Herding the King’s Hares, Part 2

For this year’s Halloween folktale, we left off young Espen Cinderlad heading through the forest on his way to the king’s palace, when he heard (just like his rude elder brothers had) the cries for help from the old woman with her nose stuck in a tree.

“I’ve been trapped here for 500 years; would someone please help me?”

“Oh dear!” cried Cinderlad “What a terrible plight!” He hurried over to the old woman and, taking out his trusty pocketknife, pried and whittled away at that crack in the tree until at last her nose was free.

“Oh, thank you,” she sighed. “I’ve been here so long, I’m utterly famished. Do you have any food to share?”

“Just a few oat cakes from the kitchen, but these I would gladly share with you,” he offered, and the two sat down right there in the forest and had themselves a picnic, laughing and telling stories and jokes. When at length it was time for Cinderlad to leave, the old woman held up her hand for him to wait a moment.

“You’ve been so kind to me today,” she offered, “I want to give you a little gift.” Reaching into her apron pocket, the old woman pulled out a little silver whistle, which she handed to Cinderlad. “Now, this is a very special whistle indeed. If you blow into one end, what you desire will come to you. When you blow in the other end, what you dislike will go away. And,” she added, eyes sparkling, “If anyone ever tries to take the whistle away from you, all you have to do is wish it back, and it will be yours again.”

“Goodness, thank you very much!” Cinderlad exclaimed in joy, pocketed the whistle, waved goodbye, and was off to the king’s castle. When he got there, no one wanted to take the sooty little boy very seriously, and they laughed when he announced his desire to take up the challenge of herding the king’s hares. Yet, the decree had said that anyone could make an attempt, and so at length the boy was brought to the barn where the hundreds and hundreds of rabbits were kept, and he was given the same instruction as before.

In the morning, the barn doors were opened and all the hares ran out, keeping to the sunken road with the cow pasture to the left and the hayfields to the right, until at length they reached the forest thicket, where all the hares dispersed in a thousand direction. Cinderlad wasn’t too concerned with this, instead finding himself a comfortable stump in a clearing in the thicket for whittling awhile. Curious about his new gift, he took out the little silver whistle and blew into one end. Instantly, all the rabbits appeared in the clearing, standing at the ready of his command. He blew into the other end, and all the rabbits dispersed into the forest to do what rabbits do.

“My,” he thought to himself, “This will be a handy whistle indeed!”

As evening approached, Espen Cinderlad blew into the whistle, summoned all the rabbits, and marched them back to the barn. No one could believe it. The king himself came and counted each of the hares himself, but not a one was missing.

“Impossible, preposterous!” the king roared. “This is a fluke, you must do it again tomorrow and prove that your skills are real!” For the king was not impressed by the sooty little peasant boy, and he did not think it right to give such a creature the hand of his daughter or half the kingdom. Surely, he would fail tomorrow, and that would be the end of it.

Yet, the king was also concerned that Cinderlad would succeed tomorrow, so as he set off to the forest with the hares, the king sent one of the serving girls after him, to learn of what magic he had about him that brought the rabbits home. After Cinderlad had settled himself on his favorite stump, the serving girl approached and heralded him cheerfully, asking if he might show her how he herded those rascally hares.

Of course he would, and out came the whistle and he gave her a demonstration. “My that’s wonderful!” she cried, then trotted off to the king to report her findings.

The king sent her right back, this time with a bag of 100 gold crowns. “Perchance is the whistle for sale?” she asked. Cinderlad thought a moment, then said, “Well, yes it is, for 100 crowns and 100 kisses.”

The serving girl had exactly that amount of the money, but she hadn’t expected the kisses part! However, she certainly couldn’t return to the castle empty handed, so she relented, paid the fee, pocketed the whistle, and trotted back to the palace. Of course, she didn’t know that Cinderlad only had to wish to have the whistle back and he would, which he did, and her pocket was empty of both gold and the magical treasure when she appeared before the king. I’m sure it wasn’t a good day for her after that, nor was the king pleased at all upon seeing Espen Cinderlad return with all the hares once again that evening.

“Impossible, preposterous!” he roared again. “This is a fluke or some form of trickery, you must do it again!” And there was nothing Cinderlad could say to change the king’s mind. What do you suppose the king’s plans were the next day, and how well might those plans have fared? We’ll have to follow our hero into next week’s episode of the tale to find out! See you down on the farm sometime.