“Tomorrow is the eve of Samhain,” whispered the Filidh, the High King’s Royal Bard. The crowd stilled, straining to hear through the smoky atmosphere of the King’s hall.
It was the night before Halloween. As always, the High King had invited all his favourite nobles to celebrate the festival at Tara. They crowded his hall, feasting at his table. The air was thick with smoke from the hearth fires, the scent of candles, the aroma of roasting meat, chatter, music and song. Now, when bellies were full and hunger sated, folk sat back and turned to their cups. It was time for the storyteller to weave his magic.
When he was sure he had their full attention, the Filidh continued, his voice rising, throbbing with the emotion and power of the words he brought to life before his audience. He stared round at them all, as if daring someone to disagree, his eyes boring into the soul of every one of them, or so it seemed.
“Samhain is the night when all good people stay indoors, for on this night, the Sidhe will rise up and cause their mischief, as it has always been since the days they were banished by the race of mankind to their lands beneath the hills.
“And on this night, just to show he still wields power enough that we should fear him, and remain beholden to him, the Fairy-Prince, Aillen mac Midhna, will come from his fairy-halls at Finnechaidh, playing soft sweet music on his magic harp, lifting his beautiful voice in song, that all who hear it will fall entranced within his spell.
“While they sleep their magic sleep, he will demonstrate his strength with fire, and wipe the court of Tara from this hill with flame, which he claims belongs not to man but to the Sidhe, who were here before us, when they were known as the Tuatha de Denann. Yet just to show his benevolence, not a man, woman or child will be harmed, but wake at cock-crow from the most wondrous, soothing sleep, to find their fair city ruined, charred, blackened in smoke, and the shining palace of Tara reduced once more to ash.
“So it has been for nine years past, and so henceforth will it always be.”
He glared at them, defiant, angry, sad. Glancing round, the boy Deimne saw that the audience had caught on to the bard’s sombre mood. Firelight flickered on distraught faces, hands remained curled around beakers or drinking horns, but did not raise them to thirsty lips, food remained untouched on plates as those devastating words sank in.
“Is this true?” he whispered in his foster-father’s ear. Fiacha mac Conga, who was also his uncle, nodded curtly. He looked troubled.
“Aye, lad. And it seems there is nothing anyone can do about it, though many have tried.”
“But Tara was won fair and square from the Sidhe when the sons of Mil defeated them in battle. Why does Aillen cause trouble, after so many years of peace?”
Fiacha sighed, and shrugged. “Who can explain the workings of the minds of the Sidhe? Their logic is not like ours, and they cannot be reasoned with. Some bear more resentment against us than others, I guess. That has always been the way of it, even amongst our own kind.”
Deimne sat back on his stool, thinking. Fiacha placed a hand on his shoulder. “This is not your battle, boy. You are young, with much to prove, but you have time a-plenty for that.”
“Of course it’s my battle! Through my father, Cumhall, I have inherited my place among mankind. But my mother, Muirne, was born of Eithniu and of Tadgh, son of Nuada Argetlam. That means I am also descended from the Sidhe. This makes it more my battle than anyone else here.”
Fiacha noted the stubborn set of Deimne’s jaw, and the determination in his eye, and knew he could not dissuade him. “I saw that look in your father’s face after he abducted your mother from Tadgh and refused to give her up. He went to war against the High King to defend his love for her, and lost his life in so doing. A man of principle is to be admired, but do not let principle cloud your better judgement.”
The young man stared at his foster father. “Wise words as ever, Uncle. I will always heed your counsel,” he said with a grin.
“Aye, heed and ignore it,” Fiacha answered, with a smile of his own. “But hush now, the High King himself is about to speak.”
All eyes were turned now upon the throne, where Cormac the Wise and Just, Ard Ri of all Ireland lifted his shaggy, dark head and addressed his people. His face was sorrowful, his voice mournful.
