It happened on a day when Fergus son of Leda was King of Ulster, that Iubdan, King of the Leprecauns or Wee Folk, of the land of Faylinn, held a great banquet and assembly of the lords and princes of the Wee Folk. And all their captains and men of war came thither, to show their feats before the King, among whom was the strong man, namely Glowar, whose might was such that with his battle-axe he could hew down a thistle at one stroke. Thither also came the King’s heir-apparent, Tiny, son of Tot, and the Queen Bebo with her maidens; and there were also the King’s harpers and singing-men, and the chief poet of the court, who was called Eisirt.
All these sat down to the feast in due order and precedence, with Bebo on the King’s right hand and the poet on his left, and Glowar kept the door. Soon the wine began to flow from the vats of dark-red yew-wood, and the carvers carved busily at great haunches of roast hares and ribs of field-mice; and they all ate and drank, and loudly the hall rang with gay talk and laughter, and the drinking of toasts, and clashing of silver goblets.
At last when they had put away desire of eating and drinking, Iubdan rose up, having in his hand the royal goblet of gold inlaid with precious many-coloured jewels, and the heir-apparent rose at the other end of the table, and they drank prosperity and victory to Faylinn. Then Iubdan’s heart swelled with pride, and he asked of the company, ‘Come now, have any of you ever seen a king more glorious and powerful than I am?’ ‘Never, in truth,’ cried they all. ‘Have ye ever seen a stronger man than my giant, Glowar?’ ‘Never, O King,’ said they. ‘Or battle-steeds and men-at-arms better than mine?’ ‘By our words,’ they cried, ‘we never have.’ ‘Truly,’ went on Iubdan, ‘I deem that he who would assail our kingdom of Faylinn, and carry away captives and hostages from us, would have his work cut out for him, so fierce and mighty are our warriors; yea, any one of them hath the stuff of kingship in him.’
On hearing this, Eisirt, in whom the heady wine and ale had done their work, burst out laughing; and the King turned to him, saying, ‘Eisirt, what hath moved thee to this laughter?’ ‘I know a province in Erinn,’ replied Eisirt, ‘one man of whom would harry Faylinn in the teeth of all four battalions of the Wee Folk.’ ‘Seize him,’ cried the King to his attendants; ‘Eisirt shall pay dearly in chains and in prison for that scornful speech against our glory.’
Then Eisirt was put in bonds, and he repented him of his brag; but ere they dragged him away he said, ‘Grant me, O mighty King, but three days’ respite, that I may travel to Erinn to the court of Fergus Mac Leda, and if I bring not back some clear token that I have uttered nought but the truth, then do with me as thou wilt.’
So Iubdan bade them release him, and he fared away to Erinn oversea.
After this, one day, as Fergus and his lords sat at the feast, the gatekeeper of the palace of Fergus in Emania heard outside a sound of ringing; he opened the gate, and there stood a wee man holding in his hand a rod of white bronze hung with little silver bells, by which poets are wont to procure silence for their recitations. Most noble and comely was the little man to look on, though the short grass of the lawn reached as high as to his knee. His hair was twisted in four-ply strands after the manner of poets and he wore a gold-embroidered tunic of silk and an ample scarlet cloak with a fringe of gold. On his feet he wore shoes of white bronze ornamented with gold, and a silken hood was on his head. The gatekeeper wondered at the sight of the wee man, and went to report the matter to King Fergus. ‘Is he less,’ asked Fergus, ‘than my dwarf and poet Æda?’ ‘Verily,’ said the gatekeeper, ‘he could stand upon the palm of Æda’s hand and have room to spare.’ Then with much laughter and wonder they all trooped out, lords and ladies, to the great gate to view the wee man and to speak with him. But Eisirt, when he saw them, waved them back in alarm, crying, ‘Avaunt, huge men; bring not your heavy breath so near me; but let yon man that is least among you approach me and bear me in.’ So the dwarf Æda put Eisirt on his palm and bore him into the banqueting hall.
