Gateway to the Classics: The Boy Who Knew What the Birds Said by Padraic Colum
The Boy Who Knew What the Birds Said by  Padraic Colum


The Stone of Victory

And How Feet-in-the-Ashes, the Swineherd's Son, Came to Find It


"I F we went there, if we went there, maybe we'd find it," said the Cock-grouse to the Hen-grouse as they went together, clucking through the heather.

"And if we found it, if we found it, what good would the Stone of Victory do us?" said the Hen-grouse to the Cock-grouse, answering him back.

"And what good did the Stone of Victory do to the youth who was called Feet-in-the-Ashes, and who was only the Swineherd's Son?" said the Cock-grouse to the Hen-grouse.

"Tell me, tell me, and then I shall know," said the Hen-grouse to the Cock-grouse, answering him back. They went together, clucking through the heather and the Boy who knew what the Birds said followed them.

He lay upon a rock and the Cock-grouse and the Hen-grouse discoursed below him, the Cock-grouse always lifting his voice above the hen's. The Boy heard what they said and he remembered every word of it. And, by the tongue in my mouth, here is the story he heard:—

"Cluck-ee, Cluck-ee, cluck-ee, cloo, cloo, cloo." The King of Ireland stood outside the gate of his Castle and his powerful captains and his strong-armed guards were all around him. And one of his captains went to the mound before him and he gave a shout to the East and a shout to the West, and a shout to the North and a shout to the South. When the King asked him why he did it the Captain said "I want the four quarters of the World to know that the King of Ireland stands here with his powerful Captains and his strong armed guards that no one dare come from the East or West, the North or the South and lay the weight of a finger upon him." And when he said this the other captains flashed their swords and the guards clashed their shields and the King of Ireland said "Well and faithfully am I guarded indeed and luckier am I than any other King on the earth for no one can come from the East or the West, the North or the South and lay the weight of their finger upon me."

But no sooner did he say that than they saw a Giant coming across the hill and towards the place where they were standing. And when the Giant came to them he lifted up his hand and he doubled his hand into a fist and he struck the King of Ireland full in the mouth and he knocked out three of his teeth. He picked the King's teeth up, put them in his pouch, and without one word walked past them and went down to the sea.

"Who will avenge the insult put upon me?" said the King of Ireland, "and which of my captains will go and win back for me the three best teeth I had?" But not one of his captains made a step after the Giant.

"I know now," said the King, "How well you serve and how well you guard me. Well, if none of you will help me and if none of you will avenge me, I'll find those who will. And now I'll make a proclamation and I'll solemnly declare that whoever avenges the insult offered to me, and, in addition brings back to me the three that were the best teeth in my head, even though he be a servant or the son of a servant, I'll give him my daughter in marriage and a quarter of my kingdom, and, more than that," said he, "I'll make him full captain over all my guards."

The proclamation was sent all over the Castle and in the end it came to the ears of the Swineherd's Son who was called Feet-in-the-Ashes. And when he heard it he rubbed the ashes out of his hair and he said to his grandmother—"If there is anything in the world I want it is the King's daughter in marriage and a quarter of the Kingdom. I'll want provision for my journey," said he, "so, grandmother, bake a cake for me." "I'll do better than that for you, honey, if you are going to win back the King's teeth and marry the King's daughter," said his grandmother. "I have a few things of my own that no one knows anything about, and I'll give them to you with your cake. Here," said she, "is my crutch. Follow the Giant's tracks until you come to the sea, throw the crutch into the sea and it will become a boat, step into the boat and in it you can sail over to the Green Island that the Giant rules. And here's this pot of balsam. No matter how deep or deadly the sword-cut or the spear-thrust wound is, if you rub this balsam over it it will be cured. Here's your cake too. Leave good-luck behind you and take good-luck with you, and be off now on your journey."

"And why was the youth called Feet-in-the-Ashes?" said the Hen-grouse to the Cock-grouse.

