In the days when kings ruled Ireland, a princess was born. She was a beautiful child and grew to be her parents’ pride and joy. This princess was named Branna, and she was outgoing and active. Because she was a rough-and-tumble girl who always pleaded with him for special treats to give to her father’s livestock, the head groom called her Billy Beg.
Once young Branna could walk, she haunted her father’s stables. She loved watching the grooms care for the fine warhorses with their glistening coats. And the morning and evening milking of her father’s cows fascinated her. The stablemen made quick work of the task, and Branna found the rhythm of the work enticing.
Shortly after her eighth birthday, Branna found an orphaned bull calf during her wanderings through the stable. She begged for him as a special pet, and her parents indulged the request. Branna gave the calf bottles of milk and lumps of sugar, and he followed her everywhere. Branna often had to be carried to her bed from the calf’s stall, straw tangled in her hair for a maid to fuss over in the morning.
As the duo grew, they became a common sight on the king’s roads. Branna wandered to the market with the calf trailing her like a well-behaved dog. Even when the calf matured into a powerful bull with wideset horns and sleek muscles, he was as docile and biddable as anyone could wish. Despite his bulk and power, none feared the bull because Branna’s control of him was absolute.
In Branna’s twelfth year, her mother, Queen Brigit, died. Before her death, the queen asked Branna’s father, King Domnall, to make her one promise. No matter what should happen, he would not separate their daughter from the bull.
“But my love, why would you ask this?” Domnall studied his wife’s face. “Our daughter will soon be a woman, and it’s not seemly for a princess to spend all her time in a stable. She’s more son than daughter these days. Don’t you want me to curb that and raise her to be a courtly lady, like you are?”
“My king, my husband, my true love, I have had a vision about our child and that bull. Somehow, that bull will rescue our daughter from harm. I know not how nor when, but I ask that you never separate them.” Brigit gripped his hand. “Please make me this promise. I ask naught for myself. Remarry should you choose, although my heart would always and only belong to you. But do not take the bull from Branna.”
The king bowed his head for a moment and then made her the requested promise. A few hours later, the queen died.
After a suitable mourning period, the king took a new wife. Queen Nora, unlike the step-mothers in those stories, was a kind-hearted woman who not only fell in love with the king but had a deep affection for her new step-daughter. She loved taking Branna to the market and showing her the latest fashions or introducing the girl to new foods and the arts. She insisted that the king’s head groom provide Branna with a better horse and saddle, and the queen and Branna spent many long afternoons riding over the king’s lands. Often on their rides, they gave out treats to children and collected flowers to decorate the king’s table.
While Branna enjoyed these adventures, she found that Nora’s love of parties and activities cut into the time she could spend with her beloved bull. She began sneaking off early in the morning or late at night to groom his coat, trim his hooves, or just sit in his stall leaning against his side. These times of quiet contemplation were much needed because Branna wasn’t as gregarious as the new queen was. She had outgrown her childish exuberance and found solace from courtly activities in reading and thinking. Her bull, sensing her need for these times of quiet reflection, was content to be groomed or used as a pillow, so long as Branna was near.
Branna’s habit of sneaking off to see the bull wasn’t noticed at first. But when she missed an important ceremonial appearance because she was with her bull, Queen Nora decided to curb child’s waywardness. She tracked Branna’s movements and noted how often Branna visited the stable.
She suspected the child had a crush on a young stable lad. But finding the girl napping in the bull’s stall startled her. Worse still, the bull seemed to eye her with suspicion, and the bellowing snort he gave when she tried rousing Branna startled her.
“Protective of her, aren’t you?” Queen Nora asked.
The bull studied her and pawed the straw beneath his hooves.
“Take care, you filthy brute. Don’t step on the child.”
A whisper answered her. “I’ll not harm a hair on this girl’s head, old woman. But I’ve no qualms about harming you.”
The queen stepped back several steps and looked around, wondering who was playing tricks on her.
