Illustration of Goll fighting the witch


A THICK white sea-mist lay like a woolly fleece over Dublin and had drifted inland as far as Gleann-na-smol—the Glen of the Thrushes—and Fionn, glancing outside the door of his hunting-cabin, thought regretfully of the plan he had formed overnight for a deer-hunt, and how little prospect there seemed of its fulfilment this morning, when objects only a few yards distant were completely hidden by the mist. Still, he remembered many a good day that had begun with a misty morning, and calling Oisin, he told him to waken the rest of the hunting-party and leash the hounds, he himself taking his two favourite hounds, Bran and Sgeolan.
      They climbed the hill above the glen, stumbling over the rough, narrow paths made by mountain cattle; for, between the darkness of the early autumn morning and the fog they could not see plainly where they were going. Then, as the mist lifted a little, Fionn bade them unleash the hounds, and soon the Fians knew, by the excited yelping and barking of their dogs, that they had started something from its lair in the tall bracken and hazel- bushes growing near.
      Soon a curiously marked deer, with one side all white, and the other all black, flashed by them, and the Fians followed on its track. For many hours they continued the chase, but even Bran, the swiftest of all the Fians' hounds, could not overtake the deer, and when the darkness of night came on the Fians lost all trace of their dogs and the hunted animal, nor did they quite know in what part of the country they were.
      They were very perplexed, not knowing which way to go in order to find their hounds, and Conan mac Morna, who was very cross, began to abuse Fionn.
      " It would have been better for me to have stopped in my bed this day," said Conan, "instead of trailing through the country at your heels, who haven't as much sense as would enable you to keep your dogs with you. Although people talk of your wisdom and foreknowledge, it's little enough I see of it, and I think I've twice as much myself. Indeed I think, too, that I should make a much better chief of the Fianna than you do, and it is a perpetual wonder to me that the Fians do not depose you, and elect me in your place."
      Fionn and all his party were tired and hungry, but they shouted with laughter at Conan. He was regarded as the jester of the Fianna Eireann, and no matter how rude and scoffing his speeches were, no one heeded them. Then, as there was still no sign of the dogs returning, Oisin said to Fionn:
      "Can you not divine for us, father, where they have gone or what has happened to them?"
      Fionn placed his thumb of knowledge to his mouth, and after a short time answered:
      "Alas, of all our brave and sweet-tongued dogs who followed the deer only Bran will return to us!"
      The Fians were in deep and silent despair when they heard Fionn speak witli such certainty. The loss of their hounds would be a great calamity, for they had brought with them only the best trained and the swiftest. Even Conan was silent, then he burst out:
      "Never yet, O Fionn, have I been out with you that you did not get me into some trouble or scrape. Now, following after that animal which hasn't its like in any country under the sun, my best hounds are gone, and I swear I will give you neither rest nor peace until you have found me two equally good."
      As he finished speaking Fionn heard a distant, piteous cry, and soon after Bran appeared, tired and wet, and covered with bog-mire from head to tail. She lay down before Fionn, and howled long and sorrowfully.
      "I think," said Fionn, " she has a knowledge of some unknown danger which threatens us.
      "And what worse can happen to us than the loss of our swift and gentle hounds?" asked Diarmuid. "I would rather have been covered with wounds in battle than have this thing happen."
      There was a little rustling in the bracken near them, and Bran, tired as she was, pricked up her ears to listen. Then, in the misty moonlight, a beautiful woman, with long fair hair flowing down to the hem of her dress, stood before them. They were astonished at her sudden appearance, but before Fionn could speak to her she said, looking at him:
      "Surely you are Fionn, lord of the Fianna. If so, there is a woman not far from here who wishes to meet you, and has already prepared a great feast in your honour."
      "That is good news," said Conan hurriedly, before Fionn could speak. "I should like to be with her now."
      The woman smiled, and courteously included Fionn's companions in the invitation. Then she led the way to a house built on the summit of a little hill overlooking an inlet of the sea, and the Fians followed her into the house. When supper was ended Fionn said to the woman who had conducted them hither:
      "Where is the woman who wishes to meet me? I should like to thank her for her hospitality."
      Just then a woman entered the room. Fionn thought she was the ugliest woman the world had ever seen, for one side of her face was white, and one black, and her hair was like red fire-flames waving round her head. She reminded him vaguely of the curious black and white animal they had chased so unsuccessfully that day.
      "I give you greeting," she said to Fionn, "your name is well known to me as that of the greatest hero in Ireland; for that reason I sent for you to say that if your appearance pleased me I would take you for my husband, and all the treasure I have shall be yours."
      "Not all the treasure in the world would induce me to take you for my wife," said Fionn quickly, horrified at the proposal, and startled out of his usual kindliness of speech. "I cannot help thinking you have some rela- tionship with that strange animal we hunted to-day, and through which we have lost our precious hounds. Tell me what became of them?'
      "Dead; they are all dead," she cried, and her face gleamed with a mad delight as she spoke. "Many brave heroes have fallen by my hand too, and if you oppose my wishes not all your courage and strength will hinder me from destroying you and your Fians."
      Fionn and his heroes laughed scornfully; they were amused that this magpie-coloured woman should imagine she could so easily overcome them, whom so many famous champions had failed to conquer.
      "You laugh now," she said in a quiet voice; "I think in a little while you will laugh no more. But before you sleep forever I will play and sing to you if you like."
