Ronan of the Noble Heart
A Retelling of Kate Crackernut
Recently, I rediscovered, while looking through my books, my copy of “Noble-Hearted Kate” by Marianna Mayer, which is a loose retelling of Kate Crackernut with undertones of Tam Lin. I had originally had another idea for my challenge story, but since it wasn’t going anywhere, I decided to take up this one instead. I love Celtic folk tales of all kinds, and this one, while simple, is exciting, and, in the original, has a strong heroine (very common in the Celtic tradition) and goes into a lot of the troupes that one usually sees in Celtic fairy tales. It is also partly the Irish version of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, for the prince in the story must go each night to dance in the Faery hill and he cannot tell why, and the king, his father, is beside himself with what to do, so when Kate comes along while looking for a cure for her sister’s curse, she offers to sit with the prince and ultimately finds out what’s ailing him. What I think I loved most about the story and what Marianna Mayer did a lovely job with in her retelling was the bond between Kate and her sister. I love brotherly or sisterly stories best, and though there is a bit of romance between Kate and the prince she rescues, at its heart it is a story about the love the two sisters share.
Going to rewrite it, I thought a nice twist would be a traditional gender-swap. The hero is a prince and the damsel in distress is an actual damsel. Apart from that, the story as itself is mostly the way it is told traditionally, but I embellished it a bit, of course, and added more detail especially to the princess’s rescue which is rather glossed over as things are in fairy tales. If you would like to read the original, a version can be found here: http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/5571/
Once a long time ago in Ireland, in the days of the High Kings, there was a king and a queen from different kingdoms who decided to marry. Each had a son of the same age, one as red as fire, and the other as dark a night. Despite the king and queen’s fears that the boys would not get along, they instantly settled into a friendship as great as any two brothers of blood, and were nearly inseparable, sporting, hunting, and fighting together.
As it neared the eve of their eighteenth birthday, the king and queen decided it was time for the boys to find suitors so they began to introduce them to the princesses of the nearby kingdoms. As it turned out, the girls all seemed to prefer Conner, the dark one, over Ronan, the fiery one, and it was true that Conner was the more comely of the two with his sharp features and glowing, ready smile, while Ronan possessed a plainer face spotted in freckles and wild red hair that would never be tamed. But he never held it against his stepbrother, for he could never hate Conner for any reason, and they laughed and joked about the girls, uncaring about most of them as it was anyway.
Unfortunately, the queen decided to take it upon herself to be jealous for Ronan’s sake, for he was her son, and she wished him to gain the hand of the best princess in the land instead of Conner. So she sought a way to make this happen and ultimately turned as so many do in folly, to the Fair Folk.
It turned out that in asking for her son to be made the fairer of the two men, the Fae decided to play a trick and instead of making Ronan the fairer, they would simply make Conner the uglier, but it mattered little to the queen how it was accomplished, as long as her son was the only one adored by the princesses. The Fae gave her a spell to put into Conner’s drink that evening and promised good on the bargain by the next morning. The queen did as instructed and that night put the mixture into the goblet of wine Conner drank from, hoping to see results by the next dawn.
When dawn came, Ronan woke to the cry of his brother, and ran to his room to see what ailed him, his sword at the ready in the chance there was an attacker.
“Conner, why do ye yell, brother?” Ronan asked as he pushed the door open and then halted in shock as he saw the other man standing in front of the mirror, hands frantically passing over his face that was no longer the face of a handsome young callant. Indeed, his whole head had been somehow transformed into that of a goat!
“Ronan, I know naught what happened!” Conner cried in despair. “I woke up and saw this! Surely it is some enchantment! Certainly it couldn’t have been the pudding. What shall we do?”
“I swear I will do all I can to fix it,” Ronan said decidedly, clapping a hand to his brother’s shoulder. “For you shall not be thus forever. It is surely some evil that has been done to you, and I fear it has come from my own mother.”
