The next day the King's Son rode abroad and where he went that day he saw no man nor woman nor living creature in the land around;. But coming back he saw a falcon sailing in the air above. He rode on and the falcon sailed above, never rising high in the air, and never swooping down. The King's Son fitted an arrow to his bow and shot at the falcon. Immediately it rose in the air and flew swiftly away, but a feather from it fell before him. The King's Son picked the feather up. It was a blue feather. Then the King's Son thought of Fedelma's falcon--of the bird that flew above them when they rode across the Meadows of Brightness. It might be Fedelma's falcon, the one he had shot at, and it might have come to show him the way to the Land of Mist. But the falcon was not to be seen now.
He did not go amongst the strangers in his father's Castle that evening; but he stood with Art who was watching the herdsmen drive the cattle into the byres. And Art after a while said, "I will tell you more about the coming of the King of the Cats into King Connal's Dominion. And as before I say
"To your father's Son in all truth be it told"--
The King of the Cats waited on the branch of the tree until the moon was in the sky like a roast duck on a dish of gold, and still neither retainer, vassal nor subject came to do him service. He was vexed, I tell you, at the want of respect shown him.
This was the reason why none of his subjects came to him for such a long time: The man and woman he had spoken to went into their house and did not say a word about the King of the Cats until they had eaten their supper. Then when the man had smoked his second pipe, he said to the woman: "That was a wonderful thing that happened to us to-day. A cat to walk up to two Christians and say to them, 'Tell the ashy pet in your chimney corner at home that the King of the Cats has come to see him.'"
No sooner were the words said than the lean, gray, ash-covered cat that lay on the hearthstone sprang on the back of the man's chair.
"I will say this," said the man; "it's a bad time when two Christians like ourselves are stopped on their way back from the market and ordered -ordered, no less--to give a message to one's own cat lying on one's own hearthstone."
"By my fur and daws, you're a long time coming to his message," said the cat on the back of the chair; "what was it, anyway?"
"The King of the Cats has come to Ireland to see you," said the man, very much surprised.
"It's a wonder you told it at all," said the cat, going to the door. "And where did you see His Majesty?"
"You shouldn't have spoken," said the man's wife.
"And how did I know a cat could understand?" said the man.
"When you have done talking amongst yourselves," said the cat, "would you tell me where you met His Majesty?"
"Nothing will I tell you," said the man, "until I hear your own name from you."
"My name," said the cat, "is Quick-to-Grab, and well you should know it."
"Not a word will we tell you," said the woman, "until we hear what the King of the Cats is doing in Ireland. Is he bringing wars and rebellions into the country?"
"Wars and rebellions,--no, ma'am," said Quick-to-Grab, "but deliverance from oppression. Why are the cats of the country lean and lazy and covered with ashes? It is because the cat that goes outside the house in the sunlight, to hunt or to play, is made to suffer with the loss of an eye."
"And who makes them suffer with the loss of an eye?" said the woman. "One whose reign is nearly over now," said Quick- to-Grab. "But tell me where you saw His Majesty?"
"No," said the man. "No," said the woman, "for we don't like your impertinence. Back with you to the hearthstone, and watch the mouse-hole for us."
Quick-to-Grab walked straight out of the door.
"May no prosperity come to this house," said he, "for denying me when I asked where the King of the Cats was pleased to speak to you."
But he put his ear to the door when he went outside and he heard the woman say,--
"The horse will tell him that we saw the King of the Cats a mile this side of the Giant's Causeway." (That was a mistake. The horse could not have told it at all, because horses never know the language that is spoken in houses--only cats know it fully and dogs know a little of it.
Quick-to-Grab now knew where the King of the Cats might be found. He went creeping by hedges, loping across fields, bounding through woods, until he came under the branch in the forest where the King of the Cats rested, his whiskers standing round his face the breadth of a dinner-dish.
When he came-under the branch Quick-to-Grab mewed a little in Egyptian, which is the ceremonial language of the Cats. The King of the Cats came to the end of the branch.
"Who are you, vassal?" said he in Phoenician.
"A humble retainer of my lord," said Quick-to-Grab in High-Pictish (this is a language very suitable to cats but it is only their historians who now use it).
They continued their conversation in Irish.
"What sign shall I show the others that will make them know you are the King of the Cats?" said Quick-to-Grab.
The King of the Cats chased up the tree and pulled down heavy branches. "There is a sign of my royal prowess," said he.
"It's a good sign," said Quick-to-Grab. They were about to talk again when Quick-to-Grab put down his tail and ran up another tree greatly frightened.
"What ails you?" said the King of the Cats. "Can you not stay still while you are speaking to your lord and master?"
"Old-fellow Badger is coming this way," said Quick-to-Grab, "and when he puts his teeth in one he never lets go."
Without saying a word the King of the Cats jumped down from the tree. Old-fellow Badger was coming through the glade. When he saw the King of the Cats crouching there he stopped and bared his terrible teeth. The King of the Cats bent himself to spring. Then Old-fellow Badger turned round and went lumbering back.
"Oh, by my claws and fur," said Quick-to-Grab, "you are the real King of the Cats. Let me be your Councillor. Let me advise your Majesty in the times that will be so difficult for your subjects and yourself. Know that the Cats of Ireland are impoverished and oppressed. They are under a terrible tyranny."
"Who oppresses my vassals, retainers and subjects?" said the King of the Cats.
"The Eagle-Emperor. He has made a law that no cat may leave a man's house as long as the birds (he makes an exception in the case of owls) have any business abroad."
"I will tear him to pieces," said the King of the Cats. "How can I reach him?"
"No cat has thought of reaching him," said Quick-to-Grab, "they only think of keeping out of his way. Now let me advise your Majesty. None of our enemies must know that you have come into this country. You must appear as a common cat."
"What, me?" said the King of the Cats.
"Yes, your Majesty, for the sake of the deliverance of your subjects you will have to appear as a common cat."
"And be submissive and eat scraps?"
"That will be only in the daytime," said Quick-to-Grab, "in the night-time you will have your court and your feasts."
"At least, let the place I stay in be no hovel," said the King of the Cats. "I shall refuse to go into a house where there are washing days--damp clothes before a fire and all that."
"I shall use my best diplomacy to safeguard your comfort and dignity," said Quick-to-Grab, "please invest me as your Prime Minister."
The King of the Cats invested Quick-to-Grab by biting the fur round his neck. Then the King and his Prime Minister parted. The King of the Cats took up quarters for a day or two in a round tower. Quick-to-Grab made a journey through the country-side. He went into every house and whispered a word to every cat that was there, and whether the cat was watching a mouse-hole, or chasing crickets, or playing with kittens, when he or she heard that word they sat up and considered.