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The red stag broke cover unexpectedly. Finn and his hounds were taken by surprise. The two dogs froze, waiting for his command. He had one glimpse into huge liquid eyes, pleading eyes; then the stag bounded away down the mountain, belling a warning.
Light from the westering sun burnished the deer's russet coat. North beyond Galway Bay, thick, pale clouds sagged with the weight of approaching winter. Sleet hissed on the wind.
Hot with life, the stag flickered like flame across a cold grey landscape.
"Red deer, red deer," Finn murmured, immobilized by beauty. A poem rose in him like spring water.
Shouts exploded behind him.
"Stag, a big one!"
"Kill it! Kill it!"
Men boiled past Finn, waving their spears and howling their hunger. His instincts briefly merged with theirs. His fingers tightened on the shaft of his spear, his muscles contracted for heft and hurl.
But the poem stopped him. The poem, growing in him.
"Hold where you are!" he cried. The two young hounds, Bran and Sceolaun, whined, but stood.
The men found it harder to obey. Momentum had already carried them past him. They were hunters and a stag was running. But they were also warriors of the Fíanna, and he was the new leader of their particular fían of nine.
He called himself Finn Mac Cool.
Planting their spears on the slope to brace themselves, the fénnidi watched with regret as the deer leaped from one limestone outcropping to another. When it disappeared from sight, their eyes turned toward Finn.
"You let a fine fat stag get away," accused Conan Maol, Conan the Hairless. "And us starving."
Dark, slender Cailte added, "I could have run him down and eaten the entire animal myself."
"You could have done," Finn said amiably. "But then he'd be gone, all that grace and beauty destroyed. And you'd just be hungry again tomorrow. A creature that splendid can serve a better purpose surely than swelling your belly."
His men exchanged glances. They were beginning to recognize a certain cadence when it crept into the speech of their newly appointed rígfénnid. Fionn son of Cuhal was a dedicated hunter. But when the impulse to poetry seized him, everything else must wait. His band had already learned that much about him.
With a last wistful glance after the lost deer, they formed a circle around their leader, crossed their legs, and sat. The ground was cold. They ignored discomfort.
Finn remained standing. His eyes were turned northward. The jagged peaks of the Twelve Bens were dimly visible across the bay, disappearing into lowering clouds, but Finn was not looking at the mountains anyway.
In his mind, he was watching the red stag run.
His expression grew dreamy and faraway. His hair was as pale as winter sunlight, his eyes as clear as water. But when he was ready to speak, his voice would be deep and sure.
Bran and Sceolaun sniffed out the bed in the bracken where the deer had lain. Some of the animal's warmth lingered in the flattened ferns. Circling three times, the hounds remade the bed to suit themselves and curled up together. Sceolaun rested her muzzle on her crossed forepaws, but her companion's head was propped across her back so Bran could keep watchful eyes on Finn.
The cry of wild geese rang through the sky. Looking up, Finn saw black wings carving lines in silver space.
He nodded. The poem was complete. He recited,
Here's my tale.
Stag cries, winter snarls, summer dies.
High and cold the wind.
Low and dull the sun, and brief its run.
Strong surge the seas.
In red-brown bracken, shapes lie hidden.
Geese sing, fleeing south, ice on wing.
That's my tale.
When Finn stopped speaking, Donn said, "Brrr! That's made me colder than I was already."
The poet smiled, flattered.
"‘Winter snarls,'" quoted Fergus. "A particularly nice bit, that." His mouth worked, savouring the words.
"It's a grand poem entirely," Cailte affirmed, "but it won't fill our bellies. Words are no substitute for a haunch of venison or a fine silver salmon with the smell of the sea on him."
"I'd give my good eye for some badger meat dripping grease," sighed the husky voice of Goll Mac Morna.
Lugaid suggested hopefully, "We could still bring down that stag, the hounds could track him."
