The Meester Stoorworm

A Story from Scotland

The following is from Tales of Folk and Fairies by Katharine Pyle (1919):

There was once a lad, and what his real name was nobody remembered, unless it was the mother who bore him; but what every one called him was Ashipattle. They called him that because he sat among the ashes to warm his toes.

He had six older brothers, and they did not think much of him. All the tasks they scorned to do themselves they put upon Ashipattle. He gathered the sticks for the fire, he swept the floor, he cleaned the byre, he ran the errands, and all he got for his pains were kicks and cuffs and mocking words. Still he was a merry fellow, and as far as words went he gave his brothers as good as they sent.

Ashipattle had one sister, and she was very good and kind to him. In return for her kindness he told her long stories of trolls and giants and heroes and brave deeds, and as long as he would tell she would sit and listen. But his brothers could not stand his stories, and used to throw clods at him to make him be quiet. They were angry because Ashipattle was always the hero of his own stories, and in his tales there was nothing he dared not do.

Now while Ashipattle was still a lad, but a tall, stout one, a great misfortune fell upon the kingdom, for a Stoorworm rose up out of the sea; and of all Stoorworms it was the greatest and the worst. For this reason it was called the Meester Stoorworm. Its length stretched half around the world, its one eye was as red as fire, and its breath was so poisonous that whatever it breathed upon was withered.

There was great fear and lamentation throughout the land because of the worm, for every day it drew nearer to the shore, and every day the danger from it grew greater. When it was first discovered it was so far away that its back was no more than a low, long, black line upon the horizon, but soon it was near enough for them to see the horns upon its back, and its scales, and its one fierce eye, and its nostrils that breathed out and in.

In their fear the people cried upon the King to save them from the monster, but the King had no power to save them more than any other man. His sword, Snickersnapper, was the brightest and sharpest and most wonderful sword in all the world, but it would need a longer sword than Snickersnapper to pierce through that great body to the monster's heart. The King summoned his councillors,--all the wisest men in the kingdom,--and they consulted and talked together, but none of them could think of any plan to beat or drive the Stoorworm off, so powerful it was.

Now there was in that country a sorcerer, and the King had no love for him. Still, when all the wisemen and councillors could think of no plan for destroying the Stoorworm, the King said, "Let us send for this sorcerer, and have him brought before us, and hear what he has to say; for 'twould seem there is no help in any of us for this evil that has come upon us."

So the sorcerer was brought, and he stood up in the council and looked from one to another. Last of all he looked at the King, and there his eyes rested.

"There is one way, and only one," said he, "by which the land can be saved from destruction. Let the King's only daughter, the Princess Gemlovely, be given to the Stoorworm as a sacrifice, and he will be satisfied and quit us."

No sooner had the sorcerer said this than a great tumult arose in the council. The councillors were filled with horror, and cried aloud that the sorcerer should be torn to pieces for speaking such words.

But the King arose and bade them be silent,--and he was as white as death.

"Is this the only way to save my people?" he asked.

"It is the only way I know of," answered the sorcerer.

The King stood still and white for a time. "Then," said he, "if it is the only way, so let it be. But first let it be proclaimed, far and wide throughout my kingdom, that there is an heroic deed to be done. Whosoever will do battle with the Stoorworm and slay it, or drive it off, shall have the Princess Gemlovely for a bride, and the half of my kingdom, and my sword Snickersnapper for his own; and after my death he shall rule as king over all the realm."

Then the King dismissed the Council, and they went away in silence, with dark and heavy looks.

A proclamation was sent out as the King commanded, saying that whoever could kill the Stoorworm or drive it away should have the Princess, and the half of the kingdom as a reward, and the King's sword, and after the King's death should reign over the whole realm.

