ONE day in the long ago, the sun shone down upon a green wood whose mightiest trees have since rotted at the bottom of the ocean, where the best masts find a grave. While the sunlight slept on the bosom of the foliage, a horseman galloped in the shade beneath. The great chief Fion, son of Cumhail, was looking for his knights, whom he had outstripped in the hunt.
He reined in his steed in a broad glade, and blew his bugle loud and clear. Beside the echoes repeated among the hillsides, there was no answering call. He rode on, pausing now and again to blow another and another bugle-blast, but always with the same result.
At length the wood grew more scattered, and presently he came out upon a stretch of plain where the grass was so green that it looked like emerald; and beyond it in the distance, at the end of the sloping plain, he could see the seashore, and the ocean rising like a wall of sapphire up to the farthest horizon.
Down by the shore he could see figures moving, and, thinking that his knights had found their way thither, he rode like the wind down the long, gentle slope towards them. As he drew nearer and nearer, he saw that there were twelve of them, and they were playing at ball. By the mighty strokes they gave with the coman he guessed that these were the twelve sons of Bawr Sculloge, for none but them could drive the ball so high and far. Tremendous were their strokes, and, when they ran after the ball, they outstripped the wind.
As Fion drew rein and dismounted, they stopped their play; and, drawing near, welcomed him loudly as the helper of the weak, and the protector of the green island against the white-faced stranger.
When he had returned their greeting, they invited him to join them in their game--if such an amusement was agreeable to him.
‘Fion, son of Cumhail,’ said one, ‘here, take my coman and wipe away the vanity and conceit of all comers, for we are practising for a great contest.’
Fion took the coman and looked at it, holding it up between his finger and thumb.
‘I doubt if I could do much good with this plaything,’ said Fion; ‘it would break at first blow if I were to strike at all hard.’
‘Never let that stand in the way,’ returned the other. ‘Wait!’
He then searched upon the ground among the blades of grass, and at length found a nettle, which he pulled up by the roots. Having breathed a charm over it, he passed it three times from one hand to the other, and lo, it was changed into a mighty coman, fit for the hand of Fion, son of Cumhail.
Then they were amazed at his terrific blows. The ball, struck by Fion, soared almost out of sight in the sky, and fell to earth far off. But, each time, the fleet-footed sons of Bawr Sculloge retrieved it.
At last Fion bared his arm to the shoulder, and, with a final blow, sent the ball out of sight. None saw it go; none saw it fall. They all stood and looked at each other.
‘My hand on it,’ said the eldest son of Bawr, advancing to Fion. ‘I live to admit that I never saw the game played till to-day.’
As they were speaking, a voice hailed them; and, turning seawards, they saw a small boat approaching. As soon as it touched the beach, a man sprang ashore, and hastened towards them.
‘Hail! Fion, son of Cumhail!’ he cried. ‘You are known to me, though not I to you. My lady, the Queen of Sciana Breaca, lays a knight’s task upon you. Hasten forthwith, and have speech with her on her island. The hand of Flat Ear the Witch is upon her, and her chiefs have advised her to summon you to her aid.’
‘I know it,’ replied Fion. ‘The Salmon of Wisdom, which comes up from the sea, breeds knowledge in my brain. I know what is passing in all the islands, but I fear that my efforts against witchcraft would be unavailing. Nevertheless, I will try. I will choose, from the twelve sons of Bawr Sculloge, three that I need, and together we will follow you to the island.’
‘But, noble chief, you have no boat here, and mine will hold only one other beside myself.’
‘Let not that trouble you,’ replied Fion. ‘I will provide a boat for us four, and we will follow you.’
With this he selected from the twelve sons the three that he needed. They were Chluas, Grunne, and Bechunach. Then he plucked two twigs of a witch hazel that grew near by, and they all proceeded to the beach. There he held the two twigs out over the water, and, in a moment, the one became a boat and the other a mast with sail set. He sprang in and the three followed, and presently they were speeding over the sea, setting their course by that of the stranger in his boat.
They sailed for many hours before they came to the island of the Queen of the Many-coloured Bedchamber. There they passed between high rocks, and entered a quiet harbour, where they moored their boat to a stout pillar and set a seal upon the fastening, forbidding any but themselves to loose it for the space of one year, for they knew not how long their quest would last. Then they went up into the palace of the Queen.
