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Song Suggestion: Black Heart by BrunuhVille
A fine set of wheels is all well and good, but there must be a horse to pull it and the horse Bethany’s grandmother had left her was so old that her coat had gone white. Her back sagged in the middle and she seemed always a step away from her last breath.
Bethany also had her grandmother’s old tom cat who was as clever as he was ancient. “I do not believe that old Sage will be able to do much pulling,” Bethany told him after the wheels for her wagon were fixed and it was sitting firmly on the earth instead of in it. “And it would be cruel to make her try.” Then she looked over at the faithful animal and felt a pang of guilt. “Neither can we leave her behind, for she cannot help her age and does not deserve to be abandoned.”
“Leave this with me,” the tom said. “Let us go and visit the village in the morning, for there is someone there that might answer this riddle for us.”
When morning came, Bethany got up and the cat said to her, “now listen. There is a rich man in the village and he has a secret that no-one has guessed but me. In his garden, behind a high wall and a locked gate, there is a natural fountain. And if someone drinks from it, be they bird or beast or man walking on two feet, they become at once as they were in their prime. So we are all going to go down to visit the man and dear Sage will once again be young and ready to pull us wherever you should please.”
“But how are we to convince him?” Bethany asked.
And the cat leapt upon her shoulder and whispered in her ear for a bit. “Just do as I say,” he said at last, “and everything will be well.”
Bethany arrived at the rich man’s house, which stood tall and strong behind a high wall. There, she found the man pacing before his gate, wringing hands, and muttering to himself. “Kind sir,” Bethany said, “You look distressed.”
The man looked up and, on seeing her, hope flooded his features; he’d known her grandmother, who had more than once offered him a wise word and it had often left him with more silver than he’d had before speaking to her. He was in need of wisdom now and something far more precious than silver did he stand to lose.
“Three daughters I have,” he told her, “each one more fair than the last. I love them beyond all measure and wish only happiness for them. Of late, they have been courted and I ought to be glad, for these men – brothers, they claim to be – appear quite wealthy and dress like gentlemen. These three brothers have each asked for my daughters in marriage and my children seem full of joy at the prospect. I would allow it at once but for a sense of foreboding in my heart; as much as my girls seem to love them, I feel there is something treacherous about these men. So I have agreed to give each three tests, one every morning for three days in order to make certain they are as they claim. If they fail but once they must leave and not return. Twice, now, they have bested me and I ought to be glad they are such strong, capable men, but my worry has only grown. Now the first brother approaches and if I fail to undo him, he will take my youngest daughter away before the bells strike nine.”
“I can help you,” Bethany said, “for the warning you have felt is no fancy. These are not men who court your daughters. I must, though, ask something of you in order to thwart them.”
“Anything,” said the rich man, for his daughters were more precious to him than all the jewels in his coffers.
“Let my cat drink from the fountain in your garden. Then you will ask the first brother to prove himself by fighting my beast.”
The rich man was nervous; the first brother was quite strong and quick, but he had no other answer. So he opened the gate to the cat. The old tom went into the garden and drank from the fountain.
When the cat returned, his fur was gleaming charcoal, his spots the deepest black. His eyes near glowed with vitality and Bethany at once realized how large he really was, no house cat for chasing mice, but nearly as large as the dogs the shepherds set to guard their sheep. He grinned at her and his teeth were very long and very white.
Just then, the first brother appeared and went to the rich man. “Give me my final task,” he demanded. “I’m eager to be away with the fair Daphne.” And Bethany saw why the rich man was worried for his children, even before she had told him they were not what they pretended to be; there was indeed something dark and wicked about the man’s face that set her heart beating fast. She saw the youngest daughter watching from the window and thought it odd she looked so lovestruck; the man was handsome enough, but his words were full of contempt for the rich man and Bethany certainly would not have trusted one that spoke to her own parent with so little respect.
The rich man pointed to the cat. “Fight this tom and win and you will have her, no more argument. Lose, however, and you must leave at once, as we agreed.”
The young man laughed and leapt at the tom. The cat was no longer there, but sitting quietly in the street, for cats are always where they wish to be and never where they do not. Three times the man tried to lay hold and failed. Then, the tom leapt upon the man’s head and let loose his claws and teeth.
Even though the cat was much smaller than the man, he was heavy, strong, and knew well that even a giant will fall, if you know where to hit it. He bit the man on the ear and down he went to his knees, howling. The Cat let go of his ear and tore off the bewitched necklace the man wore – for cats can smell black magic a mile off – and there was no longer a man beneath his claws, but a hideous, fat ogre. The youngest daughter screamed and slammed her shutters. The ogre, so beaten, got up and ran away.
The rich man clapped his hands. “Oh, but I knew there was something not quite right. But look, here comes the next brother already. What should I do?”
Bethany pointed to her hound, dozing nearby. “Have him fight my dog. But first, let her drink from your fountain, for she is old and will need her strength.”
The rich man opened his gate for the hound. In she went and, when she returned, her coarse coat was black, as it had been in her youth, her long legs were lined with muscle, and her sharp jaw was full of wicked teeth. This was no ordinary hound and she did not come from Inisfail. She had been bred to fight cave wolves, which are three times the size of an ordinary wolf and far more cunning. She was tall, lean, fast, and nearly as smart as the cat, though, if she knew the speech of men, she kept it to herself.
