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Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Fenian Cycle
Dark deeds awake at the hands of a fiery phantom in the tale of Fionn and the Phantom
After his seven years of training with the poet Finegas were done, Fionn Mac Cumhaill took himself from the river Boyne to the great hall of the High King in Tara, Conn of the Hundred Battles, to present himself there as a member of the Fianna, the very best of the best warriors throughout Ireland. Announcing himself, Conn took him into the band and made him one of them, although Goll son of Morna (who had helped in the slaying of the father of Fionn) muttered and complained. Goll was captain of the Fianna by then but the king paid him no mind.
The year was drawing to a close and the festival of Samhain was upon them, which was an occasion for fear and sorrow in Tara. In the past some forgotten insult had been dealt to one of the Sidhe and Tuatha Dé Dannan who dwelt in a barrow close by, his name being Aillen mac Midna, son of the son of Dagda Mór. On the night of the feast of Samhain the world grew thin, and beings from this realm and the underworld could step through and walk where they did not belong.
Nine times Aillen had come, and nine times ruin he had wrought. With his sweet harp he would sing the heroes of the Fianna to sleep, and then with his pipe he would rain down fire upon their hall and houses. He couldn't destroy the entire sacred city as the High King and his wizards had some potency of protection, but he could do plenty besides.
When the feast on that night was done, the High King asked that the silvery chimes of the chain of silence be heard and he stood to speak before his people.
"Friends and heroes," said Conn, "Aillen, the son of Midna, will come tonight from Slieve Fuaid with occult, terrible fire against our city. Is there among you one who loves Tara and the king, and who will undertake our defence against that being?"
Goll who was the leader of the Fianna looked askance and took another drink of his wine, saying nothing, while his men grumbled and mumbled at one another. As the silence grew long and thick, the king was almost resigned to declare himself champion to the shame of all, when who should leap upon the table but the bold Fionn!
"I'll take on this Sidhe," he said, and asked what he might expect as a reward. And the High King told him he could have whatever it was within the power of his royalty to grant. The kings of Ireland and the fabled druid Red Cith sounded out their support, and so it was done. Fionn marched from the hall bidding all a good night, which they returned, but in truth they were bidding him goodbye.
Through the darkened and silent streets he marched, for although you might think it foolish to sleep within a burning house, that was as nothing to the horrors that would rain down outside! As was his habit for his own blood was in part Tuatha on his mother's side, he sought help from his own people among the Sidhe but heard no answer. Then he took and bit his thumb under his wisdom tooth, gazing into a shallow dish of pure yellow gold filled with water, seeking the knowledge which is stronger than magic, but no solutions offered themselves.
So he took himself through the stern walls of Tara, one after another, until he finally reached the broad plain of Tara. In the dark under the lightless sky he stood, but he didn't fear the shadows.
He had been bred in the dimness of a forest and his parents had been dusk and gloaming. Neither could the wind afflict his ear or his heart. There was no note in its orchestra that he had not brooded on and become, which becoming is magic. The long-drawn moan of it, the thrilling whisper and hush, the shrill, sweet whistle, so thin it can scarcely be heard, and is taken more by the nerves than by the ear, the screech, sudden as a devil's yell and loud as ten thunders, the cry as of one who flies with backward look to the shelter of leaves and darkness, and the sob as of one stricken with an age-long misery, only at times remembered, but remembered then with what a pang!
His ear knew by what successions they arrived, and by what stages they grew and diminished. Listening in the dark to the bundle of noises which make a noise he could disentangle them and assign a place and a reason to each gradation of sound that formed the chorus: there was the patter of a rabbit, and there the scurrying of a hare, a bush rustled yonder, but that brief rustle was a bird, that pressure was a wolf, and this hesitation a fox, the scraping yonder was but a rough leaf against bark, and the scratching beyond it was a ferret's claw.
And yet he heard a new sound, that of a man almost as well acquainted with the darkness as himself. And who was it but the brigand and robber who'd raised him after his father had been slain, Fiacuil mac Cona! For Fiacuil had heard of his challenge and was determined to help him in any way he could.
They spoke for a little then Fiacuil drew forth the wrapped package he carried with him on his back.
"You remember my spear with the thirty rivets of Arabian gold in its socket?"
"The one," Fionn queried, "that had its head wrapped in a blanket and was stuck in a bucket of water and was chained to a wall as well--the venomous Birgha?" "That one," Fiacuil replied.
"It is Aillen mac Midna's own spear," he continued, "and it was taken out of his Shi' by your father."
"Well?" said Fionn, wondering nevertheless where Fiacuil got the spear, but too generous to ask.
"When you hear the great man of the Shi' coming, take the wrappings off the head of the spear and bend your face over it, the heat of the spear, the stench of it, all its pernicious and acrid qualities will prevent you from going to sleep."
"Are you sure of that?" said Fionn.
"You couldn't go to sleep close to that stench, nobody could," Fiacuil replied decidedly.
He continued: "Aillen mac Midna will be off his guard when he stops playing and begins to blow his fire, he will think everybody is asleep. Then you can deliver the attack you were speaking of, and all good luck go with it."
In return for the spear Fiacuil asked a third of all Fionn's worth, and a seat at his council, which Fionn granted him.
And so it was that Fionn stood alone in the dark, eyes like a wild thing, and the spirit Aillen came to Tara. When he played his harp of sleep, a drowsiness came upon Fionn but he pulled the cloth from the spear and the stench of it snapped him wide awake. Then as the occult blue fires began to rise, he sprang out of the bushes and cast from the thong of that bitter spear, plunging it straight betwixt the shoulder blades of Aillen, and he fell that night, never to rise again!
As fair as his head was Fionn didn't think twice about cutting it off and bringing it back to the hall of the High King in Tara. When he laid it before Conn, he was asked what he'd like as a reward for his heroic deed.
"The thing that it is right I should ask," said Fionn, "the command of the Fianna of Ireland."
"Make your choice," said Conn to Goll Mor who was then captain of the Fianna. "You will leave Ireland, or you will place your hand in the hand of this champion and be his man."
Goll could do a thing that would be hard for another person, and he could do it so beautifully that he was not diminished by any action.
"Here is my hand," said Goll.
And he twinkled at the stern, young eyes that gazed on him as he made his submission.
The Hill of Tara, seat of the ancient High Kings of Ireland and the scene of this tale, can be seen as on the map here.
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