THE BOYHOOD OF FIONN (IRISH FAIRY TALES) by James Stephens
He was a king, a seer and a poet. He was a lord with a manifold and great train. He was our magician, our knowledgable one, our soothsayer. All that he did was sweet with him. And, however ye deem my testimony of Fionn excessive, and, although ye hold my praising overstrained, nevertheless, and by the King that is above me, he was three times better than all I say.—Saint PATRICK.
Fionn [pronounce Fewn to rhyme with “tune”] got his first training among women. There is no wonder in that, for it is the pup’s mother teaches it to fight, and women know that fighting is a necessary art although men pretend there are others that are better. These were the women druids, Bovmall and Lia Luachra. It will be wondered why his own mother did not train him in the first natural savageries of existence, but she could not do it. She could not keep him with her for dread of the clann-Morna. The sons of Morna had been fighting and intriguing for a long time to oust her husband, Uail, from the captaincy of the Fianna of Ireland, and they had ousted him at last by killing him. It was the only way they could get rid of such a man; but it was not an easy way, for what Fionn’s father did not know in arms could not be taught to him even by Morna. Still, the hound that can wait will catch a hare at last, and even Manana’nn sleeps. Fionn’s mother was beautiful, long-haired Muirne: so she is always referred to. She was the daughter of Teigue, the son of Nuada from Faery, and her mother was Ethlinn. That is, her brother was Lugh of the Long Hand himself, and with a god, and such a god, for brother we may marvel that she could have been in dread of Morna or his sons, or of any one. But women have strange loves, strange fears, and these are so bound up with one another that the thing which is presented to us is not often the thing that is to be seen.
However it may be, when Uall died Muirne got married again to the King of Kerry. She gave the child to Bovmall and Lia Luachra to rear, and we may be sure that she gave injunctions with him, and many of them. The youngster was brought to the woods of Slieve Bloom and was nursed there in secret.
It is likely the women were fond of him, for other than Fionn there was no life about them. He would be their life; and their eyes may have seemed as twin benedictions resting on the small fair head. He was fair-haired, and it was for his fairness that he was afterwards called Fionn; but at this period he was known as Deimne. They saw the food they put into his little frame reproduce itself length-ways and sideways in tough inches, and in springs and energies that crawled at first, and then toddled, and then ran. He had birds for playmates, but all the creatures that live in a wood must have been his comrades. There would have been for little Fionn long hours of lonely sunshine, when the world seemed just sunshine and a sky. There would have been hours as long, when existence passed like a shade among shadows, in the multitudinous tappings of rain that dripped from leaf to leaf in the wood, and slipped so to the ground. He would have known little snaky paths, narrow enough to be filled by his own small feet, or a goat’s; and he would have wondered where they went, and have marvelled again to find that, wherever they went, they came at last, through loops and twists of the branchy wood, to his own door. He may have thought of his own door as the beginning and end of the world, whence all things went, and whither all things came.
Perhaps he did not see the lark for a long time, but he would have heard him, far out of sight in the endless sky, thrilling and thrilling until the world seemed to have no other sound but that clear sweetness; and what a world it was to make that sound! Whistles and chirps, coos and caws and croaks, would have grown familiar to him. And he could at last have told which brother of the great brotherhood was making the noise he heard at any moment. The wind too: he would have listened to its thousand voices as it moved in all seasons and in all moods. Perhaps a horse would stray into the thick screen about his home, and would look as solemnly on Fionn as Fionn did on it. Or, coming suddenly on him, the horse might stare, all a-cock with eyes and ears and nose, one long-drawn facial extension, ere he turned and bounded away with manes all over him and hoofs all under him and tails all round him. A solemn-nosed, stern-eyed cow would amble and stamp in his wood to find a flyless shadow; or a strayed sheep would poke its gentle muzzle through leaves.
“A boy,” he might think, as he stared on a staring horse, “a boy cannot wag his tail to keep the flies off,” and that lack may have saddened him. He may have thought that a cow can snort and be dignified at the one moment, and that timidity is comely in a sheep. He would have scolded the jackdaw, and tried to out-whistle the throstle, and wondered why his pipe got tired when the blackbird’s didn’t. There would be flies to be watched, slender atoms in yellow gauze that flew, and filmy specks that flittered, and sturdy, thick-ribbed brutes that pounced like cats and bit like dogs and flew like lightning. He may have mourned for the spider in bad luck who caught that fly. There would be much to see and remember and compare, and there would be, always, his two guardians. The flies change from second to second; one cannot tell if this bird is a visitor or an inhabitant, and a sheep is just sister to a sheep; but the women were as rooted as the house itself.
Were his nurses comely or harsh-looking? Fionn would not know. This was the one who picked him up when he fell, and that was the one who patted the bruise. This one said: “Mind you do not tumble in the well!”
And that one: “Mind the little knees among the nettles.”
But he did tumble and record that the only notable thing about a well is that it is wet. And as for nettles, if they hit him he hit back. He slashed into them with a stick and brought them low. There was nothing in wells or nettles, only women dreaded them. One patronised women and instructed them and comforted them, for they were afraid about one.
They thought that one should not climb a tree!
“Next week,” they said at last, “you may climb this one,” and “next week” lived at the end of the world!
But the tree that was climbed was not worth while when it had been climbed twice. There was a bigger one near by. There were trees that no one could climb, with vast shadow on one side and vaster sunshine on the other. It took a long time to walk round them, and you could not see their tops.
It was pleasant to stand on a branch that swayed and sprung, and it was good to stare at an impenetrable roof of leaves and then climb into it. How wonderful the loneliness was up there! When he looked down there was an undulating floor of leaves, green and green and greener to a very blackness of greeniness; and when he looked up there were leaves again, green and less green and not green at all, up to a very snow and blindness of greeniness; and above and below and around there was sway and motion, the whisper of leaf on leaf, and the eternal silence to which one listened and at which one tried to look.
When he was six years of age his mother, beautiful, long-haired Muirne, came to see him. She came secretly, for she feared the sons of Morna, and she had paced through lonely places in many counties before she reached the hut in the wood, and the cot where he lay with his fists shut and sleep gripped in them.
He awakened to be sure. He would have one ear that would catch an unusual voice, one eye that would open, however sleepy the other one was. She took him in her arms and kissed him, and she sang a sleepy song until the small boy slept again.
We may be sure that the eye that could stay open stayed open that night as long as it could, and that the one ear listened to the sleepy song until the song got too low to be heard, until it was too tender to be felt vibrating along those soft arms, until Fionn was asleep again, with a new picture in his little head and a new notion to ponder on.
The mother of himself! His own mother!
But when he awakened she was gone.
She was going back secretly, in dread of the sons of Morna, slipping through gloomy woods, keeping away from habitations, getting by desolate and lonely ways to her lord in Kerry.
Perhaps it was he that was afraid of the sons of Morna, and perhaps she loved him.
THE women Druids, his guardians, belonged to his father’s people. Bovmall was Uail’s sister, and, consequently, Fionn’s aunt. Only such a blood-tie could have bound them to the clann-Baiscne, for it is not easy, having moved in the world of court and camp, to go hide with a baby in a wood; and to live, as they must have lived, in terror.
