ASSIPATTLE AND THE MESTER STOORWORM
In far bygone days, in the north of Scotland, there lived a well-to-do farmer who had seven sons. And the youngest of them bore a very curious name: people called him Assipattle, which means "he who grovels among the ashes." Perhaps Assipattle deserved his name, for he was a lazy boy. He never did any work on the farm as his brothers did, but rather ran about outdoors with ragged clothes, unkempt hair, and a mind full of wondrous stories of trolls and giants, elves and goblins. When the sun was hot in the long summer afternoons when the bees drones drowsily and even the tiny insects seemed almost asleep, the boy was content to throw himself down on the ash heap and lie there, lazily letting the ashes run through his fingers (as one might play with sand on the seashore), basking in the sunshine, and telling stories to himself. His brothers, working hard in the fields, would point to him with mocking fingers, laugh, and say to each other how well the name suited him, and how little use he was in the world. When they came home from their work, they would push Assipattle about and tease him. And his mother would make him sweep the floor, draw water from the well, fetch peats from the peat stack, and do all the little odd jobs that nobody else would do.
One day, a rider came riding past the farm in hot haste, bearing the most terrible tidings. The evening before, some fishermen had caught sight of the Mester Stoorworm, which, as everyone knows, was the largest and the first and the greatest of all sea serpents. The fishermen had seen this fearsome monster with its head turned towards the mainland. They had, moreover, seen it open up its mouth and yawn horribly as if to show that it was hungry and that, if it were not fed, it would kill every living thing upon the land, both man and beast. For 'twas well known that the Mester Stoorworm's breath was so poisonous that it consumed everything in its path, like a burning fire. If it pleased the awful creature to lift its head and put forth its noxious breath over the country, then in a few weeks the fair land would be turned into a region of desolation.
As you may imagine, everyone was almost paralyzed with terror at this awful news. The king called a solemn meeting of all his counselors and asked them if they could devise any way of warding off the danger. And for three whole days, they sat in the council, these grave, bearded men. Many were the suggestions which were made, and many the words of wisdom which were spoken. But, alas! No one was wise enough to think of a way in which the Mester Stoorworm might be driven back from their shores.
At last, at the end of the third day, when everyone had given up hope of finding a remedy, the door of the council chamber opened and the queen appeared. Now the queen was the king's second wife, and she was not a favorite in the kingdom, for she was a proud, insolent woman, who did not behave kindly to her stepdaughter, PRINCESS GEMDELOVELY, and who spent much more of her time in the company of a great and dreaded sorcerer than in the company of her husband, the king. So the sober counselors looked at her disapprovingly as she came boldly into the council chamber and addressed then thus:
"You think that you are brave men and strong and fit to be the protectors of the people. And so it may be, when it is, mortals whom you are called on to face. But you are no match for the foe that now threatens our land. Before him, your weapons are but as straw. 'Tis not through strength of arm, but through sorcery that he will be overcome. So listen to my words, and take counsel with the great sorcerer, from whom nothing is hidden, but who knows all the mysteries of the earth and of the air and of the sea."
Now the king and his counselors liked not this advice, for they hated the sorcerer, but they were at their wit's end and knew not to whom they should turn for help. So they had no choice but to do as she said and summon the wizard before them.