Ronan had come to the conclusion quickly enough. It had not escaped his notice how his mother treated Conner with scorn and oftentimes Ronan as well for not sharing her feelings toward his stepbrother. If anything, her hatred of Conner had only made their friendship stronger, and Ronan would not let his brother languish in his current state a moment longer than he could help.
“Come, Conner, we shall ready for a quest,” he said and took up a cloak which he wrapped around his brother’s shoulders with a hood which he covered his disfigured head with.
“But surely this is some magic of the Fae,” Conner said. “And if that be so, then where shall we look for a cure?”
“I know not yet,” Ronan said with a shake of his head, not allowing himself to be turned aside from his task no matter how impossible it might prove to be. “I know only that I will make you well.”
And so the two gathered their swords and shields and saddled their horses and rode off across the lands, and out of their own kingdom, to the part of Erin that held the Greenwood, which was the kingdom of the Fair Folk. If there were any place they would be able to break the curse, Ronan knew this would be it.
But the journey was long, and Ronan knew not how much longer it might prove to be, and he thought it would be goodly to have an occupation so they would not languish for want of vittles and coin. It was in his thinking that two strong young men could find any sort of occupation, even if one had the head of a goat.
One day on their travels, they came into another of Erin’s lesser kingdoms and went to seek work at the king’s hall. They had only rode into the outer courtyard, before they came upon a maiden, looking out to the Greenwood, and seeming to be sad of heart. A lovelier maiden, Ronan had never seen before. Her hair was the color of gold, and her eyes the green of the Wood, but she was pale with grief, and her hands wrung in her skirts as if she were troubled deeply of soul.
Ronan dismounted and handed his reigns to his brother as he went to see what ailed the maiden.
“My lady,” he said as he approached and bowed to her courteously as she turned to him. “Forgive me for intruding, but I cannot help but see you are sad.”
She looked up at him and offered a small smile that did not touch her emerald eyes. “I apologize for seeming such. It is only that my sister is ill these last several months, and no one can figure why. I do know, but I am not allowed to say, which is why no one can help her.”
Ronan saw the anguish clear in her features and felt her pain all the more when thinking of his own dear brother, and how he seemed unable to help him as well. He recognized some foul work at play, and became determined to help this girl and make her sister well.
“I think I understand your plight,” he said kindly and motioned to Conner who had come over to listen to the maiden’s tale. “My brother has been cursed for the jealousy of my mother, and I have been crossing all of Erin to find some cure for him. Perhaps if I can help make your sister well, I will also be able to find the key to his ailment.”
“We are looking for work,” Conner said from under his hood. “I assure you, we will do all we can.”
The maiden smiled at Conner, this time with a little bit more of it reaching her eyes. “My father is offering goodly pay for any who will find out what is ailing my sister,” she said. “He has hired men and women alike to watch over her while she sleeps, but none are ever there by morning.” Her face turned dour again. “You understand that if you take this task upon yourselves, you might never be seen again. No one knows what happens to those who sit by her bedside.”
Ronan took her hand in both of his in the way of a knight swearing fealty to his lord. “I daresay that none have been as determined as I, my lady. Now bring me to your father, so that we may offer our services to him.”
The maiden, who was called Anna, led them into the hall and to her father the king. Ronan and Conner bowed before him and spoke their business.
“My lord, your daughter has told us of her sister’s plight, and we wish to sit with her the night and try to solve the mystery of her ailment,” Ronan said.
The king looked sadly upon the two young men, wondering vaguely why the one was hooded, and thought of the waste it would be if they disappeared before the next dawn. “You two are young and brave, sure enough,” he said. “But you would be better serving in my hall with my warriors. As much as I want my daughter back, I do not wish to see young men throw their lives away.”
“Do not doubt my courage or my determination, my lord,” Ronan said, his voice steely and firm in the hall. “I swear that I will cure your daughter, and if I am to die trying, then so be it. It would only rest heavily upon my head if I did not do so. I understand something of the matter, for my brother shares a similar plight. I beg you give me three nights, my lord, and if I do not have your daughter back to you whole by then, I shall let whatever powers have hold of her take me and be glad of it!”
