Once upon a time, a very long time ago, a King and a Queen had one son, and he was called Billy Baeg, which in the old tongue of Ireland means Little Billy--or as you might say it, Billy Junior.
Now the Queen gave Billy a bull that he was very fond of, and the bull was just as fond of him.
But when Billy was still only half-grown, the Queen died. Her last request to the King was that he would never part Billy and his bull. And the King promised that no matter what, he would not part them.
Soon the King married again. The new Queen didnt like Billy Baeg, and she didn't like the bull, either. She hated seeing Billy and the bull playing together.
But no matter how she begged, the King would not part Billy and the bull. So at last she asked an old woman in the village for help.
The old woman knew how to make herb potions that could cure sick people, and she was very wise. But she was also very greedy. "What will you give me," she asked the Queen, "if I help you?"
"Whatever you ask," said the Queen.
"Then I will help you," the old woman agreed. "Go to bed and pretend that you are sick. I will do the rest."
So the Queen went to bed, and pretended that she was sick. None of the King's doctors could help her.
Finally the Queen asked to see the old herb woman.
"There is only one thing which can help the Queen," the old woman told the King. "You must kill Billy Baeg's bull, and give her three mouthfuls of its blood."
But the King had made a promise to Billy's dead mother, and he could not break his promise. So he refused to kill the bull.
The next day, the Queen was worse. And on the third day, she lied to the King and told him that she was dying. "It will be your fault if I die," she told him, "because you will not kill that bull, and help me."
So the poor King had no choice. He told the new Queen that he would kill Billy Baeg's bull.
When Billy heard this, he was very sad. The bull asked him why he was so unhappy. "My father says that he's going to kill you!" he said.
The bull just shook its head and rubbed Billy's shoulder. "Don't you worry at all," he told his friend. "That wicked old Queen will never taste a drop of my blood!"
The next day, Billy insisted on going with his bull, when they took him away to be killed. "Now you just jump up on my back," the bull told Billy, "and we'll see how well you can ride!"
Up Billy jumped, onto the bull's back. With that, the bull leaped nine miles high, and then back down again! And before anyone could stop him, he killed the evil new Queen, and tore through the crowd with Billy hanging on for dear life!
Away the bull galloped, over high hills and low hills, from one end of Ireland to the other.
At last they stopped. "Now then," said the bull to Billy, "put your hand in my left ear, and youll find a napkin. When you spread it out, it will be covered with all sorts of food and drink, fit for the King himself."
Billy did as he was told, and sure enough, there was a napkin in the bull's left ear, because the bull was very magical. So he spread it out, and ate and drank until he was very full. Then he carefully rolled up the napkin again, and put it safely back in the bull's ear.
"Now," the bull said, "put your hand into my right ear, and you'll find a little stick. If you swing it three times over your head, it will turn into a magical sword, and you will have the strength of a thousand men! Then when you don't need a sword anymore, it will change back into a stick again."
Billy swung the stick over his head, and it turned into a gleaming magical sword just like the bull had said.
"Now tomorrow," the bull told him as he put the sword away again, "I will have to meet a great bull. And I will have to fight that bull until one of us is dead. But don't worry, because I will win."
Billy got on the bulls back, and they traveled all across Ireland again, over high hills and low hills, through valleys and rivers and trees. And when they stopped the next day, Billy's bull met the other bull.
The two bulls fought each other, and they shook the very ground with their fighting! But just as Billy's bull had promised, he killed the other bull.
Billy was very glad that his bull had won the fight. But he was also very hungry. So he took the napkin back out of his bull's ear, and spread it on the ground, and together they ate a huge meal.
Then the bull told Billy, "Tomorrow at noon, I will have to meet the brother of the bull that I killed today. And we will have a very hard fight, him and me. But don't worry, because I will win again."
Billy got on the bull's back, and they rode all night long. They rode along the shore, and across the hills, through forests, and valleys, and fields of fern and flowers. And when they stopped, Billy's bull met with the second bull, and they fought all day long.
The ground shook beneath them as they hit each other with their sharp horns, and kicked each other with their strong hooves. But after a long, long time, Billy's bull finally killed the other bull.
Just like before, Billy took the napkin from the bull's ear, and spread it on the ground. And he and his bull enjoyed a huge feast, with all kinds of food and drink that were fine enough for the King himself.