“No tricks, old witch.” The bull stepped to the front of his stall. “I’ve the power of speech and an ability to read minds and hearts. All my senses tell me that your geniality is a façade. Your true goal is to kill this child, poison the king, and rule this land.”
The queen gasped and staggered back against the side of the stable. “What sorcery is this!”
“And wouldn’t you like to know, old witch? Be warned, I’ve my eye on you. Harm this child or her father, and I’ll send you from this world.” The bull snorted again.
Behind him, Branna stretched and yawned. The queen scolded her for sleeping in the stall again and for keeping people waiting. As she followed Branna to the king’s hall, Nora plotted the bull’s death. The unnatural beast couldn’t be allowed to live.
Queen Nora spent several days scheming for a way to be rid of the bull. She asked King Domnall to slaughter the animal, saying the bull was too old to be kept as breeding stock. Besides, a bull with better bloodlines was in the king’s breeding plan. Why feed two bulls when grain and hay prices were increasing?
The king refused the request, saying he’d made a promise to his first wife to keep the bull alive. Besides, the animal was Branna’s dearest companion, and he didn’t want his child to suffer any more losses.
This refusal angered the queen. At times, she doubted that the animal had the powers it claimed. She could almost convince herself that the conversation with the bull was a trick someone had played. But then her path would cross the bull’s as he followed Branna about the grounds. And the glare he gave her each time they met so frightened her that her appetite declined, and she slept fitfully.
Domnall, noticing her distraction and failing health, sent for an old hen-wife who lived in a village nearby. The hen-wife, Oona, was known for having uncanny abilities to heal illness, and he hoped her skills could aid his queen.
When the hen-wife was admitted to the queen’s chamber, Queen Nora dismissed her servants. Once she was certain none could overhear, she told Oona about her confrontation with Branna’s bull.
“The unnatural beast has the power of speech,” Nora noted. “Worse, he claims the ability to read minds. I cannot have such a dangerous creature near the princess. But the king has refused my requests to slaughter the animal, even though fodder for the stables is at a premium. What shall I do?”
The hen-wife thought for several moments. “Continue refusing your meals and sleep as little as possible. Above all, refuse the king’s advances. I’ll tell him that the illness you have can only be cured by a draught of the bull’s blood.”
As promised, Oona told King Domnall that only the bull’s blood could restore his wife’s health. He again refused to kill the animal, and Queen Nora grew ever weaker. At length, she grew so weak that the king feared she would soon die, and he ordered the bull’s death.
Queen Nora decided she’d risk the bull’s presence to see his death and rose from her sickbed.
When Branna heard her father’s decree, she dashed to the bull’s stall and wept on his shoulders.
“Fear not, dear Branna. I shall not die at the king’s command,” the bull said.
“Why, you can speak! How is this possible?” Branna sprang to the stall’s door as if to flee.
“Hold, dear child! You’ve a powerful ally in the Fae, and I was sent to guide and guard you. Fear not, I am not fated to die this day.” The bull nudged the girl’s shoulder with his muzzle. “Now, do you stay close. When I give word, clamber aboard my back.”
Branna led her bull to the courtyard where her father, Nora, and the household had gathered to see the bull’s death.
“Branna, climb up! Let’s see if your riding master knows his business,” the bull whispered.
Branna scrambled aboard his broad shoulders, and the bull gave a mighty bellow. He charged toward the king and queen, hooking the queen with a horn as he passed. His horn struck true, spearing the queen between the eyes. The bull gave a shake of his mighty head and her corpse fell away. Then, he made a dash for the distant hills, where legend said the Fae danced beneath the moon.
The bull, with Branna aboard his broad back, ran for what felt like three days through all of Ireland. Finally, they came to a shady patch of forest, and the bull stepped off the path to find them water. Branna slid from his back beneath a tree that stood beside a pleasant brook.
“Branna, I’m sure you’re hungry. Reach inside my left ear and pull forth the napkin there. Spread it before you and eat to your heart’s content.”
