14. The Palace of the Little Cat

AFTER ROWING for a long time, their store of apples failed them, and again they had nothing to eat or drink. They baked under a hot and merciless sun, and the sea gave forth an evil stench, which filled their mouths and noses, so that it was hard to breathe.

They were mightily relieved when at last a small island with a large palace on it came into view. As they got closer, they could see that around the palace was a wall, white all over, without any marks or flaws, as if it had been perfectly carved out of a single vast rock of pure chalk. Where it faced the sea, the wall was so high that it seemed to reach the clouds.

The gate in this outer wall was open. Máel Dúin and his men entered, and found that there were many fine houses, all as white as snow, arranged around the ramparts of the wall. They were all facing inwards, so that they enclosed a central court, onto which all the houses opened.

They entered the largest and finest of the houses, and went through several rooms, without meeting any one. But on reaching the largest room, they saw a small cat, playing among four square marble pillars, which stood arranged in a row. The cat was leaping continually from the top of one pillar to the top of another.

When the men entered the room, the cat looked at them intently for a moment, but then returned to its play, and took no further notice of them.
Looking around the room, they saw three rows of precious jewels arranged round the walls, reaching from one door to the other. The first was a row of brooches of gold and silver, with their pins fixed in the wall, and their heads outwards. The second was a row of torques of gold and silver, each as big as the hoop of a cask. The third was a row of great swords, with ornate hilts of gold and silver.

Around the room were placed a number of couches, all pure white and richly ornamented. Abundant food of various kinds was spread on tables, among which was a boiled ox and a roast hog; and there were many large drinking-horns, full of good, strong ale.

“Is it for us that this food has been prepared?” Máel Dúin asked the cat.
The cat, on hearing the question, ceased its playing, and looked at him calmly for a moment; then it returned to its play. So Máel Dúin told his people that the dinner was indeed meant for them, and they all sat down, and ate and drank until they were satisfied, after which they rested, and slept on the couches.

When they awoke, they poured what was left of the ale into one vessel; and they gathered the remnants of the food to take away with them.

As they were about to go, Máel Dúin’s eldest foster brother asked him: “Shall I bring one of those golden torques?”

“Do not,” said Máel Dúin. “It is good that we have been given food and rest. Bring nothing away, for it is certain that this house is not left without someone to guard it.”

The foster brother, however, ignored Máel Dúin’s advice, and took down one of the torques and brought it away. But the cat followed him, and overtook him in the middle of the court, and, suddenly springing on him like a blazing, fiery arrow, passed through his body, and burned him at once into a heap of ashes.

The cat then returned to the room, and, leaping up on one of the pillars, sat quietly upon it, impassively, as if nothing had happened.

Máel Dúin turned back, bringing the torque with him, and, approaching the cat, he spoke some soothing words. Then he put the torque back in the place from which it had been taken.

Having done this, he collected the ashes of his foster brother, and, bringing them to the shore, cast them into the sea.

Then they all then went on board the curragh, and they continued their voyage, grieving for their lost companion, but at the same time thanking God for His many mercies to them.


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