not cross the bridge, so she began to curse, and she put every curse on Smallhead that she could remember. The sisters travelled on till they came to a King”s castle. They heard that two servants were needed in the castle.

“Go now,” said Smallhead to the two sisters, “and ask for service. Be faithful and do well. You can never go back by the road you came.”

The two found employment at the King”s castle. Smallhead took lodgings in the house of a blacksmith near by.

“I should be glad to find a place as kitchen-maid in the castle,” said Smallhead to the blacksmith”s wife.

“I will go to the castle and find a place for you if I can,” said the woman.

The blacksmith”s wife found a place for Smallhead as kitchen-maid in the castle, and she went there next day.

“I must be careful,” thought Smallhead, “and do my best. I am in a strange place. My two sisters are here in the King”s castle. Who knows, we may have great fortune yet.”

She dressed neatly and was cheerful. Every one liked her, liked her better than her sisters, though they were beautiful. The King had two sons, one at home and the other abroad. Smallhead thought to herself one day: “It is time for the son who is here in the castle to marry. I will speak to him the first time I can.” One day she saw him alone in the garden, went up to him, and said :

“Why are you not getting married, it is high time for you?”

He only laughed and thought she was too bold, but then thinking that she was a simple-minded girl who wished to be pleasant, he said:

“I will tell you the reason : My grandfather bound my father by an oath never to let his oldest son marry until he could get the Sword of Light, and I am afraid that I shall be long without marrying.”

“Do you know where the Sword of Light is, or who has it?” asked Smallhead.

“I do,” said the King”s son, “an old hag who has great power and enchantment, and she lives a long distance from this beyond the Bridge of Blood. I cannot go there myself, I cannot cross the bridge, for I have killed men in battle. Even if I could cross the bridge I would not go, for many is the King”s son that hag has destroyed or enchanted.”

“Suppose some person were to bring the Sword of Light, and that person a woman, would you marry her?”

“I would, indeed,” said the King”s son.

“If you promise to marry my elder sister I will strive to bring the Sword of Light.”

“I will promise most willingly,” said the King”s son.

Next morning early, Smallhead set out on her journey. Calling at the first shop she bought a stone weight of salt, and went on her way, never stopping or resting till she reached the hag”s house at nightfall. She climbed to the gable, looked down, and saw the son making a great pot of stirabout for his mother, and she hurrying him, “I am as hungry as a hawk !” cried she.

Whenever the boy looked away, Smallhead dropped salt down, dropped it when he was not looking, dropped it till she had the whole stone of salt in the stirabout. The old hag waited and waited till at last she cried out: “Bring the stirabout. I am starving! Bring the pot. I will eat from the pot. Give the milk here as well.”

The boy brought the stirabout and the milk, the old woman began to eat, but the first taste she got she spat out and screamed “You put salt in the pot in place of meal !”

“I did not, mother.”

“You did, and it”s a mean trick that you played on me. Throw this stirabout to the pig outside and go for water to the well in the field.”

“I cannot go,” said the boy, “the night is too dark; I might fall into the well.”

“You must go and bring the water; I cannot live till morning without eating.”

“I am as hungry as yourself,” said the boy, “but how can I go to the well without a light? I will not go unless you give me a light.”

“If I give you the Sword of Light there is no knowing who may follow you ; maybe that devil of a Smallhead is outside.”

But sooner than fast till morning the old hag gave the Sword of Light to her son, warning him to take good care of it. He took the Sword of Light and went out. As he saw no one when he came to the well he left the sword on the top of the steps going down to the water, so as to have good light. He had not gone down many steps when Smallhead had the sword, and away she ran over hills, dales, and valleys towards the Bridge of Blood.

The boy shouted and screamed with all his might. Out ran the hag. ” Where is the sword ? ” cried she.

“Some one took it from the step.”

Off rushed the hag, following the light, but she didn”t come near Smallhead till she was over the bridge.

