A young man was out walking one day in Erin, leading a stout cart-horse by the bridle. He was thinking of his mother and how poor they were since his father, who was a fisherman, had been drowned at sea, and wondering what he should do to earn a living for both of them. Suddenly a hand was laid on his shoulder, and a voice said to him:
‘Will you sell me your horse, son of the fisherman?’ and looking up he beheld a man standing in the road with a gun in his hand, a falcon on his shoulder, and a dog by his side.
‘What will you give me for my horse?’ asked the youth. ‘Will you give me your gun, and your dog, and your falcon?’
‘I will give them,’ answered the man, and he took the horse, and the youth took the gun and the dog and the falcon, and went home with them. But when his mother heard what he had done she was very angry, and beat him with a stick which she had in her hand.
‘That will teach you to sell my property,’ said she, when her arm was quite tired, but Ian her son answered her nothing, and went off to his bed, for he was very sore.
That night he rose softly, and left the house carrying the gun with him. ‘I will not stay here to be beaten,’ thought he, and he walked and he walked and he walked, till it was day again, and he was hungry and looked about him to see if he could get anything to eat. Not very far off was a farm-house, so he went there, and knocked at the door, and the farmer and his wife begged him to come in, and share their breakfast.
‘Ah, you have a gun,’ said the farmer as the young man placed it in a corner. ‘That is well, for a deer comes every evening to eat my corn, and I cannot catch it. It is fortune that has sent you to me.’
‘I will gladly remain and shoot the deer for you,’ replied the youth, and that night he hid himself and watched till the deer came to the cornfield; then he lifted his gun to his shoulder and was just going to pull the trigger, when, behold! instead of a deer, a woman with long black hair was standing there. At this sight his gun almost dropped from his hand in surprise, but as he looked, there was the deer eating the corn again. And thrice this happened, till the deer ran away over the moor, and the young man after her.
On they went, on and on and one, till they reached a cottage which was thatched with heather. With a bound the deer sprang on the roof, and lay down where none could see her, but as she did so she called out, ‘Go in, fisher’s son, and eat and drink while you may.’ So he entered and found food and wine on the table, but no man, for the house belonged to some robbers, who were still away at their wicked business.
After Ian, the fisher’s son, had eaten all he wanted, he hid himself behind a great cask, and very soon he heard a noise, as of men coming through the heather, and the small twigs snapping under their feet. From his dark corner he could see into the room, and he counted four and twenty of them, all big, cross- looking men.
‘Some one has been eating our dinner,’ cried they, ‘and there was hardly enough for ourselves.’
‘It is the man who is lying under the cask,’ answered the leader. ‘Go and kill him, and then come and eat your food and sleep, for we must be off betimes in the morning.’
So four of them killed the fisher’s son and left him, and then went to bed.
By sunrise they were all out of the house, for they had far to go. And when they had disappeared the deer came off the roof, to where the dead man lay, and she shook her head over him, and wax fell from her ear, and he jumped up as well as ever.
‘Trust me and eat as you did before, and no harm shall happen to you,’ said she. So Ian ate and drank, and fell sound asleep under the cask. In the evening the robbers arrived very tired, and crosser than they had been yesterday, for their luck had turned and they had brought back scarcely anything.
‘Someone has eaten our dinner again,’ cried they.
‘It is the man under the barrel,’ answered the captain. ‘Let four of you go and kill him, but first slay the other four who pretended to kill him last night and didn’t because he is still alive.’
Then Ian was killed a second time, and after the rest of the robbers had eaten, they lay down and slept till morning.
No sooner were their faces touched with the sun’s rays than they were up and off. Then the deer entered and dropped the healing wax on the dead man, and he was as well as ever. By this time he did not mind what befell him, so sure was he that the deer would take care of him, and in the evening that which had happened before happened again–the four robbers were put to death and the fisher’s son also, but because there was no food left for them to eat, they were nearly mad with rage, and began to quarrel. From quarrelling they went on to fighting, and fought so hard that by and bye they were all stretched dead on the floor.
Then the deer entered, and the fisher’s son was restored to life, and bidding him follow her, she ran on to a little white cottage where dwelt an old woman and her son, who was thin and dark.
‘Here I must leave you,’ said the deer, ‘but to-morrow meet me at midday in the church that is yonder.’ And jumping across the stream, she vanished into a wood.
