3rd Century AD
It was a stormy day. Dark clouds boiled in the sky like oil poured into water. The wind shrieked, tearing Daire Don’s pennants of war into ragged wisps.
“A fitting day for battle,” he remarked. Daire Don was a big bold man, dark of hair and eye and spirit, assured in his own power, hungry for world dominion.
Finnachta, his trusted servant and advisor nodded. “But I fear Fionn’s magicians have called forth the creatures of the air to foretell our doom.”
Daire Don snorted. “That’s the difference between us; you fear everything and I fear nothing.”
“One has only to listen, my Lord,” insisted Finnachta in subdued tones. “The waves roll upon the shore, keening our losses. The water-beasts roar, the grey stones cry out, the wind sobs, the earth rumbles and shakes, and the sky draws armies of clouds across the sun to shield it from the destruction we wreak upon the world. It is not a good omen.”
It’s just a storm, Daire Don told himself, yet despite his scepticism, he shuddered. “I am King of the World,” he declared. “I own it. The world will bow down before me, and do as I command.”
“Perhaps.” Finnachta’s troubled eyes roved over the fearsome assemblage of warriors awaiting them impatiently just beyond the strand, a low dark smear on the landscape stretching as far as the eye could see, bristling with weapons and hatred. “But you don’t own these people, or this land. Isn’t that what this is all about?”
“I will before this day is out,” Daire Don snarled. “Show me which one is this Fionn mac Cumhall, the one they call Rífhéinní.”
Fiannachta scanned the crowd, then pointed. “There, at the front, the tallest man with the long fair hair which shines like lightning in the gloom.”
Daire Don stared at his enemy and appraised him. Here, he sensed was a worthy opponent. Finnachta was right; this was not going to be an easy battle.
“Sound the horn,” he announced swiftly. “Let us begin.”
Fionn was everywhere in the battle, leading the charge in wave after wave, lending a strong arm and sharp sword where help was needed, shouting encouragement, rewarding prowess, coaxing, praising, pushing, and dealing death like a demon.
He paused, wiping the sweat from his brow with a bloody forearm. He leaned on his sword, panting. Before him, the beach was completely obscured with a seething mass of conjoined warriors, the sand stained and the waves crashing red with spilled blood. Bodies, hacked and twisted, floated grotesquely on the tide. Beyond, a flotilla of ships rolled and bucked in the swell. Some had been set alight, and they burned in great towering columns of flame and acrid smoke, their blackened remains sliding into the murky depths like the bones of some long-forgotten giant sea-monster.
Fergus, his faithful bard, thrust a water skin at him and he gulped down the contents thirstily, then squinted up at the sky. The rain gushed without let up, turning their sea-side battle-field into a quagmire. It was hard to tell, but he judged by the light that it was getting on for mid-day. His body ached, the numerous cuts and slashes he had sustained burning fiercely but not life threatening.
“Conan mac Morna has fought exceedingly well this day,” he observed gruffly, nodding to where Conan dispatched his last enemy with a powerful swinging slice of his sword and now stood breathless, looking around for more victims.
“Indeed. Such valour is worthy of your praise.”
“Go then, and compose him a song in tribute to his strength and courage.”
Fergus darted off, harp in hand. Fionn watched, as the first strains of music floated faintly to his ears. Conan looked around for him, raising his hand in brief acknowledgement, embarrassed by the recognition but pleased by the honour, then plunged back into the fray.
“Conan said Duban son of Cas has killed three times nine and eighty men,” Fergus told him on his return.
“Really? Then go find him, and sing to him of my praise and thanks,” said Fionn, impressed.
He hefted his sword and prepared to return to the fight. With a chilling battle yell, he leaped recklessly at his next foe, the battle’s momentum propelling him onward.