The king was heartened and astonished by the fiery young man’s determination and his heart swelled with fondness and respect. “Then you shall sit with Princess Kate this night, and do all you can. I wish you the best of luck, my noble callant.”
Ronan bowed again and he and Conner went off with a vassal to be shown a room for them to stay in.
“Is this madness, Ronan?” Conner asked quietly as they unloaded their packs on the beds of their room.
“Perhaps,” Ronan said with a careless grin as he unbuckled his sword and set it against the foot of the bed. “But that girl knows more than she can say, and is under some spell as to be unable to speak it. She only wants her sister back, and for that I cannot blame her. I will do all I can to make it so.”
“She is extremely beautiful,” Conner said teasingly, with a hint of wistfulness in his voice.
“She is that, indeed,” Ronan said with a laugh, catching his brother’s longing and deciding he would make no eyes at the Princess Anna himself. “But now all we can do is wait for the night to fall. Now come, brother, I have a few things I need to acquire before tonight.”
As the sun began to set, Ronan climbed the stairs to the tower room, which Princess Anna showed him as the room where her sister, Kate, was kept. He had decided that he would take the watch alone so that if anything happened to him that night, Conner would be able to keep the watch the next night.
Anna opened the door and in stepped Ronan, seeing upon the bed the loveliest maiden he had ever seen. She had long auburn hair and what he expected would be a rosy complexion if not for her illness. He could not tell the color of her eyes, but he felt they would be something fairer than any he had seen. Her sister was beautiful, but there was something about Kate that was more so, and he knew that in the way of the Faeries who liked to be surrounded by beautiful things, she would have been sought after in their courts.
“Are you sure of what you are doing?” Anna asked him frightfully as she stood with him in the open door. “If you are lost then your brother will likely never see you again. I would not risk that even to see my own sister well.”
Ronan gently took her hand in his. “I have sworn to your father and I will swear to you. That if I do not return your sister to you in full health by the end of three days then I shall ask her captors to drag me away for my own shame. I vow, princess, that I will restore your sister to you.”
She smiled with one last glance at her slumbering sister. “Do be careful then, noble callant. I shall keep your brother company ‘till dawn, for I do not think either of us shall sleep this night.”
She left him, closing the door behind, and Ronan went to the bed that held the princess and sat in a chair beside it. He sat and watched her in her sleep, and she hardly moved, seeming too exhausted for anything but rest.
And then, at midnight, a change came upon her. Her eyes opened and then she rose slowly as if in a trance and gathered a cloak hooked on the end of her bed and pulled on boots of soft doeskin then moved to the door, opening it and going out.
Ronan stood as she had and watched her in curiosity. And then he took up the items he had procured earlier. A shamrock, which he slipped into a handkerchief and put into his pocket, for that would cause him to see past the Faery Glamor and find his way home; a knife of iron, for the repelling of the Fair Folk if he was forced to it, and lastly, his tunic and cloak he wore inside out so that he would not lose his way, and no Faery would be able to play tricks upon him. Guarded thusly, he slipped out the door and followed the princess as she made her way through the castle and out the back gate that led into the dark Greenwood.
Ronan followed several paces behind, his hand tightly on his dagger as he kept her in sight, wondering how far she would travel.
And then ahead, he saw a beautiful light, and heard the strains of beguiling music and knew that he was close. He caught up to Kate at the gate to the Faery Hill and slipped inside when the guard let her in.
Inside the Faery Hill was a swirl of dancers, pleasing the queen in her court. Kate was instantly whisked off by a handsome Fae prince and swung into a dance, even though her feet nearly dragged the floor and she wept with exhaustion. Her dress had been replaced with one the like of which Ronan had never seen before, made of fine silks and so light, as the other ladies of the court. And her boots had been replaced with delicate dancing shoes made from green leaves. And her eyes, he finally realized, were the finest blue he had ever seen, and he wondered what she would look like in joy if she was so beautiful even in sorrow.