Next day he set out for the church, but the old woman of the cottage had gone before him, and had stuck an enchanted stick called ‘the spike of hurt’ in a crack of the door, so that he would brush against it as he stepped across the threshold. Suddenly he felt so sleepy that he could not stand up, and throwing himself on the ground he sank into a deep slumber, not knowing that the dark lad was watching him. Nothing could waken him, not even the sound of sweetest music, nor the touch of a lady who bent over him. A sad look came on her face, as she saw it was no use, and at last she gave it up, and lifting his arm, wrote her name across the side– ‘the daughter of the king of the town under the waves.’
‘I will come to-morrow,’ she whispered, though he could not hear her, and she went sorrowfully away.
Then he awoke, and the dark lad told him what had befallen him, and he was very grieved. But the dark lad did not tell him of the name that was written underneath his arm.
On the following morning the fisher’s son again went to the church, determined that he would not go to sleep, whatever happened. But in his hurry to enter he touched with his hand the spike of hurt, and sank down where he stood, wrapped in slumber. A second time the air was filled with music, and the lady came in, stepping softly, but though she laid his head on her knee, and combed his hair with a golden comb, his eyes opened not. Then she burst into tears, and placing a beautifully wrought box in his pocket she went her way.
The next day the same thing befell the fisher’s son, and this time the lady wept more bitterly than before, for she said it was the last chance, and she would never be allowed to come any more, for home she must go.
As soon as the lady had departed the fisher’s son awoke, and the dark lad told him of her visit, and how he would never see her as long as he lived. At this the fisher’s son felt the cold creeping up to his heart, yet he knew the fault had not been his that sleep had overtaken him.
‘I will search the whole world through till I find her,’ cried he, and the dark lad laughed as he heard him. But the fisher’s son took no heed, and off he went, following the sun day after day, till his shoes were in holes and his feet were sore from the journey. Nought did he see but the birds that made their nests in the trees, not so much as a goat or a rabbit. On and on and on he went, till suddenly he came upon a little house, with a woman standing outside it.
‘All hail, fisher’s son!’ said she. ‘I know what you are seeking; enter in and rest and eat, and to-morrow I will give you what help I can, and send you on your way.’
Gladly did Ian the fisher’s son accept her offer, and all that day he rested, and the woman gave him ointment to put on his feet, which healed his sores. At daybreak he got up, ready to be gone, and the woman bade him farewell, saying:
‘I have a sister who dwells on the road which you must travel. It is a long road, and it would take you a year and a day to reach it, but put on these old brown shoes with holes all over them, and you will be there before you know it. Then shake them off, and turn their toes to the known, and their heels to the unknown, and they will come home of themselves.’
The fisher’s son did as the woman told him, and everything happened just as she had said. But at parting the second sister said to him, as she gave him another pair of shoes:
‘Go to my third sister, for she has a son who is keeper of the birds of the air, and sends them to sleep when night comes. He is very wise, and perhaps he can help you.’
Then the young man thanked her, and went to the third sister.
The third sister was very kind, but had no counsel to give him, so he ate and drank and waited till her son came home, after he had sent all the birds to sleep. He thought a long while after his mother had told him the young man’s story, and at last he said that he was hungry, and the cow must be killed, as he wanted some supper. So the cow was killed and the meat cooked, and a bag made of its red skin.
‘Now get into the bag,’ bade the son, and the young man got in and took his gun with him, but the dog and the falcon he left outside. The keeper of the birds drew the string at the top of the bag, and left it to finish his supper, when in flew an eagle through the open door, and picked the bag up in her claws and carried it through the air to an island. There was nothing to eat on the island, and the fisher’s son thought he would die of food, when he remembered the box that the lady had put in his pocket. He opened the lid, and three tiny little birds flew out, and flapping their wings they asked,
‘Good master, is there anything we can do for thee?’
‘Bear me to the kingdom of the king under the waves,’ he answered, and one little bird flew on to his head, and the others perched on each of his shoulders, and he shut his eyes, and in a moment there he was in the country under the sea. Then the birds flew away, and the young man looked about him, his heart beating fast at the thought that here dwelt the lady whom he had sought all the world over.
