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The Fiddler and the Faerie King

 
(To John McCusker, for the Tunes that inspired the Tale)

 

Once upon a very long time ago indeed, there lived in Ireland a young lad by the name of Johnnie McBride. Now 'tis true that Johnnie had no family or fortune, but the good Lord had blessed him with a keen mind, a right good heart, and a bonny face besides.

            Though Johnnie was alone he was never  lonely, and  though he was poor, still he considered himself the richest of men beneath God's blue sky, because he had as his companion a fine old fiddle which his Father (God rest him) had left him when he died. It was not an expensive instrument, nor yet the fanciest sort that could be had for money, but oh, how Johnnie could make that fiddle sing!  And of a springtime day, the sunny hills and the shady glens would ring with the sound of his playing, and that so sweet that sure all nature would stop and rejoice in it!

            Now as everyone knows, there have always been in Ireland those  mischievous and magical people known as the wee folk, who lived in mysterious kingdoms underneath the earth. Now these leprechauns, for that is what they were, lived in Ireland in Johnnie's time too, sure and well before him and since time out of mind.    

            One cool starlit evening, when the moon was shining clear and full, and Johnnie and the fiddle were both too restless to sleep, a sweet breeze from the hillside beckoned through the window of the little thatched cottage in the glen, and in no time at all the pair of them were out in the moonbeams and clover, and a'playing to the stars.

            Now Johnnie couldn't have known it, but there was someone else out there and listening besides, and that the very King of the leprechaun people himself! So captivated was His Majesty by the sound of Johnnie's fiddle, that he laid a plan at once to capture the lad, and spirit him away underground to play for the leprechaun people for all time.  Calling upon every charm at his disposal, the King swept up a strong and sudden storm, with flashing lightning, pouring rain, and a howling bain sidhe wind,that blew poor Johnnie before it to the rockiest part of the hillside.  Finding there a small cave, he hurried inside, carefully drying the strings of his fiddle with the very shirt from his back.

            As the storm continued to rage outside, Johnnie felt himself overcome by weariness, and - pillowing his head upon a stone - he soon fell fast asleep, with his fiddle cradled carefully in his arms.  But woe is me for the terrible mischief of that leprechaun King! No sooner had Johnnie fallen into this enchanted slumber, than the very rocks began to glow and shimmer, and when darkness again fell upon the little cave in the hillside, the lad and his fiddle were nowhere to be seen.

 

            It was a chorus of leprechaun laughter that awoke Johnnie at last, and much amazed was he to find himself in the very heart of the leprechaun kingdom!  Gazing around in wonder, he saw he was in a glittering throne room, filled with gold and jewels and riches of every description.  At the far end of the room was a shimmering throne,  upon which sat the King himself, mirthfully telling the tale of the fiddler lad on the hillside, and laughing all the while at his cleverness.

            Slowly, for he still felt very much dazed, Johnnie pushed himself upright, and was relieved to find his bow and fiddle safe on the floor beside him.  At that moment, all in the great hall parted like the sea before the wind, and the wee leprechaun King leaped to his feet and jigged across the room toward Johnnie.

            "Well, me lad!" he chuckled, his royal robes rich with torchlight and faerie shimmer, "What fine times we are sure to be havin', now that you are here to play your fiddle!"

            Humbly, Johnnie removed his cap, for he was always respectful of his elders, and the King was seven thousand years old even then.

            "Begging your Majesty's pardon," he said politely, one hand still firmly on his fiddle, "But how did I come to be here?"  A ripple of laughter spread through the crowd of wee folk, and the King stood with his hands on his hips.

            "Sure and I've brought ye here meself, for never in all me days have I heard fiddling such as yours! Your to stay with us forever lad, and never ever grow old!"

            Well, Johnnie took himself a moment to think about all the possibilities, but in the end he smiled and shook his head. "Sure and I'll be happy to play for your people, and it's honoured I am by your request, but I think when I'm done I would rather go home all the same."

           

 

            Another ripple of mirth spread throughout the company, but the leprechaun King only frowned. He was - as you may have guessed - quite unused to having his will crossed, and he had no intention of letting the young fiddler leave the leprechaun kingdom, ever.

