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The Boy Who Knew What the Birds Said by  Padraic Colum
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Everyone in and around the King's Castle despised Mell, the Hen-wife's Son, said the Stonechecker, the bird that built within the stones of the Tower. And it was not because there was anything mean about the lad himself: it was because his mother, the Hen-wife, had the lowest office about the King's Castle.

This is what a Hen-wife did: She had to mind the fowl and keep count of them, she had to gather the eggs and put them into a basket and send them to the King's Steward every day. And for doing this she had as wages the right to go to the back-door of the Steward's house and get from the under-servants two meals a day for herself and Mell, her son.

And everybody, as I said, despised this son of hers—horse-boys and dog-boys and the grooms around the Castle. But of course no one despised Mell more than did the King's daughter, Princess Bright Brow.

She used to go into a wood and whisper along the branch of a tree. And one day the Hen-wife's son whom she despised so much made answer to her. He was lying along the branch of the tree watching his mother's goat that grazed on the grass below. Now this is what Princess Bright Brow said to the tree and this is what she used to say to it every day.—

Oak-tree, oak-tree, above the rest,

Which of the heroes loves me best?

Mell was lying along the Branch as I have said, and he made answer back to her.—

Princess, Princess, he's at your call,

And the Hen-wife's son loves you best of all!

The King's daughter looked up and she saw the Hen-wife's son on the branch, and she went into a great rage. She gave orders to the grooms that the Hen-wife's son was to be whipped every time he looked at her. Many's the time after that Mell got the lash. But he loved Bright Brow so much that he could not forbear looking at her.

II

Now, one very early morning Mell took his mother's goat out to graze on the green. And as he went along he saw on the grass a beautiful mantle. He took it up and he thought to himself "How well it would look upon Princess Bright Brow!" And he thought again "if she would take this beautiful green mantle from me maybe she would let me look upon her when she is wearing it."

He put the mantle across his shoulders and sat down and thought and thought. And while he was thinking he felt the mantle being pulled from behind. He turned round and he saw a woman standing there. She had brighter colors in her dress and she wore more ornaments than he had ever seen in the King's Castle. He knew by such signs that she was a Fairy Woman out of the Green Rath.


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"Mell," said she, "Mell, the Hen-wife's son, give to me the mantle that the King of the Fairy Riders let fall from his shoulders last night."

"If it is his, and if you have come to bring it to him, why you must have it," said Mell, and he took the mantle off his shoulders and handed it to her.

"The King would wish that I should recompense you," said the Fairy Woman. She took a jewel that was on the collar of the mantle and gave it to Mell. "If you take this jewel in your hand," said she, "and wish to be in this place or that place you will be there in an instant, and anyone you take by the hand you can bring with you." And when Mell took the jewel from her, the Fairy Woman, carrying the green mantle, went into the green rath.

Then Mell took his goat by the horns and turned towards his hut. And there, outside the gate of the Castle he saw the King's daughter, Princess Bright Brow. She was watching the falconer training the young hawks and the grooms and the riders of the Castle were behind her. When she saw Mell with his hands on the goat's horns she grew high in rage and she turned to the grooms to give an order that he be beaten with the whips they held.

But Mell ran to her and he caught her hand and holding the jewel he said "I wish that I was in the Island of the Shadow of the Stars and that this young girl was with me." The hawk flew at him and the hound sprang at him and the whips struck at him and while he was still expecting the feel of teeth and claws and lash he was away and was in another country altogether. There was neither hawk nor hound nor hut nor castle nor groom nor falconer. Two beings only were there and they were Mell the Hen-wife's son and the King's daughter, Princess Bright Brow.

"In what country are we?" said Princess Bright Brow.


"Unless we are in the Island of the Shadow of the Stars I don't know where we are," said Mell, the Hen-wife's Son.

"You are the Hen-wife's son and you have brought me here by enchantment," said Bright Brow.

She wanted to go from him, but where was she to go to? All the country was strange to her. And so, if she made two steps away from him she soon made two steps back to him. And the end of this part of the story is that Bright Brow became friendly to the Hen-wife's Son.

He gathered fruits off trees and he snared birds and he took the fish out of rivers and he found sheltered places to sleep in. And often the Princess Bright Brow was good and kind to him. And Mell the Hen-wife's son was now as happy as anyone in the world. "Since we are so friendly to each other now," said Bright Brow to him one day, "will you not tell me how you were able to come here and bring me with you?"

