The Telling of Tales


The Knights of the Fish

By Andre Norton (1940s)

Many, many years ago there lived a, knight who had long served his king faithfully and well. But at length the king died and so did the knight, his lady, his war horse and his hunting hound, leave the court and return to his old home in a distant part of the kingdom. It was an ancient manor house set high upon the cliffs above the North Sea.

Now the knight has little gold in his purse to show for all his years at court, and he was sad, for the manor house was nigh a ruin. There were holes in the outer walls through which the sea wind whistled, bringing in mist to cloud the very cups and plates from which they drank and ate. And rain sometimes dripped dismally in the halls from the broken roof, to run in trickling streams across the floor.

Every day the knight climbed down the rocks to the village below, and there he worked with the fishermen, hauling, on the heavy nets, taking his part of the day's catch back to the manor where it sometimes was all his household has to eat.

One night there came a great storm which drove the sea waves high against the cliffs until the whole manor trembled and the knight and his lady feared that its walls would fall to crush them. When, at last, morning came the Knight thought he saw a large shoal of big fish close to shore, and he hurried down to profit from such good fortune.

But when he hauled in his net after the first anxious cast he found but one fish caught within the cordage. And this was such a fish as he had never seen before. For its scaled flanks were as bright as thrice burnished silver, and its fins and tail inky black. It was so wonderous a sight that he could not slay it, but cast it free once more into the waves. And, although he fished all the rest of that day, and left the sandy show only at sunset, he caught nothing else. So that night those in the manor went hungry to their beds.

The next morning, shortly after dawn, the knight returned to his labor. On his first cast he again brought in the fish of sable and silver, or, if not that very one, another as like as one pea in a pod is to its fellow. And, although hunger bit sharply within him, again he could not slay so wonderous and beautiful a thing, but turned it living back to the sea.

But for the rest of the day his luck was no better than it had been the day before, and again he returned empty -- handed to his home. So that night his lady wept with hunger as they went fasting to bed. Then the knight vowed that whatever he caught upon the morrow he would have into the cooking pot without delay.

So, even before the cold dawn, he felt his way down the cliff side and made ready his net with trembling hands, casting it out into the sea as the first reel spear of the sun split the east. And he drew it back again with a single fish fighting in its folds – the black and silver fish he had brought in twice before. Again when he looked upon its silver beauty he could not bear to put an end to such a rare work of God.

But, as he strove to free it from the net, the fish spoke to him, using the tongue of Christian man and saying:

“Good fisherman, three times has it been in your heart to set me free. But it is clearly the will of Our Lord that I should be your captive. Take me and cook me, and then carve me well into eight equal parts. Of these let your lady wife eat two, give two unto your war horse, and two unto the hound in your courtyard. The two which are left you must plant one on either side of your great gate.”

And the knight did as the fish had bade him. When it was cooked he did not partake of a single flake of its body, but divided it so that his lady, his horse, and his hound each feasted upon two portions. While the remaining two he planted deep in the earth at the main gate of the manor courtyard.

Now from that day forward the luck of the knight changed. First he received a sum of gold which had long been owed him by a distant kinsman and with this he repaired the manor so it no longer stood open to wind and rain. And fish swam in plenty to his net so that hunger was no longer his portion.

In the fullness of time his lady wife bore him twin children, children whose fair skin had the whiteness of pure silver and whose hair was as dark as the night sky. And the boy they named “Sable”, his sister “Silver.” So alike were they in face and form that when dressed in the rough fisher clothes they wore each day one could not be told from the other.

On the same day that Sable and Silver were born, in the stable the war horse stood watching over twin colts, white of hide but raven of mane and tail, while the hound nuzzled two puppies, silvery white spotted with black. And beside the gate two silver birch saplings pushes above the soil.

Sable and Silver grew strong and tall, and Silver was nowise content to stay with her lady mother in the manor, following only the ways of a housewife. But she learned sword play beside her brother and rode on her colt to follow the falcon in hunting. Thus passed some years of time.

Until there came the day when the knight thought it best to send Sable to court, that he might learn the ways of the world and mayhap rise to honor in the king's service. So, he brought out half of his remaining gold and with it bought a mail shirt of black and silver and a helmet bearing the crest of a strange and wonderous fish. These he gave his son with his blessing.

But Silver wept within her chamber because this venture could not be hers also. Until, before he left, her brother called her apart and said:

“While I am away from you, dear sister, look each morning upon this birch which stands to the left of our gate. If it flourishes you will know that all is well with me. But if it begins to droop and fade, then you shall know that some ill has befallen and I have come into great danger.”

Silver promised that this she would faithfully do. And she watched her brother ride away on the road which led to the King's own city.

At court Sable chanced to win the favor of the Earl Marshal and was taken into that company of knights who followed him to war. In the course of time he won the heart of the Earl's daughter and took her to wife.

Some weeks after their marriage Sable and his lady traveled to the Marches where Sable was sent by his overlord as Warden to hold the frontiers of the country for the King's peace. And there they lived in a tall tower where the daughter of the Earl had herself been born.

She had a bower high in the tower which overlooked the mountains of the east. But the windows of this room had been filled in with stone and sealed, with heavy tapestries hung before them. When Sable asked why this had been done none in the castle could give him any reason. And when he begged the answer from his lady she turned aside her head as one who is fearful and prayed him not to press her upon the matter.

But as the days passed Sable longed for light and air within the bower and finally, while his lady was gone on a pilgrimage to a shrine, he brought in workmen from the city below and had the stones pried out of the windows so that the winds were free to blow and the sunlight once more fell across the floor of the chamber.