“My Royal Bard speaks truly. The tale he tells is exactly so, as many of you know. Tomorrow night, on the eve of Samhain, Aillen will lay waste to Tara with fire. As your Ard Ri, I have sought to resolve this matter in any way I can, but the truth is, I have failed you. Aillen will not be reasoned with, dissuaded or bought. He will not fight, he will not agree to single combat, hostages, fosterlings, or inter-marriage. Many have tried to stop him to no avail. There is no telling when the music will start, yet once it does one cannot avoid its spell. So I tell you now, go away from this place in the morning, if you would not be part of it, and I will not think the less of you. If you have the stomach for it, stay and help us rebuild, for I will not let Aillen have Tara. This is the seat of the High King, and I solemnly declare that in the hands of mankind it will remain.”
Cormac glared into the fire, as if he could see Aillen dancing in its flames.
Before anyone could even raise so much as a cheer, Deimne sprang from his seat, and threw himself onto his knees before the King.
“My Lord, I will rid you of this Aillen,” he declared boldly.
Cormac stared at him in astonishment. “You? You are not much more than a boy. Who are you?”
Deimne stood proudly before his King. “My name is Deimne the Fair, son of Cumhall of Clan Baiscne. Most just call me Fionn mac Cumhall.”
There was a gasp at this announcement, and a wave of muttering. The crowd leaned forward, agog. Everyone knew that Cumhall had been the leader of Cormac’s Fianna, and that he had defied Cormac over his love for the bride he had been denied. They also knew that he had lost his life at the hands of Goll mac Morna, and that this had started a blood feud between the two clans.
Cormac smiled. “I knew your father well, young man. He was my good friend, someone I trusted, before he fell for your mother’s beauty. That changed everything, yet I still cannot but think of him fondly. Fionn mac Cumhall, you are welcome in my court, and this is the name by which I will call you.”
“Thank you, my Lord. This is my first time to Tara. I came to offer you my services as a warrior in your Fianna. Furthermore, I would serve you by ridding you of this fiery curse.”
Cormac sighed. “Ah, the hot-headed fervour of youth. Why is it that all young men think they are invincible? Many have tried before you, and all of them lost their lives. Do not go the way of your father.”
Fionn was resolute. “Still, I would try.”
“Then try you must. If you succeed, you will win your place in my Fianna, and my eternal gratitude. But if you fail, know that you will burn to dust, and your name will be forgotten before you have had the chance to make it.” Cormac raised his goblet and sipped at his wine.
“There is more?” inquired the King in some surprise, seeing that Fionn had not moved.
Fionn held his ground, although he was fair trembling inside. “Well, Sire, yes there is. If I succeed, I would have you uphold my birth-right to the leadership of the Fianna.”
At these bold words, the silence was immediately replaced with uproar. A large, well-muscled warrior leapt to his feet, sword in hand, from his place at table beside the King. His face was dark with anger.
“Sire, I am leader of the Fianna! I won my place fairly and would not have it stolen from me by this young upstart,” he snarled.
“Put away your sword, Goll,” exclaimed the King, irritably. “No-one is disputing your position. Do you really think this young man, brave as he is, can defeat Aillen when so many, more experienced than he, failed?”
“I know who you are, Goll. You killed my father. When I have defeated Aillen, I will come looking for you, and then I will kill you, too,” said Fionn quietly, and all who heard him or saw him did not doubt him.
Goll slammed his sword back into its sheath. “Empty threat. You will not live to fulfil it,” he growled.
“Enough!” snapped Cormac. “I will not have such talk in my court. Take your differences outside and settle them in any way you wish, but here and now is not the place or time. Young pup, if by any chance you do manage to defeat Aillen, I would gladly surrender the leadership of the Fianna to you, for such a man would indeed be worthy. Fortunately for Goll, that outcome is unlikely, and he has nothing to fear. Fionn, I tell you this honestly, for it seems you are as stubborn as your father, and will not be dissuaded.”
