IN QUEST OF THE GILLA DACKER,
ENCOUNTERS THE WIZARD-CHAMPION AT THE WELL.
[Extracted from Joyce, Old Celtic Romances, ch. 4.]
When now they had been silent for a time, Fergus Finnvel, the poet, arose and
"My friends, we have here amongst us one who has been fostered and taught from the child to the man, by Mannanan MacLir in Fairyland, and by Angus, the wisest of the Dedannans, at Bruga of the Boyne. He has been carefully trained by both in everything a warrior should learn, and in much druidical lore besides; so that he is skilled beyond us all in manly arts and champion-feats. But now it seems that all his arts and accomplishments go for nought, seeing that he is unable to make use of them just at the time that we stand most in need of them. On the top of that rock, doubtless, the Gilla Dacker lives, and there he holds Conan and the others in bondage; and surely this hero, who now sits idly with us here in our ship, should be able to climb up the face of that cliff, and bring us back tidings of our dear friends and companions."
When Dermat O'Dyna heard this speech, his cheek grew red with shame, and he made this reply―
"It is of me you have spoken these words, Fergus. Your reproaches are just; and though the task is hard, I will attempt to follow the track of the Gilla Dacker, and find out some tidings of our friends."
So saying, Dermat arose, and girded on his armour, and put on his glittering helmet. He hung his sword at his left hip; and he took his two long, deadly spears, one in each hand, namely, the Crannboi and the Ga-derg; and the battle-fury of a warrior descended on him, so that he looked a dreadful foe to meet in single combat.
Then, leaning on the handles of his spears, after the manner of skilful champions, he leaped with a light, airy bound on the nearest shelf of rock. And using his spears and his hands, he climbed from ledge to ledge, while his companions watched him anxiously from below; till, after much toil, he measured the soles of his two feet on the green sod at the top of the rock. And when, recovering breath, he turned round and looked at his companions in the ship far below, he started back with amazement and dread at the dizzy height.
He now looked inland, and saw a beautiful country spread out before him: a lovely, flowery plain straight in front, bordered with pleasant hills, and shaded with groves of many kinds of trees. It was enough to banish all care and sadness from one's heart to view this country, and to listen to the warbling of the birds, the humming of the bees among the flowers, the rustling of the wind through the trees, and the pleasant voices of the streams and waterfalls.
Making no delay, Dermat set out to walk across the plain. He had not been long walking when he saw, right before him, a great tree laden with fruit, overtopping all the other trees of the plain. It was surrounded at a little distance by a circle of pillar-stones; and one stone, taller than the others, stood in the centre near the tree. Beside this pillar-stone was a spring well, with a large, round pool as clear as crystal; and the water bubbled up in the centre, and flowed away towards the middle of the plain in a slender stream.
Dermat was glad when he saw the well; for he was hot and thirsty after climbing up the cliff. He stooped down to take a drink; but before his lips touched the water, he heard the heavy tread of a body of warriors, and the loud clank of arms, as if a whole host were coming straight down on him. He sprang to his feet and looked round; but the noise ceased in an instant, and he could see nothing.
After a little while he stooped again to drink; and
again, before he had wet his lips, he heard the very same sounds, nearer and
louder than before. A second time he leaped to his feet; and still he saw no
one. He knew not what to think of this; and as he stood wondering and perplexed,
he happened to cast his eyes on the tall pillar-stone that stood on the brink of
the well; and he saw on its top a large, beautiful drinking-horn, chased with
gold and enamelled with precious stones.
"Now surely," said Dermat, "I have been doing wrong; it is, no doubt, one of the virtues of this well, that it will not let any one drink of its waters except from the drinking-horn."
So he took down the horn, dipped it into the well, and drank without hindrance, till he had slaked his thirst.
Scarcely had he taken the horn from his lips, when he saw a tall wizard-champion coming towards him from the east, clad in a complete suit of mail, and fully armed with shield and helmet, sword and spear. A beautiful scarlet mantle hung over his armour, fastened at his throat by a golden brooch; and a broad circlet of sparkling gold was bended in front across his forehead, to confine his yellow hair, and keep it from being blown about by the wind.
As he came nearer, he increased his pace, moving with great strides; and Dermat now observed that he looked very wrathful. He offered no greeting, and showed not the least courtesy; but addressed Dermat in a rough, angry voice―
"Surely, Dermat O'Dyna, Erin of the green plains should be wide enough for you; and it contains abundance of clear, sweet water in its crystal springs and green bordered streams, from which you might have drunk your fill. But you have come into my island without my leave, and you have taken my drinking-horn, and have drunk from my well; and this spot you shall never leave till you have given me satisfaction for the insult."