When this news went out many a man wished he might win these three prizes for himself, for what better was there to be desired than a beauteous wife, a kingdom to reign over, and the most famous sword in all the world. But fine as were the prizes, only six-and-thirty bold hearts came to offer themselves for the task, so great was the fear of the Stoorworm. Of this number the first twelve who looked at the Stoorworm fell ill at sight of him and had to be carried home. The next twelve did not stay to be carried, but ran home on their own legs and shut themselves up in strong fortresses; and the last twelve stayed at the King's palace with their hearts in their stomachs, and their wrists too weak with fear to strike a blow, even to win a kingdom.

So there was nothing left but for the Princess to be offered up to the Stoorworm, for it was better that one should be lost, even though that one were the Princess, than that the whole country should be destroyed.

Then there was great grief and lamenting throughout the land, for the Princess Gemlovely was so kind and gentle that she was beloved by all, both high and low. Only Ashipattle heard it all unmoved. He said nothing, but sat by the fire and thought and thought, and what his thoughts were he told to nobody.

The day was set when the Princess was to be offered up to the Stoorworm, and the night before there was a great feast at the palace, but a sad feast it was. Little was eaten and less was said. The King sat with his back to the light and bit his fingers, and no one dared to speak to him.

In the poorer houses there was a great stir and bustle and laying out of coats and dresses, for many were planning to go to the seashore to see the Princess offered up to the Stoorworm,--though a gruesome sight 'twould be to see. Ashipattle's father and brothers were planning to go with the rest, but his mother and sister wept, and said they would not see it for anything in the world.

Now Ashipattle's father had a horse named Feetgong, and he was not much to look at. Nevertheless the farmer treasured him, and it was not often he would let any one use him but himself. When the farmer rode Feetgong he could make him go like the wind,--none faster,--and that without beating him, either. Then when the farmer wished him to stop Feetgong would stand as still as though he were frozen to the ground; no one could make him budge. But if any one other than the farmer rode him, then it was quite different. Feetgong would jog along, and not even a beating would drive him faster, and then if one wanted him to stop that was as hard to do as it was to start him. Ashipattle was sure there was some secret about this; that his father had a way to make him go that no one knew about; but what that way was he could not find out.

The day before the beauteous Gemlovely was to be sacrificed Ashipattle said to his mother, "Tell me something; how is it that Feetgong will not go for you or my brothers or any one, but when my father mounts him he goes like the wind,--none faster?"

Then his mother answered, "Indeed, I do not know."

"It seems a strange thing that my father would not tell you that," said Ashipattle, "and you his own true wife."

To this his mother answered nothing.

"A strange thing," said Ashipattle; "and in all the years you've lived together not a thing have you kept back from him, whether he wished it or no. But even a good husband always holds back some secret from his wife."

Still his mother spoke never a word, but Ashipattle could see that she was thinking.

That night Ashipattle lay awake long after the others were asleep. He heard his father snoring and his brothers, too, but it seemed his mother could not sleep. She turned and twisted and sighed aloud, until at last she awakened her husband.

"What ails you," he asked, "that you turn and twist in bed and sigh so loud that a body scarce can sleep."

"It's no wonder I sigh and cannot sleep," answered his wife. "I have been thinking and turning things over in my mind, and I can see very plainly that you do not love me as a good husband should love his wife."

"How can you say that?" asked her husband. "Have I not treated you well in all these years? Have I not shown my love in every way?"

"Yes, but you do not trust me," said his wife. "You do not tell me what is in your heart."

"What have I not told you?"

"You have never told me about Feetgong; you have never told me why it is that he goes like the wind whenever you mount him, and when any one else rides him he is so slow there is no getting anywhere with him." Then she began to sob as if her heart would break. "You do not trust me," said she.

"Wait, wait!" cried the Goodman. "That is a secret I had never thought to tell any one, but since you have set your heart on knowing--listen! Only you must promise not to tell a living soul what I tell you now."

His wife promised.

"Then this is it," said her husband. "When I want Feetgong to go moderately fast I slap him on the right shoulder; when I want him to stop I slap him on the left shoulder, and when I want him to go like the wind I blow upon the dried windpipe of a goose that I always carry in the right-hand pocket of my coat."

"Now indeed I know that you love me when you tell me this," said his wife. And then she went to sleep, for she was satisfied.

