The Telling of Tales


Ully, the Piper

By Andre Norton (1940s)

This short story is the precursor to the story “Ully the Piper” published in 1970 within the anthology “High Sorcery” ~ where it underwent a major expansion.

There was, once a village named Coomb Bracket, set so snug in a valley between two mountains that very few of the villagers ever wished to climb either to see what might lay in the great world beyond. Coomb Bracket had rich fields, a shallow sleepy river winding in and out through them, orchards of good fruit trees, and a small woodland in which were to be found nuts at the proper season. Fat sheep fed placidly in her meadows, and cows ambled to the river to drink, then back again to graze. As the villagers often said to one another, “who, prey tell, could want for any more?”

But there was one who did. Ully Dood was not the smallest, nor the youngest within Coomb Bracket, but he was the only one who was different, the only one left out of the merry making on May Day and Harvest Home, and Yule. And sometimes the longing to be one with all the others filled him with such a pain as he could hardly endure.

He sat on his small cart and watched the other lads and lasses of his age run and jump, while a great lump choked his throat. For Ully had fallen from a tree when he was so young he could not remember how life had been before that black day. And since then -- ah, he knew well what life was for one hunched of back arm useless of leg, able to get from place to place only by squatting on a cart and pushing against the ground with two sticks.

Unable to use his legs, Ully had learned to be clever with his hands. He we mender-in-chief for all the village, and aught that was broken or torn was brought to him. His widowed mother sorted it out, and Ully worked patiently hour in, and hour out to make all whole again. But he longed for someone to mend him and never so much as in mid-summer when on that eve the young people of Coomb Bracket went out to the fields to light the Beltane Fire and dance away the few hours of the year‘s shortest night.

He listened now to their singing as they ran along the lane:

“High Dilly, High Dally,

Cone Lilly, come Lally!

Dance for the ribbons--

Dance for the shoes!”

And who would dance so gracefully and long this night that he would return in the morning wearing the pair of silver buckled shoes, and she the snood of bright ribbons to fasten her hair? Not Stephen of the Mill. He was as heavy footed in such frolicking as if he still bore one of his big grain sacks on his shoulders as he pranced here and there. Not Gretty of the Inn who tried with all her heart to be graceful. Ully had seen her practice unhappily in secret, and wished her well but who often stumbled or took a wrong step. No, this year as always, it would be Matt of High Acres Farm and the Smith's daughter, Morgana. Thinking so, Ully scowled at the lane hedge.

Morgana he knew little of, save that she saw only what she wished to see, and did only what it pleased her to do. But Matt he disliked very mach. For Matt was rough of hand and tongue, caring little what he broke or tore, whether it was something which could be mended, or the feelings of others which could not. Ully had dealt with some of Matt's breakings, but he has seen and heard others which no one could thereafter put right.

“High Dilly, High Dally--” Still they sang in the lane.

Ully bit his lip. He might be small and crooked of body, but still he was a men, or near to a man. And a man did not cry as a child over his hurts. Yet, he tried to raise his head higher above his hunched shoulders, it was so fine a night he could not bring himself to creep back into the house where his mother waited silently to pity him.

There was the scent of flowers and growing things strong in the long twilight. At last Ully reaches within his shirt and drew out one of his greatest triumphs of mending. He pulled it back and forth between clever fingers and then raised it to his lips.

The winter before one of the rare strangers who took the road over-mountain had stopped at the Inn. People had gathered to hear his news of far places -- without the least longing to see such for themselves. And later the stranger had pulled out this pipe of polished wood and had blown sweet notes from it. Then he had put it aside on the table, for Morgrana had sat beside him, her eyes shining as she asked for more tales. And Matt, seeing her interest in the outland man, has slammed down his tankard of ale with force enough to jar the pipe to the floor and break it.

There had been hot words to follow and Matt had sullenly given a silver piece to pay for the breakage. But Gretty had gathered up the pieces to bring to Ully, saying wistfully, that the music the stranger had made on it was so sweet she wished she could hear its like again. And Ully had worked very patiently indeed to piece it together. When it was complete, he had taken to blowing an odd note or two. And then he tried even more, imitating the song of a bird, the sleepy murmur of the river.

Now he played a song which he had put together so, note by note, from all the sweet sounds of the valley. Hesitatingly he began, and then he grew more confident and louder in his piping. Tired, he took it at last from his lips, and was startled by a clapping of hands. Gretty stood by the hedge.

“Ah, Ully, play, play! A body could dance as light as a fey to such playing!”

She gathered up her full skirts, pointed her toes in a step or two, but they went awkwardly. And Ully saw her smile fade. He guessed that she shared some of his sorrow, that a clumsy body would not obey the lightness in her mind. But in a moment she was smiling again and ran to him, holding out her hand.

“Such a piper we have never had, Ully. Come along with us!”

At first he shook his head, but Gretty continued to coax, then, hearing voices in the lane, she called:

“Stephen, Will! Come, help me with Ully -- he can pipe sweeter than any bird in the bush. Let him play for our dancing this night and we shall be as well served as the Queen of the Faye!”