He walked on through the streets, and presently he reached the house of a weaver who was standing at his door, resting from his work.
‘You are a stranger here, that is plain,’ said the weaver, ‘but come in, and I will give you food and drink.’ And the young man was glad, for he knew not where to go, and they sat and talked till it grew late.
‘Stay with me, I pray, for I love company and am lonely,’ observed the weaver at last, and he pointed to a bed in a corner, where the fisher’s son threw himself, and slept till dawn.
‘There is to be a horse-race in the town to-day,’ remarked the weaver, ‘and the winner is to have the king’s daughter to wife.’ The young man trembled with excitement at the news, and his voice shook as he answered:
‘That will be a prize indeed, I should like to see the race.’
‘Oh, that is quite easy–anyone can go,’ replied the weaver. ‘I would take you myself, but I have promised to weave this cloth for the king.’
‘That is a pity,’ returned the young man politely, but in his heart he rejoiced, for he wished to be alone.
Leaving the house, he entered a grove of trees which stood behind, and took the box from his pocket. He raised the lid, and out flew the three little birds.
‘Good master, what shall we do for thee?’ asked they, and he answered, ‘Bring me the finest horse that ever was seen, and the grandest dress, and glass shoes.’
‘They are here, master,’ said the birds, and so they were, and never had the young man seen anything so splendid.
Mounting the horse he rode into the ground where the horses were assembling for the great race, and took his place among them. Many good beasts were there which had won many races, but the horse of the fisher’s son left them all behind, and he was first at the winning post. The king’s daughter waited for him in vain to claim his prize, for he went back to the wood, and got off his horse, and put on his old clothes, and bade the box place some gold in his pockets. After that he went back to the weaver’s house, and told him that the gold had been given him by the man who had won the race, and that the weaver might have it for his kindness to him.
Now as nobody had appeared to demand the hand of the princess, the king ordered another race to be run, and the fisher’s son rode into the field still more splendidly dressed than he was before, and easily distanced everybody else. But again he left the prize unclaimed, and so it happened on the third day, when it seemed as if all the people in the kingdom were gathered to see the race, for they were filled with curiosity to know who the winner could be.
‘If he will not come of his own free will, he must be brought,’ said the king, and the messengers who had seen the face of the victor were sent to seek him in every street of the town. This took many days, and when at last they found the young man in the weaver’s cottage, he was so dirty and ugly and had such a strange appearance, that they declared he could not be the winner they had been searching for, but a wicked robber who had murdered ever so many people, but had always managed to escape.
‘Yes, it must be the robber,’ said the king, when the fisher’s son was led into his presence; ‘build a gallows at once and hang him in the sight of all my subjects, that they may behold him suffer the punishment of his crimes.’
So the gallows was built upon a high platform, and the fisher’s son mounted the steps up to it, and turned at the top to make the speech that was expected from every doomed man, innocent or guilt. As he spoke he happened to raise his arm, and the king’s daughter, who was there at her father’s side, saw the name which she had written under it. With a shriek she sprang from her seat, and the eyes of the spectators were turned towards her.
‘Stop! stop!’ she cried, hardly knowing what she said. ‘If that man is hanged there is not a soul in the kingdom but shall die also.’ And running up to where the fisher’s son was standing, she took him by the hand, saying,
‘Father, this is no robber or murderer, but the victor in the three races, and he loosed the spells that were laid upon me.’
Then, without waiting for a reply, she conducted him into the palace, and he bathed in a marble bath, and all the dirt that the fairies had put upon him disappeared like magic, and when he had dressed himself in the fine garments the princess had sent to him, he looked a match for any king’s daughter in Erin. He went down into the great hall where she was awaiting him, and they had much to tell each other but little time to tell it in, for the king her father, and the princes who were visiting him, and all the people of the kingdom were still in their places expecting her return.
‘How did you find me out?’ she whispered as they went down the passage.
‘The birds in the box told me,’ answered he, but he could say no more, as they stepped out into the open space that was crowded with people. There the princes stopped.
‘O kings!’ she said, turning towards them, ‘if one of you were killed to-day, the rest would fly; but this man put his trust in me, and had his head cut off three times. Because he has done this, I will marry him rather than one of you, who have come hither to wed me, for many kings here sought to free me from the spells, but none could do it save Ian the fisher’s son.’