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A short story about how sometimes the gravest monsters are those inside humans, set centuries ago in ...
2022-10-12 09:00:00
short story

Lord Beast

“Aurora Borealis,” Frederic Edwin Church, 1865. Smithsonian American Art Museum (public domain)
Lord Beast
Lord Beast

The story of how the fifteenth son of a mussel diver wanted to become a knight, and how some islands are inhabited by beasts, while others are not.

Read in 32 minutes

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Glory be to the One Triune God and to all His saints. Honor to the great Dagda and His descendants to the fortieth generation. May we be led by Osian, Taliesin of the Shining Brow, and Nimian of the Lake. May Nuada in his silver hand bring us a leaf from the tree of stories, older than the oldest gods, a tree that no one planted, and no one can say when it grew, and there is nothing that is not a part of it. Amen.

Our story stems from others, older and stranger than itself. It is the story of Bran Bury and how he became the Spiked Knight, and how he got that name. It was written by me, Radek Rak from the City of Four Mounds, to give you a moment of joy.

Bran Bury lived centuries ago on the Island, the largest island in the world. In order to cross it from the north end to the south, you would have to travel from one Sunday to the next Sunday; west to east, from Sunday to Friday—well, maybe to Thursday vespers, as long as you had long legs, there was no snow in the mountains, no rain in the valleys, no marauding robbers on the roads, and no sorcerers or other monsters in the wilderness. It would have taken much less time on horseback, but Bran, the fifteenth son of a mussel diver, did not own a horse. Nor did anyone in the Bury clan, nor any of his neighbors. So it was hard to say how much the Island would have shrunk were it traversed in the saddle. Perhaps, the journey would take the same time, or longer, for different adventures await the horseback rider—more chivalrous adventures, such as feasts, hunting, and fighting monsters—and each of these might turn out to be time-consuming.

At this point, Bran was poor, and his adventures had been poor, too. His horizon to the north was formed by a dark, angry sea, and to the south lay dark, brooding mountains. His life was marked by the rhythm of the rising and falling tides as he collected mussels—and sometimes, after the autumn storms, amber. There was one lump, as big as a goose’s heart, that Bran kept with him in secret at all times. He could have exchanged it for a bag of sweets at Saint John’s feast, or for new clothes and shoes at the Christmas fair. But he would have devoured the candy, his clothes would have gotten holes in, and his shoes would have gotten wet, or been stolen by his older brothers. But the beauty of amber was long-lasting and did not yield to the passage of time, and besides, it is good to have something beautiful for oneself, something that nobody knows about, that can be enjoyed alone.

Apart from the amber, the fifteenth son of a mussel diver was keeping one more thing to himself: the prophecy of an old dog. Yes, a dog. The tide had thrown her ashore—big, spotty, and fat like no other dog Bran had ever seen, and her paws were so tiny they barely protruded from beneath her body. Basking in the faint rays of the winter sun, she stuck out her gray muzzle towards him, and she seemed very pleased, although the cold was nipping at her calves and a damp was settling in her bones that made it impossible to really get warm.

“I’ve never seen such a fat dog,” Bran began, not very politely, because no one had had the time to teach him things like manners. You can’t eat manners, nor can they provide warmth, so they’re not a particularly useful thing for a mussel diver. Anyway, a dog is just a dog.

“Sea dogs need fat. It protects us from the cold in the far northern regions, where sometimes the ice lasts until July.”

“You lie like a dog. I’ve never heard of dogs living in the sea. Chasing hares on the moor, or yapping in the kennel, yes. But not in the sea.”

“Humans can’t even catch the stupidest of hares,” said the dog, irritated. “And they can only outrun a snail because they have two legs and a snail has none. But I don’t say that they ought to live on a moor or be chained to a kennel, because I know there are sea people, too. I’ve seen them many times on my travels.”

“But they sail in ships.”

“And sea dogs sail on fat. You are an extremely dull and rude boy. It’s a wonder you haven’t been knighted yet. Then you would be free to treat other creatures like dirt and revile them for fun. I predict a great future for you.”

With those words, the dog leapt into the waves, spraying Bran with cold water. For a moment, her gray head was still visible, and then she dived beneath the surface and was gone.


Bran held on to the dog’s words and pondered them in his heart. Until then, he had seen himself only in the role of a mussel diver or a beggar. The sea dog had shown him a possibility of which he would never have thought, and discovered in him talents he had never known existed. He knew that dogs were not to be believed, there was no creature on earth more hypocritical or capable of betrayal for any old morsel of carelessly chewed bone—but this was a sea dog, so surely it was magical.