Then they set him on the table, and Eisirt declared his name and calling. The King ordered that meat and drink should be given him, but Eisirt said, ‘I will neither eat of your meat nor drink of ale.’ ‘By our word,’ said Fergus, ‘’tis a haughty wight; he ought to be dropped into a goblet that he might at least drink all round him.’ The cupbearer seized Eisirt and put him into a tankard of ale, and he swam on the surface of it. ‘Ye wise men of Ulster,’ he cried, ‘there is much knowledge and wisdom ye might get from me, yet ye will let me be drowned!’ ‘What, then?’ cried they. Then Eisirt, beginning with the King, set out to tell every hidden sin that each man or woman had done, and ere he had gone far they with much laughter and chiding fetched him out of the ale-pot and dried him with fair satin napkins. ‘Now ye have confessed that I know somewhat to the purpose,’ said Eisirt, ‘and I will even eat of your food, but do ye give heed to my words, and do ill no more.’
Fergus then said, ‘If thou art a poet, Eisirt, give us now a taste of thy delightful art.’ ‘That will I,’ said Eisirt, ‘and the poem that I shall recite to you shall be an ode in praise of my king, Iubdan the Great.’ Then he recited this lay:—
‘A monarch of might
Is Iubdan my king.
His brow is snow-white,
His hair black as night;
As a red copper bowl
When smitten will sing,
So ringeth the voice
Of Iubdan the king.
His eyen, they roll
Majestic and bland
On the lords of his land
Arrayed for the fight,
A spectacle grand!
Like a torrent they rush
With a waving of swords
And the bridles all ringing
And cheeks all aflush,
And the battle-steeds springing,
A beautiful, terrible, death-dealing band.
Like pines, straight and tall,
Where Iubdan is king,
Are the men one and all.
The maidens are fair—
Bright gold is their hair.
From silver we quaff
The dark, heady ale
That never shall fail;
We love and we laugh.
Gold frontlets we wear;
And aye through the air
Sweet music doth ring—
O Fergus, men say
That in all Inisfail
There is not a maiden so proud or so wise
But would give her two eyes
Thy kisses to win—
But I tell thee, that there
Thou canst never compare
With the haughty, magnificent King of Faylinn!’
At this they all applauded, and Fergus said, ‘O youth and blameless bard, let us be friends henceforth.’ And they all heaped before him, as a poet’s reward, gifts of rings and jewels and gold cups and weapons, as high as a tall man standing. Then Eisirt said, ‘Truly a generous and a worthy reward have ye given me, O men of Ulster; yet take back these precious things I pray you, for every man in my king’s household hath an abundance of them.’ But the Ulster lords said, ‘Nothing that we have given may we take back.’ Eisirt then bade two-thirds of his reward be given to the bards and learned men of Ulster, and one-third to the horse-boys and jesters; and so it was done.
Three days and nights did Eisirt abide in Emania, and all the King’s court loved him and made much of him. Then he wished them blessing and victory, and prepared to depart to his own country. Now Æda, the King’s dwarf and minstrel, begged Eisirt to take him with him on a visit to the land of Faylinn; and Eisirt said, ‘I shall not bid thee come, for then if kindness and hospitality be shown thee, thou wilt say it is only what I had undertaken; but if thou come of thine own motion, thou wilt perchance be grateful.’
So they went off together; but Eisirt could not keep up with Æda, and Æda said, ‘I perceive that Eisirt is but a poor walker.’ At this Eisirt ran off like a flash and was soon an arrow flight in front of Æda. When the latter at last came up with him, he said, ‘The right thing, Eisirt, is not too fast and not too slow.’ ‘Since I have been in Ulster,’ Eisirt replied, ‘I have never before heard ye measure out the right.’
By and by they reached the margin of the sea. ‘And what are we to do now?’ asked Æda. ‘Be not troubled, Æda,’ said Eisirt, ‘the horse of Iubdan will bear us easily over this.’ They waited awhile on the beach, and ere long they saw it coming toward them skimming over the surface of the waves. ‘Save and protect us!’ cried Æda at that sight; and Eisirt asked him what he saw. ‘A red-maned hare,’ answered Æda. ‘Nay, but that is Iubdan’s horse,’ said Eisirt, and with that the creature came prancing to land with flashing eyes and waving tail and a long russet-coloured mane; a bridle beset with gold it had. Eisirt mounted and bade Æda come up behind him. ‘Thy boat is little enough for thee alone,’ said Æda. ‘Cease fault-finding and grumbling,’ then said Eisirt, ‘for the weight of wisdom that is in thee will not bear him down.’