"Leave him be!" Finn ordered sharply, unwilling to have the source of his inspiration slain. "We'll find something else, we always do." He brandished his spear and whistled. Bran and Sceolaun jumped up and ran to him, wriggling with the exuberance of half-grown hounds. The hunt resumed.
Except for Goll Mac Morna, all of them were young and exuberant, brimming with barely controlled energy. They had unblunted features and blue-white eyeballs and had only recently begun growing warriors' mustaches. They were brash and merry and thought themselves immortal.
Searching the slopes of Black Head, the fian poked spears into every crevice and hollow, seeking to flush out small game—hares or red squirrels, or even the half-mouthful of a pigmy shrew. They laughed and swore and shoved each other; they traded insults until the crisp air crackled.
Cael challenged his friend, "If you can put one foot in front of the other, I'll race you to the bottom!"
"Done!" cried Madan Bent-Neck, who owed his permanently cocked head carriage to a slight deformity. He wore the round shield slung across his back higher than his companions did, to conceal the uneven-ness of his shoulders.
Physical beauty was not required of a fénnid; only strength and courage mattered in battle.
The two bounded away in exaggerated leaps. Goll said disapprovingly, "Those young fools will kill themselves, running headlong on that footing."
Finn flashed a merry grin. "Then that's two less we'll have to find game for. Think of the effort saved!"
Goll chuckled. One of his eyes twinkled. The other was milky, bisected by a slashing scar that puckered cheek and brow. "It's Conan who'll be the most grateful, he's the laziest."
But in spite of Goll's prediction, Cael and Madan reached the bottom without mishap. They turned and trotted back up at a more leisurely pace, watching their footing. By the time they rejoined their companions halfway up Black Head, they were breathing hard, however.
Cailte said scornfully, "Neither of you knows how to run." He pulled his wolf-fur cloak out from under his shield and tossed it aside, revealing a body as thin as a sapling, clad in a leather kilt and a deerskin tunic. "Mind you, this is what running is," he said. He raced off down the mountain, his shield bouncing against his shoulder blades.
In a voice like thick cream, Fergus Honey-Tongue remarked, "Cailte Mac Ronan is faster than thought."
"He makes Cael and Madan look like old women," said Conan.
Madan bristled. "It's not fair to compare us to him. Cailte won the running championship at the last Tailltenn Fair."
"So he did," Finn agreed. "Therefore he should be the standard you set for yourselves. Go and catch him, you two."
Cael's jaw sagged. "You aren't serious."
"I am serious. And since I would never ask you to do anything I wouldn't do myself…" Without pausing to take off his cloak, Finn turned and ran down the mountain after Cailte. Bran and Sceolaun frisked along beside him, barking excitedly.
With a whoop, Blamec set off after them. Cael and Madan felt compelled to follow. The entire band joined in, slipping and slithering down the north face of Black Head, waving their arms and their spears for balance, cursing and colliding and shouting with laughter.
Reaching the bottom well ahead of the others, Cailte sat down on a slab of stone and dug into the leather bag slung from a thong around his neck. He was just taking a bite of hoarded food when Finn joined him.
"Want some of this?" Cailte offered.
"What is it? Och, honey fungus. I'll wait for meat. You'd eat anything though, wouldn't you? Move over."
Cailte obligingly slid over to make room for Finn. "I'd eat anything if I was hungry. And I'm always hungry."
As the others arrived, Finn called out their names. "Blamec. Lugaid the Serious. Donn. Conan the Hairless. Cael. Fergus Honey-Tongue. Madan." There was a long pause while they all waited. Then, "And here at last is Goll Mac Morna."
Goll was gasping for breath and sweating profusely. He had an appalling stitch in his side. He stopped before he got to Finn and bent over with his hands braced on his knees. "I had to bring up the rear," he panted. A fit of coughing ensued. When it had passed, he added, "Someone had to guard the young ones' backsides."
Sceolaun ran to him and began trying to lick his face. He elbowed her away but she came right back. Her tongue slopped noisily across Goll's mouth. He made a strangled sound of disgust. "Finn, call off this wretched bitch!"