Ashipattle waited until near morning, and then he arose and dressed himself. He put on the coat of one brother, and the breeches of another, and the shoes of a third, and so on, for his own clothes were nothing but rags. He felt in the right-hand pocket of his father's coat, and there, sure enough, he found the dried windpipe of a goose. He took that and he took a pot of burning peat, and covered it over so it would keep hot; and he took also a big kitchen knife. Then he went out and led Feetgong from the stable. He sprang upon his back and slapped him on the right shoulder, and away they went.

The noise awoke the goodman and he jumped from bed and ran to the window. There was some one riding away on his dear Feetgong. Then he called out at the top of his voice:

"Hie! Hie! Ho!
Feetgong, whoa!"

When Feetgong heard his master calling he stopped and stood stockstill. But Ashipattle whipped out the dried windpipe of the goose and blew upon it, and away went Feetgong like the wind; none could go faster. No one could overtake them.

After a while, and not so long either, they came to the seashore, and there, a little way out from the shore, lay the King's own boat with the boatman in it. He was keeping the boat there until day dawned. Then the King and his court would come, bringing the beauteous Gemlovely to offer up to the Stoorworm. They would put her in the boat and set the sails to carry her toward him.

Ashipattle looked out across the water, and he could see the black back of the beast rising out of the sea like a long low mountain.

He lighted down from Feetgong and called across the water to the boatman, "Hello, friend! How fares it with you out there?"

"Bitterly, bitterly!" answered the boatman. "Here I sit and freeze all night, for it is cold on the water, and not a soul except myself but what is safe asleep in a good warm bed."

"I have a fire here in the pot," called Ashipattle. "Draw your boat in to shore and come and warm yourself, for I can see even from here that you are almost perished."

"That I may not do," answered the man. "The King and his court may come at any time now, and they must find me ready and waiting for them as the commands were."

Then Ashipattle put his pot down on the shore and stood and thought a bit. Suddenly he dropped on his knees and began to dig in the sand as though he had gone mad. "Gold! Gold!" he shouted.

"What is the matter?" called the boatman. "What have you found?"

"Gold! Gold!" shouted Ashipattle, digging faster than ever.

The boatman thought Ashipattle must certainly have found a treasure in the sand. He made haste to bring the boat to land. He sprang out upon the shore, and pushing Ashipattle aside, he dropped on his knees and began to scoop out the sand. But Ashipattle did not wait to see whether he found anything. He caught up the pot and leaped into the boat, and before the boatman could stop him he pushed off from the shore.

Too late the boatman saw what he was doing. He ran down to the edge of the water and shouted and stormed and cried to Ashipattle to come back, but Ashipattle paid no heed to him. He never even turned his head. He set the sail and steered over toward where the great monster lay, with the waves washing up and breaking into foam against him.

And now the dawn was breaking. It was time for the monster to awake, and down the road from the castle came riding the King and all his court, and the Princess Gemlovely rode among them on a milk-white horse. All the color was gone from her face, and she looked as white as snow.

When the King and all the others reached the shore there stood the boatman, wringing his hands and lamenting, and the boat was gone.

"What is this?" asked the King. "What have you done with my boat, and why are you standing here?"

"Look! Look!" cried the boatman and he pointed out to sea.

The King looked, and then first he saw Ashipattle in the boat, sailing away toward the monster,--for before his eyes had been dim with sorrow, and he had seen naught but what was close before him.

The King looked, and all the court looked with him, and a great cry arose, for they guessed that Ashipattle was sailing out to do battle with the Stoorworm.

As they stood staring the sun shone red and the monster awoke. Slowly, slowly his great jaws opened in a yawn, and as he yawned the water rushed into his mouth like a great flood and on down his throat. Ashipattle's boat was caught in the swirl and swept forward faster than any sail could carry it. Then slowly the monster closed his mouth and all was still save for the foaming and surging of the waters.

Ashipattle steered his boat close in against the monster's jaws, and it lay there, rocking in the tide, while he waited for the Stoorworm to yawn again.