What stories they would have told the child of the sons of Morna. Of Morna himself, the huge-shouldered, stern-eyed, violent Connachtman; and of his sons—young Goll Mor mac Morna in particular, as huge-shouldered as his father, as fierce in the onset, but merry-eyed when the other was grim, and bubbling with a laughter that made men forgive even his butcheries. Of Cona’n Mael mac Morna his brother, gruff as a badger, bearded like a boar, bald as a crow, and with a tongue that could manage an insult where another man would not find even a stammer. His boast was that when he saw an open door he went into it, and when he saw a closed door he went into it. When he saw a peaceful man he insulted him, and when he met a man who was not peaceful he insulted him. There was Garra Duv mac Morna, and savage Art Og, who cared as little for their own skins as they did for the next man’s, and Garra must have been rough indeed to have earned in that clan the name of the Rough mac Morna. There were others: wild Connachtmen all, as untameable, as unaccountable as their own wonderful countryside.
Fionn would have heard much of them, and it is likely that he practised on a nettle at taking the head off Goll, and that he hunted a sheep from cover in the implacable manner he intended later on for Cona’n the Swearer.
But it is of Uail mac Baiscne he would have heard most. With what a dilation of spirit the ladies would have told tales of him, Fionn’s father. How their voices would have become a chant as feat was added to feat, glory piled on glory. The most famous of men and the most beautiful; the hardest fighter; the easiest giver; the kingly champion; the chief of the Fianna na h-Eirinn. Tales of how he had been way-laid and got free; of how he had been generous and got free; of how he had been angry and went marching with the speed of an eagle and the direct onfall of a storm; while in front and at the sides, angled from the prow of his terrific advance, were fleeing multitudes who did not dare to wait and scarce had time to run. And of how at last, when the time came to quell him, nothing less than the whole might of Ireland was sufficient for that great downfall.
We may be sure that on these adventures Fionn was with his father, going step for step with the long-striding hero, and heartening him mightily.
He was given good training by the women in running and leaping and swimming.
One of them would take a thorn switch in her hand, and Fionn would take a thorn switch in his hand, and each would try to strike the other running round a tree.
You had to go fast to keep away from the switch behind, and a small boy feels a switch. Fionn would run his best to get away from that prickly stinger, but how he would run when it was his turn to deal the strokes!
With reason too, for his nurses had suddenly grown implacable. They pursued him with a savagery which he could not distinguish from hatred, and they swished him well whenever they got the chance.
Fionn learned to run. After a while he could buzz around a tree like a maddened fly, and oh, the joy, when he felt himself drawing from the switch and gaining from behind on its bearer! How he strained and panted to catch on that pursuing person and pursue her and get his own switch into action.
He learned to jump by chasing hares in a bumpy field. Up went the hare and up went Fionn, and away with the two of them, hopping and popping across the field. If the hare turned while Fionn was after her it was switch for Fionn; so that in a while it did not matter to Fionn which way the hare jumped for he could jump that way too. Long-ways, sideways or baw-ways, Fionn hopped where the hare hopped, and at last he was the owner of a hop that any hare would give an ear for.
He was taught to swim, and it may be that his heart sank when he fronted the lesson. The water was cold. It was deep. One could see the bottom, leagues below, millions of miles below. A small boy might shiver as he stared into that wink and blink and twink of brown pebbles and murder. And these implacable women threw him in!
Perhaps he would not go in at first. He may have smiled at them, and coaxed, and hung back. It was a leg and an arm gripped then; a swing for Fionn, and out and away with him; plop and flop for him; down into chill deep death for him, and up with a splutter; with a sob; with a grasp at everything that caught nothing; with a wild flurry; with a raging despair; with a bubble and snort as he was hauled again down, and down, and down, and found as suddenly that he had been hauled out.
Fionn learned to swim until he could pop into the water like an otter and slide through it like an eel.
He used to try to chase a fish the way he chased hares in the bumpy field—but there are terrible spurts in a fish. It may be that a fish cannot hop, but he gets there in a flash, and he isn’t there in another. Up or down, sideways or endways, it is all one to a fish. He goes and is gone. He twists this way and disappears the other way. He is over you when he ought to be under you, and he is biting your toe when you thought you were biting his tail.
You cannot catch a fish by swimming, but you can try, and Fionn tried. He got a grudging commendation from the terrible women when he was able to slip noiselessly in the tide, swim under water to where a wild duck was floating and grip it by the leg.
“Qu—,” said the duck, and he disappeared before he had time to get the “-ack” out of him.
So the time went, and Fionn grew long and straight and tough like a sapling; limber as a willow, and with the flirt and spring of a young bird. One of the ladies may have said, “He is shaping very well, my dear,” and the other replied, as is the morose privilege of an aunt, “He will never be as good as his father,” but their hearts must have overflowed in the night, in the silence, in the darkness, when they thought of the living swiftness they had fashioned, and that dear fair head.
ONE day his guardians were agitated: they held confabulations at which Fionn was not permitted to assist. A man who passed by in the morning had spoken to them. They fed the man, and during his feeding Fionn had been shooed from the door as if he were a chicken. When the stranger took his road the women went with him a short distance. As they passed the man lifted a hand and bent a knee to Fionn.
“My soul to you, young master,” he said, and as he said it, Fionn knew that he could have the man’s soul, or his boots, or his feet, or anything that belonged to him.
When the women returned they were mysterious and whispery. They chased Fionn into the house, and when they got him in they chased him out again. They chased each other around the house for another whisper. They calculated things by the shape of clouds, by lengths of shadows, by the flight of birds, by two flies racing on a flat stone, by throwing bones over their left shoulders, and by every kind of trick and game and chance that you could put a mind to.
They told Fionn he must sleep in a tree that night, and they put him under bonds not to sing or whistle or cough or sneeze until the morning.
Fionn did sneeze. He never sneezed so much in his life. He sat up in his tree and nearly sneezed himself out of it. Flies got up his nose, two at a time, one up each nose, and his head nearly fell off the way he sneezed.
“You are doing that on purpose,” said a savage whisper from the foot of the tree.
But Fionn was not doing it on purpose. He tucked himself into a fork the way he had been taught, and he passed the crawliest, tickliest night he had ever known. After a while he did not want to sneeze, he wanted to scream: and in particular he wanted to come down from the tree. But he did not scream, nor did he leave the tree. His word was passed, and he stayed in his tree as silent as a mouse and as watchful, until he fell out of it.
In the morning a band of travelling poets were passing, and the women handed Fionn over to them. This time they could not prevent him overhearing.
“The sons of Morna!” they said.
And Fionn’s heart might have swelled with rage, but that it was already swollen with adventure. And also the expected was happening. Behind every hour of their day and every moment of their lives lay the sons of Morna. Fionn had run after them as deer: he jumped after them as hares: he dived after them as fish. They lived in the house with him: they sat at the table and ate his meat. One dreamed of them, and they were expected in the morning as the sun is. They knew only too well that the son of Uail was living, and they knew that their own sons would know no ease while that son lived; for they believed in those days that like breeds like, and that the son of Uail would be Uail with additions.
