It was the day after the battle of Clontarf, and the Celtic camp was already broken up and the soldiers scattering back to their homes. The body of the dead high king, Brian Boru, was to be borne in a cart drawn by white oxen and covered with a purple pall to the church of Armagh, a very sacred place in the kingdom of Ulster. There, with solemn ceremonies, the Celtic monarch would be buried, standing with his face to the east, wrapped in his royal mantle, his shield and spear beside him.
Now it happened that Kells was one of the stopping places on the way to Armagh; and when Ferdiad heard this, he begged his foster-father that he and Conn might go that far along with the pages who attended the different kings and flaiths.
"We can ride in the cart for the pages, and stay at Kells and you can stop for us when you come back from Armagh!" said Ferdiad eagerly. "I want to hunt for Saint Columkille's book and Conn will help me." For Ferdiad had told his foster-father about what the Dane prisoner had said.
Angus had no hope that the beautiful book might be found, but Ferdiad begged so hard that he agreed and Ferdiad ran off happily to tell Conn.
So it came about that the two boys went along when the funeral procession set off, the white oxen and royal cart leading the way while close behind rode poet Angus chanting sorrowful songs in honor of the dead king. After him came as many of the Celtic kings and flaiths as could arrange to go to Armagh, and last of all followed the host of attendants for these, the boys among them.
At Kells the funeral train was received with every honor, and after a brief rest moved on to the north; but Ferdiad and Conn stayed behind. The boys were warmly greeted by the monks, who knew Ferdiad well and were fond of the lad; and they were especially glad to see him as they had not heard from him since the day of the raid.
He soon told them what he had found out about the beautiful book, and Brother Patrick said, "Yes, lad, I remember finding the body of no doubt the very man the Dane prisoner told you he had fought with over the gold case, and we gave the wicked heathen Christian burial where we found him. If the book was thrown away soon after the fight, it must be somewhere not far from that spot."
"Oh, please show us the place and let's begin looking right away!" cried Ferdiad.
"I can show you the grave," said Brother Patrick with a sigh, "but unless the blessed Saint Columkille has worked a miracle, the beautiful book is surely ruined by this time!"
The spot to which he led the way was in a woodland skirting the monastery fields, and just beyond was a bog where the monks had once cut the peat they burned in winter, though it had now become quite dry. Several of them who had heard Ferdiad's story came along, and all began to search. But most of them were no longer young, and it seemed to them a hopeless task; though they constantly mourned the loss of the most beautiful book in Ireland.
As the Kells school was over for the summer, there were no young students to help search, for they had all gone away for a time; so at last Ferdiad and Conn found themselves the ones who must find the book if any one did.
Up and down through the trees they went, peering and poking under every swirl of fallen leaves or dead boughs where they glimpsed anything that looked in the least like the brown carved leather that covered the lost book. Ferdiad led the way southeastward from where the two Danes had fought, "For," he said, "that is the direction Brother Patrick says the raiders went after they left Kells, and even yet you can see the broken branches where they drove the cows through the woods on their way toward the sea."
The boys got down on their hands and knees and looked under every thicket of bushes, and Conn even poked under the tufts of violets and cowslips.
"Why, Conn," laughed Ferdiad, "it's too big to hide under those! Saint Columkille's book is at least a foot wide and more than that long, and thick through!"
Indeed, they got as interested as in a game of hide and seek; moreover, the monks offered as prize, if the book was found, a handsome bow and arrows with a quiver of red enameled leather, such as they gave to their best student at the end of his year's school work.
For almost a week the boys searched and searched in vain. At last Ferdiad said, "There's a fairy mound somewhere in these woods, I think not far from here. Let's go around it three times and say a charm and maybe the fairies will help us!"
"All right!" agreed Conn, and soon finding the little hill thay walked around it backward three times, each saying softly under his breath a special charm rime; for many such had been handed down among the people from the days of the DeDanaans.
Now it was an odd thing, but that very morning while Conn with a stick was poking under some hazel bushes, Ferdiad, in looking behind a log at the edge of the woodland, happened to start a young hare. Off scampered the little creature out of the woods and over a corner of the peat bog. Suddenly,—plump! down it tumbled head over heels in a hole where, long before, the monastery brothers had been cutting their peat.
Ferdiad, who was fond of hunting with his red and green hounds, though he had none with him, instinctively ran after the hare to see what had become of it. Though the ground was spongy lower down, for some distance from the top the bog was dry; and when Ferdiad came to the hole, there was the frightened little hare huddled up at the bottom and in his scrambles to get out his hind legs were scattering the brown dry leaves that had blown over from the forest the autumn before.
As Ferdiad bent over his eyes began to grow very round as he stared, not at the little hare, but at something lying at one side of the ragged hole where the hare had been most active in scattering away the leaves. The corner of a brown flat object was laid bare, and Ferdiad, springing down hurriedly, cleared away the rest of the leaves and drew out—but, of course, you have guessed what!
Yes, indeed, it truly was the angel book which by some strange chance had fallen into the peat hole when the Dane, hurrying to join the other raiders, had come out of the woodland and cutting across a corner of the bog had torn it from the case and flung it away. It had dropped under a projecting edge of the peat, and this and the drifting leaves had protected it from the weather so that when Ferdiad lifted it out, though its thick leather cover was marred and discolored in places, yet when he opened it its marvelous painted pages shone out as bright and beautiful and undimmed as when it first came from the hand of the unknown artist hundreds of years before!
The drifting leaves had protected it from the weather.
"Conn! Conn!" shouted Ferdiad, trembling with excitement, "Come here! I have found it!"
In a moment Conn came running, and when Ferdiad told him how he had discovered it he stared in surprise. "Do you suppose it could have been a DeDanaan fairy in the form of a hare that helped you find it?" he cried. "I was sure I saw some fairies flitting around there in the woods after we came back from the mound."
"I don't know," said Ferdiad, "it might have been!"
And perhaps it was; and perhaps, too, as the monks declared when Ferdiad bore back the book in triumph to the monastery, the blessed Saint Columkille of the angels who had guided the hand of the bygone artist had indeed wrought a miracle and so saved those rare painted pages from harm as they lay all the long months hidden in the bog.
In very truth, the angels must still guard the sacred volume; for all these things I have told you happened long and long ago. Long and long ago Ferdiad and Conn and Eileen lived out their happy lives and long ago poet Angus sang his last sweet song. The raths of the Celtic people of old and the duns of their high kings are now only ruined walls watched over by the hidden fairies, and their beloved Ireland has passed through many changes and has known much of sorrow. Yet through all the passing centuries the Great Gospel of Saint Columkille, or the Book of Kells, as it is more often called to-day, still keeps its lovely pages untarnished and unfading. In the city of Dublin, which once was but the fortress at the Ford of the Hurdles, still it is jealously cherished, and still it is ranked, as in the days of Ferdiad, the most beautiful book in all the world.