On reaching the palace Conn called his magicians and poets to a council and informed them that he had found the boy they sought--the son of a virgin. These learned people consulted together, and they stated that the young man must be killed, and that his blood should be mixed with the earth of Tara and sprinkled under the withered trees.
When Segda heard this he was astonished and defiant; then, seeing that he was alone and without prospect of succour, he grew downcast and was in great fear for his life. But remembering the safeguards under which he had been placed, he enumerated these to the assembly, and called on the High King to grant him the protections that were his due.
Conn was greatly perturbed, but, as in duty bound, he placed the boy under the various protections that were in his oath, and, with the courage of one who has no more to gain or lose, he placed Segda, furthermore, under the protection of all the men of Ireland.
But the men of Ireland refused to accept that bond, saying that although the Ard-Ri' was acting justly towards the boy he was not acting justly towards Ireland.
"We do not wish to slay this prince for our pleasure," they argued, "but for the safety of Ireland he must be killed."
Angry parties were formed. Art, and Fionn the son of Uail, and the princes of the land were outraged at the idea that one who had been placed under their protection should be hurt by any hand. But the men of Ireland and the magicians stated that the king had gone to Faery for a special purpose, and that his acts outside or contrary to that purpose were illegal, and committed no person to obedience.
There were debates in the Council Hall, in the market-place, in the streets of Tara, some holding that national honour dissolved and absolved all personal honour, and others protesting that no man had aught but his personal honour, and that above it not the gods, not even Ireland, could be placed--for it is to be known that Ireland is a god.
Such a debate was in course, and Segda, to whom both sides addressed gentle and courteous arguments, grew more and more disconsolate.
"You shall die for Ireland, dear heart," said one of them, and he gave Segda three kisses on each cheek.
"Indeed," said Segda, returning those kisses, "indeed I had not bargained to die for Ireland, but only to bathe in her waters and to remove her pestilence."
"But dear child and prince," said another, kissing him likewise, "if any one of us could save Ireland by dying for her how cheerfully we would die."
And Segda, returning his three kisses, agreed that the death was noble, but that it was not in his undertaking.
Then, observing the stricken countenances about him, and the faces of men and women hewn thin by hunger, his resolution melted away, and he said:
"I think I must die for you," and then he said:
"I will die for you"
And when he had said that, all the people present touched his cheek with their lips, and the love and peace of Ireland entered into his soul, so that he was tranquil and proud and happy.
The executioner drew his wide, thin blade and all those present covered their eyes with their cloaks, when a wailing voice called on the executioner to delay yet a moment. The High King uncovered his eyes and saw that a woman had approached driving a cow before her.
"Why are you killing the boy?" she demanded.
The reason for this slaying was explained to her.
"Are you sure," she asked, "that the poets and magicians really know everything?"
"Do they not?" the king inquired.
"Do they?" she insisted.
And then turning to the magicians:
"Let one magician of the magicians tell me what is hidden in the bags that are lying across the back of my cow."
But no magician could tell it, nor did they try to.
"Questions are not answered thus," they said. "There is formulae, and the calling up of spirits, and lengthy complicated preparations in our art."
"I am not badly learned in these arts," said the woman, "and I say that if you slay this cow the effect will be the same as if you had killed the boy."
"We would prefer to kill a cow or a thousand cows rather than harm this young prince," said Conn, "but if we spare the boy will these evils return?"
"They will not be banished until you have banished their cause."
"And what is their cause?"
"Becuma is the cause, and she must be banished."
"If you must tell me what to do," said Conn, "tell me at least to do something that I can do."
"I will tell you certainly. You can keep Becuma and your ills as long as you want to. It does not matter to me. Come, my son," she said to Segda, for it was Segda's mother who had come to save him; and then that sinless queen and her son went back to their home of enchantment, leaving the king and Fionn and the magicians and nobles of Ireland astonished and ashamed.