Once, long ago, there lived a princess in the west of Ireland. She was tall and beautiful, but she was also wise and good. Her name was Fiona. Her father was a widower and so doted on his only child, who grew to resemble her mother more every day. He indulged her every wish, and if she were not good-hearted, she would have become extremely spoiled.
When she was grown, word of her beauty spread far and wide, and men came to seek her hand in marriage. She sent each one away, telling her father that she wished to marry for love. And always, her father nodded and smiled, well content to keep her with him a little longer.
Now, in the spring, a messenger came from the High King at Tara to ask for her hand. The High King was a young man, not much older than Fiona, new come to his throne. By all accounts, he was handsome and good. But though Fiona recieved the messenger graciously, she nevertheless refused the offer.
Fiona’s father asked her why she had refused. “I will not marry a man I’ve never met and do not love,” she replied, calmly as always.
“He is the High King,” her father protested.
“I still do not love him,” Fiona replied.
For the first time ever, Fiona’s father grew angry with her. It was one thing to refuse a knight or a prince, but to refuse the High King of all Ireland went beyond what even Fiona would be allowed. He declared that he would summon every nobleman in Ireland, and Fiona would choose a husband from among them.
On a bright June day, two weeks before Midsummer, a great many nobleman of all ranks had gathered, including the High King’s messenger. Fiona’s father went down the line to greet them all, and, at the end of the line, found a group of beggars pushing one young man into line. He asked them who they were and what they were doing. The young man told him that he was Sean, King of the Beggars, and that they felt he was as eligible as any to try for Fiona’s hand. Fiona’s father laughed, but agreed that was fair.
Fiona herself greeted each man, but the more she met, the more her heart sank within her. She did not see any man who she could really love.
Then she came to Sean. As he took her hand to greet her, she truly looked at him, and her sharp eyes saw what many would have missed. Sean might be the most tattered among the beggars, but Fiona saw that he cared for the others before himself, and she saw how the others deferred to him; no king would ever get more respect. She saw too the clear way he met her gaze, and the sincerity in his brown eyes.
SHe smiled. Here was her choice, and so she said. Her father wasn’t happy, but he had set the terms, and she had complied.
It was Sean who stopped her. “Are you certain, Fiona?” he asked. “The life of a wanderer isn’t easy.”
“I know that,” she replied. “I do not care.”
“You’ve never traveled the road our way. It’s easy for you to say that now.”
But Fiona would not be swayed, and finally Sean looked up at the sky. “We travel to Tara for the High King’s wedding on Midsummer Day, a fortnight’s travel. Come with us. If you wish to leave then, you may. If you still wish to marry though, we will that day.”
Those two weeks were a learning experience for Fiona. She had never known what it was to be truly hungry or how it felt to be bone-tired and to keep going on. And sometimes, she wondered if this was worth it. But then she would see Sean smile at her or he would put his hand on her elbow or back to guide her, and she stopped wondering. And every night when she lay down, Sean was beside her.
Despite the hardships, the two weeks passed quickly, and the beggars were at Tara on Midsummer’s Day. Fiona looked around eagerly, for she had never seen Tara.
As they walked towards the castle where the wedding was to be held, they passed servants polishing fine carriages and grooming the most beautiful horses Fiona had ever seen.
“Who are all these for?” one of the beggars asked the servants.
“These are gifts, for the High King’s bride,” they replied.
Sean looked at Fiona, who had stopped to take a pebble out of her shoe. “This could be yours, Fiona.”
She looked at him and smiled. “I do not want it, Sean.”
They walked a little farther and came upone servants laying out a huge feast, with every good thing. Upon asking, the servants told them that this was for the High King’s bride. Sean looked at Fiona, who was splitting a hunk of bread, the first food of the day, with another beggar. “It’s not too late, Fiona.”
“What use is all this without love?” she replied firmly.
They continued on a little farther, and now they saw servants laying out fine clothes and jewels. And again, when asked, the servants said that these were for the High King’s new bride.
Fiona looked at Sean, and before he could say anything, she said, “I pity her, to be marrying a man she has never met and does not love.”
Sean could not help but smile back, for Fiona seemed not to notice that her own dress was tattered and torn.
Finally the stood in the back of the hall where the wedding was to take place. Heralds came out and blew a blast on their trumpets. “Let Princess Fiona come forward to marry the High King!”
Sean looked at Fiona and she met his gaze. “I won’t.”
A second time, the heralds called for her to come forward and marry the High King.
Sean said, “Fiona, will you not go?”
“No, Sean. I will not marry a man I have never met and do not love.”
A third and final time, the heralds summoned Princess Fiona.
“Fiona, go. The life of the road is no life for you.”
“I love you. And I will marry you, Sean of the Beggars, or no one.”
“Then marry me you shall.”
The whole world seemed to spin around Fiona after that. Sean removed her rags and tatters and was clothed in fine things, and the rest of the beggars followed. A cloak was placed over her shoulders and a crown on her head, and before she knew what was happening, Fiona was in front of everyone, marrying Sean, King of the Beggars, the High King of Ireland.