The Red Whistler

Ethna Carbery
Chapter IX

IN the land of Eirinn there was no palace so wonderful and so beautiful as the Great House of the Thousands of Soldiers which stood within the Rath of the Kings on the gentle green slope of Tara. Cormac Mac Art had rebuilt it, since the last burning, with added magnificence, until it had become as a vast gem with the glitter of silver and bronze and precious polished woods. Red yew carved and emblazoned with gold made the door-posts and the interior of the hall; bronze shutters were to every window; vessels of gold and silver stood tall upon the hospitable board, and over the sitting-place of each warrior hung his well-kept shining arms of valour.

Cormac the King was there in his royal seat, and beside him Fionn Mac Cumhaill. Oisin swept his harp-strings into rousing battle-strains, yet the King heard not; his ear was bent for the fall of fairy feet that came southward from Slieve Cullain, and his heart was sad for the coming destruction of his noble house.

Now, the manner of the burning of Tara was this: Once a year, on the eve of Samhain, the Tuatha De Danaan, who had been vanquished and driven from the land over which they once ruled into rath and hollow hillside, where they had become expert in enchantment and subtle magic arts, came forth into the world again with power over their conquerors. Naught could withstand their fairy craft, nor could all the searching of the stars inspire the Druids as to how this superb palace might be saved from the pitiless tongues of flame blown against it by the Dedanaan people.

It was Midna, the chief enchanter, who sent his son Ailinn every year against Tara. He came out from Slieve Cullain in Ulster, whistling the music of sleep on his fedan, and none who listened could keep his eyelids open. Kings, warriors, and serving-men sank at the table or in the council-hall, and in the dawn of day they wakened unhurt amid the ashes of the ruined splendour.

Cormac had sought advice from Fionn Mac Cumhaill as to how this disaster could be averted, and Fionn, putting his Thumb of Knowledge to his mouth said straightway,

"I shall seek Fiach Mac Conga, who was a brother-in-arms of my father. A magic spear he hath, and wisdom to guide us aright."

Said Fiach Mac Conga to Fionn, giving him the magic spear, "When you hear the fairy music and the sweet-stringed tympan and the melodious-sounding fedan, uncover the blade of this spear and apply its sharp edge to your forehead. Sleep will then keep far from you, until Ailinn comes within reach. Follow him, and he will die like mortal man through the piercing of its flying point."

This was the comfort Fionn brought to Cormac as they waited on the fateful night for the coming of the Red Whistler. Ears were strained in listening, and the keen, swift-glancing eyes of war-worn nobles grew shadowy with anticipation.

Slowly and sweetly, through the starlight, the music came down the bare arches of the wood.

"I hear my mother's voice," said an old man, speaking before the King could speak.

"And I the last sob of my son who fell in battle," said another.

"Ah!" cried Cormac, hiding his paling face in his robe, "It is a woman's singing voice I hear, and I see the shine of a woman's hair: my first love, and my Heart's Delight, who is dead."

In the eyes of the Queen horror struggled with drowsiness as an old memory rose and taunted her.

Nearer and nearer the silvern haunting strains approached. Heavier the sleep fell upon shrinking eyelids.

Said Coilte slumberously:

"It is a child I am, and my head is laid against my father's knee." He stretched his huge frame upon the yielding rushes.

And Oisin, with groping fingers across his harp-strings—

"I have a vision .... her eyes speak .... she calls my name .... I come .... I come .... It is the Land of Youth .... I come."

His voice trailed off into forgetfulness.

"Hark, hark, it is the Dord Fianna and the hunting-song," whispered Goll Mac Morna in his beard, and he, too, passed away into dreaming.

So, one by one, the warriors listened and sank helplessly to the ground. To each the fedan-player bore a message, and where one saw sorrow, another saw joy.

Some there were who saw fear only; fear of a moving battle-place and spouting blood. These shuddered as the fairy sleep overtook them.

"Pierce me, O Spear," cried Fionn, "that the enchantment may be withstood."

Plaintive and wondrously sweet, like an echo over moonlit waves, he heard tender tones calling.

"It is Berach the Freckled, whom I once wooed," he groaned. "Her voice was ever sweeter than the linnet in the springtime."

Around him it played. His grey hair was stirred by it; he felt the ripples of music on his face.

"Deeper, deeper, O Spear. Bring blood between my eyelids lest I fail." And he drove the point into his high wrinkled forehead.

The music was below and above him now, floating into his heart, filling his brain, bearing his soul away on wings.

"O Spear, leap out of my hand that is afraid to pierce deep enough. Pierce thou, O Spear!" and he loosed his hold.

It sank between his brows in a swift bound. The red tide came flowing.

Fionn thrust the stream aside with one hand, and saw, nearing the Royal House, the fairy Whistler.

He was clad in scarlet from head to heel. His hair, coal-black, came curling from beneath a scarlet cap, and his berry-tinted, beardless lips were curved around his fedan.

As he played flames came and went with his breath on the air. So near were they at times that the doorposts were licked with fire. Fionn waited.

The Whistler crossed the threshold, and as he moved on the wavering flames touched Goll Mac Morna's bratta.

Then Fionn sprang up with a loud cry, which echoed like peals of thunder in that hall of sleep. The red figure before him seemed made of fire as he chased it through the night. Down the leafless wood, over brown sodden bogs in which its passing shadow danced and glimmered, he tracked it. By its magic potency it crossed, unwet, the wide shining river of Boyne, where Angus dwelt.

It bounded like a blood-soaked arrow from end to end of the grey-green valleys, and glowed as a beacon on the high-crested hills. Close did Fionn follow unafraid. He held the spear in his right hand ready for the cast; he shook the beads of sweat from his hair, which strayed backward on the wind, and on his lips was a prayer to the gods of his fathers.

Faster, faster, O son of Cumhaill, and noble chieftain of the Fianna. Faster, oh faster, for the sombre crown of Slieve Cullain lowers through the dark, and the Tuatha De Danaan are ready to bring thee captive to their underworld.

Faster, oh, faster. The spear leaps, bounds, pants between thy fingers; its slender length quivers with life; its point is as a star showing thee the way.

Then Fionn put forth his hunting speed. Swifter than a deer he dashed over the rocky ground, wary as a hawk might swoop upon its prey he tracked the Red Whistler to his lair, and when the rock-door slowly opened in the rugged side of Slieve Cullain he lifted high the hand that held the spear, and let it go. It hissed and glittered in its passage through the air, and still hissing and glittering it struck the Red Whistler, piercing him to the marrow. He fell, face downwards, half in and half out of the fairy doorway.

Then Fionn drew nigh cautiously, lest the Tuatha de Danaan might weave their spells about him; and he pulled the spear from the body of Ailinn. When he looked at it there was no blood upon the point, only a moisture that shone with changing hues as dew might under the silver glow of a summer moon.

Thereafter Cormac Mac Art had peace and joy in Tara. The bards sang the praises of Fionn, and from the meshes of her long fair hair Princess Grainne gazed upon him. The wonder in her eyes was very sweet, so sweet that he felt the quickening of his pulses as in the remote passionate days of his youth."

"Let her be mine, O King," he said, and Cormac replied, "Even so."

Thereat Grainne smiled radiantly in consent, not dreaming yet of a young brown face which was to make her destiny and give to Eirinn the tenderest love-tale that was ever told.

A Chrioch