"It was because of the jewel I wear at my breast," said Mell. And then he told how he had found the green mantle on the ground and how the Fairy Woman gave him the jewel and what power the jewel had.

If Mell was content to be on the Island, Bright Brow was not. And so one evening when he was asleep she lifted up the mantle and took the jewel that was on his breast. Then holding it in her hand she said "I wish I was back in my father's Castle." In an instant she was back there. Now all her maids were around her and all of them were crying "Where have you been, King's daughter, where have you been?" And Bright Brow told them that the King of the Fairy Riders had taken her away to show her all the great heroes of the world so that when the time came for her to choose a husband she could make her choice of the best amongst them.

As for Mell, the Hen-wife's son: when he wakened up and found that Bright Brow had gone and that the jewel was gone there was no one in the world more sad and lonely than he was. He thought that she might come back to him, but the moon came and the sun came and Bright Brow came not. He longed to be a bird that he might fly after her to her father's Castle.

He stayed on the Island of the Shadow of the Stars for a long time for, now that the jewel was gone from him, there was no way of getting from the Island. Then a King who had built a high tower went to the top of it one day and saw the Island of the Shadow of the Stars. He sent out his long ships and his leathern-jerkined men to it. They found Mell and they brought him to the King. Then Mell became one of the King's men and he went into battle and he learnt the use of all arms.

III

The Hen-wife's son went through the Eastern and the Western Worlds and he came back to where his mother's hut was. He rode round the walls of the King's Castle. Everything that he thought was magnificent before seemed small to him now. The trees that grew within the walls seemed not much bigger than the bushes the old women put clothes to dry on.

Sitting on his black horse he looked across the wall that he once thought was so high and he saw the Hen-wife's hut. His mother came out to feed the hens and to count them and to gather up the eggs and put them in a basket. "She's alive and I'll see her again," said Mell. He rode round the wall to the King's Garden to try to get sight of the Princess Bright Brow. He saw no sight of her. He rode on and he came to the gate at the other side and he saw outside the Cook-house the horse-boys and dog-boys and grooms that he used to know.

He saw them and he knew them, but they did not know him. He was surprised to see that they had not learnt to straighten up their shoulders nor to walk as if there was a fine thought in their heads. They were all around the Cook-house, and a great noise of rattling was coming from within it.

"What noise is that in the Cook-house?" Mell asked a groom.

"The Cook's son is going out to fight," said the groom, "and he is striking the pot-lids with the ladles to let everyone in the Cook-house know how fierce he is."

"And who is the Cook's son going to fight?" asked Mell the Henwife's son.

"He is going to fight a great Champion that has come up from the sea in a boat that moves itself. This Champion demands that the King pay tribute to him. And the King has offered his daughter and half his kingdom to the youth who will go down to the sea-shore and defeat this Champion. And to-day the Cook's son is going out to make trial."

And while the groom was saying all this the Cook's son came out of the Cook-house. His big face was all gray. His knees were knocking each other. The breastplate of iron he had on was slipping to one side and the big sword he had put in his belt was trailing on the ground.

"I would like to see what sort of a fight this Champion will make," said Mell, the Hen-wife's son. He followed the Cook's son to the sea-shore. But the Cook's son, when he had come to the shore, looked round and found a little cave in the face of the rock and climbed into it.

Then a boat that moved of itself came in from the sea, and a Champion all in red sprang out of it. And when he had touched the shingles he struck his sword on his shield and he shouted "If the King of this Land has a Champion equal to the fray let him forth against me. And if the King of the Land has no such Champion, let him pay me tribute from his Kingdom."

Mell looked to the cave where the Cook's son had hidden himself and all he saw there was a bush being pulled towards the opening to hide it.


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Then Mell the Hen-wife's son drew his sword and went down the beach towards the Red Champion. They fought for half the day. At the end of that time the Red Champion said "Good is the champion that the King of this Land has sent against me. I did not know he had such a good champion."

They fought all over the strand making the places that were stony, wet, and the places that were wet, stony, and then, when the sun was going down, the Red Champion was not able to do anything more than guard himself from the strokes of Mell's sword while he drew towards his boat.

"You will have the honors of the fight to-day," said he to Mell.

"I shall have the honors and something else beside," said Mell. Then he struck at the red plume that was on his enemy's cap. He cut it off as the Red Champion sprang into the boat that moved of itself. As the sun was sinking the Champion in the boat went over the sea.