The second brother arrived and sneered at the rich man. “Shall we have the third task or do you just want to hand over Alisha now, before one of us gets hurt?” And Bethany wondered how the second sister, watching from her window, could miss the cruel, murderous glint in his eye?
“Your third task is to fight this hound,” said the rich man. “Win and you will have my daughter. Lose and you will leave forever, as we agreed.”
The man laughed and leapt for the dog. But despite being bigger than a cave wolf, he had not their speed or cunning and it would not have mattered besides; the dog was the best of her kind. The nimble hound evaded him easily and dodged his next two attempts as well. Then she maneuvered behind him and, with the grace of every wolfhound that had come before her, leapt upon his back to knock him sprawling, took his throat in her jaws, and pinned him neatly on the ground. The cat sauntered in and plucked away a bewitched jewel that was bound to his ankle, beneath the edges of his boot. He was no longer a man, then, but an ogre who was even more hideous than his brother.
The middle daughter screamed and slammed her shutters. The hound released the ogre and he crept off, beaten soundly. “And my heart is that much lighter,” said the rich man as he clasped Bethany’s hands in his gladness. “But we’ve no time for celebration. I see the third brother coming now and to lose even one of my daughters to such evil would be like to losing them all.”
“Do not worry,” Bethany said. “Only let my mare into your garden to have a drink from the fountain. Then ask the third brother to ride her.”
“I have seen him break a wild stallion,” the man protested. “In the saddle he has no equal and the beasts bend to his will without fail.”
“Only trust me one more time,” Bethany insisted and she trusted the word of the cat so well at that point that she never once looked unsure of her words.
The rich man flung his gate open and the mare went limping in. When she came back, her limp was gone. Her coat was a shining, dapple gray and her dark eyes were full of mischief.
The third brother arrived. “Give me my third task,” he demanded. “I’ll have Rachel away and wed before the sun has set, I’ve already decided.” Bethany saw the eldest daughter watching from her window and wondered how she could miss his look of evil intent.
“Ride this horse,” the rich man bade him. “Tame her and you will have my daughter. Fail and you will leave forever, as we agreed.”
The man laughed and leapt upon the mare, who moved prettily under his guidance. “Your wild pony is very well mannered,” the man said, holding his hands up in triumph. The mare promptly bolted, unseating him as she jigged sideways so that he had to wrap his arms about her neck. He tried to find his seat again, but this was no gypsy cart horse or even one of their wild, fierce ponies, which will give a good horseman a challenge when they don’t feel like behaving. Like the cat and the dog, she’d come from beyond the silver door and was of a kind that, in that other land, was called the Aiosshee, the faery horse. None could ride them, if they did not wish it and they found it quite humorous to take a rider on a long bolt, usually through thorn ridden bracken and low hanging branches.
The mare twisted and turned with wicked glee, her eyes sparkling in such a way that it was clear she was enjoying herself now that she could leap and run again. She slammed her hostage against the walls and twisted so that he was always near to falling, then catching him and tossing him to the other side. Finally, she grew bored of the game and let him tumble to the cobbles. He tried to clamber to his feet and the mare swiftly kicked him, planting both feet in his chest and sending him tumbling to her friend, the cat. The cat pounced upon the man and saw a jewel upon his finger. The cat bit the finger off, ring and all. The man was no longer a man, but an ogre larger and more hideous than either of his brothers together. The eldest daughter screamed and slammed her shutters.
“Give me back my finger,” wailed the ogre. “I’ll cause no more mischief, I swear it!”
“Oh, but that would be cruel of me,” purred the cat.” To bind three such clever ogres from their nature would be a waste. I will give you back your finger and let you live besides, if you just swear to return to she who sent you and set your gifts against her.”
To this the ogre readily agreed; he and his brothers had been tricked by the witch into taking the jewels she offered and there is not an ogre alive that welcomes being a witch’s plaything or sent to such ordinary mischief as stealing young women from their fathers.
The cat gave the ogre his finger and the three brothers returned to the witch of the dells. All her days after she had to hide in her cottage and sneak out in darkest night to avoid the brothers, for ogre skin is wonderfully thick and most spells bounce right off. And that is why one should never trick an ogre; even if they fall for it, they will bear a grudge against you for all their lives and seek revenge tirelessly.
The rich man was so happy to see his daughters safe that he gave to Bethany three sacks of silver wheels. His daughters each presented her with one of their finest gowns and though Bethany did not know it then, they would save her in another time and place. So there. Now you know to never take a blessing for granted, even if it was not the one you might have chosen.
The rich man’s wife, no less thankful than the rest of her family, gave Bethany several ropes of jewels and five rings that glittered like stars, one sapphire, one ruby, one emerald, one amber, and one diamond, each one more precious and beautiful than the last. As Bethany sat beside her fire later, she knew she did not need to go anywhere to make her fortune, for she was now quite wealthy by anyone’s standards. But it was adventure she wanted, not riches, and this did nothing to deter her.