The Bull-Child of Bhennach

Illustration from “More English Fairy Tales” by Joseph Jacobs and John Dickson Batten

There was once a land named Bhennach, which was home to seven tribes. And there lived in Bhennach a woman named Aillia of the Reife who had three daughters: Uina, Irgial, and Unsta. Because Aillia was the most skillful bard and the most skillful rider and the most skilled with a spear, she was chosen from among all the people to rule in peace over the seven tribes. And so she was named Bearer of the Crown of Horns.

Now there is something you must know about Bhennach: it was a broad land of flowering meadows and gentle hills, and the tribes were sung of far and wide for their great herds of beautiful cows and bulls. The people wandered up and down the flowering meadows and gentle hills, on foot and on horse, following the herds through spring and summer and autumn and winter and into the spring again. And while steep mountains bordered Bhennach to the north, to the south lay the sea. And the tribes of Bhennach sold and traded their cows and bulls, and the hides and meat and milk and cheese of their herds, with the People of the Sea.

Now it happened that Aillia was traveling with her daughters, the Crown of Horns upon her head, visiting each of the seven tribes in turn. And in the fields of the Laidu they came upon a magnificent black bull grazing among the flowers. When Aillia spied the bull, desire filled her belly. She seized the bull, throwing a heavy rope around its neck, and led it back to her own herd among the Reife.

When the Laidu learned what had become of the animal, their chief sent emissaries to Aillia to request its return. For the bull was not just magnificent, but a gift from the Heavenly Cow herself. Aillia refused, and offered them a sickly bull in exchange. Outraged, the emissaries again demanded the return of the bull. Again, Aillia refused, offering them two sickly bulls in compensation. Howling in outrage, the emissaries shouted that Aillia was a thief and unworthy of the Crown of Horns. Insulted, Aillia cast her spear and slew the emissaries. She cleaved their heads from their necks, and commanded her daughters to carry the heads in a box to the chief of the Laidu. 

Ashamed, Uina and Irgial and Unsta refused.

Aillia carried the heads herself, delivering them to the chief of the Laidu. He wept when he saw them, and shouted that Aillia was unworthy of the Crown of Horns. 

Returning to her own tribe, Aillia gathered her warriors and waited. With the rising of the third morning, the Laidu attacked the Reife, on horse and on foot, their spears flashing in the light. The battle was fierce, and through it all, the daughters of Aillia remained in their tent, lamenting the loss of their mother’s honor. When the battle ended, the sun high in the sky, the chief of the Laidu lay dead alongside many of his warriors. The survivors swore peace to the Reife in the name of the Heavenly Cow, and returned home.

Aillia and her tribe celebrated the rest of the day and into the night. And as the night  deepened and the moon rose high, the desire in Aillia’s belly grew more and more fierce. Finally, she left her tribe and walked out into the fields. And there among the flowers she lay with the magnificent black bull. 

Night after night, Aillia lay with the black bull, and soon the people began to whisper. When her belly began to swell with child, the whispers grew so loud that Uina and Irgial and Unsta could no longer ignore them. They called their mother into their tent and begged her to return the bull to the Laidu, but Aillia refused. They called the bards of the tribe into the tent, who likewise pleaded with Aillia to return the bull, and again she refused. They called the warriors into the tent, who also pleaded with Aillia, and again she refused. Grasping the Crown of Horns, Aillia declared that she would rather lie with the magnificent black bull than bear the crown and rule the seven tribes.

So saying, she cast the Crown of Horns to the ground. Taking her spear and her horse, she called the black bull to her and rode away. Despite their shame at her thievery and madness, Uina and Irgial and Unsta followed at a distance, concerned for their mother and her unborn child.

And so it was that, the next full moon, when Aillia’s birthing time came, her three daughters were there to offer her comfort through her struggle. And under the wide gaze of the Heavenly Cow, Aillia brought her son into the world. His bellowing cries echoed across the flowering fields, his tiny horns gleamed in the moonlight, and his two sharp hooves cut deep furrows in the earth.

Aillia lived long enough to hold him once, and to give him his name: Cuhlcaihn.

Uina and Irgial and Unsta returned the bull to the Laidu and the body of Aillia to the Reife, and then wandered far from the other tribes. They built a stone hut on a quiet hill near a stream that flowed all the way to the sea in the south, and there they raised their brother. They taught him to hunt the swift rabbits which lived among the grasses and the fish which swam through the cold water. They taught him the uses of herbs and flowers, and how to treat injuries and sickness, and they sang him the stories captured by the stars. They taught him about the people and ways of Bhennach, about their mother, about the magnificent bull, and about the Heavenly Cow. And they loved him well.