Branna did as she was told, and a napkin of the finest linen came away in her hand. She was a princess by birth and used to dining well, but even she had never enjoyed such rich, filling, elegant fare as what that magical napkin held. When she’d eaten her fill, she rolled the napkin and returned it to the bull’s ear.
“I must step away for a time, dear Branna. A bull lives in this forest, and I must fight him because we’ve entered his territory. But fear not for I shall easily win.”
A huge bull, twice the size of Branna’s, stepped into the clearing. Branna’s bull and the forest bull challenged one another with thunderous bellows, and their fight was terrible to behold. They knocked down trees, uprooted mountains, and changed the course of a river. At last, Branna’s bull knocked the forest bull to his knees, killed him, and drank his blood.
Again, the bull with Branna aboard his broad back ran for what felt like three days through all of Ireland. Finally, they came to another shady patch of forest, and the bull stepped off the path to find them water. As before, Branna took the napkin from the bull’s left ear and ate a feast.
Then, her bull fought a new bull who was the larger, stronger, older brother of the first bull. This was an even more terrible fight. They knocked down trees, uprooted mountains, and changed the course of a river. At last, Branna’s bull knocked the elder bull to his knees, killed him, and drank his blood.
For the third time, the bull with Branna aboard his broad back ran for what felt like three days through all of Ireland. Finally, they came to another shady patch of forest, and the bull stepped off the path to find them water. As before, Branna took the napkin from the bull’s left ear and ate a feast.
“Dear Branna,” the bull said, “I must fight another bull today. He is the eldest of the three forest bulls, and we have entered his territory without permission.”
“Dear friend, I fear no forest bull, for you are easily his match,” Branna stroked her bull’s neck, but he sighed and shook his massive head.
“I fear that this bull is more than I can handle. Today will mark my last day as your protector.”
Branna cried out, but the bull shushed her.
“None of that now, dear one. I’ve much to tell you and little time to share it. When I am dead, take the napkin from my left ear. It will allow you to eat and drink your fill. In my right ear, you’ll find a stick. Whirl it thrice above your head, and it shall become a sword that will give you the strength of one thousand men. Keep both the napkin and stick safe and close by. Then, cut yourself a strip of hide from along my spine. Make of it a belt, and you can never be killed while you wear it.”
“Never!” Branna cried. “I could not harm your glistening hide for my own protection.”
“Dear child, you must,” the bull said. “And you must also find and steal some clothes. You cannot wander the world dressed as a girl, let alone as a princess. Find yourself some common clothes, like a shepherd or farm boy might wear. Cut your hair and call yourself Billy.”
“For how long?” Branna asked.
“You’ll know when the time to drop your disguise is right,” the bull said.
Branna wanted to weep, but a fierce bellowing told her that her time with her beloved bull was at an end. She gave his neck a bone-crunching hug and swore she would do all he had said.
At that moment, the eldest forest bull, twice the size of his brothers and with a forehead broader than an apple barrel, shoved his way through a gap in the nearby trees.
The two bulls faced off, and Branna’s bull charged the other. This was the most terrible fight than she had ever seen. They knocked down trees, uprooted mountains, and changed the course of a river. At last, the forest bull knocked Branna’s bull to his knees, killed him, and drank his blood.
After killing his challenger, the forest bull gave Branna an unfriendly glare, but he left her alone and returned to his forest.
The child sat for three days and nights beside her bull, weeping for all that she had lost. Once her tears ran dry, she removed the napkin from the bull’s left ear. She spread it out and ate and drank until she could barely move. She took the stick from the bull’s right ear and whirled it thrice above her head, marveling when it became a gleaming broadsword that should have been too heavy for her to wield but danced light as a feather in her fist.
Branna shuddered at following the bull’s next order, but she managed to cut a wide strip of hide from along his spine. Placing it around her waist, she whirled her sword back into a stick and moved along the path through the forest.
