The Forge in the Forest  by Padraic Colum

Old King Fork‑Beard and the Scarf That He Gave

dropcap image ITH his kettle of fire burning above him, old King Fork‑Beard stays under a hill in our land. Sometimes the fire in his kettle burns very low, and then the people say, "King Fork‑Beard is sleeping." Sometimes the fire in his kettle lights up the sky, and then they say, "We had better look out, for now King Fork‑Beard is dreaming that he will come down and wet his horse's hoofs in the sea."

Old King Fork‑Beard was always dreaming that he would wet his horse's hoofs in the sea.


Old King Fork‑Beard was always dreaming that he would wet his horse's hoofs in the sea.

His red horse stayed beside him where he stayed, under the kettle of fire, and fed upon black oats. Then a day would come when King Fork‑Beard would stand straight up. He would tip over the kettle and spill the fire down the hill. He would mount his red horse and go galloping down towards the sea.

And our own horses, as King Fork‑Beard upon his red horse came along, would break out of their stables. The goats would have gone first, and the horses would follow where the goats led. The cattle would go plunging about. The sheep would run up a hillside. The cocks would crow, seeing the redness from the kettle of fire. The hens and chickens would go flying from bush to bush, thinking that each bush would be the last they would have to fly to. The ducks would be the most quiet of all; they would find a stream and go swimming in it. The geese would remember they had wings; they would spread them out, and some of them would go flying towards the moon.

And so old King Fork‑Beard upon his red horse would go through the land. On and on he would go, so that his horse might wet its hoofs in the sea. And many a good corn-field and many a good grazing field he would spoil for us as he went upon his way. But after a while he would be back under his hill, sleeping, with his knees drawn up to his beard, and his horse beside him feeding upon black oats, and the kettle of fire burning above him.

And as he stays there with his kettle of fire burning low there are some in our land who say a good word for King Fork‑Beard. Indeed there are some who mention his name with the names of the heroes who have saved the land. And they who mention his name in this way tell this story about the gift that King Fork‑Beard gave.

They tell of a maiden to whom he gave a scarf, and this scarf was such that wherever it was spread fire came. The maiden to whom it was given was named Ortrud. And when her father died Ortrud was made ruler of our land.

A lord who came from across the sea married Ortrud, the ruler of our land. He married her vowing that he would bring no soldiers from across the sea into our country and have no arms that the Council of our people did not know of. So Ortrud ruled our land, and the lord whom she had married was by her side. And in those days King Fork‑Beard slept, and the fire from his kettle was hardly to be seen.

Ortrud was happy with her lord, and the people who thought that all oaths were being kept were happy with their ruler. All was well and very well, with the land, and the soldiers that we had were hardly in the hundreds.

It happened that Ortrud was one day spinning in a high room in the great house of the rulers of the land. Her maidens were around her, spinning, and singing a song that had in it words about the sleep of King Fork‑Beard. The spindle that Ortrud had fell from her hand. It rolled away and it fell down through a crack that was in the floor.

She went and she looked down through the crack that the spindle had fallen through. And she saw men in the wide chamber below, men standing silently in the half-darkness, with arms in their hands. Then Ortrud knew that the oaths that her husband had sworn had been broken, and that he had brought into the country armed men who could overthrow it and enslave it. She did not cry out as she looked down and saw the soldiers standing stiffly there, under the roof of the rulers of the land.

She rose up, and she left her maidens, and she went to where her husband was pacing up and down in his chamber. She looked straight into his eyes, but he did not look straight into hers. He did not speak to her; she did not speak to him. She went back to where her maidens were, and she whispered to them, and they rose up and went out of the high room, and left the great house, and all those whom they found and spoke to left the great house also.

Then Ortrud went into her own chamber where many sacred things were, and she took the scarf that King Fork‑Beard had given her. She left it down on the floor of the great house, and she went outside and joined her maidens and those who had gone out of the house. Her maidens had brought their spindles, and she sat amongst them and had them go on with their spinning.

But now fire came upon the great house and the redness of burning. The fire that was from the scarf King Fork‑Beard had given broke out from the walls and leaped up to the very roof, and the thousand starlings that had just come to nestle along the eaves flew into a cloud of smoke. Then men came up from beneath the flooring of the great house, cutting their way through the timbers with their axes and great swords, and throwing off their armour that was hot upon them, and throwing down their weapons that were hot within their hands. They came up, crying out in terror, and they fled away. And the husband of Ortrud came out of the great house, and the light of the burning was upon his face, making it seem all crooked. He and the men he had brought into our country fled down to the sea, and they took to their ships, and they sailed away from the land.

And so Ortrud was left alone, and the great house that she had lived in as ruler was left there standing blackened and broken as a monument to the great deed that was hers when she spread the scarf that was King Fork‑Beard's upon the floor of the house and saved the land from the armed men who would have overthrown it.

And so it comes that when our people speak of those who saved the land in the old days they speak of King Fork‑Beard who gave the scarf that Ortrud spread upon the floor, bringing the fire that routed those armed men. They speak kindly of King Fork‑Beard, although he has just come down from his hill and narrowed the corn-lands and the grazing fields upon us. I have been there when he has gone by upon his red horse. But not always does he have his horse wet its hoofs in the sea. The Woman in the Sky sometimes pours down a flood that makes his horse halt. The people say that she, like Ortrud, lets her spindle fall down. And sometimes when she looks to where it has fallen she sees King Fork‑Beard riding along upon his red horse. She halts them then before the horse has wet its hoofs in the sea.