A Thorn in the King’s Foot

Adapted from a tale by Duncan Williamson, Scotland’s greatest storyteller

Penguin (1987)

Many years ago lived a king in a large castle. All around his kingdom the farmers worked hard, and he told his queen, “These are my bees. Without bees we have no honey, but my people work. And half of all they reap, half of all they raise, half of all they make is mine.”

The queen knew her husband and his faults. One fault she never let him forget ‒ they had no child. Many an autumn night he would come in from the fields and say, “We have a great harvest, wagon-loads into my barns. We’re richer than ever!”

“Husband, all your riches will never make me happy. All I want is a baby girl or a baby boy to cuddle and love, who will follow you and rule after you.”

“Oh, I’m strong. I’ll go on for many years.”

“Husband, you go hunting with your friends, but what is that to me? I want a baby.”

“We’ve tried for many years. Life has been unkind to us, but let’s not give up hope.”

And just that bit of hope between them may have done it. The queen bore a little boy with golden hair, a beautiful face and fingers and legs, down to his toes, beautiful everywhere but one place. His back had a hump ‒ not along his shoulder, that one could dress up and disguise. No, his hump bent right down the middle of his back, so that his chin nearly touched his knees.

“Husband, we have a beautiful boy. Look at his golden hair.”

The king tried to straighten out his baby’s legs and neck, but the boy screamed. He gave his son back to her. “Woman, you wanted him. Now you are cursed with him.”

“Oh, husband, I love him.”

“But I … I am disgraced. The next king a hunchback? No! He will never be my son.”

But the queen loved her boy, even with a hump. God had given her someone to talk to, something from her own body. But the king went off hunting with his friends.

A year went by. The boy learned to crawl and to walk ‒ in the way of a hunchback. In every other way he was perfect, bright-eyed, and kind. And he loved his mother like no one else in the world. But the king would not be seen with the boy. His friends wanted to look at the little prince, but he made excuses.

“The queen is busy with him today.” Yet people began to cry out to see the prince. He got so upset and told the queen, “I can’t go on like this. We’ll just have to tell them the prince is dead!”

“Husband, he is my child. I love him.”

“He has to die. I can’t show the people my son ‒ a hunchback. It will disgrace me!”

The queen cried and cried. “Husband, what are you thinking?”

“Well, I can’t kill him. It will make you sad. I’ll just have him taken into the forest.”

The queen was angry and heartbroken. She begged him not to take her baby.

“I’m the king. You will not shame me. He has to go.” He told a couple of his hunting friends, “Take the child into the forest and destroy it. But don’t tell the queen. When you come back we’ll have a funeral. We’ll bury the body in the garden.”

The next night, while the queen slept, the two men wrapped up the prince in a basket and rode off with him. They rode a long time, late into the next afternoon, into the heart of the forest. And they began to talk.

“You must kill him. I have a little one at home.”

“I cannot kill him. I have two at home just like him.”

They went around like this until they saw in the near distance a tree. There was a weasel and a snake fighting among the roots. The two creatures fought back and forth. At last the weasel broke the neck of the snake, but the snake had fatally poisoned the weasel. They died wrapped up in the roots of the tree.

The hunters looked at the mess. “Here we are, with bears and wolves all around. We’ll lay the boy here under the tree. He will not last. We’ll bundle up the weasel and the snake in the basket.” So they took up the mess and rode away. Meanwhile the boy slept under the tree through the night.

An old woman lived nearby, alone among the animals. She suffered from a disease known as “King’s Evil,” a skin disease that infected one part of her face and then another. Where it healed, it left painful holes. She did not want to let anyone see her. When she ventured into a village she covered her face in a veil.

But this morning she was out gathering firewood and saw the boy. She carried him back to her hut and fed him. “You are so beautiful! Couldn’t anyone take care of you? Well, I’ll take care of you.” And after that she did everything for him with all her heart.

But the queen in her castle stayed in bed. She ate nothing. She drank nothing. She did nothing … but cry. The king begged her to eat a little something at least.

“I want nothing. I only want one thing. If I cannot have him, then life is no good.” She cried and moaned and wasted away, until she finally died.

When his son had been buried, the king had shown everyone his sadness. But now his queen had died. He had caused her to die. “If only I could have accepted my hunchback son, then she might still …” After the funeral he fell into the blackest grief. “All this is laid up to me.”

He had to get out of the castle and walk through the town. As he walked, everyone said, “Your Majesty, so sorry.” This made him feel not so bad after all. He began to return every day, and as he walked along the people knew what to say. But on a certain day at noon, an old woman with a veil over her face came up to him. People were saying what he wanted to hear, but she looked at him and whispered, “On your way, your Majesty, curse upon you!”

“What did you say?” He turned, and in his turning he stepped on a dead branch in the road, and a thorn pierced into the sole of his boot ‒ deep. He kept walking, trying to walk off the pain. But by the time he climbed the castle stairs, his foot was already horribly swollen.