He was called Feet-in-the-Ashes because he had sat in the chimney-corner from the time he could stand upon two legs. And everybody who called him Feet-in-the-Ashes thought he was too lazy to do anything else. Well, he left good-luck behind him and he took good-luck with him and he started off on his journey with the cake, the crutch and the cure. He followed the Giant's tracks until they came down to the sea. Into the sea he flung his grandmother's crutch. It became a boat with masts and sails. He jumped into the boat, and the things that had to be done in a boat were done by him.—

He hoisted the sails—the red sail, the

black sail and the speckled sail,

He gave her prow to the sea and her stern

to the land,

The blue sea was flashing,

The green sea was lashing,

But on they went with a breeze that he him-

self would have chosen,

And the little creatures of the sea sat up on

their tails to watch his going.

and so he went until he came near the Green Island where Shamble-shanks the Giant who had carried off the three teeth of the King of Ireland had his Castle and his stronghold.

He fastened his boat where a boat should be fastened and he went through the Island until he came to a high grey Castle. No one was about it and he went through it, gate, court and hall. He found a chamber where a fire burned on the hearth-stone. He went to the fire gladly. He looked around the chamber and he saw three beds. "There's room to rest myself here, at all events," said Feet-in-the-Ashes.

Night came on and he left the fire and got into a bed. He pulled one of the soft skins over him. Just as he was going to turn on his side to sleep three youths came into the chamber. Feet-in-the-Ashes sat up on the bed to look at them.

When they saw him they began to moan and groan and when he looked them over he saw they were all covered with wounds—with spear-thrusts and with sword-cuts. The sight of him in the bed, more than their wounds, made them moan and groan, and when he asked them why this was so the first of the three youths said:—

"We came here, the three of us, to fight the Giant Shamble-shanks and to take from this Island the Stone of Victory. We came to this Castle yesterday and we made three beds in this chamber so that after the combat we might rest ourselves and be healed so that we might be able to fight the Giant again to-morrow or the day after, for we know that we cannot win victory over him until many combats. Now we come back from our first fight and we find you in one of the beds we had made. We are not able to put you out of it. One of us must stay out of bed and the one that stays out will die to-night. Then we shall be only two against the Giant and he will kill us when we come to combat again." And when the first one had said all this the three youths began to moan and groan again.

Feet-in-the-Ashes got out of bed. "You can have your rest, the three of you," said he. "And as for me I can sit by the fire with my feet in the ashes as often as I did before." The three youths got into the three beds and when they were in them Feet-in-the-Ashes took the pot of balsam that his grandmother had given him and rubbed some of it on each one of them. In a while their pain and their weariness left them and their wounds closed up. Then the three youths sat up in their beds and they told Feet-in-the-Ashes their story.

"Cluck-ee, cluck-ee, cluck-ee, cluck, cluck," said the Hen-grouse, "and what was the story they told?"

"Cluck, cluck," said the Cock-grouse, "wait until you hear, cluck, cluck."

Said the first of these youths. "On this island there is a moor, and on that moor there is a stone, and that stone is not known from other stones, but it is the Stone of Victory. The Giant Shamble-shanks has not been able to find it himself, but he fights with all who come here to find it. Today we went to the moor. As soon as we got there the Giant came out of the Grey Castle and fought with us. We fought and we fought, but he wounded us so sorely that we were like to die of our wounds. We came back to rest here. Thanks to your balsam we are cured of our wounds. We'll go to fight the Giant to-morrow, and with the surprise he'll get at seeing us before him so soon we may be able to overcome him."

"And along with the surprise, there's another thing that will help you," said Feet-in-the-Ashes, "and that is myself. I have to fight the same Giant Shamble-shanks and I may as well fight him in company as alone."

"Your help will be welcome if you have not come here to win the Stone of Victory."

"Not for the Stone of Victory I have come, but to win back the three teeth that were knocked out of the King of Ireland's head and to avenge the insult that was offered to him."

"Then we'll be glad of your help, good comrade." The three youths got out of their beds and they sat with Feet-in-the-Ashes round the fire and the four spent a third of the night in pleasant story-telling, and slumber nor weariness did come near them at all.

"Cluck, cluck, cluck," said the Hen-grouse,

"Say no more," said the Cock-grouse, "for now I'm coming to what's wonderful in my story—"

The four youths were seated round the fire when a little man came into the Chamber. He carried a harp in his hands. He bowed low to each of the four of them. "I am MacDraoi, the Giant's Harper," he said, "and I have come to play music for you." "Not one tune do we want to hear from you," said Feet-in-the-Ashes. "Whether you want it or not, one you will hear," said the Harper, "and that tune is the Slumber Tune. I shall play it for you now. And if the whole world was before me when I play it, and if every one in it had the pains of deep wounds, the playing on my harp would make each and every one of them fall into a slumber." "That tune we must not hear," said the first of the three youths, "for if we fall into a slumber the Giant will see to it that we shall never awaken."