Bran thought for one Sunday, he thought for two, he thought for three. On the Monday after the third Sunday, he kissed his parents’ work-worn hands and left the house to go and meet his destiny. He had decided to become a knight, so off he went to the King’s court. He walked fast and had no adventures—not even the kind that happen to poor people. Perhaps he made such a miserable impression that all the adventures merely cast a contemptuous glance in his direction and kept their distance? And good thing they did, because they might have discovered that Bran was hiding a lump of amber as big as a goose’s heart under his old, tattered coat.

By Sunday evening, he had reached the House of a Hundred Chimneys on the south coast, where the King of the Whole Island lived. There, it turned out that becoming a knight was not at all easy, even if you have an innate talent for it. So Bran agreed to be a kennelman because the cold didn’t bother him, and he had long since become accustomed to fleas.

The days grew shorter and shorter until Saint Lucy’s Day, so short that the sun barely peeked out over the edge of the world. A thick darkness covered the ground, and the aurora danced in the sky in unearthly colors. That day, which seemed not to be a real day, the whole of the King’s court gathered in the knight’s hall to pray by the light of the fire and eat Lenten meals—variously prepared fish, beavers’ tails, and baked kingfishers stuffed with mushrooms. The flames of the fireplaces lit up the interior of the House and the hearts of the revelers, leaving the outside world at the mercy of the darkness, inhuman powers, and gloomy aurora. For this is how it is, that the world, before the birth of our Sun and Savior Jesus Christ, must be brought under the rule of dark forces for a short time.

The Lenten feast was in full swing when it was suddenly interrupted by a pounding on the gate. Conversations died down, the music stopped. The banging sounded again as if a battering ram was hammering on the oak door.

“It is him, my lord,” said the Sorceress Queen. “He has returned.”

The King of the Whole Island finished gnawing on a beaver tail and tossed the vertebrae to Bran to suck out the marrow.

“Let him in,” he said grimly.

And they let him in.

Puffing and panting, the newcomer entered the room with a clanging of armor—formidable armor, bristling with spikes and creaking with every movement. But the worst thing was his face, covered in black hair, with eyes like beads and a pink, snuffling snout. A mole’s snout. Bran almost choked on his beaver gristle.

“Glory to you, O King of the Whole Island!” roared a mole more enormous than anyone had ever seen. “Lord Beast of Willow Island sends his greetings and asks if there is at least one true knight in your house ready to fight him.”

A murmur arose around the round table, though fainter than one might expect after such an insult. Bran was astonished that none of the thanes leapt forward in anger, drew their swords, and removed the newcomer’s head from his shoulders so that the cook could bake it for Christmas with cloves and prunes.

“Really, I won’t find a single knight here? Come closer, O you brave ones, that I may better see all who are swarming to face my master. I am a mole and my eyesight is poor. Closer, knights.”

Nobody spoke.

“Closer!” he roared.

“Mole knight, you come to my court on Saint Lucy’s Day for the third year in a row,” said the King at last. “Last year, thane Glamis responded to your call, and the year before, thane Geralt the White. Both of them brave of heart and skillful in battle. But we have no news of them. I trust that after an honorable fight they are enjoying your master’s hospitality?”

But the uninvited guest only laughed crassly, reached down to his belt, and tossed two dried heads tied together by the hair onto the table.

“Here are your thanes, O King. They turned out to be neither as brave nor as skillful in battle as you say. Lord Beast does not appreciate pretend fights, games, or tournaments. Those are good for puppies. My master is a beast. For him, fighting is fighting, and death is death. So what will it be? Are there any knights left at your table? Or have you surrounded yourself with hares and deer?”

Bran trembled in anticipation. For now he felt that he was in a story—the kind sung by the wandering bards that visited his village for Saint Cadfan’s fair. But the thanes were silent, as silent as the grave.

“We will draw lots,” said the King of the Whole Island reluctantly, not wanting to bring disgrace upon himself or his court. For shame was worse than the inevitable death of another knight.

“I will prepare a magic potion,” announced the Sorceress Queen. “Whoever finds a cat’s bone in his cup will set off to meet the beast.”

In those days, kings often took wives from the sorcerer tribe. Those who were unkind said they were goblins, but this rumor seems to have been merely an invention of the scribes who translated books from the more noble languages—for there is no mention of the goblin provenance of sorceresses in the original manuscripts.

The queen set about preparing an enchanted brew. She tossed yellow carrots and pallid parsley into the cauldron, followed by a bunch of onions, a string of garlic, and a handful of aromatic herbs. The most important ingredient of all was the cat, because cat-based potions have a supernatural power. When boiled for long enough, only a single bone remains from the cat’s chest. This bone enables you to see the future and change your destiny, so long as you know how to use it.

