Until the white moon rose above the trees; until the hounds went out hunting for themselves; until the foxes came down and hid in the hedges, waiting for the cocks and hens to stir out at the first light--so long did the King of Ireland's Son stay huddled in the dry water-tank.
By that time he was stiff and sore and hungry. He saw a great white owl flying towards the tank. The owl perched on the edge and stared at the King's Son. "Have you a message for me?" he asked. The owl shrugged with its wings three times. He thought that meant a message. He got out of the tank and prepared to follow the owl. It flew slowly and near the ground, so he was able to follow it along a path through the wood.
The King's Son thought the owl was bringing him to a place where Fedelma was, and that he would get food there, and shelter for the rest of the night. And sure enough the owl flew to a little house in the wood. The King's Son looked through the window and he saw a room lighted with candles and a table with plates and dishes and cups, with bread and meat and wine. And he saw at the fire a young woman spinning at a spinning wheel, and her back was towards him, and her hair was the same as Fedelma's. Then he lifted the latch of the door and went very joyfully into the little house.
But when the young woman at the spinning wheel turned round he saw that she was not Fedelma at ail. She had a little mouth, a long and a hooked nose, and her eyes looked cross-ways at a person. The thread she was spinning she bit with her long teeth, and she said, "You are welcome here, Prince."
"And who are you?" said the King of Ireland's Son.
"Aefa is my name," said she, "I am the eldest and the wisest daughter of the Enchanter of the Black Back-lands. My father is preparing a task for you," said she, "and it will be a terrible task, and there will be no one to help you with it, so you will lose your head surely. And what I would advise you to do is to escape out of this country at once."
"And how can I escape?" said the King of Ireland's Son.
"There's only one way to escape," said she, "and that is for you to take the Slight Red Steed that my father has secured under nine locks. That steed is the only creature that can bring you to your own country. I'll show you how to get it and then I will ride to your home with you."
"And why should you do that?" said the King of Ireland's Son.
"Because I would marry you," said Aefa.
"But," said he, "if I live at all Fedelma is the one I will marry."
No sooner did he say the words than Aefa screamed out, "Seize him, my cat-o'-the-mountain. Seize him and hold him."
Then the cat-o'-the-mountain that was under the table sprang across the room and fixed himself on his shoulder. He ran out of the house. All the time he was running the cat-o'-the-mountain was trying to tear his eyes out. He made his way through woods and thickets, and mighty glad he was when he saw the tank at the gable-end of the house. The cat-'o-the-mountain dropped from his back then. He got into the tank and waited and waited. No message came from Fedelma. He was a long time there, stiff and sore and hungry, before the sun rose and the Enchanter of the Black Back-Lands came out of the house.
I hope you had a good night's rest," said the Enchanter of the Black Back-Lands, when he came to where the King of Ireland's Son was crouched, just at the rising of the sun. "I had indeed," said the King's Son.
"And I suppose you feel fit for another task," said the Enchanter of the Black Back-Lands.
"More fit than ever in my life before," said the King of Ireland's Son.
The Enchanter of the Black Back-Lands took him past the goat-house and to where there was an open shelter for his bee-hives. "I want this shelter thatched," said he, "and I want to have it thatched with the feathers of birds. Go," said he, "and get enough feathers of wild birds and come back and thatch the bee-hive shelter for me, and let it be done before the set of sun." He gave the King's Son arrows and a bow and a bag to put the feathers in, and advised him to search the moor for birds. Then he went back to the house.
The King of Ireland's Son ran to the moor and watched for birds to fly across. At last one came. He shot at it with an arrow but did not bring it down. He hunted the moor ail over but found no other bird. He hoped that he would see Fedelma before his head was taken off.
Then he heard his name called and he saw Fedelma coming towards him. She looked at him as before with dread in her eyes and asked him what task her father had set him.
"A terrible task," he said, and he told her what it was. Fedelma laughed. "I was in dread he would give you another task," she said. "I can help you with this one. Sit down now and eat and drink from what I have brought you."
