Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
The Smith and the Cuckoo
Once upon a time, there was a smith named Develas. Now, although she was good hearted and fair, Develas was very poor. Still, she worked hard, and although she was often sore and tired after a long day's work, she had a good roof over her head and didn't have to go hungry often, so she was mostly content.
Develas' combined home and smithy was not far from the royal road which lead through a great and very old forest. In many countries such a forest would have been off limits to any but the local gentry. However, in this part of the world the local gentry was headed by the Queen Evelyn, and she insisted the forest remain open to everyone. Since this was especially helpful for the poor, who could add to their dinner tables by gathering and hunting in the forest, this was one of the acts that made the Queen especially popular.
On one particularly hot day, Develas stepped outside of her forge, thankful for the meagre beeze brushing over her heated face. An unusually large group of nobles was making its way down the road, decked out in hunting gear and broad brimmed hats. Develas sighed. Whenever the nobles went hunting, it became too unsafe for her to check her snares. Mopping at the back of her neck with a damp cloth, Develas had turned to go back to the forge when an unfamiliar voice intercepted her.
"Good smith, my horse has thrown a shoe. Would you be willing to make her another?" the speaker was a tall woman in green livery.
"Why, certainly I could, ma'am." Develas carefully looked over the horse's other shoes, then went to start work on the new one.
The woman in green livery followed her to her forge and stood just outside, watching keenly. Another fair sized group of people rode by, clearly on their way to join the rest of the hunting party. "Why, they'll scare away all the game at the rate they're going!" Develas commented mildly. Quite a few of this latest group had bridles and reins decked with bells and other jingling things. The woman in green livery laughed.
"True enough. Yet outings like this one have little to do with catching anything. Well, unless you count potentially catching the Queen."
"Catching the Queen?" Develas repeated in confusion.
"Oh yes, the Queen is being pressured to take a consort. And so all manner of nobles who think they might like to wear a crown have come to pay her a visit."
"Hmmph. I've never seen the Queen. Is she very beautiful?" The question had come to Develas' mind not because it was logical, but because her green liveried visitor struck her as very beautiful indeed.
"Many people declare that she is beautiful. Better yet, she is even reputed to be wise and good hearted."
"Oh, those other two things are more than reputation." Develas grinned and flipped the horseshoe over. She found herself becoming all the more curious about the woman in green livery. Was she one of the suitors too?
The horse shoe was done all too soon as far as Develas was concerned. It wasn't often by any means that she got to speak with someone of such a rank as the woman in green livery was, and contrary to what might be expected, the woman never talked down to her. In the end, the woman in green livery insisted Develas accept three silver coins, and then vanished around the broad bend in the road on her well shod horse.
"Well, there must be something. I can't give her clothes or flowers or any of that other nonsense, else how will I stand out from the others?" A haughty young man stalked into Develas' forge. It was early fall now, so people were more inclined to stop in even if they had no work to give, so as to warm themselves. The young man was rather extensively perfumed and powdered, with fancy tight hose. He began riffling through the various things hung up for people to consider buying, a few pots, pans, knives, and the like. To his surprise, tucked among these thoroughly utilitarian things was a finely wrought bird.
"How much is this?" he shouted at Develas, who was busy mending a saucepan. Having finished pouring the metal, Develas went to see what she was being shouted at about.
"Oh, that." she answered, when she understood. "The bird isn't for sale. No one wants such things. It's a cuckoo after all." Develas added by way of explanation.
"I want it! You must be willing to part with it for some price." Here was a gift fine enough for the Queen, if only he could get this numbskull smith to part with it.
"Oh, but you know what they say about cuckoos." In truth Develas was kicking herself for leaving the bird hung up. She had done so because the heat of the forge would help prevent it from rusting, hidden among spoons and knives and pans. It was traditional among her people to give an image or model of a cuckoo to whomever they intended to marry, because cuckoos were known to herald the spring and carry messages between lovers. There was nothing in the tradition about selling off such a thing to a stranger!
Nevertheless, the young man argued, cajoled, and threatened until finally, Develas agreed to sell the bird for twenty gold pieces and two commissions, for which he would provide precious metal for working. Unbeknownst to Develas, the would-be consorts of the Queen had to provide three appropriate gifts that spoke of their good and honest intentions. Whoever gave the best gift of all would become her consort.
