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The Battle of the Birds

arn THERE was to be a great battle between all the creatures of the earth and the birds of the air. News of it went abroad, and the son of the king of Tethertown said that when the battle was fought he would be there to see it and would bring back word who was to be king. But in spite of that, he was almost too late, and every fight had been fought save the last, which was between a snake and a great black raven. Both struck hard, but in the end the snake proved the stronger, and would have twisted himself round the neck of the raven till he died had not the king's son drawn his sword and cut off the head of the snake at a single blow.

When the raven beheld that his enemy was dead, he was grateful, and said:

"For you kindness to me this day, I will show you a sight. So come up now on the root of my two wings."

The king's son did as he was bid, and before the raven stopped flying, they had passed over seven bens and seven glens and seven mountain moors.

"Do you see that house over there?" said the raven at last. "Go straight for it, for a sister of mine lives there, and she will make you right welcome. And if she asks, "Were you at the battle of the birds?" answer that you were, and if she asks, "did you see my likeness?" answer that you saw it, but be sure you meet me in the morning at this place."

The king's son followed what the raven told him and that night he had meat of each meat, and drink of each drink, warm water for his feet, and a soft bed to lie in.

Next day he walked to another house that the raven pointed out, and the same things happened, and the next day, and the next, but the fourth time he came to meet the raven fourth meeting he found a handsome youth waiting for him with a bundle in his hand.

"Is there a raven around here?" asked the king's son, and the youth answered:

"I am that raven, and I was delivered by you from the spells that bound me, and in reward you will get this bundle. Go back by the road you came, and lie as before, a night in each house, but be careful not to unloose the bundle till you are in the place where you would most wish to live."

Then the king's son set out, and he was taken care of in the same way as earlier in the three houses. On the fourth day he entered a thick wood near his father's house. He had walked a long way and suddenly the bundle seemed to grow heavier; first he put it down under a tree, and next he thought he would look at it.

The string was easy to untie, and the king's son soon unfastened the bundle. What was it he saw there? Why, a great castle with an orchard all about it, and in the orchard fruit and flowers and birds of very kind. It was all ready for him to dwell in, but instead of being in the middle of the forest, he wished he had left the bundle unloosed till he had reached the green valley close to his father's palace. Well, it was no use wishing, and with a sigh he glanced up, and beheld a huge giant coming towards him.

"Bad is the place where you have built you house, king's son," said the giant.

"True; it is not here that I wish to be," answered the king's son.

"What reward will you give me if I put it back in the bundle?" asked the giant.

"What reward do you ask?" answered the king's son.

"The first boy you have when he is seven years old," said the giant.

"If I have a boy you shall get him," answered the king's son, and as he spoke the castle and the orchard were tied up in the bundle again.

"Now take you road, and I will take mine," said the giant. "And if you forget you promise, I will remember it."

Light of heart the king's son went on his way till he came to the green valley near his father's palace. Slowly he unloosed the bundle, fearing he would find nothing but a heap of stones or rags. But no! all was as it had been before, and as he opened the castle door there stood within the most beautiful maiden that ever was seen.

"Enter, king's son," said she, "all is ready, and we will be married at once," and so they were.

The maiden proved a very good wife, and the king's son, now himself a king, was so happy that he forgot all about the giant.

Seven years and a day had gone by when one morning, while standing on the ramparts, he beheld the giant striding towards the castle. Then he remembered his promise, and remembered, too, that he had told the queen nothing about it. Now he must tell her. Perhaps she might help him in his trouble.

The queen listened in silence to his tale, and after he had finished, she only said:

"Leave the matter between me and the giant," and as she spoke, the giant entered the hall and stood before them.

"Bring out your son," he cried to the king, "as you promised me seven years and a day since."

The king glanced at his wife, who nodded, so he answered:

"Let his mother first put him in order," and the queen left the hall, and took the cook's son and dressed him in the prince's clothes, and led him up to the giant. Together they went out along the road, hand in hand. They had not walked far when the giant stopped and stretched out a stick to the boy.

"If your father had that stick, what would he do with it?" asked he.

"If my father had that stick, he would beat the dogs and cats that steal the king's meat," replied the boy.

"You are the cook's son!" cried the giant. "Go home to you mother'; and turning his back he strode straight to the castle.

"If you seek to trick me this time, the highest stone will soon be the lowest," said he, and the king and queen trembled, but they could not bear to give up their boy.

