Willie Tall-Tales

Submitted into Contest #88 in response to: Write a cautionary fable about someone who always lies.... view prompt

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Fantasy

There was once a boy and his name was Will. He lived with his grandmother in a tiny cottage in a village in Ireland, and the tales that boy could tell!

“Why are you late for school, Willie?” the schoolmaster would ask.

And Will would make his eyes big and round as he replied that he had been on his way to school, but the Little Folk had enticed him to play truant and spend the day skipping about the meadows with them instead.

Or his grandmother would want to know where he had been all day when she sent him for a pail of buttermilk at first light and it was now dusk and she had done no baking at all that day, waiting as she was for Will to bring home the things she needed.

And then Will’s eyes would grow bigger and rounder than ever as he told the tale of how the Faerie Queen had lost her crown and had begged him to help her find it, and so they had travelled half-way round the world and back again in a boat made from a nutshell with rose petal sails.

As he grew older and his hair started to curl over his ears in a way that made his blue eyes seem bigger than ever, the village girls would crowd around him when he went to the pump, each one hoping to catch his eye; and whenever there was a dance – on Midsummer’s Eve or at Michaelmas – they would cluster around him, thinking he might choose one of them to spin around; but he showed no interest in any of them, claiming that next to the Little Folk, they were all great, clumsy clodhoppers; and a faraway, dreamy look would enter his eyes as if he were remembering something precious, and he would shake his head and remark, “Ah, but when you’ve danced with a thousand faeries as I have done, mere mortals seem a poor substitute.”

No one believed his stories, of course, and he came to be known as Willie Tall-Tales on account of his ridiculous yarns.

Now, it was Midsummer’s Eve and by now Will was three and twenty, and a bonny looking fellow he was too. As was the custom, there would be a dance in the village hall that night and he was looking forward to dancing with green-eyed Clodagh, the blacksmith’s daughter, for despite his stories of the Little Folk and the faeries, he liked the way she smiled at him as if he were the most handsome boy in the world; and he vowed to himself that from now on, he would forget his tall tales and would settle down to everyday life.

The sun was hot that day, and Will’s grandmother had sent him on an errand to fetch her a pat of butter from old Farmer Murphy. He carried a pail of cold water with him to keep the butter cool on the return journey, and he had unbuttoned his shirt and covered his head with a large cabbage leaf.

It was as he was passing the entrance to Caorrandale Woods that he bethought himself of how pleasant it would be beneath the shade of the trees rather than walking to Murphy’s farm on the dry and dusty road. Turning aside, he entered the grove and began wandering through smooth, grey beeches and rowans laden with red berries. Time seemed to still as he sauntered along; any sense of urgency he might have had formerly was now forgotten.

Squirrels chattered overhead – no doubt the one doing most of the talking was the female. Will chuckled as she chased her husband down a tree as if fed up with his behaviour.

So intent was he on the wildlife around him that he failed to notice the beautiful woman in front of him until he had almost walked into her.

“How are you, Will?” she said smiling. Her voice was the whisper of the wind in the leaves.

Will blushed and stammered, wondering how this lady knew his name. Her eyes put him in mind of Clodagh: green and lustrous they were, and they peered into his soul as if she could see the secrets of his heart.

“Come now,” she said laughing, “surely you recognise me? Sure, and didn’t you help me find my crown once when it was lost?”

He knew then that she was mocking him, and his cheeks burned at the memory of the tall tales he used to tell.

“Those were but children’s stories,” he said a little stiffly. “I’m a man now: I have no time for such foolish things.”

At this, her eyes flashed fire and she seemed to grow to twice his height. “Foolish things, are they?” she said. “Well, young master Will, the king of the Little Folk invites you to dine with him this day and he will not take no for an answer.”

And suddenly a door appeared in one of the trees in front of them, and she opened it to reveal the top of a winding staircase which seemed to lead under the ground itself.

It was obviously the sun making him imagine things; nevertheless, Will walked through the door, small though it looked, wondering if it had expanded to accommodate his human form or whether he had shrunk to the size of faerie.

              Down, down and down they went, making so many spirals that Will was dizzy before they reached the bottom. Once there, a vast underground cavern opened out before them, bedecked with lanterns that contained fireflies, and a huge banqueting table groaned with the weight of gold and silver platters piled high with delicious food.

              Will’s mouth fell open as he gazed upon the scene for never in all of his three-and-twenty years had he seen a sight like this. Meanwhile, at his side, the beautiful lady touched his elbow.

“I must present you to my husband,” she said.

Will glanced at her, noting that her gown – which he had been sure was made of silk or some such stuff before – was made from a thousand leaves in every shade of green, stitched together with gossamer. Wildflowers were in her hair and she wore a garland of them about her neck. Clodagh fled from his memory as his eyes took in the lady’s strange beauty. She was the loveliest creature he had ever seen.

