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The Terrible Head

from The Blue Fairy Book





Once upon a time there was a king whose only child
was a girl. Now the King had been very anxious to have
a son, or at least a grandson, to come after him, but he
was told by a prophet whom he consulted that his own
daughter's son should kill him. This news terrified him
so much that he determined never to let his daughter be
married, for he thought it was better to have no grandson
at all than to be killed by his grandson. He therefore
called his workmen together, and bade them dig a deep
round hole in the earth, and then he had a prison of brass
built in the hole, and then, when it was finished, he locked
up his daughter. No man ever saw her, and she never
saw even the fields and the sea, but only the sky and the
sun, for there was a wide open window in the roof of the
house of brass. So the Princess would sit looking up at
the sky, and watching the clouds float across, and wondering
whether she should ever get out of her prison. Now
one day it seemed to her that the sky opened above her,
and a great shower of shining gold fell through the window
in the roof, and lay glittering in her room. Not very
long after, the Princess had a baby, a little boy, but when
the King her father heard of it he was very angry and
afraid, for now the child was born that should be his
death. Yet, cowardly as he was, he had not quite the
heart to kill the Princess and her baby outright, but he
had them put in a huge brass-bound chest and thrust
out to sea, that they might either be drowned or starved,
or perhaps come to a country where they would be out of
his way.

So the Princess and the baby floated and drifted in the
chest on the sea all day and night, but the baby was not
afraid of the waves nor of the wind, for he did not know
that they could hurt him, and he slept quite soundly.
And the Princess sang a song over him, and this was her
song:

"Child, my child, how sound you sleep!
Though your mother's care is deep,
You can lie with heart at rest
In the narrow brass-bound chest;
In the starless night and drear
You can sleep, and never hear
Billows breaking, and the cry
Of the night-wind wandering by;
In soft purple mantle sleeping
With your little face on mine,
Hearing not your mother weeping
And the breaking of the brine."


Well, the daylight came at last, and the great chest was
driven by the waves against the shore of an island. There
the brass-bound chest lay, with the Princess and her
baby in it, till a man of that country came past, and saw
it, and dragged it on to the beach, and when he had
broken it open, behold! there was a beautiful lady and a
little boy. So he took them home, and was very kind to
them, and brought up the boy till he was a young man.
Now when the boy had come to his full strength the King
of that country fell in love with his mother, and wanted
to marry her, but he knew that she would never part
from her boy. So he thought of a plan to get rid of the
boy, and this was his plan: A great Queen of a country not
far off was going to be married, and this king said that all
his subjects must bring him wedding presents to give her.
And he made a feast to which he invited them all, and
they all brought their presents; some brought gold cups,
and some brought necklaces of gold and amber, and some
brought beautiful horses; but the boy had nothing, though
he was the son of a princess, for his mother had nothing to
give him. Then the rest of the company began to laugh
at him, and the King said: "If you have nothing else to
give, at least you might go and fetch the Terrible Head."

The boy was proud, and spoke without thinking:

"Then I swear that I will bring the Terrible Head, if it
may be brought by a living man. But of what head you
speak I know not."

Then they told him that somewhere, a long way off,
there dwelt three dreadful sisters, monstrous ogrish
women, with golden wings and claws of brass, and with
serpents growing on their heads instead of hair. Now these
women were so awful to look on that whoever saw them
was turned at once into stone. And two of them could
not be put to death, but the youngest, whose face was
very beautiful, could be killed, and it was her head that
the boy had promised to bring. You may imagine it was
no easy adventure.

When he heard all this he was perhaps sorry that he had
sworn to bring the Terrible Head, but he was determined
to keep his oath. So he went out from the feast, where
they all sat drinking and making merry, and he walked
alone beside the sea in the dusk of the evening, at the
place where the great chest, with himself and his mother
in it, had been cast ashore.