After walking a very long time, she found an old cottage. The door hung from a single hinge, and weeds covered the yard. She crept into the cottage and found dust covering the table and floor. A cedar chest stood near a moth-eaten mattress on a broken bed-frame. Inside the chest was a suit of clothes like a young laborer or shepherd boy might wear. Although all in the cottage was in disrepair, these clothes were clean and well-patched enough that Branna could use them.
She took off the clothes that showed she was a princess and dressed in the common woolens. She found an old, rusty pair of scissors and cut her hair. Studying her reflection in a cracked mirror, she felt like a different person.
‘I hope this will give me the protection my bull said I’d need,’ she thought. She practiced a friendly but respectful look in the mirror, like the ones her father’s stable hands directed to her. She believed that expression would be an important part of her disguise. She also repeated the phrasings and tones the stable hands had used, learning to drop her more educated speaking patterns.
Once she’d mastered the mannerisms of a person of lower birth, she shoved her old clothes into the cedar trunk and laid out the napkin. After eating, she settled on the moth-eaten mattress wrapped in a cloak from the trunk. She slept the night through and awoke the next morning with the sunrise.
Collecting her napkin, stick, and bull’s-hide belt, she left the cottage and continued on the path leading away from her father’s kingdom.
About an hour later, she came upon a lane leading off the path. The lane was wide and well-trodden, with many hoof and wheel tracks visible in the soft dirt. A short distance from the path, the forest faded away revealing rolling hills covered in green grass. Sheep and cattle dotted the hillsides, and she saw smoke from a chimney in the distance.
‘Perhaps this household has work for me,’ she thought and turned onto the well-traveled road. Many minutes of walking brought her to the mansion’s door. While not as grand as a king’s palace, this place was well-built with artful touches that indicated someone of status and wealth owned the land.
When she reached the door, she straightened her clothing and squared her shoulders before knocking on the door.
A man opened it. “And what might you be wanting, lad?” he asked.
Branna tried to deepen her voice just a bit. “Pardon me for knocking, good sir. I saw your fine fields and flocks, and I wondered if you might have need of a shepherd boy or farm hand.”
The man studied Branna for several long moments. “You aren’t from this area, are you?” he asked.
“No sir. I’m new.”
“As it happens, I do have need of a shepherd boy. But the work could be… dangerous.”
“How so, fine sir?” asked Branna.
“Robbers and ruffians,” the man said too quickly. “These hills have a reputation for hiding bandits. They sometimes harass my shepherd boy and steal my livestock.” He cleared his throat. “I’ll give you a one night’s trial, lad. And we’ll settle on wages if all of my livestock returns unharmed.”
Branna thought for a moment and agreed.
The man led her to the barn and let out six horses, six cows, six donkeys, six goats, and six sheep. Branna drove them toward the pasture her master indicated, which was near the edge of the forest. Once there, she allowed the animals to graze and settled herself against a nearby tree trunk to keep watch.
A few hours later, as Branna was thinking about a midday meal, she heard a roaring from the forest. A two-headed giant stomped into the pasture, and fire poured from his mouths.
“You there, shepherd boy, you’re not big enough to eat, but you’re too big to ignore. Choose your death. Shall I crush you, skewer you, or break your neck?”
“Excellent question,” Branna replied, fighting to keep fear out of her voice. “Let’s settle it with a fight.” She placed her bull’s-hide belt around her waist and whirled her stick thrice above her head. It became the gleaming broadsword that gave her the strength of one thousand men.
The giant charged, and she met his charge, smacking him a mighty blow with the flat edge of the sword upon his left shoulder. The force of the blow drove the giant into the earth, nearly to his armpits.
“Mercy!” cried the giant. “Never before have I met an equal. I’ll give you chests filled with emeralds and pearls if you spare my life.”
“I think not,” said Branna, and she clove giant’s heads from his body.