At once, a man stood by her side. Handsome he was, in a rather haughty way, with eyes that spoke of hills and streams and a mouth that looked as capable of cruelty as kindness. Wildness hung about him like a cloak and Will knew without being told that this was the Faerie King himself.

“Who have we here, light of my heart?” he asked, and his voice was a storm in winter.

The lady dimpled prettily at her husband’s question and replied that this was Will from the village of Adare and that he had spoken of them so often that it was high time he came for a visit.

The king’s face brightened at the mention of Will’s name and he agreed that it was high time indeed and that Will must sit at his side when the feasting commenced.

And so it was that Will found himself the guest of honour at a Midsummer’s Eve banquet under the ground, feasting on roasted meats and fresh fruits whilst his goblet was forever being replenished with a sweet, foamy drink that the others called mead. The Faerie King sat on one side of him and the Faerie Queen on the other, and together, they piled his plate with one wondrous titbit after another until Will’s stomach ached with fullness and he could neither eat nor drink anything more.

              Indeed, so full was he that he thought he could not even twitch – until a fiddle started to play, accompanied by pipes and drums, each one combining in a melody sweeter than anything he had heard in the three-and-twenty years of his life; and despite his groaning stomach, he found his toes were tapping as if impatient to join in with the throngs of Little Folk who whirled and twirled about him, eyes shining and hair streaming.

              “Will you dance?” the Faerie Queen asked, and Will nodded his head and sprang to his feet.

              All night long they danced, or so it seemed to Will – a wild bacchanalia that led them up the winding staircase and out into the forest where the music wove them in and out of trees under a starlit sky.

              And Will was having such a grand time that he thought not once of his grandmother and her butter, nor of Clodagh and her green eyes, until the sun began to peek over the horizon and the sky blushed with the first tinges of dawn.

Perhaps it was sunlight that broke the spell for Will suddenly remembered where he was and where he was supposed to be and began to make his excuses to the Faerie King and Queen.

              “I thank you most kindly for your hospitality,” said he, “but as you can see, it is almost morning, and I must return to my grandmother’s house.”

              At this, the faces of all the Little Folk darkened, but the Faerie King’s darkened most of all and he glared at Will with thunder in his eyes.

“What churlish behaviour is this?” he roared. “You have eaten our food and danced to our music, and now you are one of us. We cannot let you return to the world of men.”

And as he spoke, a cage formed about Will and whether he grew smaller to fit the cage or the cage grew larger to fit Will, I cannot say: all he knew was that he was a prisoner and that he would be forced to remain with the Little Folk for the rest of his years.

Tears formed in Will’s eyes as he thought of his grandmother and of Clodagh and of how he would never see either of them again. Grief made salty trails down his cheeks as he remembered the pretty village of Adare and the blue of the summer skies and the silver frost in winter and he wept more than ever at the idea of spending the rest of his life under the ground.

              But the Faerie Queen placed a hand upon her husband’s shoulder and spoke to him softly, saying, “Light of my heart, does this mortal not deserve a chance?”

              The Faerie King smiled, but it was a cruel smile, and he said, “He shall remain in the cage until night falls, and then he shall join us in our Midsummer Hunt.”

              And Will was glad for, thought he, there would be ample opportunity to slip away from the Little Folk once they were distracted by the sight of a stag or a rabbit. And a golden key locked his cage until the evening, and he was fed only berries until then and given acorn cups full of water to drink.

At last, the sky darkened, and the moon rose once more, and eight of the Little Folk carried Will in his cage up the winding staircase and out into the forest.

              “Let the Hunt begin!” proclaimed the king, unlocking the cage door.

              The king and the rest of the Little Folk were armed with bows and spears, but Will noticed that they did not hand him any weapons at all.

              “We will hunt you for a year and a day,” said the king. “If you can avoid being caught, you will be free to go; but if even the youngest of my people catches you, you will remain in the cage until you die of old age.”

              Will’s heart stilled. A year and a day! His grandmother would be worried already that he had not returned home; and as for Clodagh…

              A silver note, pure and true, sounded from the horn.

“Run!” said the Faerie King.

And Will ran.

He ran until his legs ached and his heart threatened to burst, and then he ran some more. On and on he ran, over days and weeks, in and out of months and years, always moving, never stopping, with the sound of the Little Folk always behind him, always only a breath away. Time joined in with the hunt and chased him too, and as Will ran on, his gait gradually stiffened, and his hair changed first to grey and then to white until an old man ran for his life with all the Little Folk behind him.

              Finally, when he could run no more, he stopped. His legs gave way and he collapsed onto the forest floor, expecting at any moment to be torn to pieces by the king’s hounds. He lay and waited, but nothing happened. He listened. Nothing could be heard except a faint laughter on the breeze.