That night at moonrise Sable stood by one of the newly opened casements and looked out upon those mountains which made a black wall across the less dark sky. And so he chanced to see, on the crown of the highest of the peaks, a pale and wagering gleam, as if some signal fire blazed there. He summoned his squire and demanded to know why a fire should burn in such a desolate spot.

But the squire seemed sore afraid at the sight and said that in his memory it had not done so. Only from the olden days there were ill tales of such a fire and what had happened to those who went to learn its cause. He begged Sable to close again the windows and put from his mind all longing to know the reason for the signal.

Sable was not so easily persuaded and his desire to know the secret of the fire grew and grew within him until it was a consuming passion. At last he could withstand it no longer. Mounting his horse and calling his hound he rode off along the mountain road.

From sunrise to moonrise his path led upward. The road faded into a faint rack much scored by the storms of many years, but it was still plain enough to follow. And just as the palid moonlight struck full upon the mountain peak he came out upon a level plain of rock. There, pale and ghostly as the grey moon overhead, blazed the fire, the flames coiling into the air like giant evil serpents, giving forth no honest heat, nor smoke.

But, as the moonlight holds strange beauty, so did the fire enchant the beholder. And Sable drew nigh to it, sunk in its witchery. When he came so close he saw that someone tended it, throwing into the devouring flames black and crooked branches. The fire tender turned as Sable approached her and she looked straight into his eyes.

For it was a woman who stood there, a woman all grey-white as the flames she fed -- save that a curtain of hair cloaked her from head to ankle -- hair which was a living flame as the fire she fed was not.

She smiled, a slow, full smile, and her voice was as the chiming of crystal bells as she said:

“Welcome, sir knight. Glad as I to have company in the silences of this forgotten waste.”

Sable, half dreaming, bemused by the twisting of the flames and the exceeding beauty of her voice, dismounted and went forward on foot.

The woman of the fire continued to smile and now through her hands she drew the glistening strands of her hair, which curled and rippled in company with the flames as if it had a life of its own. But now at Sable's feet his hound crouched and growled, baring teeth menacingly at the flame tender. Her smile faded and she said to Sable:

“If you would come to the fire, send back your hound, the beast likes me not.”

But when Sable ordered the hound back it would not obey. Instead it snarled and seized upon his surcoat with its teeth, striving to keep him from the fire. Then Sable dealt it an uffet, sending it from him whimpering, as he did so his horse reared high and screamed aloud into the night.

Then the woman pulled from her head three hairs, and these she cast as a fisherman casts his line. One fell upon the horse and straightway it became quiet. The second fell upon the hound, and no longer did it whisper or growl. But the third wrapped around Sable above his heart.

The touch of it was like a finger of ice laid upon the door of his heart. And he found he could not move, but must stand listening to the chimes of cruel, cold bells which was the laughter of the woman of the fire as he became a pillar of stone because of her witchery.

Now at the manor beside the sea Silver went to look upon the birch trees in the dawn. Hers stood tall and green and flung its rustling breaches high and joyfully in the wind. But the one which was Sable's was touched with sere yellow and dragged limply to the ground. And in this manner she knew evil had come to her brother.

Straightway she went to her father and said that she must go into the world and see what danger had come to him who shared her spirit. And her father, grown old and tired, allowed her to have her say.

So she took that part of the gold which was her dowry and had fashioned a coat o mail and a helmet which was as like Sable's as one fish scale is like another. Then, mounting her horse and calling her hound she rode into the world.

In due time she came to that tower on the Marches where her brother had been sent to rule as Warden. And there his lady sighting her did first deem Silver to be her lord come again because of their great likeness. With joyful cries she ran to this knight bearing the fish crest and embraced him.

But when Silver made plain who she was, her brother's wife fell into wild weeping and wailing for the loss of her lord and would not be comforted. And from her brother's squire Silver learned of the mountain fire and of how Sable had gone to discover its secret.

Then she, too, took the mountain road. But when she reached the lip of the rocky plain where burned the fire, she drew her sword and approached the flames on cautious feet, naked steel in hand, wending her way among many tall stones which stood thereabouts.

And the witch of the flames stood straightly by her fire, watching Silver's coming through narrowed eyes. For by her magic she sensed that this knight was not as the others she had so easily laid her bonds upon.

But she asked in her sweet voice: “What seek you here, fair knight?”

And Silver made stern answer. “I seek my brother who came this same way afore time and has not since been seen in the ways of men.”

The woman of the flame ran her fingers through the curtain of her hair, plucking out three long strands. The first she flung, at Silver's ‘horse and it went through the air with the swiftness of a truly aimed arrow.

But Silver's sword flashes also and out through that wicked bond so it fell to earth in two parts.

The women of the fire snarled in rage and flung her second hair. But that, too, did Silver cut, and the third also. Then the witch women crouched and spun around on her heels so that her hair made a wild cloud about her as she chanted spells and mouthed curses.

Silver leaped forward and drew her shearing sword blade through the floating hair. And the severed strands flew into the hungry fire where they flashed into bright scarlet flame.

But where the witch of the fire had stood a handful of grey dust puffed up, to be carried away by the rising wind. The fire died and was gone, and at its falling into ash the stones about the rocky plain stirred, stretched, and became living men and animals once again.

So did Silver free her brother and bring him down once again to rule the Marches. But as for her, she married a king's son and in time became a queen of great wisdom and strength whose name is yet alive in the songs of men of the North Country.

 “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.