He sat down and ate and drank and he felt hopeful seeing Fedelma beside him. When he had eaten Fedelma said, "My blue falcon will gather the birds and pull the feathers off for you. Still, unless you gather them quickly there is danger, for the roof must be thatched with feathers at the set of sun." She whistled and her blue falcon came. He followed it across the moor. The blue falcon flew up in the air and gave a bird-call. Birds gathered and she swooped amongst them pulling feathers off their backs and out of their wings. Soon there was a heap of feathers on the ground--pigeon's feathers and pie's feathers, crane's and crow's, blackbird's and starling's.
The King of Ireland's Son quickly gathered them into his bag. The falcon flew to another place and gave her bird-call again. The birds gathered, and she went amongst them, plucking their feathers. The King's Son gathered them and the blue falcon flew to another place. Over and over again the blue falcon called to the birds and plucked out their feathers, and over and over again the King's Son gathered them into his bag. When he thought he had feathers enough to thatch the roof he ran back to the shelter. He began the thatching, binding the feathers down with little willow rods. He had just finished when the sun went down. The old Enchanter came up and when he saw what the King's Son had done he was greatly surprised. "You surely learned from the wizard you were apprenticed to," said he.. "But to-morrow I will try you with another task. Go now and sleep in the place where you were last night." The King's Son, glad that the head was still on his shoulders, went and lay down in the water-tank.
Until the white moon went out in the sky; until the Secret People began to whisper in the woods--so long did the King of Ireland's Son remain in the dry water-tank that night.
And then, when it was neither dark nor light, he saw a crane flying towards him. It lighted on the edge of the tank. "Have you a message for me?" said the King of Ireland's Son. The crane tapped three times with its beak. Then the King's Son got out of the tank and prepared to follow the bird-messenger.
This was the way the crane went. It would fly a little way and then light on the ground until the Prince came up to it. Then it would fly again. Over marshes and across little streams the crane led him. And all the time the King of Ireland's Son thought he was being brought to the place where Fedelma was--to the place where he would get food and where he could rest until just before the sun rose.
They went on and on till they came to an old tower. The crane lighted upon it. The King's Son saw there was an iron door in the tower and he pulled a chain until it opened. Then he saw a little room lighted with candles, and he saw a young woman looking at herself in the glass. Her back was towards him and her hair was the same as Fedelma's.
But when the young woman turned round he saw she was not Fedelma. She was little, and she had a face that was brown and tight like a nut. She made herself very friendly to the King of Ireland's Son and went to him and took his hands and smiled into his face.
"You are welcome here," said she.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"I am Gilveen," said she, "the second and the most loving of the three daughters of the Enchanter of the Black Back-Lands." She stroked his face and his hands when she spoke to him.
"And why did you send for me?"
"Because I know what great trouble you are in. My father is preparing a task for you, and it will he a terrible one. You will never be able to carry it out."
"And what should you advise me to do, King's daughter?"
"Let me help you. In this tower," said she, "there are the wisest books in the world. We'll surely find in one of them a way for you to get from this country. And then I'll go back with you to your own land."
"Why would you do that?" asked the King of Ire-land's Son.
"Because I wish to be your wife," Gilveen said.
"But," said he, "if I live at all Fedelma is the one I'll marry."
When he said that Gilveen drew her lips together and her chin became like a horn. Then she whistled through her teeth, and instantly everything in the room began to attack the King's Son. The looking glass on the wall flung itself at him and hit him on the back of the head. The leg of the table gave him a terrible blow at the back of the knees. He saw the two candles hopping across the floor to burn his legs. He ran out of the room, and when he got to the door it swung around and gave him a blow that flung him away from the tower. The crane that was waiting on the tower flew down, its neck and beak outstretched, and gave him a blow on the back.
