The King’s Son and the Magic Song

By E. J. Bourhill and J. B. Drake

Once upon a time there lived among the mountains a great King; and he had many cattle, which he loved. Among them was a fairy ox, with horns which curled right across his forehead, and with a voice like thunder; this ox led the herd, and at his call all the cattle followed him. In the day-time they fed in the tall grass in the valley, and at night they were brought home to the big kraal, round which were the huts of the King and all his men, so that they might be safe from any harm. And the fence of the kraal was strong and high, and the men watched so that no evil befell the cattle.

Now the King loved the cattle so much that he made one of his own sons herdsman. Every morning this boy took the cattle to graze in the pasture, and at sunset he drove them back to the kraal. All day, in the hot sunshine, he watched the herd to see that none strayed and were lost, and to take care that no enemy came in to steal. And because the grass in summer grew tall, high above his head, and thick, so that he could not see, he would climb on to one of the great rocks that lay scattered about the valley. For the rocks were large, large as a hut, and in the shadow beneath them it was cool and the little rock-ferns grew; but on the top, where the sunlight fell, the little lizards lay and caught flies.

Often the boy grew tired as he watched the herds, and longed to lie in the warm sun and sleep; but he dared not, for he feared his father’s anger if he should lose him an ox.

But it happened one day that as he watched the cattle a Fairy appeared to him in the shape of a very old woman. She came and talked to him, and he told her how he had always watched lest the cattle strayed, and how he feared lest his father’s foes should come and kill him and take the cattle.

Then the Fairy pointed to a stone, smooth and large and round, like a hut that showed up above the grass of the valley. The boy looked, for he had never seen the stone before. “Come,” she said, “this is your stone. See, it is so smooth that no one can keep his footing on it or climb it. But you shall be able. As you grow the stone will grow, and from it you can watch all the valley, and no enemy will be able to hurt you, for they could not climb it. But beware that you do not fall asleep on it, for then all your cattle will be stolen.”

She also taught him a magic song, “Come, cattle, come, all you cattle come to me,” the melody of which was so enchanting that all cattle who heard it followed the singer. Then the Fairy vanished away.

So the boy became a splendid herdsman, and none of his cattle were lost, for every evening he sang to them and they followed him to the kraal, and none strayed. Nor could any be stolen, for on the rock he watched in safety. But at last one hot day he fell asleep on the rock, and the enemy who were watching saw him sleeping, and crept down from the hills and drove off all the cattle. When he woke up not one head of cattle could he find. He sang “Come, cattle, come,” but it was in vain; they did not hear him. He wandered about the valley looking and singing till the sun began to set, and then in shame and fear went to the kraal alone. He went to his father and told him all, but the old King was very angry and drove him from the kraal, saying, “Never come back unless you bring my cattle with you.”

So the poor boy wandered back sadly to the valley, and climbed upon the big stone and lay there in the moonlight crying, for he had lost his cattle and he had lost his home. And as he lay some one touched him, and he looked up and saw the old woman, the Fairy, who had given him the stone and taught him the charm. “I know what has happened,” she said; “you have slept, and what I foretold has come to pass—the cattle are gone.” “And I am driven from the kraal till I find them,” he said, and cried again. “Do not despair,” she said, “but go to the Chief who has your cattle and ask to be his man.”

So the boy rose, and all night long under the moon he travelled between the grey mountains, up and down by little winding paths between the grass and rocks, through the streams and bushes, till in the morning, when the sun rose, he came to his enemy’s kraal, and within it he heard his father’s cattle.

So he entered the kraal and went to the Chief and offered to be his man, and the Chief made him herdsman of his own cattle. Every morning he took them out to pasture and every evening he sang to them the magic song and brought them home, and none strayed and were lost. Thus he served the Chief many years, till he was a man full grown. And always he thought of his father’s kraal, and looked how he might take the cattle and return. At last the chance came. The great festival of the first-fruits was at hand. The women made the beer, placed the calabashes in a row outside the kraal, and on the day appointed the men and women went out to gather the first ripe maize and Kafir corn from the lands, and the children went to get wood for the cooking of the feast, and no one was left in the kraal but an old woman and the King’s son, who was in charge of the cattle.

When all were gone he took some sango, the herb that intoxicates men and makes them sleep, and powdered it very fine. Then he went to the row of calabashes in which the beer stood waiting for the evening’s feast, and put some into each calabash, and went away and waited till all came back.

When the Chief and his people returned there was great rejoicing. A hut of green boughs was made for the Chief, in which he sat, and the first-fruits were all brought to him, and a branch from each offering was tied to his arms or neck. Then his wise men brought him a drink made of herbs and water from the sea, and gave it to all present as a sign that the feast was to begin. Every one ate of the new corn and the fresh nuts, and drank of the new beer. Only the King’s son drank none, and at last all fell asleep; and when the evening came and the moon rose not a man or woman was left awake.

From Fairy Tales from South Africa, Mrs. E. J. Bourhill and Mrs. J. B. Drake
London: Macmillan and Co., 1908

Folk tales

AfricaSouth AfricaSwazi People

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