Now the Cook's son had been watching the whole fight from the cave. When he saw the Red Champion going off in his boat he came running down to the shore. The Hen wife's son was lying with his hands and his face in the water trying to cool himself after the combat and the red plume that he had struck off the Champion's cap was lying near him. The Cook's son took up the plume.

"Let me keep this as a remembrance of your fight, brave warrior," said he to the Hen-wife's son.

"You may keep it," said Mell. Then with the red plume in his hands the Cook's son ran back towards the Castle.

IV

Mell the Hen-wife's son put on his best garments and he went to the Castle that evening and he was received by the King as a champion from foreign parts and the King invited him to supper for three nights.

Princess Bright Brow was at the supper and Mell watched and watched her. He saw that she was pale and that she kept sighing. And of the damsel who came to sit beside him at the table Mell asked "Why is the King's daughter so sad and troubled looking?"

She has reason for being sad and troubled, said the damsel who was called Sea Swan, "for she thinks she may have to marry one whom she thinks little of."

"Why should that be?" said Mell.

Because her father has promised to give her and half his Kingdom to the one who will defeat the Red Champion who has come from across the sea and who demands that the King give him tribute from the land. And the only one who has gone forth against the Champion is the Cook's son—a gray-faced fellow that only a kitchen-maid would marry. And if it happens that the Cook's son overcomes the Red Champion, well then Princess Bright Brow will have to marry him."

And later on Sea Swan said to Mell "The King's daughter is so troubled that she would go away to the Island of the Shadow of the Stars if she had the jewel that would bring her there. She had it once, but a Fairy Woman came out of the green rath and made Bright Brow give it to her."

When the feast was at its height the King stood up and bade the Cook's son come near the High Chair and tell how he had fought with the Red Champion that day. And the Cook's son came up holding the red plume in his hand. He told a story of how he had fought with the Red Champion all the day and how he had beaten him to his boat and how he had made him take his boat out to sea, and how, as the Champion had sprung into the boat, he had struck at him and had cut the red plume from his cap. "And I shall go down the sea-shore to-morrow," said the Cook's son very bravely, "and if the Red Champion dares come back I shall take off his head instead of his plume." Then he left the red plume beside the King's daughter and her father made Bright Brow hold up her forehead for the Cook's son to kiss. And all in the supper-room clapped their hands for the Cook's son.

The next day Mell the Hen-wife's son stood outside the Cook-house and he heard a tremendous rattling within. "That is the Cook's son preparing to go out to battle," said one of the grooms. "He is striking the ladles upon the pot-lids to show how fierce he is." Just as that was being said the Cook's son walked out of the Cook-house. He looked around him very haughtily. Then he walked away with his big sword trailing behind him and his breast-plate all to one side. Mell the Hen-wife's son followed him.

When he came to the seashore he stood for a while looking out to sea with his knees knocking together. Then he went where he had gone the day before. He climbed into a cave in the face of the cliff and he drew the bush to the entrance of it so that it was quite hidden.

Mell the Hen-wife's son looked out to sea and he saw the boat that moved of itself come towards the shore. The Red Champion was in it. He sprang out on the strand, struck his sword on his shield and made proclamation: Unless the King of the Land sent a champion who could overthrow him he would make him pay tribute for his Kingdom.

Then down to meet him came Mell the Hen-wife's son, his sword in his hand. He and the Red Champion saluted each other and then they fought together trampling over the beach, making the soft places hard and the hard places soft with the dint of their trampling. "A good champion, by my faith you are," said the Red Champion to Mell, when three-quarters of the day had been spent in fighting. And after that the Red Champion tried only to guard himself from the thrusts and the strokes of Mell's sword. He drew away from Mell and towards his boat. He put his two feet in it and pushed away. "You have the honors of the day's fight, champion," said he. "I shall have something beside the honors," said Mell and he struck at the Red Champion's belt. Down on the shingles fell the silver-studded belt and the Red Champion pushed off in his boat.

When the Cook's son saw from his cave that the Red Champion had gone he came down to the water's edge where Mell was lying with his face and hands in the water to cool himself after the combat. The silver-studded belt was lying beside Mell. The Cook's son took it up without saying a word and he went off towards the Castle.

That night Mell the Hen-wife's son sat by himself in the supper room of the King's Castle. He watched and watched the face of the Princess Bright Brow. She looked more pale and troubled than on the night before. And after the harpers had played the King called upon the Cook's son to come up to the High Chair and tell how he had battled with the Red Champion. He came up with the silver-studded belt in his hand and he told a story of how he had beaten the Red Champion back into the sea. And when the story was told the King bade Bright Brow go over to him and kiss the Cook's son on his heavy gray cheek.

