Ferdiad and the Dane Prisoner
Ferdiad and Conn stood together in a group of soldiers who were making campfires for the night, and many were the stories they all had to tell of the day. But most of all were they wondering how a single Dane had been able to kill the king in spite of all the shield men.
"It was that heathen prophecy!" declared one soldier, "and nobody could help it!"
"They say the Dane who struck him was a great sorcerer and that no sword could bite his magic armor," said another. And this explanation seemed to satisfy them best; for they did not like to think an ordinary man could have harmed the king they had taken such pains to guard.
"Did you know the flaith O'Brien was killed?" asked another.
"Yes," spoke up someone else, "his men say that at first he was invisible because of the cloak from the banshee of Craglea, but as the battle grew fiercer he scorned not to be seen and threw it off. It was then a Dane spear struck him, and they say his shield moaned as he fell!"
"Did you see the war witches dancing on the tips of our Celtic spears?" said another voice.
"To be sure!" came an answering one, "And look! they are flying now over the battle field!"
"Do you see them, Ferdiad?" whispered Conn, in awed tones.
"It looks like fog coming in from the sea," said Ferdiad, gazing through the gathering dusk, "but I suppose the witches are in it."
Just here some other boys came along on their way to see the prisoners, and Ferdiad and Conn went with them to the rear of the camp where scores of sullen-looking Danes were standing under guard waiting their turn to be chained. Torches flared here and there, and as their flickering light fell on the faces of the prisoners all at once Ferdiad stopped short with a long "Oh!" He was standing in front of a tall, cruel-looking man with hands chained behind him and an ugly red scar across his forehead.
After his first gasp of surprise, "Conn," whispered Ferdiad excitedly, "he is the man who killed the monk in the raid on Kells! I would know his face in a thousand. And he took what the monk had hid in his robe and I have always thought it was the angel book of Saint Columkille!" Here Ferdiad caught sight of the wooden shield at the Dane's feet: in its center was a pointed boss of iron which was thrust through, and partly held in place, the fragment of a thin sheet of gold. The corners of this were fastened to the wood by a few bronze nails, and the gold was beautifully hammered in a curious design of interlacing lines and queer animal forms with long tails twisting in many intricate spirals.
"Look!" cried Ferdiad, as he examined this eagerly, "now I know it was Saint Columkille's book he got! That gold is part of its case, I've seen it and remember the pattern! I suppose he put it on his shield trying to imitate our handsome Celtic ones with their gold ornaments."
Meantime the captive was staring sullenly at Ferdiad, who was saying to Conn, "I wonder if he understands Celtic? I wish I could ask him some questions."
"No, boy," said a soldier standing near by, "but if you want to ask him something I can help you, for I know his language."
"Oh," said Ferdiad, "ask him where the book is that was in that case. It was the angel book of the blessed Saint Columkille!"
"It was?" exclaimed the soldier in surprise, for almost every Celt had heard of that wonderful book. But to the soldier's question the Dane only shrugged his shoulders and would say nothing.
"I was at Kells when the Danes raided it and I saw him kill the monk who was trying to save the book!" went on Ferdiad.
At this the soldier began fiercely to threaten the man, telling him they would kill him. But still the man sullenly refused to speak; for he had been long enough in Ireland to know that the Celtic law would not allow prisoners to be killed.
Then Ferdiad thought of something. "Tell him," he said, "that my foster-father is the chief poet of Ireland and I will get him to compose a scornful poem about him!"
Now do not laugh, for this was no idle threat of Ferdiad's, and when he suggested it the soldier said approvingly, "That will settle him!" For a Celt dreaded nothing more than for a poet to chant scornful verses about him. They had a peculiar reverence for their poets and believed that by their songs they could, if they wished, call down terrible misfortunes or even death.
So the soldier took pains to impress this on the Dane, who turned pale with fright and at last burst out in a torrent of words to which the soldier listened attentively.
"He says," he interpreted, "that the book has been trouble enough to him. When he was carrying it off fromS Kells another Dane attacked him and tried to get it away, and in the fight he killed the man, but not before he had got a sword thrust that had blinded one of his eyes,—which served him right! though the wicked heathen was ugly enough already with that red-scarred forehead of his!"—put in the soldier on his own account as he went on, "he says the gold was what he wanted, and after his fight with the man he tore the book out of its case and threw it away. And may the blessed Saint Columkille send his soul to everlasting torment for it!" added the soldier as he piously crossed himself.
Ferdiad drew a long breath, "Well," he said at last, "at least it wasn't burned!" For everybody knew the Danes had made many a bonfire of the precious books and manuscripts they had stolen from the Celts. "Perhaps it may be found yet," he said to Conn as they walked away together.
"But it would surely be spoiled if it had been lying on the ground all this while!" said Conn.
And still discussing it they went over to the center of the camp where every one was going. For Angus was beginning to chant the mourning song for the high king, who lay within his tent with lighted candles at his head and feet and the royal waxen one blazing at the door.