And so Cuhlcaihn grew in strength and knowledge, secure in the love of his sisters.

And though they lived on their quiet hill away from the other tribes, a bard or healer or other traveler would now and again take shelter with them. And these travelers carried word throughout Bhennach of the bull-child birthed by Aillia, of his strength and knowledge, of his dark eyes and his sharp horns, of his hospitality and his love for his sisters. And the people whispered to one another in awe over this strange and wonderful child.

Now it happened that the winter of Cuhlcaihn’s twenty-first year was especially cold, with fierce winds blowing down from the mountains to freeze the earth and cover the grasses in hard ice. Cuhlcaihn and his sisters filled their hut of stone and thick hides with meat and cheese and mead, and gathered round the fire to weave and sing.

In the dark of the night, a voice called out “I am Rienne of the Sea, a traveler in this land. Give me a place by your fire, or I will surely die!”

Casting aside the heavy furs that covered the entrance of the hut, Cuhlcaihn stepped out into the cold and the dark. There he was met by Rienne, sister to the King of the People of the Sea, her smile fierce and her stingray sword in hand.

“Rienne of the Sea, well met,” he greeted her. “My sisters and I offer you shelter within our home and a place by our fire.”

And Rienne gladly accepted, sheathing her sword, and casting aside her frozen cloak and boots to warm herself beside the hearth.

The winds continued to howl and shriek, carrying snow and ice down from the mountains. One night became two, and then five, and then ten, and Rienne remained with Cuhlcaihn and his sisters, singing and weaving beside the fire. Rienne told them tales of dragon-headed ships and silver-skinned sealmaids and ancient, twisting caves that ran deep and dark beneath the Palace by the Sea. Cuhlcaihn told her tales of the Heavenly Cow, and bards whose song could bring death, and warriors whose spears flew so high that they pierced the sun.

And when the winds at last ceased their howling and the earth began to warm again, Cuhlcaihn and Rienne discovered that they had no wish to ever be apart again, and so they pledged their hearts to one another.

“I will have no one but you, Cuhlcaihn,” Rienne swore, “but we must return to the Palace by the Sea for the blessing of my brother, the King, if we are to be wed.”

And so Uina and Irgial and Unsta reluctantly bid farewell to Cuhlcaihn, their brother, the Bull-Child of Bhennach. They kissed Rienne as a sister by oath, if not by blood, and pledged to come to her aid if she should but ask.

Cuhlcaihn and Rienne mounted their horses and set off across the fields of Bhennach for the Palace by the Sea far to the south. And as they traveled, they encountered other travelers — bards and warriors, herders and merchants and healers — and word spread quickly among the seven tribes that the Bull-Child had found his bride. More and more people came to greet them as they traveled south, offering them blessings and gifts, until soon they were a caravan of horses and bulls and cows laden with flowers, herbs, sweet cheeses, and strong mead.

And so it was that Cuhlcaihn and Rienne came upon the Palace by the Sea, a triumphal parade. They passed the flowers and herbs, cheeses and mead among the people who ran out to greet them. The people cheered, happy to see their princess again, whom they had thought lost to the northern winter. And they were even more glad to see that she brought a bridegroom with her; for though his appearance was strange, the strength and knowledge of the Bull-Child of Bhennach was known even to the People of the Sea, and they could think of no worthier husband for their princess.

There was one among the people who was not glad, however, and that was the King himself, brother to Rienne. For he harbored a forbidden desire to take Rienne as his own wife, and he despaired that she had given her heart to this monster from the north.

When Cuhlcaihn and Rienne arrived at the Palace by the Sea, carved high in the cliffs that overlooked waters rich in fish and turtles, the King smiled a false smile and welcomed them. But when Rienne announced her intention to wed Cuhlcaihn and asked for his blessing, the King’s false smile became a frown and he shook his head.

“The Princess has always wed one of the People of the Sea. Never has she wed a man of Bhennach or any other land. This cannot be.”

Rienne drew her stingray sword and vowed that she would have no one but Cuhlcaihn. And Cuhlcaihn tossed his great horned head and bellowed that he would have no one but Rienne.

The people heard their words and cheered.

Desperate and angry, the King devised a clever plan. “If the Bull-Child of Bhennach would wed a Princess of the People of the Sea, he must prove himself worthy.” He led Cuhlcaihn and Rienne and the people to a window carved high in the cliff and pointed to the water far below. “Many years ago, a King of the People of the Sea built a great dragon-headed ship that he vowed even the Lord of Storms could not sink. So the Lord of Storms sent wind and water and lightning and crushed the ship. Nothing of it remains except for its anchor, a circle of stone so heavy that no man can lift it. Bring me this stone from the bottom of the sea, and you shall have proven yourself worthy of my sister.”

