The August sun was shining brightly over the Irish meadows skirting a narrow river that glittered with such a silvery light you would never have thought its name was the Blackwater. Neither would you have supposed the place on its bank in front of which were moored scores of oddly built boats was really the very tiny old village of Tailltenn. No, you would have declared that it was a gay though rather queer looking city, and could scarcely have believed that in a week's time all its noise and bustle would vanish and only the few wattled houses of the village be left.
For Tailltenn in August, when its great fair was held, and Tailltenn the rest of the year were two very different places.
But never mind about Tailltenn the rest of the year, for our story begins right in the middle of the fair, which was surprisingly like our fairs of to-day. And this seems strange, considering that it was almost exactly nine hundred years ago; that is to say, it was August of the year 1013.
But people nine hundred years ago liked to show and buy things and enjoyed racing and games and entertainment of all kinds just as well as we do, and anyone who could amuse was sure to have plenty of folks looking on. So it was that the Celtic boy, Ferdiad, who had stopped to watch a specially skilful juggler, soon found himself squeezed into a crowded circle of people and presently a red-headed lad of about his own age was pushed close beside him.
Both smiled good-naturedly, and, "Look!" cried Ferdiad, bending his eyes on the juggler, "I have counted, and he has nine swords and nine little silver shields and nine balls, and he keeps them all up in the air at once and hasn't let one fall!"
"He's the best I ever saw!" said the other boy gazing admiringly at the man, who was dressed in a loose tunic of saffron-colored linen with a wide girdle of scarlet. On his legs were long tight-fitting trousers of the same material and his shoes were of thick leather without heels and laced with red cords. A short scarlet cape with a pointed hood lay on the ground where he had thrown it when he began his performance.
Suddenly, with a few dextrous movements, he caught one by one the balls and swords and shields he had been tossing about, and snatching up one of the latter began passing it among the crowd.
A few small silver coins were dropped into it and two or three little silver rings which often passed instead of coins. People used but little regular money and generally paid for things by exchanging something else for them, as perhaps a measure of wheat or honey, which every one liked; or, if the thing bought was valuable, often a cow or two did for money.
As now the juggler was coming their way with his shield, the two boys strolled off together; for though each had a few silver rings tucked into his girdle for spending money, they had other plans for disposing of these.
When they had gone a short distance they stopped and looked each other over. Both were tall and straight and well grown for their age, which was about twelve years; and their bare heads shone in the sunlight, Ferdiad's as yellow as the other boy's was red. Ferdiad wore a tight scarlet jacket with sleeves striped with green and a kilted skirt reaching just above his bare knees; below them were leggins of soft leather laced with cords tipped with silver as were also his moccasin-like shoes. He had a short cape made of strips of brown and green cloth sewn together, but as the day was warm this hung over one shoulder and was only loosely fastened by a silver brooch. The other boy, who had come from a little different part of the country, was dressed in the fashion of his own home. His jacket was much like Ferdiad's except that it was yellow, and instead of kilts he wore long tight-fitting trousers of gray; his cape also was gray figured with black.
Presently he said to Ferdiad, with a frank smile, "My name is Conn and my home is in the kingdom of Munster where my father is a bo-aire. I guess yours must be a flaith from the colors of your clothes. My foster-father is a bo-aire, too, and we came to the fair this morning in our chariot and I drove all the way from near Kinkora where we live. What is your name?"
"Ferdiad O'Neill," answered Ferdiad; but seeing Conn look bewildered, "O'Neill," he explained, "means my father's name is Neill; you know 'O' stands for son of."
"Yes," said Conn in surprise, "but why do you have two names?"
"Well," replied Ferdiad, "my father says that the high king, Brian Boru, wants people to start having two names instead of just one. You see, if each family settles on a second name that they can add to their first, then you can tell better who folks are and who are their kin. My father, who is a flaith as you guessed, don't want to put anything after his own name for everyone in the kingdom of Meath, where my home is, knows him as Neill. But he says I may as well begin with the two names. I suppose everybody will have family names afterwhile."
"I suppose so," said Conn, who had been listening with interest. "I hadn't heard about it before, but if you can start a family name by adding 'O' to your father's, then I would be Conn O'Keefe!" and he laughed at the odd new fashion. "But," he went on, "who is your foster-father?"
"He is Angus the poet," answered Ferdiad with a touch of pride. "We live beyond Kells on the Blackwater, and we all came to the fair yesterday. We rowed down the river in our curragh."
Now do not suppose that these two boys were orphans because they talked about their foster-fathers. Far from it! In fact, most Celtic boys, and many girls too, were extra well supplied with parents; for they usually had not only their own real fathers and mothers but also the foster-fathers and mothers with whom they lived from the time they were seven, or even younger, until they were seventeen. This custom of putting children to be trained in the home of some one else seems strange to us, but the Celtic people of those days thought it the best way to bring them up. Sometimes their foster-parents were close friends of their own fathers and mothers and took the children for the sake of the affection they felt for one another; and sometimes people placed their children with some one they thought specially fitted to train them, and then they paid a certain sum of money for it, or, more likely, a number of cows.
For the Celtic people then had no large cities and few towns even, but lived mostly in the country and the more cows they had the better off they considered themselves. They were divided into tribes or clans with chiefs of different degrees of rank. A bo-aire, as was Conn's father, though a respectable chief, owned no land but was obliged to rent it of some higher chief, or flaith, such as Ferdiad's father; but a bo-aire always had plenty of cattle of his own. So probably Conn's foster-father received enough fat cows to pay for the support of the boy.
Indeed, the Celtic laws decided just what must be paid for feeding and clothing foster children, and decided also, according to their rank, what they should eat and wear; and every one paid a great deal of attention to the laws. It was because of these that Conn had barley porridge with a lump of salty butter on it for breakfast while Ferdiad ate oatmeal with saltless butter which was considered finer; if either had been a king's son he would have had honey on his porridge. And because of these same laws Conn and Ferdiad at once knew each other's rank; for sons of flaiths might wear red, green and brown clothes, while the colors for boys of bo-aires were yellow, black and gray.
But while we have been talking about them, the boys have not been standing still. They had decided at once to be friends, and "My foster-father said I was to go around and find what I wanted to look at," said Conn, "but I think it would be more fun seeing the fair together."
"So do I!" answered Ferdiad. "Let's look around and see what's going on."