Gods and Fighting Men

The Great Fight

   Then the King of the World came to the strand, and all his armies with him; and all that were left of the Fianna went out against them, and they were like thick woods meeting one another, and they made great strokes, and there were swords crashing against bones, and bodies that were backed, and eyes that were blinded, and many a mother was left without her son, and many a comely wife without her comrade.
   Then the creatures of the high air answered to the battle, foretelling the destruction that would be done that day; and the sea chattered of the losses, and the waves gave heavy shouts keening them, and the water-beasts roared to one another, and the rough hills creaked with the danger of the battle, and the woods trembled mourning the heroes, and the grey stones cried out at their deeds, and the wind sobbed telling them, and the earth shook, foretelling the slaughter; and the cries of the grey armies put a cloak over the sun, and the clouds were dark; and the hounds and the whelps and the crows, and the witches of the valley, and the powers of the air, and the wolves of the forests, howled from every quarter and on every side of the armies, urging them against one another.
   It was then Conan, son of Morna, brought to mind that himself and his kindred had done great harm to the sons of Baiscne, and he had a wish to do some good thing for them on account of that, and he raised up his sword and did great deeds.
   And Finn was over the battle, encouraging the Fianna; and the King of the World was on the other side encouraging the foreigners. "Rise up now, Fergus," said Finn, "and praise Conan for me that his courage may be the greater, for it is good work he is doing on my enemies." So Fergus went where Conan was, and at that time he was heated with the dust of the fight, and he was gone outside to let the wind go about him.
   "It is well you remember the old quarrel between the sons of Morna and the sons of Baiscne, Conan," said Fergus; "and you would be ready to go to your own death if it would bring harm on the sons of Baiscne," he said. "For the love of your good name, Man of Poetry," said Conan, "do not be speaking against me without cause, and I will do good work on the foreigners when I get to the battle again." "By my word," said Fergus, "that would be a good thing for you to do." He sang a verse of praise for him then, and Conan went back into battle, and his deeds were not worse this time than they were before. And Fergus went back to where Finn was.
   "Who is best in the battle now?" said Finn. "Duban, son of Cas, a champion of your own people," said Fergus, "for he never gives but the one stroke to any man, and no man escapes with his life from that stroke, and three times nine and eighty men have fallen by him up to this time." And Duban Donn, great-grandson of the King of Tuathmumhain, was there listening to him, and it is what he said: "By my oath, Fergus," he said, "all you are saying is true, for there is not a son of a king or of a lord is better in the battle than Duban, son of Cas; and I will go to my own death if I do not go beyond him." With that he went rushing through the battle like flames over a high hill that is thick with furze. Nine times be made a round of the battle, and he killed nine times nine in every round. "Who is best in the battle now?" said Finn, after a while. "It is Duban Donn that is after going from us," said Fergus. "For there has been no one ahead of him since he was in his seventh year, and there is no one ahead of him now." "Rise up and praise him that his courage may be the greater," said Finn. "It is right to praise him," said Fergus, "and the foreigners running before him on every side as they would run from a heavy drenching of the sea." So Fergus praised him for a while, and he went back then to Finn.
   "Who is best in the battle now?" said Finn. "It is Osgar is best in it now," said Fergus, "and he is fighting alone against two hundred Franks and two hundred of the men of Gairian, and the King of the Men of Gairian himself. And all these are beating at his shield," he said, "and not one of them has given him a wound but he gave him a wound back for it." "What way is Caoilte, son of Ronan?" said Finn. "He is in no great strait after the red slaughter he has made," said Fergus. "Go to him then," said Finn, "and bid him to keep off a share of the foreigners from Osgar." So Fergus went to him. "Caoilte," he said, 'it is great danger your friend Osgar is in under the blows of the foreigners, and let you rise up and give him some help," he said.
   Caoilte went then to the place where Osgar was, and he gave a straight blow of his sword at the man who was nearest him, that made two halves of him. Osgar raised his head then and looked at him. "It is likely, Caoilte," he said, "you did not dare redden your sword on any one till you struck down a man that was before my sword. And it is a shame for you," be said, "all the men of the great world and the Fianna of Ireland to be in the one battle, and you not able to make out a fight for yourself without coming to take a share of my share of the battle. And I give my oath," he said, "I would be glad to see you put down in your bed of blood on account of that thing." Caoilte's mind changed when he heard that, and he turned again to the army of the foreigners with the redness of anger on his white face; and eighty fighting men fell in that rout.
   "What way is the battle now?" said Finn. "It is a pity," said Fergus, "there never came and there never will come any one that can tell the way it is now. For by my word," he said, "the tree-tops of the thickest forest in the whole of the western world are not closer together than the armies are now. For the bosses of their shields are one another's hands. And there is fire coming from the edges of their swords," he said, "and blood is raining down like a shower on a day of harvest; and there were never so many leaves torn by the wind from a great forest as there are locks of long golden hair, and of black curled hair, cut off by sharp weapons, blowing into the clouds at this time. And there is no person could tell one man from another, now," he said, "unless it might be by their voices." With that he went into the very middle of the fight to praise and to hearten the men of the Fianna.
   "Who is first in the battle now, Fergus?" said Finn, when he came back to him. "By my oath, it is no friend of your own is first in it," said Fergus, "for it is Daire Donn, the King of the World; and it is for you he is searching through the battle," be said, "and three times fifty of his own people were with him. But two of the men of your Fianna fell on them," he said, "Cairell the Battle Striker, and Aelchinn of Cruachan, and made an end of them. But they were not able to wound the King of the World," he said, "but the two of them fell together by him."
