The Shearing of the Fairy Fleeces

THE King had listened day after day to the rambling tales that were brought him by the mountain people and the people of the valley, and while he watched the fear that lurked behind their wide-open eyes his own narrowed in thought as to how this panic that had seized upon his subjects could be assuaged. That there was in truth some serious cause for their misery of mind he could not doubt. He had hearkened with them to the bleating of the phantom sheep echoing clear from the high-peaked summits far above; and gazing from the doorway of his royal dún he had seen the snow-white flocks moving hither and thither over the heather where the mountain folk had their homes in the mist-wreathed caves. His Druids had sought knowledge from the stars in their night vigils, and returned with awed faces to tell the futility of their research.

"It is not for us to probe, O King, the designs of the Immortals. The hand of Manannan-Mac-Lir is visible in the heavens, and these are his fairy flocks that appear before the eyes of men but rarely in the passing of the ages. Whether it be for good or evil that he hath shown them to us now we know not, save that it were unwise to meddle with the manifestations of the Gods."

"Alas! my people are withering away before mine eyes," said the King, "and the sick are groaning on their couches while the white fear clutches at their heart-strings. Can nought be done to appease the anger of the Sea-god, or can ye discover therefore his wrath is turned against us?"

"We shall go back to our vigils, O Monarch, and in the dawning bring thee whatever tidings may be vouchsafed to us," they answered humbly, wending forth from the royal presence; weary because of their long night watches, yet eager to fathom the mystery of the dread apparition that had caused such woe to the people of Sorcha.

Then the King bent his thoughtful gaze on the kneeling throng, looking longest at the shaggy mountaineers clad in their barbaric garments of fur and hard-tanned leather. Their hair and beards grew in wild profusion, and on their hunting-spear handles were traces of newly dried blood. They began to talk hurriedly, and in uncouth speech, lifting up hands of supplication.

"What is it that ye have seen, and what do ye dread?" spake the King to them in soothing wise, and like the roar of a tumbling torrent came the clamour of their words.

"We have heard round our homes at twilight in the high secret places of the hills, O King, the bleating from a great sheep-fold, and when we followed whither it led, we became enveloped in clouds of mist so that many of our number, slipping from the narrow pathways, were dashed to pieces on the rocks below. The bleating and trampling of feet still came to us out of the mist as if a multitude were behind, and when we stretched our arms into it, it broke apart and floated upward like huge flakes of snow. Now the sound is heard all over the mountains, so that our people are frozen in the horror of a great fear, and dare not ven-ture forth to kill the wild animals that give them food. Our flocks have fled down into the valley, even as we have done, in terror. The hunger is on us, and the sickness hath caught our women and little ones. And the demnaeoir (the demons of the air) are shrieking round us in the winds, and the geinte glindi (the wild people of the glens), are treading in our footsteps everywhere, until we know not where to go, and for very horror pray the Gods to give us death."

"And we," said the dwellers of the valley, "also live in the shadow of this great fear, O King, for our eyes are ever turned upward towards the mountains, while our fields are left untilled and our work undone because of this cruel fascination that is on us. The bean-sidhe's wail is heard from end to end of the valley, chasing sleep from us in the night hours, and the dogs shrink shuddering with bristling hair, when our women would drive them from the hearth-stones into the open day." The King moaned wearily, rocking from side to side on his gilded throne. His heart was warm for even the least of his subjects, and his wise ruling had kept peace in the land for many years. This disaster was none of his bringing, nor did one of those fear-drawn faces look at him with eyes of blame.

"When the next dawn breaks," he said to them in tender tones, "I shall climb to the summit of those high hills with ye, my children, and if the Gods be kind mayhap Manannan-Mac-Lir will grant speech to me. Moreover, my Druids shall offer gifts in propitiation—gold and silver and precious stones—aye holocausts of cattle from my pastures that this curse may be taken off me and mine."

And kissing the hem of his royal robe they left the hall of audience, hushed into silence by the sorrow in the voice of the King.