They were gladly welcomed and treated with the most generous hospitality. When they had eaten and drank, the Queen led them into a vast bedchamber decorated in the form and manner of the rainbow. Over the ceiling were the seven colours in their natural order. Round the walls they ranged themselves in the same fashion, and even the carpet itself was formed of seven hues to correspond. If the rainbow itself had been caught and tied up in a room, the effect could not have been more remarkable. It was indeed a many-coloured bedchamber!
Taking Fion by the hand, the Queen led them all into a corner of the bedchamber, where she pointed to a little cot in which a child lay sleeping.
‘I had three children,’ she said as she stood at the head of the cot, while Fion and the others gathered round. ‘When the eldest was a year old it was carried off by that wicked witch, Flat Ear. The next year, when the second one was twelve months old, it suffered the same fate. And now my youngest here, who is twelve months old to-day, has fallen sick, and I fear to lose him in the same manner. This very night the witch will surely come and snatch my child away unless you can prevent her.’
‘Take comfort, fair Queen,’ said Fion. ‘We will do our best. If you will leave this chamber to us we will watch over your child and see that it comes to no harm. And, if it be possible to capture the witch, depend upon it we shall do so. Too long she has worked her wickedness upon these lands.’
The Queen thanked him and withdrew. Soon the sun was set, and, as the child slept on and the shadows gathered, Fion and the three brothers set their watch in the Many-coloured Bedchamber. Presently servants came in and set wine before them--honey-mead and Danish beer, and metheglin and sweet cakes. And, while they regaled themselves, the servants brought chessmen and a board, and Grunne and Bechunach played chess while Fion and Chluas watched by the bedside.
Hours passed while the two chess-players were absorbed in their game and the other two kept watch and ward. Then, towards midnight, while Fion was alert and wakeful, he saw Chluas sink his chin on his breast, overcome by an unnatural sleep. Thrice Chluas strove to rouse himself, but thrice he sank into a deeper sleep.
‘Wake up, Chluas!’ cried Grunne, as Bechunach was considering his next move. ‘Wake up! We have a pledge to keep.’
Chluas roused himself. ‘Yes, yes,’ he said; ‘we have a pledge to keep.’ And then his chin sank gradually on his breast again, and he was once more a victim to the same unnatural sleep.
‘Let him alone,’ said Fion. ‘I will watch.’
And the two brothers went on with their game of chess.
Suddenly a chill wind swept through the bedchamber. The fire in the grate flickered, and the candles burned low: the child in the cot stirred and moaned.
‘See that!’ said Fion in a hoarse whisper, pointing to the fireplace.
They turned and looked. It was a long, lean, bony hand reaching down the chimney and groping in the direction of the cot. The fingers were spread out and crooked, all ready to clutch. Slowly the long arm lengthened and drew near the cot. It was about to snatch the child, when Fion darted forward and seized it in an iron grip.
There was a violent struggle, for Fion had the arm of the witch in his powerful grasp. He held on so masterfully that the witch, in her frantic efforts to draw it away, fell down the chimney, rolled across the fire, struck Fion a terrific blow on the temple with her other hand, and then, falling on top of his unconscious body, lay still, her shoulder torn and bleeding.
Grunne and Bechunach quickly ran to Fion’s aid, and, leaving the witch for dead, quickly withdrew his body and restored him to consciousness. Then, when they turned to see to the witch, they found that both she and the child had vanished.
They sprang to their feet and roused Chluas roughly. But he sank to sleep again immediately.
‘What shall we do?’ they all asked of Fion.
‘Follow!’ said he; ‘follow where I lead. Grunne, pick up your bow and arrows; Bechunach, knot your ladder of cords. Follow me, both of you. Leave Chluas sleeping: he is not in his body; his spirit goes with us, and we cannot do without it.’
So Grunne gathered up his bow and arrows and Bechunach his rope, and the three, leaving the body of Chluas like dead wood, went forth to seek the witch.
They came to the seashore, loosed their boat, sped across the harbour and out between the high rocks. Then, guided by the loosed spirit of the sleeping Chluas, they sped forward on the ocean, driven by a freshening breeze. All the while the spirit-light, floating above the waves, led them on.
It was some two hours before dawn when they descried, in the distance, the lighted tower of the witch, upon an island. A dull, red flame shot out from it, and, as it turned for ever on itself, this flame lighted the sea around like a revolving wheel, clear and red against the surrounding blackness.
