The White Warrior
Fionn stopped at the edge of the creek and looked around carefully. The trail went down to the riverbed and crossed over to the other side. If anyone were going to set a trap, this would be a good place for it, where the water was shallow and full of stones.
A few yards farther on, the edge of an oak grove could just be seen through the heavy fog above the creek. That's where they would surely be, lying in wait for him. But he had no intention of running away. So, feeling the bite of the cold and damp on his bare feet, he headed down to the creek.
Even though the water was so cold it hurt, Fionn moved slowly, feet slipping on the rocks, alert for anything unexpected.
The last step to dry land was a wide, flat stone. Even though he stepped onto it cautiously, he felt it teeter a little bit, splashing the other stones around it. With no time to think, Fionn lunged forward, turning as he leapt. Just then, a sharp dart shot out of the water and bit the air where his foot had been.
Standing on the bank, Fionn looking at the trap and gritted his teeth. Then he turned toward the forest and, raising his fist, shouted:
"Chickens! Show yourselves, if you dare!"
Fionn had just turned fourteen, but was as strong as any adult warrior, and his eyes, peering through his long hair, sparkled with strength and courage. Even in the chill of the dawn, he wore nothing but dark pants, without the colors of any clan.
Letting go of his anger, he approached the edge of the forest and examined his surroundings. Like all Irish forests, it was not very thick and grew up from the protection of a mound, sheltered from the wind. Here and there, among the tendrils of the lifting fog, were danger areas: deep piles of dead leaves, some dense undergrowth, big rocks that could maybe hide a man? He moved forward carefully and cautiously, watching for any sign, but the only sound was the blood pounding in his ears.
Suddenly, he saw a glint of metal up ahead. A shiny, round shield was hanging from a tree trunk. On the front the four round arms of the Celtic spiral were engraved, the symbol of his clan. That was his goal! Once he reached it, it would all be over!
He took a few steps forward. From closer up, he could clearly see the layer of leaves and twigs that spread out from the tree.
"That's funny," he thought, "green leaves don't fall from trees on their own." Smiling, he looked for a long, heavy branch and, holding on tightly with both hands, raced toward the tree. When he reached the leaves, he jammed the branch into the ground and used it to vault, thinking that when he jumped over them, the leaves would sink down. On the contrary, the ground continued under them, and as he flew through the air he realized his mistake: the trap was not under the green leaves, but farther on, right where he was about to land.
With no time to even breathe, he let go of his walking stick and just managed to grab onto a branch of the tree. When the stick hit the ground, however, it opened up a hole full of sharp stones. Fionn, breathing easier, now started swinging back and forth in preparation to get himself out of there.
Suddenly, the forest came to life. A warrior rose up from the dry dead leaves and fell upon him, shouting and waving his sword in the air. The mole at the corner of his eye made him look frightening, and the grey-red colors of his clothing announced that he belonged to one of the principle clans of Ireland, the Biscayne clan.
Farther on, two more warriors appeared from among the brambles, displaying the same colors and intent.
Fionn was in dire straits, but his instincts were good: without stopping swinging, he waited until the first warrior was a couple yards away; then he did a full turn around the branch and, coming around to his enemy's back, gave him a violent kick that sent him face down into the hole.
While the warrior was moaning and cursing because of his hard fall against the rocks, Fionn leapt to the ground and seized the sword he had dropped. He had a weapon, now all he needed was a shield... even though, with one obstacle out of the way, he still had to overcome two obstacles to win it: the other two warriors, well-armed and ready to stop him.
"Come on, little boy," called one of them, a burly man with unruly hair, baring his teeth savagely. "I want to dance with you, ho, ho, ho...!"
Fionn took no notice and measured up the third warrior, a thin muscular blond man. He went after him, paying no attention to the giant, even though the latter, mocking him and grinning, started bleating at him like a sheep. When they were about to clash swords, however, Fionn quickly did a half turn and caught the giant unawares. To his surprise, the huge warrior could barely wield his shield to block Fionn's jabs while backing away from the tree.
Having gotten over his initial astonishment, the blond warrior also jumped on Fionn from behind, but Fionn was expecting him and knocked him to the ground with a backwards kick. He turned quickly and, without giving him time to react, gave him another kick in the ribs that knocked him into the hole to keep the first warrior company.
After he picked up the new sword, Fionn realized that the big warrior was again blocking his way to the shield.
"Hey, hey, our little snot needs two swords then?" he jeered.