Finn whistled. At once Sceolaun left her victim and trotted to her master, mouth agape as if laughing.
Goll followed, clutching his side. "When I was the age of these young ones," he said raspingly, "I was as fleet as any of them."
Finn smiled. "It's not your age that hampers you, Goll. It's your girth. You grow thicker and thicker, like an oak tree."
"And like an oak tree, I'm hard to cut down," Goll growled.
Finn's smile held. "Everyone knows that Goll Mac Morna is unkill-able."
Seen together, the two might have been taken for father and son. Both were tall and fair. But while Finn was lean and taut, Goll was bulky, thick through chest and shoulder, short of neck and broad of thigh. Compared to Finn, he looked clumsy and past his prime.
Yet he had his pride. His voice had been permanently hoarsened during long service as Rígfénnid Fíanna, chief of all the Fíanna, commander of the army of Tara long before Finn joined them.
Now, however, he marched with Finn's band and followed Finn's orders. That alone should have made them enemies, though there was another, darker reason for enmity between them. Finn never referred to it, but Goll could not forget that he was one of the men who had killed Finn's father.
Any other man in Erin would have devoted himself to finding his father's killers and exacting a terrible vengeance. But Finn Mac Cool did not seem interested in revenge. He treated Goll as he treated everyone else.
The situation made Goll acutely uncomfortable. He was a professional warrior, accepting a demeaning assignment with the obedience born of long discipline. Finn's apparent friendliness should have made it easier.
But it could never be easy.
Cailte drawled, "I notice none of you bothered to bring my cloak down for me."
"We thought you'd want to run back up the mountain and get it yourself," Finn teased.
"I will of course, no bother on me! And I assume you'll accompany me as a courtesy?"
Cael snorted with laughter, but Finn replied without batting an eye, "I will of course." He was on his feet and running, with his hounds beside him, before Cailte realized what was happening. The thin man had to sprint madly to catch up.
They raced up the mountain together. Cailte inclined his lean torso parallel to the slope. Watching from the corner of his eye, Finn copied his technique and matched him stride for stride. They ran faster than Cael and Madan ever could.
The earlier running had been for fun. This was different. Both men recognized that a serious challenge had been offered and accepted.
They competed on a treacherous slope studded with slabs of limestone and fern-concealed potholes. One misstep could break a man's leg.
Black Head was the northernmost point of the region known as the Burren, an eerie moonscape land where plants and flowers thrived that grew nowhere else in Erin. Wind and weather had sculpted stone into thousands of time-fissured faces, until the Burren became not a place, but a Presence. Using the wind off the sea for a voice, grassy uplands hummed songs of a Stone Age past.
Time circled and spiralled and had no shape. Stone tombs erected millennia earlier were monuments to forgotten chieftains who still haunted the corkscrew hills. Natural terraces of striated limestone shifted colour from grey to violet to rose in the pellucid light of an Atlantean sky.
Nothing changed and nothing stayed the same—not in the Burren.
Two young men raced up the headland in a ringing silence broken only by the sound of their harsh breathing and a curlew's cry.
Black Head was steep above the sea.
Under their eyebrows, both youths darted covert glances upward, assessing the remaining distance. Every fénnid was an experienced runner, but this racecourse was vertical and each footstep potentially deadly. And by some trick of the light, the summit of the mountain seemed to be receding even as they climbed.
There are strange tales told of the Burren, Cailte thought. Can the mountain be growing taller to spite us?
Finn, however, was telling himself, I should have carried Cailte's cloak down with me. I should have foreseen this and been able to avoid it.
His lungs burned agonizingly. The air he breathed was liquid fire.
He ran. Cailte ran. Up and up and up they went, and still they could not see Cailte's cloak waiting above them.
What a stupid mistake, Finn thought, to challenge Cailte. If he beats me, I'll be diminished in their eyes.
If he beats me.
The word took on new meaning. "If" indicated there was an alternative. "If" meant Cailte might not beat him.
