Gateway to the Classics: The Sons o' Cormac by Aldis Dunbar
The Sons o' Cormac by  Aldis Dunbar

The Harvestin' o' Dermond

"No, I've naught to tell yees the day, so out o' the barn with yees. Here's all the harness to be rubbed bright before the masther goes out dhrivin'. What? 'Tis rainin'? An' yees can't be afther takin' yer walk? Ay! ay! Well, sit ye all down beyant in the corner there, an' I'll be thinkin' about it."

Y E'LL be mindin' how Dermond—him that they called Dermond o' the Bow—afther Princess Maurya gave him the purse o' gold, slipped out o' the little low door at the back o' King Murdough's castle, an' was off without no more words to no one? Sure, he was mighty shamed to have been tumbled over by a fat cook, like a bag o' fresh ground meal on the floor o' the mill. So he turned toward the hills, an' walked on for many a mile, not lookin' to right nor to left, nor even mindin' that he was still wearin' the cloak o' silver cloth that had brought him disasther.

'Twas early mornin' when he left the little small door behind him; but 'twas nigh on night, an' the shadows runnin' long down the hillside, when he first thought on where his feet might be afther takin' him. He'd little heart whatever to be goin' back to the Lough o' the Eagle, where his two brothers were livin', to be lettin' on to them that he was beaten.

"Nay," says he, " 'tis far betther to be heedin' Lady Maurya's words. There's many kingdoms in the land where a stouthearted warrior 'll find fightin' to his hand, an' that's where I'll win me a princess fairly for me wife."

An' that was brave talkin', for Dermond had neither sword nor shield to his side, but just his long bow an' a little sharp knife for cuttin' up meat.

Now the wind was beginnin' to rise at his back, an' it came sweepin' up the mountain side, an' he had to stand an' meet it a bit, to keep on his feet at all. An' all in a breath his gay silver cloak was caught by the gale an' torn away from him, an' it went whirlin' in the wind down the way he'd been comin', where 'twas darkenin' with heavy clouds.

Then he looked ahead, up the Path o' the Rocks that he was climbin', an' at the top of it, where the way turned down to the valley beyant, he saw the red light o' the setting sun.

"Betther to push on than to turn back without reachin' the top, an' all for the sake o' that cloak o' bad fortune," thought Dermond. "Silver for sorrow, an' I've learned that lesson to me cost."

So up he went, an' the light kep' growin' brighter, until when he stood at the top o' the hill, he could scarce see the valley before him for the shinin' o' the sky.

'Twas a broad valley, that, for all the way into it was so narrow; an'  'twas sthrange to him, bein' no place that he had ever crossed in his huntin'. All around it were steep hills, with sides that no man could climb, barrin' he had the wings o' the grey hawk an' the bold heart of it. An' beyant the plain, stretchin' to the west, was a deep forest. But nowhere was sign o' livin' men.

For just a moment he looked back over the road he'd come by: an' as he did that same he heard a small chucklin' laugh round behind him. Sure, he turned again in a jiffy, but all that met his eye was a glint o' somethin' red, down among the rocks beside the path.

Well, he was afther it with all his speed, but never a bit did it come in his road, though he looked every way at once. An' at last, when he found himself by the foot o' the path, down on the broad plain, for all the world he could not tell by what way he had come down the rocks.

But for all the sunset was fadin' fast, there was no fear o' the night in the heart o' Dermond. He looked over the valley, an' saw far off where four oak trees grew close by each other, like they were the corners of a cabin: an' when he reached them he thought in his mind that there he would sleep till the morn's mornin', supper or none.

'Twas dark then, an' he lay down on the long grass, an' soon fell to sleepin', an' never woke nor stirred till 'twas far past moonrise, when he leaped up all sudden like, thinkin' he heard his name. But none answered his callin'.

An' as he stepped close to one o' the oaks—that which stood to the south (an' 'twas that way he would have taken to return to the cabin o' Cormac, his father)—he heard the far-off playin' of a harp; an' it came to him that 'twas Conan, his youngest brother, was touchin' it. So he listened, quiet like, an' sure enough 'twas a lament for Cormac without a Kingdom was ringin' in his ears.

Then right close, almost at his feet, was a sound like a little small voice laughin', as he had heard it on the Path o' the Rocks. He quick reached out his hand to catch whoever it was, an' went creepin' toward it, till he touched the next tree, that was toward the east. An' as he stood gropin' round, he heard other laughin'—like that o' the maids o' Princess Maurya, who had jeered at him in the hall for wearin' the old jerkin o' King Cormac, for which he had torn the silver cloth from the wall an' made himself a cloak, an' lost his power by that same.

