MAN IT was, almost as skilled in darkness as Fionn himself "This is no enemy," Fionn thought; "his walking is open."
"Who comes?" he called.
"A friend," said the newcomer.
"Give a friend's name," said Fionn.
"Fiacuil mac Cona," was the answer.
"Ah, my pulse and heart!" cried Fionn, and he strode a few paces to meet the great robber who had fostered him among the marshes.
"So you are not afraid," he said joyfully.
"I am afraid in good truth," Fiacuil whispered, "and the minute my business with you is finished I will trot back as quick as legs will carry me. May the gods protect my going as they protected my coming," said the robber piously.
"Amen," said Fionn, "and now, tell me what you have come for?"
"Have you any plan against this lord of the Shf?" Fiacuil whispered.
"I will attack him," said Fionn.
"That is not a plan," the other groaned, "we do not plan to deliver an attack hut to win a victory."
"Is this a very terrible person?" Fionn asked.
"Terrible indeed. No one can get near him or away from him. He comes out of the Shi' playing sweet, low music on a timpan and a pipe, and all who hear this music fall asleep."
"I will not fall asleep," said Fionn.
"You will indeed, for everybody does."
"What happens then?" Fionn asked.
"When all are asleep Aillen mac Midna blows a dart of fire out of his mouth, and everything that is touched by that fire is destroyed, and he can blow his fire to an incredible distance and to any direction."
"You are very brave to come to help me," Fionn murmured, "especially when you are not able to help me at all."
"I can help," Fiacuil replied, "but I must be paid."
"A third of all you earn and a seat at your council."
"I grant that," said Fionn, "and now, tell me your plan?"
"You remember my spear with the thirty rivets of Arabian gold in its socket?"
"The one," Fionn queried, "that had its head wrapped in a blanket and was stuck in a bucket of water and was chained to a wall as well--the venomous Birgha?" "That one," Fiacuil replied.
"It is Aillen mac Midna's own spear," he continued, "and it was taken out of his Shi' by your father."
"Well?" said Fionn, wondering nevertheless where Fiacuil got the spear, but too generous to ask.
"When you hear the great man of the Shi' coming, take the wrappings off the head of the spear and bend your face over it; the heat of the spear, the stench of it, all its pernicious and acrid qualities will prevent you from going to sleep."
"Are you sure of that?" said Fionn.
"You couldn't go to sleep close to that stench; nobody could," Fiacuil replied decidedly.
He continued: "Aillen mac Midna will be off his guard when he stops playing and begins to blow his fire; he will think everybody is asleep; then you can deliver the attack you were speaking of, and all good luck go with it."
"I will give him back his spear," said Fionn.
"Here it is," said Fiacuil, taking the Birgha from under his cloak. "But be as careful of it, my pulse, be as frightened of it as you are of the man of Dana."
"I will be frightened of nothing," said Fionn, "and the only person I will be sorry for is that Aillen mac Midna, who is going to get his own spear back."
"I will go away now," his companion whispered, "for it is growing darker where you would have thought there was no more room for darkness, and there is an eerie feeling abroad which I do not like. That man from the Shi' may come any minute, and if I catch one sound of his music I am done for."
The robber went away and again Fionn was alone.
He listened to the retreating footsteps until they could be heard no more, and the one sound that came to his tense ears was the beating of his own heart.
Even the wind had ceased, and there seemed to be nothing in the world but the darkness and himself. In that gigantic blackness, in that unseen quietude and vacancy, the mind could cease to be personal to itself. It could be overwhelmed and merged in space, so that consciousness would be transferred or dissipated, and one might sleep standing; for the mind fears loneliness more than all else, and will escape to the moon rather than be driven inwards on its own being.
But Fionn was not lonely, and he was not afraid when the son of Midna came.