His guardians knew that their hiding-place must at last be discovered, and that, when it was found, the sons of Morna would come. They had no doubt of that, and every action of their lives was based on that certainty. For no secret can remain secret. Some broken soldier tramping home to his people will find it out; a herd seeking his strayed cattle or a band of travelling musicians will get the wind of it. How many people will move through even the remotest wood in a year! The crows will tell a secret if no one else does; and under a bush, behind a clump of bracken, what eyes may there not be! But if your secret is legged like a young goat! If it is tongued like a wolf! One can hide a baby, but you cannot hide a boy. He will rove unless you tie him to a post, and he will whistle then.
The sons of Morna came, but there were only two grim women living in a lonely hut to greet them. We may be sure they were well greeted. One can imagine Goll’s merry stare taking in all that could be seen; Cona’n’s grim eye raking the women’s faces while his tongue raked them again; the Rough mac Morna shouldering here and there in the house and about it, with maybe a hatchet in his hand, and Art Og coursing further afield and vowing that if the cub was there he would find him.
But Fionn was gone. He was away, bound with his band of poets for the Galtees.
It is likely they were junior poets come to the end of a year’s training, and returning to their own province to see again the people at home, and to be wondered at and exclaimed at as they exhibited bits of the knowledge which they had brought from the great schools. They would know tags of rhyme and tricks about learning which Fionn would hear of; and now and again, as they rested in a glade or by the brink of a river, they might try their lessons over. They might even refer to the ogham wands on which the first words of their tasks and the opening lines of poems were cut; and it is likely that, being new to these things, they would talk of them to a youngster, and, thinking that his wits could be no better than their own, they might have explained to him how ogham was written. But it is far more likely that his women guardians had already started him at those lessons.
Still this band of young bards would have been of infinite interest to Fionn, not on account of what they had learned, but because of what they knew. All the things that he should have known as by nature: the look, the movement, the feeling of crowds; the shouldering and intercourse of man with man; the clustering of houses and how people bore themselves in and about them; the movement of armed men, and the homecoming look of wounds; tales of births, and marriages and deaths; the chase with its multitudes of men and dogs; all the noise, the dust, the excitement of mere living. These, to Fionn, new come from leaves and shadows and the dipple and dapple of a wood, would have seemed wonderful; and the tales they would have told of their masters, their looks, fads, severities, sillinesses, would have been wonderful also.
That band should have chattered like a rookery.
They must have been young, for one time a Leinsterman came on them, a great robber named Fiacuil mac Cona, and he killed the poets. He chopped them up and chopped them down. He did not leave one poeteen of them all. He put them out of the world and out of life, so that they stopped being, and no one could tell where they went or what had really happened to them; and it is a wonder indeed that one can do that to anything let alone a band. If they were not youngsters, the bold Fiacuil could not have managed them all. Or, perhaps, he too had a band, although the record does not say so; but kill them he did, and they died that way.
Fionn saw that deed, and his blood may have been cold enough as he watched the great robber coursing the poets as a wild dog rages in a flock. And when his turn came, when they were all dead, and the grim, red-handed man trod at him, Fionn may have shivered, but he would have shown his teeth and laid roundly on the monster with his hands. Perhaps he did that, and perhaps for that he was spared.
“Who are you?” roared the staring black-mouth with the red tongue squirming in it like a frisky fish.
“The son of Uail, son of Baiscne,” quoth hardy Fionn. And at that the robber ceased to be a robber, the murderer disappeared, the black-rimmed chasm packed with red fish and precipices changed to something else, and the round eyes that had been popping out of their sockets and trying to bite, changed also. There remained a laughing and crying and loving servant who wanted to tie himself into knots if that would please the son of his great captain. Fionn went home on the robber’s shoulder, and the robber gave great snorts and made great jumps and behaved like a first-rate horse. For this same Fiacuil was the husband of Bovmall, Fionn’s aunt. He had taken to the wilds when clann-Baiscne was broken, and he was at war with a world that had dared to kill his Chief.
Anew life for Fionn in the robber’s den that was hidden in a vast cold marsh.
A tricky place that would be, with sudden exits and even suddener entrances, and with damp, winding, spidery places to hoard treasure in, or to hide oneself in.
If the robber was a solitary he would, for lack of someone else, have talked greatly to Fionn. He would have shown his weapons and demonstrated how he used them, and with what slash he chipped his victim, and with what slice he chopped him. He would have told why a slash was enough for this man and why that man should be sliced. All men are masters when one is young, and Fionn would have found knowledge here also. He would have seen Fiacuil’s great spear that had thirty rivets of Arabian gold in its socket, and that had to be kept wrapped up and tied down so that it would not kill people out of mere spitefulness. It had come from Faery, out of the Shi’ of Aillen mac Midna, and it would be brought back again later on between the same man’s shoulder-blades.
What tales that man could tell a boy, and what questions a boy could ask him. He would have known a thousand tricks, and because our instinct is to teach, and because no man can keep a trick from a boy, he would show them to Fionn.
There was the marsh too; a whole new life to be learned; a complicated, mysterious, dank, slippery, reedy, treacherous life, but with its own beauty and an allurement that could grow on one, so that you could forget the solid world and love only that which quaked and gurgled.
In this place you may swim. By this sign and this you will know if it is safe to do so, said Fiacuil mac Cona; but in this place, with this sign on it and that, you must not venture a toe.
But where Fionn would venture his toes his ears would follow.
There are coiling weeds down there, the robber counselled him; there are thin, tough, snaky binders that will trip you and grip you, that will pull you and will not let you go again until you are drowned; until you are swaying and swinging away below, with outstretched arms, with outstretched legs, with a face all stares and smiles and jockeyings, gripped in those leathery arms, until there is no more to be gripped of you even by them.
“Watch these and this and that,” Fionn would have been told, “and always swim with a knife in your teeth.”
He lived there until his guardians found out where he was and came after him. Fiacuil gave him up to them, and he was brought home again to the woods of Slieve Bloom, but he had gathered great knowledge and new supplenesses.
The sons of Morna left him alone for a long time. Having made their essay they grew careless.
“Let him be,” they said. “He will come to us when the time comes.”
But it is likely too that they had had their own means of getting information about him. How he shaped? what muscles he had? and did he spring clean from the mark or had he to get off with a push? Fionn stayed with his guardians and hunted for them. He could run a deer down and haul it home by the reluctant skull. “Come on, Goll,” he would say to his stag, or, lifting it over a tussock with a tough grip on the snout, “Are you coming, bald Cona’n, or shall I kick you in the neck?”
The time must have been nigh when he would think of taking the world itself by the nose, to haul it over tussocks and drag it into his pen; for he was of the breed in whom mastery is born, and who are good masters.
But reports of his prowess were getting abroad. Clann-Morna began to stretch itself uneasily, and, one day, his guardians sent him on his travels.
“It is best for you to leave us now,” they said to the tall stripling, “for the sons of Morna are watching again to kill you.”
