The Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts, Chapter 06
The Ballad of Saint Athracta's Stags
ATHRACTA was a maiden fair, A Prince's daughter she; Down to her feet fell golden hair, A wondrous sight to see.
And all amid this golden shower, The sweetest rosebud face Blossomed like a dew-fed flower Upon a stem of grace.
Yet loved she not the court of kings, But in the wild would be, With but one maid her hair to braid And bear her company.
So, near Lough Cara's silver sheen, They built of turf and bark A hut wherein from springtide green They dwelt through winter's dark.
On seven cross-roads the hut was made, That they might offer rest To pilgrims by the night waylaid, And strangers hunger-pressed.
To draw them water from the lake, To till their little soil, Two ancient horses did they take, Outworn for other toil.
Once gallant chargers these had been, Keen-eyed and prancing gay, Who tourneys brave and wars had seen, All decked in bright array.
But now their age in peace was spent By kind Athracta's side; No gallant wars, no tournament, And yet they served with pride.
Their neighbors in the forest glades Were stately, antlered deer, Nor of the two most holy maids Had these, their brothers, fear.
So dwelt the maidens there alone For many months and years, The doings of the world unknown, Its wars, its woes, its tears.
But strife was stirring in the land, And kings must castles build, To guard them from the foeman's hand With fire and weapon filled.
And so the King's most stern decree Went forth upon a day,— "My serfs must build a fort for me, Each must his service pay.
"Each man and maiden must fulfill In this great work his share; It is the King of Connaught's will, Let tardy hands beware!"
Athracta sent unto the King: "We be but maidens twain, My Liege, we cannot do this thing, I beg we may refrain."
But sternly sent he back the word,— "Ye maids must do your part." He was a hard and cruel lord, No pity touched his heart.
So forth they fared into the wood, Athracta with her maid, To fell the timber as they could, Without of men for aid.
Heavy the axe and full of pain Each weak and skill-less stroke, Yet strove the maids again, again, With walnut, beech, and oak.
Until upon the wagon cast By which the horses stood, Their bleeding hands had piled at last The goodly logs of wood.
But when Athracta saw the steeds Straining with feeble will To draw the heavy load, it needs Must make her eyes to fill.
Athracta spoke all piteously,— "Alack! poor broken things, Must you, too, bear your painful share To save the pride of Kings?
"How can I ease your burden, how, My faithful servants still? My little hands are bleeding now With toil beyond their skill."
"O mistress dear," then spoke her maid, "These be but feeble nags; How would the King's pride be dismayed If you could harness Stags!"
"Thou sayest well," Athracta vowed. "Come hither, Stags!" she cried, And lo! the thud of hoofs grew loud Ere yet the echo died.
"Come hither, Stags!" O'er green and glade The silver summons thrilled, And soon the space about the maid With antlered kings was filled.
Through moss and fern and tangled trees Twelve panting creatures broke, And bending low their stately knees They knelt beneath the yoke.
Now harnessed in the horses' stead The great Stags strained their best, To please the Lady at their head And follow her behest.
But lo! a vexing thing then happed; Scarce had they gained the road, The rusty chains of iron snapped Beneath the heavy load.
Yet paused she not in weak despair, This noble-hearted maid, But loosed her heavy golden hair Out from its double braid.
She loosed her locks so wonder-bright And shook them to the breeze;— It seemed a beam of yellow light Had sifted through the trees.
Then from amid this golden net She plucked some silken strands, And where the chains had first been set She bound them with her hands.
She tied the ends against the strain, And knotted them with care, Then bade the Stags pull once again Upon the ropes of hair.
And lo! the slender harness held, And lo! the antlered steeds Went forth to prove their generous love Lent to a maiden's needs.
Straight to the King her gift they bore To fill his heart with shame; And her true maiden went before To show him whence they came.
Now when the King this wonder saw He turned all pale and red, "She hath a greater power than law," He vowed, and bowed his head.
"She hath a greater power than I, Whose slaves the wild stags be, And golden hair like this might snare E'en the wild heart of me.
"No need to her of castles stout, No need of moat or tower, With antlered guardians about Her lonely wild-wood bower.
"No need to her of watch or ward, With friends like these at hand; Bid her from me henceforth to be Queen of her little land.
"Henceforth she is no serf of mine, Nor subject to my throne; Where'er her golden hair may shine That is her realm alone."
So where the seven cross-roads met Still dwelt the holy maid, Her hut a place of refuge set For all who shelter prayed.
Her realm a holy place of peace, Where, with the ancient nags, Lived out their days in pleasant ways Athracta's faithful Stags.