The people gasped and groaned and whispered among themselves, but Rienne did not despair. She kissed Cuhlcaihn and held his hand. With a toss of his head and a loud bellow, Cuhlcaihn leapt from the high window and dropped down, down, down into the water far below.

He disappeared beneath the blue-green waves, sinking past shoals of fleet-finned fish and bales of wise-eyed turtles. Down through the water he fell, until his sharp hooves touched the slick, muddy bottom. There he found the great anchor, a round stone with a hole carved through its center and a length of iron chain snaking across the seafloor.

Grasping the chain, breath bubbling from his nostrils, Cuhlcaihn heaved and tugged. His sharp hooves dug into the wet earth. His shoulders strained. Gradually, bit by bit, the stone anchor began to slide across the ground. Mud piled up in front of it. Cuhlcaihn’s hooves dug deeper, slipped, dug again, slipped again.

Dropping the chain, breath a painful weight in his chest, Cuhlcaihn pushed through the water and moved behind the anchor. Pressing his hands and shoulders to the stone, he began to roll it towards the shore. Gradually, bit by bit, the great round stone began to roll forward. Heaving and pushing, his sharp hooves digging into the muddy earth, Cuhlcaihn rolled the anchor across the bottom of the sea. And then up, up, up the slope of the shore, the stone emerging first into the sun, and then his gleaming horns, and then his head and his broad back and shoulders, muscles straining.

The people waited for him there, cheering, and fierce Rienne, clapping and laughing. And the King, too, angry scowl carving his face. 

When he reached the sand of the beach, the great stone rolling to a stop, Cuhlcaihn fell to his knees, panting and exhausted. Rienne rushed to his side and hugged him tight.

The people quieted, their cheers falling into an expectant silence as they waited for the King to speak.

The King of the Palace by the Sea raised his hands, smiled his false smile, and said, “Bull-Child of Bhennach, you have succeeded in the challenge I issued, and, in so doing, proved yourself worthy of our Princess. There is a tradition among the People of the Sea which must be observed, however: it is the custom for every bridegroom to present his bride with a fishing line as strong as their love and commitment to one another. Have you such a gift, Bull-Child?”

Rienne glared and gripped her stingray sword, while Cuhlcaihn answered truthfully, “I have no such gift, King of the People of the Sea. But if it will prove me worthy, I will travel to the palace of the Lord of Storms himself at the bottom of the ocean to find one.”

Again the King smiled, and he said, “There is no need. I have a length of fishing line here. If you can untangle it by the rising of the sun, you may present it to our Princess, and so prove your love and commitment to her before all the people.”

So saying, the King led Cuhlcaihn and Rienne and the people back to the Palace high in the cliff. There, he unlocked and opened a door, and there lay a tangled mass of fishing line. It was so large that it filled the entire room. The people groaned and wept at the sight, and Rienne stamped her feet and shook her stingray sword, but the King refused to relent; he would not give his blessing until Cuhlcaihn unknotted the line.

And so the King led Rienne and the people away and locked the door behind them, leaving Cuhlcaihn alone with the snarled line.

Remembering lessons learned from years of weaving beside the fire with his sisters, Cuhlcaihn sat and began to untangle the fishing line. All through the remaining day and through the long night he worked, pulling and twisting and tugging, unraveling the line bit by bit, with only the light of the full moon through a single high window to guide his hands. And as the moon sank into the west and the sun rose in the east, the doors were thrown wide and the King and Rienne strode into the room with all of the people following.

The King was smiling, for he expected Cuhlcaihn to have failed. Rienne was smiling, for she knew he would succeed. And so it was that she clapped and laughed and ran to embrace her beloved, while the people cheered and the King’s face fell into a sneer of rage and despair.

The words bitter in his mouth, the King congratulated Cuhlcaihn and his sister, and commanded that a great feast be served. While the people cheered and toasted and filled their bellies with fruit and seasoned meats and mead, the King plotted and planned. And, as the sun reached its height, a desperate scheme came to him.

Taking his sister by the hand, he led Rienne down and down and down from the palace carved in the side of the cliff to the ancient caves — caves which he knew well, for he had explored their every twist and turn as a child. And there, in the dark center of the caverns, the King confessed his love to her and begged her to marry him. “Take me, beloved sister! Take me as your husband, not that abomination!”

Rienne wept and raged when she heard her brother’s words. “I cannot have you! I will not have you! It is Cuhlcaihn whom I love, and I always will!”

At her words, the love in the King’s heart turned to a bitter hatred. He turned away and left her in the dark, making his way back up and up and up from the ancient, twisting caverns to the palace carved high above the sea. Rienne shouted and cursed him and shook her stingray sword. But though she tried to follow him, she could not find him, and she was soon alone in the dark heart of the ancient caves.