Finn did not tell himself, I will win. He told himself, I will not lose.
His legs pumped and his heart hammered and he matched Cailte stride for stride, refusing to be beaten.
Cailte was not under the same pressure. Already an acknowledged champion at running, he knew that one race lost to Finn Mac Cool would not irretrievably damage his reputation. So Cailte ran his best, but he did not put in that extra effort beyond one's best that can burst the heart.
Finn did. He lengthened his stride. When rocks rose in his path, he leaped over them, gaining ground with every jump. For a time, Cailte kept up with him. Then there was a moment when the rhythm of the champion's breathing faltered, and in that moment, Finn passed him.
Try as he might, Cailte could not draw even with Finn again.
The hounds, running ahead of them, stopped abruptly and dropped their muzzles, sniffing. At their feet lay a puddle of wolf fur—Cailte's cloak.
Finn reached it one stride before Cailte did. Swooping, he brandished the cloak above his head. The men watching below saw him wave the silvery banner and cheered.
"I can't make out who has it," Blamec complained.
"Cailte, of course," said Conan.
Lugaid cupped his hands around his eyes. "I don't think so. That looks like Finn to me."
"Not possible," Conan snorted. "Finn could never outrun Cailte."
"I think he has," Lugaid insisted quietly. He sounded impressed.
All of them were impressed.
Halfway to the summit, Finn and Cailte were each struggling to keep the other from seeing how breathless he was. Finn had clamped his lips together and was trying to make himself breathe softly through his nose. Cailte had bent over the fur as he brushed bits of bracken from it, hiding his flushed and panting face. From that position, he did not see the two men come down from the ridge above.
"Look here, Cailte," Finn alerted him. "We aren't alone."
Startled, Cailte glanced up. Two men, one his own age and one slightly older, were making their way toward them. The older one had a dead deer slung over his shoulder.
Finn tensed, then relaxed. It wasn't his stag, his poetic inspiration, but an old doe. Her head was grey with the frost of too many winters.
It was her time to die.
"You're very welcome, strangers," Finn called in the time-honoured greeting.
The man carrying the deer had a round, pleasant face but hostile eyes. "We aren't strangers. You are. This is my mountain." His speech was clipped, abrupt with anger.
Finn had been in the Fíanna long enough to know that men sometimes made unwarranted claims to territory. "Is it now?" he asked with icy politeness.
"It is indeed. I am Iruis son of Huamor, who is chieftain of the Burren. He's given me use of this mountain to build a fort on because I'm taking a wife next Beltaine."
"Huamor!" Finn's voice thawed. "The very man we're looking for. We must have missed his stronghold somehow. Do you know where he is now?"
"I don't know who you are."
Finn lifted his chin. In a voice like the ringing of bells, he announced, "I am Fionn son of Cuhal son of Trenmor."
Iruis sniffed. "Fionn means "fair," and your hair's the colour of bleached linen, so that much is true. As for your being a son of Cuhal Mac Tremor…he was famous but he's been dead a long time. Who can vouch for you now?"
Finn's lips tightened. He spat the words between them. "No one questions me. I'm a rígfénnid, an officer of the Fíanna."
Iruis was openly contemptuous now. "A boy like you?"
"He is a rígfénnid!" Cailte burst out. "His fían are down below. He has eight armed and dangerous men in addition to me, and when the rest of them learn you wouldn't take his word for his identity, you're going to be in real trouble."
Iruis braced his legs belligerently and thrust out his jaw. Two strangers were not going to intimidate him on his own mountain. "Go look," he ordered his companion, "and see if anyone's really down there."
The other man stepped to the brink of the nearest rock ledge, peered over, and hastily moved back. "There are men down there," he reported, "and they're looking up this way."
"Not just men," said Finn. "They're members of the Fíanna, the best army in Erin, and I can summon them with a shout. Every fénnid is an expert with sword and spear. Would you care to see a demonstration?" He smiled disconcertingly, a feral baring of teeth.
