Librarian's Note: The recorded tales of Kieren the Bard fall into three categories: the Woodland Cycle, Castles and Kings, and an unnamed cycle of lusty tales (recently destroyed by mysterious accident). Some are in the bard's own hand, while others, mere shadows of the originals, remain only as bedtime tales for children. The structure exemplifies the helical form favoured by listeners about the hearth on a long winter's eve. As to whether they describe real events, be allegory, or be mere entertaining fancy, the reader must decide.
Kieran was on the road from Wren to Fairtree, when he grew weary from the midday sun. His boots were tight and he thought to remove them for a bit in the shade of a nearby oak (oaks being a favourite of bards). This particular oak was venerable and gnarled, with sturdy branches that dipped and swooped, nearly touching the ground in spots. From its shade Kieran watched the forest creatures playing in the warm sun. But for the rustling of leaves, high above, the only sounds were of butterfly wings and birdsong.
"What a peaceful day," Kieran thought as he watched a butterfly drift by, "What a beautiful day! In truth, since bards first told tales, has there ever been a day more peaceful and beautiful than this?"
He drank from his waterskin and, taking his lute from its sack, cleared his throat and began to sing:
"Oh, the maidens of Wren are passing fair ... ...with breasts like melons, and flaxen hair ..."
He had just taken a deep breath to bellow the lusty chorus when a small, feminine voice said, "Kind sir ..."
He leaped to his stockinged feet, his face flaming red. "Who's there?" he cried.
The small voice repeated, "Please, sir, if you will be so kind ..."
Kieran looked about but saw no person or creature addressing him.
"Pray thee," he cried. "Show thyself or have cause to fear my dagger." (He tried desperately to remember where he had last seen it.) "Whether thee be friend or foe, pray thee show thyself now."
The small voice replied from above him, "Kind sir, thou hast no cause to fear me, and I am in need of help. Can thou find it in thy heart to aid me?"
He looked up and saw naught but a small robin's nest, three branches above him. Climbing swiftly, he found a robin with three tiny robinlings, their mouths open wide.
"Good mother robin," he asked, "Can it be thee who addresses me thus?" "Kind sir," she replied, "I have hurt my wing and it will be at least a day before I might fly. If my children do not eat soon, they will die. Would you be so kind as to bring a fat, juicy meal? Would you find a caterpillar or earthworm or grub for my children?"
Now, Kieran was kind of heart and it was not within him to refuse a plea such as this, so off he went into the forest. Searching under some mulberry leaves, he soon found a small green caterpillar. It seemed a perfect meal for young robins.
Plucking it from the leaf upon which it fed, he prepared to hurry back to the oak when he heard a tiny voice. He opened his hand and the caterpillar looked up at him with her big brown eyes wide with fear. "Kind sir," she said, "wouldst thou kill me so thoughtlessly?"
Kieran scratched his head in puzzlement and the caterpillar continued: "When thou cooled thy feet beneath the oak, didst thou not find joy in my parents' beauty as they danced before thee in the sun? I, too, am soon to change. Wouldst thou deny thy successors the joy of my dancing? And if I do not live to have children, how will thine own children find such joy? Please, sir, would not an earthworm serve the needs of the robinlings just as well? </i>
Kieran looked into the eyes of the caterpillar and knew that he could not feed her to the robins. Carefully, he placed her beneath her mulberry bush and continued his search.
Near a rushing brook, Kieran found a flat stone that, when moved, revealed a juicy earthworm enjoying the cool moist earth. "Aha." he thought. "As nice as the caterpillar may have been, this truly seems a more fitting meal for young robins."
He had no sooner plucked the earthworm from its cool abode (where it had been frantically trying to burrow away from him), when he heard a voice so faint he might have imagined it:
"Kind sir," he thought he heard, and Kieran looked in his hand. The worm continued: "I am but a lowly creature, it's true, but might I plead such case that I have?"
Kieran rolled his eyes skyward as the worm sat up and seized its chance. "I am not a lowborn worm like others you might find. No, I am a prince among earthworms. I come from an ancient lineage. My ancestors burrowed the earth when fires belched from black pits throughout these lands. I command millions like myself. Were it not for my loyal followers, you, good sir, would be up to your neck in leaves, tree trunks and mouldy carcasses. I'll make a bargain with you. If you release me and choose, instead, a pathetic grub for the robinlings, I will dispatch an entire clan of earthworms to keep your foreyard clean and sweet-smelling for as long as ye shall live." The earthworm looked hopefully at Kieran (while calculating the distance to the ground). "Good sir, what say ye?"
Kieran was beginning to lose his patience, but, seeing the value of the earthworm's offer, decided that a grub would, indeed, make a tasty morsel for the young robins. He returned the earthworm to its moist haven and carefully replaced the flat stone above it. And, true to his desire, a short while later, in a forest glade, beneath a wide slab of discarded bark, Kieran chanced upon that which he sought: a fat white grub that would grow the robinlings into beautiful songsters. He plucked it from its hiding place and set forth. It was a beautiful day, indeed.
