The Laughter of Peterkin
The Fate of the Sons of Turenn
I will tell you now the old heroic saga of the Fate of the Sons of Turenn: how they paid the great eric laid upon them by Lu the Long-Handed called the Ildanna because of his great wisdom in all magic craft and Dedannan lore; and how at the last their dauntless bravery was as sand before the wind, as mist before the sun, as dew upon the grass.
It is one of the most ancient of tales. Brian, Ur, and Urba, the sons of Turenn, did their great wrong upon Kian, the father of Lu of the Long Hand, and paid their unheard-of and heroic eric, when Bove Derg, the last king of the Dedannans, was still a youth---and that was long before the Children of Lir were changed into four white swans.
No Milesian had been seen in Erin in those days. Nevertheless the power of the Dedannans was already broken, though they were still foremost in green Banba, as the bards loved to call Erin, after a great queen who had reigned there, when the Fairy Host was supreme: for the fierce Fomorian pirates of the north had descended upon them again and again like a devastating plague, and at last their High King, the King of Lochlin, Balor of the Evil Eye, had subdued them into bondage.
Year by year, and that for the fourth part of a year, Balor sent his emissaries to collect tribute. The men were of the greatest and fiercest of the black Fomorians, so called because they were black-haired and black-bearded, with fells as coarse and thick as those of wild boars. These men were dreaded by the Dedannans, for they appeared to be beyond all reach of magic spells, and to have more terrible arms and an invincible power in warfare.
At that time Nuadh of the Silver Hand was High King of Erin. He was the most prudent of all the Dedannan kings; but there were many of the wisest druids and bards even in his own day who lamented that he was over-prudent, and that it would be wiser to risk all in order to regain honour and freedom than to lose all for the sake of an inglorious peace. Nevertheless, so great was the love of life among the people at large, and so keen was their desire to be left at peace by the Fomorians, that Nuadh of the Silver Hand put aside his kinglihood, and agreed to pay both tribute and homage.
The yearly tax laid by Balor of the Evil Eye upon Nuadh of the Silver Hand and all the Dedannan folk, was this: a tax separately upon querns, kneading-troughs, and baking-flags, the three things which every Dedannan had to use. Besides this, there was a tax of one gold ounce for every man and woman of the Tuatha-De-Danann. Every year the people had to assemble at the Hill of Tara, where the High King had his palace, and there submit their tribute with many obeisances to the dark, scowling emissaries of Balor of the Evil Eye.
In one year of the years this happened as before. But after Nuadh of the Silver Hand and all his nobles and druids and all the Dedannans had made humble obeisance before the Fomorians, and while the tribute was being put together, a strange sight was descried.
Coming from the east was a company of lordly men, splendidly arrayed in white with gleaming helmets and shields, and riding tall white horses. These were headed by a youthful champion of so great a stature and so warlike a mien, that all men knew he could be none other than Lu the Long-Handed, son of Kian the Noble. All the northlands and eastlands of Erin were aware of the rumour of his great valour and worth, and there was at that day no champion so feared between the two seas.
Lu, son of Kian, was also of the Dedannans, but he was of the older and rarer branch, and he and his claimed that the Fairy Host, of which they formed the chief ornament, rose or fell by their support. Among the splendid company were the sons of Manannan, son of Lir, the lord of the sea, and other chieftains and brave knights. Yet, as they approached, it was Lu of the Long Hand who held all eyes. Upon his head was a golden helmet, wherefrom gleamed two great shining stones--the eyes of strange gods they seemed to the people. His body was covered with shining armour that was no other than the famous coat of armour of Manannan through which no weapon might pierce; and by his side hung the terrible sword, the "Answerer," which had but one answer for everyone against whom it was raised---death. The horse, too, that Lu rode was the far-famed stallion of Manannan, so swift that the March wind could not overtake him, nor could water, air, or land offer any obstacles to his progress.