There he went and sat down on a rock, looking toward
the sea, and wondering how he should begin to fulfill his
vow. Then he felt some one touch him on the shoulder;
and he turned, and saw a young man like a king's son,
having with him a tall and beautiful lady, whose blue eyes
shone like stars. They were taller than mortal men, and
the young man had a staff in his hand with golden wings
on it, and two golden serpents twisted round it, and he
had wings on his cap and on his shoes. He spoke to the
boy, and asked him why he was so unhappy; and the boy
told him how he had sworn to bring the Terrible Head,
and knew not how to begin to set about the adventure.

Then the beautiful lady also spoke, and said that "it
was a foolish oath and a hasty, but it might be kept if a
brave man had sworn it." Then the boy answered that
he was not afraid, if only he knew the way.

Then the lady said that to kill the dreadful woman with
the golden wings and the brass claws, and to cut off her
head, he needed three things: first, a Cap of Darkness,
which would make him invisible when he wore it; next,
a Sword of Sharpness, which would cleave iron at one
blow; and last, the Shoes of Swiftness, with which he
might fly in the air.

The boy answered that he knew not where such things
were to be procured, and that, wanting them, he could
only try and fail. Then the young man, taking off his
own shoes, said: "First, you shall use these shoes till you
have taken the Terrible Head, and then you must give
them back to me. And with these shoes you will fly as
fleet as a bird, or a thought, over the land or over the
waves of the sea, wherever the shoes know the way. But
there are ways which they do not know, roads beyond the
borders of the world. And these roads have you to travel.
Now first you must go to the Three Gray Sisters, who live
far off in the north, and are so very cold that they have
only one eye and one tooth among the three. You must
creep up close to them, and as one of them passes the eye
to the other you must seize it, and refuse to give it up till
they have told you the way to the Three Fairies of the
Garden, and they will give you the Cap of Darkness and
the Sword of Sharpness, and show you how to wing beyond
this world to the land of the Terrible Head."

Then the beautiful lady said: "Go forth at once, and do
not return to say good-by to your mother, for these things
must be done quickly, and the Shoes of Swiftness themselves
will carry you to the land of the Three Gray Sisters--for
they know the measure of that way."

So the boy thanked her, and he fastened on the Shoes
of Swiftness, and turned to say good-by to the young man
and the lady. But, behold! they had vanished, he knew
not how or where! Then he leaped in the air to try the
Shoes of Swiftness, and they carried him more swiftly
than the wind, over the warm blue sea, over the happy
lands of the south, over the northern peoples who drank
mare's milk and lived in great wagons, wandering after
their flocks. Across the wide rivers, where the wild fowl
rose and fled before him, and over the plains and the cold
North Sea he went, over the fields of snow and the hills of
ice, to a place where the world ends, and all water is frozen,
and there are no men, nor beasts, nor any green grass.
There in a blue cave of the ice he found the Three Gray
Sisters, the oldest of living things. Their hair was as white
as the snow, and their flesh of an icy blue, and they
mumbled and nodded in a kind of dream, and their frozen
breath hung round them like a cloud. Now the opening
of the cave in the ice was narrow, and it was not easy to
pass in without touching one of the Gray Sisters. But,
floating on the Shoes of Swiftness, the boy just managed
to steal in, and waited till one of the sisters said to another,
who had their one eye:

"Sister, what do you see? do you see old times coming
back?"

"No, sister."

"Then give me the eye, for perhaps I can see farther
than you."

Then the first sister passed the eye to the second, but
as the second groped for it the boy caught it cleverly out
of her hand.

"Where is the eye, sister?" said the second gray woman.

"You have taken it yourself, sister," said the first gray woman.

"Have you lost the eye, sister? have you lost the eye?"
said the third gray woman; "shall we never find it again,
and see old times coming back?"

Then the boy slipped from behind them out of the cold
cave into the air, and he laughed aloud.

When the gray women heard that laugh they began to
weep, for now they knew that a stranger had robbed
them, and that they could not help themselves, and their
tears froze as they fell from the hollows where no eyes
were, and rattled on the icy ground of the cave. Then they
began to implore the boy to give them their eye back
again, and he could not help being sorry for them, they
were so pitiful. But he said he would never give them the
eye till they told him the way to the Fairies of the Garden.

