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Celtic Tales of Birds and Beasts ››
 
There was a king of the Western Isles who had one son and his name was Ian. He was a fine lad and strong, who could run like the hare in the heather and hunt with the swiftness of the hawk on the mountain. And happy was he in his father's house until his mother died and the king married another wife. The new queen was dark and powerful in spells and jealous of the boy and wished to do him harm.

One day she saw her chance. The young prince had gone out hunting but found no game at all that day: only a blue falcon that flew past him as he made his way homeward. Carefully he aimed his arrow at her but she flew so swift that only a blue feather fluttered down from her wing to the forest floor. The prince put the feather in his hunting-bag and returned home. When the Queen saw him she asked him what he had caught today.

"Only this," said Ian, handing her the feather. But the Queen knew the feather had magic in it, and as she took it, she cried,

"I am setting as crosses and spells and the decay of the year on you that you be not without a pool in your shoe, wet, filthy and cold, until you get me the bird from which that feather came."
But the prince was not without some knowledge of magic too.

"And on you," he cried, "I am setting as crosses and spells and the decay of the year that you shall stand on the castle roof facing whichever way the wind blows, until I return."

And away he went to seek the blue falcon while the Queen found herself standing on the roof-top facing a howling north wind.

Prince Ian traveled through the wildwoods, endlessly seeking the blue falcon, but not a trace of her could he find. The winter dusk came early and the little birds were flying from the bush tops to rest beneath the briar roots, but Ian stumbled on through the blind dark night hopeless and alone. At last he rested under a bramble bush, when who should come that way but Gillie Martin, the fox.

"You're a sorry sight, Ian," said the fox, "and what's more you chose a bad night to come. I have only the hoof and the jaw of a sheep, but I'll share my supper with you."

They kindled a fire and roasted the meat, and after supper the prince told the fox of his quest.

"I can tell you where the falcon dwells," said Gillie Martin. "She is in the house of the giant of five heads, five necks and five humps, and I will show you where he lives. You can be there by morning and you must ask for work. Look after his birds well and he may trust you to feed the blue falcon. Be very good to her, and wait for a time when the giant goes out, and then you can run away with her. But of one thing you must take great care - not one feather must touch anything in the house or it will not go well with you."

So the prince set off the next morning, and he came to the house of the Giant with Five Heads, Five Necks and Five Humps. He hammered on the door and the giant stuck all five heads out of a high window and they all roared at him:

"What do you want?"

"It is work that I want," replied the prince.

"What can you do?" roared the five voices of the giant.

"I can tend pigs and I can tend cows, rake the muck of the pen and the byre, mash the bran and toss the hay, feed the hens and the cock in the coop, but I am particularly good at feeding birds," Ian said.

"It is the likes of you that I want," blared the giant, and let the prince inside. The prince was a marvelous help to the giant. He had a wonderful way with beasts of all kinds, and it was not long before the giant let him look after the blue falcon. He tended the beautiful bird so well that the giant thought he could trust him well enough to leave him alone in the house.

As soon as the giant left, the prince seized the falcon and swiftly made for the door. But as he crossed the threshold, the falcon saw the light and spread her wings out so that one feather touched the door-post and the door-post let out a screech! Back came the giant and grabbed Ian by the scruff of his neck.

"So, you want my falcon do you?" he roared. " I would not give her to you unless you fetched me the White Sword of Light from the Seven Big Women of the Isle of Jura!" and he kicked Ian out of the door. As he picked himself up he found himself nose to nose with Gillie Martin, the fox.

"Well, you're a sorry sight," said the fox. "You did not do as I said, and the sun is going down. What's more you chose a bad night to come. I have only the hoof and the jaw of a sheep, but I'll share my supper with you." So they kindled a fire and cooked the bones and ate them. And in the morning the fox said,

"Now I suppose I must tell you how to get the Sword of Light."

They set off together for the sea-shore at a brisk pace and the fox told him,

"Here's what you must do: You must ask the Seven Big Women for work polishing their metal ware, and do such a good job of it they will entrust you with the Sword of Light. But when you get a chance to run off with it, you must take care not to let it touch anything in the house or all will not go well. And now I will take you to the Isle of Jura."

"How can you do that?" asked the prince, but even as he spoke, the fox turned himself into a little boat. Ian leapt aboard and off they sailed for the island.

Prince Ian knocked at the door of the Seven Big Women of the Isle of Jura.

"What do you want?"

"It's work that I want."

"What can you do?"

"I can shine and polish your silver and gold, coppery kettles and candlesticks, burnish your cauldrons and saucepans bright, make your carving-knives sparkle and gleam. And I'm particularly good with swords!"

"It's the likes of you that we want," said the Seven Big Women of the Isle of Jura.

And Ian was so good at shining and polishing that they started to say to each other:

"We should let him do the Sword of Light."

And so they did, but it was not long after that that the women went on a wee trip to the other side of the island, and as soon as they left, Ian seized the sword, thrust it into the sheath, raised it onto his shoulder and made off with it. But just as he crossed the threshold, the point of the sheath touched the lintel, and the lintel gave a screech! Back ran the Seven Big Women, thundering up the path, and snatched the sword from him.

"We would not give that to you unless you brought us the Bay Filly of the king of Erin!" they screamed as they kicked him down the strand. As Ian spat the sand out of his mouth, he caught the eye of Gillie Martin the fox, laughing at him from a rock.

