Conaire Mór was the most splendid, noble, and beautiful king that ever was in Ireland, and of the kings of the world he was the mildest and gentlest. There was no defect in him whether in form, shape, or vesture; in vision, skill, or eloquence; in knowledge, valour, or kindred. In Ireland during his reign not a cloud veiled the sun from the middle of spring to the middle of autumn; not a dew-drop fell from the grass till it was past mid-day. In his reign from year's end to year's end peace was kept with the wolves even. No man slew another; to everyone in Ireland his fellow's voice was as sweet as the strings of harps. Ireland had the three crowns upon her then--the crown of corn-ears, the crown of flowers, and the crown of oak-mast.
These were the prohibitions that were laid upon Conaire Mór:
He was not to permit rapine in the land;
He was not to go out on a ninth night from Tara;
He was not to go right-handwise round Tara, nor left-handwise round Bregia;
He was not to hunt the evil beasts of Cerna;
He was not to let three Reds go before him to the house of a Red;
He was not to let a solitary woman come into a house where he was after sunset.
The peace of his reign was broken by Conaire's foster-brothers. Pride and wilfulness possessed them, and they went reiving through Ireland. Year after year, for three years, they went reiving. And
when all complained against them, the king said, "Let every father slay his own son, but let my foster-brothers be spared." He permitted rapine to be wrought, and so one of the prohibitions laid upon him was broken. At last he withdrew his protection from his foster-brothers. They took ships and went upon the seas. And on the seas they met Ingcel the One-eyed, the son of the King of Britain, who was a banished man also. With him they joined forces. They raided Britain; they destroyed a fortress there; Ingcel's father and his seven brothers were in it and they were slain unwittingly by the raiders.
Ingcel demanded destruction for destruction, and he had Conaire's foster-brothers join him in a raid on Ireland. They beached their ships and they landed, a force of fierce marauders, upon the plain of the Liffey, south of Tara. "What mansion is it I have seen," said Ingcel to Ferrogain, "where the light of a fire comes from the main door and shines through the spokes of the chariot-wheels outside?" "Surely it is the guest-house that stands on the road to Tara--the guest-house of Da Derga," said Ferrogain. "But a guest-house is sanctuary in every land--tis wrong to sack a guest-house," said Lomna Dru. "Lomna, when we made our oaths, we made no reservations as to a guest-house," said Ingcel. "Unless the earth break under us," said Fergobar, "the destruction of this guest-house shall be wrought. Neither old men nor historians shall declare that I quitted the destruction until I had accomplished it." "Rouse up, then, ye champions," cried Ingcel, the one-eyed outlaw of Britain, "we will plunder that guest-house and destroy it, and destroy all who are in it. A rich plunder will be ours to carry to our ships." Ferrogain and Lomna Dru stayed back, but Fergobar joined himself with Ingcel, and the fierce marauders marched towards the guest-house that was called Da Derga's Hostel,
King Conaire had broken another of his prohibitions: he went beyond Tara on a ninth night; he went to settle a dispute between two of his thralls. Now as he returned with his household he saw the smoke of a burning country between him and his royal house. With his cavalcade he went another way; in going that way he went right-handwise round Tara and left-handwise round Bregia. Strange
beasts rose up in front of him, and he pursued them. These were the evil beasts of Cerna, but Conaire did not know this until the chase was over.
The king knew that he would have to lie that night outside his royal house. He rode towards the guest-house that stood with its seven doors open on the road to Tara. Now the name "Derga" means "Red," and Conaire knew that he must not let three Reds ride before him to the hostel. But even as he thought upon this he saw three clad in red and riding upon red steeds before him on the road. He bade one from his cavalcade ride after them and bid them turn back. But Conaire's horseman could not come upon the red riders. He shouted to them, bidding them turn back at the king's command. One of the riders, looking over his shoulder, shouted back: "A gathering at a hostel; great the destruction; great the tidings." Again Conaire's horseman cried to them to turn back for the sake of the great reward that would be given them. Then the riders chanted: "Weary are the steeds we ride, the steeds from the Land of the Ever-living. Though we are living, we are dead. Great are the signs; destruction of life; sating of ravens; feeding of crows; strife of slaughter; wetting of sword-edges; shields with broken bosses after sundown. Lo, my son!" Still they rode on. Conaire's horseman saw them alight before Da Derga's Hostel, and fasten their red steeds to the portal, and seat themselves within. The horseman rode back and told the king that the red riders had entered before him. "More of my geise have now been broken," said Conaire.