Fionn had no time now to think how his men fared, to reward or encourage them as needed, for the fight raged hot and fierce about him as the enemy pushed for possession of the strand, backed as they were by the encroaching sea. The red mist of battle frenzy descended upon him and he whirled like a dancer, his sword flashing and slashing so quickly none could avoid its stinging bite, his strange pale hair glowing as if lit by some inexplicable inner light. Around him, his men took heart from his courage and strength, inspired to match his heroism with their own, for here was a leader all men could look up to, a leader fit to follow.
And then someone was calling his name, and the haze slowly cleared, and he saw the piles of dead and wounded heaped at his feet, his men standing looking at him in awe.
“You need to rest and eat, my Lord,” Fergus was saying. “You can’t keep going like that all day. You’ll get yourself killed.”
Fionn shook his head. “I’ll accept a cup of ale and no more. We have to drive them back into the sea. If they break through, we are lost.”
His eyes scanned the battle. The fortune of the conflict swayed back and forth between the two sides, like the rolling in and falling back of the tide upon the shore. Both sides were tiring now, and a momentary lull settled as men paused to snatch a mouthful of food and drink. Knots of warriors battled stoically on. Oscar was one of them. Alarm clutched at Fionn’s heart as he saw his grandson fearlessly square up to a whole fian.
“Oscar stands alone against the men of the Gairian,” he said, a slight wobble in his voice betraying his concern.
Fergus shaded his eyes and squinted into the distance. “I’m guessing there could be as many as two hundred of them. He can’t face them alone.”
Fionn thought quickly. “Send my cousin Caoílte mac Ronan to him. No one is fleeter, or stronger, or more courageous than he.”
He watched, his heart in his mouth, as Fergus despatched Caoílte to Oscar’s side. He saw Oscar frowning, some angry words exchanged between the two, as shoulder to shoulder, they advanced upon the Gairian.
“What was that about?” he demanded, as Fergus hastened back to him.
The bard couldn’t suppress a chuckle. “Typical Oscar. He accused Caoílte of stealing his share of the enemy and glory, told him to go and find his own men to kill. Caoílte was not pleased with such ingratitude.”
Fionn smiled. “Good. Let him take his anger out on the enemy.”
“He’s coming for you, Lord.” Fergus indicated where the pennants in the thick of the battle indicated Daire Don’s location. He was drawing closer.
“And I thought he was avoiding me,” remarked Fionn dryly. “Where are our manners? Let’s not keep our guest waiting any longer.”
He charged furiously across the sucking sand to where his enemy’s pennants fluttered, red rage clouding his vision, yelling the battle chant of the Fianna. Around him, his warriors took up the cry and hurled themselves in their Rífhéinní’s wake.
The two sides surged and clashed. First Cairell, then Aelchinn, then Arcallach of the Black Axe inserted themselves between their Rífhéinní and the King, only to be struck down. Enraged, Fionn watched his men fall, before launching himself forward, consumed with nothing other than the desire to kill this King who made war upon his people.
The first slash of his blade snapped Daire Don’s shield in half. Stumbling from the force of it, the King had little chance to defend himself. The back-swing knocked the King’s sword spinning from his hand. His next thrust cut off Daire’s left foot, and he collapsed heavily to the ground. Leaping upon the man’s chest, Fionn raised his sword in a glittering arc and hacked Daire’s head from his shoulders. The crown came loose, rolling to a hiding place between dismembered bodies. Weakened by his endeavours, Fionn fell into a faint before he had the chance to retrieve it.
This fact was not lost on quick-witted Finnachta. Whilst the men of the Fianna tended to their leader in alarm, he scrambled after his prize, his face a mask of sorrow and despair. Stooping as he ran so as to minimise the chance of attracting attack, he darted between crowds of warriors, tripping over detached limbs, sliding on patches of blood and gore, until he found the one he sought.
“This is yours now,” he said, proffering the crown to Conmail. “Your father is no more. Fionn killed him, and it falls to you to avenge him.”
