Written for Once Upon a Fic Exchange 2015.
Once upon a time there was a count who had an only son. Although the count had been a great scholar in his youth, talented in languages and philosophy and mathematics and many other things, his son had no head for studying. He constantly ran off to the woods or fields instead of paying any heed to his lessons. He could easily follow the tracks of birds and beasts, but when he sat down before a book, the letters seemed to blur together, and when he tried to write, he only made chicken-scratches on the parchment or knocked over the inkwell in a fit of carelessness. The young man had a kind heart, however, and was fond of animals of all kinds. He especially loved the castle dogs and would sneak away to play with them when he was supposed to be studying. Once when there was a litter of puppies that was to be drowned, the count's son wept and carried on so that his father finally agreed they should be spared.
The count hired many tutors to teach his son, but none of them made any progress. At last he called his son to him and said, "I will send you to the town a fortnight's journey to the south, where there are many subtle and learned scholars. Perhaps they will be able to do something with you. But do not return until you have mastered something – I care not what!"
The count's son departed, in obedience to his father, and soon arrived in the town to the south. There he made the rounds of all the learned scholars, but when he gave only uncertain and stammering answers to their questions, they disdainfully turned him away from their doors. At last he sat down on the edge of a fountain in dejection, resting his head between his hands.
"What is the matter, young man?" someone addressed him in a deep, gruff voice.
The count's son looked up to see a heavy-jowled man in a scholar's robe, with grizzled hair and beard. He had no more hope of this scholar than the others, but he thought there was no harm in sharing his story, and so he explained his situation.
When the scholar had heard him out, he said, "That is no difficulty at all. Come with me, and I will teach you." The young man jumped joyfully to his feet with many protestations of gratitude.
"Never mind that," the scholar said. "If someone else had not helped me, I would not be here today. I will help you, and perhaps in time you will help someone else. What do you wish to learn? How to chase rabbits, or track a fox to its earth? How to dig for treasure, or to fetch important things, or how to understand what the dogs say when they bark?"
The count's son considered this carefully, and at last he said that he would like to learn the last of those. So the scholar brought him to his house and began to teach him. The count's son learned the meaning of all the different barks, growls and whines, as well as the different varieties of tail-wagging; the ways of sniffing in friendly greeting, showing submission or challenging another to a fight; the subtleties of raising or flattening the ears, tilting the head to one side, or flopping down and resting chin upon paws. In all of these, he proved a quick study.
The scholar tried also to teach him the language of scents. He brought the count's son to a busy thoroughfare and, to the young man's amazement, sniffed the air a few times and recited without hesitation all the people and animals who had passed by. But the count's son was forced to confess that he could not pick out the individual smells at all. He was distressed at not being able to master it, and so the scholar gave it up and told him that learning the language of barking and tail-wagging would be sufficient.
At last the scholar pronounced him proficient, and the count's son set off for home. The count's dogs came to greet him and he was pleased to be able to interpret what they said, even if it was not of great philosophical significance: "We are so glad to see you! You were away for such a long time! You will scratch behind my ears, won't you?"And of course he scratched behind their ears as they asked and also petted their shaggy heads.
As soon as he had washed off the dust of his journey, he presented himself before his father. "Have you learned anything on your journey, my son?" the count demanded.
"Yes, father. I studied with a learned scholar for a year, and he pronounced me proficient."
"And what is it you have learned?"
"I have learned to understand what the dogs say when they bark," the count's son said hopefully.
"What! Is that all?"
"I have also learned about growling, and—"
But the count was in no mood to listen. "What nonsense is this?" he demanded. "Have you not learned anything of use?" And his son was silent. The count frowned at him. "You will depart within the week," he said, "for the town a fortnight's journey to the east. And there perhaps you will learn something. Do not return unless you do!"
The count's son prepared for his journey with a heavy heart. One of the castle dogs, which he had played with as a boy, followed him to his chambers. "Are you sad?" the dog asked in the language of dogs. "Why are you sad?"
"Because I am not clever or learned," the count's son said. "And therefore my father is displeased with me."