"The butler's son is the same age as ours," whispered the queen; "he will not know the difference," and she took the child and dressed him in the prince's clothes, and the giant let him away along the road. Before they had gone far he stopped, and held out a stick.

"If you father had that rod, what would he do with it?" asked the giant.

"He would beat the dogs and cats that break the king's glasses," answered the boy.

"You are the son of the butler!" cried the giant. "Go home to you mother'; and turning round he strode back angrily to the castle.

"Bring out you son at once," he roared, "or the stone that is highest will be lowest." This time the real prince was brought.

But though his parents wept bitterly and fancied the child was suffering all kinds of dreadful things, the giant treated him like his own son, though he never allowed him to see his daughters. The boy grew to be a big boy, and one day the giant told him that he would have to amuse himself alone for many hours, as he had a journey to make. So the boy wandered to the top of the castle, where he had never been before. There he paused, for the sound of music broke on his ears, and opening a door near him, he beheld a girl sitting by the window, holding a harp.

"Haste and be gone, I see the giant close at hand," she whispered hurriedly, "but when he is asleep, return here, for I would speak with you." And the prince did as he was bid, and when midnight struck he crept back to the top of the castle.

"Tomorrow," said the girl, who was the giant's daughter, "Tomorrow you will get the choice of my two sisters to marry, but you must answer that you will not take either, but only me. This will anger him greatly, for he wishes to betroth me to the son of the king of the Green City, whom I do not like at all."

Then they parted, and on the morrow, as the girl had said, the giant called his three daughters to him, and likewise the young prince.

"Now, son of the king of Tethertown, the time has come for us to part. Choose one of my two elder daughters to wife, and you shall take her to your father's house the day after the wedding."

"Give me the youngest instead," replied the youth, and the giant's face darkened as he heard him.

"Three things must you do first," said he.

"Say on, I will seek to accomplish them," replied the prince, and the giant left the house and bade him follow to the byre, where the cows were kept.

"For a hundred years no man has swept this byre," said the giant, "but if by nightfall, when I reach home, you have not cleaned it so that a golden apple can roll through it from end to end, your blood shall pay for it."

All day long the youth toiled, but he might as well have tried to empty the ocean. At length, when he was so tired he could hardly move, the giant's youngest daughter stood in the doorway.

"Lay down you weariness," said she, and the king's son, thinking he could only die once, sank on the floor at her bidding, and fell sound asleep. When he woke the girl had disappeared, and the byre was so clean that a golden apple could roll from end to end of it. He jumped up in surprise, and at that moment in came the giant.

"Have you cleaned the byre well enough, king's son?" asked he.

"I hope so," answered he.

After inspecting the floor the giant said, "Well, since you were so active today, tomorrow you will thatch this byre with a feather from every different bird, or else you blood shall pay for it," and he went out.

Before the sun was up, the youth took his bow and his quiver and set off to kill the birds. Off to the moor he went, but never a bird was to be seen that day. At last he got so tired with running to and fro that he gave up heart.

"There is but one death I can die," thought he. Then at midday came the giant's daughter.

"You are tired, king's son?" she asked.

"I am," he answered; "all these hours have I wandered, and there fell but these two blackbirds, both of one colour."

"Lay down you weariness on the grass," said she, and he did as she bade him, and fell fast asleep.

When he woke the girl had disappeared, and he got up, and returned to the byre. As he drew near, he rubbed his eyes hard, thinking he was dreaming, for there it was, beautifully thatched, just as the giant had wished. At the door of the house he met the giant.

"Have you thatched the byre, king's son?"

"Have I?" he said as if in deep thought.

"Well, you have been active today, and tomorrow I have something else for you! Beside the loch you see over there, there grows a fir tree. On the top of the fir tree is a magpie's nest, and in the nest are five eggs. Bring me those eggs for breakfast. But if one is cracked or broken, your blood shall pay for it."

Before it was light next day, the king's son jumped out of bed and ran down to the loch. The tree was not hard to find, for the rising sun shone red on the trunk, which was forty feet from the ground to its first branch. Time after time he walked round it, trying to find some knots, however small, where he could put his feet, but the bark was quite smooth, and he soon saw that if he was to reach the top at all, it must be by climbing up with his knees like a sailor. But then he was a king's son and not a sailor, which made all the difference.

However, it was no use standing there staring at the fir, at least he must try to do his best, and try he did till his hands and knees were sore, for as soon as he had struggled up a few feet, he slid back again. Once he climbed a little higher than before, and hope rose in his heart, then down he came with such force that his hands and knees smarted worse than ever.