Presently slowly, slowly, the great jaws gaped, and the flood rushed in, foaming. Ashipattle's boat was swept in with the water, and it almost crushed against one of the monster's teeth, but Ashipattle fended it off, and it was carried on the flood down into the Stoorworm's throat.

Down and down went the boat with Ashipattle in it and the sound of surging waters filled his ears. It was light there in the monster's throat, for the roof and the sides of it shone with phosphorescence so that he could see everything.

As he swept on, the roof above him grew lower and lower, and the water grew shallower and shallower; for it drained off into passages that opened off from the throat into the rest of the body.

At last the roof grew so low that the mast of the boat wedged against it. Then Ashipattle stepped over the side of the boat into the water, and it had grown so shallow it was scarce as high as his knees. He took the pot of peat, that was still hot, and the knife, and went a little further until he came to where the beast's heart was. He could see it beat, beat, beating.

Ashipattle took his knife and dug a hole in the heart, and emptied the hot peat into it. Then he blew and blew on the peat. He blew until his cheeks almost cracked with blowing, and it seemed as though the peat would never burn. But at last it flared up; the oil of the heart trickled down upon it, and the flame burst into a blaze. Higher and higher waxed the fire. All the heart shone red with the light of it.

Then the lad ran back and jumped into the boat and pushed it clear of the roof. And none too soon, for as the fire burned deeper into the heart, the monster felt the burn of it and began to writhe and twist. Then he gave a great cough that sent the waters surging back out of his body and into the sea again in a mighty flood.

Ashipattle's boat was caught in the rush and swept like a straw up out of the Stoorworm's throat and into the light of day. The monster spewed him and his boat all the way across the sea and up on the shore, almost at the King's feet.

The King himself sprang from his steed and ran and helped Ashipattle to his feet. Then every one fled back to a high hill, for the sea was rising in a mighty flood with the beating and tossing of the Stoorworm.

Then began such a sight as never was seen before and perchance will never be seen again. For first the monster flung his tail so high that it seemed as though it would strike the sun from the sky. And next it fell into the sea with such a slap as sent the waves high up the rocks; and now it was his head that flung aloft, and the tongue caught on the point of the crescent moon and hung there, and for a while it looked as though the moon would be pulled from the sky, but it stood firm, and the monster's tongue tore, so that the head dropped back into the sea with such force that the teeth flew out of its mouth, and these teeth became the Orkney Islands.

Again its head reared high and fell back, and more teeth flew out, and these became the Shetland Islands. The third time his head rose and fell, and teeth flew out; they became the Faroe Islands.

So the monster beat and threshed and struggled, while the King and the Princess and Ashipattle and all the people looked on with fear and wonder at the dreadful sight.

But at last the struggle became weaker, for the heart was almost burned out. Then the Stoorworm curled up and lay still, for it was dead, and its great coils became the place called Iceland.

So was the monster killed, and that was the manner of his death!

But the King turned to Ashipattle and called him son, and took the hand of the Princess Gemlovely and laid it in the lad's hand, for now she was to be his bride as the King had promised.

Then they all rode back to the palace together, and the King took the sword Snickersnapper and gave it to Ashipattle for him to keep as his own.

A great feast was spread in honor of the slaying of the Stoorworm. All who chose to come were welcome, and all was mirth and rejoicing.

The honest farmer, Ashipattle's father, and his mother and his sister and his brothers heard of the feast and put on their best clothes and came, but the farmer had no Feetgong to ride. When they entered the great hall and saw Ashipattle sitting there at the King's right hand in the place of honor, with the Princess Gemlovely beside him, they could hardly believe their eyes, for they had not known he was the hero every one was talking about. But Ashipattle looked at them and nodded, and all was well.

Not long after that Ashipattle and the Princess were married, and a grand wedding it was, I can tell you; and after the old King died Ashipattle became ruler of the whole realm, and he and the Princess lived in mutual love and happiness together the rest of their long lives.

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