MacDraoi, the Giant's Harper put his harp to his chest and he began to play. Slumber came on the eyelids of the four who were at the fire. Three sprang up, but one stayed on his bench dead-sound-fast asleep. One yawned and fell down on the floor. One of the two that remained went towards the Harper, but on his way he fell across a bed and he remained on it. Then, out of the four, only one, Feet-in-the-Ashes, was left awake.

The Harper played on. Feet-in-the-Ashes put his fingers in his mouth and commenced to gnaw them. He gnawed the first two fingers down to their joints. But still his mouth kept open in a yawn and still the slumber kept heavy on his eyelids. He gnawed his third and his little finger. Then he put his right hand in his mouth and he bit at his thumb and he bit so sharply that his senses nearly all came back to him. With a kick he knocked the harp out of the Harper's hands. He caught MacDraoi then and turned him head below heels and left him hanging by his feet from a beam across the chamber. Then he went straight through the hall and out of the Castle.

A wet breeze was blowing and whatever sleep was on his eye it blew away. He walked on with the dark clouds of the night going behind him and the bright light of the day growing before him. "I'll turn back," said he, "when I hear a cock crowing, and whatever I find beside me then I'll take with me to remind myself of where I have been."

He found himself on a moor and he walked on until he was far on it. A cock crew. "Time to turn back," said Feet-in-the-Ashes. He looked round to see what he might bring with him and he saw on the ground a round stone.

"A round stone?" said the Hen-grouse.

"Yes," said the Cock-grouse, "a round black stone. He took it up, that round black stone, and he went back to the Castle, hungry for his breakfast."

In the Castle Chamber the three youths were still slumbering, one on the bench, one on the floor and one in a bed and MacDraoi the Harper was still hanging by his feet from the beam across the Chamber. "Lift me down from this, good lad," said the Giant's Harper.

"I will," said Feet-in-the-Ashes, "when my three companions awaken."

"They won't awaken," said MacDraoi the Harper.

"Then you can hang there," said Feet-in-the-Ashes.

"They won't awaken," said MacDraoi, "until I cause them to awaken, and I shall cause them to awaken if you lift me down from this."

"Will you promise by your head," said Feet-in-the-Ashes.

"By my head I promise," said the Giant's Harper.

Then Feet-in-the-Ashes lifted the Harper down from the rafters and set him upon his legs. MacDraoi took up the harp and he pulled the strings back-ways. The notes he drew out were so piercing that first one and then another and then a third of the three youths wakened up. Then, when they were on their feet MacDraoi, the Giant's Harper, slipped out of the house and went away. What happened to the Harper after that no one knows.

"Cluck, cluck," said the Hen-grouse, "and what did they do after that?"

"The next thing they had to do," said the Cock-grouse, drawing himself up, "was to fight. Yes, my lady, to fight." The Hen-grouse drooped her head and said no more, and the Cock-grouse went on valiantly—

Swords they drew out—the three youths who were with Feet-in-the-Ashes. They sharpened these swords. They marched off towards the moor with the swords in their hands. Feet-in-the-Ashes had no sword. All he had in his hand was a holly-stick.

When they came in sight of the Grey Castle they saw the Giant come rushing out of the gate. He was clad all in iron and he had a sword in one hand and a spear in the other. The four youths spread themselves out so that they might be able to close round the Giant. But for all his bigness the Giant was quick enough. He struck one of them with his spear and brought him down on his knees. He struck the other with his sword and brought him down on his side. He struck the other with his iron-covered hand and brought him down on his back. And all that was left now was Feet-in-the-Ashes with his holly-stick.

What could a youth with a holly-stick in his hand do against a Giant that had a spear and a sword in his hands and was besides that all covered with iron? Feet-in-the-Ashes turned and ran. He ran towards the Castle and went round it. And when he was at the east side the Giant was at the North and when he was at the south the Giant was at the East. Round and round the Castle they went and the Giant with his strength and his quickness was wearing out Feet-in-the-Ashes.