"This is no time for stopping," said the voice of the giant's daughter, as he leant against the trunk to recover his breath.

"Alas! I am no sooner up than down," answered he.

"Try once more," said she, and she laid a finger against the tree and bade him put his foot on it. Then she placed another finger a little higher up, and so on till he reached the top, where the magpie had built her nest.

"Hurry now with the nest," she cried, "for my father's breath is burning my back," and down he scrambled as fast as he could, but the girl's little finger had caught in a branch at the top, and she had to leave it there. But she was too busy to pay heed to this, for the sun was getting high over the hills.

"Listen to me," she said. "Tonight my two sisters and I will be dressed in the same garments, and you will not know me. But when my father says "Go to you wife, king's son," come to the one whose right hand has no little finger."

So he went and gave the eggs to the giant, who nodded.

"Make ready for you marriage," cried he, "for the wedding shall take place this very night, and I will summon you bride to greet you." Then his three daughters were sent for, and they all entered dressed in green silk of the same fashion, and with golden circlets round their heads. The king's son looked from one to another. Which was the youngest? Suddenly his eyes fell on the hand of the middle one, and there was no little finger.

"You have aimed well this time too," said the giant, as the king's son laid his hand on her shoulder, "but perhaps we may meet some other way"; and though he pretended to laugh, the bride saw a gleam in his eye which warned her of danger.

The wedding took place that very night, and the hall was filled with giants and gentlemen, and they danced till the house shook from top to bottom. At last everyone grew tired, and the guests went away, and the king's son and his bride were left alone.

"If we stay here till dawn my father will kill you," she whispered, "but you are my husband and I will save you, as I did before," and she cut an apple into nine pieces, and put two pieces at the head of the bed, and two pieces at the foot, and two pieces at the door of the kitchen, and two at the big door, and one outside the house. And when this was done, and she heard the giant snoring, she and the king's son crept out softly and stole across to the stable, where she led out the blue-grey mare and jumped on its back, and her husband mounted behind her. Not long after, the giant awoke.

"Are you asleep?" asked he.

"Not yet," answered the apple at the head of the bed, and the giant turned over, and soon was snoring as loudly as before. By and by he called again.

"Are you asleep?"

"Not yet," said the apple at the foot of the bed, and the giant was satisfied. After a while, he called a third time, "Are you asleep?"

"Not yet," replied the apple in the kitchen, but when in a few minutes, he put the question for the fourth time and received an answer from the apple outside the house door, he guessed what had happened, and ran to the room to look for himself.

The bed was cold and empty!

"My father's breath is burning my back," cried the girl, "put you hand into the ear of the mare, and whatever you find there, throw it behind you." And in the mare's ear there was a twig of sloe tree, and as he threw it behind him there sprung up twenty miles of thorn wood so thick that even a weasel hardly could go through it. And the giant who was striding headlong forwards, got caught in it, and it pulled his hair and beard.

"This is one of my daughter's tricks," he said to himself, "but if I had my big axe and my wood-knife, I would not be long making a way through this," and off he went home and brought back the axe and the wood-knife.

It took him but a short time to cut a road through the blackthorn, and then he laid the axe and the knife under a tree.

"I will leave them there till I return," he murmured to himself, but a hooded crow that was sitting on a branch above, heard him.

"If you leave them," said the hooded crow, "we will steal them."

"You will," answered the giant, "so I must take them home." So he took them home, and started afresh on his journey.

"My father's breath is burning my back," cried the girl at midday. "Put you finger in the mare's ear and throw behind you whatever you find in it," and the king's son found a splinter of grey stone and threw it behind him, and in a twinkling twenty miles of solid rock lay between them and the giant.

"My daughter's tricks are the hardest things that ever met me," said the giant, "but if I had my lever and my crowbar, I would not be long in making my way through this rock also." However, he had to go home to fetch them. Then it took him but a short time to hew his way through the rock.

"I will leave the tools here," he murmured aloud when he had finished.

"If you leave them, we will steal them," said a hooded crow who was perched on a stone above him, and the giant answered:

"Steal them if you will; there is no time to go back."

"My father's breath is burning my back," cried the girl; "look in the mare's ear or we are lost," and he looked and found a tiny bladder full of water. He quickly threw it behind him, and it became a great lake. And the giant, who was striding on so fast could not stop; he walked right into the middle and was drowned.