The King called for more wine, and Fionn knew his audience was at an end. He slipped back into his seat, glowing with pride and satisfaction. Only to receive a cuff to the head from an angry Fiacha. There was a ripple of laughter from those seated nearby.
“What did you do that for?” he demanded, his pride hurt more than his head.
Fiacha’s eyes blazed. “How dare you challenge the High King like that? How dare you bring such shame down upon your family?”
“Shame? What do you mean?”
“Well, what is your plan? How does the mighty Fionn mac Cumhall propose to defeat Aillen, when so many others have failed?”
“I haven’t exactly worked that part out, yet,” Fionn admitted, rubbing his head.
Fiacha shook his head despairingly, but his expression relaxed into fondness. “That is what I mean by shame. You are so exactly like your father; you act without first thinking. Well, heed this wisdom, boy; never promise something you can’t achieve. Luckily, I have a plan which may help you.”
In the cold light of morning, when the bravado of too much wine had worn off, leaving a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach and a nagging ache in his head, Fionn mac Cumhall sat contemplating his rash actions with some regret.
“Fourteen summers are all that I have seen of this life,” he muttered bitterly. “What have I done?”
Fiacha’s voice was brisk and cheerful in reply. “You must live by your actions, young Fionn. Fourteen years, or forty, you must make them count. Act only in the way which makes men speak of you with love and admiration. And above all, learn by your mistakes.”
Fionn’s sombre grey eyes met Fiacha’s. “I hear you, Uncle.”
They were sitting outside the entrance of their tent, a small camp fire blazing merrily before them. A serving woman was cooking porridge for them, and water was boiling for tea.
There were many other tents pitched within Tara’s palisade walls, and also beyond them. The festival of Samhain was not just a feast and celebration. It was also an occasion for trading, forming alliances and political treaties, for brokering marriages and fostering, and for men to compete at sports, showing off their prowess. Lesser Kings, their ladies, servants, warriors and children milled in and around the tents, all going about their daily business. Dogs scavenged for scraps, fighting amongst themselves; chickens wandered freely, horses neighed. For a moment, Fionn felt overwhelmed by it all. He closed his eyes, and rested his head in his hands, giving in to the dull throb which pounded in his skull.
“Here, drink this.” Fiacha thrust a beaker of hot tea into his hands. “The wine has sucked the fluid from you. This will settle your stomach, and take the thunder from your head.”
Fionn sipped it gratefully, although it tasted foul. “How can I face Aillen like this? How can I fight magic with a sword and spear? What was I thinking?”
“You weren’t thinking, lad. That’s the problem. Luckily for you, your skill with sword and spear far outweigh that of any human, in spite of your youth. You have been trained in the arts of combat by none other than the mighty warrior-woman, Liath Luachra. Not many can say that. What she can’t teach you is not worth learning. Your strength and skills surpass even her own. Why do you think that is?”
Fiacha sighed. “Think, boy! It comes through the line of your mother’s people. Nuada was your great grandfather. From him, you have inherited great might in battle.”
“But he had the Sword of Light,” Fionn protested, unwilling to believe that his battle skills alone could save him.
“So he did.” Fiacha’s voice dropped to a whisper, and he glanced covertly about, as if worried someone might overhear. “You may not have the Sword, but you have inherited something equally as valuable from your mother’s people. I think now is the time for you to receive it.” He stood, and stooped through the entrance into the tent.
Forgetting his sore head and rebellious belly, Fionn followed, sudden excitement coursing through him.
Fiacha was holding a long, thin package. “This belongs to you.”
Fionn took the package and carefully stripped away the leather and sheepskin wrappings. They were quite stiff; clearly they had not been removed for a very long time.
“It’s a spear.”
“A very old, and very special spear,” breathed Fiacha, his eyes full of awe as he gazed at it.
It was a beautiful weapon. The head was made from dark bronze, tapering gracefully into a fine, fearfully sharp point. The edges glittered in the tent’s half-light. It was fastened to the haft by thirty rivets of gold. The haft was made of rowan, darkened with age, worn smooth and polished by the grip of many hands through the years. Fionn hefted the spear, testing its weight. It was perfectly balanced, as if made specifically for him.