At the very moment that the young man was presenting the cuckoo at court – to a round of snickers, it must be confessed – Develas was damping down her forge for the night, feeling a bit sorry for herself in spite of receiving such a windfall of both work and money. It wasn't as if the suitors were knocking on her door, nor was she having much luck door knocking herself. She was just a bit lonesome.
"Ah well. No sense moping on it. Though I do wish my luck would turn around where such things are concerned." With that she pinched out her candle and curled up to go to sleep.
Long after midnight she was startled awake by a merry singing in her window. For a moment Develas simply stared in disbelief. What bird sings long before the Sun rises? It took several long moments before she realized she recognized this bird. Why, it was the very cuckoo which had been sold and taken away earlier that night.
"Excellent, you're awake!" the bird declared, hopping down from the sill. "Oh do close your mouth Develas and listen. I've been sent to help fulfill your wish."
"My wish?!" Develas blurted incredulously, and began pinching herself.
"Oh do stop that, of course you're awake! Don't you remember the wish you made when you pinched out your candle?"
"Err, well, yes. I didn't really..."
"Of course you did! You even took care not to blow away your luck, so you must have meant it! Come on now, rub you eyes, get out of bed, there's work to be done before we go to town."
"To town!" she might be awake, Develas thought in alarm, but perhaps she had gone insane.
"No you haven't gone insane, but I have got special plans for you, and that means we need to go to town! Come on."
At daybreak Develas found herself walking down the path to the town which was an hour or so walk from her village, and also the site of the Queen's palace. The cuckoo was tucked snugly into her belt pouch, and she was carrying a range of her wares from the shop.
"Now then, while you keep busy, I have a few arrangements to make. And whatever happens, be yourself!" With that, the cuckoo flew off. Luckily no one else seemed to notice the metallic tint to her feathers.
Still bewildered but determinedly practical, Develas went to work selling her wares, and used one of her hard won gold pieces to purchase a new pair of boots. Down to the last few things in her bag, and feeling sorely tempted by the cider vendor not far away, Develas was startled by the reappearance of the woman in green livery.
"Why, it is the very smith I ran into not so long ago!" the woman sounded truly pleased.
Develas flushed a little. Since their last meeting, Develas had realized why the woman's green livery had seemed familiar. It was a fancier version of that worn by the Queen's guards. "Yes, ma'am. I'm not in town very often these days, so it's a strike of good fortune indeed to meet you here."
"Just so! You look hot and thirsty, good smith. Let me get you a drink." crowned by a merry smile.
'Good grief, I must be tired, my head is getting turned right around!' Develas thought to herself in wonderment as her heart skipped a beat. "Oh, you needn't do that, ma'am, water is..."
"I may not need to, yet I'd like to all the same." Beaming, the woman proceeded to purchase two cups of cider and handed Develas one. She had been quite impressed with the smith on their first meeting, when Develas had neither put on airs nor attempted to curry favour, despite all the trappings of her rank.
"It's quite extraordinary how many people there are – has the town gotten that much bigger?" Develas was honestly puzzled. She didn't go into to town that infrequently, and for all these people to be inhabitants of the place they must have moved in over night.
"No, no. It's all the suitors. They've been in a panic since yesterday, when a powdered and primped fellow brought in a charming little wrought iron bird for the Queen. He insisted he bought it in town, and the Queen rather liked it, so everyone has rushed down here to find the hapless smith."
"Good grief," murmured Develas. "Such an effort, and surely it's a waste of time. I mean, the Queen is very wise. I can't imagine she would ever pick someone based on what expensive gifts they could pile at her feet."
"Indeed, and what would you give the Queen if you were trying to persuade her to marry you, hmm?" The woman in green livery gazed at Develas with startling intensity.
"Oh, well..." Develas hesitated, a bit more flustered than before. "It probably doesn't matter, still, it never hurts to dream a little." Taking a thoughtful sip of her drink. "You know, I think I'd want to know her better before trying to get her any gifts. To know if I'd have any chance, first of all, and then, supposing it seemed I would have a chance, so that I could get her something she'd really like." Stopping short, Develas blushed again. "I must sound terribly naïve."
"Not at all. You sound quite practical to me." The woman in green livery seemed about to say something else when one of the Queen's guards called to her. "I'm sorry, I must go." And then she was gone, quicker than Develas could say goodbye.
"You did well I see." The cuckoo had tucked herself back into Develas' belt pouch.