“Give me the Sword of Light, or bad luck to you,” cried the hag.

“Indeed, then, I will not ; I will keep it, and bad luck to yourself,” answered Smallhead.

On the following morning she walked up to the King”s son and said:

“I have the Sword of Light; now will you marry my sister?”

“I will,” said he.

The King”s son married Smallhead”s sister and got the Sword of Light. Smallhead stayed no longer in the kitchen – the sister didn”t care to have her in kitchen or parlour.

The King”s second son came home. He was not long in the castle when Smallhead said to herself, “Maybe he will marry my second sister.”

She saw him one day in the garden, went toward him he said something, she answered, then asked : “Is it not time for you to be getting married like your brother ?”

“When my grandfather was dying,” said the young man, “he bound my father not to let his second son marry till he had the Black Book. This book used to shine and give brighter light than ever the Sword of Light did, and I suppose it does yet. The old hag beyond the Bridge of Blood has the book, and no one dares to go near her, for many is the King”s son killed or enchanted by that woman.”

“Would you marry my second sister if you were to get the Black Book ?”

“I would, indeed ; I would marry any woman if I got the Black Book with her. The Sword of Light and the Black Book were in our family till my grandfather”s time, then they were stolen by that cursed old hag.”

“I will have the book,” said Smallhead, ” or die in the trial to get it.”

Knowing that stirabout was the main food of the hag, Smallhead settled in her mind to play another trick. Taking a bag she scraped the chimney, gathered about a stone of soot, and took it with her. The night was dark and rainy. When she reached the hag”s house, she climbed up the gable to the chimney and found that the son was making stirabout for his mother. She dropped the soot down by degrees till at last the whole stone of soot was in the pot; then she scraped around the top of the chimney till a lump of soot fell on the boy”s hand.

“Oh, mother,” said he, “the night is wet and soft, the soot is falling.”

“Cover the pot,” said the hag. ” Be quick with that stirabout, I am starving.”

The boy took the pot to his mother.

“Bad luck to you,” cried the hag the moment she tasted the stirabout, “this is full of soot ; throw it out to the pig.”

“If I throw it out there is no water inside to make more, and I'll not go in the dark and rain to the well.”

“You must go !” screamed she.

“l”ll not stir a foot out of this unless I get a light,” said the boy.

“Is it the book you are thinking of, you fool, to take it and lose it as you did the sword? Smallhead is watching you.”

“How could Smallhead, the creature, be outside all the time? If you have no use for the water you can do without it.”

Sooner than stop fasting till morning, the hag gave her son the book, sayilng: ” Do not put this down or let it from your hand till you come in, or I'll have your life.”

The boy took the book and went to the well. Smallhead followed him carefully. He took the book down into the well with him, and when he was stooping to dip water she snatched the book and pushed him into the well, where he came very near drowning.

Smallhead was far away when the boy recovered, and began to scream and shout to his mother. She came in a hurry, and finding that the book was gone, fell into such a rage that she thrust a knife into her son”s heart and ran after Smallhead, who had crossed the bridge before the hag could come up with her.

When the old woman saw Smallhead on the other side of the bridge facing her and dancing with delight, she screamed :

“You took the Sword of Light and the Black Book, and your two sisters are married. Oh, then, bad luck to you. I will put my curse on you wherever you go. You have all my children killed, and I a poor, feeble, old woman.”

“Bad luck to yourself,” said Smallhead. “I am not afraid of a curse from the like of you. If you had lived an honest life you wouldn”t be as you are to-day.”

“Now, Smallhead,” said the old hag, “you have me robbed of everything, and my children destroyed. Your two sisters are well married. Your fortune began with my ruin. Come, now, and take care of me in my old age. I'll take my curse from you, and you will have good luck. I bind myself never to harm a hair of your head.”

Smallhead thought awhile, promised to do this, and said “If you harm me, or try to harm me, it will be the worse for yourself.”