"Now you must climb on my back again," the bull told Billy, "and try to get some rest. Because tomorrow at noon, I must fight the brother of the other two bulls I've killed. He's a huge, mighty bull, the strongest of them all! He's called the Black Bull of the Forest, and I know that he will kill me."
Billy was very sad to think that his bull might be killed. But the bull nudged his shoulder in a friendly way, and said, "This is the important thing. When I'm dead, you must take the napkin with you. Then you'll never be hungry again.
"And you must take the stick," he told Billy. "Then you'll be able to kill even the most fierce monsters!
"And most of all, you must take out your knife and cut a strip off my hide. Make a belt of it," the bull said, "and never take it off! As long as you wear that belt, you can never be killed!"
Billy was very, very sad, even though he knew that this was the bull's way of protecting him forever. But he got back onto his bull, and they started off on their trip.
Sure enough, at noon the next day, they met the great Black Bull of the Forest.
The bulls began to fight each other, and they fought long and hard. The hills echoed with the sound of their battle, and big rocks bounced across the ground!
Billy sat in a safe tree and watched as the two bulls kicked and cut and slashed at each other. But finally, just as Billy's bull had said, the Great Bull of the Forest killed him.
Billy was so sad that his best friend was dead. he sat there and cried for two whole days. And during all that time, he forgot all about the napkin with its fine food and drink, and the stick that could turn into a mighty, magical sword.
But finally he remembered what the bull had told him. So he pulled out the napkin and ate a huge meal, because he was very hungry now. Then he put the stick in his pocket, and cut a strip out of the bull's hide to make a belt.
"Now I am alone in the world," he thought. "I had better see about getting a job somewhere."
Billy walked for three days and three nights, until at last he came to a beautiful house. A fine gentleman lived there.
"Can you give me work?" Billy asked the fine gentleman.
The fine gentleman looked at Billy, and liked what he saw. So he said, "I need someone to herd my cattle. If you are brave, perhaps you will do nicely!"
Billy asked him how many cattle he'd have to herd, and how much he'd get paid.
"I have three goats, and three cows, and three horses, and three donkeys," the fine gentleman said. "I feed them in an orchard near here. But there are three giants--and they are brothers--who come to milk my cows and goats every day. And they kill every boy who goes to herd them."
"I'm not afraid of those giants," Billy told the fine gentleman. "I will herd your goats and cows."
"Then you may have the job," the fine gentleman told him. "But I will not pay you until you've proved that you can stay alive."
They shook hands to seal the bargain, and that night Billy slept at the fine house, in a servant's room.
The next morning, he got up and drove the animals to the orchard, and began to feed them. But right about noon, he heard an awful roar that made the hair on his neck stand up! Apples fell from the trees as a second roar split the air, and the third roar shook the very horns on the poor cows' heads!
Stomp, stomp, stomp! Into the orchard came a huge, ugly giant with three heads! "You're too big for one bite," he bellowed at Billy, "and too small for two bites! What will I do with you?"
Billy stepped right up to him, and swung the magical stick over his head three times. "I'll fight you!" he yelled, as the stick turned into a flaming sword, and gave him the strength of a thousand men.
The giant began to laugh. "You, fight me?" he roared. "Fine, then, we shall fight. How will I kill you, by wrestling or with swords?"
"Wrestle with me, if you can!" Billy dared him.
They fought for a bit, and the giant was no weakling! But then Billy lifted him right off the ground and held him over his head!
"Oh, have mercy!" the giant yelled. "Don't kill me!"
But Billy didn't listen to him. He grabbed his sword, and killed the big, ugly giant.
By that time, it was almost evening. So Billy took the three goats, and the three cows, and the three horses, and the three donkeys back to the fine gentleman's house. And that night, the cows gave so much milk that all the dishes in the house were filled.
The gentleman was pleased to see Billy safe, but he was also confused. "How did you do it?" he asked Billy. "No one has ever survived before, and the cows have never had any milk before, either! Did you see anything in the orchard?"
"Nothing worse than myself," Billy said, and that was the honest truth. "So I'd like you to pay me now."
