“The Telling of Tales” # 05
Ring of Stone
By Andre Norton (1940s)
Hans has worked faithfully and long for Master Simon. And Master Simon was not an easy man to serve for he knew the value of a gold piece, aye, and of a silver piece, and even of a small copper bit. And few of them ever found their way out of his fat fingers, I can tell you that.
Those of his household had watered soup and black bread to eat, with nary a bite of cheese or meat, save on a feast day, and then it was never enough to take more than a mouthful for a man. And the quilts on the beds were thin even in winter -- while as for coals for the fires -- those were counted out one by one with Master Simon doing the counting, too.
So at the end of his three years of service young Hans asked for his wages, saying he was minded to try his fortune elsewhere. Which made Master Simon angry, for Hans was a good worker. When he found he could not persuade the boy to stay, he flung two small silver pieces at him, and bade him be off then at once.
Hans knew that he should have been paid more than two pieces of silver for the years behind his. But he also knew better than to try to pry any more money out of Master Simon's tightly latched purse. So he went off, determined to be wiser in the future when he picked a master.
Now before he has gone more than half a mile down the King's Highway he was overtaken by the forester who worked for Master Simon. And the forester dragged along by a rope leash an old hound.
“Where are you taking Bruno?” Hans asked.
“I have orders to take him to the village and sell him for what his hide will bring. Master Simon believes him too old to hunt and will not feed an idle dog.”
Hans was angry for he knew that Bruno had been a greet hunter and it was not the hound’s fault that he could no longer run so swiftly or nose out game as well as he had in the past. To sell a faithful servant for what his skin was worth seemed to the boy a monstrous deed. And he brought from his pocket one of the silver pieces.
“Will you take this for Bruno?”
“Gladly," returned the forester. “That is more than he is worth, and it will save me a long hot walk to the village.”
So the forester turned back and Hans threw off the rope, patting Bruno and making much of him. When he started on, the hound followed closely at his heels.
But they had hardly gone another hundred yards before one of the maid servants caught up with them. In her arms she held a bag which twisted and turned as if it held something living.
“Where are you going, Marta? And what have you in that bag?” asked Hans.
The maid servant was glad to stop and rest as she answered.
“Ah, 'tis you, Hans. Why, I am going to the village. As for what is in this bag of mine -- it is Fritzie, our kitchen cat. Master Simon says that she had not earned her keep this past year -- Poor Fritzie, she has cleaned away the mice so there are no more of them. Now I am to sell her to the fur dealer for her pelt.”
“Now that is an evil thing,” returned Hans. “For there is no better mouser in the whole wide world than Fritzie, and she is a gentle, loving beast into the bargain.” Straightway he brought out his second silver piece.
“Will you take this, Marta, and leave Fritzie with me?”
“Most willingly, Hans. It will save me a long walk and you are welcome to her.”
And the maid ran back along the road. Hans emptied the cat out of the bag and petted her until Fritzie purred and licked his hand with her rough tongue. Then he buttoned her into the front of his jacket and went on.
“Ha, Bruno and Fritzie,” he said, “the sun is high over us and I have not even a copper bit in my pocket now to buy food. I fear we shall go fasting until I find a new master.”
But Bruno, to Han's great surprise opened his mouth and, instead of barking, said:
“Leave the matter of food to me, master.”
He turned aside into the bushes and minutes later he returned with e fine fat rabbit. So they dined well. And that evening Fritzie fished by the river, using her forepaw so neatly and cleverly, that she flipped out several trout. The three of them slept together in a hay stack and Hans was more content than he had been for a long time.
In the morning they went on down the highway. But before the sun was quite overhead they came to a crossroads. And there, under the sign post, were some boys throwing rocks at a snake. It was already pinned fast by one stone and it seemed close to death.
Hans drove off the boys and picked up the stone which imprisoned the snake's tail. But it was too spent to escape. So, though his flesh shrank from the touch of its scales, Hans carried the creature into a neighboring field and laid it down on a bank of moss. As he was turning away another snake glided to the side of the injured one. And to Han’s astonishment it spoke to him.
“Man creature, you have saved my son this day. And do not think that the snake people have no gratitude. Raise that round stone yonder and take what you find under it. It will bring you good fortune.”
Hans picked up the round rock. And pressed into the moist earth under it was a ring of polished green stone. He tried it on and it fit his middle finger perfectly. But when he turned to thank the snake, both reptiles were gone.
He did not see how the ring would make his fortune, but it was a handsome thing and perhaps he could sell it in the next town for enough to buy food and lodging.
But the next town proved to be very far away and when night began to fall the three travelers were in the midst of a desolate waste with no food or lodging to be found. Tired and footsore Hans sat town on a large rock to rest, turning the ring about on his finger, while Bruno and Fritzie crowded close to him as if they, too, feared the coming night.