The old hag was satisfied and went home. Smallhead went to the castle and was received with great joy. Next morning she found the King”s son in the garden, and said :

“If you marry my sister to-morrow, you will have the Black Book.”

“I will marry her gladly,” said the King”s son.

Next day the marriage was celebrated and the King”s son got the book. Smallhead remained in the castle about a week, then she left good health with her sisters and went to the hag”s house. The old woman was glad to see her and showed the girl her work. All Smallhead had to do was to wait on the hag and feed a large pig that she had.

“I am fatting that pig,” said the hag ; “he is seven years old now, and the longer you keep a pig the harder his meat is : we”ll keep this pig a while longer, and then we”ll kill and eat him.”

Smallhead did her work; the old hag taught her some things, and Smallhead learned herself far more than the hag dreamt of. The girl fed the pig three times a day, never thinking that he could be anything but a pig. The hag had sent word to a sister that she had in the Eastern World, bidding her come and they would kill the pig and have a great feast. The sister came, and one day when the hag was going to walk with her sister she said to Smallhead:

“Give the pig plenty of meal to-day ; this is the last food he”ll have ; give him his fill.”

The pig had his own mind and knew what was coming. He put his nose under the pot and threw it on Smallhead”s toes, and she barefoot. With that she ran into the house for a stick, and seeing a rod on the edge of the loft, snatched it and hit the pig.

That moment the pig was a splendid young man.

Smallhead was amazed.

“Never fear,” said the young man, ” I am the son of a King that the old hag hated, the King of Munster. She stole me from my father seven years ago and enchanted me-made a pig of me.”

Smallhead told the King”s son, then, how the hag had treated her. “I must make a pig of you again,” said she, “for the hag is coming. Be patient and I'll save you, if you promise to marry me.”

“I promise you,” said the King”s son.

With that she struck him, and he was a pig again. She put the switch in its place and was at her work when the two sisters came. The pig ate his meal now with a good heart, for he felt sure of rescue.

“Who is that girl you have in the house, and where did you find her? ” asked the sister.

“All my children died of the plague, and I took this girl to help me. She is a very good servant.”

At night the hag slept in one room, her sister in another, and Smallhead in a third. When the two sisters were sleeping soundly Smallhead rose, stole the hag”s magic book, and then took the rod. She went next to where the pig was, and with one blow of the rod made a man of him.

With the help of the magic book Smallhead made two doves of herself and the King”s son, and they took flight through the air and flew on without stopping. Next morning the hag called Smallhead, but she did not come. She hurried out to see the pig. The pig was gone. She ran to her book. Not a sign of it.

“Oh I' cried she, “that villain of a Smallhead has robbed me. She has stolen my book, made a man of the pig, and taken him away with her.”

What could she do but tell her whole story to the sister. “Go you,” said she, ” and follow them. You have more enchantment than Smallhead has.”

“How am I to know them ? asked the sister.

“Bring the first two strange things that you find; they will turn themselves into something wonderful.”

The sister then made a hawk of herself and flew away as swiftly as any March wind.

“Look behind,” said Smallhead to the King”s son some hours later; “see what is coming.”

“I see nothing” said he, “but a hawk coming swiftly.”

“That is the hag”s sister. She has three times more enchantment than the hag herself. But fly down on the ditch and be picking yourself as doves do in rainy weather, and maybe she”ll pass without seeing us.”

The hawk saw the doves, but thinking them nothing wonderful, flew on till evening, and then went back to her sister.

“Did you see anything wonderful?”

“I did not; I saw only two doves, and they picking themselves.”

“You fool, those doves were Smallhead and the King”s son. Off with you in the morning and don”t let me see you again without the two with you.”

