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Our Little Celtic Cousin of Long Ago by  Evaleen Stein


 

 

ON THE MARCH

[90] FERDIAD found the Kinkora school very interesting. Every day when the weather was pleasant the boys gathered in the cloister courtyard where the monks taught them out of doors. If it was cold or rainy they went inside to a schoolroom where the vellum books were kept in leather satchels hanging from wooden pegs ranged round the walls. The boys all had long narrow tablets of wood coated with wax, and with a slender rod of metal they wrote on these the things they must specially remember. They learned grammar, a little geography in rime, some Latin and various bits of wisdom called "oghams," and every new school year they must memorize at least ten new poems and stories; for these were thought a very important part [91] of school work. Ferdiad and Conn sat side by side and told the stories over and over to each other, and were always delighted to get a new one.

Meantime, Eileen was taught at home, where besides her lessons she learned to spin and sew and weave and embroider. There were several other girls and boys whose foster-parents were among the attendants of the high king and queen, and with these they had many merry times. Conn came often to see them, and as the autumn wore away the boys went nutting and hunting and fishing together.

When winter came it was not very cold, but fires were lighted and in the evenings they played chess and checkers and listened to stories and poems and music; for Brian Boru loved such things and always did his best to encourage scholars and poets and artists.

But though life passed happily enough for the boys and girls, the faces of the older people [92] began to grow more and more anxious as the weeeks went on. Now and again Ferdiad and Eileen would hear talk of some fresh raid by the Danes, who were all the while growing bolder and bolder.

Sometimes Conn came with tales he had heard, and one day he said to Ferdiad: "My foster-father says there's bound to be a fight before long, or those Danes will just settle themselves here in Ireland and we never can drive them out!"

"That's what father Angus thinks, too," said Ferdiad. "He says as soon as spring comes Brian Boru will get all the Celtic kings together and start out after the Danes and there will be a big battle somewhere."

And sure enough, as the winter passed, more and more messengers came and went from Kinkora as the high king completed his plans; and every one around the palace talked of the Danes and how they must be conquered.

[93] "Do you know, Ferdiad," said Conn excitedly one day, "folks say the banshee Aibell has been seen by the O'Brien of Killaloe, and she has given him a magic cloak that will make him invisible as he fights in the battle?"

"Who is Aibell?" asked Ferdiad.

"Oh, I forgot," said Conn, "you haven't lived here long enough to know. She is the fairy queen who specially guards the flaith O'Brien. He's a great champion who lives at Killaloe, not far from here. Aibell is famous around here and her palace is under the rock of Craglea in a glen near the O'Briens' home.

"Well," said Ferdiad, "I hadn't heard about Aibell, but I did hear that a flock of roysten crows flew eastward last night, and some say the battle witches often take the shape of crows and fly ahead when war is coming."

The next day the two boys had still more exciting things to talk about. "Oh, Conn!" [94] cried Ferdiad, "what do you think? We  are going too! The high king will take along quite a number of the boys from here to run errands, and father Angus says that you can go with the group with the palace because you and I are such friends!"

"Oh, good!" cried Conn, his eyes dancing. "My foster-father and my own father both are going with the soldiers and I suppose quite an army will start from here."

"Yes," said Ferdiad, "some of the Celtic kings and their soldiers will come here to start with Brian Boru and the rest will meet him in the kingdom of Meath, near where the river Liffey empties into the sea, and I am sure my own father, too, will be with the Meath army. They say a lot of the Danes have been camping all winter at the Ford of the Hurdles, and the high King means to attack them somewhere near there."

So the preparations went on; and by and by, [95] when April came and the hawthorn trees began to bloom and the fields were full of buttercups, the Celtic kings with their poets and attendants began to arrive in chariots, while their soldiers followed on foot. The more important folks were entertained inside the dun, and the common soldiers pitched their tents in the fields without.