Then they wrung their hands miserably, for they
guessed why he had come, and how he was going to try
to win the Terrible Head. Now the Dreadful Women
were akin to the Three Gray Sisters, and it was hard for
them to tell the boy the way. But at last they told him
to keep always south, and with the land on his left and
the sea on his right, till he reached the Island of the Fairies
of the Garden. Then he gave them back the eye, and they
began to look out once more for the old times coming back
again. But the boy flew south between sea and land,
keeping the land always on his left hand, till he saw a
beautiful island crowned with flowering trees. There he
alighted, and there he found the Three Fairies of the
Garden. They were like three very beautiful young women,
dressed one in green, one in white, and one in red,
and they were dancing and singing round an apple tree
with apples of gold, and this was their song:

THE SONG OF THE WESTERN FAIRIES
Round and round the apples of gold,
Round and round dance we;
Thus do we dance from the days of old
About the enchanted tree;
Round, and round, and round we go,
While the spring is green, or the stream shall flow,
Or the wind shall stir the sea!

There is none may taste of the golden fruit
Till the golden new time come
Many a tree shall spring from shoot,
Many a blossom be withered at root,
Many a song be dumb;
Broken and still shall be many a lute
Or ever the new times come!

Round and round the tree of gold,
Round and round dance we,
So doth the great world spin from of old,
Summer and winter, and fire and cold,
Song that is sung, and tale that is told,
Even as we dance, that fold and unfold
Round the stem of the fairy tree!


These grave dancing fairies were very unlike the Grey
Women, and they were glad to see the boy, and treated
him kindly. Then they asked him why he had come; and
he told them how he was sent to find the Sword of Sharpness
and the Cap of Darkness. And the fairies gave him
these, and a wallet, and a shield, and belted the sword,
which had a diamond blade, round his waist, and the cap
they set on his head, and told him that now even they
could not see him though they were fairies. Then he
took it off, and they each kissed him and wished him good
fortune, and then they began again their eternal dance
round the golden tree, for it is their business to guard it
till the new times come, or till the world's ending. So the
boy put the cap on his head, and hung the wallet round
his waist, and the shining shield on his shoulders, and flew
beyond the great river that lies coiled like a serpent round
the whole world. And by the banks of that river, there he
found the three Terrible Women all asleep beneath a
poplar tree, and the dead poplar leaves lay all about them.
Their golden wings were folded and their brass claws were
crossed, and two of them slept with their hideous heads
beneath their wings like birds, and the serpents in their
hair writhed out from under the feathers of gold. But the
youngest slept between her two sisters, and she lay on her
back, with her beautiful sad face turned to the sky; and
though she slept her eyes were wide open. If the boy had
seen her he would have been changed into stone by the
terror and the pity of it, she was so awful; but he had
thought of a plan for killing her without looking on her
face. As soon as he caught sight of the three from far off
he took his shining shield from his shoulders, and held it
up like a mirror, so that he saw the Dreadful Women
reflected in it, and did not see the Terrible Head itself.
Then he came nearer and nearer, till he reckoned that he
was within a sword's stroke of the youngest, and he
guessed where he should strike a back blow behind him.
Then he drew the Sword of Sharpness and struck once,
and the Terrible Head was cut from the shoulders of the
creature, and the blood leaped out and struck him like a
blow. But he thrust the Terrible Head into his wallet,
and flew away without looking behind. Then the two
Dreadful Sisters who were left wakened, and rose in the
air like great birds; and though they could not see him
because of his Cap of Darkness, they flew after him up the
wind, following by the scent through the clouds, like
hounds hunting in a wood. They came so close that he
could hear the clatter of their golden wings, and their
shrieks to each other: "here, here," "no, there; this way
he went," as they chased him. But the Shoes of Swiftness
flew too fast for them, and at last their cries and the rattle
of their wings died away as he crossed the great river that
runs round the world.

