ran over the Bridge of Blood.
Illustration by Batten, J.D.
Once upon a time in Ireland, "there lived a woman who married a man of high degree and had one daughter. Soon after the birth of the daughter, the husband died. The woman was not long a widow when she married a second time and had two daughters. These two hated their half-sister, thought she was not so wise as another, and nicknamed her Smallhead." Well, this man died when his own eldest girl was fourteen, and the mother began "to pine away. Smallhead was kind to her mother, and the mother was fonder of her eldest daughter than of the other two, who were ashamed of her." These two devised a wicked plot. "One day, while their half-sister was gone, they put the mother in a pot, boiled her, and threw the bones outside. When Smallhead came home, there was no sign of the mother." How she lamented! Yet even though her two horrible sisters did everything they could think of to make Smallhead leave, she would not. At last they decided that they would go, and leave her behind. But she followed them, and begged them to come home, and neighbors saw. Once home again these two vile plotters "settled then to kill Smallhead, so one day they took twenty needles and scattered them outside, in a pile of straw. "We are going to that hill beyond, to stay till evening.' they declared. ' If you have not all the needles that are in that straw outside gathered and on the table before us, we'll have your life." And off they went. Now their sister sat down, "and was crying bitterly when a short, grey cat walked in and spoke to her. 'Why do you cry and lament so?" It asked. "My sisters abuse me and beat me,' answered Smallhead. 'This morning they said they would kill me in the evening unless I had all the needles in the straw outside gathered before then." And the cat said, "Sit down here and dry your tears." Then it went out, and — snap!— before Smallhead knew it, the cat was back with the needles. It told her that it was her mother! And the cat purred, and rubbed against her, telling her that she must look after her sisters no matter what. When her half-sisters came home, "Oh, but were they vexed and angry!" That night, they crept silently away, planning never to return. But Smallhead tracked them, and learned where they were from the villagers. Then she hurried to rescue them because they had taken service in a cottage, and the woman who lived there was really "an old hag, a terrible enchantress." When Smallhead got to the hag's hut, she asked for lodging for the night. Her sisters recognized her, but were too scared to say a word. That night, Smallhead lay awake. She heard the enchantress telling her son that he should kill all three servant girls that night, and that she would mark them by putting ribbons around their necks. That way, he would not confuse them with his own three sisters, who slept in the same bedroom. And when Smallhead heard the witch come in, and felt her tie a ribbon around her neck, she pretended to be deeply asleep. As soon as the woman left, Smallhead removed the ribbons from her neck, and those of her sisters. Quickly, she tied them around the necks of the enchantress' daughters, and led her sisters quietly out of the cottage. They crept through the garden and to the "Bridge of Blood. Whoever had killed a person could not cross the bridge. When the three girls came to the bridge, the two sisters stopped; they could not go a step farther. Smallhead ran across and went back again. 'If I did not know that you killed our mother,' said she, 'I might know it now for this is the Bridge of Blood." Then she carried her sisters over, one at a time. Just as she reached the far side, she heard the witch yelling, "Bad luck to you, Smallhead! I did not know it was you that was in it last evening. You have killed my three daughters.' 'It wasn't I that killed them, but yourself.' said Smallhead." And she and her sisters ran away. She told them, " Go now, and ask for service. Be faithful and do well. You can never go back by the road you came." So the girls went on to a castle, and found work. Smallhead "took lodgings in the house of blacksmith nearby." She asked the man's wife to help her find work at the castle, and soon a job in the kitchen was arranged. Smallhead worked hard, and made friends at the castle. She learned that the King who lived there had two sons. One day, the son who lived at home was right outside the kitchen door. Smallhead boldly asked him why he did not marry. At first he thought her foolish for such a question, but then was glad to confide. "It was because my grandfather bound my father by an oath never to let his oldest son marry until he could get the Sword of Light, and I am afraid that I shall be long without marrying." When Smallhead heard that the sword was hidden in a cottage, where an enchantress lived with her three daughters and one son, she knew what to do. First, she made the prince promise that he would marry her eldest sister if she brought back the sword. Then she bought "a stone weight of salt" and snuck back to the witch's hut. She hid in the fireplace,and when the son was fixing his mother's "stirabout" she slipped the salt in, bit by bit, until it was all in the pot. Then she stole the candles, tipped out the drinking basin and waited. Sure enough, as soon as it was dark the hag started to eat her stew. She soon cried for water, and when the basin was found to be empty, sent her son for more. But the candles were gone! Oh, how the witch's mouth burned! She could not wait for daylight to fetch the water, but gave her son the Sword of Light which she kept hidden, so that he could fill her cup. That's when Smallhead ran out and grabbed it from him, and was all the way back at the Bridge of