At dusk, she drove the livestock back to her master’s stable. The cows and goats produced so much milk that all the dishes in the house were filled to overflowing, and a dry stream bed nearby caught the excess.
“This is very odd,” said Branna’s master. “My stock has never given milk before. Did you see anything in the pasture?”
“Nothing worth commenting on, good sir,” said Branna.
The next morning, Branna took the livestock back to the pasture near the forest. As happened the day before, she heard a terrible roaring just about the time for a midday meal.
This time, the giant that rushed from the forest had six heads, all of which spewed fire and ashes. “You!” The giant belched flame at her. “You’re the little shepherd boy who murdered my brother. You’re not big enough to eat, but you’re too big to ignore. Choose your death. Shall I crush you, skewer you, or break your neck?”
“Let’s discuss that,” Branna said as she adjusted her bull’s-hide belt. “I challenge you to a fight.” She whirled her stick thrice above her head, and it became the gleaming broadsword that gave her the strength of one thousand men.
The giant rushed Branna with a roar, and she met his charge. As they came together, she struck him a mighty blow on the left shoulder with the broadsword’s flat edge, and he was driven into the ground up to his shoulders.
“Mercy!” cried the giant. “I have never met my equal. I’ll give you chests filled with rubies and silver if you’ll spare my life.”
“I think not,” said Branna, and she clove his six heads from his body.
When she returned with the livestock, their milking filled all the pans in the house and the dry stream bed was so full that an old mill, which hadn’t worked in seven years, began to turn as the milk flowed beneath it.
Upon seeing his bounty, her master gave her a strange look. “What is your name, lad?” asked he.
“Billy Beg,” Branna said.
“Well, Billy, did you see anything in the pasture?”
“Nothing worth commenting on, good sir,” answered Branna.
The next morning when Branna rose to take the livestock to pasture, the old man met her at the stable.
“Billy, lad,” said he, “I haven’t been honest with you. These hills are known as the refuge of a trio of fearsome giants. At night, I cannot sleep for their roaring and wrestling. And yet, I only heard one giant’s voice last night. The night before, only two. And their roars have turned to weeping. What could it mean?”
“Perhaps they’ve taken ill,” Branna said and herded the livestock to the pasture.
She just settled under her tree when a roaring like a dozen bulls assailed her ears, and a giant with twelve heads sprang from the forest. Each head spewed fire and ash, and the giant rushed at Branna.
“Time to avenge my brothers,” he roared.
“Let’s see if you can,” Branna answered and whirled her stick thrice above her head. It became the gleaming broadsword, and she used its might to strike this giant a blow upon his left shoulder. The force drove the giant into the ground up to his twelve necks.
“Mercy!” he cried, but Branna swung her sword twice, severing his heads.
That night, the surplus milk formed a lake in a small dale between two hills. To this day, that lake provides the best salmon fishing anywhere in Ireland.
“Billy,” said Branna’s master, “you’ve well earned your wages. I’ll pay you promptly tomorrow after I go to market and see a great sight.”
“What’s this, then?” Branna asked.
“The king has insulted a great dragon, who means to eat Maebh, the king’s daughter, unless a local champion can save her. He’s been specially cared for these six weeks, and tomorrow is the day he will face the dragon.”
“It sounds a remarkable sight,” Branna said. “Hurry back and tell me what happens.”
The next morning, Branna’s master took his best horse and rode to market.
Once she was sure her was well on his way, Branna borrowed a set of his fine clothes and his second-best horse. She followed a group to the market, where the champion proudly marched back and forth before the onlookers. The princess Maebh sat on a gilded throne built upon a platform. She looked nervously about as the crowd grew.
Just as Branna reached the edge of the crowd, a great roar came from the sky, and a dragon descended from the clouds. It had more heads than the last giant she had killed, and each belched so much flame and ash that the air was hard to breathe.
The dragon had barely settled its bulk before Maebh’s platform when the champion turned and ran as fast as he could away from the fight. It was later said that he’d run four miles before jumping into a well.