So spoke the wizard-champion, and instantly advanced on Dermat with fury in his eyes. But Dermat was not the man to be terrified by any hero or wizard-champion alive. He met the foe half-way; and now, foot to foot, and knee to knee, and face to face, they began a fight, watchful and wary at first, but soon hot and vengeful, till their shields and helmets could scarce withstand their strong thrusts and blows. Like two enraged lions fighting to the death, or two strong serpents intertwined in deadly strife, or two great opposing billows thundering against each other on the ocean border; such was the strength and fury and determination of the combat of these two heroes.
And so they fought through the long day, till evening came, and it began to be dusk; when suddenly the wizard-champion sprang outside the range of Dermat's sword, and leaping up with a great bound, he alighted in the very centre of the well. Down he went through it, and disappeared in a moment before Dermat's eyes, as if the well had swallowed him up. Dermat stood on the brink, leaning on his spear, amazed and perplexed, looking after him in the water; but whether the hero had meant to drown himself, or that he had played some wizard trick, Dermat knew not.
He sat down to rest, full of vexation that the wizard-champion should have got off so easily. And what chafed him still more was that the Feni knew nought of what had happened, and that when he returned, he could tell them nothing of the strange hero; neither had he the least token or trophy to show them after his long fight.
Then he began to think what was best to be done; and he made up his mind to stay near the well all night, with the hope of finding out something further about the wizard-champion on the morrow.
He walked towards the nearest point of a great forest that stretched from the mountain down to the plain on his left; and as he came near, a herd of speckled deer ran by among the trees. He put his finger into the silken loop of his spear, and, throwing it with an unerring cast, brought down the nearest of the herd.
Then, having lighted a fire under a tree, he skinned the deer and fixed it on long hazel spits to roast, having first, however, gone to the well, and brought away the drinking-horn full of water. And he sat beside the roasting deer to turn it and tend the fire, waiting impatiently for his meal; for he was hungry and tired after the toil of the day.
When the deer was cooked, he ate till he was satisfied,
and drank the clear water of the well from the drinking-horn; after which he lay
down under the shade of the tree, beside the fire, and slept a sound sleep till
Night passed away and the sun rose, bringing morning with its abundant light. Dermat started up, refreshed after his long sleep, and, repairing to the forest, he slew another deer, and fixed it on hazel spits to roast at the fire as before. For Dermat had this custom, that he would never eat of any food left from a former meal.
And after he had eaten of the deer's flesh and drunk from the horn, he went towards the well. But though his visit was early, he found the wizard-champion there before him, standing beside the pillar-stone, fully armed as before, and looking now more wrathful than ever. Dermat was much surprised; but before he had time to speak the wizard-champion addressed him―
"Dermat O'Dyna, you have now put the cap on all your evil deeds. It was not enough that you took my drinking-horn and drank from my well: you have done much worse than this, for you have hunted on my grounds, and have killed some of my speckled deer. Surely there are many hunting-grounds in Erin of the green plains, with plenty of deer in them; and you need not have come^hither to commit these robberies on me. But now for a certainty you shall not go from this spot till I have taken revenge for all these misdeeds."
And again the two champions attacked each other, and fought during the long day, from morning till evening. And when the dusk began to fall, the wizard-champion leaped into the well, and disappeared down through it, even as he had done the day before.
The selfsame thing happened on the third day. And each day, morning and evening, Dermat killed a deer, and ate of its flesh, and drank of the water of the well from the drinking-horn.
On the fourth morning, Dermat found the wizard-champion standing as usual by the pillar-stone near the well. And as each morning he looked more angry than on the morning before, so now he scowled in a way that would have terrified any one but Dermat O'Dyna.
And they fought during the day till the dusk of evening. But now Dermat watched his foe narrowly; and when he saw him about to spring into the well, he closed on him and threw his arms round him. The wizard-champion struggled to free himself, moving all the time nearer and nearer to the brink; but Dermat held on, till at last both fell into the well. Down they went, clinging to each other, Dermat and the wizard-champion; down, down, deeper and deeper they went; and Dermat tried to look round, but nothing could he see save darkness and dim shadows. At length there was a glimmer of light; then the bright day burst suddenly upon them; and presently they came to the solid ground, gently and without the least shock.'