V

The next day when he stood before the Cook-house, Mell the Hen-wife's son heard a greater rattling than before. The Cook's son struck the pot-lids with the ladles more fiercely than before and he cried out in a high voice "This is the last time that I shall ever stand amongst the pots and the pans, the lids and the ladles, for I go to fight the Red Champion for the last time, and after this I will sit beside the King's Chair and the King's daughter, Princess Bright Brow, will sit upon my knee."

He marched down to the sea-shore, his long sword trailing behind him. He walked through the street with his head high, but when he drew near the sea-shore his gait became less grand. His knees began to knock together. He looked out to the sea and when he saw the boat that moved of itself coming towards the shore he clambered into the cave and he drew the bushes round to cover up the entrance.

The boat that moved of itself came to the strand. The Red Champion sprang out on the shingles. He made his proclamation. Then up to him came Mell the Hen-wife's son. "I will strive with you," said he, "as I strove with you yesterday and the day before. And how shall we fight? Shall it be with swords or by wrestling?" "By wrestling let it be today," said the Red Champion.

They laid hands on each other and began to wrestle. And in their bout of wrestling they made holes in the ground and they made hillocks on the ground, and when the day was about to close Mell overthrew the Red Champion. He left him stark on the ground. Then he took the cord he had round his waist and he bound the Red Champion—hands and feet, waist and chest he bound him.

The Cook's son came up to them then. "As you took the red plume and as you took the silver-studded belt, take the Champion too," said Mell. Then the Cook's son took the Red Champion, all bound as he was, and putting him across his shoulders went staggering up the beach and towards the King's Castle.

VI

Mell the Hen-wife's son sat in the supper-room of the Castle again that night. The King's daughter, Princess Bright Brow, was there and she was as white as white rose-leaves and tears were falling down her cheeks. And when the wine had been drunk out of the cups the King stood up and called upon the Cook's son to come up to the High Chair and tell all how he had overthrown and had bound the Red Champion who would have put a tribute upon the Kingdom. The Cook's son came up to the High Chair and he told them a story that was wonderful indeed. And when the story was told the King said "Loose the Red Champion whom you bound, and when he has knelt here and prayed to us for forgiveness the King's daughter will take your hands and will marry you." "Look," said the damsel Sea Swan to Mell the Hen Wife's son, "how the Princess Bright Brow is pulling the hairs from her head in her grief."

The Red Champion was brought in bound and the Cook's son began to try to unbind him. But not one knot could he loosen. He tried and he tried and he broke his nails trying. "This is strange indeed," said the King, "for it used to be said that whoever bound one could loosen one."

He tried again and he tried again and not one cord could he loosen from another. Then the King's daughter Princess Bright Brow looked up. "How strange it would be," said she, "if it was not the Cook's son who bound the Red Champion."

Then up the Hall came Mell the Hen-wife's son. He stood over the Red Champion and he pulled a cord here and he pulled a cord there and in a minute he was unbound. All in the hall began to murmur "Surely the one who unloosed him bound him," said many people.

"He is the one who bound me," said the Red Champion, pointing out Mell the Hen-wife's son, "and besides it was he who cut the red plume off my cap and who took the silver-studded belt from me."

"Speak up and deny what he says," said the King to the Cook's son.

But when the Cook's son tried to speak he stuttered and stammered and his knees began to knock together and his hands went shaking. And when the company looked at him there was not one there who believed he had fought the Red Champion. And when the Cook's son looked round and saw there was not one there who believed in him he gathered the supper-things of the table like an attendant and went out of the room.

"And now," said the King to Mell, the Hen-wife's son, "since there is no doubt but it was you who conquered the champion to you I give my daughter's hand. Take her now for your wife and take half of my kingdom with her."

Then Bright Brow lifted her face to him and she put her hands in his hands.

"Mell," said she, "Mell the Hen-wife's son, I knew for long that you would come to me like this. Forgive me and love me," said she, "and I will love you from this night."

And so Mell the Hen-wife's son and the King's daughter, Princess Bright Brow, came together again. He married her and came to rule over half her father's kingdom. They lived happy ever afterwards, of course. And Mell brought his mother out of the hut beside the poultry-coop and he took her to live in the Castle. And in the end his mother married the Steward who had become a widower and she became the most respected dame in and about the King's Castle. And as for the Cook's son he is still in the Cook-house amongst the pots and the pans, the lids and the ladles.


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