HE HIGH KING did not know where exactly he should look for such a saviour, but he was well educated and knew how to look for whatever was lacking. This knowledge will he useful to those upon whom a similar duty should ever devolve.
He went to Ben Edair. He stepped into a coracle and pushed out to the deep, and he permitted the coracle to go as the winds and the waves directed it.
In such a way he voyaged among the small islands of the sea until he lost all knowledge of his course and was adrift far out in ocean. He was under the guidance of the stars and the great luminaries.
He saw black seals that stared and barked and dived dancingly, with the round turn of a bow and the forward onset of an arrow. Great whales came heaving from the green-hued void, blowing a wave of the sea high into the air from their noses and smacking their wide flat tails thunder-ously on the water. Porpoises went snorting past in bands and clans. Small fish came sliding and flickering, and all the outlandish creatures of the deep rose by his bobbing craft and swirled and sped away.
Wild storms howled by him so that the boat climbed painfully to the sky on a mile-high wave, balanced for a tense moment on its level top, and sped down the glassy side as a stone goes furiously from a sling.
Or, again, caught in the chop of a broken sea, it stayed shuddering and backing, while above his head there was only a low sad sky, and around him the lap and wash of grey waves that were never the same and were never different.
After long staring on the hungry nothingness of air and water he would stare on the skin-stretched fabric of his boat as on a strangeness, or he would examine his hands and the texture of his skin and the stiff black hairs that grew behind his knuckles and sprouted around his ring, and he found in these things newness and wonder.
Then, when days of storm had passed, the low grey clouds shivered and cracked in a thousand places, each grim islet went scudding to the horizon as though terrified by some great breadth, and when they had passed he stared into vast after vast of blue infinity, in the depths of which his eyes stayed and could not pierce, and wherefrom they could scarcely be withdrawn. A sun beamed thence that filled the air with sparkle and the sea with a thousand lights, and looking on these he was reminded of his home at Tara: of the columns of white and yellow bronze that blazed out sunnily on the sun, and the red and white and yellow painted roofs that beamed at and astonished the eye.
Sailing thus, lost in a succession of days and nights, of winds and calms, he came at last to an island.
His back was turned to it, and long before he saw it he smelled it and wondered; for he had been sitting as in a daze, musing on a change that had seemed to come in his changeless world; and for a long time he could not tell what that was which made a difference on the salt-whipped wind or why he should be excited. For suddenly he had become excited and his heart leaped in violent expectation.
"It is an October smell," he said.
"It is apples that I smell."
He turned then and saw the island, fragrant with apple trees, sweet with wells of wine; and, hearkening towards the shore, his ears, dulled yet with the unending rhythms of the sea, distinguished and were filled with song; for the isle was, as it were, a nest of birds, and they sang joyously, sweetly, triumphantly.
He landed on that lovely island, and went forward under the darting birds, under the apple boughs, skirting fragrant lakes about which were woods of the sacred hazel and into which the nuts of knowledge fell and swam; and he blessed the gods of his people because of the ground that did not shiver and because of the deeply rooted trees that could not gad or budge.
Having gone some distance by these pleasant ways he saw a shapely house dozing in the sunlight.
It was thatched with the wings of birds, blue wings and yellow and white wings, and in the centre of the house there was a door of crystal set in posts of bronze.
The queen of this island lived there, Rigru (Large-eyed), the daughter of Lodan, and wife of Daire Degamra. She was seated on a crystal throne with her son Segda by her side, and they welcomed the High King courteously.
There were no servants in this palace; nor was there need for them. The High King found that his hands had washed themselves, and when later on he noticed that food had been placed before him he noticed also that it had come without the assistance of servile hands. A cloak was laid gently about his shoulders, and he was glad of it, for his own was soiled by exposure to sun and wind and water, and was not worthy of a lady's eye.
Then he was invited to eat.
He noticed, however, that food had been set for no one but himself, and this did not please him, for to eat alone was contrary to the hospitable usage of a king, and was contrary also to his contract with the gods.
"Good, my hosts," he remonstrated, "it is geasa (taboo) for me to eat alone."
"But we never eat together," the queen replied.
"I cannot violate my geasa," said the High King.
"I will eat with you," said Segda (Sweet Speech), "and thus, while you are our guest you will not do violence to your vows."
"Indeed," said Conn, "that will be a great satisfaction, for I have already all the trouble that I can cope with and have no wish to add to it by offending the gods."
"What is your trouble?" the gentle queen asked. "During a year," Conn replied, "there has been neither corn nor milk in Ireland. The land is parched, the trees are withered, the birds do not sing in Ireland, and the bees do not make honey."
"You are certainly in trouble," the queen assented.
"But," she continued, "for what purpose have you come to our island?"
"I have come to ask for the loan of your son."
"A loan of my son!"
"I have been informed," Conn explained, "that if the son of a sinless couple is brought to Tara and is bathed in the waters of Ireland the land will be delivered from those ills."
The king of this island, Daire, had not hitherto spoken, but he now did so with astonishment and emphasis.
"We would not lend our son to any one, not even to gain the kingship of the world," said he.
But Segda, observing that the guest's countenance was discomposed, broke in:
"It is not kind to refuse a thing that the Ard-Ri' of Ireland asks for, and I will go with him."
"Do not go, my pulse," his father advised.
"Do not go, my one treasure," his mother pleaded.
"I must go indeed," the boy replied, "for it is to do good I am required, and no person may shirk such a requirement."
"Go then," said his father, "but I will place you under the protection of the High King and of the Four Provincial Kings of Ireland, and under the protection of Art, the son of Conn, and of Fionn, the son of Uail, and under the protection of the magicians and poets and the men of art in Ireland." And he thereupon bound these protections and safeguards on the Ard-Ri' with an oath.
"I will answer for these protections," said Conn.