Then Ronan became distracted from the whirling dancers by a small Hobgoblin jumping around and cackling for the entertainment of the Lesser Fae of the court, swinging a wand of Rowan.
“Sure, and it’s true,” the Hob was saying. “This wand can undo any curse brought upon one by the Fae. Just three strikes of it, and poof all back to how it was!”
Ronan watched with interest, and when the Hob turned to go back among the Fae, he tapped the creature on the back and tried his most innocent smile to cajole him.
“Hello, dear Hob, I was wondering about that wand of yours. Might you be persuaded to part with it?”
“Might be, might not, depending on the price you’re offering,” said the sly little creature, flipping the wand with a grin. “But nor will I tell you what it is.”
And with that he skipped off and snatched a bowl of nuts from another Faery with a possessive snarl, and Ronan watched with interest as the Hob sat and greedily ate all the nuts, setting the wand aside while he did so.
However, he had no more time to think of his plans that night, for Kate seemed to have ended her dancing and the prince allowed her to leave, weary and even more exhausted than before she came. Ronan swiftly followed her out and watched as she walked back to her father’s hall in the same trance that she had left it. As he followed her through the woods, he realized the path they were following was scattered with hazel trees, and upon the ground were the same nuts the Hobgoblin was greedily eating. Stooping along the track, Ronan collected the nuts and filled his pockets to bursting with them, a plan forming in his head for the next night.
Back in the tower room, Kate fell upon the bed as soon as she got there, and Ronan spread a quilt over her before he sat to watch the rest of the night, waiting for morning so he could discuss his plans with Conner.
When the sun rose, Conner, Princess Anna and the king came up to the tower room to find Ronan sitting by the bed as if he had not left all night, cracking some of the nuts he had taken from the forest and eating them to tide him over before he broke his fast.
“Ronan!” Conner cried in elation to see his brother safe and sound. He ran to him as Ronan stood and threw his arms around his neck.
“I am well, brother,” Ronan told him as he turned to the king and princess. “And I will yet keep my promise to you. I will restore your daughter to you by the morning of the third day for I know what ails her and how to fix it.”
“Thank you!” the king said, but Ronan shook his head.
“Do not thank me yet, my lord. For I have not yet delivered your daughter to you safe and sound. Now I must discuss things with my brother, and get some rest before my vigil this night.” He left with Conner to their own quarters and a servant brought a hearty breakfast for them to eat in private while Ronan told his brother all that had transpired the night before.
“Not only do I think this Rowan wand will heal the princess, but I believe it will do the same for you, Conner,” Ronan said. “The Hob said that it would cure any under a faery’s curse.”
“Do you really think it so?” Conner asked, anxiousness in his voice. “Do you not think it is too much of a risk? What if you are found out? You will be forced to stay in the Faery halls forever, as a vassal to the queen.”
“If at all I fail,” Ronan said. “You must take up my sword and free the Princess Kate. I fear she will not last much longer; she is so exhausted.”
“Princess Anna worries much for her,” Conner said. “As I worry shall for you when you go to the Greenwood again.”
“I have made it in and out one night, I will do it again with my charms and protections,” Ronan said. “And I will bring back the Rowan wand by the next dawn.”
“And how do you plan on doing that?” Conner asked.
Ronan smiled and pulled one of the small nuts from his pocket and rolled it across the table where Conner caught it. “Hazelnuts.”
That night Ronan again sat by the bed next to Princess Kate and watched her weary slumber until the strike of midnight when she rose and made her way again to the Greenwood. He followed her more readily this time and collected more nuts to tempt the Hobgoblin and once more slipped past the guards into the Faery Hill to the dancing and feasting and music. Princess Kate was taken up into the dancing again by the handsome Faery prince, and Ronan felt a moment where he wished he were the one dancing with her instead of the Fae Lord.
But he had work to be done and could spare no thought of dancing. Not until it was all over and everything was back the way it should be.