   Then the King of the World came towards Finn, and there was no one near him but Arcallach of the Black Axe, the first that ever brought a wide axe into Ireland. "I give my word," said Arcallach, "I would never let Finn go before me into any battle." He rose up then and made a terrible great blow of his axe at the king, that went through his royal crown to the hair of his head, but that did not take a drop of blood out of him, for the edge of the axe turned and there went balls of fire over the plain from that blow. And the King of the World struck back at Arcallach, and made two halves of him.
   Then Finn and the King of the World turned on one another. And when the king saw the sword and the shield in Finn's hand, he knew those were the weapons that were to bring him to his death, and great dread came on him, and his comeliness left him, and his fingers were shaking, and his feet were unsteady, and the sight of his eyes was weakened.
   And then the two fought a great fight, striking at one another like two days of judgment for the possession of the world.
   But the king, that had never met with a wound before, began to be greatly weakened in the fight. And Finn gave great strokes that broke his shield and his sword, and that cut off his left foot, and at the last he struck off his head. But if he did, he himself fell into a faint of weakness with the dint of the wounds he had got.
   Then Finnachta of the Teeth, the first man of the household of the King of the World, took hold of the royal crown of the king, and brought it where Conmail his son was, and put it on his head.
   "That this may bring you success in many battles, my son," he said. And he gave him his father's weapons along with it; and the young man went through the battle looking for Finn, and three fifties of the men of the Fianna fell by him. Then Goll Garbh the Rough, son of the King of Alban, saw him and attacked him, and they fought a hard fight. But the King of Alban's son gave him a blow under the shelter of the shield, in his left side, that made an end of him.
   Finnachta of the Teeth saw that, and he made another rush at the royal crown, and brought it to where Ogarmach was, the daughter of the King of Greece. "Put on that crown, Ogarmach," he said, "as it is in the prophecy the world will be owned by a woman; and it will never be owned by any woman higher than yourself," he said.
   She went then to look for Finn in the battle, and Fergus of the True Lips saw her, and he went where Finn was. "O King of the Fianna," he said then, "bring to mind the good fight you made against the King of the World and all your victories before that; for it is a great danger is coming to you now," he said, "and that is Ogarmach, daughter of the King of Greece."
   With that the woman-fighter came towards him. "O Finn," she said, "it is little satisfaction you are to me for all the kings and lords that have fallen by you and by your people; but for all that," she said, "there is nothing better for me to get than your own self and whatever is left of your people." "You will not get that," said Finn, "for I will lay your head in its bed of blood the same as I did to every other one." Then those two attacked one another like as if there had risen to smother one another the flooded wave of Cliodna, and the seeking wave of Tuaigh, and the big brave wave of Rudraighe. And though the woman-warrior fought for a long time, a blow from Finn reached to her at last and cut through the royal crown, and with a second blow he struck her head off. And then he fell himself in his bed of blood, and was the same as dead, but that he rose again.
   And the armies of the World and the Fianna of Ireland were fallen side by side there, and there were none left fit to stand but Cael, son of Crimthan of the Harbours, and the chief man of the household of the King of the World, Finnachta of the Teeth. And Finnachta went among the dead bodies and lifted up the body of the King of the World and brought it with him to his ship, and he said: "Fianna of Ireland," he said, "although it is bad this battle was for the armies of the World, it was worse for yourselves; and I am going back to tell that in the East of the World," he said. Finn heard him saying that, and he lying on the ground in his blood, and the best men of the Sons of Baiscne about him, and he said: "It is a pity I not to have found death before I heard the foreigner saying those words. And nothing I myself have done, or the Fianna of Ireland, is worth anything since there is left a man of the foreigners alive to go back into the great world again to tell that story. And is there any one left living near me?" he said. "I am," said Fergus of the True Lips. "What way is the battle now?" said Finn. "It is a pity the way it is," said Fergus, "for, by my word," he said, "since the armies met together to-day, no man of the foreigners or of the men of Ireland took a step backward from one another till they all fell foot to foot, and sole to sole. And there is not so much as a blade of grass or a grain of sand to be seen," he said, "with the bodies of fighting men that are stretched on them; and there is no nan of the two armies that is not stretched in that bed of blood, but only the chief man of the household of the King of the World, and your own foster-son, Cael, son of Crimthan of the Harbours." 'Rise up and go to him," said Finn. So Fergus went where Cael was, and asked what way was he. "It is a pity the way I am," said Cael, "for I swear by my word that if my helmet and my armour were taken from me, there is no part of my body but would fall from the other; and by my oath," he said, "it is worse to me to see that man beyond going away alive than I myself to be the way I am. And I leave my blessing to you, Fergus," he said; "and take me on your back to the sea till I swim after the foreigner, and it is glad I would be the foreigner to fall by me before the life goes out from my body." Fergus lifted him up then and brought him to the sea, and put him swimming after the foreigner. And Finnachta waited for him to reach the ship, for he thought he was one of his own people. And Cael raised himself up when he came beside the ship, and Finnachta stretched out his hand to him. And Cael took hold of it at the wrist, and clasped his fingers round it, and gave a very strong pull at him, that brought him over the side. Then their hands shut across one another's bodies, and they went down to the sand and the gravel of the clear sea.


Deidre of the Sorrows, by John Duncan