So Ully found himself persuaded, and Stephen pushed his cart up the steep slope to the high meadow where, on e center hill, flamed the Beltane fire. And there he set the pipe to his lips and played his song while the young people danced, laughed and sang.

But there were those not as well pleased with Ully's company. For Morgana, halting in the dance looked into the half light where Ully set on his cart and cried out, so that Matt, with whom she had been dancing, started forward his hands clenched into fists.

“Ah, it is only Ully,” she said. “I thought it was some monster out of the woods.”

“Ully?” Matt laughed. “Why does Ully come, without feet to dance upon? To stare at his betters!” He came closer.”Where did you get that pipe, little man?” He snatched at the pipe in Ully's hands. “It looks to me like the one I had to pay a good round piece for when it was broken. Give it here now. For if it is that one, then it surely belongs to me!”

Ully tried to hold on to the pipe, but Matt's strength was by far the greater, and he took it away. The dance had led to the other side of the Beltane mound now and there were none to see what happened in the half shadows. Matt held up the pipe in triumph.

“As good as new, and worth a silver piece. Samkin, the peddler, will give me that and I shall not be out of pocket anymore.”

“My pipe!” cried Ully and tried to reach it. But Matt held it away.

“My pipe, crooked man! I paid for it, didn't I? Mine to do with as I will.”

Helpless anger swelled in Ully and he tried to lift himself higher on his cart. But his struggles set the wheels to moving and he began to roll down the slope of the meadow backwards. Morgana cried out and moved as if to try to stop him. But Matt laughed and caught her back.

"Oh, let him go, he will come to no harm. And he had no place here now, has he my dear? Did not the very sight of him give you a fright?”

He thrust the pipe in his pocket and threw his arm about her waist, pulling her back to the singing ring of dancers now weaving their way back.

“Where is Ully?” called Gretty.

Matt shrugged. “He is gone.”

“Gone? But it is a long way back and he --” She began to run down the hill lane calling, “Ully! Ully!”

However Ully's runaway cart had not taken him to the lane, but in another direction altogether, bumping and bouncing down the slope of the meadow and into the wood. He crouched in the middle of that small, unsteady platform, unable to move, afraid to try and catch at any of the shrubs or low hanging branches he passed; for fear that he might be pulled off, to lie helpless on the ground.

In and out among the trees spun the cart and Ully began to wonder why it had not upset, or run against one of the big trunks, or caught in a bush. It was almost as if someone were guiding it along. Although when he tried to turn his head and look, he saw nothing but dark trees and bushes.

Then, with a last rush, the cart was through the edge of the wood and out in the open again. There was no fire blazing here, but the moon was so bright that it made Ully blink. He dared to reach out now and catch at this tuft of grass, that runner of vine to pull the cart about that he no longer faced the woods through which he had come, but an open glade where the grass grew short and thick as if it were mown and tended to be a garden instead of wild growth. Around the circle of turf grew flowers and graceful bushes. While sailing through the air were huge moths.

U1ly’s heart did not pound quite so fast as he stared at all the beauty about him. His fingers, resting on his poor shrunken knees, twitched. He so wanted his pipe--

But he had no pipe now. Softly Ully began to hum the same lilting tune which had so pleased Gretty, the notes he has spun out of bird song and water ripple. Then his hum became a whistle, low but clear. The moths gathered as if they danced a measure in answer. How he wished he had his pipe! Ully has never been in such a place before and it seemed to him that all the small beauties he has ever seen were here made into one, just as he might fit the bits of a broken bowl into a complete thing again.

One of the moths fluttered closed and, hesitatingly, Ully held out his hand. It lit fearlessly on his forefinger, its wide wings, seemingly tipped with star dust, for there were tiny points of glitter on them, fanned lazily several times before it took to the air again.

Ully wipes that hand across his forehead, sweeping back a loose lock of his thick hair. And straightway -- he gasped.

Where moths had flown, he now saw tiny winged people. They came to earth and grew, became small youths and maidens. And they smiled at Ully. Though none of them spoke aloud, he knew what they wanted of him.

“Sing, Ully, whistle, Ully! Make music for our dancing. We have no piper, you have no pipe, but there is your song and it is one to set free all feet!”

So Ully sang, and he whistled, and he hummed. He must be asleep and dreaming, or else he had indeed fallen on that wild race downhill and hit his head, so that this was born of that hurt. But let it continue as long as it could, for this was happiness.

But at last that whirling dance stilled. He blinked. Moths again lit on the ground, fanning their wings, or hung from bushes. All save one. For still facing Ully stood a small man. He tugged smooth his jacket, hooked his fingers in his belt and spoke:

“Our thanks to you, Ully. Never have we been so well served by any musician. But more than just thanks do we give you.”

He raised his arms and was a moth, which flew straight into Ully's face. Flinching, Ully rolled over, off his cart, and his head rapped against a tree root, dazing him.