The territory of Sorcha lay within a long high chain of mountains which guarded it on east and north and west, but sloped to the south, where the sea broke on a white sandy beach in the shelter of great protecting cliffs. There the King's royal house stood like a sentinel, and from his watch-tower the vast horizon was visible so that no encroachment of hostile ships could come unseen within reach of the land; nor could one single stranger cross the outer boundary unknown to the captains of the army, so closely and minutely was the territory kept secure from foreign invasion. It was through his exceeding care for his people and their lands, that King Feredach had gained his title of the Generous, and wide-spread renown had haloed his name as with a glory.

Now his soul had grown sick within him at the trouble overshadowing his kingdom. He still sat, after the last suppliant had left the hall, brooding over the inexplicable panic that bade fair to turn his beautiful fertile country into waste of loneliness and want. As he leaned forward, his grey beard sweeping his breast, and his eyes glaring glassily downwards, a stranger, entering the wide doorway, came up the rush-strewn floor and bent in salutation before him.

"Hail! O King Feredach," he said, "I would have speech with thee."

The King lifted his eyes and saw a man clad in wonderful garments of colour like the changing skin of the sea-snake, and round his waist a golden snake was coiled for girdle, while over all a mantle of green, with the shifting shining hues of the sea in moonlight, was thrown, which trailed behind him on the floor. His hair was a bright ruddy golden, and on it lay a crown of wondrous sea-weeds still sparkling with the salt-moisture of the deep. His face was young and fair, and open, with clear quick-flashing eyes; and his height was beyond that of any man in Sorcha. In his hand he held a pair of immense glittering sharp shears.

"Who art thou?" said Feredach, "and how comest thou to pass my guards below, for no man enters my presence unannounced?"

"Not one of thy guards saw me, O King, for they are hiding their faces from the sun, and their ears were deaf to my footfalls. I have travelled far to take from thy people the panic that hath fallen on them."

"Thy name?"

"My name is but the name of a wanderer, O King, a rover of the sea; a vendor of marvellous silks and curios from many lands. Wherever such are to be found I follow in pursuit; and having heard how thy kingdom is distressed with signs and tokens of the enmity of the Gods, I, who know no fear, have come to find the fairy flock and shear their fleeces so that thy misery may be ended."

" 'Twill be death to thee," said the King, "since no man can discover them."

"Yet shall I find their hiding-places," spoke the sea-stranger, "and do thou bide here on thy throne until I return."

At the command in his voice the King sat moveless, nor did the guards ranged down the audience-hall seem to see or hear.

And while the King waited, sitting erect as a statue of stone, morn gave place to noon, and noon glided gently towards the arms of sunset. Then when the vast portals of the West were opened for the passing of the Day God, the stranger re-entered the palace-hall in the radiance of the fading splendour. In his arms he held, piled high, white masses of finest silky wool, such as had never been seen before in Sorcha, so soft it was, so great in length, so snowy in colour.

He held the fleeces out before the King. "The blight hath gone from thy people, O Feredach, nor shall the bleating of the flocks molest them more. Thy valleys shall grow green again, and the wild boar return to thy mountains. For me, I go to the Land of Eirinn—to the looms of the Dé-Danaans in the heart of a lonely hill, that an invisible cloak may be woven out of these fleeces for my foster-son, the young Champion of Uladh, Cuchulainn. It shall protect him in battle from wounds, and in peace from sickness; nor shall aught have power over it save the people of the Sea. It has been shorn from the Sheep of Manannan, that roam invisible over many mountains of the world, and whose appearance before the eyes of men is attended with great disaster—through no ill-will of the God's. Fare thee well, O King, my task is finished."

"Stay, thou wise stranger," cried Feredach, grasping at the sea-green cloak, but his hand closed upon empty air, and instead of a footfall there was but faintly heard a placid murmur as of waves breaking upon a pebbly strand.

"It was Manannan-Mac-Lir, himself," said the Druids, blanched with awe. "It was the Deity of the Waters, for as we looked from the watch-tower we saw a long white narrow wave creep up the shore even to the door of thy dun, O King, and on the crest of it rose and fell a silver sea-chariot, with four white swift-footed horses yoked thereto, into which he stepped bearing the fleeces, and while we strained our eyes the white wave subsided into the ocean with a high-splashing of reddened foam as the Sun went through the Golden Gates."

"Praise to the Gods," said Feredach.

"Praise. And to thee, O King," chanted the Druids.

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