Soon, the broth was gurgling over the fire, and the air would have thickened with the fumes if it hadn’t already been as thick as stew. The mole’s incursion had completely spoiled the mood, and no one was enjoying the feast anymore, even the minstrels had gone quiet. Only the newcomer seemed to be having fun: he ate for three, drank for six, and belched for nine. Thus passed the rest of the evening. Eventually the potion was ready. The thanes and their more important servants came up with sour expressions to get some broth from the cauldron—one with a mug, one with a tin cup, and another with a curved cow horn. Lastly, Bran approached, holding his clay bowl with both hands. The thanes looked at him with loathing, as you might a multi-legged creature that has crawled out from a bale of straw or from deep in the soil. But none of them said anything, for the more fools that were eager to drink the brew, the less their chance of meeting the beast.

They drank their portions of the dark broth from mugs, cups, and horns. Sighs of relief could be heard all around. Just one noble thane, Gorlois ap Gwydion, let out a vile curse, more like a farmhand than a knight. He snarled, spat on his hand, wiped his mustache with his sleeve, and tossed a small, misshapen bone on the table. The rest of the nobles gave false praise to the bravery of thane Gorlois, recalling some of his great deeds, which were either made up, or so old that it was essentially the same thing. First one, then another assured him that they envied him the opportunity for a wonderful adventure, saying, “Oh, if only it were me,” and so on, until thane Gorlois turned purple with rage, and seemed about to draw his sword and slaughter the two-faced sneaks.

Then Bran spoke up: “I have a bone, too.”

Cries of “it can’t be!” reverberated around the round table. “Destiny chose the noble thane Gorlois ap Gwydion!”

“Apparently that was no ordinary cat,” said the Sorceress Queen with a strange smile. “Perhaps there are cats with more than one magic bone in their chests.”

“Then I am prepared to give up my adventure for the kennelman,” said the noble thane Gorlois ap Gwydion. “It seems that fate gives even people of lowly status a chance.”

“You must be joking, thane!” snarled the mole. “A draw is a draw, and an agreement is an agreement. Since destiny has chosen you both, then both of you will answer the challenge of Lord Beast. Both you, noble thane Gorlois ap Gwydion, and this kennelman who seems to have more enthusiasm for the expedition. Now, if you will allow me, I will eat a little before my return journey. My master will expect you by Saint John’s at the latest.”

Before leaving, the mole ate two-dozen pikes and five-dozen kingfishers, washed down with a barrel of beer. The knights’ appetites also returned—all of them except thane Gorlois, of course. And when the King of the Whole Island had promised Bran a noble title and a sword if he managed to slaughter the beast from Willow Island, the kennelman was allowed to eat the leftovers from the knights’ platters.

That night, lying in his makeshift bed in the kennels, his belly bloated from overeating, Bran felt happier than ever before. For now the prophecy of the sea dog was starting to come true. And neither the ghosts howling in the darkness of the longest night, nor the ominous aurora in the sky could spoil his joy.


Willow Island was neither very far nor very near. Tan Gorlois ap Gwydion therefore did not hurry his journey. Bran was in no rush either, for since he did not have his own ship, he was reliant on the thane to choose the time of the trip. So they ate and drank, Bran with merriment, and thane Gorlois mournfully. One dreamed of earning a knight’s belt, of wonderful adventures, lavish feasts, and the favor of the ladies of the court. The other saw only a black abyss and death in the claws of Lord Beast. They feasted through the whole of Christmas and New Year’s, through Candlemas, or Imbolc, until Ash Wednesday. Then came Lent, so the feasts stopped, but from Easter the celebrations resumed at double strength. Beltane, Ascension Day, and Whitsun passed in the same way. Thane Gorlois was half his former size, while Bran had doubled his weight and looked like a fattened pig.

It was unacceptable to delay any longer. On Trinity Sunday, right after mass, Gorlois ap Gwydion’s ship set sail. A crowd of onlookers from all states had gathered on the shore to cheer on the brave souls. Bran, now respectably dressed in a white shirt and checkered kilt, waved to the crowd and blew kisses to the girls. He didn’t notice that the hitherto somber face of thane Gorlois had brightened, as if a weight had been lifted from the knight’s shoulders.

They set off towards the sun—south and west, for that is where Willow Island was supposed to be. They sailed and sailed, cutting through the gray-green waves. The weather favored them, the winds favored them. Day by day, however, the prow of the ship seemed to move farther and farther to the right, until the next Sunday, Bran realized that they had turned around and were heading north. But he didn’t say a word, pretending not to have noticed anything, just watching closely what was going on around him. Like every poor man, he knew very well that it was better for others to think him dumber than he really was.