Doctors came. They had to cut away his boot. They bathed and rubbed oil on the wound. Still the pain began to throb ‒ and throb.

“You doctors, do something! I am suffering.”

Everyone tried, but it was a bad job. The thorn grew bigger. It branched out, with leaves. Men came and cut it down. Wasn’t this excruciating? But at night the king watched it all grow back. That was excruciating!

Years of no peace and no sleep, just little naps, and horrible suffering. He would have died, but for one thing. If he propped his foot out the window, into a cool wind from the forest, then he could sleep. But the wind was always changing. He never knew what was next. For years he hung onto life.

In the forest the boy grew up with the old woman. He learned to hunt and fish. He thought the old woman was his mother, although she told him many times that she’d found him under a tree. But all these years the “King’s Evil” disease ate her skin and made her face painful and full of holes. They were a pair, he a hunchback and she with a face to cause a fright. When he was fifteen she told him again how she’d found him.

“Under a tree, yes, Mum, but that’s just a story.”

“No, that happened to you. You know the tree.”

She told him about his real mother, the queen. “She died because the king, your father, could not look upon you with your hunchback.” She told how the king ordered his men to kill him. “Now the king suffers from this thorn in his foot. You alone can pull it out. I’ll show you how to do it.”

“But, Mum, what’s that to me?”

“When you cure him, you bring him here so he can cure me. The king’s touch on my face is what will cure me of ‘King’s Evil’, and I won’t suffer any longer.”

“Mum, I will do that for you.”

“Yes ‒ and before you cure him ‒ you must get his solemn promise to come and cure me with his touch. He also must promise to work as a poor man among his people for a year ‒ and allow you to rule in his place.”

“But I do not know how to be a king.”

“You are a king’s son, in a line of kings. Never forget that.”

“Sure, Mum, if he promises those two things, then I will cure him.”

“Good. In the morning, put on your best clothes and go to the castle.”

The hunchback walked for three days, from the forest all the way to the king’s castle, and so his good clothes became wrinkled and dirty. The guards at the gate stopped him.

“You ragged hunchback peasant, where do you think you are going?”

“I’m here to cure the king.”

The guards were about to run him off, but servants intervened and led him upstairs to the king, who lay with his foot out the window. “So, you’ve come to cure my foot? I believe I won’t ever be cured.”

“I will cure you, your Majesty, but first you must give me two solemn promises.”

“What? Get on with it, boy! What do you want? Gold? I’m suffering here.”

“That you suffer a little longer doesn’t matter at all. Give me two promises first.”

“Yes, of course, I’ll promise anything. Get on with it.”

“Then you’ll go with me into the forest to see my old mother and touch her face?”

“Yes, yes, anything.”

“And you’ll work among your people as a poor man for an entire year, while I rule the kingdom?”

“What? Work as a poor man for a year? If you cure me, I swear to you I will do it!”

So the hunchback boy lifted the king’s foot and rubbed ointment on the festering wound. He felt the thorn deep in the sole of the foot and gently slipped it out. The king felt better at once. Poison drained out of the wound. By evening the king was beginning to walk. By morning he was not limping at all.

“It’s magic! I’m as happy as a lark!”

“It’s not magic, your Majesty.”

“Well, lead on, hunchback. We shall ride into the forest.” That evening they came to the old woman’s hut. The king saw her ugly face. “What are those scabs?”

“‘King’s Evil.’ You promised to touch her face. Your touch is her only cure.”

“No, no, I can’t do that.”

“Your Majesty, you promised.”

“Ah, sure, then, if it will help her.”

So the king touched all of her scabs and sores and gaping holes. They began to heal, even the holes, until her skin was full of wrinkles, but not one scar. It became a healthy beautiful face again. The boy ran up and kissed her cheeks ‒ that were wet with joy.

The next morning the king said, “Now, I must go back to my castle.”

“Do not forget! You promised to work as a poor man for an entire year.”

“Oh, I misspoke there. You and I will go back together.”

Servants at the castle found some of their old clothes for the king to wear. And he went on the road like a vagabond. When the harvest was ripe he was hired, and when the harvest was in he was let go. Through the cold winter he chopped wood for meals, and some days he starved. His hands and his back got sore. In springtime he helped with harrowing and sowing and planting. He picked crops for meager wages and poor food. His body was beginning to feel how the people lived. “I was too hard on them, and my taxes are killing them.”

Meanwhile the hunchback managed the kingdom. Friends of the king saw his fairness and his trust and his mercy. The king came back to the castle a changed man and saw this.

“You must stay here. Be my right-hand man.”

The hunchback looked into his eyes. He gazed a long time. He did not smile. “You had a son, a hunchback, you might remember, whom you tried to kill. I am your son.”

“Oh, I-I am so terribly sorry!” The king fell on his knees before the boy. He broke down and cried. “Please, please let me make it up to you. Please stay!”

“No, Father. You have your life here. I’ll go back to my own.” So he left the king and made his way home into the forest.

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