An' a girl's voice was sayin': "A pretty set o' champions come for our princess, with their old green coats; when she wears nothin' poorer nor silk an' stuff o' gold." An' more he listened, an' heard the voice o' Eiveen, his brother that was next him in years, an' that o' Princess Maurya answerin'. An' the small voice down by his feet chuckled again.

By now Dermond guessed well that some spell lay on the trees, makin' his ears hear what was far away; so he went on to the third, which was to the north o' the rest, an' hearkened; but there he heard naught but the sighin' o' wind, an' the beatin' o' waves on the shore. An' he knew that the sea was many a mile beyant.

He thought o' the Little People that had favoured Cormac, his father; an' as the moon rose higher, he looked to see them under the branches o' the oaks; but they must have crept under the fallen acorn cups, for not a red cap could he spy.

At last he put his hand on the trunk o' the fourth tree, an' that was west, an' farther up the valley than he had gone. An' seemin' as if 'twas comin' out o' the wide spreadin' branches or the flutterin' o' the leaves, he heard the speakin' of a sthrange voice in his ears; an' twas an old man's, sayin':—

" 'Tis time for the plantin' o' me field. Heart o' me life, is the seed ready?"

An' the one answerin' had the softest voice that had ever been heard o' Dermond. Sure, the tremblin' o' Conan's harp was harsh beside it.

"Ay, father," 'twas sayin', "an' who comes to sow it? An' when will be the harvestin'?"

"That shall be known when one comes for hirin'. None may sow that seed but a man without fear o' fortune; an' none may harvest it with doubt in his heart."

Dermond was listenin' hard; but just then a cloud passed across the moon, an' the words ended. Long time he waited to hear if that soft voice wasn't speakin', but 'twas no use at all; an' at last he wandered out away from the trees an' into the plain, an' lay down on the open ground an' fell to sleepin' again, for he was weary with all his climbin'.

This time when he woke, 'twas with more laughin' in his ears, an' the sun shinin' bright as ever. He gripped his bow tight, an' sprang to his feet in a great haste; an' there, standin' a little ways off, was a girl, all in pale green like the young birches in the heart o' spring, and the laughter was runnin' over her face like ripplin' wather.

Dermond stood dumbfounded, for he had nigh forgot where he was, an' he looked round wondherin' like.

Then says the girl, that had never moved away at all from where she was standin':—

" 'Tis lost ye are."

An' Dermond remembered the night, and knew it to be the soft voice o' her that had asked o' the harvestin'.

"Nay," says he. "O' me own will came I here, seekin' fortune."

"An' what like is the fortune that ye seek?" says she.

"To find a kingdom where is good fightin' for one with a stout heart an' a sthrong arm; an' to get me a princess for me wife," says Dermond.

Then the girl laughed again, an' the sound o' that was like wind in the willow trees.

" 'Tis a man's thought, truly; an' I doubt not ye'll find kings' daughters a plenty, foldin' their hands an' waitin' to have ye come an' do some fine fightin' to win them. As if that was the bravest work for a man! Did ye expect to be afther findin' yer princess growin' on a bush in this rich kingdom?" an' she waved her hand toward the valley.

"Where she is, there I'll find her; ay, an' win her," answered Dermond.

"Have ye no fear, that ye speak so bold?" asked the girl.

"I fear naught between the flyin' clouds above the hills an' the runnin' wather near our feet," says Dermond.

"An' what man are ye?" says she.

"Dermond o' the Bow, eldest son o' him who was Cormac without a Kingdom."

"An' for me name," says the soft voice, " 'tis Etáin, daughter o' Dughall the Wise, who dwells beyant the forest to the west."

"An' is there none dwells with him but yerself?" asked Dermond.

"Why ask ye that?" says Etáin.

" 'Tis time for plantin' his field," went on Dermond, hardly knowin' why he said it. An' Etáin looked at him mazed like.

"How knew ye that, seein' that no man can tell when the hour comes but Dughall himself?"

" 'Twas at moonrise I heard himself say it," answered Dermond. "Yonder among the trees."

"Then must ye have the favour o' the Little People, for 'tis risk an' peril for mortal man to pass near the Four Oaks o' the Valley when the sun is high—far more at moonrise. Will ye come with me to Dughall?"

"Ay, if me fortune lies that road," says he.

"That is as ye make it for yerself," says Etáin; an' for just a moment she stood lookin' at him, an' seein' what a splendid fine sthrong man he was, with his shinin' eyes an' the black hair wavin' far down over his shouldhers. An' he looked at her blue eyes an' rose-red lips that laughed whenever she began to think of anythin'; an' there was no more rememberin' o' Princess Maurya—no, nor o' the maids that served her, for him.