So the King of Ireland's Son went back over the marshes and across the little streams, and he was glad when he saw the gable-end of the house again. He went into the tank. He knew that he had not long to wait before the sun would rise and the Enchanter of the Black Back-Lands would come to him and give him the third and the most difficult of the three tasks. And he thought that Fedelma was surely shut away from him and that she would not be able to help him that day.
At the rising of the sun the Enchanter of the Black Back-Lands came to where the King of Ireland's Son was huddled and said, "I am now going to set you the third and last task. Rise up now and come with me."
The King's Son came out of the water-tank and followed the Enchanter. They went to where there was a well. The King's Son looked down and he could not see the bottom, so deep the well was.
"At the bottom," said the Enchanter "is the Ring of Youth. You must get it and bring it to me, or else you must lose your head at the setting of that sun." That was all he said. He turned then and went away.
The King's Son looked into the well and he saw no way of getting down its deep smooth sides. He walked back towards the Castle. On his way he met Fedelma, and she looked at him with deep dread in her eyes. "What task did my father set you to- day?" said she.
"He bids me go down into a well," said the King's Son.
"A well!" said Fedelma, and she became all dread.
"I have to take the Ring of Youth from the bottom and bring it to him," said the King's Son.
"Oh," said Fedelma,'"he has set you the task I dreaded."
Then she said, "You will lose your life if the Ring of Youth is not taken out of the well. And if you lose yours I shall lose my life too. There is one way to get down the sides of the well. You must kill me. Take my bones and make them as steps while you go down the sides. Then, when you have taken the Ring of Youth out of the water, put my bones as they were before, and put the Ring above my heart. I shall be alive again. But you must be careful that you leave every bone as it was."
The King's Son fell into a deeper dread than Fedelma when he heard what she said.
"This can never be," he cried.
"It must be," said she, "and by all your vows and promises I command that you do it. Kill me now and do as I have bidden you. If it be done I shall live. If it be not done you will lose your life and I will never regain mine."
He killed her. He took the bones as she had bidden him, and he made steps down the sides of the well. He searched at the bottom, and he found the Ring of Youth. He brought the bones together again. Down on his knees he went, and his heart did not beat nor did his breath come or go until he had fixed them in their places. Over the heart he placed the Ring. Life came back to Fedelma.
"You have done well," she said. "One thing only is not in its place--the joint of my little finger." She held up her hand and he saw that her little finger was bent.
"I have helped you in everything," said Fedelma, "and in the last task I could not have helped you if you had not been true to me when Aefa and Gilveen brought you to them. Now the three tasks are done, and you can ask my father for one of his daughters in marriage. When you bring him the Ring of Youth he will ask you to make a choice. I pray that the one chosen will be myself."
"None other will I have but you, Fedelma, love of my heart," said the King of Ireland's Son.
The King of Ireland's Son went into the house before the setting of the sun. The Enchanter of the Black Back-Lands was seated on his chair of gold. "Have you brought me the Ring of Youth?" he asked.
"I have brought it," said the King's Son.
"Give it to me then," said the Enchanter.
"I will not," said the King's Son, "until you give what you promised me at the end of my tasks--one of your three daughters for my wife."
The Enchanter brought him to a closed door.
"My three daughters are within that room," said he. "Put your hand through the hole in the door, and the one whose hand you hold when I open it--it is she you will have to marry."
Then wasn't the mind of the King's Son greatly troubled? If he held the hand of Aefa or Gilveen he would lose his love Fedelma. He stood without putting out his hand. "Put your hand through the hole of the door or go away from my house altogether," said the Enchanter of the Black Back-Lands.
The King of Ireland's Son ventured to put his hand through the hole in the door. The hands of the maidens inside were all held in a bunch. But no sooner did he touch them than he found that one had a broken finger. This he knew was Fedelma's hand, and this was the hand he held.
"You may open the door now," said he to the Enchanter. He opened the door and the King of Ireland's Son drew Fedelma to him. "This is the maiden I choose," said he, "and now give her her dowry."
