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The captive Princess

 

 

 

 

 

 Years and years and years ago, when Fionn MacCool in Eirinn and Fionn Gall, a brother giant in Scotland, were building the Giant's Causeway, which was to run between the two countries, there lived in a glen in Antrim a young man named Hugh.   

  Everyone liked Hugh. He was very kind and neighbourly and it made him sad to see anyone in pain or trouble. He had also a great love for animals.

  All the people in the place where Hugh lived had heard of an unhappy princess who had been carried off by a wicked giant and was kept a captive in his castle. This castle was a crannog or lake dwelling. It was built on stakes of wood driven down deep in the earth in the centre of the lake. The Giant's wife was a witch and if anyone attempted to cross the lake, she set the water in motion and caused it to form whirpools so that neither swimmer nor boat could reach the castle. 

  Hugh had a great desire to rescue the princess, whose name was Maca. One day he was sitting in his little house when ha heard a wailing sound outside. He went to the door and saw a dog limping by, whining pitifully . He brought the dog into his house and saw that there was a large thorn in one of his front paws. He extracted the thorn and bathed the paw. The dog tried to thank him by licking his hand and then seemed to show that he wished Hugh to follow him. He led in some distance from his house and then turned down a narrow lane with high hedges on each side. At the end of the lane was a tiny little house. An old woman was sitting at the door. She looked very sad but when she saw the dog her face brightened. She thought he had been lost, he was so long away from her. The dog ran forward and put his head in her lap.

  "I found this dog outside my house," said Hugh, "There was a thorn in his paw and when I took it out he seemed to wish me to follow him."

  "Good man," said the old woman, "and good dog. He wants me to befriend you as you have befriend him."

  Now this old woman was a bean feasa (a woman of knowledge), that is, a woman with magic powers and with knowledge of things distant and hidden. She talked with Hugh for some time and he told her of his desire to rescue the princess.

  "It is a hard task," said the old woman,"and there are many dangers in the way, but you are strong and brave and you will succeed if you follow my directions."

  She went into the house and came out again with a large shell in her hand. Streched across the shell were silver cords, something like the strings of a lute or violin. The old woman touched the strings and Hugh thought the music was the sweetest he had ever heard.

  "Take this shell," said the old woman. "You will come to the Valley of Weasels. They will rush to swarm around you and attack you, but touch the strings lightly and they will become harmless. You will then come to a dark, dense wood through which it will be impossible to pass. Again, touch the strings and will be well. Next, you must cross a deep, rugged quarry, but at the sound of the music your way will be clear. You have a long journey before you and you will need food."

  Again she went into the house. She returned carryng a large oat cake.

  "I shall never forget your kindness," said Hugh, as he set off with a stout heart.

  It was not long before he reached the Valley of Weasels. They rushed towards him as if they would spring at his throat. Hugh drew his fingers across the strings of the shell. Immediately the weasels formed a line on each side of him and as he continued to play they marched along with him till he passed out of the valley.

  Next he came to the wood. The trees were so high and so close together that it was impossible for him to pass through. Hugh sounded the strings and all at once the branches parted and the trees themselves seemed to follow him till he came to the far end of the wood.

  At last he reached the quarry. There great jagged rocks on each side and a hollow in the middle. When he began to play, the stones from the bottom rose up and formed a smooth path for him till he reached the farther end.

  He now sat down to rest near a clump of sloe bushes. As he was eating his oat cake, a tiny little bird fell from a robin's nest in the bush. He rose at once and gently placed the fledgling back in the nest.

  Suddenly a little man stood before him. He had bright, twinkling eyes and a very friendly smile. He handed Hugh a feather, saying as he did so:

 

"For this your kindly deed

As on your way you speed,

Take this and in your need

"Twill serve you well.

 

  "By the side of the water which surrounds the giant's castle you will see a seagull. Strike the bird with this feather.

 

"Now haste away,

Make no delay,

E'er close of day,

All will be well."

 

  Having said this, the little man vanished.

  Hugh contined his journey. After a time he again sat down to rest and eat some more of the cake. Just above him was an old oak tree with ivy climbing along the trunk. A bat had in some strange way got entangled in the ivy and could not move and there it remained, with the glaring sunshine hurting its poor eyes. Hugh climbed up the tree and placed the bat on the shady side, hidden by the ivy and protected by the branches of the oak.