Then Etáin nodded her head, an' turned an' went over the grass toward the forest so swift that Dermond had all his feet could do to keep pace with her. There was no more speakin', but just followin', as she led the way over grass hillocks an' into the dark wood.

'Twas more nor one time the roots came nigh to thrippin' him off his feet; an' once he saw a little red cap under a fern, an' heard the quare laughin', but on he went, not heedin'.

Afther a time it was in his mind that the trees o' this forest grew in straight rows, as they had been an army o' men standin'; but just then Etáin turned an' beckoned him to come beside o' her. An' Dermond was not slow in doin' that.

"Are ye wise in thought an' speech?" asked she.

"No more nor other men," says Dermond. " 'Tis well ye're willin' to own it, then. Are ye stout o' heart?"

" 'Tis not well for a man to be boastin', as I found to me sorrow, but ready am I to serve ye with two sthrong arms."

"Why would ye serve me?" asked Etáin.

"For bein' the fairest maid in the land. An' I would ye were a right king's daughter," says Dermond.

"An' if I were?" asked she.

"Then would I win ye fairly."

"An' bein' none?" says she; an' as she spoke her eyes met Dermond's, an' a sudden fire leapt up in his heart.

"Then will I make ye one, if there's kingdoms to be won by the sthrong arm!"

With that Etáin smiled, well pleased with his manner o' speech; an' she says—

"If ye speak as fair as that to Dughall, then will ye have small need o' me wisdom. But should need come it shall all be for yer helpin', Dermond, son o' Cormac. An' now, here is me father's house, an' I bid ye welcome."

Sure enough, there before them was a long, low buildin', woven mainly o' the rushes. But round it was no sign o' servin' man or maid at all. The door stood wide open, an' Etáin bent her sweet head an' stepped inside, an' Dermond went afther.

In a great chair by the far end o' the hall sat Dughall the Wise. His hair was white, an' his long beard rested on his knees; but his eyes saw far, an' as Dermond came nigh he rose, waitin' on Etáin, to see what she would be afther sayin'.

" 'Tis Dermond o' the Bow, son o' Cormac the King," says she, "come to hire for seedin' an' harvestin'."

Now Dermond would have said nay to that, for he'd no mind for such labourin'; but her eyes were fair on him, an' he'd no will o' his own to do other than her pleasure.

"Ay, that am I," says Dermond.

Then Dughall looked at him well, an' says he—

"Many a rash man has spoken as ye speak, an' has tried to do what ye may fail in; an' no man has yet sowed that seed or gathered in that harvest, else would there be a rich kingdom where is naught but wilderness."

"An' how may that be?"

"From over pride in wisdom," says Dughall, most bittherly, "in the day when Oisin, son o' Lua, came to this place, an' would match his craft with mine. An' not bein' content with the life that was mine, I made wager that I was sthronger. An' he overthrew me, an' laid a spell on all that was mine. An' naught could lift it till I held in me hand a grain o' ripe corn, that had been grown on the mountain-top yonder. Such o' me men as were willin' to try the sowin' an' harvestin' were spared me for a time, but the others he turned to trees. An' as each one failed in the task, he became a tree. Scarce any could reach the slope, for Oisin angered the Little People against me, an' placed them as guards round the base o' the mountain, where none might pass their land in safety. Bran, alone, that was chief huntsman, made his way to the top, but there was no right foothold, an' before the seed was planted he fell, an' was never seen more. An' well may men call me Dughall the Wise, for I have shown great wisdom, an' lost the lives o' sthrong men."

Well, now, Dermond thought an' thought, rememberin' the sly laughin' o' the Little People. Yet it seemed to him that there should be some way for him to contrive success. So says he—

"An' where is this mountain?"

Dughall brought him to the door, an' pointed out where it rose toward the sky; an'  'twas a terrible steep place, all crags an' towerin' precipices, an' nigh on out o' reach o' mortal man, had there been no Little People guardin' it at all.

Then a thought came to Dermond, an' he turned to the old man.

"An' what for soldiers had ye? Were they sthrong in sword fightin', or were they betther at bendin' the bow?"

"Betther with the sword, Dermond, son o' Cormac. No bowmen had I barrin' ten; all whom were feared o' the Little People an' became trees."

"Ay," says Dermond. "Well, 'tis ill thinkin' o' grave matthers when one goes hungerin'. Have ye a bite o' food handy like, seein' that 'tis many hours I've been fastin'?"