So he and his cavalcade rode on, and they entered Da Derga's Hostel. Then were the chariots left outside the hostel, seventeen chariots with steeds small-headed and broad-chested, each steed with a bridle of red enamel. There were grey spears over the chariots, and those on guard there had ivory-hilted swords by their sides and silver shields above their elbows. At one side of the great door as guard stood the King of Ulster's son, Cormac. He was a man of noble countenance, with clear and sparkling eyes. His face was broad above and narrow below. He had golden hair and a proper fillet around it; there was a brooch of silver in his mantle, and in his hand he held a gold-hilted sword. His shield had five golden circles upon it. At the other side of the door stood Conall Cearnach, Conall the Victorious, most
famous of Ireland's warriors. Blue as gentians were his eyes; dark as a stag-beetle were his brows. The spear that he held in his hand was as thick as a chariot's outer yoke. He had a blood-red shield on which were rivets of white bronze between plates of gold. Between them stood the king's champion, MacCecht. He was a man of strong and fear. inspiring countenance. The shaft of his lance was the weight of a plough-yoke. He had a wooden shield covered with plates of iron, and upright in his hand he held a spear from the iron point of which blood dripped.
Conaire sat upon the couch. The mantle that was about him was even as the mist of a May day: diverse were the hues and semblances each moment shown upon it. A hand's breadth of his sword was outside its scabbard, and a man in front of the hostel might see by the light of the blade. The colour of the king's hair was like the sheen of smelted gold. Beside him was his little son--a small, freckled lad in a purple cloak; he had the manners of a maiden, and he was loved by all.
The king's juggler played before them. White as mountain cotton were the hairs on his head. He had three shields, three swords, and three apples of gold, and he kept them rising above and falling past each other like bees on a day of beauty. But even as the king and his son looked on, lo! a cry came from the things in the air, and they fell down upon the floor. Then was the head of a man cast into the hostel. Conaire saw that it was the head of Ferrogain, his foster-brother. He took it up, and wept over it, and even then the reivers made their attack upon the hostel.
A woman came and stood by the door-posts of the house. Her cloak was soiled and smelt of damp earth. Great loathing came upon the company at the sight of that woman. The king bade her begone. "It is known," he said, "that it is a prohibition with me not to let a solitary woman be after sunset where I am." The woman said, "If in sooth it has befallen the king not to have in his house room and a meal for a solitary woman, they will be gotten apart from him." "We will have you stay," said Conaire, "albeit another of my geise is broken." The woman cast her cloak upon the floor. "To-night," she said, "the king will sleep with me."
Then another shape was shown to Conaire. He saw a man who had
only one eye, one foot, and one hand. He knew him for the Swineherd of Bove Derg, and he knew that ruin was wrought at every feast at which he was present. And shapes more dreadful than this shape were shown him. He saw the Daughters of Bav--even those three that are slaughtered at every destruction. Naked and bleeding, they hung by ropes from the roof.
There issued from the hostel a band terrible to the reivers, a band of men whose dress was of rough hair, who had girdles of ox. hide, and who were armed with flails; each flail they wielded had chains of iron triple-twisted. These were the giants that had been taken by Cuchulain at the beleaguerment of Faldal. They went through the reivers, their savage eyes shining through their thick hair. But Ingcel called out to them, and made terms with them, and drew them to his own side. Then was the river that flowed through the hostel turned aside. Brands were flung upon it; the hostel burned, and there was no water to quench the burning.
Conall Cearnach went forth with his nine companions. He made a circuit of the hostel, going through the reivers as a hawk goes through a flock of small birds. A piper in red was there. He played before Conall, and led Conall away with his bewildering music. Cormac, the son of the King of Ulster, strove against the reivers. As a ship goes through the waves so Cormac went through the ranks of those who attacked the hostel. A piper in red went before him, and, playing an enchanting strain, led him from the fight.
A thirst came upon the king. There was no water to assuage it. MacCecht took up the king's golden cup and cut his way through the ranks of the reivers to bring water to Conaire. The king armed his household and went forth, and he and his harpers and cup-bearers and jugglers made their fight. But a piper in red played, and a harper cried out that the Danaan folk were against the king, because King Eochaid had lain waste the Danaan places in his search for the queen who had been taken from the world. The giants who had gone over to Ingcel turned against the king's company with their iron flails.
MacCecht, the king's champion, failed to find water to assuage Conaire's thirst. The wells, the rivers, and the lakes of Ireland, at the bidding of the Danaan folk, hid themselves from him. The Shannon, the Slaney, the Bann, and the Barrow--all the great rivers--hid themselves.
[paragraph continues] The great lakes of Ireland hid themselves from him that night. MacCecht came upon a lone lake far from the hostel--he came upon Loch Gara. Before it could hide itself from him he had dipped the king's golden cup into its water. Then, carrying the water, he returned to the hostel. He found that all its defenders were dead or had been led away by the music of the pipers from the Land of the Ever-living. He came up as one of the reivers was striking off the head of King Conaire. MacCecht slew the man. Taking up his master's head, he poured a drink into his mouth. And Conaire's head spoke to Mac Cecht, and praised him for his valour and his devotion.
MacCecht found Conaire's son unhurt, and he bore him away from that place of destruction, As he stood by the burning hostel he heard the red pipers chanting to each other: "Great the tidings. Through ancient enchantments a company has perished. Until this was accomplished we might not return. Now we ride the horses of Donn Tetscorach, the horses of Midir's son. Now we ride back to the Land of the Ever-living."