In a few days more Eileen and her mother waved a tearful good-by to Angus and Ferdiad and Conn as they took their places in the great host that wound out of the dun and across the fields to the east. At the head went Brian Boru and after him the kings and flaiths riding in chariots, while the poets cantered along on horseback, their musical branches tinkling and their heads full of the battle songs they would chant when the time came. There were also musicians and story tellers and jugglers to provide entertainment when they camped at night, and doctors and priests to attend those who [96] would be wounded and dying in the fight. The soldiers trudged along on foot and the baggage followed in ox-carts. Ferdiad and Conn and the other boys marched along with the rest and whenever they were wanted to carry messages or do any service the buglers called them, and when they got tired marching they could climb in the ox-carts and ride for a while.

"How long will it take us to get to the sea-coast? Do you know?" asked Conn of Ferdiad.

"Father Angus said it would be over a week," said Ferdiad, "but I don't care how long it takes. I think it will be lots of fun, especially when we camp at night!"

And Ferdiad was right. The boys greatly enjoyed the march, and, best of all, the evenings when the tents were pitched, the protecting wall of earth thrown up around the camp, the fires made and supper being cooked. Later on, when the great king's-candle was lighted [97] at the door of Brian Boru's tent, story telling and singing and all sorts of fun went on.

At last they drew near the mouth of the river Liffey and began to smell the salt air of the sea; and on a plain near its shore they made their camp. Close behind rose the Hill of Howth, and not far off the sea glittered and gleamed as the ebbing waves laid bare a wide strand of boulders covered with long green water weeds. By and by, when the tide would come sweeping in, the great foaming breakers would roar and rumble over the stones like a herd of angry, bellowing bulls, and for this reason the Celtic people called the seashore there "Clontarf," which means in their language the "Lawn of the Bulls," a name which it bears to this day.

Ferdiad and Conn, who had not before seen the ocean, delighted in watching the curling green breakers and wading out as far as they dared. But they did not have much time to [98] play, as the next day, which was Palm Sunday, they had many errands to do.

On that morning all the other Celtic kings joined Brian Boru's army, bringing with them their hosts of fighting men dressed, as were all the rest of the Celtic soldiers, in tunics of yellow linen; they had no armor because they thought it cowardly to wear it and protected only their heads with leather helmets and the front of their legs from the knee down with pieces of brown leather. The kings and flaiths did not wear even these, but were arrayed in silk and gay linen bratts and tunics and gold chains and bracelets quite as if they were going to a feast instead of a fight.

Ferdiad and Conn were very busy for the next three or four days, and finally, Thursday evening, Ferdiad said, "I believe they will fight soon now. I wouldn't wonder if it will be to-morrow!"

"Why," said Conn, "that's Good Friday! [99] I shouldn't think Brian Boru would pick such a holy day to fight. You know he is so religious."

"He is," said Ferdiad, "but I heard the soldiers talking about a prophecy of a Dane soothsayer. I don't know how the found out about it, but the prophecy says if the battle is on Good Friday our Celts will win, though the high king will be killed. Of course nobody wants Brian Boru killed, but the soldiers say they want to fight to-morrow on account of the first part of the prophecy and that they can ward off the last part easy enough as they are sure the high king won't be in the fight because of the day and they will keep an extra strong guard around him besides."

"What does Brian Boru say?" asked Conn. "Did you hear?"

"They say he has the battle all planned and is willing for it to be to-morrow, though, as the soldiers thought, he himself won't touch weapons on Good Friday because it's against [100] his religion. It seems to me he is too old to fight anyway!"

"Don't you think it!" said Conn. "He is mighty brave and a good fighter yet, if he is  'way past eighty!"

That night there were no poets' songs nor story telling nor jugglers' tricks, for everybody was on the alert for the coming battle. The two boys curled up side by side in one of the ox-carts and, like all the rest of the Celtic host on this night, they did not take off their clothes. Far off in the distance they could see the watch-fires of the Danes at the Ford of Hurdles, and they went to sleep talking excitedly of the morrow.


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