He did not know how long it was before he tried to move, raise his hand to his aching head. But struggle up he did. Struggle up -- indeed! Ully who could not move his shriveled, useless legs, nor straighten his crooked back – why – why, he was straight! Straight as Stephen, as Matt. If this was more of the dream he never wished to wake again! He pulled himself up farther and farther, until he stood on his two feet, leaning against a tree, his clothes ripping away from this big new body. Then he took a step or two away from the support of the trunk and found that his feet did move and he was walking. Throwing back his head, Ully laughed, and cried aloud his joy as the morning sun warmed his body. But the sun glinted on something else, too, and Ully leaned forward to see. Lying on the green turf was e pipe -- and such a pipe! He has thought that the one he has mended was fine, but this was such as a king's piper might play.

Slowly Ully picked it up, half fearing that it might disappear. Then he put it to his lips and began to play. His own small song, by this pipe it sounded more beautiful than his dreams. Piping softly, walking with care, because walking was so new to him, Ully went back to the village. He went by back ways and kept out of sight until he came to his mother's cottage.

She, poor woman, was weeping. For when he had not returned from the meadow, she feared him hurt or lost. And some of the villagers were gathering now to hunt for him. But when she looked upon Ully standing in the doorway, her tears were forgot, smiles such as she had not known for years came to her lips, and the sad load on her heart vanished forever.

All the village marveled at Ully's story. Some of the oldest gaffers and granddames shook their heads knowingly; spoke of fays and how it was known those had their chosen places to dance in. And that if one won their favor marvelous things came of it. Those strange people had treasures, too, and Ully's pipe must have come from such a hoard.

But Ully declared that what made it s. treasure was not its gold mounting but the sounds which came from it.

It would seem that beside a straight back and legs and the pipe, Ully has also brought luck back with him that mid-summer morning. For his hands, always so clever at mending, were now twice as much in demand. And, since he could now travel, he was summoned hither and thither up and down the whole valley, to deal with things which would not go right. Thus he prospered and in the evenings he would bring out his pipe and the young people and children of the village would dance.

Matt watched the dancing and his anger grew. For it was known now how he had treated Ully, and the young people turned from him. But he would not admit his fault, saying instead that Ully worked enchantment. And he spoke against Ully and his pipe, hinting that ofttimes fairy gifts brought misfortune in their wake. Some of the villagers listened to him, for there are always those who do not like to see others prosper. Among them was Morgana, for when she tried to dance to Ullly's piping in the evening her steps were never quite right, and now she was shunned as a partner, even Gretty, who was nowadays much less awkward, being chosen before her. One day she said to Matt:

“Four times a year they say the fays do come, and soon it will be Lemmas Eve. Take your pipe then and pipe for them. Surely you can charm them even more than Ully did, and your reward will then be the greater.”

For it was true that Matt had been practicing on the pipe he had taken from Ully. And he did play well the rounds and lays the villagers had once danced to, before Ully brought the fairy pipe.

The more Matt considered Morgana’s suggestion, the better he thought it. Let him find the fairy people and play and they would make him payment, even as they had Ully. But not a pipe – no -- he would ask for gold and with such would buy wide fields so he could be a great man in Coomb Bracket.

So at sundown on Lammas Eve he went to the wood. But, though he pushed and pulled, thorn bushes catching; and tearing his clothing and his skin, he was a long time reaching the glade.

There was the green turf just as Ully had described it, and Matt settled down, pipe in hand, while the night grew darker and he heard noises in the wood which sent a shiver or two up his back. But he stayed stubbornly where he was, watching for the dancing moths until his eyes ached. At last there were some shadowy flutterings in the air, though they were hard to see. And Matt, deciding that Ully had been adding to the truth with his description of glittering moths, put his pipe to his lips and began to play.

It was a song which he knew and fancied he played very well indeed. But the notes coming now were woeful, when they were not shrill squeaks. Then he was frightened and tried to take the pipe from his lips. Only to discover that this he could not do, some force was making him play on and on, while horrible noises filled the air, to hurt his ears and make his head ache.

The shadows swirled and dipped, flapped about, sometimes very close to his face. And all the time he had to play those shrill, sour notes. While his body ached, his mouth grew dry, and his fear became greater and greater.

For how many hours his torment continued, Matt did not know. But at last his leaden arms fell to his sides, the pipe spun away to the ground, and he saw the sun was rising. The fluttering things which had moved to his piping looked unpleasantly like great bloated flies and wasps. One of them, buzzing loudly, flew straight at Matt and stung him severely on his upper lip.

With a cry he tried to get to his feet, but he was so stiff from sitting so long, that he fell to his knees, and so broke his pipe under one. Unable to walk he crawled, while the stinging winged thing buzzed threateningly over his head. Finally, painfully, he reached the village. But his stiffness of limb was long in wearing off, so that he could not dance, nor even walk upright again, for many a day. While the sting on his lip made his face so swollen he hated to show it abroad. Nor did he ever tell anyone what had happened in the woods on Lemmas Eve.

But Ully's piping led the village to the Beltane Fire the next year, and for many a year thereafter.


 “The Telling of Tales

Copyright ~ Estate of Andre Norton
Online Rights -
Donated by – Victor Horadam and Sue Stewart

Edited by Jay Watts ~ aka: Lots-a-watts ~ May, 2015

Duplication of this collection (in whole or in part) for profit of any kind NOT permitted.