Nearby, in stately Trowbridge, King Caladan did live with his lovely daughter, Einlea. The princess was the apple of the old man's eye and the crown jewel of his small kingdom. He looked upon her with the blind pride of a doting father, and she, for her part, did naught but bask and flourish in his bounty.
Trowbridge was quiet now, the chief sounds being the clatter of cart wheels and the cries of street vendors, but it was not always so. Three years earlier there had been trouble with Carthan to the west. It was not much, a border dispute, but the king persuaded a wizard named Loziard to come to Trowbridge in his employ, to aid him in the contest. Loziard was unknown by all in Trowbridge and kept to himself within the palace, coming and going as he pleased. When Trowbridge prevailed, with almost no loss of life, there was joyous celebration for days and weeks thereafter. Time passed, yet Loziard remained. The King, not wanting to seem ungrateful, said nothing, but became increasingly discomforted with the wizard's presence and wished for his departure.
On Einlea's twentieth birthday, King Caladan called for a celebration and holiday through all his land. Unknown to his subjects, he intended to proclaim his retirement and the transference of his crown to his beautiful daughter. Out of politeness, and nothing more, he invited the wizard Loziard to aid him in devising a proper speech.
Loziard was furious. He paced his chamber, his black brows knitted with intensity that would have soured any cow's milk. "Why," he cried aloud, "am I treated so unjustly by the old buffoon? Were it not for my skills, the border contest, mayhaps even the kingdom itself, might have been lost. I deserve more. I deserve the crown. To give it to that primping simpering daughter of his, who thinks naught of more than her own whim, is a slap more stinging than that of gauntlet. I will have justice. I will demonstrate, amply, for all to see, wherein lies true power."
Thereupon, Loziard made his preparations.
Princess Einlea's birthday came on a summer morning. Everyone within the city, and from the farms without, gathered to the palace for the festival. Banners waved from every rooftop. Fiddlers fiddled and dancers danced. Bakers baked wonderful sweets for the occasion. It was a day long to be remembered.
At noon, precisely, King Caladan and Princess Einlea emerged onto the main balcony to the cheers of the kingdom. "Good citizens of Trowbridge," called the King, "We are but a tiny kingdom, but we prosper, do we not?"
Loud hails (mostly) erupted from the crowd below. Encouraged, Caladan continued, "But now I am an old man. The day has arrived when younger blood can better attend to the needs and events of the kingdom. My subjects ... My loyal subjects and friends ... It is with honour ...and pride ...and the greatest of expectations ...that I transfer my kingdom and my crown to my loving daughter. To one and all, I give you" (a long pause here) "Einlea."
As cheers filled the air, Caladan made a grand, sweeping gesture with his arm, intending to make the presentation as spectacular as the pride that filled him. His robe went "swoooosh" and his hand pointed to ... nobody. What was this? Where had she gone? Where Einlea had been, moments earlier, there now was naught but vacant air.
"Er ...Einlea ...?" he called, uncertainly. But there was no response. Silence fell over park and courtyard. People glanced at each other nervously.
Old Loziard clapped his hands in glee. He danced. He hugged himself with uncontained laughter. "How wonderful ..." he cried. "What a breathtakingly stunning and talented a wizard I am.." For what he had done, of course, was to rid himself of Einlea for once and for all. With one stroke, crafty and evil, he had removed the vain creature from the palace. Nought else remained between him and that which he desired.
Now, magic is a tricky thing. Like all forces in the world, it must be kept in balance. As surely as day balances night and summer balances winter, so too must positive magic balance negative. For every hurtful or destructive spell, there must be an act of equal goodness or charity lest trouble overflow into the world. For every black wizard, there must be a white. For every spell of combat destruction, there must be healing. Know ye this ...if all who practice magic cast naught but healing or protective spells, dark, horrible forces would build up until chaos and ruin would burst forth and rain our doom down upon us. Thus may spells of healing be broken by harm, and the worst of spells be broken by charity.
Knowing this, Loziard planned well his act of vengeance. To permanently rid himself of Einlea (short of killing her outright) he must devise a spell so cunning that no act of kindness would ever break it. He was pulling lice out of his long beard, late one evening, when he burst into laughter. He would make her into something ...disgusting.
"I will make her into a frog." he laughed, then frowned. No ... that had been done. People might expect it and go around, like mindless idiots, seeking frogs, hoping to earn a kings ransom. And then, a brilliant plan occurred to him.
"I will make her into a bug, an insect, a WORM ..." He almost choked on his wine. "Oh. How perfect.. I will make her into something so truly loathsome that she will spend the rest of her little bug life in terror of being squashed by the first person who sees her." He squealed and his rings jangled and his fat jiggled and he snorted wine out his nose in laughter. "Oh, how absolutely delicious ..."
And that's exactly what he did. While King Caladan and his subjects scratched their heads in puzzlement, nobody saw a small fat white tree grub plop to the cobblestones beneath the main balcony and immediately curl up, glistening and quivering.
