by Michael Bergey
©2008 Michael Bergey
|An earlier version of this story appeared in South Fur Lands, under the title Faerie Dogs|
Well, now, its a tale from the Auld Sod, isnt it? And the events of it happened right many a moon ago, but theyre no less true for all that. So cast your mind back to County Donegal, if you please; for that is where our story begins.
It happens that in the hill country east of where the River Gweebarra meets the Bay of that name, there lived a young King. Not a High King, to be sure, but a Low King, who rules by honor, by right, and by the High Kings sufferance. Alas! while his lineage was of excellent repute, of wealth he had little. In sooth, the lands of our lads holding were fair to look upon but farming them is a fine way to slowly starve, as the summers of County Donegal are short, cold, and wet.
Still and all, that was the way of things: There were none as would hear ill of the Low King and almost as many to trade for his peoples craftings. And you cant eat reputation, now can you? So our King told himself that a good marriage would be his salvation, and applied all his wiles to achieving that end. The man was hardly unhandsome, after all, and him with a flashing silver tongue for flattery.
The young lordling borrowed money for to wrap himself in the finest of clothes; he traveled far to attend the finest of social functions; and after goodly effort and expense, he wooed and won the heart of a suitable woman. Time and again, this young lady begged her parents to agree to the marriage, and finally they acquiesced to her wisheseven going so far as to negotiate a niggardly bride-price, one so modest it had to be concealed as a state secret to reduce the embarrassment. The ladys kin had land and wealth enough of their own, after all, and their potential son-in-law was fair-spoken, and clearly endowed with both intelligence and ambition.
All would have been well, but for the bride-price. As meager as it was, still was it beyond the means of our young, ambitious Low King. His bride-quest had taken a good bit longer than he liked, and therefore consumed commensurately more of his wealth. In the end, of the little hed originally had, even less was now left.
Our lordling had but one resource left to him, and he was reluctant to attempt its use: Timber from the ancient forest known to all as the Foraois sa Mhadra. The trouble, you see, is that his people were already harvesting such wood as they could, and he did not wish to wreak ill upon their lowly livings.
Now, the trees of the Foraois sa Mhadra were large and lush, and their ancient branches were thickly tangled. Well, then, the Low King asked, why is it that this wood yields so little wealth?
And the reply came right quick: The Foraois sa Mhadra is most thoroughly and heavily haunted, the villagers claimed. Deadwood we may gather with impunity, but any who bring axe or saw soon find themselves facing a Faerie Dog of fearsome size and aspect. The Low King being an educated man, he was of course aware of the touchy, tricksome creatures who called themselves the Sidhe, and knew this Faerie Dog to be one of their number. However, while most Sidhe were deadly enemies when crossed, it seemed that the Faerie Dog was loath to kill or maim her victims. Rather, she preferred to snatch away their valuable tools, leaving the one-time wielder wounded only in his purse. As for weaponry, no one had ever dared raise steel against her! Peaceful coexistence seemed much more sensible to all concerned, and so the villagers gathered their deadwoodof which there was plenty for their purposesand left little offerings of food for the Faerie Dog. Some even called the creature friend, although not frequently, and never, ever in public. For as all sensible men know, its best not to speak of the Sidhe at all.
In all honesty, the Low King was not overly worried about this Faerie Dog who had never been known to harm any living thing. He knew that villagers were always filling themselves with silly fancies, and it was best not to push them too hard about it. Happy villagers are more productive and much less trouble than unhappy villagers. His parents, while they lived, had made very sure he understood that lesson.
But now, a rich holding and sweet, biddable wife were his for the taking, and all he lacked was a bit of money! Well, the Foraois sa Mhadra might be haunted, and it might not be haunted; but Faerie Dog or no, the forest would have to pay its way now. The lordlings future wealth and happiness depended on it. Then the Low King spoke to his people, working his wiles upon their willing ears. And ere long, the people were persuaded that the plan their lord wished to perpetrate was well and proper, such that none would willingly oppose it.
Having thus ensured a favorable response to the success of his schemedid he fail, his angry subjects would be the least of his concernsthe Low King returned to his castle, a small, wooden keep which had never faced strong opposition, nor could it withstand such. Call for my armourer! he cried. And fetch me the silver chains from my second-best bridle! And tell the kitchen Ill be supping outdoors tomorrowin the Foraois sa Mhadra.
Yes, Sire. As you command.