            "Foolish mortal!" he said sternly, waving his hands around the shining throne room, "I will give you great riches! Gold and jewels and brightest silver! You will stay with us forever, and you will see that we are fine company by and by."

            Johnnie shook his head, as the leprechaun King frowned more darkly.

"You cannot give me the riches I crave the most", he said. "Rushing waters and waving grasses, singing birds and sweet green fields, blue summer skies and clouds that dance to my music. ..'Tis sure I cannot have these here beneath the earth."

            "'Tis sure it is indeed!" complained the leprechaun King, "and you  talking as though you've a choice in the matter! Are ye not wise enough to see the treasures that I offer ye?"

            Well Johnnie frowned himself then, and raised his head up proudly. "I am wise enough to see that they are no treasure greater than that I find with my old friend fiddle, so I'll thank ye to be sending us back."

            At that the leprechaun King was angered, and he shook a warning finger. "My magic will keep you from stirring a foot from this cavern if I choose, and if it's doubting me ye are, you just try to flee!"

            Now Johnnie didn't doubt the words of the leprechaun King, and he knew if he were to free himself it would have to be by cleverness, so he smiled slyly and bowed to the tiny Monarch. "In that case, your Majesty," said he, "with your permission?" and he took up his fiddle and began to play.

            Now the leprechaun was a wise old King indeed, and sure in his time he had seen a trick or two, but Johnnie's honest face, and the sweet strains of the fiddle caught him off his guard. In a moment all the company had settled themselves to listen, and Johnnie played a lullabye so soothing, so sweet, that soon every one of them was dreaming fast asleep, and the King himself was snoring loudly.

            No sooner had he lulled them thus, than Johnnie set aside the fiddle, and began to hunt through  the cavern for a door or a path, or some other means of escape. At last he came upon a low archway set into the stone, beyond which a narrow, torchlit tunnel led undeniably upward.

 

 

 

                        Well to be sure, his hopes leaped at the sight of it, but as he turned back for his fiddle, he felt his heart sink slowly into his very shoes, for the steady snoring of the leprechaun King had become a wicked chuckle.

            "Certainly, me boy" the old slyboots said with a victorious smile, "ye wouldn't be leaving without this?" and he lifted Johnnie's old fiddle high in  the air with his two hands. Well Johnnie wavered for a moment, sure and he did, for his foot was already one step through the archway, but the sight of his old friend fiddle caught at his heart and held him, so he sighed and turned back to the little enchanted kingdom.

            The leprechaun King grinned slyly, his old blue eyes twinkling, and he put Johnnie's fiddle into a magical chest, bound by bands of strongest enchantment, and a lock that would  open only to his words.

            "There now, me fine fiddlin' friend," he said to the downcast Johnnie, "I think that will keep ye with us a wee while yet!" There was - of course - no answer to be made to this, for Johnnie knew the leprechaun King was right.

           

            The next night, as the last traces of day melted away from the unseen meadows far above them,  the leprechaun King ordered another enormous feast. During the evenings revels, he proposed many a toast to Ireland's fine young fiddler,  and Johnnie - his mind awhirl with strategies - did his best to be polite.  The food and drink were fine and of the the best, as befitted a royal table, but Johnnie had a good head on his shoulders, and he knew that his food was enchanted. Once eaten, the magic would muddle his head, and  he would stay in the leprechaun kingdom forever, so he would.  He knew, did Johnnie, that above all things he must keep his wits about him, so, when no one was looking, he took meat and bread from the plate next to his, and thus he was fed and no one was the wiser.

            After the feasting, the King called for a tune, and he raised his shilaliegh toward the magic chest. At his word, the bands losened at once and freed Johnnie's fiddle.

            "Young mortal!" said he,  with a twinkle in his eye, "Are ye not under my enchantment yet?"

            "Your Majesty," Johnnie replied, raising the fiddle to his shoulder, "long may I dance to a happier enchantment than yours!" and he raised up his bow and began to play.

