In very ancient days there was a King in Ireland named Labra, who was called Labra the Sailor for a certain voyage that he made. Now Labra was never seen save by one man, once a year, without a hood that covered his head and ears. But once a year it was his habit to let his hair be cropped, and the person to do this was chosen by lot, for the King was accustomed to put to death instantly the man who had cropped him. And so it happened that on a certain year the lot fell on a young man who was the only son of a poor widow, who dwelt near by the palace of the King. When she heard that her son had been chosen she fell on her knees before the King and besought him, with tears, that her son, who was her only support and all she had in the world, might not suffer death as was customary. The King was moved by her grief and her entreaties, and at last he consented that the young man should not be slain provided that he vowed to keep secret to the day of his death what he should see. The youth agreed to this and he vowed by the Sun and the Wind that he would never, so long as he lived, reveal to man what he should learn when he cropped the King’s hair.
So he did what was appointed for him and went home. But when he did so he had no peace for the wonder of the secret that he had learned preyed upon his mind so that he could not rest for thinking of it and longing to reveal it, and at last he fell into a wasting sickness from it, and was near to die. Then there was brought to see him a wise druid, who was skilled in all maladies of the mind and body, and after he had talked with the youth he said to his mother, ‘Thy son is dying of the burden of a secret which he may not reveal to any man, but until he reveals it he will have no ease. Let him, therefore, walk along the high way till he comes to a place where four roads meet. Let him then turn to the right, and the first tree that he shall meet on the roadside let him tell the secret to it, and so it may be he shall be relieved, and his vow will not be broken.’
The mother told her son of the druid’s advice, and next day he went upon his way till he came to four cross roads, and he took the road upon the right, and the first tree he found was a great willow-tree. So the young man laid his cheek against the bark, and he whispered the secret to the tree, and as he turned back homeward he felt lightened of his burden, and he leaped and sang, and ere many days were past he was as well and light hearted as ever he had been in his life.
Some while after that it happened that the King’s harper, namely Craftiny, broke the straining-post of his harp and went out to seek for a piece of wood wherewith to mend it. And the first timber he found that would fit the purpose was the willow-tree by the cross roads. He cut it down, therefore, and took as much as would give him a new straining-post, and he bore it home with him and mended his harp with it. That night he played after meat before the King and his lords as he was wont, but whatever he played and sang the folk that listened to him seemed to hear only one thing, ‘Two horse’s ears hath Labra the Sailor.’
Then the King plucked off his hood, and after that he made no secret of his ears and none suffered on account of them thenceforward.