The Hard Strait Of The Feinne

A poem by John Campbell

Now of the hard strait of the Feinne this legend's verse shall tell:
When Fionn's men had fought and won, and all with them was well,
And victory on Erin's shores had given spoil which they
Alone could win whose swords of old were mightiest in the fray:
For in those days the bravest hand, and not the craftiest brain,
Got gold, and skill in gallant fight was found the surest gain.
Great Fionn's wont it was to give, when foes had bled and broke,
A feast to nobles and to chiefs and all the humble folk:
Upon the plain they sat, and ate the meat which smoking came
From layers of stone, well laid on pits half filled with charcoal flame,
Where 'neath the covering roof of turf that kept the heat aglow.

The boar was quickly roasted whole, with many a stag and roe.
And while the feast, with laugh and jest, gave careless time to most,
Two watchers bold kept guard the while, and gazed o'er sea and coast--
Two watchers good, and keenly eyed, sent out by Fionn to mark
If danger rode upon the sea, with Norway's pirate bark.
Full well they watched, although behind they heard the shouted song,
And knew the wine was bathing red the fair beards of the strong,
While chanted verse, and music's notes, arose upon the air,
And the briny breeze itself half seemed a savoury steam to bear;
Nor left their post, when from the clouds the hailstones leaped to ground,
And plaids were wrapt o'er shoulders broad, and o'er deep chests were wound.
But Fionn's plaid untouched lay yet upon the earth outspread,
And white it grew as lichened rock, or Prophet's hoary head.
"Oh would it were all ruddy gold, there lying thickly strewn;
What joy were ours to share alike, and bear away each stone."
And laughingly each filled his hands, forgetful of the twain,
Their comrades good, on guard who stood to watch the moor and main.
But when their lonely vigil o'er, they, Roin and Aildé, came,
And found how little friendship counts, when played the spoiler's game,
Sore angered that no hand for them had set apart a prize,
They murmured. "With such men of greed all faith and kindness dies!
When thus they deal with us in peace, how shall we fare when blood
Runs from the wounds to blind the eyes to aught but selfish good?"
They swore that they forgotten thus were better far away,
And sailed to Lochlin's distant shore, and served in her array.
Their fame was great in Norway's realm, and love for Aildé came
To melt the heart of Norway's queen, a sudden quenchless flame.
She fled with Aildé from the King, and soon on Scotland's coast
She trod, a messenger of ill, a danger to the host
Great Eragon, far Lochlin's King, was not the man to know
The blood mount hot at insult's stroke without an answering blow,
His dragon keels were rolled to waves that shouted welcome loud
To glittering helm and painted shield beneath each spar and shroud
Oh! strong was Eragon in war, in battle victor oft,
From many a rank, from many a mast his banner streamed aloft;
With forty ships he set to sea, and scores of glancing oars
Streaked white his wake on fiord and loch along the echoing shores.
The Shetland Islands saw them pass, where on the tides, their sails
Shone like a flight of mighty swans, fast borne on wintry gales:
Hoarse as the raven's note their oath rang over all the seas,
False Fionn's host should bend and break before the Northern breeze.
And southward, onward still they steered, and up Loch Leven bore,
As you may know, for one great ship was lost upon the shore:
The sunken rock on which she drove and inlet where she lay
Were called the Galley's Crag and Port, and bear the name to-day.
They left her, taking all her crew, and landing near Glencoe,
On level ground their tents were set, thick planted row on row.