The woods at that may have seemed haunted. A stone might sling at one from a tree-top; but from which tree of a thousand trees did it come? An arrow buzzing by one’s ear would slide into the ground and quiver there silently, menacingly, hinting of the brothers it had left in the quiver behind; to the right? to the left? how many brothers? in how many quivers…? Fionn was a woodsman, but he had only two eyes to look with, one set of feet to carry him in one sole direction. But when he was looking to the front what, or how many whats, could be staring at him from the back? He might face in this direction, away from, or towards a smile on a hidden face and a finger on a string. A lance might slide at him from this bush or from the one yonder.. In the night he might have fought them; his ears against theirs; his noiseless feet against their lurking ones; his knowledge of the wood against their legion: but during the day he had no chance.
Fionn went to seek his fortune, to match himself against all that might happen, and to carve a name for himself that will live while Time has an ear and knows an Irishman.
Fionn went away, and now he was alone. But he was as fitted for loneliness as the crane is that haunts the solitudes and bleak wastes of the sea; for the man with a thought has a comrade, and Fionn’s mind worked as featly as his body did. To be alone was no trouble to him who, however surrounded, was to be lonely his life long; for this will be said of Fionn when all is said, that all that came to him went from him, and that happiness was never his companion for more than a moment.
But he was not now looking for loneliness. He was seeking the instruction of a crowd, and therefore when he met a crowd he went into it. His eyes were skilled to observe in the moving dusk and dapple of green woods. They were trained to pick out of shadows birds that were themselves dun-coloured shades, and to see among trees the animals that are coloured like the bark of trees. The hare crouching in the fronds was visible to him, and the fish that swayed in-visibly in the sway and flicker of a green bank. He would see all that was to be seen, and he would see all that is passed by the eye that is half blind from use and wont.
At Moy Life’ he came on lads swimming in a pool; and, as he looked on them sporting in the flush tide, he thought that the tricks they performed were not hard for him, and that he could have shown them new ones.
Boys must know what another boy can do, and they will match themselves against everything. They did their best under these observing eyes, and it was not long until he was invited to compete with them and show his mettle. Such an invitation is a challenge; it is almost, among boys, a declaration of war. But Fionn was so far beyond them in swimming that even the word master did not apply to that superiority.
While he was swimming one remarked: “He is fair and well shaped,” and thereafter he was called “Fionn” or the Fair One. His name came from boys, and will, perhaps, be preserved by them.
He stayed with these lads for some time, and it may be that they idolised him at first, for it is the way with boys to be astounded and enraptured by feats; but in the end, and that was inevitable, they grew jealous of the stranger. Those who had been the champions before he came would marshal each other, and, by social pressure, would muster all the others against him; so that in the end not a friendly eye was turned on Fionn in that assembly. For not only did he beat them at swimming, he beat their best at running and jumping, and when the sport degenerated into violence, as it was bound to, the roughness of Fionn would be ten times as rough as the roughness of the roughest rough they could put forward. Bravery is pride when one is young, and Fionn was proud.
There must have been anger in his mind as he went away leaving that lake behind him, and those snarling and scowling boys, but there would have been disappointment also, for his desire at this time should have been towards friendliness.
He went thence to Lock Le’in and took service with the King of Finntraigh. That kingdom may have been thus called from Fionn himself and would have been known by another name when he arrived there.
He hunted for the King of Finntraigh, and it soon grew evident that there was no hunter in his service to equal Fionn. More, there was no hunter of them all who even distantly approached him in excellence. The others ran after deer, using the speed of their legs, the noses of their dogs and a thousand well-worn tricks to bring them within reach, and, often enough, the animal escaped them. But the deer that Fionn got the track of did not get away, and it seemed even that the animals sought him so many did he catch.
The king marvelled at the stories that were told of this new hunter, but as kings are greater than other people so they are more curious; and, being on the plane of excellence, they must see all that is excellently told of.
The king wished to see him, and Fionn must have wondered what the king thought as that gracious lord looked on him. Whatever was thought, what the king said was as direct in utterance as it was in observation.
“If Uail the son of Baiscne has a son,” said the king, “you would surely be that son.”
We are not told if the King of Finntraigh said anything more, but we know that Fionn left his service soon afterwards.
He went southwards and was next in the employment of the King of Kerry, the same lord who had married his own mother. In that service he came to such consideration that we hear of him as playing a match of chess with the king, and by this game we know that he was still a boy in his mind however mightily his limbs were spreading. Able as he was in sports and huntings, he was yet too young to be politic, but he remained impolitic to the end of his days, for whatever he was able to do he would do, no matter who was offended thereat; and whatever he was not able to do he would do also. That was Fionn.
Once, as they rested on a chase, a debate arose among the Fianna-Finn as to what was the finest music in the world.
“Tell us that,” said Fionn turning to Oisi’n [pronounced Usheen]
“The cuckoo calling from the tree that is highest in the hedge,” cried his merry son.
“A good sound,” said Fionn. “And you, Oscar,” he asked, “what is to your mind the finest of music?”
“The top of music is the ring of a spear on a shield,” cried the stout lad.
“It is a good sound,” said Fionn. And the other champions told their delight; the belling of a stag across water, the baying of a tuneful pack heard in the distance, the song of a lark, the laugh of a gleeful girl, or the whisper of a moved one.
“They are good sounds all,” said Fionn.
“Tell us, chief,” one ventured, “what you think?”
“The music of what happens,” said great Fionn, “that is the finest music in the world.”
He loved “what happened,” and would not evade it by the swerve of a hair; so on this occasion what was occurring he would have occur, although a king was his rival and his master. It may be that his mother was watching the match and that he could not but exhibit his skill before her. He committed the enormity of winning seven games in succession from the king himself!!!
It is seldom indeed that a subject can beat a king at chess, and this monarch was properly amazed.
“Who are you at all?” he cried, starting back from the chessboard and staring on Fionn.
“I am the son of a countryman of the Luigne of Tara,” said Fionn.
He may have blushed as he said it, for the king, possibly for the first time, was really looking at him, and was looking back through twenty years of time as he did so. The observation of a king is faultless—it is proved a thousand times over in the tales, and this king’s equipment was as royal as the next.
“You are no such son,” said the indignant monarch, “but you are the son that Muirne my wife bore to Uall mac Balscne.”
And at that Fionn had no more to say; but his eyes may have flown to his mother and stayed there.
“You cannot remain here,” his step-father continued. “I do not want you killed under my protection,” he explained, or complained.
Perhaps it was on Fionn’s account he dreaded the sons of Morna, but no one knows what Fionn thought of him for he never thereafter spoke of his step-father. As for Muirne she must have loved her lord; or she may have been terrified in truth of the sons of Morna and for Fionn; but it is so also, that if a woman loves her second husband she can dislike all that reminds her of the first one. Fionn went on his travels again.
All desires save one are fleeting, but that one lasts for ever. Fionn, with all desires, had the lasting one, for he would go anywhere and forsake anything for wisdom; and it was in search of this that he went to the place where Finegas lived on a bank of the Boyne Water. But for dread of the clann-Morna he did not go as Fionn. He called himself Deimne on that journey.
