The Boy Who Knew What the Birds Said  by Padraic Colum

The Hen-wife's Son and the Princess Bright-brow

Part 2 of 3


The Hen-wife's son went through the Eastern and the Western Worlds and he came back to where his mother's hut was. He rode round the walls of the King's Castle. Everything that he thought was magnificent before seemed small to him now. The trees that grew within the walls seemed not much bigger than the bushes the old women put clothes to dry on.

Sitting on his black horse he looked across the wall that he once thought was so high and he saw the Hen-wife's hut. His mother came out to feed the hens and to count them and to gather up the eggs and put them in a basket. "She's alive and I'll see her again," said Mell. He rode round the wall to the King's Garden to try to get sight of the Princess Bright Brow. He saw no sight of her. He rode on and he came to the gate at the other side and he saw outside the Cook-house the horse-boys and dog-boys and grooms that he used to know.

He saw them and he knew them, but they did not know him. He was surprised to see that they had not learnt to straighten up their shoulders nor to walk as if there was a fine thought in their heads. They were all around the Cook-house, and a great noise of rattling was coming from within it.

"What noise is that in the Cook-house?" Mell asked a groom.

"The Cook's son is going out to fight," said the groom, "and he is striking the pot-lids with the ladles to let everyone in the Cook-house know how fierce he is."

"And who is the Cook's son going to fight?" asked Mell the Henwife's son.

"He is going to fight a great Champion that has come up from the sea in a boat that moves itself. This Champion demands that the King pay tribute to him. And the King has offered his daughter and half his kingdom to the youth who will go down to the sea-shore and defeat this Champion. And to-day the Cook's son is going out to make trial."

And while the groom was saying all this the Cook's son came out of the Cook-house. His big face was all gray. His knees were knocking each other. The breastplate of iron he had on was slipping to one side and the big sword he had put in his belt was trailing on the ground.

"I would like to see what sort of a fight this Champion will make," said Mell, the Hen-wife's son. He followed the Cook's son to the sea-shore. But the Cook's son, when he had come to the shore, looked round and found a little cave in the face of the rock and climbed into it.

Then a boat that moved of itself came in from the sea, and a Champion all in red sprang out of it. And when he had touched the shingles he struck his sword on his shield and he shouted "If the King of this Land has a Champion equal to the fray let him forth against me. And if the King of the Land has no such Champion, let him pay me tribute from his Kingdom."

Mell looked to the cave where the Cook's son had hidden himself and all he saw there was a bush being pulled towards the opening to hide it.


Then Mell the Hen-wife's son drew his sword and went down the beach towards the Red Champion. They fought for half the day. At the end of that time the Red Champion said "Good is the champion that the King of this Land has sent against me. I did not know he had such a good champion."

They fought all over the strand making the places that were stony, wet, and the places that were wet, stony, and then, when the sun was going down, the Red Champion was not able to do anything more than guard himself from the strokes of Mell's sword while he drew towards his boat.

"You will have the honors of the fight to-day," said he to Mell.

"I shall have the honors and something else beside," said Mell. Then he struck at the red plume that was on his enemy's cap. He cut it off as the Red Champion sprang into the boat that moved of itself. As the sun was sinking the Champion in the boat went over the sea.

Now the Cook's son had been watching the whole fight from the cave. When he saw the Red Champion going off in his boat he came running down to the shore. The Hen wife's son was lying with his hands and his face in the water trying to cool himself after the combat and the red plume that he had struck off the Champion's cap was lying near him. The Cook's son took up the plume.

"Let me keep this as a remembrance of your fight, brave warrior," said he to the Hen-wife's son.

"You may keep it," said Mell. Then with the red plume in his hands the Cook's son ran back towards the Castle.


Mell the Hen-wife's son put on his best garments and he went to the Castle that evening and he was received by the King as a champion from foreign parts and the King invited him to supper for three nights.