“Where did you get it?”
“It belonged to you father. It was given him by your mother, but he was just a mortal, and never learned how to use it. It came to Muirne from her brother, when he died.”
“This is Lugh’s spear? The one with which he slew Balor?”
Fiacha smiled. “The very same. And now it belongs to you, Fionn mac Cumhall. Take it, and use it well. I have a feeling that with it, you will make history.”
“How can this be? It has a bronze head and gold rivets. Iron would be so much stronger. This cannot be Lugh’s Spear,” he protested.
“Bronze was used in ancient times, before the way with iron was learned. The Tuatha de Denann brought that knowledge to Ireland. But they also brought that spear with them. Perhaps it was already ancient, even then. One thing is for certain, its point and edges have not dulled with time, and its magic is famous still. If it was strong enough to defeat Balor, it must certainly be capable of killing Aillen.”
Fionn grasped the spear firmly, naturally adopting throwing stance, and with a sudden leap felt its power travel through his hand, into his arm, and surge through his body.
“There is magic in this spear,” he said. “I can feel it. But how do I master it?”
Fiacha’s smile faded. “That, I’m afraid, is something I cannot tell you. The blood of mere mortals flows in my veins, but yours, Fionn, is mingled with that of the Sidhe. It is up to you to find the way of it, for I know not. I suggest you go somewhere distant and quiet, and learn it quickly, for there are only a few hours of the day left before you meet Aillen.”
Dinner that night in the palace at Tara was a rather subdued affair. Fionn couldn’t eat. He was too nervous, too afraid, so he took his leave of his Uncle, and went out to the palisade walls, clutching his new spear.
It was not yet dusk. The sun was setting over the Hill, a huge blood-red orb in a golden sky. He knew it was too early for Aillen to arrive; he never appeared before dark, but Fionn was restless.
He watched the gates being drawn shut for the night. The gatekeepers nodded to him as he passed. He could read his doom in their faces. It had been that way all day. Everyone had known who he was. He had heard his name whispered, felt eyes boring into him, everywhere he went. In the end, he had done as Fiacha suggested as much to escape the attention as to learn about his new weapon. He had wandered quite a way from Tara, into the woods which grew down to the banks of the River Boyne.
Fionn was more than comfortable with using a spear. Like most other warriors, he carried three short, throwing spears, and one longer, heavier thrusting spear for closer combat. Lugh’s spear was long, like a thrusting spear, but light like a throwing spear.
Feeling the magic vibrating in the wooden shaft, he had practiced casting it at various targets while staying still and whilst on the move. The weapon shot from his hand, light as an arrow, and found its mark easily every time, the point remaining as sharp as the day it was made. He needed a moving target, so be brought down a hare which started up at his feet and bounded away, quick as a flash. But all this he would have expected from any weapon, for such was his mastery of the skill.
“Where is the magic?” he had wondered to himself. “How do I unleash it?”
Thinking of magic, and being in the forest beside the Boyne, reminded him of his years serving the druid, Finegas. The old man had taken him on and completed his education after his aunt, the druidess Bodhmall, had taught him all she knew. The old druid had been obsessed with the Salmon of Knowledge which swam in the River Boyne.
“Whomever eats of the Salmon of Knowledge will inherit all its wisdom,” he would often tell Fionn, rubbing his hands together eagerly in anticipation of that fateful day. He had devoted much of his life to catching the fish, but his hunting skills were not great, and his eyesight failing, so Fionn had done him a favour and caught it for him. Unfortunately, whilst cooking it for the old man, he had burned his thumb when turning the fish in the pan. Without thinking, he had instantly put his thumb in his mouth to cool it, and swallowed the tiny piece of fish skin stuck there, thereby cheating poor old Finegas out of his goal. Finegas had been furious at first, but quickly realised that it was meant to be, and urged him to eat the whole fish. So he had.