A long stretch of the silent night had gone by, minute following minute in a slow sequence, wherein as there was no change there was no time; wherein there was no past and no future, but a stupefying, endless present which is almost the annihilation of consciousness. A change came then, for the clouds had also been moving and the moon at last was sensed behind them--not as a radiance, but as a percolation of light, a gleam that was strained through matter after matter and was less than the very wraith or remembrance of itself; a thing seen so narrowly, so sparsely, that the eye could doubt if it was or was not seeing, and might conceive that its own memory was re-creating that which was still absent.
But Fionn's eye was the eye of a wild creature that spies on darkness and moves there wittingly. He saw, then, not a thing but a movement; something that was darker than the darkness it loomed on; not a being but a presence, and, as it were, impending pressure. And in a little he heard the deliberate pace of that great being.
Fionn bent to his spear and unloosed its coverings.
Then from the darkness there came another sound; a low, sweet sound; thrillingly joyous, thrillingly low; so low the ear could scarcely note it, so sweet the ear wished to catch nothing else and would strive to hear it rather than all sounds that may be heard by man: the music of another world! the unearthly, dear melody of the Shi'! So sweet it was that the sense strained to it, and having reached must follow drowsily in its wake, and would merge in it, and could not return again to its own place until that strange harmony was finished and the ear restored to freedom.
But Fionn had taken the covering from his spear, and with his brow pressed close to it he kept his mind and all his senses engaged on that sizzling, murderous point.
The music ceased and Aillen hissed a fierce blue flame from his mouth, and it was as though he hissed lightning.
Here it would seem that Fionn used magic, for spreading out his fringed mantle he caught the flame. Rather he stopped it, for it slid from the mantle and sped down into the earth to the depth of twenty-six spans; from which that slope is still called the Glen of the Mantle, and the rise on which Aillen stood is known as the Ard of Fire.
One can imagine the surprise of Aillen mac Midna, seeing his fire caught and quenched by an invisible hand. And one can imagine that at this check he might be frightened, for who would be more terrified than a magician who sees his magic fail, and who, knowing of power, will guess at powers of which he has no conception and may well dread.
Everything had been done by him as it should be done. His pipe had been played and his timpan, all who heard that music should be asleep, and yet his fire was caught in full course and was quenched.
Aillen, with all the terrific strength of which he was master, blew again, and the great jet of blue flame came roaring and whistling from him and was caught and disappeared.
Panic swirled into the man from Faery; he turned from that terrible spot and fled, not knowing what might be behind, but dreading it as he had never before dreaded anything, and the unknown pursued him; that terrible defence became offence and hung to his heel as a wolf pads by the flank of a bull.
And Aillen was not in his own world! He was in the world of men, where movement is not easy and the very air a burden. In his own sphere, in his own element, he might have outrun Fionn, but this was Fionn's world, Fionn's element, and the flying god was not gross enough to outstrip him. Yet what a race he gave, for it was but at the entrance to his own Shi' that the pursuer got close enough. Fionn put a finger into the thong of the great spear, and at that cast night fell on Aillen mac Midna. His eyes went black, his mind whirled and ceased, there came nothingness where he had been, and as the Birgha whistled into his shoulder-blades he withered away, he tumbled emptily and was dead. Fionn took his lovely head from its shoulders and went back through the night to Tara.
Triumphant Fionn, who had dealt death to a god, and to whom death would be dealt, and who is now dead!
He reached the palace at sunrise.
On that morning all were astir early. They wished to see what destruction had been wrought by the great being, but it was young Fionn they saw and that redoubtable head swinging by its hair. "What is your demand?" said the Ard-Ri'. "The thing that it is right I should ask," said Fionn: "the command of the Fianna of Ireland."
"Make your choice," said Conn to Goll Mor; "you will leave Ireland, or you will place your hand in the hand of this champion and be his man."
Goll could do a thing that would be hard for another person, and he could do it so beautifully that he was not diminished by any action.
"Here is my hand," said Goll.
And he twinkled at the stern, young eyes that gazed on him as he made his submission.