Away went the hawk a second time, and swiftly as Smallhead and the King”s son flew, the hawk was gaining on them. Seeing this Smallhead and the King”s son dropped down into a large village, and, it being market-day, they made two heather brooms of themselves. The two brooms began to sweep the road without any one holding them, and swept toward each other. This was a great wonder. Crowds gathered at once around the two brooms.

The old hag flying over in the form of a hawk saw this and thinking that it must be Smallhead and the King”s son were in it, came down, turned into a woman, and said to herself:

“I'll have those two brooms.”

She pushed forward so quickly through the crowd that she came near knocking down a man standing before her. The man was vexed.

“You cursed old hag!” cried he, “do you want to knock us down?” With that he gave her a blow and drove her against another man, that man gave her a push that sent her spinning against a third man, and so on till between them all they came near putting the life out of her, and pushed her away from the brooms. A woman “n the crowd called out then:

“It would be nothing but right to knock the head off that old hag, and she trying to push us away from the mercy of God, for it was God who sent the brooms to sweep the road for us.”

“True for you,” said another woman. With that the people were as angry as angry could be, and were ready to kill the hag. They were going to take the head off the hag when she made a hawk of herself and flew away, vowing never to do another stroke of work for her sister. She might do her own work or let it alone.

When the hawk disappeared the two heather brooms rose and turned into doves. The people felt sure when they saw the doves that the brooms were a blessing from heaven, and it was the old hag that drove them away.

On the following day Smallhead and the King”s son saw his father”s castle, and the two came down not too far from it in their own forms. Smallhead was a very beautiful woman now, and why not? She had the magic and didn”t spare it. She made herself as beautiful as ever she could: the like of her was not to be seen in that kingdom or the next one.

The King”s son was in love with her that minute, and did not wish to part with her, but she would not go with him.

“When you are at your father”s castle,” said Smallhead, “all will be overjoyed to see you, and the king will give a great feast in your honour. If you kiss any one or let any living thing kiss you, you”ll forget me for ever.”

“I will not let even my own mother kiss me,” said he.

The King”s son went to the castle. All were overjoyed; they had thought him dead, had not seen him for seven years. He would let no one come near to kiss him. “I am bound by oath to kiss no one,” said he to his mother. At that moment an old grey hound came in, and with one spring was on his shoulder licking his face: all that the King”s son had gone through in seven years was forgotten in one moment.

Smallhead went toward a forge near the castle. The smith had a wife far younger than himself, and a stepdaughter. They were no beauties. In the rear of the forge was a well and a tree growing over it. “I will go up in that tree,” thought Smallhead. “and spend the night in it.” She went up and sat just over the well. She was not long in the tree when the moon came out high above the hill tops and shone on the well. The blacksmith”s stepdaughter, coming for water, looked down in the well, saw the face of the woman above in the tree, thought it her own face, and cried:

“Oh, then, to have me bringing water to a smith, and I such a beauty. I'll never bring another drop to him.” With that she cast the pail in the ditch and ran off to find a king”s son to marry.

When she was not coming with the water, and the blacksmith waiting to wash after his day”s work in the forge, he sent the mother. The mother had nothing but a pot to get the water in, so off she went with that, and coming to the well saw the beautiful face in the water.

“Oh, you black, swarthy villain of a smith,” cried she, “bad luck to the hour that I met you, and I such a beauty. I'll never draw another drop of water for the life of you.

She threw the pot down, broke it, and hurried away to find some king”s son.

When neither mother nor daughter came back with water the smith himself went to see what was keeping them. He saw the pail in the ditch, and, catching it, went to the well; looking down, he saw the beautiful face of a woman in the water. Being a man, he knew that it was not his own face that was in it, so he looked up, and there in the tree saw a woman. He spoke to her and said:

“I know now why my wife and her daughter did not bring water. They saw your face in the well, and, thinking themselves too good for me, ran away. You must come now and keep the house till I find them.”

“I will help you,” said Smallhead. She came down, went to the smith”s house, and showed the road that the women took. The smith hurried after them, and found the two in a village ten miles away. He explained their own folly to them, and they came home.