Nearer and nearer they approached it. Then Fion stood up in the boat and chanted magic spells, raising his arms and sinking them again with fingers stretched and his palms downwards. Then with a loud cry he called for sleep to descend on the vile witch of the revolving tower.
Ere yet his cry had died away on the surrounding sea the red light ceased to revolve. It was still, glaring dully. Then, as the boat touched the beach beneath the tower, Fion commanded Bechunach to throw his knotted cord and noose the topmost turret.
It was soon done. The noose caught, and held. And, in another moment, Bechunach, like a wild cat of the mountain, was climbing up. Fion and Grunne followed, while the spirit of Chluas, who lay fast asleep in the Many-coloured Bedchamber, guided and directed their every movement.
They gained a window of the tower and made their way in. Following the gleam of the dull, red light, they went from room to room, and at last came to one where it shone clearly through the cracks of the door. They burst in, and stood aghast on the threshold at the sight that met their gaze.
There on the floor lay the witch, in a magic sleep, the blood flowing from her shoulder, torn by Fion in the struggle. And there, around her, crying bitterly, were the Queen’s three children.
Fion stooped down and swept his arm round them, and took them aside and comforted them. Then he gathered the youngest to his breast, and, directing Grunne and Bechunach to see to the other two, he led the way to the window.
In a very short time they had all climbed down the rope ladder and were speeding away in the boat. But, as they left the island, the spell was released. The tower, with its wheel of red light, began again to revolve upon the waters, and they heard the witch’s shriek of rage as she awoke to the pain of her wound, to find the children gone. It came again and again, that shriek of baffled hate and rage and pain. Then, as they looked back, they saw a dark form glide down the walls of the tower like a loathsome thing creeping head downwards. It reached the foot and sped to the seashore. Then it seemed to loose a boat, and, in another moment, it was speeding in pursuit of them. Faster and faster over the waves it came.
‘Quick!’ cried Fion to Grunne. ‘Draw your bowstring to your ear. You will not miss: the spirit of the sleeper will guide your shaft.’
Grunne fitted an arrow to his bowstring, and drew it to his ear. Then, as Fion shot forward his outstretched hands, casting a vivid light from his finger-tips over the surface of the sea, the arrow sped with a twang and a whiz.
A terrible cry came back across the water. The witch, struck to the heart, threw up her arms, and, falling from her boat, sank in the sea.
Fion put down his hands, and then all was dark, save for a dull red light which flickered and played above the spot where the witch had sunk; and they sped on.
Now they neared the harbour, and saw a multitude of people waiting, with torches waving. When they gained the foothold of the land, with the three children in their arms, the people raised a mighty cheer. The Queen heard it and hastened to meet them.
Great was her joy on receiving her three children at the hands of Fion. And she showered upon him every blessing, entertaining him and his comrades--the three sons of Bawr Sculloge--for a whole year. And every year thereafter--lest the deed be forgotten--on the anniversary of the day she sent a boat laden with gold and silver and precious stones, and shields and helmets and chess-tables and rich cloaks; and the sons of Bawr Sculloge invited Fion to join them in high festival on that day, for they said, ‘Such deeds should never be forgotten.’
And, one morning in spring, Fion, son of Cumhail, went into the gardens and orchards about his palace and plucked many twigs from flowers and fruit trees, and with these he went down to the seashore. Holding them above the waves, he recited a spell, and immediately a boat was formed of the twigs--a trim little craft with sail set.
He sprang in and steered his course for the isle of the Queen of the Many-coloured Bedchamber. And, as he sped over the waves, the boat began to bud; and green leaves appeared on the mast, and the spars and stays put out the growth of spring, till they shone like emerald in the sun.
When he came in sight of the island, the sides of the boat were covered with blossoms, the mast had put out a wealth of petals, and the sail and rigging were covered with flowering vines. Then, as he passed between the high rocks and entered the harbour, the watchers on shore saw a boat approaching, splendid with summer flowers, and on its mast were spreading branches dropping down with luscious fruit. Nearer and nearer it came, and, when it touched the shore, Fion sprang out, and bade them gather the beautiful flowers and the ripe fruit and take them to their Queen.
And Queen Breaca valued this present more than any other he could have offered, because the manner of it was beautiful, and a Queen is a woman, and a woman loves beautiful things above all else.
And Chluas, the sleeper--what reward had he? He claimed none, and none knows what was his reward. Yet it is said that in the Land of Deep Sleep there are rewards undreamt of by those who wake.