A great shout welcomed these champions of the Fairy Host as they drew near, but this shout came from the assemblage outside of Tara; and neither the king nor his lords rose at their approach. The Fomorians scowled and stood apart, and then scornfully resumed their tax-gathering.
When they had finished their task the Fomorians rose and together approached the place where the king sat high among his people.
As they drew near, Nuadh of the Silver Hand and all his lords rose and made humble obeisance.
At this, Lu the Ildanna frowned, and when Lu of the Long Hand frowned his company knew that evil was like to come.
"Tell me, O King," he said haughtily: "why do you make obeisance to these rude, ungainly folk, and did none to us when we approached, to us who are of the old Dedannan race?"
Thereupon Nuadh of the Silver Hand spake the bitterness of truth, and how it was that in order to save the land from devastation, and his people from rapine and outrage, he submitted to the Fomorian yoke. And for the same reason he had not ventured to pay homage to Lu and the Fairy Host, for the Fomorians would have taken this as an insult to Balor of the Evil Eye, and some great evil would have ensued.
Lu smiled scornfully.
"And at the worst, O Nuadh of the Silver Hand, there is a disastrous end and death. What then? Is not death the sure end of all men, and is not disaster the lot of many a hero as well as of many a slave?
"That is so, Ildanna."
"Then why evade that shadow, and all because of fear of these dark pirates out of the north? Is not honour better than safety, and is not shame a worse death than to be slain?"
"Even so, Ildanna. Nevertheless, I wish to avoid vain bloodshed. There can be but one end. Why should I ruin my people?"
"Ruin is not a sure thing, O King: but if it were, better ruin than dishonour."
"Dost thou speak as a lord of high birth, or as one of the common people?"
"I speak as the son of Kian the Noble."
"Even so; but for each noble in my kingdom there are a thousand Dedannans of no rank. I am their king. I speak for them."
For a time thereafter Lu sat brooding. His silence was worse than his scornful words. Nuadh the King saw what was in his mind, and dreaded that he would go forth in his wrath. Thrice he half rose as though to lay hands upon Lu to restrain him, and thrice he sat back uncertain what to do.
Then suddenly Lu rose, and in the eyes of all men drew slowly from its sheath his great white sword. At sight of the "Answerer," there was a shiver among the Dedannans, so great was the terrible fame of this sword, but still more because the drawing of it there and then by Lu of the Long Hand meant that the flame was in his blood.
"Beware !" cried the king.
But Lu laughed a grim laugh. Then, lifting the "Answerer" on high, and knitting his brows into a heavy frown, he sprang in among the Fomorians.
It was like the leap of lightning among wild cattle, that. Hither and thither the Answerer flashed, and at each blow a Fomorian head whirled to the ground; yea, as a sharp prow will divide the wave-crest from the wave, so the great sword severed the head from the shoulders of each Fomorian, shoring through helmet or thick fell of hair as through water.
It was not till a whirlwind of swords flashed and circled around Lu that those about him woke from their stupor. Then with a loud shout the sons of Manannan and others of the Fairy Host leaped forward and joined in the fray.
The Fomorians fought with fury, being wrought to madness by the thought that they were as chaff before these newcomers, in the face of the whole Dedannan nation---for so great was their scorn of the people they held in bondage that death at their hands seemed doubly accursed.
But before Lu of the Long Hand and his Fairy Host there was no withstaying. By tens and scores the Fomorians fell, as swaying grain before the reaper. Everywhere, flashing like a meteor, the white gleam of the Answerer rose and fell, the pulse of death.
At last only nine of the Fomorian pirates survived, and these clustered upon a low rising, and fought desperately to the end. Suddenly the tides of battle ceased, and this was because of the voice of Lu Ildanna.
He looked scornfully at the remnant of the proud Fomorians. These were now sullenly at bay, foreseeing death only, and not unwillingly now that the despised Dedannans had brought them to so sore a pass.