Princess Bright Brow was at the supper and Mell watched and watched her. He saw that she was pale and that she kept sighing. And of the damsel who came to sit beside him at the table Mell asked "Why is the King's daughter so sad and troubled looking?"

She has reason for being sad and troubled, said the damsel who was called Sea Swan, "for she thinks she may have to marry one whom she thinks little of."

"Why should that be?" said Mell.

Because her father has promised to give her and half his Kingdom to the one who will defeat the Red Champion who has come from across the sea and who demands that the King give him tribute from the land. And the only one who has gone forth against the Champion is the Cook's son—a gray-faced fellow that only a kitchen-maid would marry. And if it happens that the Cook's son overcomes the Red Champion, well then Princess Bright Brow will have to marry him."

And later on Sea Swan said to Mell "The King's daughter is so troubled that she would go away to the Island of the Shadow of the Stars if she had the jewel that would bring her there. She had it once, but a Fairy Woman came out of the green rath and made Bright Brow give it to her."

When the feast was at its height the King stood up and bade the Cook's son come near the High Chair and tell how he had fought with the Red Champion that day. And the Cook's son came up holding the red plume in his hand. He told a story of how he had fought with the Red Champion all the day and how he had beaten him to his boat and how he had made him take his boat out to sea, and how, as the Champion had sprung into the boat, he had struck at him and had cut the red plume from his cap. "And I shall go down the sea-shore to-morrow," said the Cook's son very bravely, "and if the Red Champion dares come back I shall take off his head instead of his plume." Then he left the red plume beside the King's daughter and her father made Bright Brow hold up her forehead for the Cook's son to kiss. And all in the supper-room clapped their hands for the Cook's son.

The next day Mell the Hen-wife's son stood outside the Cook-house and he heard a tremendous rattling within. "That is the Cook's son preparing to go out to battle," said one of the grooms. "He is striking the ladles upon the pot-lids to show how fierce he is." Just as that was being said the Cook's son walked out of the Cook-house. He looked around him very haughtily. Then he walked away with his big sword trailing behind him and his breast-plate all to one side. Mell the Hen-wife's son followed him.

When he came to the seashore he stood for a while looking out to sea with his knees knocking together. Then he went where he had gone the day before. He climbed into a cave in the face of the cliff and he drew the bush to the entrance of it so that it was quite hidden.

Mell the Hen-wife's son looked out to sea and he saw the boat that moved of itself come towards the shore. The Red Champion was in it. He sprang out on the strand, struck his sword on his shield and made proclamation: Unless the King of the Land sent a champion who could overthrow him he would make him pay tribute for his Kingdom.

Then down to meet him came Mell the Hen-wife's son, his sword in his hand. He and the Red Champion saluted each other and then they fought together trampling over the beach, making the soft places hard and the hard places soft with the dint of their trampling. "A good champion, by my faith you are," said the Red Champion to Mell, when three-quarters of the day had been spent in fighting. And after that the Red Champion tried only to guard himself from the thrusts and the strokes of Mell's sword. He drew away from Mell and towards his boat. He put his two feet in it and pushed away. "You have the honors of the day's fight, champion," said he. "I shall have something beside the honors," said Mell and he struck at the Red Champion's belt. Down on the shingles fell the silver-studded belt and the Red Champion pushed off in his boat.

When the Cook's son saw from his cave that the Red Champion had gone he came down to the water's edge where Mell was lying with his face and hands in the water to cool himself after the combat. The silver-studded belt was lying beside Mell. The Cook's son took it up without saying a word and he went off towards the Castle.

That night Mell the Hen-wife's son sat by himself in the supper room of the King's Castle. He watched and watched the face of the Princess Bright Brow. She looked more pale and troubled than on the night before. And after the harpers had played the King called upon the Cook's son to come up to the High Chair and tell how he had battled with the Red Champion. He came up with the silver-studded belt in his hand and he told a story of how he had beaten the Red Champion back into the sea. And when the story was told the King bade Bright Brow go over to him and kiss the Cook's son on his heavy gray cheek.