31. The Island of the Women


THE NEXT ISLAND they came to was a large; on one side rose a lofty, smooth, heath-clad mountain. All the rest of the island was a grassy plain.

Near the sea-shore stood a great high palace, adorned with carvings and precious stones, and strongly fortified with a high wall all around.

They landed on the shore, and went towards the palace, where they sat to rest on the bench before the gateway leading through the outer wall. Looking in through the open door, they saw seventeen beautiful young maidens in the court.

After they had sat for some time, a rider appeared at a distance, coming swiftly towards the palace; and on a near approach, the travellers saw that it was a young woman, who was beautiful, and richly dressed. She wore a blue, rustling silk head-dress, a silver-fringed purple cloak hung from her shoulders. Her gloves were embroidered with gold thread, and her feet were laced becomingly in scarlet sandals. One of the maidens came out and held her horse, while she dismounted and entered the palace; and soon after she had gone in, another of the maidens came towards Máel Dúin and his companions.

“You are welcome to this island,” she said. “Come into the palace; the queen has sent me to invite you, and is waiting to receive you.”

They followed the maiden into the palace. The queen welcomed them, and received them kindly. Then, leading them into a large hall in which a great dinner was laid out, she invited them to sit down and eat.

A dish of choice food and a crystal goblet of wine were placed before Máel Dúin, and a single dish and a single drinking-bowl, with three serves of meat and drink, were laid before each three of his companions, with each man being seated beside one of the maidens.

Having eaten and drunk until they were satisfied, they went to sleep, each man with a woman, and Máel Dúin with the queen, on soft couches.

The next morning, the queen addressed Máel Dúin and his companions.

“Stay now in this country, and do not go wandering any longer over the wide ocean, from island to island. Here, old age or sickness shall never come upon you. You shall be always as young as you are at present, and you shall live forever a life of ease and pleasure.”

“Please, tell us,” said Máel Dúin, “how do you live here?”

“That is not a hard question,” answered the queen. “The good king who formerly ruled over this island was my husband, and these young maidens that you see are our children. He died after a long reign, and as he left no son, I now reign. And every day I go to the Great Plain, to administer justice and to decide causes among my people.”

“Will you go there today?” Máel Dúin asked.

“I must go now,” she replied. “I must give judgments among my people; but as to you, you can all stay in my palace until I return in the evening, and you need not trouble yourselves with any labour or care.”

And so they remained there not just for the day, but for the three months of winter. And these three months appeared to Máel Dúin’s companions as long as three years, and eventually, they began to have an earnest desire to return to their native land. At the end of that time, one of them said to Máel Dúin:

“We have been a long time here; why do we not return to our own country?”

“What you say is neither good nor sensible,” answered Máel Dúin, “for we shall not find in our own country anything better than we have here.”

But this did not satisfy his companions, and they began to murmur loudly.

“It is quite clear,” they said, “that Máel Dúin loves the queen of this island; and as this is so, let him stay here; but as for us, we will return to our own country.”

Máel Dúin, however, would not stay without them, so he told them that he would go away with them.

Now, on a certain day, not long afterwards, as soon as the queen had gone to the Great Plain to administer justice, as was her daily custom, they got their curragh ready, and put out to sea.

They had not sailed far from land when the queen came riding towards the shore; and, seeing how matters stood, she went into the palace and soon returned with a ball of thread in her hand.

Walking down to the water’s edge, she flung the ball after the curragh, but held the end of the thread in her hand. Máel Dúin caught the ball as it was passing, and it clung to his hand; and the queen, pulling the thread towards her, drew back .the curragh to the very spot from which they had set out from the harbour.

When they had landed, she made them promise that if ever this happened again, someone would always stand up in the boat and catch the ball.
So the voyagers stayed on the island, much against their will, for three months more. For every time they attempted to escape, the queen brought them back by the same means as she had done at first, with Máel Dúin always catching the ball.

At the end of the three months, the men held council, and this is what they said:

“We know now that Máel Dúin does not wish to leave the island; for he loves this queen very much, and he catches the ball whenever we try to escape, in order that we may be brought back to the palace.”

Máel Dúin replied, “Then let some one else catch the ball next time, and let us see whether it will cling to his hand as it does to mine.”

They agreed to this, and at the next opportunity, they again put off towards the open sea. The queen arrived, as usual, before they had gone very far, and flung the ball after them, as before.

Another man of the crew caught it, and it clung as firmly to his hand as it had to Máel Dúin’s, and the queen began to draw the curragh towards the shore. But Diuran, drawing his sword, cut off the man’s hand, and it fell with the ball into the sea, and so the men gladly leaned into their oars, the curragh sped away from the island.

When the queen saw this, she began to weep and lament, wringing her hands and tearing her hair with grief; and her maidens also began to weep and cry aloud and clap their hands, so that the whole palace, and the whole island, was full to the brim of grief and lamentation.

But none the less did the men bend to their oars, and the curragh sailed away; and it was in this manner that the voyagers finally made good their escape from the island.

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