They reached an island, but it wasn’t Willow Island at all. The tops of the cliffs were white with apple blossoms, the petals falling like snow. Spring, real spring, as colorful as the illuminations from the Book of Kells. Bran had never seen such a world before. It seemed to him that these colors and fragrances, this serene brightness, could only happen in a dream or his imagination.

Thane Gorlois, a troop of his warriors, and Bran went ashore. In the depths of the island, by a stream, they saw a house of extraordinary beauty, dotted with dozens of pale-roofed towers, more like an abandoned crystal from the crown of a giant king than a place where people lived.

And indeed, it was not people living there. Bran saw them in the thicket of an apple orchard—fair-haired, tall, and beautiful, but beautiful in the way of a gorgeous dawn that turns out to be the glow of a fire started by an invader. From a lifetime spent staring at the sea, he had learned to see things that eluded other people.

The kennelman quickly realized that he was not in a good place and that he should run away as quickly as possible.

The thane’s henchmen were looking around, mouths wide open, intoxicated more with the scent of the flowers than the finest whiskey from the northern islands. Gorlois himself strode confidently towards the House of Countless Towers, as if he knew exactly where he was going. Eventually, the travelers stood at the gateway. In soaring windows, on openwork bridges and ornamental balconies, crowds of beautiful people stood pointing at the visitors. They were no longer in hiding. Bran listened to their peals of laughter and shuddered. This beauty made his head ache and he was starting to feel sick. He felt faint with fear when the Lord of Apple Tree Island, adorned in jewels and light robes, came out toward them from the House of Countless Towers, and embraced thane Gorlois.

“Welcome, brother,” he said.

It happens that when a man marries a woman from a sorcerer tribe, or when one of the beautiful people marries a mortal, their children are faced with the choice of the fate that should befall them. They can decide whether to live to the end of the world, but lose their soul in the process, or to keep their divine spark, but live briefly in a body subject to disease and decay. The Lord of Apple Tree Island and the ancestor of thane Gorlois were brothers. Gorlois himself regarded his forefather as a fool who had squandered beauty and eternal youth for something that cannot be seen, touched, or measured, and which may not even exist. He envied the sorcerer people, but benefited from their friendship and help whenever he got into trouble.

So it was this time, too. The lord of the island held a grand feast in honor of his relative in the most beautiful hall of the House of Countless Towers. They ate, drank, and rejoiced late into the night. When the thane’s troop fell asleep at the table after all the enchanting wine and magical music, the two relatives began to discuss in hushed tones how to slay Lord Beast of Willow Island. The beautiful sorcerer presented the thane with charmed amulets, a sword forged from stellar iron, and a winged helmet with a mysterious mark on its forehead. Bran pretended to be sleeping under the table with the warriors, bound by golden liquor, but in fact he had barely nibbled on the white bread and had only wet his lips on the cup, listening attentively the whole time. Then he clearly heard the host say: “Above all, you must get rid of that boy. According to the law of stories, if a noble knight and a dirty halfwit embark on the same journey, the knight will be defeated and embarrassed, and the halfwit will return basking in glory.”

“I thought of throwing him overboard, as soon as we set sail from your island.”

“Don’t do that, lest you anger the gods of the sea. Better if you sell him to me. I could use a new kennelman. We baked the last one and ate him at Samhain.”

“I didn’t know you still practiced that custom.”

“He was so stringy, the fibers got stuck between our teeth,” said the Lord of Apple Tree Island. “Nonetheless, tradition is tradition, and Hern the King of the Hunt demands human flesh sacrifices.”

“I understand. The boy doesn’t seem like an unreasonable price for all your gifts. Brother.”

“Brother.” The sorcerer raised his cup made from a unicorn’s horn. They both drank.

The thane and his troop left the next day.

“We’ll come back for you; we’re just going to slaughter Lord Beast of Willow Island.” The noble thane Gorlois placed a hand on Bran’s shoulder. “You’ll be fine on Apple Tree Island.”

“Do you promise, my lord?” asked Bran.

“I promise, my boy.” The thane didn’t bat an eyelid. Bran knew that only people of low status had to keep agreements and obligations. But what he had in his heart and mind, he kept to himself.