We get wise by asking questions, and even if these are not answered we get wise, for a well-packed question carries its answer on its back as a snail carries its shell. Fionn asked every question he could think of, and his master, who was a poet, and so an honourable man, answered them all, not to the limit of his patience, for it was limitless, but to the limit of his ability.
“Why do you live on the bank of a river?” was one of these questions. “Because a poem is a revelation, and it is by the brink of running water that poetry is revealed to the mind.”
“How long have you been here?” was the next query. “Seven years,” the poet answered.
“It is a long time,” said wondering Fionn.
“I would wait twice as long for a poem,” said the inveterate bard.
“Have you caught good poems?” Fionn asked him.
“The poems I am fit for,” said the mild master. “No person can get more than that, for a man’s readiness is his limit.”
“Would you have got as good poems by the Shannon or the Suir or by sweet Ana Life’?”
“They are good rivers,” was the answer. “They all belong to good gods.”
“But why did you choose this river out of all the rivers?”
Finegas beamed on his pupil.
“I would tell you anything,” said he, “and I will tell you that.”
Fionn sat at the kindly man’s feet, his hands absent among tall grasses, and listening with all his ears. “A prophecy was made to me,” Finegas began. “A man of knowledge foretold that I should catch the Salmon of Knowledge in the Boyne Water.”
“And then?” said Fionn eagerly.
“Then I would have All Knowledge.”
“And after that?” the boy insisted.
“What should there be after that?” the poet retorted.
“I mean, what would you do with All Knowledge?”
“A weighty question,” said Finegas smilingly. “I could answer it if I had All Knowledge, but not until then. What would you do, my dear?”
“I would make a poem,” Fionn cried.
“I think too,” said the poet, “that that is what would be done.”
In return for instruction Fionn had taken over the service of his master’s hut, and as he went about the household duties, drawing the water, lighting the fire, and carrying rushes for the floor and the beds, he thought over all the poet had taught him, and his mind dwelt on the rules of metre, the cunningness of words, and the need for a clean, brave mind. But in his thousand thoughts he yet remembered the Salmon of Knowledge as eagerly as his master did. He already venerated Finegas for his great learning, his poetic skill, for an hundred reasons; but, looking on him as the ordained eater of the Salmon of Knowledge, he venerated him to the edge of measure. Indeed, he loved as well as venerated this master because of his unfailing kindness, his patience, his readiness to teach, and his skill in teaching.
“I have learned much from you, dear master,” said Fionn gratefully.
“All that I have is yours if you can take it,” the poet answered, “for you are entitled to all that you can take, but to no more than that. Take, so, with both hands.”
“You may catch the salmon while I am with you,” the hopeful boy mused. “Would not that be a great happening!” and he stared in ecstasy across the grass at those visions which a boy’s mind knows.
“Let us pray for that,” said Finegas fervently.
“Here is a question,” Fionn continued. “How does this salmon get wisdom into his flesh?”
“There is a hazel bush overhanging a secret pool in a secret place. The Nuts of Knowledge drop from the Sacred Bush into the pool, and as they float, a salmon takes them in his mouth and eats them.”
“It would be almost as easy,” the boy submitted, “if one were to set on the track of the Sacred Hazel and eat the nuts straight from the bush.”
“That would not be very easy,” said the poet, “and yet it is not as easy as that, for the bush can only be found by its own knowledge, and that knowledge can only be got by eating the nuts, and the nuts can only be got by eating the salmon.”
“We must wait for the salmon,” said Fionn in a rage of resignation.
Life continued for him in a round of timeless time, wherein days and nights were uneventful and were yet filled with interest. As the day packed its load of strength into his frame, so it added its store of knowledge to his mind, and each night sealed the twain, for it is in the night that we make secure what we have gathered in the day.
If he had told of these days he would have told of a succession of meals and sleeps, and of an endless conversation, from which his mind would now and again slip away to a solitude of its own, where, in large hazy atmospheres, it swung and drifted and reposed. Then he would be back again, and it was a pleasure for him to catch up on the thought that was forward and re-create for it all the matter he had missed. But he could not often make these sleepy sallies; his master was too experienced a teacher to allow any such bright-faced, eager-eyed abstractions, and as the druid women had switched his legs around a tree, so Finegas chased his mind, demanding sense in his questions and understanding in his replies.
To ask questions can become the laziest and wobbliest occupation of a mind, but when you must yourself answer the problem that you have posed, you will meditate your question with care and frame it with precision. Fionn’s mind learned to jump in a bumpier field than that in which he had chased rabbits. And when he had asked his question, and given his own answer to it, Finegas would take the matter up and make clear to him where the query was badly formed or at what point the answer had begun to go astray, so that Fionn came to understand by what successions a good question grows at last to a good answer.
One day, not long after the conversation told of, Finegas came to the place where Fionn was. The poet had a shallow osier basket on his arm, and on his face there was a look that was at once triumphant and gloomy. He was excited certainly, but he was sad also, and as he stood gazing on Fionn his eyes were so kind that the boy was touched, and they were yet so melancholy that it almost made Fionn weep. “What is it, my master?” said the alarmed boy.
The poet placed his osier basket on the grass.
“Look in the basket, dear son,” he said. Fionn looked.
“There is a salmon in the basket.”
“It is The Salmon,” said Finegas with a great sigh. Fionn leaped for delight.
“I am glad for you, master,” he cried. “Indeed I am glad for you.”
“And I am glad, my dear soul,” the master rejoined.
But, having said it, he bent his brow to his hand and for a long time he was silent and gathered into himself.
“What should be done now?” Fionn demanded, as he stared on the beautiful fish.
Finegas rose from where he sat by the osier basket.
“I will be back in a short time,” he said heavily. “While I am away you may roast the salmon, so that it will be ready against my return.”
“I will roast it indeed,” said Fionn.
The poet gazed long and earnestly on him.
“You will not eat any of my salmon while I am away?” he asked.
“I will not eat the littlest piece,” said Fionn.
“I am sure you will not,” the other murmured, as he turned and walked slowly across the grass and behind the sheltering bushes on the ridge.
Fionn cooked the salmon. It was beautiful and tempting and savoury as it smoked on a wooden platter among cool green leaves; and it looked all these to Finegas when he came from behind the fringing bushes and sat in the grass outside his door. He gazed on the fish with more than his eyes. He looked on it with his heart, with his soul in his eyes, and when he turned to look on Fionn the boy did not know whether the love that was in his eyes was for the fish or for himself. Yet he did know that a great moment had arrived for the poet.
“So,” said Finegas, “you did not eat it on me after all?” “Did I not promise?” Fionn replied.
“And yet,” his master continued, “I went away so that you might eat the fish if you felt you had to.”
“Why should I want another man’s fish?” said proud Fionn.
“Because young people have strong desires. I thought you might have tasted it, and then you would have eaten it on me.”
“I did taste it by chance,” Fionn laughed, “for while the fish was roasting a great blister rose on its skin. I did not like the look of that blister, and I pressed it down with my thumb. That burned my thumb, so I popped it in my mouth to heal the smart. If your salmon tastes as nice as my thumb did,” he laughed, “it will taste very nice.”
