The Laughter of Peterkin
|The Fate of the Sons of Turenn,
For that night Peterkin heard no more of the story of the Fate of the Sons of Turenn; but all the next evening, and the next again, he sat entranced by the strange moving tale of how Brian and Ur and Urba one by one fulfilled the hard and perilous conditions of their eric, and this until the sixth was done.
But here, now, this tale cannot be told in full. To tell it aright would need a volume not less than this is.
It must suffice that after innumerable hardships, after fierce cold and fiercer heat, after hunger and thirst and daily perils by land or sea, and strange and frightful encounters, and hazardous fights with monsters and wild men and kings and princes, the sons of Turenn found themselves sailing towards the remote north of Lochlin, having accomplished the six seeming impossible conditions.
That nigh-impossible task, indeed, had been made possible by the magic boat of Manannan, called the Sweeper of the Waves which they had won from Lu by unlooked-for wile. For before they had left Tara they had played a game of chess with Lu Ildanna, well knowing that Lu was under geas never to refuse to play at chess when asked by any Dedannan, or to pay the hazard that was decided upon, whatsoever it might be. There was no player in all Erin to surpass Ur, though few knew this, for he was little given to talk, and still less of his own doings.
First Urba had offered to play with Lu, and the hazard of that play was to be the life of Lu Ildanna. "I will play that hazard," he said, "if thou wilt pay the like penalty if thou dost lose." But when Urba refused, he could play no more, because he had declined the counter-hazard.
Then Brian had offered to play, and the hazard of that play was to be Daurya, the beautiful daughter of a great lord, whom Lu loved. "I will play that hazard," he said, "if, in return, thou wilt pledge me Enya of the Dark Eyes, thy sister." But when Brian refused this hazard, he too could play no more with Lu until Lu asked him.
Then Ur played, and the hazard of that play was the "Sweeper of the Waves," Manannan's magic boat. "I will play that hazard," Lu said, "if in return thou wilt sail in it, and affront Manannan to his face." To that Ur agreed, and they played, and Ur won.
This magic boat would sail swiftly and safely in any sea whether calm or tempest-wrought and at a word would make for any coast a or haven; more like a great bird it was, or some creature of the air and sea.
"White shall be thy foamy track," cried Lu as they sailed away; "but red everywhere shall be the wake behind ye."
And so it was. For death and the bitterness of the sword were ever in their way and in their wake. Nevertheless, they unceasingly rejoiced in their possession of the Sweeper of the Waves, and when their eric-quest took them into far eastern lands beyond the reach of great rivers, they hid their precious vessel, or bade it lie till it heard their summoning voice.
And so at the last it happened that the sons of Turenn won the three golden apples out of the guarded close in Isberna; and by craft and daring carried away from Sicily the famous chariot and two steeds which had no peer in all the world; and from Asol of the Golden Pillars, who gave them in ransom for his life, they took the seven deathless swine; and from its cauldron in the heart of a hostile city they snatched the terrible spear of Pisarr; and the far-famed skin of healing they brought away from the palace of Toosh, king of Greece, whose head they left idly rolling upon his marble floor; and in far Irrua they put captivity upon the terrible hound Falinnish; and in the wild seas of Fiancarya they dared the sea-women in their caverns under the waves, and took from them the roasting spit that Lu had demanded.
All this they did, and much else in the doing of these wonders. And now nothing remained but to shout three shouts upon the hill of Mekween; and to this end they sailed blithely and swiftly towards the far north of Lochlin.
But meanwhile, in far away Erin, Lu Ildanna became aware, by his subtle magic and knowledge, that the sons of Turenn had one by one accomplished all but the last of the bitter tasks of the eric he had set upon them. He had not deemed this fulfilment possible, but while greatly he marvelled that courage and endurance could so bring impossible things to pass, he dreaded lest the sons of Turenn should prevail in the last task also. For if they came back to Erin with all that great eric fulfilled, then would there be a blood-shedding terrible indeed.
Moreover, Lu Ildanna, who saw far ahead of the things of the moment, was even now preparing for that second great battle upon the Plain of Moytura which he knew would come again; and a battle mightier and more desperate than the last, or than ever was seen in Erin before. Great warrior as he was, and lordly as was the war-host of the Dedannans, he feared this final battle unless he had at least half of the eric he had set upon the sons of Turenn--and, above all, the Spear of Pisarr, the Skin of Healing, and the War-chariot of the Sicilian king. Therefore he longed for the return of his foes, the sons of Turenn; yet feared that they should come back having accomplished all.
So on a day of the days he made a deep and potent spell, and sent this spell forth to work its noiseless and invisible way across land and sea and under the flaming sun and the white glister of the stars, till it should find the Sweeper of the Waves.
So forth that subtle spell went, and when it reached at last the Sweeper of the Waves it crawled stealthily into the great boat, and wound itself about the weary bodies of Brian and Ur and Urba, and moved into their brains, filled as they were with dreams of Erin and of home.
The spell was the spell of oblivion, but they knew it not.
And so it chanced that they could no longer understand why it was they sailed northward, nor had they any memory of the last obligation of the eric, and thought neither of Mekween and his sons, nor of the doom put upon them by Lu, nor of the vanity of all their long quest and brave endurance if they returned with the eric unfulfilled in the least part.
It was with joy that they set their prow for green Erin; and with joy that they saw again its green grassy hills above its white shores; and with joy that they recognised Ben Edar and Dun Turenn; and with joy that they kissed once more Turenn their father and Enya of the Dark Eyes, their sister, and knew themselves back at last from all their weary wandering and endless peril and strife.
Great was the marvelling at what they brought back, and the oldest druids admitted that never in the history of Erin had so great a wonder been done.