      She took a small harp and played, and the music was like the rippling of a rock-strewn mountain stream, or the murmur of the nightwind when it plays through tall pines in summer. Then she chanted a little song to them in an unknown tongue, and a strange helplessness relaxed their limbs; although they felt that some great disaster was about to overtake them they had no strength to avert it.
      When the woman saw that her spells had conquered the Fians, she fetched a two-edged sword and began to slay the warriors as quickly as she could, taunting them with their lethargy. Fionn could not witness this horrible deed in silence; he reproached himself bitterly for having taken them to that house, and implored the witch to listen to him.
      "Spare my men," he said, "but kill me if you choose, for I alone have refused to accede to your wishes."
      The woman would not listen to him, but continued her deadly work until only a few of the Fians were left. Then Fionn spoke again: "How can I take you for my wife, when the daughter of Goll mac Morna has shared my house for years? If I put her away Goll will surely kill me, and that would be no benefit to you."
      The witch considered for a moment, then she said cheerfully:
      "I will go and kill Goll. In the meantime I will restore to you and your men freedom to move about; but do not think to escape, for I have placed a spell upon you that holds you to this place."
      It was early morning, and Goll mac Morn a stood at the doorway of his house at Ben Edar the place we now call the Hill of Howth and looked over the sea. He was surprised to see a number of ships in the harbour, for overnight there had been none.
      "It is unlucky so many of the Fianna are away at the present time," he said to Caeilté, "for I think these ships do not belong to any friends of ours. Will you send some one to discover whether they come in peace or in war?"
      "I'll go myself," said Caeilté at once, and taking a curragh rowed out to the ships.
      When he saw the ugly black and white woman, with a fierce red light shining in her eyes, a feeling of horror came upon him, though he spoke courteously to her.
      "Goll mac Morna sends you greetings, and wishes to know what purpose has brought you hither, and whether he can render you any service," he said.
      "Go back and tell Goll I have come to kill him and all his Fians, as I have killed those with Fionn," said the woman, and she glared at Caeilté so venomously, and looked so dreadful, that he slipped down the side of the ship into his boat and hurried away.
      "And indeed," said Caeilté, after telling Goll what the woman had threatened, "never before have I fled from anyone, and for shame I cannot hold up my head again among the men of Ireland until I have put an end to that woman."
      Then Caeilté and Goll, remembering what the woman had said about killing their comrades, grieved together, for they thought that never again would they see their noble and generous chief Fionn. The Fians crowded around them, and, hearing the cause of their grief, vowed they would exact a vengeance that should not be easily forgotten.
      The morning hours had almost passed when the watchmen called out that a great number of armed men, with the red-haired woman leading them, were putting off from the ship in boats. Goll ordered Caeilté to take his Fians to the strand and prevent the enemy from landing; but though Caeilté and his men fought most valiantly they were overpowered by the strangers, and a great number of the Fians were killed.
      When Goll saw how the battle was going against them, he said to the woman:
      "Let there be peace between us this night, and in the morning, though few of us remain, we will fight again."
      "I will let the remnant of your Fians go free, Goll mac Morna," answered the woman, "if you will agree to meet me in single combat. If you will not, I will carry on the fight until you are all dead."
      Goll arranged to meet her, and the only condition the combatants made was that the fight must be carried on until one or the other was killed; and though Caeilté and the warriors tried to dissuade him from doing so, the next morning he armed himself and went down to the strand. The whole of that day he and the woman fought together, neither gaining the victory, and for two succeeding days they met again, striking many hard blows; but on the eve of the third day, when Goll lay down to sleep, he was so covered with wounds that he feared he would be easily conquered on the morrow.
      But help was nearer to him than he imagined; even then Fionn and his comrades were hurrying to his aid from the place where the woman of the spells thought they were still in safe keeping. And this is how the spell that bound them was broken.
      Among the men guarding the Fians was one who had a beautiful daughter, called Ethne, and often at night she would sit near the Fians and listen as they spoke of past wars and adventures. She seemed so gentle and sweet, so unlike the witch and her companions, that each time Diarmuid O'Duibhne saw her he loved her more deeply; and one evening, as they were pacing up and down the sands, he said:
      "Were I free from these evil bonds, Ethne, I would ask you to leave your people, and come to my home with me, for I love you, and had I the choice of all the women in the world it is you I would choose for my wife. But, much as I and my companions try, we cannot break the spell that binds us to this place."
      "How can I be sure that you love me?" asked Ethne doubtfully. "Do you forget that I am one of your enemy's companions?"
      "I swear by the sun and the wind," answered Diarmuid, "that I have spoken the truth. Tell me that you will accompany me when I leave this place."
      Then Ethne knew that he did indeed love her; for he had called on two eternal powers to witness his vow, and did he break that vow the powers of the sun and wind would punish him.
      " I have given you my love, and wherever you choose to take me I will go," said Ethne softly. "This night you shall all be free, for, unknown to the enchantress, I have a word of might which will release your bonds."
      All the people in the camp slept except the Fians, for Diarmuid had whispered to them that before dawn they would be free. At midnight Ethne came, dressed ready for the journey, and standing over the Fians lifted her hands above their heads, and chanted in a curiously even tone these words:

By the light of suns afar
And the guiding, distant star;
By the mystic new-born moon
And the lilt of magic rune,
You are freed from the ill spell.

Take your swords and let us go,
From this place of death and woe;
Leave this shadowy land behind
And the words that hold and bind:
Now my bidding breaks the spell.

The Fians rose, and with great gladness found that their strength had returned to them. They surrounded Ethne, and with deep gratitude thanked her for the service she had rendered them. Then, taking swords and shields in hand, they were preparing to leave that house of ill-omen, when, to the unutterable horror of Fionn and the other men, and before they could prevent him, Conan mac Morna suddenly raised his sword and with one blow severed beautiful Ethne's head from her body.
      For a moment the Fians stood aghast. They knew Conan to be a boaster and sometimes they had even thought him lacking in courage, but they never deemed him capable of such an ungenerous and horrible deed as this. The next moment Diarmuid lifted his sword, and cried:
      "Had you a hundred heads, nay, a thousand, I would hew them all from your cowardly body in revenge for this ever-hateful deed."
      As Diarmuid spoke Conan knew what fear was. He thought the next breath he drew would be his last, and it would have been had not Oscur stepped between them.
      "Let us not linger here," said Oscur. "Every minute is precious, for I am sure that Goll is hard pressed by the witch who went to attack him. As for this coward," and he pointed at Conan, "he shall be dealt with later, and through the whole of the land his name shall be a name of scorn for ever after; but now the welfare of the Fianna must precede all personal affairs."
      Very reluctantly Diarmuid let the matter rest there, and they proceeded on their journey. Through the hours of the night they travelled quickly eastward, and at last reached Ben Edar. They found Goll arming himself for the fourth day's fight, and so weak from his many wounds that he could hardly stand.
      Fionn and his companions clamoured to stand before the witch and fight her both on their own account and Goll's. But Goll refused, and only when Fionn used his authority and forbade him to go out that day saying he did not want to altogether lose his best captain did Goll relent, and unwillingly agreed that Oscur should take his place.
      The witch stared in amazement when she saw that those whom she still believed to be spell-bound were arrayed against her; but a furious anger possessed her when she realized they had escaped from her power. With all her strength she attacked Oscur, and until the day was drawing to its close they fought together, when Oscur began to show signs of weakness because of the hurts he had received. Seeing this, Fergus, the bard of the Fianna, called out to him:
      "O Oscur, son of Oisin, you who have never before been conquered, let it not be said that an evil enchantress vanquished you. Remember, Oscur, that hour when we lay fettered by evil bonds in the Bay of Inch, and forget not the death of thy comrades."
      The bard's words strengthened Oscur's failing arm, and with a swift leap forward he struck the witch with his spear. She wavered on her feet for a minute, then with a great cry fell forward on the sand and died.
      So ends Fionn's adventure and enchantment when following the chase at Gleann-na-smol.

Text Source:
Russell, Violet. Heroes of the Dawn.
New York: The Macmillan Co., 1914. 37-45.

Background courtesy of Windhaven Web Art.

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