More CELTIC FAIRY TALES
Smallhead and the King's Sons
A 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
"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
"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
"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
"You have killed enough in your life and so let these go," said the
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
"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
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 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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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,
"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
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,
"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!" 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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
"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,
"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
The King's son looked at her and thought, "There must be something in
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
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.