When Maebh realized the champion had abandoned her, she begged, “Won’t someone come to my aid? Please, anyone! There must be one man in all my father’s land willing to save me!”
When no one stepped forward, the dragon gave a mighty roar and took three steps toward the princess.
“Hold!” cried Branna. “I’ll fight the beast.” And she tightened her bull’s-hide belt and whirled her stick thrice above her head.
It was a terrible fight, and Branna barely avoided being scorched by the dragon’s foul breath. At long last, she knocked the dragon down and with clean, strong blows cut off its heads.
The crowd went wild, begging the king to make this stranger a prince and marry him to Maebh. Branna was shoved onto the princess’s platform, and Maebh managed to snip a lock of Branna’s hair. Branna pushed and shoved to leave the platform and left behind a shoe. Maebh seized it and tried to catch Branna’s eye, but the crowd surged between them. In the commotion, Branna slipped away and returned to her master’s house.
The master returned and recounted the day’s events to Branna. “Billy, my lad,” he exclaimed, “you’d have been amazed at the strength of that brave knight. The king is desperate to find him because the princess says she’ll marry none but him.”
Soon, a proclamation circulated, commanding all the king’s male subjects to present themselves at the market and try on the hero’s shoe. Throngs of people filled the roads, and Branna convinced a beggar to change clothes with her in exchange for a hot meal.
When Branna presented herself in the beggar’s rags and asked to try on the shoe, the crowd mocked her. But Maebh and king insisted that every able-bodied man be given a chance at the shoe.
The shoe fit Branna perfectly, and she admitted she had slain the dragon. She whirled her sword thrice above her head to show the blade that struck the deadly blows.
The king was ready to perform the ceremony immediately, but Branna asked for a moment alone with Maebh.
Branna and Maebh stepped into a nearby silken tent, and the princess dismissed her attendants at Branna’s request.
“Your Highness,” said Branna, “I must share a truth with you before we wed.” Branna paused and drew a shuddering breath. Was this the moment the bull had meant, when she would know to drop her disguise? She hoped she was judging aright.
“While I am the one who slew the dragon, I am not a knight. In fact, I am not male. I am a young woman like you. And, like you, I am the daughter of a king.”
“I know,” replied Maebh.
“How could you know that?” Branna asked.
“I clipped a lock of your hair just before you lost your shoe,” Maebh said. “And I’ve connections among the Fae. I gave them your hair, and they told me they knew you. You’re Branna, daughter of King Domnall and the late Queen Brigit. Your guardian, a mighty bull, rescued you from your step-mother’s clutches but was slain on your journey. And I shall marry none but you.”
Branna stared at Maebh in amazement. “You know my identity and still wish to marry? But how is this possible?”
Maebh looked abashed. “The Fae have long watched you, Branna. And it was they that settled an orphaned bull calf in your father’s stable as your guardian and companion.” Maebh smiled. “The Fae choose princesses of rare worth upon whom to bestow their curses and blessings. We are two such. And they chose us because we are alike. We are two young women whose heads are not turned by fancily dressed courtiers or false champions. We look to other women for courage and comfort. And we shall form a queenly marriage and unite our two peoples and lands into one. Such is the decree of the Fae.”
“Then done and done,” Branna replied.
The two young women sealed their bond with a kiss before stepping from the tent to reveal the truth of Branna’s identity to the king and his people.
When the crowd heard that the Fae themselves played a role in bringing these two young women together, they roared in approval. And so their marriage rites were performed by the king, uniting his land with that of Domnall and bringing peace to that part of Ireland for many a long year.
Originally from Arizona, Ruth F. Simon has lived in Washington State and Brooklyn before moving to New Jersey with her wife and cats. Setting and its influences on human behavior are often elements of her work, because she has lived such diverse places. When she isn’t writing or reading, Ruth looks for new fountain pens and hats. She’s a proud graduate of the GCLS Writing Academy.