"Hey, hey," Fionn mimicked without losing his calm, "our big fellow needs a shield to fight the little snot then?"
The giant, after taking a breath, threw his shield to one side.
"You're fast, young man."
"I learned from my father," answered Fionn, tossing the second sword away.
"Oh yeah? Let's see if you also learned to fight from him!" growled the giant, charging Fionn.
The young man blocked the first jab, then bent his body backwards to dodge the second. The forest rang with metallic echoes and human gasps as they dragged each other up the hill, together with the tendrils of fog. At the top of the hill, three friends were trying in vain to see the fight in the forest. Mael, a gangly, frail druid with a cloak as white as snow and a scanty beard, was trembling with the sounds of the blows, his hand on the shoulder of ten-year-old boy Oisin. At their feet, Bran the mastiff had his ears pricked toward the sounds, sometimes letting out an excited "bow-wow," sometimes a perplexed "woof."
"That's a drag, you can't see a thing!" said Oisin, annoyed. "Come on, Mael, let's go closer."
He started to set off, but Mael's hand stopped him in his tracks.
"Hold up there, Oisin. While they're in full battle, it's totally forbidden to go into the sacred forest!" hissed the druid, and then added, trembling: "just as well!"
In the forest, Fionn and the big warrior were at it full steam around the hole, with neither one gaining the advantage. From time to time, one of the other warriors would try to get out of the trap, but Fionn stepped on his head to keep him in the hole. The youth's strategy was simple: he would continue fighting without stopping, and since the giant was heavier, Fionn would wait for him to tire faster. And exactly that happened. Soon the giant was short of breath and his forehead was wet with sweat. They both knew the end was near and took a short rest.
As soon as the giant caught his breath, he attacked Fionn violently, but Fionn was ready for him and, pushing the giant's head to one side, he stretched out his legs to trip him. The enemy stumbled and fell face down, and stayed there without budging. Without wasting a moment, Fionn stood up, raced to the tree and grabbed the shield.
"I got it! I did it!" he shouted, holding up the shield.
Seeing that the big warrior wasn't moving, he went to his side curiously. In the hole, the other two warriors craned their necks looking worried. Fionn bent over him and shook his shoulder.
"Hey, big guy, are we ok?"
Before Fionn had time to react, the warrior grabbed his arm and pulled the young man, sat on him and held him there with a knee. For a moment the two of them looked at each other warily and it seemed as if time stopped. But then the giant mussed Fionn's hair and started to guffaw.
"Ha, ha, ha, you did it, you did it!" and, looking at his friends in the hole, he added, "Did you hear that? My son won the shield!"
The warriors who had fallen in the hole also started laughing, slapping each other heartily on the back. Then, the warrior with the mole, Rory Mor, stretched out his hand to ask for the giant's help.
"Come on, Cumhail, get me out of here already! I feel like a hare in this hole!"
"And doesn't your butt hurt, Rory Mor?" scoffed the other warrior, Cormac the blond, guffawing.
Rory Mor got mad.
"Hey, you, Cormac, you?d better not tell anyone you fell in the hole like a wineskin."
"A wineskin? Me? Grr...!" growled Cormac, hands on hips.
The two warriors measured each other up angrily until Cumhail stopped their argument sharply:
"If either of you is thinking of screwing up my son's celebration, I'll fix you myself!"
He put his hand between the two warriors, and that ended the risk of a fight. Soon, Rory Mor and Cormac got out of the trap and came over to congratulate Fionn properly, though protesting the kicks he had given them.
"That's no good at all, boy, we're almost your uncles, you know," they said, half joking. "You did great. We'll have the whole town making fun of us now."
Just then, Oisin and Bran arrived, the former shouting and the latter barking happily, and after a moment came Mael, waving his arms in distress.
"Oisin, go slower, young man! You'll get hurt!"
But, worried about the youth, he stepped on a rock and started to wail and moan in pain. Paying him no attention, Oisin and Bran leapt on Fionn and the three of them rolled on the ground making lots of noise.
"Little brother, did you see the fight?" Fionn asked Oisin while Bran licked his face.
"Hah! That shit Mael didn't let me get close," complained Oisin.
At that moment Mael arrived, limping and looking frightened.
"I broke my foot! Help me, brothers, help your poor druid!"
"Use one of your own medicines," Cumhail teased.
"If he did that, he'd lose his foot bit by bit," Cormac answered, and burst into laughter.
©Urkixo, Joanes. Gerlari zuria, Elkarlanean, Donostia, 2003.
© Translation: Kristin Addis