"Well..." The gentleman was afraid that if he paid Billy, he'd lose a fine herder. "I'd like you to feed my animals in the orchard again tomorrow. If you can survive another day, I'll pay you then."
Once again, Billy slept in the gentleman's house, in a servant's room. And he slept very well indeed.
The next morning, his master said, "Something must have happened to one of those awful giants! I used to hear three giants roaring in the hills every night, but last night there were only two!"
Billy knew what had happened to that giant, but he wasn't about to tell. So after he ate breakfast, he drove the animals to the orchard again, and started to feed them.
Just as he was about to eat some lunch, he heard another three terrible roars that made the hair on his neck stand up! Apples fell all around him, and the shaking animals ran for shelter, as a huge giant stomped into the orchard.
This one was even bigger than the first one, and he had six heads. "You must be the one who killed my brother yesterday!" he shouted when he saw Billy standing there. "I'm going to make you pay for that!"
"I'll fight you!" Billy dared him, pulling out his magical stick and swinging it three times around his head. And just like before, the sword made him so strong that he picked the giant right up off the ground, and killed him.
When evening came, Billy took the animals home again. And that night, the cows had so much milk that they not only filled all the dishes in the house, but when the milk ran out into the yard, it started turning a rusty old mill that hadn't been turned for thirty years!
The fine gentleman was stunned to see Billy alive and looking so well! "Did you see anything in the orchard today?" he asked.
"Nothing worse than myself," Billy smiled. "Now will you pay me?"
Now the gentleman was really afraid that Billy would leave if he paid him. So he patted Billy on the back, and said, "I'll pay you tomorrow, when you come back for dinner."
Billy knew what the gentleman was trying to do, but he didn't say anything, because he liked his new master. So he went to bed, and slept the entire night.
When he was eating breakfast the next morning, the gentleman shook his head and said, "I don't know what's wrong with two of those giants. I only heard one roaring last night!"
Billy didn't say a word, he just finished eating and then took the animals down to the orchard.
Sure enough, just as he was about to spread out his magical napkin and eat some lunch, three terrible roars shook the apple trees around him, and the animals all ran for safety.
Stomp, stomp, stomp! In crashed a huge giant, even bigger than the other two! And this one had twelve heads!
"You villain!" roared the giant. "You killed my two brothers, and now I'm going to kill you!"
But he was no match for Billy and his magical sword. Billy lifted him right off the ground, and cut his heads off.
Billy drove his animals home at sunset, and the gentleman was amazed to find him still alive, and not hurt at all! And this time, the cows gave so much milk that it formed a lake behind the gentleman's house, and the lake was three miles long, and three miles broad, and three miles deep.
"Did you see anything in the orchard today, Billy?" the gentleman asked. He could not believe that Billy had survived when so many other boys had been killed!
"No," smiled Billy. "Nothing worse than myself. And now, will you finally pay me?"
"Yes, of course I will," the gentleman agreed. "Anything you ask, and it will be yours."
They both went to bed, and Billy slept soundly all night long. And the next morning he hid a smile when the gentleman said, "Not a single giant was roaring out in the hills last night. I don't know what happened to them!"
After breakfast, the gentleman said, "I'm going to be gone today, Billy, so you must watch the cattle while I go to see the fight."
"What fight?" Billy asked.
The gentleman scowled and shook his head. "The King's daughter has been captured by a fiery dragon," he said. "It will eat her unless the greatest fighter in the land can defeat it. And the King's daughter has promised to marry the man who can rescue her."
Billy drove the animals down to the orchard again, and all day long he watched people hurrying down the road to see the fight. Some were rich and rode in fine carriages. Others were very poor, and had to walk. Some were young and strong enough to run along with the horses, but others were so old that they could only crawl along.
"Everyone must be going to see the fight!" he thought to himself.
One man saw him standing in the orchard. and asked him to come along. "It will be a wonderful fight!" he said.
But Billy had already made his own plans. "Why would I be interested in some fight with an ugly old dragon?" he lied, and turned away.
As soon as the last people had gone by, Billy ran to the house. No one was there, so he saddled and bridled his master's best black horse. Then he put on his master's best suit of clothes, and he took off down the road after everyone else!
When he reached the King's palace, he saw the King's daughter for the first time. She was even more beautiful than he had dared to hope!
