When the young king of Easaidh Ruadh came into his kingdom, the first thing he thought of was how he could amuse himself best. The sports that all his life had pleased him best suddenly seemed to have grown dull, and he wanted to do something he had never done before. At last his face brightened.
‘I know!’ he said. ‘I will go and play a game with the Gruagach.’ Now the Gruagach was a kind of wicked fairy, with long curly brown hair, and his house was not very far from the king’s house.
But though the king was young and eager, he was also prudent, and his father had told him on his deathbed to be very careful in his dealings with the ‘good people,’ as the fairies were called. Therefore before going to the Gruagach the king sought out a wise man of the countryside.
‘I am wanting to play a game with the curly-haired Gruagach,’ said he.
‘Are you, indeed?’ replied the wizard. ‘If you will take my counsel, you will play with someone else.’
‘No; I will play with the Gruagach,’ persisted the king.
‘Well, if you must, you must, I suppose,’ answered the wizard; ‘but if you win that game, ask as a prize the ugly crop-headed girl that stands behind the door.’
‘I will,’ said the king.
So before the sun rose he got up and went to the house of the Gruagach, who was sitting outside.
‘O king, what has brought you here to-day?’ asked the Gruagach. ‘But right welcome you are, and more welcome will you be still if you will play a game with me.’
‘That is just what I want,’ said the king, and they played; and sometimes it seemed as if one would win, and sometimes the other, but in the end it was the king who was the winner.
‘And what is the prize that you will choose?’ inquired the Gruagach.
‘The ugly crop-headed girl that stands behind the door,’ replied the king.
‘Why, there are twenty others in the house, and each fairer than she!’ exclaimed the Gruagach.
‘Fairer they may be, but it is she whom I wish for my wife, and none other,’ and the Gruagach saw that the king’s mind was set upon her, so he entered his house, and bade all the maidens in it come out one by one, and pass before the king.
One by one they came; tall and short, dark and fair, plump and thin, and each said ‘I am she whom you want. You will be foolish indeed if you do not take me.’
But he took none of them, neither short nor tall, dark nor fair, plump nor thin, till at the last the crop-headed girl came out.
‘This is mine,’ said the king, though she was so ugly that most men would have turned from her. ‘We will be married at once, and I will carry you home.’ And married they were, and they set forth across a meadow to the king’s house. As they went, the bride stooped and picked a sprig of shamrock, which grew amongst the grass, and when she stood upright again her ugliness had all gone, and the most beautiful woman that ever was seen stood by the king’s side.
The next day, before the sun rose, the king sprang from his bed, and told his wife he must have another game with the Gruagach.
‘If my father loses that game, and you win it,’ said she, ‘accept nothing for your prize but the shaggy young horse with the stick saddle.’
‘I will do that,’ answered the king, and he went.
‘Does your bride please you?’ asked the Gruagach, who was standing at his own door.
‘Ah! does she not!’ answered the king quickly. ‘Otherwise I should be hard indeed to please. But will you play a game to- day?’
‘I will,’ replied the Gruagach, and they played, and sometimes it seemed as if one would win, and sometimes the other, but in the end the king was the winner.