              He slept then, his body needing time to repair itself. And while he slept, a pair of gentle hands stroked his hair and washed his cuts and bruises, so that when he awoke, he felt quite himself again.

“You did well, Mortal.” The voice was the whisper of the wind in the leaves.

              He looked up, startled. For a moment, he had half-thought he dreamt it all; but the woman who stood in front of him had eyes greener than Clodagh’s, and for the first time, he saw that her ears were pointed.

              “Is it over?” he asked.

              She nodded. “Yes, it is over. We hunted you for a year and a day, Will; and had you been a hare, you could not have run any faster. You must now return to the world of men, but mind you tell no one of what you have seen and heard in the forest.”

              Will nodded, his mind whirling. It was on the tip of his tongue to say that no one would believe him anyway – not after the tall stories he’d told – but he promised to say nothing.

Daylight was just fading into dusk as Will hobbled into the village. His grandmother’s cottage stood where it always had done, but the paintwork was cracked and peeling, and the garden was full of weeds. What had happened in the time he had been away?

              Pushing the door open, he walked inside. Damp and mildew assaulted his nostrils, and a thick layer of dust coated everything. His grandmother had always been so houseproud…

              “Grandma?” he shouted, but his voice echoed in the empty room.

              Where was she? Had she gone to look for him maybe? He had been gone a year and a day, but this place looked as if it had lain untouched for years.

Stumbling back outside, he paused to catch his breath. Perhaps Clodagh would know where the old woman was. The two had been close: he knew his grandmother had liked Clodagh and was hoping Will would marry her one day.

              There she was! He hurried to catch up with the dark-haired girl in the distance, spinning her round. “Clodagh!”

              But the eyes that stared into his were blue not green, and anyway, this girl could only be fifteen or sixteen.

              “Yes?” The words escaped shyly. “What do you want, and how do you know my name?”

              “I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “I thought you were someone else. Someone who looks a lot like you from the back.”

              “And is she called Clodagh, like me? Only, I don’t know anyone else with my name – unless you count my grandma.” She paused. “She knows everyone in the village. I’ll take you to see her – she may be able to help.”

As if in a daze, he let himself be led through the village and towards the blacksmith’s forge. “You live here?” he said stupidly.

              She nodded. “It’s been in the family for years.”

              It was impossible. Clodagh, his Clodagh, lived at the forge. Her father was the blacksmith.

From far away, he heard the sound of faint laughter and his stomach tightened.

“Grandma?” Young Clodagh was leading him into a tiny sitting room. The old lady who sat bundled under blankets despite the summer had white hair and a wrinkled face, but he would have known those green eyes anywhere.

              “Clodagh.” He said her name, wondering how she had aged so quickly. Again, the peal of laughter. “It’s me, Will.”

              “Will?” She was frowning, trying to recall the memory; and then her face crinkled into a smile, her eyes dancing the way they used to. “Is that really you? It’s been so long…”

              “A year and a day,” he said smiling; but she shook her head.

              “I last saw you fifty years ago – almost to this very day. It broke my heart when you disappeared.”

              Fifty years… More fairy laughter.

              “Where have you been?” she continued; then, “No, don’t tell me – it’ll be another one of your stories about being away with the faeries.”

              Why had they done this to him? He could have married Clodagh, had a family with her; but now… Now she was old.

Catching sight of his own reflection in the mirror, he gasped. He was as old as she was. The Little Folk had tricked him out of the best years of his life.

She was still talking. “I waited for you, of course, and so did your grandmother. But then she was sick. I nursed her, hoping all the while that you would return – I knew she wanted to see you before she died. She passed away a year after you disappeared; and I had nothing left to keep me waiting for you then, so I married someone else.” Her voice softened. “You remember Paidraig?”

              Stunned by disappointment, he barely heard her next question. “Where were you, Will?”

              He would tell her his tale and she would not believe it. “It was Midsummer’s Eve,” he began, “and I was on my way to Murphy’s farm…”

April 07, 2021 16:14

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2 comments

Thom Brodkin
02:23 Apr 19, 2021

Jane I admire you and your ability to create new worlds. Writing about something that doesn’t actually exist takes a world class imagination and courage and you have both. I also know not every one who tries can pull it off but you have done so tine after time. It’s one of the things I love most about your writing. This was such a sad tale. It’s the kind we might tell our children to teach them a life lesson in a fun way. Great job. Great story. I wrote one this week called “The Promise.” It was a old boy writing about young boys and reme...

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Claire Lindsey
20:16 Apr 07, 2021

How sad! I love the twist on the prompt, how we slowly realize that Will wasn't really lying, just telling truths too fantastical to believe. This reminds me of one of my favorite books as a kid, The Moorchild. Also, the language is just beautiful, it pulled me right into the world and didn't let me go! Excellent piece :)

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