Iruis took a closer look at the strangers in the gathering twilight. Confidence began to seep from him like cold sweat.
The one who claimed to be a rígfénnid was rawboned with youth, but massive of frame. Hair like molten silver streamed over improbably broad shoulders. His cheekbones were boulders. He wore a huge, rough mantle of wild-animal skins crudely stitched together with sinew, and a plain deerskin tunic; but a belt around his torso held a gilded and embossed leather scabbard. Thrusting from the scabbard was the leather-wrapped hilt of a shortsword, bound with fine silver wire and set with a pommel stone.
It was unmistakably the weapon of a rígfénnid. To make matters worse, Finn was unslinging his shield from his back and slipping his left arm through its straps.
lruis began to fear he had made a dreadful mistake. His father would deny him Black Head if he had insulted an officer of the Fíanna—if he survived, that is.
Iruis slumped his shoulders in the posture of submission. The deer slid to the ground. Holding out a weaponless hand, he said, "I accept your word, of course. But one can't be too careful these days. There are outlaws even here in the Burren."
"That's why we've come," Finn replied. "Huamor sent a request to the king of Tara, asking for help from the Fíanna in dealing with your outlaws."
"He did? He never mentioned it to me-not that my father discusses his affairs with me. But I didn't expect him to send for mercenaries."
Ice crackled in Finn's reply. "We aren't mercenaries. We're part of the Fíanna."
Iruis was flustered. "Of course, I know…I mean…I thought…"
"Did you?" Finn asked sardonically, pressing the advantage. "Did you indeed? Is it something you do often—thinking?"
Iruis's companion rescued him. "I'm afraid you took us by surprise, that's all," he said to Finn. "We would like to welcome you so you won't accuse us of a lack of hospitality. But we have only the one deer. If you and your men will share it with us, however, we'll consider ourselves honoured."
Iruis shot his friend an annoyed glance. He muttered, "I was just about to say that."
"Then why didn't you?" the other whispered back.
Finn bit his lip to keep from smiling. He was enjoying their discomfiture hugely. "Of course we shall accept your offer of hospitality," he said, sounding very formal, "and commend you to the king of Tara. Summon the fían, Cailte."
Cailte went to the brink and shouted down. Distance distorted his words, but his beckoning wave was clear.
Blamec groaned. "We have to go all the way back up there? I don't believe it."
"If you're lucky," Conan suggested, "you might burst something in your brain and die on the way."
"You have a nasty mouth, Conan."
"He has a gift for sarcasm," Fergus Honey-Tongue interpolated.
"He has a nasty mouth. Perhaps it's the result of being as hairless as an eel. Conan Maol has an eel's bite."
"Save your breath for the climb," advised Goll. He started up and they followed. No one ran.
Far above them on the side of the mountain, the doe was being gutted and skinned. Finn and Iruis watched as the other two did the work.
"Your friend is good with his long knife," Finn commented. "Where's he from? I don't recognize his accent."
"He's a Connacht man from Mullach Rua. He likes to be called for his birthplace, in fact. Never uses the name he was given at birth."
"Mullach Rua? Red Ridge?" Finn frowned, thinking. "I've heard of it. It was mentioned in one of the poems I learned to qualify for the Fíanna. I must admit, I've never been to that part of Connacht myself, though." He caught a lobe of raw liver that Cailte tossed to him, nodded his thanks and tore it in two with his bare hands, giving half to Iruis. The treat was quickly swallowed.
Iruis resumed, "No one goes to Mullach Rua if they can help it, it's as lonely as a cry in the dark. Red Ridge was glad to come here to spend the winter. He's assigned as a bodyguard to the woman I'm going to marry, who's also wintering with us."
Red Ridge looked up. Coppery curls clung tightly to his skull. There was something friendly, yet uncompromising, in his eyes.
Finn took an immediate liking to him. "I didn't care for the name I was given at birth, either," he confided.
Red Ridge said, "Mine didn't suit me."
"Neither did mine, it could have belonged to anyone. I prefer being Finn the Fair, which describes me."