"Let these dogs go!" exclaimed Lu.
At the bitter words, the emissaries of King Balor of Lochlin gripped their swords anew, and ground their teeth in impotent rage. More they could not do, for even in their brief breathing space they saw that they were beset by a hedge of spears.
"Let these dogs go!" Lu said again. Then, addressing them, he added:
"Look ye, ye carrion wolves, we spare your lives only that ye may fare back to your dens in the north, and tell that unkingly king, Balor of the Evil Eye, that which we have done unto your company. And say this also, that if he come hither, we shall do unto him and his, that which we have done unto these dead men who were once your fellows." With that the nine Fomorians departed, scowling fiercely and below their breaths muttering imprecations and menaces.
That night the beacons of joy flared out across valley and plain, from the hill of Tara, and great were the rejoicings throughout the land. Only Nuadh of the Silver Hand dreamed uneasily for that and many other nights; knowing well that Balor of the Evil Eye would not let pass the slight which had been put upon him. And after all, it was but a handful of the Fomorian host which had been slain on the Plains of Tara. Nevertheless, the king hoped that he might be spared the wrath of Balor, for none of the Dedannans whom he ruled had taken part in the fray, but only those who were of the company of Lu of the Long Hand.
Bitter, indeed, was the wrath of Balor, when he heard what had been done to his Fomorian emissaries.
"The Dedannans shall soon be but a memory," he exclaimed; "their kings and nobles shall utterly perish, and of all their race none shall survive save those who shall be slaves for ever to my people. Their very land, that green Erin they are so fain of, shall be no more than an unregarded province of Lochlin."
Thereafter, Balor sent word throughout all Lochlin, from the Cape of the Midnight Sun to the Narrow Seas,¹ and bade all the peoples who owned him king to assemble speedily for war; and in every haven he bade the sea-galleys to be got ready.
This took many weeks, and thereafter was the slow waiting for the coming of spring. But at last all was ready, and then Bras, the son of Balor, led forth the mightiest host which had ever sailed from the shores of Lochlin.
¹ i.e., from the north of Norway to the coasts of Denmark.
This vast concourse of galleys sailed north ward before favouring Winds, and then west-ward along the storm-swept coasts of Alba, and at last southward again by the Hebrid Isles. Thence, with fresh provisions and replenished water-barrels, they sailed towards and round the northern headlands of Erin, and like a great flock of sea-vultures settled upon the coasts of Connaught.
With laughter and fierce disdain the Fomorians spread far and wide, and at once began to despoil the country, and lay waste the tilled lands. In the ears of all rang the arrogant parting words of Balor of the Evil Eye: "And when at the last ye have cut off for me the head of that man Lu, called the Ildanna, then put a mighty cable around this troublesome Isle of Erin, and tow it back with your ships, and lay it alongside the north coasts of our Lochlin."
But meanwhile all the realms of the Tuatha De-Danann were smitten with fear. None dared await the dreaded Fomorians, and everywhere were flying hordes of men and women and children, chariots, horses, and cattle.
The king of Connaught in that day was Bove Derg, son of the Sagda, he who afterwards became the last Dedannan king. Straightway he sent word to Lu Ildanna, begging him to raise a host and succour the men of Connaught, as otherwise not a man would be left to stay the advance of the Fomorians.
Lu of the Long Hand was sorrowful that by his action he had brought this curse upon the lands of Erin, yet he knew that it was better than the old shame. By the Sun and Moon and Wind he swore that he would do all he could to raise a host, and himself give battle to Bras and his Fomorians.
With all speed he hasted to Dunree, and was glad indeed when he saw the Hill of Tara rise from the plain. For of a surety he held that Nuadh of the Silver Hand would join with the princes of Erin and fight the invader.
That surety was in vain. Nuadh refused to go into battle.
"When Bras leads his Fomorians towards the Hill of Tara," he said, "that will be time for me to raise the banner against him."