“What did you say your name was, dear heart?” the poet asked.
“I said my name was Deimne.”
“Your name is not Deimne,” said the mild man, “your name is Fionn.”
“That is true,” the boy answered, “but I do not know how you know it.”
“Even if I have not eaten the Salmon of Knowledge I have some small science of my own.”
“It is very clever to know things as you know them,” Fionn replied wonderingly. “What more do you know of me, dear master?”
“I know that I did not tell you the truth,” said the heavy-hearted man.
“What did you tell me instead of it?”
“I told you a lie.”
“It is not a good thing to do,” Fionn admitted. “What sort of a lie was the lie, master?” “I told you that the Salmon of Knowledge was to be caught by me, according to the prophecy.”
“That was true indeed, and I have caught the fish. But I did not tell you that the salmon was not to be eaten by me, although that also was in the prophecy, and that omission was the lie.”
“It is not a great lie,” said Fionn soothingly.
“It must not become a greater one,” the poet replied sternly.
“Who was the fish given to?” his companion wondered.
“It was given to you,” Finegas answered. “It was given to Fionn, the son of Uail, the son of Baiscne, and it will be given to him.”
“You shall have a half of the fish,” cried Fionn.
“I will not eat a piece of its skin that is as small as the point of its smallest bone,” said the resolute and trembling bard. “Let you now eat up the fish, and I shall watch you and give praise to the gods of the Underworld and of the Elements.”
Fionn then ate the Salmon of Knowledge, and when it had disappeared a great jollity and tranquillity and exuberance returned to the poet.
“Ah,” said he, “I had a great combat with that fish.”
“Did it fight for its life?” Fionn inquired.
“It did, but that was not the fight I meant.”
“You shall eat a Salmon of Knowledge too,” Fionn assured him.
“You have eaten one,” cried the blithe poet, “and if you make such a promise it will be because you know.”
“I promise it and know it,” said Fionn, “you shall eat a Salmon of Knowledge yet.”
He had received all that he could get from Finegas. His education was finished and the time had come to test it, and to try all else that he had of mind and body. He bade farewell to the gentle poet, and set out for Tara of the Kings.
It was Samhain-tide, and the feast of Tara was being held, at which all that was wise or skilful or well-born in Ireland were gathered together.
This is how Tara was when Tara was. There was the High King’s palace with its fortification; without it was another fortification enclosing the four minor palaces, each of which was maintained by one of the four provincial kings; without that again was the great banqueting hall, and around it and enclosing all of the sacred hill in its gigantic bound ran the main outer ramparts of Tara. From it, the centre of Ireland, four great roads went, north, south, east, and west, and along these roads, from the top and the bottom and the two sides of Ireland, there moved for weeks before Samhain an endless stream of passengers.
Here a gay band went carrying rich treasure to decorate the pavilion of a Munster lord. On another road a vat of seasoned yew, monstrous as a house on wheels and drawn by an hundred laborious oxen, came bumping and joggling the ale that thirsty Connaught princes would drink. On a road again the learned men of Leinster, each with an idea in his head that would discomfit a northern ollav and make a southern one gape and fidget, would be marching solemnly, each by a horse that was piled high on the back and widely at the sides with clean-peeled willow or oaken wands, that were carved from the top to the bottom with the ogham signs; the first lines of poems (for it was an offence against wisdom to commit more than initial lines to writing), the names and dates of kings, the procession of laws of Tara and of the sub-kingdoms, the names of places and their meanings. On the brown stallion ambling peacefully yonder there might go the warring of the gods for two or ten thousand years; this mare with the dainty pace and the vicious eye might be sidling under a load of oaken odes in honour of her owner’s family, with a few bundles of tales of wonder added in case they might be useful; and perhaps the restive piebald was backing the history of Ireland into a ditch.
On such a journey all people spoke together, for all were friends, and no person regarded the weapon in another man’s hand other than as an implement to poke a reluctant cow with, or to pacify with loud wallops some hoof-proud colt.
Into this teem and profusion of jolly humanity Fionn slipped, and if his mood had been as bellicose as a wounded boar he would yet have found no man to quarrel with, and if his eye had been as sharp as a jealous husband’s he would have found no eye to meet it with calculation or menace or fear; for the Peace of Ireland was in being, and for six weeks man was neighbour to man, and the nation was the guest of the High King. Fionn went in with the notables.
His arrival had been timed for the opening day and the great feast of welcome. He may have marvelled, looking on the bright city, with its pillars of gleaming bronze and the roofs that were painted in many colours, so that each house seemed to be covered by the spreading wings of some gigantic and gorgeous bird. And the palaces themselves, mellow with red oak, polished within and without by the wear and the care of a thousand years, and carved with the patient skill of unending generations of the most famous artists of the most artistic country of the western world, would have given him much to marvel at also. It must have seemed like a city of dream, a city to catch the heart, when, coming over the great plain, Fionn saw Tara of the Kings held on its hill as in a hand to gather all the gold of the falling sun, and to restore a brightness as mellow and tender as that universal largess.
In the great banqueting hall everything was in order for the feast. The nobles of Ireland with their winsome consorts, the learned and artistic professions represented by the pick of their time were in place. The Ard-Ri, Corm of the Hundred Battles, had taken his place on the raised dais which commanded the whole of that vast hall. At his Right hand his son Art, to be afterwards as famous as his famous father, took his seat, and on his left Goll mor mac Morna, chief of the Fianna of Ireland, had the seat of honour. As the High King took his place he could see every person who was noted in the land for any reason. He would know every one who was present, for the fame of all men is sealed at Tara, and behind his chair a herald stood to tell anything the king might not know or had forgotten.
Conn gave the signal and his guests seated themselves.
The time had come for the squires to take their stations behind their masters and mistresses. But, for the moment, the great room was seated, and the doors were held to allow a moment of respect to pass before the servers and squires came in.
Looking over his guests, Conn observed that a young man was yet standing.
“There is a gentleman,” he murmured, “for whom no seat has been found.”
We may be sure that the Master of the Banquet blushed at that.
“And,” the king continued, “I do not seem to know the young man.”
Nor did his herald, nor did the unfortunate Master, nor did anybody; for the eyes of all were now turned where the king’s went.
“Give me my horn,” said the gracious monarch.
The horn of state was put to his hand.
“Young gentleman,” he called to the stranger, “I wish to drink to your health and to welcome you to Tara.”
The young man came forward then, greater-shouldered than any mighty man of that gathering, longer and cleaner limbed, with his fair curls dancing about his beardless face. The king put the great horn into his hand.
“Tell me your name,” he commanded gently.
“I am Fionn, the son of Uail, the son of Baiscne,” said the youth.
And at that saying a touch as of lightning went through the gathering so that each person quivered, and the son of the great, murdered captain looked by the king’s shoulder into the twinkling eye of Goll. But no word was uttered, no movement made except the movement and the utterance of the Ard-Ri’.
“You are the son of a friend,” said the great-hearted monarch. “You shall have the seat of a friend.”