 

 

             To the delight of the many leprechauns, the old fiddle sang beneath his fingers, giving him round after round of jigs and reels, each one faster and more wild than the last. Seized by the music, the wee folk  began to dance, whirling and swirling, their eyes bright with merriment, and their faces flushed with exertion.

            All the night long Johnnie played that fiddle, and all the night long the leprechauns danced to the sound of it,  until at last they fell upon the ground, too exhausted to move, but well pleased with the revels of the night.

            "Faith, lad, and I cannot move me another step!" wheezed the stout old leprechaun King, "but if that weren't the finest fiddling in all Ireland or under it, I cannot say what would be!"

            "I thank you," Johnnie said politely, bowing to his tiny highness. "And now I bid you farewell!"  With that he swept his fiddle close to his heart, and raced through the archway and out of the cavern. The leprechaun King was filled with fury, but was far too weary from dancing to give chase, and even the haphazard magic he flung after Johnnie did little to slow the fiddle player's flying heels.  The King's rage was of no use whatsoever - his clever young captive was gone.

            Faster and faster Johnnie ran, uphill all the way, until at last he reached a giant outcroppng of rock which overlooked the leprechaun kingdom.

Exhausted himself, he crept behind a huge boulder and - still cradling his precious fiddle - slipped into a weary but unenchanted slumber.

            Though Johnnie had no way of knowing it deep below the surface of the hillside, night had again fallen before he opened his eyes.  Listening for a moment in the dim torchlight from the tunnel, he heard the voice of the leprechaun King, shouting orders to his men, and he crept around the boulder, that he might peer down into the magical cavern below.

            Ill-tempered and furious, the King was sitting on his throne, the remains of the night's feast half untouched on the table.

            "Have ye brought me the mortal or haven't ye then!" he demanded of his retainers, and Johnnie felt himself shiver as one approached the throne and bowed down low.

            "your Majesty," the leprechaun said, the plume of his hat sweeping the floor before he rose, "We have not found him, though we searched from sun to sun."

 

 

            "And tell me then," the king said in a testy voice, "why I should not turn the pack of you into toadstools for failing?"

            The Captain of the leprechaun guards looked nervously at his fellows, and bowed very deeply again. "But your Majesty, we have brought the other mortal - the girl from the meadow, as you commanded."

            "Hmmmmph!" said the King, his humour not yet restored, "well bring her to me then."

            To Johnnie's astonishment, a large door in the wall was opened,  and from the room behind it was led a frightened and fair young Irish maid.  Trembling, she stood before the leprechaun King, her head held high despite her fear.

            "Well then, Fiona," smiled the King, rubbing his hands together in anticipation, "and what will ye sing for me this fine night?"

            "Please," the girl said softly, her face despondent in the light from the torches, "I beg you to send me home!"

            The leprechaun King stamped his foot. "You are an orphan!" he scoffed, "Don't I know me own business?'Tis a life of lonliness I'm saving ye from, and it's grateful you should be!"

            A tear rolled down the girl's pale cheek, but she raised brave blue eyes to the King of the Faerie people. "My heart will break so far from the green fields and the sunlight..." she whispered, but the King waved her words away.     "'Tis certain that my fiddler has escaped me," he said with a glower, "so you must stay here and sing. It was for your voice that I brought ye here, for didn't it touch me very heart when I heard you singing by the glenside?"

            The girl stared back and said nothing, but up on the rock ledge, Johnnie felt his heart go out to her.

            Demanding a song, the leprechaun King sat back on the throne, his ire at Johnnie's escape soothed by the voice of the lovely maid before him. For sure and her voice was sweet and soft and haunting, like silver water on mountain stones, or the sound of the wind just moments before the snow, and so pure in it's beauty that every other voice fell silent, and every eye, sure Johnnie's included, fell upon her as she sang. No sooner had her echoes faded, than the maid was returned to the room behind the wall, and even from the rock ledge high above the cavern, Johnnie could hear the heavy door clanging shut behind her.