Feet-in-the-Ashes wanted something to fling at him. He took the stone out of his pocket—the round black stone. He held it in his hand. He made three circles in the air with it. He flung the stone. It struck the Giant on the breast and the iron rang as the stone struck it. Down fell the Giant. Feet-in-the-Ashes ran off to where his companions lay. Many times he looked back but he did not see the Giant following him. The three youths were lying in their wounds and in their pain. Feet-in-the Ashes took out his pot of balsam and rubbed them all over. Their wounds healed. First one stood up and then the second stood up and then the third stood up and the three were whole and well. "Where is the Giant?" each of them asked.

"Lying where he fell," said Feet-in-the-Ashes.

"And who threw him down?" said the first of the youths.

"I threw him down with a cast of a stone," said Feet-in-the-Ashes.

"Let us go and see," said the second of the youths. They went towards the west side of the Grey Castle like men following a bear who might turn on them. The Giant was lying still. "He is dead," said one, "He is dead indeed," said another. "He is dead forever," said a third. "He is dead by the cast of my stone," said Feet-in-the-Ashes.

They went up to where the Giant was and looked all over him. "There is the stone that overthrew him," said one of the youths, "that round black stone. Where did you get it?"

"On the moor," said Feet-in-the-Ashes.

"On the moor," said the others looking at him.

"Yes," said Feet-in-the-Ashes, "Picked it up this morning on the moor just as the cock crew."

One of the three youths took the round black stone in his hand. "I'll bring the stone with me," said he. "We'll go into the Castle now and see what our finding there will be."

They went into the Castle. The three youths told Feet-in-the-Ashes they would help him to find what he had come to seek—the three teeth out of the head of the King of Ireland. They searched and they searched all over the Castle. At last one of them opened an iron press and there on a shelf was a silver cup and in the cup were three teeth. Feet-in-the-Ashes knew they were what he had come for. He left the cup beside him.

They took provisions from the Giant's store, put them on the table and began to eat. But first one and then another and then the third of the three youths made an excuse and left the table. Feet-in-the-Ashes went on with his breakfast. Then he left the Castle to look for the three youths that had been his companions. He did not find them. He went down to the sea-shore. He saw his boat and the sails were raised on it. In the boat were the three youths and they were making ready to put out to sea. Feet-in-the-Ashes shouted to them. Then one of the youths came to the side of the deck and spoke back to him.

"You found the Stone of Victory without knowing it," said he, "and you let us take it in our hands. Now we cannot give it back to you for our lives depend on our keeping it and bringing it away. And," said he, "we fear to stay on the land with you because you have such luck that you could take the Stone from us. The boat we came in is gone. We take your boat and we think that you have such luck that you will find another way of getting off the island. Remember that what you came for was not the Stone of Victory but the King's teeth, and we helped to find them for you."

They had hoisted the sails and now a wind came and the boat that was from his grandmother's crutch was blown out of the harbour and Feet-in-the-Ashes was left without any companion on the Island.

"Cluck, cluck, cluck," said the Hen-grouse, "he found the Stone of Victory, but what good were his findings to him when he didn't know what he had found and he let it be taken from him?"

"But if he hadn't to find it he couldn't have slain the Giant and taken the cup out of the iron cupboard—that much good the Stone of Victory did him," said the Cock-grouse.

"I'm sorry to think that that's all he got from the Stone of Victory," said the Hen-grouse.

"Well, that's all he got from it, and be quiet now till I tell you the rest of the story," said the Cock-grouse.

He went into the courtyard of the Grey Castle and he found there a great eagle that was chained to a great rock. The eagle came towards him as far as the chain would let him. "Feed me," said the eagle.

"Will you carry me to Ireland's ground if I feed you?" said Feet-in-the-Ashes.

"If you feed me every time I open my mouth, I will," said the eagle.

"That I'll try to do, good eagle," said Feet-in-the-Ashes.

He went through courtyard and pen-fold but not a sheep nor a pig nor a bullock could he find. It seemed as if he would not be able to find meat for the eagle after all. He went down to the sea-shore and he came upon a pool filled with thin bony fish called skates. He took a basket of these and put it on his back. He came back to the courtyard and he unlocked the chain that held the eagle.

"Feed me," said the eagle, and he opened his mouth.

"Close your eyes and I'll fill you mouth," said Feet-in-the-Ashes.

The eagle closed his eyes. Feet-in-the-Ashes flung a score of skates into his mouth. "Hard meat, hard meat," said the eagle, but he gulped them down. Feet-in-the-Ashes, holding the cup in his hands and carrying the basket of skates on his back, put himself between the wings of the eagle. The eagle flew up and over the Grey Castle and faced for the plain of the sea.