He placed Fionn at the right hand of his own son Art.
It is to be known that on the night of the Feast of Samhain the doors separating this world and the next one are opened, and the inhabitants of either world can leave their respective spheres and appear in the world of the other beings.
Now there was a grandson to the Dagda Mor, the Lord of the Underworld, and he was named Aillen mac Midna, out of Shi’ Finnachy, and this Aillen bore an implacable enmity to Tara and the Ard-Ri’.
As well as being monarch of Ireland her High King was chief of the people learned in magic, and it is possible that at some time Conn had adventured into Tir na n-Og, the Land of the Young, and had done some deed or misdeed in Aillen’s lordship or in his family. It must have been an ill deed in truth, for it was in a very rage of revenge that Aillen came yearly at the permitted time to ravage Tara.
Nine times he had come on this mission of revenge, but it is not to be supposed that he could actually destroy the holy city: the Ard-Ri’ and magicians could prevent that, but he could yet do a damage so considerable that it was worth Conn’s while to take special extra precautions against him, including the precaution of chance.
Therefore, when the feast was over and the banquet had commenced, the Hundred Fighter stood from his throne and looked over his assembled people.
The Chain of Silence was shaken by the attendant whose duty and honour was the Silver Chain, and at that delicate chime the halt went silent, and a general wonder ensued as to what matter the High King would submit to his people.
“Friends and heroes,” said Conn, “Aillen, the son of Midna, will come to-night from Slieve Fuaid with occult, terrible fire against our city. Is there among you one who loves Tara and the king, and who will undertake our defence against that being?”
He spoke in silence, and when he had finished he listened to the same silence, but it was now deep, ominous, agonized. Each man glanced uneasily on his neighbour and then stared at his wine-cup or his fingers. The hearts of young men went hot for a gallant moment and were chilled in the succeeding one, for they had all heard of Aillen out of Shl Finnachy in the north. The lesser gentlemen looked under their brows at the greater champions, and these peered furtively at the greatest of all. Art og mac Morna of the Hard Strokes fell to biting his fingers, Cona’n the Swearer and Garra mac Morna grumbled irritably to each other and at their neighbours, even Caelte, the son of Rona’n, looked down into his own lap, and Goll Mor sipped at his wine without any twinkle in his eye. A horrid embarrassment came into the great hall, and as the High King stood in that palpitating silence his noble face changed from kindly to grave and from that to a terrible sternness. In another moment, to the undying shame of every person present, he would have been compelled to lift his own challenge and declare himself the champion of Tara for that night, but the shame that was on the faces of his people would remain in the heart of their king. Goll’s merry mind would help him to forget, but even his heart would be wrung by a memory that he would not dare to face. It was at that terrible moment that Fionn stood up.
“What,” said he, “will be given to the man who undertakes this defence?”
“All that can be rightly asked will be royally bestowed,” was the king’s answer.
“Who are the sureties?” said Fionn.
“The kings of Ireland, and Red Cith with his magicians.”
“I will undertake the defence,” said Fionn. And on that, the kings and magicians who were present bound themselves to the fulfilment of the bargain.
Fionn marched from the banqueting hall, and as he went, all who were present of nobles and retainers and servants acclaimed him and wished him luck. But in their hearts they were bidding him good-bye, for all were assured that the lad was marching to a death so unescapeable that he might already be counted as a dead man.
It is likely that Fionn looked for help to the people of the Shi’ themselves, for, through his mother, he belonged to the tribes of Dana, although, on the father’s side, his blood was well compounded with mortal clay. It may be, too, that he knew how events would turn, for he had eaten the Salmon of Knowledge. Yet it is not recorded that on this occasion he invoked any magical art as he did on other adventures.
Fionn’s way of discovering whatever was happening and hidden was always the same and is many times referred to. A shallow, oblong dish of pure, pale gold was brought to him. This dish was filled with clear water. Then Fionn would bend his head and stare into the water, and as he stared he would place his thumb in his mouth under his “Tooth of Knowledge,” his “wisdom tooth.”
Knowledge, may it be said, is higher than magic and is more to be sought. It is quite possible to see what is happening and yet not know what is forward, for while seeing is believing it does not follow that either seeing or believing is knowing. Many a person can see a thing and believe a thing and know just as little about it as the person who does neither. But Fionn would see and know, or he would under-stand a decent ratio of his visions. That he was versed in magic is true, for he was ever known as the Knowledgeable man, and later he had two magicians in his household named Dirim and mac-Reith to do the rough work of knowledge for their busy master.
It was not from the Shi’, however, that assistance came to Fionn.
He marched through the successive fortifications until he came to the outer, great wall, the boundary of the city, and when he had passed this he was on the wide plain of Tara.
Other than himself no person was abroad, for on the night of the Feast of Samhain none but a madman would quit the shelter of a house even if it were on fire; for whatever disasters might be within a house would be as nothing to the calamities without it.
The noise of the banquet was not now audible to Fionn—it is possible, however, that there was a shamefaced silence in the great hall—and the lights of the city were hidden by the successive great ramparts. The sky was over him; the earth under him; and than these there was nothing, or there was but the darkness and the wind.
But darkness was not a thing to terrify him, bred in the nightness of a wood and the very fosterling of gloom; nor could the wind afflict his ear or his heart. There was no note in its orchestra that he had not brooded on and become, which becoming is magic. The long-drawn moan of it; the thrilling whisper and hush; the shrill, sweet whistle, so thin it can scarcely be heard, and is taken more by the nerves than by the ear; the screech, sudden as a devil’s yell and loud as ten thunders; the cry as of one who flies with backward look to the shelter of leaves and darkness; and the sob as of one stricken with an age-long misery, only at times remembered, but remembered then with what a pang! His ear knew by what successions they arrived, and by what stages they grew and diminished. Listening in the dark to the bundle of noises which make a noise he could disentangle them and assign a place and a reason to each gradation of sound that formed the chorus: there was the patter of a rabbit, and there the scurrying of a hare; a bush rustled yonder, but that brief rustle was a bird; that pressure was a wolf, and this hesitation a fox; the scraping yonder was but a rough leaf against bark, and the scratching beyond it was a ferret’s claw.
Fear cannot be where knowledge is, and Fionn was not fearful.
His mind, quietly busy on all sides, picked up one sound and dwelt on it. “A man,” said Fionn, and he listened in that direction, back towards the city.
A man it was, almost as skilled in darkness as Fionn himself “This is no enemy,” Fionn thought; “his walking is open.”
“Who comes?” he called.
“A friend,” said the newcomer.
“Give a friend’s name,” said Fionn.
“Fiacuil mac Cona,” was the answer.
“Ah, my pulse and heart!” cried Fionn, and he strode a few paces to meet the great robber who had fostered him among the marshes.
“So you are not afraid,” he said joyfully.
“I am afraid in good truth,” Fiacuil whispered, “and the minute my business with you is finished I will trot back as quick as legs will carry me. May the gods protect my going as they protected my coming,” said the robber piously.
“Amen,” said Fionn, “and now, tell me what you have come for?”
“Have you any plan against this lord of the Shl?” Fiacuil whispered.