So Æda and Eisirt mounted on the fairy horse and away they sped over the tops of the waves and the deeps of the ocean till at last they reached the Kingdom of Faylinn, and there were a great concourse of the Wee Folk awaiting them. ‘Eisirt is coming! Eisirt is coming!’ cried they all, ‘and a Fomorian giant along with him.’
Then Iubdan went forth to meet Eisirt, and he kissed him, and said, ‘Why hast thou brought this Fomorian with thee to slay us?’ ‘He is no Fomor,’ said Eisirt, ‘but a learned man and a poet from Ulster. He is moreover the King of Ulster’s dwarf, and in all that realm he is the smallest man. He can lie in their great men’s bosoms and stand upon their hands as though he were a child; yet for all that you would do well to be careful how you behave to him.’ ‘What is his name?’ said they then. ‘He is the poet Æda.’ said Eisirt. ‘Uch,’ said they, ‘what a giant thou hast brought us!’
‘And now, O King,’ said Eisirt to Iubdan, ‘I challenge thee to go and see for thyself the region from which we have come, and make trial of the royal porridge which is made for Fergus King of Ulster this very night.’
At this Iubdan was much dismayed, and he betook himself to Bebo his wife and told her how he was laid under bonds of chivalry by Eisirt to go to the land of the giants; and he bade her prepare to accompany him. ‘I will go,’ said she, ‘but you did an ill deed when you condemned Eisirt to prison.’
So they mounted, both of them, on the fairy steed, and in no long time they reached Emania, and it was now past midnight. And they were greatly afraid, and said Bebo, ‘Let us search for that porridge and taste it, as we were bound, and make off again ere the folk awake.’
They made their way into the palace of Fergus, and soon they found a great porridge pot, but the rim was too high to be reached from the ground. ‘Get thee up upon thy horse,’ said Bebo, ‘and from thence to the rim of this cauldron.’ And thus he did, but having gained the rim of the pot his arm was too short to reach the silver ladle that was in it. In straining downward to do so, however, he slipped and in he fell, and up to his middle in the thick porridge he stuck fast. And when Bebo heard what a plight he was in, she wept, and said, ‘Rash and hasty wert thou, Iubdan, to have got into this evil case, but surely there is no man under the sun that can make thee hear reason.’ And he said, ‘Rash indeed it was, but thou canst not help me, Bebo, now, and it is but folly to stay; take the horse and flee away ere the day break.’ ‘Say not so,’ replied Bebo, ‘for surely I will not go till I see how things fall out with thee.’
At last the folk in the palace began to be stirring, and ere long they found Iubdan in the porridge pot.
So they picked him out with great laughter and bore him off to Fergus.
‘By my conscience,’ said Fergus, ‘but this is not the little fellow that was here before, for he had yellow hair, but this one hath a shock of the blackest; who art thou at all, wee man?’
‘I am of the Wee Folk,’ said Iubdan, ‘and am indeed king over them, and this woman is my wife and queen, Bebo.’
‘Take him away,’ then said Fergus to his varlets, ‘and guard him well’; for he misdoubted some mischief of Faery was on foot.
‘Nay, nay,’ cried Iubdan, ‘but let me not be with these coarse fellows. I pledge thee my word that I will not quit this place till thou and Ulster give me leave.’
‘Could I believe that,’ said Fergus, ‘I would not put thee in bonds.’
‘I have never broken my word,’ said Iubdan, ‘and I never will.’
Then Fergus set him free and allotted him a fair chamber for himself, and a trusty servingman to wait upon him. Soon there came in a gillie whose business it was to see to the fires, and he kindled the fire for Iubdan, throwing on it a woodbine together with divers other sorts of timber. Then Iubdan said, ‘Man of smoke, burn not the king of the trees, for it is not meet to burn him. Wouldst thou but take counsel from me thou mightest go safely by sea or land.’ Iubdan then chanted to him the following recital of the duties of his office:—
‘O fire-gillie of Fergus of the Feasts, never by land or sea burn the King of the woods, High King of the forests of Inisfail, whom none may bind, but who like a strong monarch holds all the other trees in hard bondage. If thou burn the twining one, misfortune will come of it, peril at the point of spear, or drowning in the waves.
‘Burn not the sweet apple-tree of drooping branches, of the white blossoms, to whose gracious head each man puts forth his hand.