Silently, emotions working the muscles of his face against his will, the young Prince knelt and allowed the crown to be fitted to his head. But his youth, fervour and grief conspired against him, and instead of finding Fionn, he met with Goll Garbh, Prince of Alban, who dealt him a malingering death-blow to his left side.
This time, wily Finnachta took the crown to Ogermach, daughter of the King of Greece, his mouth full of honey-sweet cunning.
“This crown belongs to you, my Lady,” he said, bowing low with the royal object clasped in out-stretched hands. “For it is said in an ancient prophecy that the world will only ever be owned by a woman, and that woman is you.”
Ogermach eyed it eagerly, then turned her gaze upon him with a measure of cold distrust. “It is a woman’s folly to be ruled by flattery,” she replied, but she allowed Finnachta to place the crown upon her head.
“There was never a more fitting Queen,” he declared. “But unless you destroy Fionn mac Cumhall, your rule will be short indeed.”
The new Queen laughed. “I hear this Fionn is nothing short of a giant, yet I see only men on the field.”
“No, my Lady. He is just a man; his flesh is tender, and his body bleeds just like any other.”
“Then I will hold his heart in my hand before this day is out. Lead me to him, if you will.”
They ran swift through the battle, dodging clusters of exhausted combatants entwined in their grotesque dance of death. Fionn was recovered and back on his feet, but not fit for the fight.
“Fionn mac Cumhall, I challenge you to single combat,” she called in her clear, bell-like voice. His men counselled against the match, but Fionn ignored them.
“Sure, ’tis only a woman,” he said, drawing his sword.
“He could never say no to a woman,” murmured Fergus mournfully.
Fionn grinned at him. “This way, the battle might be ended the sooner.”
“I may be just a woman, but do not let appearances fool you. I have heart and skill to rival any man. The outcome you speak of may not be that you are expecting.” Ogermach laughed, but her eyes were cold and determined.
She proved savage and cruel as only a woman with a blade can be, who must rely on skill and wiles rather than brute force and strength. Dazed from loss of blood, Fionn blundered from blow to blow, his foe forever skipping out of reach then darting in under his arm to stab and thrust the point of her sword into his vulnerable spots, till he was maddened with pain and confusion, her mocking taunts echoing in his ears.
But the next time she danced in close, he clasped her tight to him like a lover, pinning her arms uselessly to her sides, crushing the breath from her soft body, feeling the crack of her ribs against him, hearing the gurgle in her howl of pain and fury as her jagged bones pierced her lungs and they filled up with blood. With one hand, he pulled her off balance, at the same time swinging his sword with the other so that it flashed, singing through the air, striking her head from her neck in one swift, clean movement. The crown clattered to the ground. Casting her body aside, Fionn brought his blade repeatedly down upon the crown, grinding it into the earth amid a shower of sparks, so that it resembled nothing more than a mangled, twisted lump of metal.
A cheer rose up then from the throats of the Fianna as they caught sight of victory at last. With a tortured cry, Finnachta turned and ran for the sea, intending to make his escape on one of the few remaining ships.
“Someone stop him, before he returns home and raises another army against us,” said Fionn wearily. “I am not able for it myself.” His eyes fell on Cael, his foster-son, who was lending a strong shoulder to keep him upright.
“I am so badly injured, it is only my armour which stops my body from falling apart,” complained Cael, rolling his eyes. “But for you, I will do this.”
The young man threw himself into the sea, and swam out after Finnachta, who was already clambering aboard his ship. Cael grasped hold of the other man’s feet, pulling him free. Together, they sank beneath the waves, rolling and boiling in the water as each tried to best the other. Neither rose to the surface.
Many were the men and women killed that day, on both sides. To those captives who swore fealty, Fionn was fair and granted land, or title or position; those who did not, forfeit their lives or freedom. But always after, the eyes of Daire Don’s kin across the sea turned longingly in the direction of Eire, and their sad defeat did nothing to quell their desire to possess it.