"The dowry that should go with me," said Fedelma, "is the Slight Red Steed."
"What dowry do you want with her, young man?" said the Enchanter.
"No other dowry but the Slight Red Steed."
"Go round to the stable then and get it. And I hope no well-trained wizard like you will come this way again."
"No well-trained wizard am I, but the King of Ireland's Son. And I have found your dwelling-place within a year and a day. And now I pluck the three hairs out of your heard, Enchanter of the Black Back-Lands."
The beard of the Enchanter bristled like spikes on a hedgehog, and the balls of his eyes stuck out of his head. The King's Son plucked the three hairs of his beard before he could lift a hand or say a word.
"Mount the Slight Red Steed and be off, the two of you," said the Enchanter.
The King of Ireland's Son and Fedelma mounted the Slight Red Steed and rode off, and the Enchanter of the Black Back-Lands, and his two daughters, Aefa and Gilveen, in a rage watched them ride away.
They crossed the River of the Ox, and went over the Mountain of the Fox and were in the Glen of the Badger before the sun rose. And there, at the foot of the Hill of Horns, they found an old man gathering dew from the grass.
"Could you tell us where we might find the Little Sage of the Mountain?" Fedelma asked the old man.
"I am the Little Sage of the Mountain," said he, "and what is it you want of me?"
"To betroth us for marriage," said Fedelma.
"I will do that. Come to my house, the pair of you. And as you are both young and better able to walk than I am it would be fitting to let me ride on your horse."
The King's Son and Fedelma got off and the Little Sage of the Mountain got on the Slight Red Steed. They took the path that went round the Hill of Horns. And at the other side of the hill they found a hut thatched with one great wing of a bird. The Little Sage got off the Slight Red Steed. "Now," said he, "you're both young, and I'm an old man and it would be fitting for you to do my day's work before you call upon me to do anything for you. Now would you," said he to the King of Ireland's Son, "take this spade in your hand and go into the garden and dig my potatoes for me? And would you," said he to Fedelma, "sit down at the quern-stone and grind the wheat for me?"
The King of Ireland's Son went into the garden and Fedelma sat at the quernstone that was just outside the door; he dug and she ground while the Little Sage sat at the fire looking into a big book. And when Fedelma and the King's Son were tired with their labor he gave them a drink of buttermilk.
She made cakes out of the wheat she had ground and the King's Son washed the potatoes and the Little Sage boiled them and so they made their supper. Then the Little Sage of the Mountain melted lead and made two rings; and one ring he gave to Fedelma to give to the King's Son and one he gave to the King's Son to give to Fedelma. And when the rings were given he said, "You are betrothed for your marriage now."
They stayed with the Little Sage of the Mountain that night, and when the sun rose they left the house that was thatched with the great wing of a bird and they turned towards the Meadow of Brightness and the Wood of Shadows that were between them and the King of Ireland's domain. They rode on the Slight Red Steed, and the Little Sage of the Mountain went with them a part of the way. He seemed downcast and when they asked him the reason he said, "I see dividing ways and far journeys for you both."
"But how can that be," said the King's Son, "when, in a little while we will win to my father's domain?"
"It may be I am wrong," said the Little Sage, "and if I am not, remember that devotion brings together dividing ways and that high hearts win to the end of every journey." He bade them good-bye then, and turned back to his hut that was thatched with the great wing of a bird.
They rode across the Meadow of Brightness and Fedelma's blue falcon sailed above them. "Yonder is a field of white flowers," said she, "and while we are crossing it you must tell me a story."
"I know by heart," said the King's Son, "only the stories that Maravaun, my father's Councillor, has put into the book he is composing--the book that is called 'The Breastplate of Instruction.'"
"Then," said Fedelma, "tell me a story from 'The Breastplate of Instruction,' while we are crossing this field of white flowers."
"I will tell you the first story that is in it," said the King's Son. Then while they were crossing the field of white flowers the King's Son told Fedelma the story of the Ass and the Seal