Einlea was terrified. What had happened? Well, she had seen enough of Loziard's magic to know what had happened. But why? Why would he do this to her? She didn't have long to ponder the question. A huge black hound, hundreds of times her size, ran to the cobblestone where she lay, and almost gobbled her with one slurp of his tongue. From somewhere, she found the wherewithal to roll out of his way and into the crevice between the stones. His HUGE slurpy tongue followed her, drooling and panting great hurricanes of hot awful breath down at her. But just as the tongue was about to lick her into the waiting stomach, the hound's owner yanked his massive chain and pulled the beast toward home.
It is true that Einlea, in her life as a human, was self indulgent and not inclined to effort or resource, but that was merely because she had no need of either. In the following days, she had cause to discover plenty of both within her. After the incident with the hound, she knew she must go far away from people and dogs. And she knew what kinds of creatures dined on grubs, too. She slept out of sight under leaves, in places where grubs would not likely be sought.
Even so, Einlea's days were filled with terror and adventure. There were circling hawks by day and owls by night. A bear, tearing at a rotting tree trunk, gobbled grubs, indistinguishable from Einlea, by the hundreds, as she watched in horror from behind a nearby rock. The smallest stream was now an enormous, gushing torrent, to be crossed in a nutshell under the greatest of peril. Einlea passed these tests, along with many others, and she passed them well.
It was on her tenth such day that a clumsy boot kicked aside the piece of bark under which she had sought shelter from the sun. Blinded by the sudden light, she heard an exclamation from high above. Then, before she could react, two fingers dropped from the sky and plucked her up and deposited her firmly inside a huge fist.
Ten days ago, Einlea would have been paralysed with terror. But that was ten days ago. Her mind raced. "Who is this clumsy idiot, anyway??" she thought, "and what on earth does he want with a tree grub? At least he didn't squash me on the spot. That's encouraging, isn't it? So he must be here to rescue me.."
She wriggled and squirmed in his fist until she could see his face, high above her, between two of his fingers. "Ugh. A beard. If I'm going to be rescued, why can't it be by a fine young prince?" But it then occurred to her that she was speaking from old habit. "I wonder how many of those foppish boys could have survived these past ten days?" She laughed, thinking of them. "Not many, I bet. Those who wouldn't have curled up and died immediately would, by now, be whimpering and crying for their mothers." She looked at Kieran again. "Well ... maybe he would look better if I wasn't looking straight up his nostrils. Ouch.. Why isn't he more careful with me??"
And then it occurred to Einlea that, if this oaf were truly rescuing her, he probably would have said something to her.
"Uh-oh." Einlea's heart raced and she started wriggling furiously, imagining the worst of all possible deaths. "He must be going fishing."
Einlea couldn't do much in her current state, but she could spit. And spit she did. In quantities unimaginable for so small a grub. She spit and spit and spit until her tiny grub mouth was too dry to spit another drop. She felt Kieran's hand squirming and thought, "It's working.."
Kieran was fair disgusted. Twas bad enough that he had to touch the slimy thing, but now it was oozing something and becoming truly revolting. Finally, just before he reached the robin's oak, he could take it no longer. He stopped and examined the creature in his hand. White and plump and glistening, it was, in truth, a repellent creature. Yet the poor thing was obviously terrified. It gazed up at him with what he imagined to be minuscule grub eyes, pleading. Kieran thought of the caterpillar and the earthworm, and his heart gave in. Heaving a great resigned sigh, he found a nice clean root and placed the grub upon it. And thus was Loziard's spell broken.
None could have been more astonished than Einlea when she unexpectedly grew to her former size, except, perhaps for Kieran, who nearly died of fright. He was no more than catching his breath when Einlea regained her wits. Raising her index finger, warning Kieran not to say even ONE word, Einlea snatched Kieran's coat to cover herself. Then, with fire in her eyes, and as much dignity as she could muster, she was off to Trowbridge, leaving Kieran to stare, open-mouthed, at her departing figure.
Einlea knew she could not simply enter the city and confront Loziard. The moment he saw her, he would but cast another enchantment upon her. So, disguising herself as a shepherd, she found an abandoned house on the moors and began to make her plans. What happened next is a tale worth hearing. But it is a tale for another evening. Indeed, it is a tale to be told over many an evening, and many a good pot of ale.
And what of the baby robins? Having no alternative, Kieran climbed the tree and took from his pack his last piece of fatty mutton. Tearing it into small shreds, he gave it to the grateful mother robin, who fed it to her family.
Upon returning to the ground, Kieran looked first toward Fairtree, his former destination, then, grinning, set off after the most surprising young lady, for whom he now had many questions. "Who knows ..." he called back to the robins, "It may be fate. And besides, I need my coat."
He was heard, late that evening, far down the road, singing:
"Oh, the maidens of Trowbridge are passing fair ... ...with breasts like melons, and flaxen hair ..."