The Hall of Feasting
When the story telling was over and Eileen had gone back to her mother, Ferdiad and Conn hurried up the mound where stood the Hall of Feasting. The high king was to give a dinner there later on and the boys wanted to see what they could.
At big open fires near the Hall cooks were busy turning spits, made of peeled hazel rods, on which venison and hares and wild birds were roasting. Others were tending huge cauldrons filled with boiling beef and sheep and little pigs. Potatoes, which we call Irish but which are really American born, had not yet come to Ireland, because of course you know Columbus did not find America till more than four hundred years after our story; but there were cabbages and onions and beans, and there were puddings and red apples and hazel nuts for dessert.
"See, Conn," said Ferdiad, "the door of the Hall is open; let's go in and look around."
"All right!" said Conn, so the went in and watched as servants spread linen cloths on a number of tables standing close to the walls of the long room. There were seats for these only on the side next the wall; for nobody was expected to have his back to the center of the room where the poets always sang their pieces after dinner.
"These must be the tables for the kings and flaiths," said Ferdiad as they strolled along the room, "for see, there are the hooks in the wall for their shields."
"Yes," said Conn, "and look up a little higher and you can tell exactly each king's place, for there are the king's-candles all ready to light," and he pointed to a number of bronze brackets holding very large candles of beeswax with great bushy wicks. "And that enormous one, bigger around than I am, is where the high king will sit. It's just like the one that burns at the door of his palace at Kinkora when Brian Boru is there, and my foster-father says that when he goes to war a big candle like that always burns at the door of his tent at night."
"I suppose where those other handsome cloths are is where the queens and their ladies will sit," said Ferdiad, "and down at the end of the Hall where they are spreading the tables with deerskin must be for the servants."
At every place was laid a napkin, a platter, a cup for mead and a knife for cutting up the food, all of which was eaten with the fingers. In front of each was also a small dish of honey, of which every one was immensely fond and in which they liked to dip almost everything, even meat and fish.
Soon the dinner was ready and servants began bringing in great dishes of meat which later would be carefully carved and distributed according to the rank of the guests. Thus, a certain part of the roast ox was always given to kings and poets, another special part to queens, another to flaiths, and so on till all were served. There was one part, however, that was always the choicest of all; and of this Conn whispered to Ferdiad, "Who do you suppose will get the hero's morsel?" for this tidbit was the portion of the man who was thought by everybody to have performed the bravest or most heroic exploit.
"I don't know," answered Ferdiad, "of course there are lots of kings and chiefs here at the fair, but I don't know who has done the bravest thing. I dare say it will be the one who has fought and beaten the most Danes."
Just then, "Clear out now, youngsters!" said an official-looking man, who with two others had come into the Hall and taken their places close by the open door.
As the boys slipped out, "I guess it's time for the feast," whispered Ferdiad, "but let's wait outside and see the folks come."
Here one of the men at the door, lifting a large trumpet he carried, blew a loud blast and immediately a number of squires, who had been waiting near by holding the shields of their masters, marched up and handed them to the second of the three men who knew every shield and the rank of its owner. At a second blast from the trumpet the shields were taken into the Hall and hung on the hooks Ferdiad had noticed in the wall over the tables. It was a gay sight when all were placed; most of them were small and round, some made of wicker covered with leather and coated with lime which shone dazzling white, others painted in different colors, while many were ornamented with beautiful bands and bosses of gold and silver. When all were arranged the trumpeter blew a third blast, and at this the feasters began to arrive.
"There comes the high king!" said Ferdiad, as the aged monarch, wrapped in a rich purple mantle and attended by his followers, reached the door of the Hall. As he was giving the feast, he stood near the door and greeted each guest before turning them over to the third of the three men at the door whose business it was to seat each man under his own shield and to lead the ladies to the tables spread for them.
"Don't they look fine!" said Conn, as he gazed at the gayly dressed throng coming up the mound.
"Yes, indeed!" echoed Ferdiad, "and oh, there's my foster-father!"
Angus was with a group of kings and poets who came directly after the high king, and there was a sweet tinkling of musical branches as they passed.
"I wish my foster-father could go to the feast, too!" said Conn wistfully, flushing slightly at the thought that he was not of high enough rank to be one of the guests.
"Never mind," said Ferdiad quickly, "I'm sure he is a brave man from what you have told me about him, and I don't wonder you think so much of him. I think he was mighty good to take me into your tent to sleep, and I know my foster-father would like to meet him."
Conn looked pleased, and as he was not of an envious disposition, he said he hoped Angus would get the prize and that the high king would choose him for chief poet. "And oh," went on the boy, "if he does you will all come to live at Kinkora where Brian Boru's palace is and you know our home is near there and most likely you will go to the same monastery school where I go!"
"That would be fine!" exclaimed Ferdiad, "and do tell me more about Kinkora." And talking of this the two boys wandered off together through the long twilight.
Meantime within the Hall the feasting went merrily on; by and by the dark fell and all the kings'-candles were lighted, and then, when the feast was over, the chain of silence was shaken and the poets one by one stood out and sang their songs. But we have not time in this story to tell of what they sang nor of how beautifully they played on their harps, for they were very skillful musicians as well as makers of songs. Many fine poems were thus given, but, of course, Angus won the prize of the jeweled ring and was chosen by the high king to be his chief poet, while over his shoulders was hung the wonderful mantle of feathers, which was worn only by chief poets, and his silver musical branch was replaced by one of pure gold.
I say of course this happened to Angus, because Eileen was quite sure it would, and so was Ferdiad, and so was I when he came into this story which must move now for awhile to Kinkora; for Angus and his family would be expected to live in the poet's house by the palace of Brian Boru.
But before we go to Kinkora I must tell you how Ferdiad went with his foster-parents and Eileen back to their home near Kells where Angus wished to arrange his affairs before quitting it for the court of the high king.