"Listen, Nuadh of the Silver Hand, art thou not High King?" exclaimed Lu.
"Even so, Ildanna."
"And is not thy first duty to lead the princes of Erin against the invader? If we are all as one, we can laugh at Balor of the Evil Eye and all the host he sends against us. If we are divided we shall surely fall."
But for all the pleadings of Lu Ildanna, Nuadh refused to take the field. He had one answer to all pleas.
Bras and his Fomorian host do no more than lay waste the lands of Connaught. Let then the king of Connaught see to his own. I have sent friendly messages to Balor, and in order to keep the peace have offered alliance and even to pay tribute again. But till war is declared against me I will do nothing."
Furious against Nuadh of the Silver Hand, Lu Ildanna rode away.
"Dust upon thy home," he muttered, "were it not for the ruin upon all Erin. Nevertheless, I have but one thing to do."
Lu had not ridden far, when his heart rejoiced because of three strong warriors he saw approaching.
These were his father Kian and the two brothers of his father, Ald and Art. In that day the seven fairest champions in the north-lands of Erin were Lu himself, Kian and his two brothers, and Brian, Ur, and Urba, the sons of Turenn. Each of these was a host in himself, both because of his own valour and for the great influence that each had upon the clansmen of the north.
In a brief while Lu told all, and begged the aid of these three chiefs for Bove Derg, and not for Bove Derg only, but for the honour and safety of Erin.
Kian and Ald and Art were wroth with the High King.
"The first duty of a king is kinglihood," said Kian.
"And without deathless courage a king is dead," said Ald.
"And without sleepless eyes a king is a sluggard," said Art.
"A king should be to all men what each man would fain be to himself," said Lur." My father Kian says well: the first duty of a king is kinglihood. But since Nuadh of the Silver Hand is fain to rest at ease in his hut, under the safe shadow of Tara, so let him rest. We are men, and must act."
Therewith all took counsel, and while Lu rode westward, to raise all whom he could to succour the men of Connaught, Ald and Art rode southward.
"I shall go north," said Kian.
"Why so?" asked Lu, knowing that it would be best for his father to go eastward.
"The wind bloweth that way," answered Kian lightly. But truly enough none knew that in that answer and in that riding northward, was the beginning of the long and dreadful tragedy of which, for generations thereafter, the bards sang as The Fate of the Sons of Turenn.
* * * * * *
At this point Peterkin rose from where he kneeled beside Eilidh, and went over to Ian Mor and took his hand and looked long at him.
"These words I have heard you say again and again, Ian--Ma tha sin an Dan, if it be Destiny ---what do they mean?"
"I cannot tell you, Peterkin; for to me they mean everything."
"But must Kian come to sorrow because he followed the way of the wind?"
"I cannot tell you, Peterkin. But of this you may be sure, that no man needs to do this or that thing because of the way of the wind or anything else. Only, behind all doings of men there is a wind that blows. That is the wind of Destiny. That is what I meant when I said that Kian, choosing lightly to go the way of the wind, and by his own choice, yet went the way of Fate."
" And is Fate a man?"
"Have you ever seen it?"
"Has anyone ever seen it?"
Peterkin laughed below his breath.
"Ivor Maclean, the boatman, told me that 'an Dan' was only a shadow before and behind, and that none need trouble about a shadow."
"And what do you think, Peterkin?
"I, think that 'an Dan' is only a shadow before and behind; and I laugh to see my shadow, but I do not fear it. It is only a shadow."
"Peterkin is right, Ian," said Eilidh, in a low voice. "And do you remember what was said long ago about wisdom coming out of the mouths of little children?"
"Yes," Ian answered slowly and gravely, "Peterkin is right."
But Peterkin only laughed merrily, as suddenly he sprang up.
"See," he exclaimed, "my shadow has leapt from beside me, till now it is fading along the wall. When I laughed it leapt away."