He searched for the Hob and found him in the corner where he had been the night before, swinging the Rowan wand around and amusing the Pixies who sat with him. Ronan took a bowl from the sideboard and poured the nuts from his pocket into it before going over to the Hob, hoping his guise would not fail him.
“Good Hob,” he said in all politeness. “I have a bowl of hazelnuts for you. Your favorite.”
The Hob greedily took the bowl from Ronan’s hands, dropping the wand from his grasp as his attention was taken by the nuts and Ronan swiftly took up the wand and hid it away in his cloak.
The hazelnuts were almost gone and he feared his theft would be found out, but the dancing was finished, and the princess was released to go back home, tired and swaying on her feet. Ronan wished to take her arm and help her out, but knew he could not lest he be found out.
Once outside the hall, she walked back to the tower room, and he followed with the Rowan wand still in his cloak.
The dawn was rising and they had only been in the room for a few minutes when Conner, Anna and the king came in to see if he was still there.
“My lord,” Ronan said and drew the wand from his cloak. “I have taken this from the Fae and I have been told that it will release anyone with a Faery curse put upon them.”
“And shall it release my daughter?” the king asked.
“I do not know, but it is my hope,” Ronan replied.
“Then let you use it on your brother first, in reward for your bravery,” the king said.
“My lord,” Conner protested, but the king cut him off.
“No, you must,” the king insisted.
“Very well then,” Ronan said and went to his brother, sliding the hood back from his head to the gasp of the king and Princess Anna who saw his disfigurement for the first time. Then Ronan touched him three times with the wand and like mist lifting from off the lough, the goat’s head disappeared and left behind Conner’s handsome face once more.
“Conner!” Ronan cried with a laugh and took his brother’s face between his hands in excitement before Conner pulled him forward into an embrace.
“It worked!” he cried, gripping Ronan by the shoulders. “Such bravery brought you back with the wand to cure me, brother. Now see if it will do the same for Princess Kate.”
Ronan stepped to the bedside and touched the shoulder of the sleeping princess three times with the wand, but nothing happened. They all waited with bated breath, but after a minute, still nothing happened, and Ronan stepped back in dismay.
“Perhaps it can only be used once,” Conner said with horror, turning to Princess Anna and taking her hand in his. “If that is so, then I am sorry.”
“No,” Ronan shook his head. “The Hob said nothing of the sort. I think what binds her is something more than just a simple curse. In any case, I still have one day before my vow runs dry, and I mean to see it to the end. I will restore the princess before this time tomorrow.”
All that day he thought of what might have gone wrong, or what he might have done different, but he still had no more idea of what to do for the princess when night fell than he had when he had found the Rowan wand had no affect.
“Do be careful, brother,” Conner told him quietly before he went back to the tower room for his vigil.
“I will do what I must,” Ronan replied before he descended the stairs and took his seat once again beside the princess.
As he sat there, he reached out and touched her pale hand, wrapping his fingers around it.
“I promise to break your curse, my lady,” he said quietly, running his thumb over the smooth skin. “I will not let you suffer another night after this one.”
At midnight as on the previous two nights, she rose in her trance and went to the Greenwood. Ronan gathered again the hazelnuts, more this time than he had before, and hoped that if nothing else he could bribe the Hob into telling him what might cure the princess.
As Princess Kate was forced to dance that night, Ronan looked over to the corner the Hobgoblin frequented and saw him there again, talking to the lesser Fae and this time, instead of the wand of Rowan, he was holding up a small, dead bird, by its feet.
“Sure, this is a Faery bird,” he was saying. “And if someone that had been captured by the Fae were to eat it, sure, he would then be free!”
Ronan knew that the bird was his key to breaking the spell set upon Princess Kate. Again, he took up the nuts he had collected and put them in a bowl to bring to the Hob. But this time, the Hob only set to with one hand, not letting go of the bird.
“Last e’en someone stole my wand,” he muttered to himself. “Not letting go of the birdie now.”
