Now that he had heard the history of the Fairy Rowan Tree, Flann often looked at the clusters of scarlet berries that were high up on its branches. The Tree could be climbed, Flann knew. But on the top of the tree and along its branches were the fierce yellow cats--the cats that the Hags of the Long Teeth had reared for Crom Duv, thinking that he would some time give each of them the berry that would make them young again. And at the butt of the tree there were more cats. And all about the courtyard the Hags' fierce cats paraded themselves.
The walls round the Giant's Keep were being built higher by Crom Duv, helped by his servant Flann. The Giant's herd was now increased by many calves, and Morag the byre-maid had much to do to keep all the cows milked. And day and night Morag and Flann heard the bellowing of the Bull of the Mound.
Now one day while Crom Duv was away with his herd, Flann and Morag were in the courtyard. They saw the Little Red Hen rouse herself up, shake her wings and turn a bright eye on them. "What dost thou say, my Little Red Hen?" said Morag.
"The Pooka," murmured the Little Red Hen. "The Pooka rides a fierce horse, but the Pooka himself is a timid little fellow." Then the Little Red Hen drooped her wings again, and went on picking in the courtyard.
"The Pooka rides a fierce horse," said Morag, "if the Pooka rides a fierce horse he might carry us past the Bull of the Mound."
"And if the Pooka himself is a timid little fellow we might take the fierce horse from him," said Flann.
"But this does not tell us how to get the berries off the Fairy Rowan Tree," said Morag.
"No," said Flann, "it does not tell us how to get the berries off the tree the cats guard."
The next day Morag gave grains to the Little Red Hen and begged for words. After a while the Little Red Hen murmured, "There are things I know, and things I don't know, but I do know what grows near the ground, and if you pull a certain herb, and put it round the necks of the cats they will not be able to see in the light nor in the dark. And to-morrow is the day of Sowain," said the Little Red Hen. She said no more words. She had become sleepy and now she flew down and roosted under the table. There she went on murmuring to herself--as all hens murmur--where the Children of Dana hid their treasures--they know, for it was the Children of Dana who brought the hens to Ireland.
"To-morrow," said Morag to Flann, "follow the Little Red Hen, and if she makes any sign when she touches an herb that grows near the ground, pluck that herb and bring it to me."
That night Morag and Flann talked about the Pooka and his fierce horse. On Sowain night--the night before the real short days begin--the Pooka rides through the countryside touching any fruit that remains, so that it may bring no taste into winter. The blackberries that were good to eat the day before are no good on November day, because the Pooka touched them the night before. What else the Pooka does no one really knows. He is a timid fellow as the Little Red Hen said, and he hopes that the sight of his big black horse and the sound of its trampling and panting as he rides by will frighten people out of his way, for he has a great fear of being seen.
The next day the Little Red Hen stayed in the courtyard until Crom Duv left with his herd. Flann followed her. She went here and there between the house and the wall at the back, now picking a grain of sand and now an ant or spider or fly. And as she went about the Little Red Hen murmured a song to herself:--
When sleep would settle on me
Like the wild bird down on the nest,
The wind comes out of the West:
It tears at the door, maybe,
And frightens away my rest--
When sleep would come upon me
Like the wild bird down on the nest.
The cock is aloft with his crest:
The barn-owl comes from her quest
She fixes an eye upon me
And frightens away my rest
When sleep would settle on me
Like the wild bird down on its nest.
Flann watched all the Little Red Hen did. He saw her put her head on one side and look down for a while at a certain herb that grew near the ground. Flann plucked that herb and brought it to Morag.
The cattle had come home, but Crom Duv was not with them. Morag milked the cows and brought all the milk within, leaving no milk for the cats to drink outside. Six came into the kitchen to get their supper there. One after another they sprang up on the table, one more proud and overbearing than the other. Each cat ate without condescending to make a single mew. "Cat of my heart," said Morag to the first, when he had finished drinking his milk. "Cat of my heart! How noble you would look with this red around your neck." She held out a little satchel in which a bit of the herb was sewn. The first cat gave a look that said, "Well, you may put it on me." Morag put the red satchel around his neck and he jumped off the table.
It was so with all the other cats. They finished lapping their milk and Morag showed them the red ribbon satchel. They let her put it round each of their necks and then they sprang off the table, and marched off more scornful and overbearing than before.
Six of the fierce yellow cats climbed into the branches of the Fairy Rowan Tree; six stayed in the kitchen; six went into Crom Duv's chamber, and six went to march round the house, three taking each side. No sound came from the cats that were within or without. Morag drew a ball of cotton across the floor, and the cats that were in the kitchen gave no sign of seeing it. "The sight has left their eyes," said Morag. "Then," said Flann, "I will climb the Fairy Rowan Tree and bring down two berries." "Be sure you bring down two, my dear, my dear," said Morag.
They went out to the courtyard and Flann began to climb the Fairy Rowan Tree with all suppleness, strength and cunning. The cats that were below felt him going up the tree and the cats that were above humped themselves up. Flann passed the first branch on which a cat was crouched. He went above where the rowan berries were, and bending down he picked two of them and put them into his mouth.
He came down quickly with the cats tearing at him. Others had come out of the house and were mewing and spitting in the courtyard. Only one had fastened itself on Flann's jerkin, and this one would not let go. "Come into the wood, come into the wood," said Morag. "Now we must stand between the house and the mound, and wait till the Pooka rides by." Flann put the two berries into her hand, they jumped across the chain, and ran from the house of the Giant Crom Duv.