Develas hardly noticed the walk home. Against all common sense she felt very happy, her thoughts running on about nothing in particular. Since at least a few hours of daylight were left, she automatically began to heat up her forge, intending to work on some more small wares before the day was over. This proved a wise choice, as the powdered and perfumed man from the day before arrived with silver to be made into a circlet for the Queen. After pronouncing dire threats should any of the silver go missing, he demanded the circlet be ready for first thing in the morning, then rode away.
"What, I'm not to sleep? Oh no, what have I gotten myself into!" moaned Develas.
"There's no need to worry." declared the cuckoo, who had returned to her accustomed place among the pots and pans. "I'll take care of the circlet while you get some rest. You have a busy day tomorrow." Feeling more than a little unsure, but also suddenly so tired she couldn't keep her eyes open, Develas staggered off to bed.
The morning came far too early, as far as Develas was concerned. Trudging out to the tiny creek behind her home, she vigourously splashed her face, then dunked her head. Now the dream would pop like the luminescent soap bubble it was, she was sure. Walking slowly into her forge, Develas could hardly believe her eyes. Sitting on a piece of heavy cloth was a wrought silver circlet. Beside it lay a suit of fine clothes.
"Quick, get those clothes on and cover them up with your cloak, we're going to accompany the powdered noble today." declared the cuckoo.
The noble in question was pleased indeed with the circlet, but now his tone took on a sinister edge. "From here on in, don't let me catch you in town, smith. Or doing work for anyone else of better blood than yours." He snapped his riding crop against one hand, and strode out.
"Never mind that, you'll be safe with me. Quick now, there's not a moment to lose." insisted the cuckoo. And so Develas found herself hurrying as subtly as she could after the noble and his entourage. Tucking her ragged cloak into a tree just outside of town, Develas was able to meld into the bustling back and forth of nobles and well dressed servants, and before long had managed to make her way into the palace.
"Just as you did before, be yourself!" the cuckoo affectionately yanked at a lock of Develas' hair, then flew away.
"Oh right, I'm to be myself in this fae get up!" Still practical as ever, Develas straightened her tunic and made her way towards what she understood to be the palace garden. She was no hobknobber, and would be safest among simple flowers and plain turnips and parsley.
The garden was beautiful indeed, crowned with a large, well cared for fountain. Perching herself on a stump not far from it, Develas tried to decide what to do next. Her thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of no less than the Queen's entourage, led by the castellan. They were evidently on their way to the audience hall.
"Thank goodness, thay didn't see me." Once again, it was the woman in green livery, this time looking a bit harried. "I was supposed to be in the audience hall ages ago – hello!" This to Develas, who was staring at her open mouthed.
"Oh!" Develas blurted, leaping to her feet. "I, err..."
"Have you just arrived?"
"Why, yes, I have." Unsure whether to point out who she was, Develas stuck to the question.
"And you have a gift for the Queen?"
"A gi..." Oh no, she thought Develas was one of the suitors. "Oh, I..." she struggled to think of something sensible to say. "I have just arrived, but I wouldn't call myself a suitor, not without the Queen's say so. I sort of – well, came to watch, I suppose. Not a very good reason, of course."
"Maybe not, still, it's a more honest reason than most have coming here! Come, you must have a gift for the Queen," insisted the woman in green livery.
"Well," Develas searched her belt pouches, only to find every one of them empty. Even her eating knife was gone. Chagrined, but determined to rise to the occasion, Develas did the only thing she could think of. "I have no jewelry or other such things to give, so I will give this instead. Please give the Queen my best wishes for her happiness whomever she may choose, and my compliments on her lovely garden."
"Why certainly, good smith," and with a merry wink, the woman in green livery was off, leaving Develas once again open mouthed behind.
In the end she had scaled the garden wall, and after picking up her cloak had quietly made her way home. The cuckoo found her restlessly working on what looked like a bulbous knot of metal.
"You left in rather a hurry."
"Yes, I know. Not that anyone missed me." Develas' tone was a little bitter.
"Ah Develas, don't give up on your wish now! I tell you, the Queen missed you very much." The cuckoo hopped onto Develas' shoulder.
"You're very kind, and undeniably very magical!" Develas smiled ruefully. "Yet I wonder if you aren't working in vain."