The blue-grey mare galloped on like the wind, and the next day the king's son came in sight of his father's house.

"Get down and go in," said the bride, "and tell them that you have married me. But take heed that neither man nor beast kiss you, for then you will cease to remember me at all."

"OK," he answered, and left her at the gate. All who met him bade him welcome, and he charged his father and mother not to kiss him, but as he greeted them his old greyhound leapt on his neck, and kissed him on the mouth. And after that he did not remember the giant's daughter.

All that day she sat on a well which was near the gate, waiting, waiting, but the king's son never came. In the darkness she climbed up into an oak tree that shadowed the well, and there she lay all night, waiting, waiting.

Next day, at midday, the wife of a shoemaker who dwelt near the well went to draw water for her husband to drink, and she saw the shadow of the girl in the tree, and thought it was her own shadow.

"How handsome I am, to be sure," said she, gazing into the well, and as she stopped to behold herself better, the jug struck against the stones and broke in pieces, and she was forced to return to her husband without the water, and this angered him.

"You have turned crazy," said he in wrath. "Go you, daughter, and fetch me a drink." The girl went, and the same thing happened to her as had happened to her mother.

"Where is the water?" asked the shoemaker when she came back, and as she held nothing save the handle of the jug he went to the well himself. He too saw the reflection of the woman in the tree, but looked up to discover where it came from, and there above him sat the most beautiful woman in the world.

"Come down," he said, "for a while you can stay in my house," and the girl came gladly with him.

Now the king of the country was about to marry, and the young men about the court thronged the shoemaker's shop to buy fine shoes to wear at the wedding.

"You have a pretty daughter," said they when they saw the girl sitting at work.

"Pretty she is," answered the shoemaker, "but no daughter of mine."

"I would give a hundred pounds to marry her," said one.

"And I," "And I," cried the others.

"That is no business of mine," answered the shoemaker, and the young men bade him ask her if she would choose one of them for a husband, and to tell them next day. Then the shoemaker asked her, and the girl said that she would marry the one who would bring his purse with him. So the shoemaker hurried to the youth who had first spoken, and he came back. After giving the shoemaker a hundred pounds for his news, he sought the girl, who was waiting for him.

"Is it you?" inquired she. "I am thirsty, give me a drink from the well over there." He poured out the water, but he could not move from the place where he was; and there he stayed till many hours had passed by.

"Take away that boy," cried the girl to the shoemaker at last, "I am tired of him," and then suddenly he was able to walk, and went home, but he did not tell the others what had happened to him.

Next day one of the other young men came, and in the evening, when the shoemaker had gone out and they were alone, she said to him, "See if the latch is on the door." The young man hastened to do what she asked him to do, but as soon as he touched the latch, his fingers stuck to it, and there he had to stay for many hours till the shoemaker came back, and the girl let him go. Hanging his head, he went home, but he told no one what had befallen him.

Then was the turn of the third man, and his foot remained fastened to the floor, till the girl unloosed it. And thankfully he ran off without looking behind him.

"Take the purse of gold," said the girl to the shoemaker, "I have no need of it, and it will better you." And the shoemaker took it and told the girl he must carry the shoes for the wedding up to the castle.

"I would like to get a sight of the king's son before he marries," sighed she.

"Come with me, then," answered he; "the servants are all my friends, and they will let you stand in the passage that the king's son will pass down, and all the company too."

Up they went to the castle, and when the young men saw the girl standing there, they led her into the hall where the banquet was laid out and poured her out some wine. She was just raising the glass to drink when a flame went up out of it, and out of the flame sprang two pigeons, one of gold and one of silver. They flew round and round the head of the girl, when three grains of barley fell on the floor, and the silver pigeon dived down, and swallowed them.

"If you had remembered how I cleaned the byre, you would have given me my share," cooed the golden pigeon. And as he spoke three more grains fell, and the silver pigeon ate them as before.

"If you had remembered how I thatched the byre, you would have given me my share," cooed the golden pigeon again; and as he spoke three more grains fell, and for the third time they were eaten by the silver pigeon.

"If you had remembered how I got the magpie's nest, you would have given me my share," cooed the golden pigeon.

Then the king's son understood that they had come to remind him of what he had forgotten, and his lost memory came back, and he knew his wife, and kissed her. But as the preparations had been made, it seemed a pity to waste them, so they were married a second time, and sat down to the wedding feast.

[From "Tales of the West Highlands."]


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