Now when the horrible creatures were far in the
distance, and the boy found himself on the right side of the
river, he flew straight eastward, trying to seek his own
country. But as he looked down from the air he saw a
very strange sight--a beautiful girl chained to a stake at
the high-water mark of the sea. The girl was so frightened
or so tired that she was only prevented from falling
by the iron chain about her waist, and there she hung, as
if she were dead. The boy was very sorry for her and flew
down and stood beside her. When he spoke she raised her
head and looked round, but his voice only seemed to
frighten her. Then he remembered that he was wearing
the Cap of Darkness, and that she could only hear him,
not see him. So he took it off, and there he stood before
her, the handsomest young man she had ever seen in all
her life, with short curly yellow hair, and blue eyes, and a
laughing face. And he thought her the most beautiful
girl in the world. So first with one blow of the Sword of
Sharpness he cut the iron chain that bound her, and then
he asked her what she did there, and why men treated her
so cruelly. And she told him that she was the daughter of
the King of that country, and that she was tied there to
be eaten by a monstrous beast out of the sea; for the
beast came and devoured a girl every day. Now the lot
had fallen on her; and as she was just saying this a long
fierce head of a cruel sea creature rose out of the waves
and snapped at the girl. But the beast had been too
greedy and too hurried, so he missed his aim the first time.
Before he could rise and bite again the boy had whipped
the Terrible Head out of his wallet and held it up. And
when the sea beast leaped out once more its eyes fell on
the head, and instantly it was turned into a stone. And
the stone beast is there on the sea-coast to this day.

Then the boy and the girl went to the palace of the
King, her father, where everyone was weeping for her
death, and they could hardly believe their eyes when they
saw her come back well. And the King and Queen made
much of the boy, and could not contain themselves for
delight when they found he wanted to marry their daughter.
So the two were married with the most splendid
rejoicings, and when they had passed some time at court
they went home in a ship to the boy's own country. For
he could not carry his bride through the air, so he took
the Shoes of Swiftness, and the Cap of Darkness, and the
Sword of Sharpness up to a lonely place in the hills. There
he left them, and there they were found by the man and
woman who had met him at home beside the sea, and had
helped him to start on his journey.

When this had been done the boy and his bride set
forth for home, and landed at the harbor of his native
land. But whom should he meet in the very street of the
town but his own mother, flying for her life from the
wicked King, who now wished to kill her because he
found that she would never marry him! For if she had
liked the King ill before, she liked him far worse now that
he had caused her son to disappear so suddenly. She did
not know, of course, where the boy had gone, but thought
the King had slain him secretly. So now she was running
for her very life, and the wicked King was following her
with a sword in his hand. Then, behold! she ran into her
son's very arms, but he had only time to kiss her and step
in front of her, when the King struck at him with his
sword. The boy caught the blow on his shield, and cried
to the King:

"I swore to bring you the Terrible Head, and see how I
keep my oath!"

Then he drew forth the head from his wallet, and when
the King's eyes fell on it, instantly he was turned into
stone, just as he stood there with his sword lifted!

Now all the people rejoiced, because the wicked King
should rule them no longer. And they asked the boy to
be their king, but he said no, he must take his mother home
to her father's house. So the people chose for king the man
who had been kind to his mother when first she was cast
on the island in the great chest.

Presently the boy and his mother and his wife set sail
for his mother's own country, from which she had been
driven so unkindly. But on the way they stayed at the
court of a king, and it happened that he was holding
games, and giving prizes to the best runners, boxers, and
quoit-throwers. Then the boy would try his strength with

the rest, but he threw the quoit so far that it went beyond
what had ever been thrown before, and fell in the crowd,
striking a man so that he died. Now this man was no
other than the father of the boy's mother, who had fled
away from his own kingdom for fear his grandson should
find him and kill him after all. Thus he was destroyed by
his own cowardice and by chance, and thus the prophecy
was fulfilled. But the boy and his wife and his mother
went back to the kingdom that was theirs, and lived long
and happily after all their troubles.





Next: The Story Of Pretty Goldilocks

Previous: The Water-lily The Gold-spinners



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