Blood when he knew it. Of course, the son could not cross. And Smallhead ran all the way back to the castle, and gave the Sword to the King, and he married his eldest son to her sister. Now Smallhead befriended the other prince, and learned that his father would not let him marry until he found The Black Book, which "used to shine and give brighter light than ever the Sword of Light did." So Smallhead told him she would get it, if only he would marry her sister. The promise was made, and now Smallhead gathered a bag of soot. Once again she hid in the witch's cottage, and this time, while the son was fixing her stirabout, she dumped the soot in, bit by bit. Then she dumped the drinking basin out again, and hid. Sure enough, as soon as the hag began to eat, she spat and cursed and demanded that her son fix a new pot. But where was the water! There was nothing for it but for the son to go to the well and draw more. But the lad trembled and cried at the thought of going near the well in the black night, and at last, his mother gave him The Black Book to light his way. No sooner had he set it by the side of the well than Smallhead grabbed it, and ran away. The hag came out and saw what had happened and "she thrust a knife into her son's heart". When the old woman got to the Bridge she yelled, "Oh then! Bad luck to you, Smallhead! I will put a curse on you wherever you go. You have all my children killed, and I a poor, feeble old woman.' 'Bad luck to yourself,' said Smallhead. 'If you had lived an honest life you wouldn't be as you are today." And she ran back to the castle and gave the book to the king, and her other sister married the second prince. A week later, Smallhead went back to the hut, and the witch begged her pardon. She promised to pay her well if the girl would look after her in her old age, now that she had killed all of her own children. So Smallhead took service there, and her duty was to "wait on the hag and look after a large pig that she had. "I am fatting that pig." the hag told her. And one day, the enchantress commanded Smallhead to slaughter the pig, as her sister was coming for a visit. So Smallhead tried, but the pig knocked the kettle over onto Smallhead's bare feet, so she grabbed a switch and struck the beast as hard as she could. " That moment, the pig was a splendid you man." He told her that the witch had enchanted him, and that he would marry her if she could help him escape. Smallhead promised that she would, struck him once more to turn him back into a pig, and then pushed him out the door. That night, when the hag and her sister were asleep, Smallhead hit the pig again and they both turned into doves, and flew away. When they landed in front of the King's castle, and old woman tried to grab them, so they turned themselves into brooms and began sweeping the street. When the people were gone, they regained their forms. But, at the moment they did, the King of Ulster's daughter was passing by, and the prince fell in love with her! He announced that he would marry her, and the King prepared for a feast. That's when Smallhead offered to "amuse the strangers" at the wedding. When the celebration began, she "came forward and raised the window which was forty feet from the ground. She had a small ball of thread in her hand; she tied one end of the thread to the window, threw the ball out and over a wall near the castle; then she passed out the window, walked on the thread and kept time to the music from players that no man could see. All cheered her, and were greatly delighted. 'I can do that!' said the King of Ulster's daughter, and sprang out on the string; but if she did, she fell and broke her neck on the stones below." After her funeral, the King of Munster said," She is not to blame." Well, a year later, "the King got the daughter of the King of Connacht for his son. And as the Connacht people are full of enchantment and witchcraft, the King of Munster called Smallhead and said,' Now show the best trick of any." So, at the proper time, she "threw two grains of wheat on the floor and spoke some magic words. There was a hen and a cock there before her of beautiful plumage. She threw a grain of wheat between them; the hen sprang to eat the wheat, the cock gave her a blow of his bill, the hen drew back, looked at him and said, ' Bad luck to you. You wouldn't do the like of that when I was serving the old hag and you her pig, and I made a man of you and gave you back your own form. " And the King's son suddenly remembered his love for her. Now "Smallhead threw a second grain,and the cock pecked the hen again. 'Oh, you would not do that the day the hag's sister was hunting us, and we two doves." As the third grain of wheat was tossed, "the cock struck the hen, and she said,' You would not do that to me the day I made two heather brooms out of you and myself." And then Smallhead threw the fourth grain of wheat and "the cock pecked the hen a fourth time. 'You would not do that the day you promised not to let any living thing kiss you or kiss anyone yourself but me — you let the hound kiss you and you forgot me." And that's when the whole story became clear again to the prince. "This is my wife. I'll marry no other woman." said he. And the King of Connacht said, "Whose wife will my daughter be?" But the prince just said, "Oh, she will be the wife of the man who will marry her. My son gave his word to this woman before he saw your daughter, and he must keep it.' So Smallhead married the King of Munster's son."
From More Celtic Fairy Tales, Jacobs, J. (1916)
Notes: The tossing of grains of wheat into a circle, and watching to see which chicken pecks first, at which grain of salt, is a form of divination. Learn more about this:Larousse Dictionary of World Folklore