The great warrior who was to fight the dragon was standing nearby. His sword was so huge, it took three grown men to hold it. He looked very strong, and very brave.
But the dragon was huge, and had twelve ugly heads, and fire was shooting out from every one of them! When he roared, the very ground shook for miles around!
The great warrior took one look at the fiery dragon, then turned and ran! He was so scared that he threw himself down into a well filled with water. No one could get him to come back out, and face the dragon.
No one else had the courage to face the dragon. So Billy made sure that his magical belt was tight around his waist. Then he pulled out his stick and swung it over his head three times. The flaming sword gave him the strength of a thousand men!
Billy fought the dragon, and the sky rang with its screams when he finally killed it and cut its twelve heads off.
Everyone wanted to meet the brave stranger, and they crowded around him. But Billy didn't want anyone to know who he was. So he jumped on his master's horse and rode away.
He was almost free of the crowd when the King's daughter caught at his foot, and pulled his shoe right off!
Now that the dragon was dead, the cowardly warrior climbed out of the well. He wanted everyone to think that he had killed the dragon himself, so he brought its heads to the King. "I was in a disguise when I killed it," he told the King and his daughter.
The King's daughter still had Billy's shoe. "If you were the brave fighter who killed the dragon," she said, "then this shoe should fit you."
She made the cowardly warrior try the shoe on, but it didn't fit. So she knew that he was lying. She swore that she would only marry the man who had really killed the dragon.
When Billy got home, he quickly took off his master's fine suit, and hung it back in the closet. Then he put the horse back in its stable, and brought the cattle and goats back from the orchard.
"You should have seen the fight today, Billy!" the fine gentleman cried when he came home that night. "A brave, grand stranger rode down out of a cloud on a black horse, and he killed the dragon, and then he vanished in a cloud again! Isn't that wonderful?"
"It was, indeed!" Billy smiled. "How very exciting!"
A few days later, the gentleman received word that everyone was to come to the King's palace. The King's daughter wanted to find who really fit into the shoe she'd pulled from the brave stranger's foot.
Billy was in the orchard with his animals when the day arrived, and huge crowds of people rode by. They all asked Billy if he was going to the King's palace to try on the shoe. But Billy smiled and shook his head. "The King's daughter would never marry me!" he said.
Late that afternoon, a raggedy old man was stumbling down the road. His shabby clothes were torn and smudged with dirt.
"Good sir!" Billy called. "Would you swap clothes with me?"
The old man thought Billy was making fun of him, because the boy's clothes were much nicer than his. "Leave me alone," he scowled, "or I'll hit you with my stick!"
"Please, sir," Billy insisted. "You may have my clothes, and they are all new. I truly need yours for today."
When the old man realized that Billy was serious, he was glad to change his dirty rags for the boy's nice clean clothes. And Billy gave him everything, even his shoes. But he would not give up his magical bull-hide belt.
Off to the castle he went, with the old man's rags on his back and a crooked stick in his hand.
Men were swarming all over the yard, hoping to try on the shoe. Some had even cut off their toes to make their feet seem smaller. But it was no use. No one could get the shoe to fit.
The King's daughter was very sad, because she had fallen in love with the brave dragon-slying stranger. She was just about to give up when Billy, dressed as a raggedy orphan-boy, pushed his way through the crowd. "Let me try it on!" he said. "Maybe it will fit me!"
The crowd began to laugh, because he did not look at all like a brave hero. "Go away!" they cried, and pushed him back.
But the King's daughter saw him, and she was a fair-minded girl. "Everyone must have a chance," she said, "whether they are a rich lord or a poor pig-herder. Let him come and try on the shoe."
So Billy went up to her, and he tried on the shoe. And then everyone stopped laughing, because the shoe fit him perfectly.
The King's daughter looked at him more closely, and she recognized the stranger who had saved her from the dragon. "You are the brave hero who killed that dragon!" she cried.
Billy finally admitted that he was, and he told her about his own father, who was a King, and about his magical bull. Then the King gave Billy a fine suit with silk and satin and gold mixed into it. And he looked so handsome, everyone agreed that he should be the one to marry the King's daughter.
So they were married in grand style. And they lived happily and well from that day to the ends of their lives.
Legend adaptation by: Jo Grant