‘The stubborn blackthorn wanders far and wide, the good craftsman burns not this timber; little though its bushes be, yet flocks of birds warble in them.
‘Burn not the noble willow, the unfailing ornament of poems; bees drink from its blossoms, all delight in the graceful tent.
‘The delicate, airy tree of the druids, the rowan with its berries, this burn; but avoid the weak tree, burn not the slender hazel.
‘The ash-tree of the black buds burn not—timber that speeds the wheel, that yields the rider his switch; the ashen spear is the scale-beam of battle.
‘The tangled, bitter bramble, burn him, the sharp and green; he flays and cuts the foot; he snares you and drags you back.
‘Hottest of timber is the green oak; he will give you a pain in the head if you use him overmuch, a pain in the eyes will come from his biting fumes.
‘Full-charged with witchcraft is the alder, the hottest tree in the fight; burn assuredly both the alder and the whitehorn at your will.
‘Holly, burn it in the green and in the dry; of all trees in the world, holly is absolutely the best.
‘The elder-tree of the rough brown bark, burn him to cinders, the steed of the Fairy Folk.
‘The drooping birch, by all means burn him too, the tree of long-lasting bloom.
‘And lay low, if it pleases you, the russet aspen; late or early, burn the tree with the quaking plumage.
‘The yew is the venerable ancestor of the wood as the companion of feasts he is known; of him make goodly brown vats for ale and wine.
‘Follow my counsel, O man of the smoke, and it shall go well with you, body and soul.’
So Iubdan continued in Emania free to go and come as he pleased; and all the Ulstermen delighted to watch him and to hear his conversation.
One day it chanced that he was in the chamber of the Queen, and saw her putting on her feet a very dainty and richly embroidered pair of shoes. At this Iubdan gave a laugh. ‘Why dost thou laugh?’ said Fergus. ‘Meseems the healing is applied very far from the hurt,’ replied Iubdan. ‘What meanest thou by that?’ said Fergus. ‘Because the Queen is making her feet fine in order, O Fergus, that she may attract thee to her lips,’ said Iubdan.
Another time it chanced that Iubdan overheard one of the King’s soldiers complaining of a pair of new brogues that had been served out to him, and grumbling that the soles were too thin. At this Iubdan laughed again, and being asked why, he said, ‘I must need laugh to hear yon fellow grumbling about his brogues, for the soles of these brogues, thin as they are, he will never wear out.’ And this was a true prophecy, for the same night this and another of the King’s men had a quarrel, and fought, and killed each the other.
At last the Wee Folk determined to go in search of their king, and seven battalions of them marched upon Emania and encamped upon the lawn over against the King’s Dún. Fergus and his nobles went out to confer with them. ‘Give us back our king,’ said the Wee Folk, ‘and we shall redeem him with a great ransom.’ ‘What ransom, then?’ asked Fergus. ‘We shall,’ said they, ‘cause this great plain to stand thick with corn for you every year, and that without ploughing or sowing.’ ‘I will not give up Iubdan for that,’ said Fergus. ‘Then we shall do you a mischief,’ said the Wee Folk.
That night every calf in the Province of Ulster got access to its dam, and in the morn there was no milk to be had for man or child, for the cows were sucked dry.
Then said the Wee Folk to Fergus, ‘This night, unless we get Iubdan, we shall defile every well and lake and river in Ulster.’ ‘That is a trifle,’ said Fergus, ‘and ye shall not get Iubdan.’
The Wee Folk carried out this threat, and once more they came and demanded Iubdan, saying, ‘To-night we shall burn with fire the shaft of every mill in Ulster.’ ‘Yet not so shall ye get Iubdan,’ said Fergus.
This being done, they came again, saying, ‘We shall have vengeance unless Iubdan be delivered to us.’ ‘What vengeance?’ said Fergus. ‘We shall snip off every ear of corn in thy kingdom,’ said they. ‘Even so,’ replied Fergus, ‘I shall not deliver Iubdan.’
So the Wee Folk snipped off every ear of standing corn in Ulster, and once more they returned and demanded Iubdan. ‘What will ye do next?’ asked Fergus. ‘We shall shave the hair of every man and every woman in Ulster,’ said they, ‘so that ye shall be shamed and disgraced for ever among the people of Erinn.’ ‘By my word,’ said Fergus, ‘if ye do that I shall slay Iubdan.’