"I prefer being Red Ridge. That's the place that shaped me. A man's name should fit like his skin, not hang from him like someone else's tunic."
"Absolutely," Finn agreed. He watched as Red Ridge and Cailte completed extracting the organs from the carcass, then cut the hide at neck and ankles, skillfully worked it loose from the underlying connective tissue, and peeled it off the deer inside out. Cailte turned it right side out again, then rolled up the damp bundle and handed it to Finn.
Finn promptly turned and gave it to Iruis.
After a moment's hesitation, Iruis handed it back to him. "Take this as my gift," he urged.
He knew he had lost ground to recover. He was very aware that Finn's band would join them at any moment. Indeed, the first head was just topping the nearest ledge.
Though the others had passed him as they climbed, Goll Mac Morna was not bringing up the rear. He had craftily engaged Cael and Madan in conversation so that the three arrived together.
Introductions were made. Seeing them in a group, Iruis could not doubt they were fénnidi. Though they were very young, they balanced themselves on the balls of their feet like warriors and their eyes constantly scanned the landscape like hunters.
Their tall leader appeared to be little more than a boy, but a boy with a disconcertingly direct gaze. Beneath that gaze flickered something as hard and cold as iron.
Suddenly Iruis was glad he had given Finn the hide.
The atmosphere was quickly established as cordial. The cold quality lurking in Finn's eyes seemed to disappear; he grinned, he laughed, and his men laughed with him.
Iruis told them, "We'll need to gather a lot of bracken and dead brush for firewood. This is an old doe and she'll want a long roasting."
Donn surveyed the deer with a practised eye. "I know about cooking. She'd be better boiled."
"Roasted," Iruis said firmly. "To boil her would mean leaving the mountain and going to the nearest farmstead for the loan of a cauldron. I won't leave Black Head tonight. I mean to choose my building site by the light of the rising sun."
"That meat's too tough for roasting," Donn insisted.
Iruis scowled at him.
"We won't have to leave the mountain to boil the meat," said Finn.
"Why not? Have you cauldrons with you?"
Finn gave a disdainful snort. "Fénnidi are men of no property, we don't burden ourselves with cauldrons. We find what we need wherever we go, ready to hand."
Iruis was mystified. "How?"
"If you plan to build a fort up here, surely you know of some fresh water supply on the mountain."
"I do. There's a spring not far from where we stand."
"Lead me to it!" Finn said cheerfully.
Iruis took him to a small spring that bubbled up in a natural stone hollow fringed with ferns. Crouching on his heels, Finn examined it thoroughly, estimating volume of water and speed of flow with the skill of practise. Then he stood.
"Dig the pool just…there," he commanded his men, pointing. "And the ditch from there to there."
Dividing into work parties, his fían dug out a pool below the spring. A channel, which they temporarily dammed with stones, was dug to connect the spring to the pool.
Lugaid and Fergus built a fire beside the pool, using alternate layers of rocks and dead brush to create a draught. With sparks from their flintstones, they lit the fire, while Cael lined the pool with Finn's deer-hide to keep water from seeping away. As they waited for the fire to get hot enough, the others scoured the slope for stones the size of a baby's head.
Meanwhile, Lugaid patiently tended the fire. Its heat grew steadily. A deep red glow began to appear in its heart.
After an interminable wait, Lugaid pronounced the fire ready. The dam was broken and water flooded into the pool. The fénnidi dropped the stones they had gathered into the heart of the fire, waited, then twitched them out again and expertly flipped them into the pool with their shortswords. The water began to steam, then to boil.
Donn had been gathering plants from the surrounding area, finding what he wanted with unerring instinct even after the sun had set. He threw his collected seasonings into the boiling water, adding strands of seaweed taken from the leather pouch he wore on a thong around his neck. Then he motioned to Cailte and Red Ridge to throw in the by-now-dismembered deer.