And so it was that the Low King, and all his men, rode out into a winters day bright with sunshine on crusted snow. Fallow fields and houses soon fell behind them, and then pastures as well. When the young lordling reached the edge of his haunted woods, he found the Faerie Dog waiting there for him. And she was eldritch and strange and beautiful, just like in the old songs:
Ears the red of foxs ruff
Pelt the white of ermine
Eyes the color of the dawn
Or campfire embers, burning
For this was one of the weird things about the creature: No one could later recall the color of her eyes at their first meeting. Withal, they remembered the ears and the furfur so fine it stirred gently to a breeze no man could feel on cheek nor brow.
Greetings, human! she said. Ach! I am flattered! Is it my own poor self yeve brought all these people here for? The Faerie Dog moved her muzzle to acknowledge the Low Kings many retainers and men-at-arms, and favored them all with a pleasant, doggy smile. None of the humans returned it. Not a one of them seemed pleased to see her.
The young lordling had been taken aback by the appearance of the Faerie Dog, but he did not show it. Concealed beneath his cloak he had a noose of the finest silver but hed never thought to be using it! Rather, hed thought to enjoy a simple meal in the fresh, cold, magic-free air of his far holdings, and then return to his Great Room to talk of silly peasant superstitions, and clever, profitable logging schemes.
Why, yes, Wise One. Weve wended our way here to talk with you of timber rights. Will you join me at supper, perhaps? At these words, the Low Kings retainers produced a clever folding table and set it in place.
A place at table for me, is it? Thoughful ye are, little King! But please, I couldnt ask ye to go to the trouble. We furred ones must always eat from on low, as is our place. Have your men but set my portion on the snow before ye, and I shall be content.
But Wise One, surely you wouldnt have it said of me that I had an honored guest eat off the ground? Come, now: This table is low, and you are tall. You may preside with me, and Ill serve you with my own hands. For what harm is there in showing humility from time to time, as suits the occasion? And so the Low King heaped a plate with the finest of smoked meats and buttery pastries, and secretly felt beneath his cloak to confirm that his silver tool was ready to hand. With great ceremony he set the dish before the Faerie Dog, and stood close beside her as she lowered her head eagerly to the feast.
Suddenly, as quick as thought, he had the silver chain out from under his cloak and around the Faerie Dogs throat! The moment it touched her she froze, and began to tremble. Then she raised her head to look the young lordling in the eyes, but he would not return her gaze. As all sensible men know, it is not good to look into the eyes of the Sidhe.
This is how ye betray my trust!? I should have known better. And is this food poisoned, too?
May lightning strike me dead if I wish ill of you! the Low King replied, and the Faerie Dog gave him a guarded glance. Going on, he said, This is discipline, not betrayal. For as I am master of this land, I am master of all within it. And I am your master, too, both by right of birth, and by right of conquest. You must serve and attend me in all things, for as long as I liveand that life shall be long and healthy, too. That is my command, which you disobey at your peril!
I see, said the Faerie Dog, and her countenance bore a calculating expression. So is this truly what ye would have of me, Mortal?
Aye. It is my wish, and my command.
Your wish. But wishes can be tricksy things
Tricksy or straight, it is my wish. Now, honor it you must, with no further delay!
Hearing these words, the Faerie Dog nodded her shaggy head. Very well. So mote it be!
Instantly the Low Kings hands began to burn! He looked down to see the silver chain ablaze with lightbrighter even than the sunlit snow beneath his feet.
Cease your trickery, bitch! he cried, and threw himself against the chain to pull it taut. But the chain slipped free from fingers grown suddenly stiff, and clumsy, and short, and he fell heavily to the ground. In disbelief the young lordling looked to where his hands had been, and beheld a pair of paws! Dog-paws, to be precise, clothed in fur as soft and white as ermine.
Kill the creature! Shoot it now! he commanded, but no words escaped his throat; only a tortured howl. A moment later the last remnants of his humanity had been wrest from him, and in his place thrashed a handsome, powerful white dog with red earshopelessly tangled in the fine, rich clothes of a Low King of Eire.
All light had fled from the silver noose, but some had soaked into the Faerie Dogs eyes. They had taken on the color of campfire embers, burning. She threw off the noose with a casual flip of her neck, and moved to stand possessively over the dog who had been King, snarling: This one is mine, now! He is my master and mate for as long as he shall live. Such was his wish, and such shall be his fate. Begone, Mortals, lest ye share it!
The Low Kings retainers and men-at-arms did not hear those last few words, for they had already fled the forest in terror, and not a tree of that forest was cut. The bride-price was never sent, and the young lordlings love soon turned her thoughts to other young men.
In the years that followed, food-offerings to the Faerie Dog and her mate were generous, and sincere, and never-failing. And on feast days, or when the weather was unusually bad, two white dogs with red ears could often be found presiding at the head of the table in the Low Kings Great Hall. Aye, and for all anyone can say, they may be there still!