When the King emerged again high up in the Palace by the Sea, he smiled madly and announced one last test. “Rienne awaits you. But know this: the full moon rises, and with it the waters of the sea. The caves are deep and the sea will soon swallow them! Find her, and you will have proven yourself worthy to rule at her side!” 

The people ceased in their feasting and began to weep and wail, voices thick with confusion and fear. Cuhlcaihn snorted and snapped his horned head. He charged the mad King, driving him back and back into his throne, and there drove the sharp point of a horn through the King’s left eye. And though the King screamed and cursed, the people would not come to his aid.

“Hear this well, you who claim the title of King,” Cuhlcaihn declared, and the people stopped in their weeping and wailing, straining to listen. “I shall descend down into the caves beneath the Palace by the Sea, I shall find my beloved, and I shall return with her, and I shall take your other eye while she pierces your traitorous heart with her stingray sword. Then I shall bind you to the great stone anchor and toss you into the sea, where the Lord of Storms will set sharks and eels to consume your flesh, until there is nothing left of you, not even your name.”

The people cheered at these words, turning their back on the mad King to follow Cuhlcaihn to the entrance to the caves. Gathering up the fishing line he had untangled beneath the light of the moon, a wedding gift to his beloved, he tied the line at the entrance to the caves and climbed down and down and down from the palace carved in the side of the cliff. And as he descended he could hear the rush and roar of the waves, and he knew that the full moon would soon rise.

Unspooling the fishing line behind him, he set out through the labyrinth of the caves, following one path and then another. He circled round and round, and round again, unspooling and respooling the line as he went. And as he walked, he called for his beloved, shouting her name, “Rienne! Rienne! Rienne!” It echoed from the walls of the caves, joining the rush and roar of the waves.

And the moon rose higher and the water rose higher, climbing around his ankles, and then his knees. And still he continued, circling round and round, calling to his beloved.

And then at last — at last — his beloved answered, calling his name, “Cuhlcaihn! Cuhlcaihn! Cuhlcaihn!”

The water rising to his chest, the bull of Bhennach surged forward, gathering his beloved into his arms. They wept and hugged one another tightly, the water pushing them back and forth, into the walls of the caves and back again.

Clasping his horns with her hands, Rienne clung to her beloved as he made his slow way out of the labyrinth of caves. His sharp hooves digging into the stone, hauling on the fishing line with his powerful hands, Cuhlcaihn pulled them through the rising waters. Round and round, and round again, the waters cold and loud, until at last — at last — they reached the stairs that led up to the palace carved in the side of the cliff above the sea. Up and up and up they climbed. In one hand, Cuhlcaihn held the fishing line. In one hand, Rienne held her stingray sword. With the other, they held one another tight.

And so they reached the palace again, and the people who had gathered around the entrance to the caves cheered and danced when the Bull of Bhennach and the princess of the People of the Sea emerged, moonlight gilding his horns, moonlight shimmering from her sword. The people sang songs of praise, lifted Cuhlcaihn and Rienne high on their shoulders, and paraded them through the Palace and the city below.

Of the former King who had gone mad with hate, there was no sign; only the blood stain upon his throne.

The people, dancing through the palace and in the streets, declared Cuhlcaihn and Rienne the King and Queen, beloved rulers of the People of the Sea. And for the rest of that night and all the next day and into the next night, they celebrated. They feasted on fish and turtles, on cheeses and mead, singing their thanks to the Lord of Storms and the Heavenly Cow for bringing Cuhlcaihn and Rienne to watch over them.

And so they did, ruling wisely and fiercely and well for the rest of their days, and teaching their children — horned and hoofed and not — to do the same.

But that is not the end of the tale.

The former King, gone mad with hate, ran far from the Palace by the Sea, north into the flowering meadows and gentle hills of Bhennach. And there, half-blind, half-naked, and starving, he came upon a stone hut on a quiet hill near a stream, and the three sisters who lived there: Uina, Irgial, and Unsta. The three women offered shelter and food to the half-blind, half-naked, starving stranger. And he sat by their fire and told them his tale, and in his words they recognized their brother and his beloved.

Enraged, Uina and Irgial and Unsta drove him from their hearth, from their hut, and out into the flowering meadow beside the stream. And there they cleaved his head from his neck, his blood draining into the stream. And they threw his body and his head into the waters, which carried them south, through the lands of the seven tribes of Bhennach to the Palace by the Sea. And there the stream emptied into the salty waters of the sea, and the Lord of Storms set the sharks and eels to feast upon the body and head of the mad once-King until there was nothing left of him, not even his name.          

[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]

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