           

 

            Now sure it's no coward young Johnnie was. And hadn't his old Grannie McBride raised him to do what was right, no matter the consequences? And so it was that when the wee folk laid themselves down to sleep, Johnnie crept down among them again, and crossed the cavern to the window of the door behind which the maiden wept.

            Calling her softly, he held his hand out to her, wondering as he did so, how he was to set her free.  Well sure Fiona's heart lifted with hope at the sight of him, but both saw that the door was enchanted, and would open to no key but magic.  

             "Don't ye fret yourself now..." Johnnie said softly, as her bonny eyes began to fill with tears, "Sure and I'll think of something."

            A wicked chuckle sounded through the cavern as behind him the leprechaun King rose in royal fury.  "Your a fine fiddler, mortal..." he said with a shake of his finger,"but a great fool for all that. Now I have ye back in me power, and 'tis sure ye'll forfeit your life for the tricks ye've played upon me."

            Cradling his old fiddle to his chest, Johnnie bowed his head and turned toward the leprechaun King, "Sure and ye must admit I was a worthy adversary" he said, an idea taking form as he spoke. "Will ye grant me one last wish then, if I'm to die no matter?"

            The leprechaun King cocked a suspicious eyebrow, so he did, for Johnnie had fooled him before. "True and ye've led me a merry chase," said he, "and 'tis sure I'll be the first to admit it. What might this wish of yours be?"

            Johnnie smiled and raised the fiddle to his shoulder."That I may have one last tune with me old fiddle, before the two of us go our separate ways."

            The leprechaun King considered, but nodded slowly, as all the wee folk gathered round to listen.  "'Tis sure that ye may, and I'd like to hear it..." he said, holding up a warning finger, "but none o' your tricks it'll be! No jigs now, no dancing!"
            Johnnie shook his head. 'Arrah,' he thought, a smile touching his face. 'And would a wise man try the same trick more than once? Sure and I think he wouldn't!'  With that he raised his bow and began at once to play a soft, haunting air that he  had once heard the spring breezes singing to the Irish clover.  An air whose notes painted the bluest skies, the deepest rivers and the greenest fields of all Ireland,  with a voice so sweet that sure the very rocks did weep to hear it.

           

 

            From behind the door held fast by leprechaun magic, the Irish maid added her voice to the tune she too had heard in the green meadows and rolling hills. The notes joined the voice of the fiddle in a sweet and wild harmony until the song became so beautiful that the enchanted door swept open of it's own accord.

            Tears sparkling on his wee cheeks, the leprechaun King waved his hand at the solid rock, which parted by magic to reaveal the sweet green moonlit hillside.

            "Sure and it's bested me ye have." he confessed, as the echoes of the music faded sweetly away. "I'll grant ye your fiddle and your freedom both and when ye go, ye may take from this cavern any treasure ye choose."

            With that he waved his hand again, and three huge wooden chests appeared, one filled with silver, one with gold and the third with precious jewels.

            Well Johnnie looked from the riches to Fiona, and he turned to take her hand. "Sure this is the treasure I choose,"  he declared, as the King's face again flushed  with fury, "And as ye've given me your word, 'tis sure and ye must abide by it."  And so the leprechaun King did.

            "'Tis ruining me y'are" he grumbled, as Fiona and Johnnie turned to go. "Now there'll be no fiddling in the halls of my kingdom. Not now or for eternity, and a wicked long time that is too."

            Pausing in the magical doorway, young Johnnie smiled, the sweet breezes of the hillside already beckoning homeward. "Your Majesty," he  said, Fiona's hand still held fast in his, " If you've a mind of an evening to slip out on the hillside, on a night when the moon is full and the breezes are calling, sure and ye've my word, I'll fiddle for you as long as I'm living."

            So that is the story of Johnnie McBride and the King of the Faerie folk. But if ye doubt me yet, pass by the hillside on any night when the moon is full, and you'll hear the same tunes being played by Johnnie and Fiona's children, and their children's children, and their children after them. For as long as there's a leprechaun in Ireland, that fiddle will be played for him, and as long as there are stars up in the heavens, sure and a McBride always keeps his promise.

                                                THE END

                                                      (so it is)






 


 




 






 

 

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