To Fionn of the Feinne that day, King Eragon sent word,
To yield him homage or abide the hard doom of the sword;
But grievous then was Fionn's strait, for thrice a thousand men,
His best and bravest, far away were hunting hill and glen.
The wives, the old and feeble folk alone were left, and these
He gathered, asking how to blind the strangers of the seas?
Then gave they counsel: "We are weak. By thee must peace be sought,
E'en though with massy store of gold the boon to-day be bought;
And if all this do not avail," they said, "O Fionn, thou
Shouldst yield thy daughter as the price, our ransom on her brow!"
Their messenger then offered these before the set of sun;
When flamed the wrath from Norway's King: "I ask not what I've won,
Your master stands before you now, my vengeance is my own;
For Aildé's deed the Feinne as slaves in Norway shall atone."
Back went the messenger in haste, and sadly Fionn knew
The threat was uttered by the strong, against the old and few.
But homeward from the forest soon he saw each hero's hound
Come swiftly back, in front of all he saw his Oscar bound;
And when the foremost hunters came, he told their noble band
How fight was sought with them this day upon the Northern strand.
Then looked they for some ground whose strength would quickly hide and save
Their little force, till gathering might gave fortune to the brave.
They dug four trenches deep, where firs above the birches flung
Red gnarled limbs that glowed at eve the dark green plumes among;
There hidden silently they watched, while rugged, scarred, and high,
Just at their rear a peak appeared to move against the sty.
Steep were its rocky ledges, strewn with jagged stones that lay
So loose one hand might send a mass on its resistless way,
While from the neighbouring hills the mount was sundered by a glen,
Where lightly crossed the grey cloud mists, but never mortal men.
Such was the chosen fort The Feinne into the trenches went;
For succour through all Alban's realm their messengers were sent;
To the green slopes of deep Glencoe the warriors summoned came,
Alas, too few to brave in fight the men of Norway's name.

They held long counsel, and the chief sent forth that hostage fair
His daughter, with a chosen band, his words of peace to bear;
And Fergus, his young son, to speak on his behalf, that they
Might change to love the king's black thought, and all his wrath allay--
For Fergus' speech, like ivy wreath, o'er heart of rock could wind
Till tender thoughts, like nestling birds, would come and shelter find.
Wealth to awake the Northmen's greed should weight his tempting word
For quaichs of gold and precious belts, and magic stones which stirred
The torpid blood of all disease to vigorous life once more,
And fivescore mares of iron grey, and hunting hawks threescore,
Were gifts to promise, with good herds, and cows with calves at side.
They placed the maid upon a horse, and bade her boldly ride;
With Fergus marching at her rein, his comrades close at hand,
They came to where the fleet and camp thick covered sea and land.

And halting there, young Fergus spake across a space of ground
Unto the king, who foremost stood with mailed men around;
He offered all the tribute rich, and that fair lady proud.
But when he ceased a silence fell, and then the answer loud
In Eragon's deep voice rang forth: "Let Fionn bring me all,
All that he hath on earth, and here let him before me fall,
Him and his wife before me here upon the shore, that I
May see them on their knees to me swear troth and fealty,
While as they homage make I shall above them rear my blade
To spare, or slay them at my feet, if so their debt be paid."

Then called in scorn the lady's voice, "No, Eragon, your might
Hath not across the broad salt seas brought such a host to fight
As e'er shall cause my father's knees to bend to you in prayer,
Nor shall you ever call me bride, or spoil of Erin wear."
She quickly turned her horse and went, but Fergus stood and waved
The signal banner for the chief, and for awhile he braved
The onset of the foe, and fought until the evening fell.
Then gave the council their advice to Fionn. "It were well
That Aildé should himself defy the king, and man to man
With sevenscore 'gainst sevenscore contend before the van."
And thus they fought, and Aildé fell, and Eragon defied
An equal band to equal fight, for great had grown his pride.
Then paused and pondered Fionn long, and doubted whom to ask
To lead in such a venture great, and dare so grave a task.
But Goll, the son of Morna, named at Fionn's call, went forth
And matched with equal force, back drove the boasters of the North.
And yet again a band as strong was overcome and made
To own our heroes' swords were best, when man to man arrayed;
But Eragon in fury cried his men should conquer yet.
For eight days more aye sevenscore 'gainst sevenscore were set,
And when the blood had flowed in streams, to utter madness urged
Against the trenches of the Feinne their baffled army surged.

Then sparkled swords like gleams of light upon the ocean's spray
When tossed aloft to wind and sun where battling currents play.
In that fierce fray did Eragon the son of Morna greet,
And, striking fast their mighty blades ascend and flashing meet;
Then sank the stranger king in death, and Goll sore wounded fell,
Against the Northmen went the day; and of their slain they tell
That from Glen Fewich to the shore they lay, and of the host
So few escaped that galleys twain alone left Scotland's coast.
Nay, even they ne'er reached a port, so that in Norway none
Could tell how Eragon revenged the deed by Aildé done.
But sorrow came upon the Feinne for all their strongest, dead;
And Fionn found that from that time his fortune waned and fled,
For ne'er again in equal strength the Feinne in arms were seen
Since the dark days of Aildé's love, and Norway's evil queen.

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