The High King Comes to the Fair
"Father, Father!" called Eileen the morning after the boat ride, as she ran out of the round wattled house where she and her mother had slept.
She had caught sight of a tall man coming swiftly toward her, and in a moment he stooped and kissing her rosy cheek three times lifted her in his arms so she could nestle her golden head on his bosom in the pretty Celtic fashion of greeting those one loved.
"O, father," she said, as hand in hand they went to meet her mother, Fianna, who had just stepped out into the sunshine, "isn't this the day you sing your song before the high king?"
"Yes, child," answered her father smiling, "but do not be too sure I will win the prize. There are many fine poets here and everybody thinks the prize will not be the jeweled ring only, but that Brian Boru will choose the winner for his chief poet in place of Niall who is dead. You know I told you Niall was a great master of his art, so the high king will not be easy to please."
Eileen laughed confidently, "So are you a master!" she declared. Then, "Where is Ferdiad?" she asked.
"He will be along in a minute," answered her father; "the poets' house was so crowded last night he went off and slept in the tent with his friend Conn and his foster-father."
As the three stood waiting for Ferdiad, you would have thought them a handsome family. Eileen's yellow curls, white skin and oval face were like her mother's, and she was dressed in much the same fashion only that her close-fitting tunic and narrow clinging skirt of figured green and white linen were not so long as her mother's yellow and white ones, and her bratt (which was the Celtic name for the loose mantle almost everyone wore), was blue instead of green striped. Her head was bare while her mother's was partly covered with folds of fine filmy linen; but both had the same kind of sandals on their feet.
Angus, Eileen's father, was tall and straight; his long light hair was parted and hung over his shoulders in carefully twisted strands while his beard also was parted and curled in fork-shape, a very fashionable way. He wore a crimson jacket, olive green trousers, and shoes of brown leather embroidered in gold; round his jacket was a saffron-colored girdle, his cape was of checkered turquoise blue and black, fastened with a large silver brooch, and on his head was a saffron yellow pointed cap with a very narrow brim. Now if you have counted the colors in his clothes you will know there were six; and any Celt could have told you that meant that poets were thought so much of that they ranked next to kings; for no one else was allowed to wear six colors at once. To do so was considered a great honor, for everybody delighted in the brightest colors; but people who were neither kings nor poets had to be satisfied with five or less, according to their rank, down to the poor slaves, who could wear only a single coarse garment of gray.
Eileen's father carried in his hand a small quaintly shaped harp with strings of bronze; though he was not playing on it, yet as he walked along there was always a sweet tinkling sound. That was because fastened to his pointed cap was a musical branch such as all Celtic poets wore. It was curving like a little bough from a tree, only it was made of silver and in place of leaves was hung with tiny silver bells. This meant that Angus ranked as an ollave, or master poet, and had studied his art for seven years. If he had been a poet less skillful his musical branch would have been bronze, while, on the other hand, the chief poet of the high king wore one of pure gold.
But Ferdiad had already come up and been kissed three times by Angus and Fianna, and then they began planning the day, for next morning they were to return home.
"Eileen," said her mother, "you and I will go to the merchants' booths. I want to buy some things before we go home, and perhaps I will get a new necklace and bracelets for you; then we must see the embroidering women, for the queen's ladies say they make beautiful things."
Eileen had half wanted to go along with Ferdiad and Conn, but her eyes sparkled at the prospect of buying some new finery, so she was quite satisfied with her mother's plan.
"Then you boys can put in the morning together," said Angus, "and I will be free to practice my new song for the contest."
"O, father," cried Eileen, "can't we hear it?"
"No," answered Angus, "that is to be in the Hall of Feasting this evening, and only the chief grown folks will be there. But then," he added, seeing the disappointment in her face, "there are to be story-tellers on the fair green this afternoon, and you children can go there."
So presently off they scattered, Angus strolling down to a quiet place on the river bank, Eileen tripping along beside her mother, while Ferdiad hurried over to the race course where he was to meet Conn.
"Well," said the latter, who was eagerly watching for him, "you are just in time for the morning races. They are to be with horses and chariots to-day insead of hounds."
Sure enough, there was a tremendous squeaking of axles as a number of two-wheeled chariots were being driven toward the track. All were made of wicker strengthened by a framework of wood, and their seven-spoked wheels were rimmed with bronze. Some were quite open and others gayly canopied, and each held two persons; one who merely rode, and the charioteer who sat nearest the front and drove the horses.
As chariot after chariot came along, the boys looked at them with interest. "Just see that one!" Ferdiad said, "how fine the wickerwork is and what handsome bridle reins all covered with red enamel!"
"Yes," said Conn, "and there comes another just as fine with a blue canopy and silver trimmed reins."
All the while the crowd was becoming larger and larger and presently an extra loud squeaking arose.
"My!" exclaimed Ferdiad, "that must be somebody important coming! Do hear what a noise his chariot makes!" For Celtic people thought it very fine to attract attention as they drove along and the more noise their wheels made the better they liked it.