“I will attack him,” said Fionn.
“That is not a plan,” the other groaned, “we do not plan to deliver an attack but to win a victory.”
“Is this a very terrible person?” Fionn asked.
“Terrible indeed. No one can get near him or away from him. He comes out of the Shi’ playing sweet, low music on a timpan and a pipe, and all who hear this music fall asleep.”
“I will not fall asleep,” said Fionn.
“You will indeed, for everybody does.”
“What happens then?” Fionn asked.
“When all are asleep Aillen mac Midna blows a dart of fire out of his mouth, and everything that is touched by that fire is destroyed, and he can blow his fire to an incredible distance and to any direction.”
“You are very brave to come to help me,” Fionn murmured, “especially when you are not able to help me at all.”
“I can help,” Fiacuil replied, “but I must be paid.”
“A third of all you earn and a seat at your council.”
“I grant that,” said Fionn, “and now, tell me your plan?”
“You remember my spear with the thirty rivets of Arabian gold in its socket?”
“The one,” Fionn queried, “that had its head wrapped in a blanket and was stuck in a bucket of water and was chained to a wall as well—the venomous Birgha?” “That one,” Fiacuil replied.
“It is Aillen mac Midna’s own spear,” he continued, “and it was taken out of his Shi’ by your father.”
“Well?” said Fionn, wondering nevertheless where Fiacuil got the spear, but too generous to ask.
“When you hear the great man of the Shi’ coming, take the wrappings off the head of the spear and bend your face over it; the heat of the spear, the stench of it, all its pernicious and acrid qualities will prevent you from going to sleep.”
“Are you sure of that?” said Fionn.
“You couldn’t go to sleep close to that stench; nobody could,” Fiacuil replied decidedly.
He continued: “Aillen mac Midna will be off his guard when he stops playing and begins to blow his fire; he will think everybody is asleep; then you can deliver the attack you were speaking of, and all good luck go with it.”
“I will give him back his spear,” said Fionn.
“Here it is,” said Fiacuil, taking the Birgha from under his cloak. “But be as careful of it, my pulse, be as frightened of it as you are of the man of Dana.”
“I will be frightened of nothing,” said Fionn, “and the only person I will be sorry for is that Aillen mac Midna, who is going to get his own spear back.”
“I will go away now,” his companion whispered, “for it is growing darker where you would have thought there was no more room for darkness, and there is an eerie feeling abroad which I do not like. That man from the Shi’ may come any minute, and if I catch one sound of his music I am done for.”
The robber went away and again Fionn was alone.
He listened to the retreating footsteps until they could be heard no more, and the one sound that came to his tense ears was the beating of his own heart.
Even the wind had ceased, and there seemed to be nothing in the world but the darkness and himself. In that gigantic blackness, in that unseen quietude and vacancy, the mind could cease to be personal to itself. It could be overwhelmed and merged in space, so that consciousness would be transferred or dissipated, and one might sleep standing; for the mind fears loneliness more than all else, and will escape to the moon rather than be driven inwards on its own being.
But Fionn was not lonely, and he was not afraid when the son of Midna came.
A long stretch of the silent night had gone by, minute following minute in a slow sequence, wherein as there was no change there was no time; wherein there was no past and no future, but a stupefying, endless present which is almost the annihilation of consciousness. A change came then, for the clouds had also been moving and the moon at last was sensed behind them—not as a radiance, but as a percolation of light, a gleam that was strained through matter after matter and was less than the very wraith or remembrance of itself; a thing seen so narrowly, so sparsely, that the eye could doubt if it was or was not seeing, and might conceive that its own memory was re-creating that which was still absent.
But Fionn’s eye was the eye of a wild creature that spies on darkness and moves there wittingly. He saw, then, not a thing but a movement; something that was darker than the darkness it loomed on; not a being but a presence, and, as it were, impending pressure. And in a little he heard the deliberate pace of that great being.
Fionn bent to his spear and unloosed its coverings.
Then from the darkness there came another sound; a low, sweet sound; thrillingly joyous, thrillingly low; so low the ear could scarcely note it, so sweet the ear wished to catch nothing else and would strive to hear it rather than all sounds that may be heard by man: the music of another world! the unearthly, dear melody of the Shi’! So sweet it was that the sense strained to it, and having reached must follow drowsily in its wake, and would merge in it, and could not return again to its own place until that strange harmony was finished and the ear restored to freedom.
But Fionn had taken the covering from his spear, and with his brow pressed close to it he kept his mind and all his senses engaged on that sizzling, murderous point.
The music ceased and Aillen hissed a fierce blue flame from his mouth, and it was as though he hissed lightning.
Here it would seem that Fionn used magic, for spreading out his fringed mantle he caught the flame. Rather he stopped it, for it slid from the mantle and sped down into the earth to the depth of twenty-six spans; from which that slope is still called the Glen of the Mantle, and the rise on which Aillen stood is known as the Ard of Fire.
One can imagine the surprise of Aillen mac Midna, seeing his fire caught and quenched by an invisible hand. And one can imagine that at this check he might be frightened, for who would be more terrified than a magician who sees his magic fail, and who, knowing of power, will guess at powers of which he has no conception and may well dread.
Everything had been done by him as it should be done. His pipe had been played and his timpan, all who heard that music should be asleep, and yet his fire was caught in full course and was quenched.
Aillen, with all the terrific strength of which he was master, blew again, and the great jet of blue flame came roaring and whistling from him and was caught and disappeared.
Panic swirled into the man from Faery; he turned from that terrible spot and fled, not knowing what might be behind, but dreading it as he had never before dreaded anything, and the unknown pursued him; that terrible defence became offence and hung to his heel as a wolf pads by the flank of a bull.
And Aillen was not in his own world! He was in the world of men, where movement is not easy and the very air a burden. In his own sphere, in his own element, he might have outrun Fionn, but this was Fionn’s world, Fionn’s element, and the flying god was not gross enough to outstrip him. Yet what a race he gave, for it was but at the entrance to his own Shi’ that the pursuer got close enough. Fionn put a finger into the thong of the great spear, and at that cast night fell on Aillen mac Midna. His eyes went black, his mind whirled and ceased, there came nothingness where he had been, and as the Birgha whistled into his shoulder-blades he withered away, he tumbled emptily and was dead. Fionn took his lovely head from its shoulders and went back through the night to Tara.
Triumphant Fionn, who had dealt death to a god, and to whom death would be dealt, and who is now dead!
He reached the palace at sunrise.
On that morning all were astir early. They wished to see what destruction had been wrought by the great being, but it was young Fionn they saw and that redoubtable head swinging by its hair. “What is your demand?” said the Ard-Ri’. “The thing that it is right I should ask,” said Fionn: “the command of the Fianna of Ireland.”
“Make your choice,” said Conn to Goll Mor; “you will leave Ireland, or you will place your hand in the hand of this champion and be his man.”
Goll could do a thing that would be hard for another person, and he could do it so beautifully that he was not diminished by any action.
“Here is my hand,” said Goll.
And he twinkled at the stern, young eyes that gazed on him as he made his submission.
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