“Now if there was but an inn across the road and I had a pocketful of gold to spend in it --” began Hans.
And no sooner were the words out of his mouth than there appeared an inn across the road, its gate hospitably open to the night, rich smells of cooking food drifting from its doors and windows, and a bustle of servants coming and going about their business.
Hans gaped open mouthed. Then he put his hand cautiously into his pocket. And, sure enough, there were a number of gold pieces there.
But he did not move to enter the inn. Instead he began to think quite seriously, and Hans was no lackwit. He had wished for an inn and gold and straightway they were his. But, if he could have whatever he wished for now -- why not ask for something more permanent than gold which is easily spent, and inn shelter for a single night. Keeping his eyes upon the inn he considered all sides of the matter.
He had been a good servant and knew how to manage a stable and buy and sell wisely for a household -- though Master Simon had been so cheeseparing a master as was hard to serve under. Now here ran the King's Highway on which all who went to the city must travel, and good inns along it were very few. A man who kept such an inn, even if it had come to him by the way of magic, might well make his fortune.
And even as Hans was thinking this a party of wool merchants came along with a train of pack animals. Their surprise at finding the inn was plain, but they turned their train into the courtyard with exclamations of pleasure and prepared to spend the night.
Hans nodded and then he touched the ring and said:
“It seems to me that I would have an excellent future as landlord of that inn. If it is in your powers, snake's gift, let that be my fortune.”
Calling to Bruno and Fritzie to follow, he crossed the road and entered the inn yard where the grooms saluted him as master and a maid in the doorway curtsied.
So did Hans cone to keep the inn, and keep it very well he did, so that without any more magic aid the venture prospered and Hans no longer had an empty purse or a shabby coat on his back. In the yard Bruno had a house of his own where he could be snug and warm and yet give warning of all comers. While Fritzie ruled in the kitchen and no mouse nor rat ever dared show whisker or tail there.
Now, perhaps half a year after, Master Simon had reason to go to the city, and he decided to spend one night on the way in the new inn he had heard such tales of. But to his great amazement he discovered Hans was the master there. Then more than anything did he wish to know how his servant had come to such a fine fortune. And he asked many questions, but Hans, on the pretext of seeing to the comfort of travelers, would spare no time to answer them.
At last Master Simon could stand it no longer, but swore that he would learn how Hans had done so well. So, instead of going on to the city the next morning, he returned to his home and called to him the maid Marta. On the table before her he put five pieces of gold--more than she has ever seen before in her whole life.
“I have heard, my dear Marta,” Master Simon told her, “that you wish to marry Will the Miller, but that you have no dowry.”
Tears came into Marta's eyes as she nodded.
“These gold pieces shall be yours for a dowry, my girl, if you will do something for me.”
Marta’s eyes became as round as the gold pieces.
“What is it you wish, Master?”
“Go to the new inn which lies two leagues from here on the King's Highway. The landlord of that inn is the same stupid Hans who used to work here. Find out what stroke of fortune served him so well. That is all I want to know. Tell me that and the gold is freely yours.”
Now Marta could see no harm in this, and she knew that with a dowry of five gold pieces she could be wed that very month. So she went off to the inn. But as she came into its yard she remembered that Hans had not left Master Simon with kind feelings between them and she thought it better not to tell the truth about her mission.
Instead she went to the kitchen door and asked for work as a maid servant.
It happened that Hans was talking to the cook when Marta came in and he knew her at once. When he asked her what she did, she replied she had lost her place with Master Simon and was walking the highway seeking work.
Hans told her to sit down on the settle by the fire and ordered the cook to give her food and drink. Marta looked about her wonderingly and said with a Sigh:
“Fortune has indeed favored you, Hans. But how did you gain such luck?”
Hans stood the green ring; around on his finger and did not answer. Marta watched him a long moment and then summoned tears to her eyes and cried, bewailing her own hard fate and luckless fortune.
Then at last Hans took pity on her, and, trying to prove that good fortune comes when one least expects it, told her the story of his ring. At the tale's end she regarded him with awe and astonishment.
“But if this ring gives you whatever you wish for, dear Hans, why are you not a king with a castle to live in and a princess for your wife?”
Hans laughed. “Nay, Marta, I am most content with this inn. It may have come to me by the way of magic, but by work I am making it my own. I have no longing for a crown on my head -- they are over-heavy and tiresome wearing by all reports -- and I want none of the sorrows and worries of a kingdom to rule. Nor would I sit easy with a princess-wife facing me across the board each morning, noon, and night, for I am a simple man, with more liking for well cooked bacon and beans on my plate, than the dainty dishes to suit royal tasting, and I fear such a wife would find me both dull and wanting in fine manners and let me know it, too!”
Then one of the servants called him away and Marta slipped out of the kitchen and started back to Master Simon's. Only now she was scheming as to how she might make a better bargain for her knowledge.