Annoyed, Ronan suddenly had a new idea. He had had a bit of forethought to take the wand with him, and he now took it from his cloak, and walked up to the Hob.
“Good Hob,” he said in as polite a tone as he could. “I have here your wand of Rowan. If you wish to have it back, I will trade it for that Fae bird you hold.”
“Not so, not nearly a fair trade,” the Hob said, shaking his head. “The birdie has more power than the wand. It is more valuable.”
“Then perhaps this knife is more to your liking,” Ronan said, taking the knife of iron from his pocket and brandishing it at the Hob. The Faery startled back, dropping the bird as he did so, and Ronan snatched it and left the wand in its place as he backed away.
It was then that Princess Kate’s time in the Faery Hill came to an end, and just as she was leaving, the Hob put up a terrible row and called Ronan out as a thief. Ronan made his retreat from the Hall, brandishing his knife of iron in front of him, the Faery bird tucked safely away in his cloak. Kate looked about in confusion and Ronan, without thinking, grabbed her arm and took her with him, turning around so he could run more quickly through the woods, heedless of the Fae that pursued him, shouting out that there was a thief, and that their princess was away with him.
Kate sagged against him as he ran and he swiftly took her into his arms, unable to stop for even a minute for fear of the Fae catching him. He ran with her all the way back to the castle, and finally as they gained the edge of the Greenwood, the Faeries melted back into the shade, cursing and spitting at them. Ronan retreated through the gates of the hall and climbed to the tower room, laying Princess Kate out on her bed just as the sun was beginning to rise. Then he took the Faery bird from his cloak and knelt by the fire to cook it.
When Conner, Princess Anna and the king came to the room that morning, they found Ronan sitting happily by the fire, roasting a small bird on a spit.
“Ronan, what do ye do, brother?” Conner asked, confused.
The king nearly looked angry. “Why, my daughter is still in her weakened state, and you sit here making breakfast?” he cried, befuddled.
“My lord, this is no ordinary bird, and it holds the cure for your daughter. I have not forgotten my promise so readily,” Ronan told him and took the bird from the spit. He urged Princess Anna to prop up her sister and he sat on the side of her bed, holding the cooked bird in front of her. Kate’s eyes fluttered open and she inhaled the delicious aroma.
“I am so hungry, might I have some of that bird?” she asked weakly, barely able to keep her eyes open.
Ronan took up his knife and cut some from the bird to feed to her. After chewing, she saw up straighter. “Might I have a little more?” Likewise after this bite, she was able to sit up by herself and keep her eyes open. “May I have another?” And Ronan gave her a third bite of the bird and by then she had gained back her lucidity and color and seemed to be back to her old self again.
“Kate, are you well?” Anna asked with concern, holding her sister by the shoulders and looking her over.
“I do believe I am, dear Anna,” Kate replied and the two sisters embraced with many tears shed.
Ronan stood up to watch the happy scene as he felt Conner’s arm around his shoulders.
“You did as you vowed, brother,” he said with a grin. “You saved both the princess and me, and in the meantime introduced us to some very lovely ladies.” He stepped away from his brother as Anna threw her arms around Ronan in thanks, and then turned to Conner to take his hand happily in hers.
Ronan found his own clasped between those of the king. “I thank you Ronan of the noble heart. You have returned my daughter to me. What might I do to repay you?”
“You need not do anything if Princess Kate does not wish it done,” Ronan said and turned to the princess, sitting on the bed and watching the young red-headed prince and her father. She stood and took Ronan’s hands in hers, a smile spreading over her lips.
“Only true love can break the bond of a Faery curse,” she said. “If that is indeed how it goes, then I am happy to have this noble-hearted prince.”
And so it was that the king gave Kate to Ronan as his wife, and also Anna to Conner for the two had grown close in the days they had spent together, and they lived happy lives in old Erin until the end of their days. And the bards now had a new tale to tell of Ronan of the noble heart and how he had rescued a princess from the Faery court. And it is a story still told until this day.
Copyright© 2014 by Hazel B. West