He had not at first felt any different. But then he had learned that placing his burned thumb in his mouth enabled him to see things, and to know things he had never been taught.
“Without thinking…it’s the story of my life so far,” he thought to himself. He always felt guilty when he remembered what he had done to Finegas. But he realised that, perhaps somewhere, locked within that inherited knowledge, was the key to accessing the magic of Lugh’s spear.
Fionn had closed his eyes, calmed his mind, and touched his thumb to his lips. And, just as he’d hoped, the way to harness the magic of the spear had come to him.
It didn’t stop the nerves and the fear, though. Tara was now eerily deserted. Silence hung over the Hill, heavy and oppressive, as the people and their King awaited the inevitable. Many had left that day, removing their families and possessions to safety. But the nobles and warriors were still there, stolidly accompanying their King through the night. The different factions of the Fianna remained, too, not that they would do much good, for they would succumb as easily to Aillen’s magic as did everyone else. Still, their presence was comforting.
Fionn stood on the ramparts and gazed out, wondering from which direction Aillen would approach. Would he be on foot or on horseback? Or would he just suddenly appear, as if out of thin air, as the Sidhe were often wont, much to their own wicked sense of amusement? Fionn shuddered. Was he old or young? Strong or feeble? A capable warrior, or a poor one?
It was there, as the dark of night began to lay itself gently across the land, that Fiacha and Cormac found him. Goll, and a few others of the King’s entourage followed.
“Are you prepared, lad?” asked Fiacha, meaningfully.
Fionn nodded, brandishing his spear. He couldn’t trust himself to speak. He might die this night, and that was something he really wasn’t ready to do. Fiacha rested his big hand on Fionn’s shoulder. Fionn knew that he understood.
“We came to wish you well, Fionn mac Cumhall,” said the King solemnly. “I hope to meet you live and well on the morrow, with Tara intact, and Aillen’s head on the end of that spear.” Then he clasped him in a warrior’s embrace.
“I will do my best, sire.”
Goll snorted. “You are afraid! A man who is full of fear on the eve of battle is as good as a dead man.”
Fiacha rounded on him angrily. “A man who doesn’t know fear is a foolish man!” he snapped in reply.
“If we meet in the morning, it will be you who knows fear, Goll mac Morna, for I will have won your leadership of the Fianna as my own, and then I will come for your head,” said Fionn calmly.
Bristling with barely restrained anger, Goll glared at the brave young man facing up to him. “I could crush you for that, but I’ll let Aillen do the dirty work for me.” He thrust past Fionn, shouldering him roughly aside so that he was flung hard against the palisade.
“We will go inside, now, Fionn. But there are many guards posted to help keep a look out for Aillen’s arrival. Though I doubt they will be able to stay awake long enough to warn you.” Cormac took his leave, face grim.
Alone with his Uncle, Fionn stared out across the landscape spread before them. It was shrouded in darkness, the stars beginning to glitter like many eyes, watching and waiting to see what he was made of. The two of them stood in companionable silence for a while. Then Fiacha heaved a great sigh, and said, “Your poor mother would kill me if she knew I was allowing you to do this. I couldn’t save her husband; nor it seems, can I save you.”
Fionn turned to him. “It’s my decision. You all call me boy, but I am a man grown. I have to do this, and you must go and be with the King. Have faith in me, Uncle.” He laughed. “At worst, I will fall asleep and be alive and well in the morning.”
Fiacha hugged him. “You are like a son to me.”
“And you are the father I never had. Now, go.”
Fionn watched Fiacha turn and head reluctantly back towards the light of the King’s hall. Then he turned and stared out into the gathering night.
“Let me stay awake,” he prayed. “Or I will never live down the shame tomorrow.”
Fionn leaned on his spear, pressing the point against the skin of his forehead. He was so tired, but the sharp spear point jolted him back into wakefulness each time he dozed off. The moon rose, and the night wore on towards morning. There was no sign of Aillen.