  Again he eard the words:

 

"For this your kindly deed,

As on your way you speed,

Take this and in your need,

"Twill serve you well."

 

  There stood the little man, handing Hugh a bat's wing. "If you turn this around three times in your right hand, darkness thick as night will fall about you. This darkness will last for a short time only.

 

"Now haste away,

Make no delay,

E'er close of day,

All will be well."

 

  Like a flash the little man was gone.

  When Hugh had travelled for some time, he sat down on a stone by the roadside. From the other side of the hedge came a sound as if some creature were in pain. He went through the hedge to the place from which the sound came. There he saw a cat down in a deep well and unable to climb out. Hugh took off his coat and, leaning over the edge of the well, lowered it towards the cat. Puss caught it with her forepaws and Hugh dragged her to safety.

 

"For this your kindly deed,

As on your way you speed,

Take this and in your need,

"Twill serve you well."

 

  There stood the little man, handling Hugh a cat's eye. "Take this," he said, "and if you hold it in front of you, the darknest way will become bright and clear before you.

 

"Now haste away,

Make no delay,

E'e close of day,

All will be well."

 

  Again the little man disappeared.

  Hugh journeyed on. After a time he came in sight of a huge stone castle built in the centre of a lake. This he knew to be the giant's home. At one of the top windows he caught sight of a beautiful, sad face and he knew that the Princess Maca was a captive there.

  As Hugh came near the castle he saw the giant and his wife standing on the steps. When the pair saw Hugh, the giant waved his club round his head and the woman raised her wand over the water. Immediately it foamed and turned in all directions and formed whirlpools all round the castle.

  Hugh felt it would be impossible to cross that dangerous lake but just then he saw perched on the bank beside him a beautiful seagull. Remembering the little man's advice, he struck the seagull with the feather. All at once the bird became so large and strong that Hugh mounted on its back and was carried across to the castle. When he descended from the back of the bird it flew up into the air.

  The giant and his wife rushed down the steps but Hugh waved the bat's wing and in the darkness the pair lost their footing and fell headlong into the water. The whirlpools dragged them down, down, and they were never heard of again.

  By the light of the cat's eye, Hugh ascended the stairs to the room where the Princess Maca was. As he reached the door, the darkness disappeared and Hugh turned the key which was on the outside of the lock.

  Maca told him she was the daughter of the King of Ulster.

  "My father," said she, "banished from his kingdom a wicked giant. The giant's brother in revenge seized me and kept me imprisoned here."

  "But," said Hugh, "how did the giant take you from your father's home? Are there not guards and attendants there?"

  "Yes," said Maca, "but the giant found out that I liked to walk alone in a lovely wood which is near the palace. One spring day as I was gathering violets, he came and bore me away so quickly that I could not even call for help."

  "Where is your father's castle?" Hugh asked.

  "It is near the western coast and is so far away that I fear I shall never see my home again."

  Hugh led the princess down to the water's edge. There stood the seagull. Hugh touched it with the feather. As he did it grew so large that he and Maca were able to mount on its back. It flew westwards over lakes and plains, over hills and valleys, till it reached a beautiful glen in the midst of the blue hills of Donegal.

  There stood the castle before them, its windows shining like gold in the rays of the setting sun.

  They dismounted from the seagull and the bird flew swiftly away.

  No words can describe the joy of the king and queen when they saw their daughter again. Maca told her parents all about her escape from the giant's castle and of Hugh's kindness and courage.

  "You are a brave man," said the king, "and I should like to make you one of the chieftains of the kingdom".

  That would be a grat honour," said Hugh, "and nothing would please me better except something which is almost too good to ask for."

  "I know what that is,"said the queen. "It is our daughter's hand in marriage."

  Hugh looked at Maca.

  She placed her hand in his, saying, "As I have already given you my heart, you may now take my hand."

  The happy pair were married amid scenes of great rejoicing and lived happily ever after. 

 

 

[Il racconto riportato stato tratto da: Irish Fairy Tales, Sinead de Valera,   MACMILLAN]

 

 

 

 

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