A heady aroma soon rose from the pool. The hungry men crowded around to watch the hunks of meat tumbling in the roiling water. "This is wonderful entirely!" cried Iruis. "I never expected to have a banquet such as this tonight."
"The Fíanna hunt all over Erin," Finn replied, "and we travel light. But we live well. We carry necessities like flintstones for fire and seaweeds for salt in our neck bags and rely on the land to supply the rest. We may be men of no property, but we want for nothing, as you can see. When we need a cauldron, for example, we simply construct a fualacht fíadh, a deer's bath, like this one. You could track the Fíanna clear across Erin by the cooking sites they leave behind."
The night was cold, the men ravenous. They began pulling meat from the pool long before Donn thought it was ready.
Finn would not allow any of his fían to eat, however, until they performed a set ritual.
In spite of the cold, every fénnid had to strip to the waist and wash himself in the icy spring. The men then combed their hair—except for Conan Maol, who had none. When it was neatly braided, they performed a complicated set of suppling exercises. Only then did they re-clothe themselves and sit by the fire to eat.
"What's all that in aid of?" Iruis asked Finn.
"I'd never delay a meal just to flex my muscles."
Finn shrugged. "Then you'd never make a fénnid."
The hint of condescension in his voice annoyed Iruis. "Why would I want to join the Fíanna? I have everything a man could want. I have this mountain and the fort I'll build and the woman who'll warm my bed here. I have cattle of my own and ear rings and arm rings and a storehouse filled with furs. I have all the Burren to hunt in. I might even be elected chieftain someday, when my father's dead. What have you to compare with that?"
"We have the songs we sing as we march," Fergus told him. "We have the thunder of the bodhran, the war drum, and the cry of the trumpet."
Donn said, "We sleep someplace new every night, and the stars themselves are our sentinels. People envy us our wild, free life."
"We chase the red deer in the south and the wild boar in the north," Blamec contributed. "We aren't limited to our tribelands, as you are. We can hunt anywhere in Erin."
"From Beltaine to Samhain, we support ourselves by hunting," said Cailte, "but from Samhain to Beltaine, we're quartered on the people. They vie for the honour of being our hosts."
"They also keep our hounds for the winter," Cael added, "at no cost to ourselves, no matter how much they eat."
"It's because the people are grateful to the Fíanna," Madan explained. "A fine, chest-swelling feeling, that is."
Conan muttered, "They aren't always grateful, the maggots. I could tell you some stories—"
Lugaid interrupted smoothly, "Of course we don't complain, it's our profession. We were born to be warriors, just as others are born to be craftsmen or beekeepers or druids. Or princes like yourself," he said, flattering the chieftain's son.
Only Finn had not contributed to the conversation. Iruis noticed that a gobbet of flesh was dangling forgotten from his fingers. He was gazing into the fire, which set his pale hair agleam and gilded the angular planes of his face. It also revealed an unexpectedly sweet curve to his lips. His was a boy's mouth, merry and vulnerable, in contrast to the brooding eyes.
Iruis sensed a mystery. "You're very young, Finn Mac Cool," he commented. "Why did you join the Fíanna yourself? Because you were born to fight? Or is there more to it?"
Finn had not expected the question. Keeping his eyes fixed on the fire, he swiftly sorted through a range of possible answers. He could simply tell the truth, outlining in a few blunt words the loneliness and restlessness of his formative years.
But on the other side of the fire, Goll Mac Morna had stopped eating and was leaning forward intently, listening.
The fénnidi were listening too. Beside a roaring campfire on a cold night on a lonely mountain, they huddled into their cloaks and looked expectantly toward Finn.
They wanted to be entertained. They were young, and the night was long.
"Blamec," announced their new rígfénnid, "you'll stand the first watch. Go as far as the firelight reaches and circle the edge of darkness until I send someone to relieve you. Mind you stay alert. Enemies could see the fire and try to sneak up on us from below.
"As for the rest of you, keep the soles of your feet toward the fire and I'll tell you something about Finn Mac Cool."
Copyright © 1994 by Morgan Llywelyn