The Storyteller holds our gaze as she continues the story of Etain:
On a day in midsummer Eochaid the King arose and went to the high terrace of Tara to look out over the plain of Breg, shimmering in the haze of summer. He could hear the gentle humming of the bees in the flowers around him, and the cries of the nimble deer from the wooded slopes, and the lowing of the heifers, white-backed, short-haired and merry in the soft fields.
the high terrace of Tara
The cuckoo called with familiar voice, and the early blackbird sang the dawn, and as he looked about him at the fair land, suddenly he saw on the terrace before him a young warrior. He wore a purple cloak, and a golden brooch that reached from one shoulder to the other. He held a five-pointed spear in one hand, and in the other a white-bossed shield. It was richly encrusted with jewels and precious stones that gleamed in the morning sunlight, so that the King could not see the warrior clearly for the radiance of him.
This warrior was not in Tara last night when the gates were locked, he thought, and the Courts have not yet been opened for the day. The visitor walked towards him.
“Welcome to you, Warrior. I do not know you,” the King said.
“It is for that we have come,” said the warrior.
“We do not know you,” the King said again.
“Yet, in truth, I know you well,” the stranger replied.
“Then, in truth, tell me your name.”
“I am Midir of Bri Leith.”
“And what has brought you here?”
“I have come to play chess with you.”
“Of a truth, I am good at chess,” said Eochaid, who was the best chess player in all of Ireland, “but the chessboard is in the House of the Queen, and she is yet asleep.”
“It is of no matter,” said Midir, “I have one here that is not inferior.”
And in a trice, there on the table in front of them, was a silver chessboard with golden men delicately carved by the finest artificers. Each corner of it was lit by a precious stone of golden hue, and the bag for the chessmen was of plaited links of bronze. The King looked down at it. “It is not inferior,” he said.
“Then what shall be the stake?” Midir asked, and Eochaid said:
“It is of no matter.”
“If you win my stake,” the warrior said, “at the hour of terce tomorrow you shall have from me fifty dark grey steeds with dappled, blood-red heads, and pointed ears, broad-chested, with distended nostrils and slender limbs. Mighty, keen, huge, swift, steady, yet easily yoked with their fifty enamelled reins.”
Eochaid agreed to the stake and the play began. The King won with ease, and the strange warrior left the terrace of Tara, taking his chessboard with him. But when the King arose on the morrow, his opponent was already waiting for him, and he wondered again how the warrior had entered the House before the Courts had been opened. Then he saw fifty darkly beautiful steeds on the Plain of Breg, each with its wrought enamelled bridle, and all other thoughts left his mind. He turned to his visitor.
“This is honourable, indeed,” he said.
“What is promised is due,” said Midir of Bri Leith, and he repeated his words. “What is promised is due”. They sat down again, to play. This time Eochaid asked what the stake should be.
“If you win my stake, you shall have from me fifty young boars, curly-mottled, grey-bellied, blue-backed, with horse’s hoofs to them…and further you shall have fifty gold-hilted swords, and again fifty red-eared cows,” Midir said, “and fifty swords with ivory hilts.”
“It is well,” agreed the King, and again, he won, and the fruits of his winning were there at his House when he wakened. He was filled with wonder, and was counting his rich gains when his foster-father came upon him.
“From whence, Eochaid, is this great wealth?” he asked, surprised, and the King told him of the strange warrior to whom locked doors were no barrier, but who could not defeat him at the chess game. “Have a care, Eochaid,” his foster-father said, “for this is a man of great magic power that has come to you. See that next time you lay heavy burden on him.”
And the King’s foster-father bade him farewell, and left Tara for his own kingdom. The King went out to the terrace, and on the instant Midir was there, and the chessboard ready. Remembering the advice he had been given, Eochaid made the stake, and he put on Midir the famous tasks that are remembered in Ireland to this day.
“If I take your stake,” he said, “you must clear the rocks and stones from the hillocks of Great Meath, and the rushes from the land of Tethba. You must cut down the forest of Breg, and lay a causeway over the Great Bog of Tavrach, and all this you must accomplish in a single night.”
“You lay too much upon me,” Midir said.
“I do not indeed,” the King replied.
“Then grant me this request,” asked Midir. “That none shall be out of doors till the sun shall rise tomorrow.”
“It shall be done,” Eochaid agreed, and they began to play. The King won again, and when Midir left, Eochaid called for his steward and commanded him to go to the Bog of Tavrach, forthwith, and to watch the efforts and the work of that night.
(to be continued)