Alas! theirs was but a brief joy.
Lu Ildanna said nothing till he had put away all the treasures of that eric. Then he said gravely:
All is accomplished save one thing. Have ye shouted three shouts upon the hill of Mekween?
And as he spoke he broke the spell, so that suddenly Brian and Ur and Urba remembered, and with shame and grief had to say that this last thing they had not done.
In vain did Turenn supplicate for his sons, in vain even was the pleading of the king. Lu had but one answer. "All else is as nought if they have not done this thing--to shout three shouts upon the hill of Mekween."
So once more the sore-tried heroes set forth, but with dim presentiments of woe; for now they had neither the Skin of Healing nor the Sweeper of the Waves, for these had been taken away by Lu, and he would not give them again.
Nevertheless, they reached their goal. A great and terrible fight was theirs with Mekween and his sons Conn and Core and Ae, the most terrible fight, the old bards say, which was ever fought between six men--for at the beginning the sons of Turenn slew Mekween.
At dusk on that disastrous day six gashed and mutilated men lay in the swoon of death. Out of that swoon, three men never waked, and these were Conn and Core and Ae: and two had not strength to move even when they waked, and these were Ur and Urba; and Brian alone staggered to his feet, and stared through a mist of blood.
When at last the eldest of the sons of Turenn looked upon his brothers, and saw their glassy eyes staring idly at the sunrise, he feared that they too were dead. Then he saw that the pulse of life still flickered. Weak as he was, he took first Ur upon his shoulders, and bore him up the rocky slope to the ridge of the hill of Mekween; and then returned and bore Urba thither also.
Then it was that three thin, faint shouts went forth upon the hill, so thin and faint that the browsing stags on the uplands did not lift their heads.
Thus was it that the Great Eric was fulfilled.
But, alas! the piteous tale of their return. None could tell aright that woe-stricken, death-weary voyage of three dying men, upborne by one hope only--that they might free their name and clan from the eric put upon them, and lay their accusing deaths at the feet of Lu Ildanna.
Yet hardly might they do even this. For as they drew nigh the coasts of Erin once more, Ur and Urba spoke to Brian and supplicated him to raise their heads, so that, before they died, they might see again the green hills of their beloved Banba, and high Ben Edar, and their home Dun Turenn.
But to this Brian made answer:
"Dear brothers, too great is my weakness, for I am now even as ye are. Lo! through my gaping wounds one of these birds that skim above us might fly, and be not snared within me.
After that, they spake no word till the galley grided against the sands of Erin.
Soon all in Dun Turenn and in all the lands of Edar knew that Brian, Ur, and Urba were come again; but sorrowful were they indeed to see, instead of the three proud heroes, only three wasted men like unto shadows. Neither Ur nor Urba could speak, but Brian's voice could rise to a thin whisper.
With halting breath he bade his father hasten to Tara, and tell Lu Lamfada that now all the eric was paid at last, and then beseech him, by his honour and fair name, and for the glory of the old Dedannan faith, and by the invocation of the Sun and Moon and Wind, to lend to the three perishing sons of Turenn the Skin of Healing, so that their lives might not flicker out as the flame of spent torches.
But, alas! Lu would not yield to that prayer, not even when the grey hairs of Turenn were at his feet. Then once more Brian besought his father; and now it was that he bade his father put him upon a litter, and bear him gently, because of his open wounds, and lay him at the feet of Lu.
And when he was there, Brian said this thing:
"Behold, O Lu Ildanna, son of Kian, we have fulfilled the heaviest eric ever exacted of any man since the world was made. And now we ask this one thing alone: one hour only of the Healing Skin that we ourselves brought unto thee. Yet not for myself I ask this, if thou desirest my life, since it was I who slew thy father, but for my brothers Ur and Urba. And if not for them--though they are guiltless of this ill, and are with me in this dire plight because they would not forsake me, but made my fortune their fortune--then for the sake of the old hero Turenn, who was comrade in arms with thy father Kian when both were youths. And by the Sun, and by the Moon, and by the Wind, and by thine honour, I cry to thee to be merciful, and to do this thing."
But Lu smiled a bitter, evil smile. Half that smile was from the cruel revengefulness in his breast, and half because he feared that if Brian and Ur and Urba lived, there would be an end of the Dedannan race, for the fierce internecine wars which would be in Erin.
"I would not give thee the Skin, Brian, though all thy race, nay, not though every man and woman in the eastlands were to perish with thee. Go hence, and in the shadow of death remember the eric unto death of Lu the Long-Handed."
So Brian went forth upon his litter, with the death-sweat already upon him.
That night a long and bitter lamentation went up from Dun Turenn, and the Beacons of Death flared upon Ben Edar. For, at the setting of the sun, Brian and Ur and Urba breathed out their souls into the light, and these moved swift to Flathinnis, the holy island where are gathered all the souls of heroes.
Yet on their way to join the innumerous deathless dead, they halted once, for they heard a thin voice crying upon the wind. It was the voice of Turenn their father.
In one great grave before the mighty dun the four were buried, erect, and sword in hand. And on a slab midway in the vast cairn of stones that was erected thereon was writ in branching Ogam the names and glory of Turenn and his three sons. For three days the people wept. Then, as the wont was, Enya of the Dark Eyes decreed the funeral games.
And so these heroes died, and with them went the third part of the perishing glory of the Tuatha-De-Danann.
For in the end, that which is to be, is. There is no gainsaying the slow, sure word of Fate. And, too, there is this thing to be said. The wind in the grass outlasts the branching Ogam graven in granite, and the granite cenotaph itself, and the powdered dust of that granite.