Gods and Fighting Men

The Lad of the Skins

   Besides all the men Finn had in his household, there were some that would come and join him from one place or another.
   One time a young man wearing a dress of skins came to Finn's house at Almhuin, and his wife along with him, and he asked to take service with Finn.
   And in the morning, as they were going to their hunting, the Lad of the Skins said to Finn: "Let me have no one with me but myself, and let me go into one part of the country by myself, and you yourself with all your men go to another part." "Is it on the dry ridges you will go," said Finn, "or is it in the deep bogs and marshes, where there is danger of drowning?" "I will go in the deep boggy places," said he.
   So they all went out from Almhuin, Finn and the Fianna to one part, and the Lad of the Skins to another part, and they hunted through the day. And when they came back at evening, the Lad of the Skins had killed more than Finn and all his men together.
   When Finn saw that, he was glad to have so good a servant. But Conan said to him: "The Lad of the Skins will destroy ourselves and the whole of the Fianna of Ireland unless you will find some way to rid yourself of him." "I never had a good man with me yet, Conan," said Finn, "but you wanted me to put him away; and how could I put away a man like that?" he said. "The way to put him away," said Conan, "is to send him to the King of the Floods to take from him the great cauldron that is never without meat, but that has always enough in it to feed the whole world. And let him bring that cauldron back here with him to Almhuin," he said.
   So Finn called to the Lad of the Skins, and he said: "Go from me now to the King of the Floods and get the great cauldron that is never empty from him, and bring it here to me." "So long as I am in your service I must do your work," said the Lad of the Skins. With that he set out, leaping over the hills and valleys till he came to the shore of the sea. And then he took up two sticks and put one of them across the other, and a great ship rose out of the two sticks. The Lad of the Skins went into the ship then, and put up the sails and set out over the sea, and he heard nothing but the whistling of eels in the sea and the calling of gulls in the air till he came to the house of the King of the Floods. And at that time there were hundreds of ships waiting near the shore; and he left his ship outside them all, and then he stepped from ship to ship till he stood on land.
   There was a great feast going on at that time in the king's house, and the Lad of the Skins went up to the door, but he could get no farther because of the crowd. So he stood outside the door for a while, and no one looked at him, and he called out at last: "This is a hospitable house indeed, and these are mannerly ways, not to ask a stranger if there is hunger on him or thirst." "That is true," said the king; "and give the cauldron of plenty now to this stranger," he said, "till he eats his fill."
   So his people did that, and no sooner did the Lad of the Skins get a hold of the cauldron than he made away to the ship and put it safe into it. But when he had done that he said: "There is no use in taking the pot by my swiftness, if I do not take it by my strength." And with that he turned and went to land again. And the whole of the men of the army of the King of the Floods were ready to fight; but if they were, so was the Lad of the Skins, and he went through them and over them all till the whole place was quiet.
   He went back to his ship then and raised the sails and set out again for Ireland, and the ship went rushing back to the place where he made it. And when he came there, he gave a touch of his hand to the ship, and there was nothing left of it but the two sticks he made it from, and they lying on the strand before him, and the cauldron of plenty with them. And he took up the cauldron on his back, and brought it to Finn, son of Cumhal, at Almhuin. And Finn gave him his thanks for the work he had done.
   One day, now, Finn was washing himself at the well, and a voice spoke out of the water, and it said: "You must give back the cauldron, Finn, to the King of the Floods, or you must give him battle in place of it."
   Finn told that to the Lad of the Skins, but the answer he got from him was that his time was up, and that he could not serve on time that was past. "But if you want me to go with you," he said, "let you watch my wife, that is Manannan's daughter, through the night; and in the middle of the night, when she will be combing her hair, any request you make to her, she cannot refuse it. And the request you will make is that she will let me go with you to the King of the Floods, to bring the cauldron to his house and to bring it back again."
   So Finn watched Manannan's daughter through the night, and when he saw her combing her hair, he made his request of her. "I have no power to refuse you," she said; "but you must promise me one thing, to bring my husband back to me, alive or dead. And if he is alive," she said, "put up a grey-green flag on the ship coming back; but if he is dead, put up a red flag."
   So Finn promised to do that, and he himself and the Lad of the Skins set out together for the dun of the King of the Floods, bringing the cauldron with them.
   No sooner did the king see them than he gave word to all his armies to make ready. But the Lad of the Skins made for them and overthrew them, and he went into the king's dun, and Finn with him, and they overcame him and brought away again the cauldron that was never empty.
   But as they were going back to Ireland, they saw a great ship coming towards them. And when the Lad of the Skins looked at the ship, he said: "I think it is an old enemy of my own is in that ship, that is trying to bring me to my death, because of my wife that refused him her love." And when the ship came alongside, the man that was in it called out: "I know you well, and it is not by your dress I know you, son of the King of the Hills." And with that he made a leap on to the ship, and the two fought a great battle together, and they took every shape; they began young like two little boys, and fought till they were two old men; they fought from being two young pups until they were two old dogs; from being two young horses till they were two old horses. And then they began to fight in the shape of birds, and it is in that shape they killed one another at the last. And Finn threw the one bird into the water, but the other, that was the Lad of the Skins, he brought with him in the ship. And when he came in sight of Ireland, he raised a red flag as he had promised the woman.
   And when he came to the strand, she was there before him, and when she saw Finn, she said: "It is dead you have brought him back to me." And Finn gave her the bird, and she asked was that what she was to get in the place of her husband. And she was crying over the bird, and she brought it into a little boat with her, and she bade Finn to push out the boat to sea.
   And he pushed it out, and it was driven by wind and waves till at last she saw two birds flying, having a dead one between them. And the two living birds let down the dead one on an island; and it was not long till it rose up living, and the three went away together.
   And when Manannan's daughter saw that, she said: "There might be some cure for my man on the island, the way there was for that dead bird."
   And the sea brought the boat to the island, and she went searching around, but all she could find was a tree having green leaves. "It might be in these leaves the cure is," she said; and she took some of the leaves and brought them to where the Lad of the Skins was, and put them about him. And on that moment he stood up as well and as sound as ever he was.
   They went back then to Ireland, and they came to Almhuin at midnight, and the Lad of the Skins knocked at the door, and he said: "Put me out my wages." "There is no man, living or dead, has wages on me but the Lad of the Skins," said Finn; "and I would sooner see him here to-night," he said, "than the wages of three men." "If that is so, rise up and you will see him," said he.
   So Finn rose up and saw him, and gave him a great welcome, and paid him his wages.
   And after that he went away and his wife with him to wherever his own country was; but there were some said he was gone to the country of his wife's father, Manannan, Son of the Sea.


Deidre of the Sorrows, by John Duncan