It cannot be said that things were particularly bad for him on Apple Tree Island. Bran was fed tasty food and plenty of it, he liked working with dogs, and there must have been a spell hanging over the island to protect it from frosts, hail, and northerly winds. He lolled about under the apple trees and he had little to do, because the sorcerer dogs were well-behaved, rarely bit each other, had no fleas, and didn’t roll around in dead fish. So there was no need for him to groom them or bathe them in wood tar mixed in water. But even if Bran hadn’t known that the sorcerer people would bake and eat him at the next fall sabbath, like they had the previous kennelman, Apple Tree Island still seemed to him the most terrible place on earth. He preferred storms and sea monsters. Even the mole knight didn’t scare him so much.

One evening, while strolling with the dogs among the apple trees, he chanced upon a merry crowd. Young men and maidens, some more beautiful than the others, were playing in an orchard flooded with the evening light.

“Hey! Kennelman! Come over here!”

“No way. I know perfectly well that you want to bake me and eat me at the next Samhain.”

“You’re so gloomy! When you draw near, the wine turns to vinegar!” said a blonde girl, laughing. Someone with a sensitive soul could lose themselves in her laughter and never come back to earth. Bran had a soul like stone, but he still felt hot under the collar.

“We don’t eat kennelmen, anyway,” added her companion with eyes like the night sky. Someone with a tender heart could drown in those eyes and never find their way back to the world of humans. Bran had a heart of wood, but something still twinged in his chest.

“I hear they’re stringy, and the fibers get stuck between your teeth,” he said. The sorcerer crowd fell silent, disconcerted, and Bran walked off into the night, glad he had managed to spoil the mood a little.

It was a June night, and June nights are never truly dark, the sandy glow of dawn constantly wandering along the horizon. Anxiety was pushing Bran forward, so he wasn’t paying attention to where his legs were carrying him. His dogs circled, also caring little about the goal of the night’s walk. They sniffed every tuft of grass and peed against every tree, taking twenty paces where Bran took two. They weren’t thinking about the fact that any day now, thane Gorlois would slaughter the beast, taking all the glory for himself. And they didn’t have to worry about being devoured in the fall; the sorcerer people did not eat dogs on any occasion.

At last, Bran reached the coast and, enraged, began to throw stones into the sea. The dogs, thinking it was a new game, brought them back to him. Sometimes they were the stones Bran had thrown, and sometimes they were completely different. The dogs didn’t seem to mind at all.

“You’re dumb mongrels,” said Bran in irritation, and the dogs wagged their tails and licked his face as a sign they completely agreed.

In the end, Bran threw the lump of amber as big as a goose’s heart into the dark waves, because he felt there was no hope of salvation and he had no more need for beautiful things. Besides, compared to all the magical beauty of Apple Tree Island, the rough amber looked cheap and vulgar. But as soon as the treasure vanished into the sea, Bran regretted his action.

The regret did not manage to settle in his heart for good, however, because the water began to boil, the waves crashed on the shore, and a woman emerged from the sea foam. Seaweed and shells clung to her bloated body and drooping breasts, and multi-legged sea creatures dangled from her gray hair. She was as old and disgruntled as the sea itself. In her hand, she held the lump of amber as big as a goose’s heart, although next to her powerful form it seemed as tiny as a cherry stone. At the sight of her, the dogs ran off onto the cliff and barked from a safe distance.

“What do you want?” she roared. “Why are you throwing lumps of amber at my head?!”

“O Sea Lady, it is a gift.” Bran Bury cowered.

“A gift? You’re funny. You couldn’t even guess the size of the pieces of amber I’m hiding at the bottom of the sea. There are amber palaces and amber chambers, some of them even contain preserved creatures from before the flood. And you bring me a stone the size of a chicken’s heart?”

“A goose’s heart,” Bran corrected. “This is a very unusual piece of amber, because it is the most beautiful thing I own—actually, the only thing. If I, O Sea Lady, had offered you a precious stone as big as a human heart, but kept for myself another, larger than an ox’s heart, there would be no merit in it, and such a gift would be worth nothing. And so it may be, O Sea Lady, that no one has ever given you anything more precious.”

He had made it up on the spot, just to gain time, and so as not to be eaten by the woman. After all, there had been no intention behind throwing the amber, only fear and anger.

The Sea Lady, however, smacked her lips contentedly and puffed steam from her wide nostrils, for she was a sucker for all gifts, and she had never thought of it that way, even though she had lived forever, or even longer. Anyway, she had a weakness for young men flattering her.

“If those mutts don’t stop barking, I will eat them, and then you,” she said. “What do you want in return for your gift, young man?”

“To get off this cursed island, O Sea Lady.” Hope flashed in Bran’s eyes.

“It is said to be a very beautiful island.”