The mother and daughter washed fine linen for the castle, Smallhead saw them ironing one day, and said:

“Sit down: I will iron for you.”

She caught the iron, and in an hour had the work of the day done.

The women were delighted. In the evening the daughter took the linen to the housekeeper at the castle.

“Who ironed this linen?” asked the housekeeper.

” My mother and I.”

“Indeed, then, you did not. You can”t do the like of that work, and tell me who did it.”

The girl was in dread now and answered:

“It is a woman who is stopping with us who did the ironing.”

The housekeeper went to the Queen and showed her the linen.

“Send that woman to the castle,” said the Queen.

Smallhead went: the Queen welcomed her, wondered at her beauty; put her over all the maids in the castle. Smallhead could do anything; everybody was fond of her. The King”s son never knew that he had seen her before, and she lived in the castle a year; what the Queen told her she did.

The King had made a match for his son with the daughter of the King of Ulster. There was a great feast in the castle in honour of the young couple, the marriage, was to be a week later. The bride”s father brought many of his people who were versed in all kinds of tricks and enchantment.

The King knew that Smallhead could do many things, for neither the Queen nor himself had asked her to do a thing that she did not do in a twinkle.

“Now,” said the King to the Queen, “I think she can do something that his people cannot do.” He summoned Smallhead and asked:

“Can you amuse the strangers ?”

“I can if you wish me to do so.”

When the time came and the Ulster men had shown their best tricks, Smallhead came forward and raised the window, which was forty feet from the ground. She had a small ball of thread in her hand ; she tied one end of the thread to the window, threw the ball out and over a wall near the castle; then she passed out the window, walked on the thread and kept time to music from players that no man could see. She came in ; all cheered her and were greatly delighted.

“I can do that,” said the King of Ulster”s daughter, and sprang out on the string; but if she did she fell and broke her neck on the stones below. There were cries, there was lamentation, and, in place of a marriage, a funeral.

The King”s son was angry and grieved and wanted to drive Smallhead from the castle in some way.

“She is not to blame,” said the King of Munster, who did nothing but praise her.

Another year passed the King got the daughter of the King of Connacht for his son.

There was a great feast before the wedding day, and as the Connacht people are full of enchantment and witchcraft, the King of Munster called Smallhead and said:

“Now show the best trick of any.”

“I will,” said Smallhead.

When the feast was over and the Connacht men had shown their tricks the King of Munster called Smallhead.

She stood before the company, threw two grains of wheat on the floor, and spoke some magic words. There was a hen and a cock there before her of beautiful plumage ; she threw a grain of wheat between them; the hen sprang to eat the wheat, the cock gave her a blow of his bill, the hen drew back, looked at him, arid said:

“Bad luck to you, you wouldn”t do the like of that when I was serving the old hag and you her pig, and I made a man of you and gave you back your own form.”

The King”s son looked at her and thought, ” There must be something in this.”

Smallhead threw a second grain. The cock pecked the hen again. ” Oh,” said the hen, “you would not do that the day the hag”s sister was hunting us, and we two doves.”

The King”s son was still more astonished.

She threw a third grain. The cock struck the hen, and she said, ” You would not do that to me the day I made two heather brooms out of you and myself.” She threw a fourth grain. The cock pecked the hen a fourth time. “You would not do that the day you promised not to let any living thing kiss you or kiss any one yourself but me – you let the hound kiss you and you forgot me.”

The King”s son made one bound forward, embraced and kissed Smallhead, and told the King his whole story from beginning to end.

This is my wife,” said he ; “I'll marry no other woman.”

“Whose wife will my daughter be? ” asked the King of Connacht.

“Oh, she will be the wife of the man who will marry her,” said the King of Munster, “my son gave his word to this woman before he saw your daughter, and he must keep it.”

So Smallhead married the King of Munster”s son.

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