Then Iubdan said, ‘I have a better counsel than that, O King; let me have liberty to go and speak with them, and I shall bid them make good what mischief they have done, and they shall return home forthwith.’
Fergus granted that; and when the Wee Folk saw Iubdan approaching them, they set up a shout of triumph that a man might have heard a bowshot off, for they believed they had prevailed and that Iubdan was released to them. But Iubdan said, ‘My faithful people, you must now begone, and I may not go with you; make good also all the mischief that ye have done, and know that if ye do any more I must die.’
Then the Wee Folk departed, very downcast and sorrowful, but they did as Iubdan had bidden them.
Iubdan, however, went to Fergus and said, ‘Take, O King, the choicest of my treasures, and let me go.’
‘What is thy choicest treasure?’ said Fergus.
Iubdan then began to recite to Fergus the list of his possessions, such as druidic weapons, and love-charms, and instruments of music that played without touch of human hand, and vats of ale that could never be emptied; and he named among other noble treasures a pair of shoes, wearing which a man could go over or under the sea as readily as on dry land.
At the same time Æda, the dwarf and poet of Ulster, returned hale and well from the land of Faylinn, and much did he entertain the King and all the court with tales of the smallness of the Wee Folk, and their marvel at his own size, and their bravery and beauty, and their marble palaces and matchless minstrelsy.
So the King, Fergus Mac Leda, was well content to take a ransom, namely the magic shoes, which he desired above all the treasures of Faylinn, and to let Iubdan go. And he gave him rich gifts, as did also the nobles of Ulster, and wished him blessing and victory; and Iubdan he departed, with Bebo his wife, having first bestowed upon Fergus the magical shoes. And of him the tale hath now no more to say.
But Fergus never tired of donning the shoes of Iubdan and traversing the secret depths of the lakes and rivers of Ulster. Thereby, too, in the end he got his death, for as the wise say that the gifts of Faery may not be enjoyed without peril by mortal men, so in this case too it proved. For, one day as Fergus was exploring the depths of Loch Rury he met the monster, namely the river-horse, which inhabited that lake. Horrible of form it was, swelling and contracting like a blacksmith’s bellows, and with eyes like torches, and glittering tusks, and a mane of coarse hair on its crest and neck. When it saw Fergus it laid back its ears, and its neck arched like a rainbow over his head, and the vast mouth gaped to devour him. Then Fergus rose quickly to the surface and made for the land, and the beast after him, driving before it a huge wave of foam. Barely did he escape with his life; but with the horror of the sight his features were distorted and his mouth was twisted around to the side of his head, so that he was called Fergus Wry-mouth from that day forth. And the gillie that was with him told the tale of the adventure.
Now there was a law in Ireland that no man might be king who was disfigured by any bodily blemish. His people, therefore, loving Fergus, kept from him all knowledge of his condition, and the Queen let all mirrors that were in the palace be put away. But one day it chanced that a bondmaid was negligent in preparing the bath, and Fergus being impatient, gave her a stroke with a switch which he had in his hand. The maid in anger turned upon him, and cried, ‘It would better become thee to avenge thyself on the river-horse that hath twisted thy mouth, than to do brave deeds on women.’
Fergus then bade a mirror be fetched, and when he saw his face in it, he said, ‘The woman spake truth; the river-horse of Loch Rury has done this thing.’
The next day Fergus put on the shoes of Iubdan and went forth to Loch Rury, and with him went the lords of Ulster. And when he reached the margin of the lake he drew his sword and went down into it, and soon the waters covered him.
After a while those that watched upon the bank saw a bubbling and a mighty commotion in the waters, now here, now there, and waves of bloody froth broke at their feet. At last, as they strained their eyes upon the tossing water, they saw Fergus rise to his middle from it, pale and bloody. In his right hand he waved aloft his sword, his left was twisted in the coarse hair of the monster’s head, and they saw that his countenance was fair and kingly as of old. ‘Ulstermen, I have conquered,’ he cried; and as he did so he sank down again, dead with his dead foe, into their red grave in Loch Rury.
And the Ulster lords went back to Emania, sorrowful yet proud, for they knew that a seed of honour had been sown that day in their land from which should spring a breed of high-hearted fighting men for many a generation to come.