“Perhaps it is, but I am trapped here and as a result I cannot obtain a knight’s belt to be seated at the round table, and on top of that, the sorcerer people want to devour me at the next Samhain. So what if it’s a beautiful island? It could just as well be a bare rock in the middle of the sea that is shat on by gulls. It really is all the same to me. All the beauty in the world is not worth as much as my life.”

The Sea Lady winked at Bran and flashed her yellow teeth in a grin. She liked his words very much because she thought the same way about her own life.

“It will happen according to your wishes.”


“Soon, my dear. Soon.”

And she burst out laughing as she splashed water on Bran and his dogs, then disappeared into the surf.

Later that day, Bran’s body burst out in blemishes. It started with tiny, peeling flakes, as if someone had sprinkled whole-wheat flour over him. The lesions itched intensely, so Bran was constantly scratching and rubbing his back against the bark of the trees like a bear. In this way, he swiftly spread the lesions all over his body, and they bled and turned into sores, red and oozing, until Bran could barely move. He had a fever, and the whole of Apple Tree Island seemed to him like a dream, a beautiful nightmare from which it was impossible to wake up, even if the dreamer knows that he is dreaming.

Soon the dogs became mangy as well. Only then did the king of the sorcerer people turn his attention to Bran.

“You have brought a plague upon us, you lousy human dog. For this, you will die a dog’s death.”

And he ordered that Bran be drowned in the sea, along with the dogs that were sick, which was almost all of them. The fair-haired warriors took the boy to the cliff and, trying not to touch him, shoved him off the edge. The dogs, lurching about in terror, were thrown after him.

The sea swallowed Bran whole. He descended, deeper and deeper, death roaring in his head. At first, he tried to thrash at the water with his hands and feet, but his body was frozen from the cold and refused to listen to him. Suddenly he felt nice and warm and he stopped clinging on to existence. When something began to lift him to the surface, he was annoyed that it was not letting him die.

When he emerged, snorting, panting, and trembling, he realized it was the fat sea dogs that were pushing him up with their noses. Perhaps they were the same animals he was looking after on Apple Tree Island and they had grown fins by magic? The dogs snorted, wagged their tails and, with their tongues poking out, started doing tricks in the sea, which they thought most amusing, and Bran not so much, because it involved splashing him with cold water. Nearby, the Sea Lady was laughing loudly, making her chins, drooping breasts, and belly fat jump.

“You… You did this on purpose!” said Bran.

“But of course, my dear! I could have set you free right away. But this was much more amusing.”

Bran disagreed on this point, but prudently kept quiet. A poor man must always take great care when dealing with the powers of this world, for they are capricious and unpredictable, and their friendship is always uncertain.


The pack of sea dogs sped south, to the brighter and warmer parts of the world, where Willow Island lay. They swam and swam day after day, eating seaweed and raw fish. After a while, the ulcers on Bran’s body began to recede. It wasn’t clear whether it was the sun that dried them up so beautifully, or whether the Sea Lady had simply removed them from Bran by magic. In the end, some reddish patches were all that remained.

The dogs arrived at Willow Island on Saint John’s Eve. It was dawn when Bran spied land. Smoke rose above it, like that of grass burning in the summertime. At first, Bran thought the islanders were burning Christmas bonfires, but then he caught the smell on the wind. Bonfires didn’t smell like that. That was the smell of death.

The dogs carried Bran ashore, but they quickly returned to the open sea, fearing what might await them on the island. The boy, on the other hand, moved into the depths and soon saw the site of the fire and charred remains. A dozen more corpses were hanging in a gnarled old willow. Driven by a ghastly curiosity, Bran stepped closer.

They were strange corpses, human-not human. Almost all of them had animal instead of human faces—rats, weasels, or birds, with claws instead of nails, and two of them had feathers. Bran shuddered. So the beast of Willow Island doesn’t even spare its own kind. He regretted coming here, and any grand dreams of knightly glory and killing the monster seemed like childish fantasies. How could he face a beast, without a sword and armor, and without the only precious thing he had ever possessed, the lump of amber as large as a goose’s heart?

He had no way of escaping the island, however, because the dogs had already swum far away. He could hide, convinced that Lord Beast would find him sooner or later, or he could set out to meet him. And since it is knightlier to do something than not to do something, Bran resolved to track down the ruler of this land and not delay the inevitable.

Willow Island gave an astonishingly peaceful impression for a land crushed by a tyrant’s boot. The fields were overgrown with barley grass, and the hedges and groves were teeming with greenery. Shortly before sunset, he reached a gently flowing river. On the other bank there was a manor house, built of river stone, with a red-tiled roof. It was so dignified that the House of a Hundred Chimneys resembled a pigsty in comparison, and at the same time so simple and homely that the House of Countless Towers looked garish and tacky. The Beast’s house brought to mind lavish dinners and long evening tales by the fire.