The dog wagged his tail. "You have a good heart," he said. "And kindness is worth more than cleverness. Do not worry. You will find friends to help you, as you did before." This cheered the count's son greatly.
He left the castle again a few days later. As he rode along the path, the birds were singing in the trees overhead. "I wish I knew the language of birds, as I do that of dogs!" he said to himself. "Then I could understand what they are saying." But it was pleasant to listen to nevertheless.
A little further along the road, he met a peasant carrying a covered bundle and greeted him cheerfully.
"Good morning," the peasant said in return.
"What do you have there in your bundle?"
The peasant lifted a corner of the cloth to show that he had a cage of songbirds. "I catch these birds, sir," he said, "and I sell them in the town, some to be kept as pets, and some to be cooked in the kitchens of the rich folks' houses."
The count's son thought it was a pity. "Will you sell me your birds?" he asked.
The peasant was more than glad to dispose of them all at once, and for a good price. The count's son waited until he was out of sight and then opened the cage to let the birds go. "Perhaps it is foolish," he said, "but I would rather see you singing with your brothers in the trees." The birds, of course, wasted no time in flying away.
When the count's son at last reached the town, he had no greater success than before in finding any scholar who would take him in. He sighed deeply and sat down under a broad-spreading tree in the town square.
"What is the matter?" said a high piping voice behind him.
The count's son looked up to see a delicately built little scholar with bright eyes. "I am not a good student," he confessed in shame, "and I cannot find anyone who will teach me."
"Very well, then," said the scholar, "I will take you under my wing."
The count's son joyfully thanked him many times.
"What would you like to learn?" the scholar asked. "I can teach you how to build your own house, or how to forage for food, or to sing beautifully and clearly. Or perhaps you would like to learn how to understand the language of the birds."
"Please teach me the language of the birds," said the count's son.
He went home with the scholar and began to study. There he learned all the meanings of chirps, trills, and squawks, as well as what it meant to tilt the head to this side or that and to ruffle up all the feathers or press the wings close to the body.
After a year, the scholar pronounced him proficient, and the count's son returned home. But when his father the count asked him what he had learned, he was no more pleased by the answer this time that he had been the last time. He immediately sent his son off to the town a fortnight's journey to the west, to see what he could learn there.
As the count's son was journeying to the town, he happened to ride his horse across a stream. There he saw a group of boys throwing stones at the frogs which lived in the water.
"Stop that at once!" said the count's son. "The frogs may be small, but their lives are still dear to them. I will not let you hurt them for no reason." And he frowned at the boys, imitating his father's most formidable frown, until they muttered an apology and dispersed.
The count's son rode on to the town, where he had great difficulty finding any scholar who would teach him. Just as he was on the point of giving up, he heard someone clear his throat behind him.
The count's son turned to see a stout scholar wearing a green velvet hat. "And why are you looking so dejected, young man?" the scholar asked him.
"Because my father has sent me here to study, but I cannot find anyone who will teach me."
"Then look no farther," the scholar declared portentously, "for I myself will undertake your education. There are many things I can teach you. I can teach you to understand what the frogs say when they croak, or—"
"Yes, please," the count's son said quickly, for he had found he had a taste for learning such languages. "I would be very grateful if you would teach me that."
And so the scholar took him in and began to teach him. The count's son learned the meanings of all the croaks and songs both high and low, how to interpret the different ways of swelling up the throat and small changes in the color of the skin.
When he had studied for a year and learned everything the scholar had to teach, he returned home. But when he told his father what he had learned, the count was even more angry than before. "Leave this place," he commanded in a fury, "and never return again until you have made something of yourself!" The count's son had no choice but to obey.
At first the count's son was very distressed. But as he rode along the path, he said to himself: "I am not a dog, and yet it seems to me that I can offer my friendship to strangers. I am not a bird, yet I can build a home for myself. I am not a frog, but perhaps I can learn to shed my skin and make myself new. Perhaps what I have learned will yet bring me to good fortune!"
And so indeed it did, but that is another story.