By this time everybody was looking in the same direction and as the chariot came nearer, "I should think it is somebody important!" said Conn. "Why, that is the high king! I've often seen him at Kinkora; you know his palace is there."
It was Brian Boru, who had just come to the fair. In front of him walked four stalwart soldiers each carrying a battle axe. His chariot was of the finest wicker with a purple canopy embroidered in gold, and the two horses drawing it were snow-white with ears dyed scarlet while their long manes and tails were royal purple and their harness was richly decorated with gold.
The chariot stopped at a wooden pavilion overlooking the race course, and the high king alighted and took his place on a seat piled with deerskin cushions.
The boys had been staring hard at everything. "I didn't remember Brian Boru was so old!" whispered Ferdiad, who had only glimpsed the high king at the fair the year before. "But he's handsome yet!"
"Yes," said Conn, "he's far past eighty but he's mighty good-looking." Indeed, most Celtic kings were; for the simple reason that they were not allowed to reign if they bore the slightest blemish on face or body.
The high king was of course dressed in six colors and his mantle of purple silk fringed with gold was fastened with a wonderful brooch so large that it reached from shoulder to shoulder. His long beard was parted fork-shape and from beneath his crown, which covered his head like a golden hat, his hair fell in twisted strands ornamented with hollow golden balls, which were thought very stylish. Around his neck was a handsome golden torque and many rich bracelets covered his arms.
When the high king had seated himself a group of men who had followed his chariot ranged themselves behind him, while the soldiers stood at each side as guard.
"Who do you suppose all those people are around the high king?" said Conn. "There are ten, not counting the soldiers."
"Well," said Ferdiad, "my foster-father told me that at important places like this at least ten people always go around with the high king. Let me see,—one must be a bishop,—"
"Yes," interrupted Conn, "he must be the one with the top of his head shaved and the little gold box hanging to his necklace. You know bishops carry bits of parchment with verses from the bible written on them in those boxes."
"Then," went on Ferdiad, "one must be a chief,—maybe it's that one with the red and green spotted bratt and the fine torque. And there's always a poet, but, of course, since Niall's dead and the high king hasn't chosen a new one yet, I guess that must be another chief standing where the poet belongs."
"And that one with the harp and trumpets anybody knows is a musician," put in Conn, "and it's easy enough, too, to tell that the tall man with the leather herb bag at his girdle is a doctor, but who are those two standing beside him?"
"I don't know which is which," said Ferdiad looking perplexed, "but they must be the historian and lawyer, for you can see from their looks and the color of their clothes that those other three are servants."
By this time a number of other kings and their followers had seated themselves in the pavilion, while in another one nearby were various queens and their ladies all in the brightest colors and with many flashing ornaments of gold.
Presently the high king's musician began blowing one of his great trumpets and the races began. There was a sudden thud of bronze-shod hoofs swiftly printing the ground, a glimpse of flying manes and tails, of panting nostrils and taut glittering reins, of rushing chariots and charioteers straining forward with long whips in their hands, and, above all, the excited shouting of the crowd; all of which proves, as I have told you, that the Celtic people of long ago liked racing and managed it at their fairs surprisingly the same as we do.
Of course Ferdiad and Conn stayed till the last race; then they got something to eat and went over to the fair green where they were to meet Eileen and hear the story-teller. On their way they saw the high king's chariot going toward the mound where stood the great Hall of Feasting.
"Why," said Conn, "I thought the feast wasn't to be till this evening?"
"It isn't, boy," said a man wearing a soldier's helmet and tunic with a short sword stuck into his girdle; one arm was thrust through the leather holder of a small round shield, though he carried these things only because it was the custom of soldiers, not that he expected to fight at the fair, for that, as you know, was forbidden. "The high king is going to the meeting of all the kings and chiefs which they have every year in that hall over there. They hold the meeting to talk over the affairs of Ireland,—and there's enough to talk about now, youngsters!" went on the soldier. "The way those pirate Danes are coming over here in their long ships and fighting and robbing and burning folks' houses has got to be stopped some way," and the soldier's eyes flashed as he fiercely shook his round shield.
"That's what my foster-father thinks!" cried Ferdiad. "He says they have been growing bolder and bolder ever since they captured the fort at the Ford of the Hurdles." (This fort was on the river Liffey where the city of Dublin now stands.) "He says, too, he wouldn't be surprised any day to see them come up the Blackwater in their long boats and raid us!"
"Why don't your king drive them off?" asked Conn.
"Well," said Ferdiad, "I guess our king of Meath is as brave as anybody. But my foster-father says it will take more than one king's army to drive off those Danes!"
"That's a true word, son!" said the soldier. "It's work for our best Celtic fighters, and I guess that is what the high king will tell them. And I hope the battle will soon be on!" And the soldier strode off looking very fierce and warlike.