"You leave that sort of worry to me," answered the cuckoo. "Here's our powdered friend." She flew back to her usual place among the pots and pans.
The young man looked like a veritable thunder cloud. "The cheek!" he ranted. "I'll see that interfering cad off!" Hurling a small sack onto the counter, he glared at Develas. "Gold and jewels are in that bag. I want a fine belt made from that, your best work." He turned to shout at one of his servants. "Since when are pretty words worth more than money! Bah!" He glared at Develas again. "Oh, and this is for you, from the Queen." Then he stormed out.
Develas stared at the much smaller pouch the powdered and perfumed thunder cloud had left behind. "Go on, open it! The suspense is killing me!" the cuckoo whispered fiercely, lest some of the the young man's groupies were still within earshot.
Inside the pouch was a tiny cast silver cuckoo, and a note, "We know each other better than you think. Come down to the market in town tomorrow."
Poor Develas! She was caught between wild excitement and utter panic. What could the first part of the note mean? And there had to be some kind of mistake! The Queen couldn't possibly intend to marry her. Unable to sleep, she went back to her knot of metal, and was surprised to see the cuckoo hovering over the sack of gold and jewels the nobleman had left behind. "Don't you worry about these," she said. "And don't forget to take what you're working on with you tomorrow."
The next day was unseasonably warm, and Develas was forced to leave her cloak behind when the cuckoo insisted she put on a second suit of fine clothes. "And I'll leave your belt pouches be, this time. Not that it hurt you to have nothing in them, did it?" Flying in cheerful circles around Develas head until she was nearly dizzy, the cuckoo hurriedly dove into one of those belt pouches when the unmistakable sound of the perfumed and powdered man's entourage became audible. Hurriedly pulling the shutters half way shut and the curtain all the way across so they couldn't see what she was wearing, Develas waited anxiously. This time the cuckoo had placed her work back into the small pouch its gold and jewels had come from, so Develas had no idea what it looked like.
"Smith, where is that belt!" the powdered man shouted. Hesitantly Develas stuck her head out of the curtain, then handed the sack to him. "Too lazy to work today, smith?" sneered the man.
Develas just shrugged, and watched him leave.
"Right, quick for it, Develas, to the market place!" Although she didn't understand it, the cuckoo's excitement was infectious. The hardy smith found herself running almost the entire way to town, and only slowed down a ways away to ease her flushed face.
"Wait!" she said suddenly. Carefully lifting the cuckoo out of her belt pouch, she asked, "Even if things don't quite work out, still you've done me a great kindness, for it won't be long now before people begin to realize what smith made the cuckoo that so impressed the Queen, and you've been making even finer works on my behalf. I'll never lack for work now. How can I repay you for your labours?"
The cuckoo walked carefully up Develas' arm and gave a lock of her hair the now familiar affectionate tug. "All you need do is set me free after your wish comes true. And if it doesn't, why you need do nothing."
Develas never got to answer, because the woman in green livery caught her by the arm. "And here you are, good smith. Please come with me."
The woman in green livery determinedly led Develas through the crowds, but rather than going through the front doors as she half expected, the woman in green livery led her into the royal garden. "The Queen is about to make her choice. Have you another gift?"
The cuckoo, irrepressible as ever hissed from a branch near Develas' head, "You remembered that brooch you were working on, didn't you?"
"Oh, yes, yes..." Develas hurriedly dug the brooch out of her belt pouch and handed it to the woman in green livery.
"Excellent – but please wait this time."
More bewildered than ever, for a few moments Develas stood in confused silence. Then her thoughts drifted back to the magical cuckoo, and how to repay her. The answer came to her in a flash.
"Friend cuckoo, must I wait for a specific time to set you free?"
"No, I suppose not." For once, the cuckoo sounded puzzled.
Beaming, Develas began to laugh. "Well, that is wonderful. My dear friend, I give you your freedom this very moment." Then her expression sobred. "After all, how can a wish come to good if it isn't granted freely? So even if this means you can no longer grant my wish of those few nights ago, I would rather set you free." At that the cuckoo sprang off the branch, singing delightedly, her feathers changing from burnished metal to real ones. Before she flew away, she called out,
"This is the best gift of all!"
"Well met, good smith." the woman in green livery smiled. "Now don't you think we had better tell the rest of the suitors our news?"
"Yes, our news. I am after all, the Queen!"
And so they lived happily ever after, you know.
- The End