Then the rushes on the other bank rustled, and a boat floated out into the middle of the river. The rower was roughly human in shape, and moreover he was dressed like a man, a man of means at that; but his paws, like his muzzle, were covered in reddish fur. It was a water rat.

“Ahoy!” he called. “Good that you’re here. Lord Beast is impatient to see you.”

“Lord Beast?”

“That’s right. He and his guest, the noble thane Gorlois ap Gwydion. You are Bran Bury, the kennelman from the House of a Hundred Chimneys, am I right? You should be called Bran Spotty!”

Bran got into the rat’s boat and set sail towards his destiny. A bird was chattering in the reeds, and frogs croaked in the backwaters. Everything seemed to be mocking the boy’s foolishness.

In the courtyard, warriors from thane Gorlois’s troop were groaning in stocks, and a couple of gagged men were rocking back and forth in a wrought-iron cage. They moaned, although no apparent harm was befalling them; but perhaps they were afraid of the mole more enormous than anyone had ever seen, which was strolling between them in its formidable armor, wielding an executioner’s sword in its paw. Bran’s legs grew weak at the sight of the monster.

“You’re finally here!” said the mole with a deep, gloomy laugh. “Lord Beast is expecting you.”

In the knight’s hall of the House of the Beast, a table had been set for Bran, the rat, and the mole. The walls were crowded with murky portraits of monsters—the details were lost in the shadows, but you could easily make out teeth, claws, and wings. The grim pride radiating from the images suggested they were either the ancestors of Lord Beast or other eminent representatives of his tribe. There were also some strange shapes hanging between the pictures, and it took Bran a moment to recognize that they were shrunken human heads. Thane Gorlois hunched in his chair with an indifferent expression and no intention of enjoying the bounties of the table. All the amulets of Apple Tree Island, all the thane’s enchanted weapons now looked ridiculous and cheap.

On the thane’s right hand sat Lord Beast.

He was so ugly that he could very well have been the brother of the Sea Lady. He stretched his snail-like mouth in a toothless smile. His body was dripping with mucus, which did not prevent him from wearing expensive robes, despite the fact that the moisture marked them with dark stains. He looked as soft as an overcooked dumpling, and more disgusting than threatening, but Bran knew full well that among sorcerer beings nothing is what it seems.

“Bran Bury!” The creature chuckled, puffing up his throat so much that it grew fifty percent larger. “Or should I say, Bran Spotty! I thought you weren’t coming. Thane Gorlois even suggested that you had chickened out. What joy, what joy!”

“Why are you here?” growled thane Gorlois. “I didn’t leave you in the care of the Lord of Apple Tree Island only for you to be getting under my feet now.”

“Oh, dear thane, I see you’re not in the best mood,” said Lord Beast. “If any of the dishes are not to your liking, I’ll have them thrown to the humans to be devoured. Anything to make my guest happy.”

“No, Lord Beast,” Bran said courageously. “The noble thane Gorlois left me on Apple Tree Island for the sorcerer people to eat me at Samhain. He was afraid that I would steal his glory and slay you, because in stories the dirty half-wit always wins, while the noble knight is defeated.”

“Silence, pipsqueak!” The thane banged his fist on the table, making the wine goblets shake.

“Ah,” said Lord Beast with a smack of the lips. “It must have been some terrible mistake. Just as it was impossible for a thane to order a village to be burned down and my subjects murdered. It was surely the work of that band of brigands with whom he happened to be on board, and who are waiting right outside my house for justice.”

“They should be eaten alive!” grumbled the mole.

“Or we could pardon them and simply drive them away,” said Lord Beast. “What do you think, thane?”

“I think that’s enough talk!” cried Gorlois ap Gwydion, drawing his sword with a screech. “Time to fight! Come on!”

“With your permission, Lord Beast, it would be better this way,” said Bran. “We didn’t come here to drink your wine or sample your food. We came to die by your hand. Let’s not drag it out longer than necessary.”

The lord of the house seemed disconsolate, but eventually he ordered the table to be moved aside, allowed Bran to choose the weapon he wanted, and he picked up his sword, as beautifully forged and exquisitely decorated as its owner was ugly. The kennelman picked up an axe—a crude weapon in crude hands.

Thane Gwydion ap Gorlois began to pep himself up by invoking the various saints, but he had barely reached Saint Bridget when Bran swung his axe into the beast’s neck without warning. There was a creak of the spine, and the boy had to correct his aim twice more before the head came completely away from the shoulders, for the beast was strong and would not die.