They travelled from the morning light until the full noontide. The eagle opened his mouth again. Feet-in-the-Ashes put nothing into it. The eagle finding nothing in his mouth dropped down to the sea.

"Close your eyes," said Feet-in-the-Ashes, "and I'll fill your mouth." The eagle closed his eyes and Feet-in-the-Ashes put another score of skates into his mouth. The eagle gulped them all down. "Whenever I open my mouth you will have to feed me," he said. Feet-in-the-Ashes did not like to hear this, for a score more of skates were all that was left.

The eagle rose up again and on and on he flew until the night was coming over the water. He opened his mouth again. Feet-in-the-Ashes put in five more skates. The eagle kept his mouth open and said "Feed me."

There was nothing to be done then but to put in the rest of the skates. Feet-in-the-Ashes flung them all in, and the eagle rose up and flew and they travelled while there was darkness on the water, and when the sun rose again Feet-in-the-Ashes saw they were flying over the land of Ireland. The eagle opened his mouth. Feet-in-the-Ashes had nothing to put into it. "Fly on, good eagle," said he, "and leave me down at the King's Castle." "Feed me," said the eagle. "I will give you what you never had before—a whole bullock—when we come to the King's Castle." "Cows far off have long horns," said the eagle mocking him. With that he flung Feet-in-the-Ashes off his back.

Sore would his fall have been if it had been on any other place but a soft bog. On the softest of soft bogs he fell. He made a hole in the ground, but no bone in his body was broken and he still held the cup in his hands. He rose up covered with the mud of the bog, and he started off for the King's Castle.

"Cluck, cluck," said the Hen-grouse, "and did he not go to see his grandmother at all?"

"If he did it's not in the story," said the Cock-grouse. "That very day, as I would have you know, the King was standing outside the gate of his Castle with his powerful captains and his strong-armed guards around him. 'A year it is today,' said the King, 'since the Giant came and struck me in the mouth, knocking out and taking away three of my teeth, and since that day I have had neither health nor prosperity. And you know' said he, 'that my daughter and a quarter of my Kingdom is to go to the one who will avenge the insult and bring back my three teeth.' 'Such and such a thing prevented me from going,' said one of his Captains, 'but now that so and so is done, I can go and avenge the insult offered to you.' 'So and so kept me from going,' said another of the Captains, 'but now that such and such a thing is done I can go to-morrow and bring you back your three teeth.' 'I am tired of hearing you all talk,' said the King, 'and it's my belief that my teeth will be lost and my daughter unwedded till the day of doom.'"


It was then that Feet-in-the-Ashes appeared before them, "Good health to you, King," said he.

"Good health to you, good man," said the King, "and what, may I ask, have you come here for?"

He was covered with the feathers of the eagle and the mud of the bog, and, as you may be sure, the King and the captains and the guards looked sourly at him.

"I have come first of all, King," said he, "to give you advice."

"And what is your advice?" asked the King.

"My advice to you is that you send away all these you have around you— your captains and your guardsand that you turn them into dog-boys or horse-boys or anything else in which they would give useful service, for as they are here, they can neither serve nor guard you."

"All that may be true," said the King, "but what right have you to say it?"

Feet-in-the-Ashes said nothing but he held the cup up to the King and the King saw three teeth in it and he took them out and placed them in his mouth and the teeth went into their places and there firmly they stayed.

Then Feet-in-the-Ashes told how he had gone to the Green Island and how he had avenged the insult offered to the king and how he had got what he had gone to search for. Then he demanded the King's daughter in marriage and a quarter of the Kingdom, and both were made over to him on the spot. As for the powerful captains and the strong-armed guards, some of them were made horse-boys and some were made dog-boys and Feet-in-the-Ashes was made Captain over the new guards. When he came to rule a quarter of the Kingdom he was given a horse and made a duke and he was called by a better name than Feet-in-the-Ashes. But what that name was I don't remember now.


"Cluck, Cluck, Cluck," said the Hen-grouse, "and did he go to visit the grandmother at all?"

"If he did," said the Cock-grouse, "That's another story, and if it was ever told I don't remember it. Pray go to the right, my lady, for I'm hungry for the sweet buds of the heather."


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