"You've made a right mess of things, haven't you? And with a terrible wet night coming on! I have only the hoof and the jaw of a sheep, but I'll share my supper with you." So they kindled a fire and cooked the bones and ate them and in the first light of day the fox prepared Ian for a trip to Erin.

"When we get there you must ask the king for work as a stable-boy, and at the first chance you get, ride off with the Bay Filly. But if any part of her touches the gate, all will not be
well with you." And the next day, Gillie Martin turned himself back into a boat and pointed the prow westwards for Erin's Isle.

When they reached the shore of Erin, the prince leaped ashore and made his way to the castle of the king of Erin. He hammered on the door till the king came out.

"What do you want?"

"It's work that I want."

"What can you do?"

"I can harness the horses with bridle and bit, fit 'em with saddles and silk caparison; polish the spurs and tie bells on their reins; nurse the colt and groom the destrier; but I'm particularly good with fillies!"

"Hmmm!" said the king, "Show him to the stable!"

And under Ian 's care the horses grew sleek and their silver shone, and the king was so pleased he said,

"This is the best stable boy I've ever had. I will let him look after the Bay Filly ."

And Ian looked after the Bay Filly so well, her coat was so shiny and she galloped so swift she would leave one wind and catch another. He waited until the king was away on the hunting hill, saddled and bridled her and led her out of the stable, but he was just taking her through the gate when she gave a swish of her tail, and touched the gatepost, and the gatepost let out a screech!

The king heard the noise as he was returning from the hunt and he seized Ian by the scruff of his neck.

"I would not give you the Bay Filly unless you fetched for me the daughter of the King of France!" he yelled as he threw Ian down the castle steps.

He wandered off miserably to the seashore and there he met Gillie Martin laughing at him from the top of a rock.

"Well you are in a pickle and no mistake! And all because you don't do what I tell you. So I suppose it's off to France with the two of us."

And he turned himself into a ship with full sails and off they sailed to France with the wind behind them.

When they came to the shore of France, the fox-ship rammed himself up against a tall rock and told Ian what to do. Off went the prince to the king's castle and knocked on the door and out came the king, the queen and their beautiful daughter.

"O misery me!" said Ian, "for a great storm has swept my ship onto the rock, and I'm quite stuck."

The king, the queen and the princess all came down to the shore to see the ship. But as they drew near, they began to hear the sweetest strains of music on board, and the princess just had to go aboard with Ian to see where it was coming from. But when she ran to one cabin it seemed to come from another, and she followed it from cabin to cabin and from deck to deck until at last she and the prince emerged on the upper deck of the ship — and saw that they were far out at sea!

"You tricked me!" cried the princess. "Where are we going?"

"You are going to Erin to marry the king, to get me the horse, to get me the sword from the Big Women of Jura, to get me the blue falcon of the giant with Five Heads, Five Necks and Five Humps, to take home to my stepmother so I may be free from my crosses and spells and the bad diseases of the year."

And the King of France's daughter said,

"But I would rather marry you."

Well, they got to the shores of Erin again, and the fox turned himself into the shape of a lovely woman with long red hair.

"You must take me to be the king's wife," he said. "And the princess must wait on the shore."
Well, the King of Erin loved his beautiful bride with the long red hair. He gave Ian the Bay Filly all decked in a gold saddle and silver bridle, but as soon as he took his sweet young bride to bed, and went to hold her close, she changed back into a fox again and nipped the king on the nose! Off ran Gillie Martin the fox down to the shore and turned himself into a ship again. The prince, the princess and the Bay Filly all sailed to the Island of Jura, and when they got there the fox turned himself into a red-brown filly and Ian took her to the house of the Seven Big Women. Ooh, they were so pleased to see the horse! They thrust the Sword of Light into Ian’s hand and one of them got up on the horse's back, her sister got up behind her, and another behind and another behind, until all seven of the Big Women were sitting atop her. Then away went the horse like the Black Wind of the North and the Pale Wind of the West, the Purple Wind of the East and the Pale Wind of the West. He carried them screaming over the mountain moors until he came to the highest mountain in Jura, where he kicked up his hind legs and off they all tumbled and rolled down to the sea.

Then he turned himself into a boat again, and off went the prince, the princess, the Bay Filly and the Sword of Light to the Western Isles of Scotland, and the fox turned himself into a great sword and Ian carried him to the castle of the giant with Five Heads, Five Necks, and Five Humps. The giant roared with delight and gave Ian the blue falcon. Then he took up the sword and whirled it around his head. But Gillie Martin bent himself round and swept off the five heads of the giant. Then he turned himself back to a fox again and ran back to the prince.

"Here," he said, "You and the princess must ride the filly to your father's house, but hold the sword high in front of you for your stepmother has a glance that is so deadly she will turn you into a bundle of firewood."

So they rode back home and Ian held the sword high and there was his stepmother, very wet and very cold, standing on the roof turning round and round slowly with the wind. When she saw Ian she turned upon him her deadly bewitching eye but the Sword of Light gave a sudden flash and she dropped down as a bundle of firewood. And Ian gathered it up and set fire to it and that was the end of her.

So now he had the best wife in Scotland and the Bay Filly so fast she could leave one wind and catch another, and the Blue Falcon to keep him in plenty of game, and the Sword of Light to win any battle. And he told Gillie Martin to help himself to any hens or geese or ducks or sheep on his land. But Gillie Martin winked and said he could find plenty to eat without bothering Prince Ian and his bride. He bid them a fond goodnight and slipped away back into the wood.

 
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