Perhaps he wasn’t coming, thought Fionn hopefully, then pushed the thought angrily away. He would come. He had to, otherwise he would not achieve leadership of the Fianna, he would never avenge his father, and he would be a laughing stock to boot, and that could not happen.
He was on the verge of giving up, when he thought he heard something. He listened, straining into the night. Yes, there it was, faint like the far off murmur of a babe. No, it was birdsong. Yet now, it was the rustle of trees in the wind. Or perhaps the babble of brook-water. No, it was definitely a voice, sweet and unearthly, laying its harmony over the intricate melody of harp music.
Quickly, Fionn pressed the point of Lugh’s spear back to his forehead. He felt it pierce his skin, and with the drawing of blood, the power of the weapon’s magic thrummed into life.
The golden rivets glowed like molten fire. The bronze spearhead seemed to catch alight, bursting into flame, searing at his skin. To fight fire with fire, this was the knowledge which had been revealed to him.
Consumed by the fire, Fionn felt his fear and doubt evaporate. The red mist of battle frenzy overtook him. All thoughts other than those which involved killing Aillen retreated into some dark corner of his mind. The burning spear, the pain, the roar of magic all rolled into one, drawing his attention and focussing it away from Aillen’s dark music.
Unaware, Aillen continued on towards Tara, unhurried, certain of success. His voice rose and fell, the harp soaring, its silver notes cascading sleep upon Tara’s good people like raindrops upon flowers. Not even the animals were immune. Only Fionn remained awake, standing still and resolute just inside the gates, his flaming spear lighting up the darkness.
Slowly, the gates swung open, even though the guards and gatekeepers slept at their posts. Through them, Aillen entered Tara, then stopped as he saw Fionn waiting for him. Although his singing and harping never faltered, he smiled.
In build, Aillen looked much like any other Denann; taller and slimmer than human men, but broad in the shoulder, and powerful. His red-gold hair licked and seethed about his head and shoulders like flame, and his eyes glowed. As he sang, orange flames flickered and danced in his mouth, lighting him from within so that a bright halo surrounded his body.
But he had not come to fight, that much was obvious, for he was dressed in a long robe and cloak, and carried no weapons. What need had he of sword and spear, when his magic was enough to send all men to sleep?
Fionn frowned. It did not sit well with him to attack someone who was unarmed. But he had promised his King, and there was much at stake; vengeance, pride, and birth-right. This Sidhe-Prince had razed Tara to the ground for the last nine years. He had to be stopped.
“Halt!” he ordered in a gruff voice. “Come no further, Aillen of the Sidhe, or I will be forced to kill you.”
The reply, when it came, was woven seamlessly into the fabric of the song, so that Fionn almost missed it.
“You think to kill me? Who are you, foolish boy, that you think you can best me?”
“I am Fionn mac Cumhall, and I have already seen that I will be the death of you.”
The song rippled with laughter. “You can’t stop fire with a spear.”
“No, but I can stop you with it.”
Fionn was already running forward as Aillen opened his mouth. Fascinated, he watched as tiny flames curled on his tongue, then billowed forth in a mighty cloud of fiery breath. He threw himself down on the ground, feeling the heat as it blasted over him. Then he was instantly back up, charging into Aillen, knocking him off his feet, thrusting with his spear. He felt the tip bite deep. There was a scream, then Aillen disappeared.
“No, no no,” yelled Fionn in frustration. The Sidhe must have escaped by opening a portal. He held up the spear, and the fiery spearhead surged, casting its light all around. Fionn saw a trail of blood and fire leading away from Tara, and darted after it without hesitation. Behind him, pockets of flame burned where Aillen’s fiery breath had fallen on Tara’s wooden buildings, but with the music gone, men were already waking and tending to them.
He would have to go after him. If he didn’t, the Sidhe-prince might live to cause his fiery havoc another night. Cormac had wanted Aillen’s head, and he, Fionn, had promised it. He slammed his spear angrily into the holster on his back.