The ship carrying Bran arrived at the House of a Hundred Chimneys on the Lughnasadh Sabbath in mid-summer. All the courtiers went ashore to greet him—arriving at the head of a very strange retinue. Strange, because in addition to the warriors who had set out on the expedition, they were accompanied by a mole more enormous than anyone had ever seen, and a water rat.

Finally, Bran stood before the King of the Whole Island, the Sorceress Queen, and all the knights of the kingdom.

“I have returned, my lord.” The kennelman knelt on one knee.

“Have you slaughtered the beast on Willow Island?” the King asked in disbelief.

“Yes, my lord. This is his head.”

And Bran threw the head of the noble thane Gorlois ap Gwydion into the center of the round table. A commotion arose, shouts of anger, fear and disgust mingled in the air, and swords screeched as they were drawn from their sheaths. The rat and the mole drew their weapons in response, and with them the warriors who had arrived with Bran.

“At ease!” cried the King. “I will not allow bloodshed in this house! And you, boy, explain yourself immediately!”

“O my lord and king, thane Gorlois proved to be a vile man. En route, he abandoned me with his relative, that I might be devoured and so I would not happen to steal from him the glory of victory. He led massacres of the inhabitants of Willow Island, even though they did him no wrong. When I stood between thane Gorlois and Lord Beast—who, while he challenges his equals to battle, is just and kind to his subjects—then, O King, I understood the truth. You sent me, my lord, to slaughter the beast on Willow Island, and I did so. According to ancient custom, some of the thane’s warriors swore allegiance to me as their new master. We slew those who put up resistance.

The king turned pale, but said nothing. The knights were silent as well, though some of them nibbled impatiently at their mustaches, waiting for the slightest gesture from their ruler to slay this whippersnapper and murderer. Many, however, looked at the head of thane Gorlois with vindictive satisfaction, for the thane was cruel and proud, and had many enemies, even among those with whom he shared the bread and ate from the same bowl. And the King knew all this, otherwise he could not be the true King of the Whole Island.

“I understand, then, that the conditions of the Lord of Willow Island were met?” he said after a long time.

“I don’t understand, my lord.”

“He challenged my knights to defeat and slay the beast on Willow Island. It has been done. Will Lord Beast give us his word that he will no longer trouble us with his challenges?”

Then spoke the mole more enormous than anyone had ever seen: “O King, you are as wise as a serpent, and Bran Spotty has proved that your subjects can use their conscience just as well as their weapons. I am sure that Lord Beast will give you his word.”

The hall suddenly became brighter. And more cheerful.

It so happened that Bran had freed the whole Island from Lord Beast, and the subjects of thane Gorlois from thane Gorlois. The King of the Whole Island decided the next day to make Bran a knight. According to an ancient tradition, the boy was supposed to spend the night in prayer vigils. In any case, he wouldn’t sleep a wink, knowing that as soon as he was knighted, thane Gorlois’s friends would challenge him to a duel, one by one, and he wouldn’t be able to refuse them. At midnight, it occurred to him that he should escape the chapel and remain a peasant. But just then, he was visited by the Sorceress Queen.

“You have nothing to fear,” she said. “My gift will be revealed to you at dawn.”

So when the King and his knights entered the chapel in the morning, they saw Bran and were amazed. For the boy’s back and head were covered with spikes as thick as a finger and as sharp as whaling harpoons, and his face was lengthened, covered with bristles and was no longer a face, but a snout.

Such was the gift of the Sorceress Queen, and Bran rejoiced because now the King and the knights feared him.

Bran Bury thus became the Spiked Knight and took his place at the round table. He did not stay there too long, however, because he bristled not only from the outside, but also from the inside, and his heart was filled with hedgehog-like desires. So he left the Island when the days began to grow short and empty, and the nights became long and cold. Some said that he spent the rest of his life on Willow Island in the company of Lord Beast. Others heard that he had burrowed somewhere under a pile of leaves and spent the winter there. When he awoke the next spring, he had completely forgotten human speech and had become an ordinary hedgehog. There were also those who claimed that he had fallen in love with a princess from the far south and the spell on him had been broken, but despite his enormous power he had not found happiness, and fate had cruelly sneered at him and took away his only daughter.

Even stranger things were said, but they do not belong to this tale, and are completely different leaves from the tree of stories. This is where I end the fairy tale of Bran the Hedgehog, because it is a winter’s evening, the bells are ringing, and it is almost time for supper. And I value supper and sleep just as much as stories.

Kraków, Epiphany 2022

Drawing by Marek Raczkowski
Drawing by Marek Raczkowski

Translated from the Polish by Kate Webster

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