Etáin laughed at his plight, an' brought him what was to be had—roast meat, an' cakes, an' mead in a great horn; an' when he had eaten an' drunk the last crumb an' dhrop, so that her eyes were wide with wondherin' at his appetite, he went out again an' looked at the top o' the mountain, while Dughall the Wise went back to his seat, expectin' little.

But Etáin stayed near Dermond, an' together they went nigh to the foot o' the mountain, but not on the land o' the Little People. There Dermond measured with his eye, an' saw that the place closest the mountain-top was a juttin' cliff on the side o' the neighbourin' peak.

"Have ye a fine cord?" he asked of Etáin.

"How long?" says she.

"To reach from the cliff side to the mountain-top."

"Nay," says she, "but I have that which will serve to make one." An' with that she let down her hair, an' it fell all round her like fair golden silk, reachin' her sandals o' fine deer-skin. An' she caught the little small knife from the belt o' Dermond an' cut through a great handful of it. Then Dermond took the knife an' did the same with his own hair, cuttin' it where 'twas longest. An' together they twisted it into a fine, long cord o' black an' gold colour.

"Now bring me the seed to be sowed," says he; an' this time 'twas Etáin sprang to do his biddin'. So he drew a straight arrow from the sheaf at his side, an' bound seven grains o' corn to it, all tied in a leaf with the end o' the cord. Then he rolled up the rest of it, an' started over to scale the cliff side, Etáin followin' him. At last he made his way up the cliff, to where was a little small shelf o' rock, an' there he unrolled the ball o' cord an' steadied himself to shoot.

Then, seein' what he would be tryin', Etáin called out to him—

"First try the shot with another arrow, for fear o' missin'."

"That is right wisdom," says Dermond; an' he did that same, an'  'twas well he did, for the wind whirled it past the mountain-top, an' it broke on a rock below. But when he had shot twice more, he had the way o' the wind, an' could allow for it. An' the fourth arrow was the one with the corn tied to it. Dermond aimed it sthrong an' steady, an' sure enough it struck deep into the ground on the mountain-top, carryin' the cord with it; but the other end o' that same was fast tied to the belt o' Dermond.

An' lookin' down he could see the face of Etáin, an' her eyes were bright with gladness. Aah, 'twas not long before he was at her side, leavin' the cord end with a heavy stone on it to hold it there.

"How will ye gather the grain?" says she; yet half knowin' how 'twould be.

"By the cord that holds the arrow," says Dermond.

"An' if the birds fly down an' tear up the young plants?"

"That they shall not," says Dermond. So he made many arrows o' straight branches, an' some o' reeds. An' he planted seven other grains in the valley below. An' when the time was comin' that the sprouts would be comin' out o' the earth, he took his arrows up the cliff side, an' set himself to watchin'.

An' whenever a bird flew near the mountain-top, Dermond's arrows shot straight an' true, an' that bird came no more away from there. Ay, but 'twas weary stayin' there, for as he saw the green growin' higher an' higher, he dared not so much as think o' leavin' the cliff side, for fear o' disasther. If ye'll believe it, 'twas nigh on three months that he spent on that shelf, havin' no mind to be turned into oak or fir tree. But one there was who would not leave him in danger o' starvin', an' Etáin was that same.

At last the grain ripened in the valley, an' by that Dermond knew that his time o' triumphin' was comin'. He called Dughall from his hall, an' ye could have heard his voice ringin' out for a mile.

An' then he lifted the cord an' began to pull. Now 'twas hard gettin' the plants loose, for the roots had sthruck deep into the earth; an' all round him he seemed to be hearin' the Little People jeerin' at him an' waitin' for the rope to break. An' for a moment his strength was naught.

Then he called down to the one who stood nearest—

"Mouth o' roses, are ye there?"

"Ay," says Etáin.

"Then laugh! Laugh yer sweetest, or I'll fail an' come to ill yet."

An' up rose her laughter like bells o' gold, an' the music o' that put the strength o' seven into the arms o' Dermond—for no more could he hear the tauntin' o' the Little People.

He gave one more steady pull, an' down flew the stalks o' ripe corn, roots an' leaves an' all, at the feet o' Dughall the Wise, an' he caught them up an' held the grain safe in his hand!

"And what happened then?"

"Why, sure, all the trees turned back into the armed men o' Dughall, an' his low house into a fine royal palace for them all, an'—an' —"

"And they lived happy ever after?"

"Ever afther. An' all because Etáin laughed sweeter nor the Little People. There's a mighty power in a laugh."

"And if she hadn't, wouldn't there have been any story?"

"No, naught but one more tall tree in the forest o' Dughall. An' now away with yees, before ye have me laughin' in spite o' meself."

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