Pounding down the road after his enemy, Fionn did not notice how the spear’s magic lent him extra speed. The trail was leading him to the Hill of Sidhe Finnechaidh, the home of Aillen’s people. Up ahead of him, he could just see Aillen winding his way slowly up the path. The fire seemed to have gone out of him. More blood than fire droplets now spattered the ground. Lugh’s spear must have bitten deep.
Suddenly, the spear lurched in its holster, and Fionn responded by drawing it loose. Unfettered, the weapon thirsted for the blood of its enemy. Fionn could feel its wild, surging magic, could sense it gloating. He couldn’t contain it; he wasn’t strong enough. He had to let go.
The spear flew from his hand faster than he could have thrown it, faster even than the eye could follow, the burning spearhead a bright shooting star in the gloom of dawn. It was too far. It was an impossible shot. But seconds after its release, the spear found its target. It buried itself in its enemy, passing clean through him, exulting in the kill. By the time Fionn had reached him, Aillen was dead.
Aillen’s death throes had alerted the Sidhe, and now they came running from their hollow hill to find the cause of all the commotion. They watched in silence as Fionn advanced to claim his grisly prize.
A woman burst through the crowd, and threw herself down at Aillen’s side, weeping. “He was my son, bright and beautiful,” she cried, glaring at Fionn through her tears.
“Stand aside,” replied Fionn, outwardly unmoved. “He has paid for his actions, and Cormac wants his head.”
“Then take mine also to your King,” said the woman bitterly. She brushed her hair aside, revealing her slim, white neck. “See? I’ll make it easy for you,” and stretching out her neck, she laid down with her head resting above that of her son.
Fionn raised his sword, unwilling to strike, hoping the woman would move, but she did not. He hesitated, and looked at the crowd in mute appeal. Finally, some men of the Sidhe came forward and dragged the woman wailing away.
“Do your work, if you must,” said one.
So he did, parting the head from the shoulders in one clean sweep, and wrapping it in his cloak.
“Let that be an end to it. Harass us no longer. This land has many enemies beyond its shores. Let those of us who live within them be as friends and brothers,” he said to the Sidhe, but they had already vanished back into their hill, taking Aillen’s body with them.
Cormac had Aillen’s head mounted on a spear above the gate at Tara. That night, he held a feast in Fionn’s honour. It was a raucous, merry affair, with much drinking and laughter. After the feasting was done, the Royal Bard came forward and sang a new song celebrating the high deeds of Fionn mac Cumhall, much to Fionn’s embarrassment.
Finally, the King stood and called for quiet. “This unknown boy has achieved what Kings and warriors could not,” he said. “I had little faith in his promises when last he stood before me. I agreed to a boon I did not expect to honour, yet I do it gladly. Come forward, Fionn mac Cumhall. Kneel before your king and make your vows. In return, I bestow upon you your birth-right. Rise now as Rífhéinní, my new Fian-King.”
There was a storm of approval at these words, as folk leapt to their feet, cheering and shouting Fionn’s name. Cormac raised his hand.
“There is but one condition. Goll mac Morna has served me well in this role, and I would not have him killed in revenge of your father, young Rífhéinní. Goll, you shall remain head of the Connacht branch of the Fianna, and I hope you will put your hand in Fionn’s as equals. But if this cannot be done, you may take your men and seek to serve some other king over the sea. I would be disappointed, but I give you this right.”
Goll came forward, glowering. “What’s past is past. I will accept the new Rífhéinní, so long as his leadership remains strong and true.”
Fionn and Goll shook hands, somewhat reluctantly. Cormac smiled broadly. “With you and Fiacha to guide him, he will surely do just that.”
Fiacha came forward then to congratulate his foster son. “Well done, Fionn. Your parents would be very proud. All that remains is to swear fealty and service to you, Fian-King.”
Fionn smiled. Fian-King…he liked the sound of that.