So when she again stood before Master Simon she said boldly “I have learned what you wish to know, Master. But this is a much greater matter than you have dressed. And not one word shall cross my lips until you put down another five pieces of gold.”
Master Simon grumbled and threatened. But she stood firm and he could get nothing out of her until he laid down the additional money. Then she told his the story of the stone ring.
“So,” Master Simon plucked at his thick underlip when she had done “Well, take your gold, girl, and be off. I have much to think about.”
As soon as Marta had left the room he went to a cupboard and brought out a threadbare black jacket and a battered pack such as a poor peddler might carry.
“So Master Hans does not wish to be a king? Well, others may be more enterprising,” said Master Simon to himself as he put on the jacket and stowed some small wares away in his pack. He then darkened his face with the juice of nut hulls and pulled his hair raggedly over his eyes under a broken rimed hat. Then he set off down the road once more.
Reaching the inn he opened up his pack in the hall and sat by it, waiting for buyers. Now among the odds and ends he had was a fine hunting knife, very like to one he knew Hans had often looked upon wistfully when he was still a servant of Master Simon's. And as Hans crossed the hall now he saw that and picked it up. But the hilt has been well greased by Master Simon so it slipped in Hans’ hold and cut his flesh. The disguised peddler set up a cry of dismay and caught Hans’s hand as if to staunch the bleeding wound. But so was he able to slip the ring off Hans‘s finger and pop it into his mouth before Hans guessed what was happening.
An instant later the inn, the peddler, and all, vanishes and Hans stood in an empty wasteland with only Bruno and Fritzie for company. He nursed his bare and bleeding hand and knew that with the loss of the ring his good fortune had fled.
But there was no use in bewailing his own folly and he started walking along the Highway, within a league he came to a river and on its far bank was a tall castle he was sure had not been there before.
“That must be the new home of the peddler who stole my ring,” he said.
Bruno looked at the castle, and then he growled:
“Dear master, your luck may have gone, but you saved, our lives. Now let us see if we cannot repay you. If the peddler is in yonder castle, perhaps we can deal with him -- we he would not suspect, you he would be on guard against.”
Hans watched as the two animals went down to the water‘s edge where Fritzie climbed upon the dog's back and the old hound waded out into the floor and began to swim. Across the river the animals made their way up through the bushes to the postern gate.
And when the shadows of night hung; heavy the cat crept on noiseless feet into the castle, Slipping through the halls until she came to a treasure room where Master Simon sat turning the ring; around and around on his finger and wishing for coffers of gold and jewels. When he at last tired of this sport, he put the ring under his tongue and went to bed. But Fritzie waited and in due time a mouse came by. The cat sprang and made it captive.
“Little one,” she hissed, holding her prey fast with both front paws, “listen well, and you shall go free. In yonder room sleeps a man. Do you creep upon his bed and tickle his nose with your tail so that he coughs or sneezes. If you do this business right you will naught to fear from me. But beware. I shall crouch at the foot of the bed and if you do not obey me that shall be the end of you.”
The mouse, shivering fear, agreed and scampered into Master Simon's room where it climbed upon the bed. There it drew its tail back and forth across the tip of Master Simon's nose. And he started up among his pillows with a mighty sneeze. Out flew the ring, away over the foot of the bed where Fritzie seized it and was out of the door in an instant.
She sped down the halls and through the castle gate into the bushes where Bruno waited. But Bruno now insisted that she should give the ring to him to carry since his mouth was so much the larger. Although she protested, Fritzie was forced to agree before the hound would enter the river.
They were no more than in the middle of the stream when Master Simon came running along the bank. Buy the bright moonlight he saw the swimming dog with the cat on his back and he shouted:
Bruno, hearing the voice of his old master and forgetting the ring, barked. Out fell the ring and down it went into the water where a fish snapped it up.
“Stupid!” snarled Fritzie. “Now we must go to work gain.”
She made Bruno swim to the far shore and there seat himself on the cold wet stones where he could hold the tip of his tail in the water, moving it slowly back and forth while Fritzie watched with sharp eyes.
In time the fish arose to snap at the tail tip, and one, two, Fritzie scooped it out and had it open to pluck out the ring. This they carried to Hans in triumph. Once more he put it on his finger and his first wish removed Master Simon across seven seas and over seven mountains from whence that thief never returned. As for Hans‘s second wish -- surely you need not ask about that! But there stands again a very good inn on the King's Highway.
Digitized and edited by Jay Watts ~ aka: Lotsawatts ~ May, 2015
Never before seen short story by Andre Norton
Released here for the first time
Copyright ~ Estate of Andre Norton
Online Rights - Andre-Norton-Books.com
Donated by – Victor Horadam
Duplication of this story for profit of any kind NOT permitted.