The Battle of Clontarf
Sure enough, at daybreak the next morning there rose the sound of wild war cries as the Celts rushed out from their camp toward the Ford of Hurdles. The full tide was roaring and bellowing across the Lawn of the Bulls, but its noise was quite drowned as with fierce cries of their own the Danes sprang to meet them.
"Hark! Hark!" exclaimed Ferdiad as he and Conn jumped from the ox-cart where they had slept, "the fight has begun!" As none of the boys were allowed in the way of the battle but had been ordered to stay behind the lines, "Let's run up the side of the Hill of Howth," he said, "we can at least see it from there. My, how I wish we could be in it!"
"Don't you, though!" cried Conn longingly as they scrambled up the steep grassy slopes.
There were others also watching from the Hill; the doctors who must be ready to help the wounded, the priests to comfort the dying, and the historians to write down just what went on. For the Celts liked to keep an account of all their doings.
The boys stood near these, and as the fight became fiercer and fiercer of course they grew more and more excited.
"I wonder where the high king is?" said Conn.
"I don't know," answered Ferdiad,—then, "Look!" he cried, "I believe he is over yonder sitting on a rock! Can you see?"
"Yes," replied Conn, "and there's a ring of men with locked shields standing all around him!"
It was indeed the aged high king. His face was white and set as if carved from marble, yet his piercing eyes were brave and fearless as he sat watching the battle which he was certain would in some way bring death to him. For the Dane prophecy had sunk deep into his mind, and nothing could shake his belief that it would be fulfilled.
Wilder and wilder grew the struggle. Banners fluttered and fell, and the loud battle cries from thousands of throats, the clanking of Danish armor and rattling of spears and shields all mingled in one hoarse roar as the chariots of the Celtic kings rushed hither and thither and the poets goaded their horses to the front ranks bravely chanting their songs and inspiring the courage of the soldiers.
The sun rose higher and higher and the ebbing tide flowed far out to sea, and still the conflict raged and none could foresee who would be the victors. Now one side and now the other seemed gaining the advantage. But toward noon the watchers on the Hill began to despair, for they could see the yellow tunics of the Celtic soldiers rolling back in a tawny flood as the gleaming mail of the Danes swept over them.
Ferdiad and Conn scarcely spoke as breathlessly they looked, each wondering whether his father or foster-father still lived or had gone down before the Danish hosts as had already the son and grandson of the high king.
But Brian Boru was too proud and skillful a warrior to allow his armies to meet defeat at the hands of pirates and sea-rovers no matter how many or how powerful. Still standing white and motionless, watching the plain through the ring of shields, nevertheless he was all the while sending swift messengers back and forth ordering the battle, till at length, as the sunset tide again surged in, bellowing, over the waterworn bowlders, the tide of war turned also for the Celts.
Louder and louder rang the songs of the poets, the voice of Angus leading them all, as the Celtic kings and captains rallying their soldiers for a last mighty effort, rushed resistlessly forward, hurling their spears, thrusting with their swords and dealing deadly blows with their battle axes, till suddenly their Danish foes gave way and fled wildly before them.
At this the boys could hold back no longer, but flying down the hillside ran toward the seashore where the victorious Celts were pursuing the Danes, who were trying to reach the long dragon ships in which they had come to Ireland and which were moored at the mouth of the river Liffey. When the tide was low they could easily wade out to these, but now plunging into the great green breakers hundreds and hundreds met their death. Some tried to reach the bridge over the Liffey which led to their fortress only to find escape cut off by the brave Celts who had captured and held it.
When dusk fell, the great army of the Danes was crushed and defeated. Of those who had not fallen in battle or been drowned in the roaring tide a few had managed to escape, but most were prisoners in the hands of the Celtic soldiers. The Battle of Clontarf was over and the high king, Brian Boru, had forever broken the power of the Danes in Ireland.
But what of the high king himself? Had he escaped the death for which he had waited through all the long day? No, he had not escaped. Faithfully from early dawn to sunset the shield men had guarded him in unbroken ring, and not till the tide of battle turned and the Celts were pursuing the flying Danes did they relax their watch. For how could they know that at the very moment their tired arms dropped to their sides a fugitive Dane, who had managed to escape the Celtic spears and crept through the forest and behind the rocks at the foot of the Hill, would spring upon the aged monarch and deal him death with a single thrust of his sword?
But thus it was the soothsayer's prophecy was fulfilled.