"Her beauty filled the old world of the Gael with a sweet, wonderful, and abiding rumour. The name of Deirdre has been as a harp to a thousand poets. In a land of heroes and brave and beautiful women, how shall one name survive? Yet to this day and for ever, men will remember Deirdre. . . ."
— Fiona Macleod.
So long ago, that it was before the birth of our Lord, so says tradition, there was born that
"Morning star of loveliness,
Unhappy Helen of a Western land,"
who is known to the Celts of Scotland as Darthool, to those of Ireland as Deirdre. As in the story of Helen, it is not easy, or even possible in the story of Deirdre, to disentangle the old, old facts of actual history from the web of romantic fairy tale that time has woven about them, yet so great is the power of Deirdre, even unto this day, that it has been the fond task of those men and women to whom the Gael owes so much, to preserve, and to translate for posterity, the tragic romance of Deirdre the Beautiful and the Sons of Usna.
In many ancient manuscripts we get the story in more or less complete form. In the Advocates' Library of Edinburgh, in the Glenmasan MS. we get the best and the fullest version, while the oldest and the shortest is to be found in the twelfth-century Book of Leinster.
But those who would revel in the old tale and have Deirdre lead them by the hand into the enchanted realm of the romance of misty, ancient days of our Western Isles must go for help to Fiona Macleod, to Alexander Carmichael, to Lady Gregory, to Dr. Douglas Hyde, to W. F. Skene, to W. B. Yeats, to J. M. Synge, and to those others who, like true descendants of the Druids, possess the power of unlocking the entrance gates of the Green Islands of the Blest.
Conchubar, or Conor, ruled the kingdom of the Ultonians, now Ulster, when Deirdre was born in Erin. All the most famous warriors of his time, heroes whose mighty deeds live on in legend, and whose title was "The Champions of the Red Branch," he gathered round him, and all through Erin and Alba rang the fame of the warlike Ultonians.
There came a day when Conor and his champions, gorgeous in their gala dress of crimson tunic with brooches of inlaid gold and white-hooded shirt embroidered in red gold, went to a feast in the house of one called Felim. Felim was a bard, and because not only was his arm in war strong and swift to strike, but because, in peace, his fingers could draw the sweetest of music from his harp, he was dear to the king. As they feasted, Conor beheld a dark shadow of horror and of grief fall on the face of Cathbad, a Druid who had come in his train, and saw that his aged eyes were gazing far into the Unseen. Speedily he bade him tell him what evil thing it was that he saw, and Cathbad turned to the childless Felim and told him that to his wife there was about to be born a daughter, with eyes like stars that are mirrored by night in the water, with lips red as the rowan berries and teeth more white than pearls; with a voice more sweet than the music of fairy harps. "A maiden fair, tall, long haired, for whom champions will contend . . . and mighty kings be envious of her lovely, faultless form." For her sweet sake, he said, more blood should be spilt in Erin than for generations and ages past, and many heroes and bright torches of the Gaels should lose their lives. For love of her, three heroes of eternal renown must give their lives away, the sea in which her starry eyes should mirror themselves would be a sea of blood, and woe unutterable should come on the sons of Erin. Then up spoke the lords of the Red Branch, and grimly they looked at Felim the Harper:
"If the babe that thy wife is about to bear is to bring such evil upon our land, better that thou shouldst shed her innocent blood ere she spills the blood of our nation."
And Felim made answer:
"It is well spoken. Bitter it is for my wife and for me to lose a child so beautiful, yet shall I slay her that my land may be saved from such a doom."
But Conor, the king, spoke then, and because the witchery of the perfect beauty and the magic charm of Deirdre was felt by him even before she was born, he said: "She shall not die. Upon myself I take the doom. The child shall be kept apart from all men until she is of an age to wed. Then shall I take her for my wife, and none shall dare to contend for her."
His voice had barely ceased, when a messenger came to Felim to tell him that a daughter was born to him, and on his heels came a procession of chanting women, bearing the babe on a flower-decked cushion. And all who saw the tiny thing, with milk-white skin, and locks "more yellow than the western gold of the summer sun," looked on her with the fear that even the bravest heart feels on facing the Unknown. And Cathbad spoke: "Let Deirdre be her name, sweet menace that she is." And the babe gazed up with starry eyes at the white-haired Druid as he chanted to her:
"Many will be jealous of your face, O flame of beauty; for your sake heroes shall go to exile. For there is harm in your face; it will bring banishment and death on the sons of kings. In your fate, O beautiful child, are wounds and ill-doings, and shedding of blood.
"You will have a little grave apart to yourself; you will be a tale of wonder for ever, Deirdre." —Lady Gregory's Translation.
As Conor commanded, Deirdre, the little "babe of destiny," was left with her mother for only a month and a day, and then was sent with a nurse and with Cathbad the Druid to a lonely island, thickly wooded, and only accessible by a sort of causeway at low tide. Here she grew into maidenhood, and each day became more fair. She had instruction from Cathbad in religion and in all manner of wisdom, and it would seem as though she also learned from him some of that mystical power that enabled her to see things hidden from human eyes.
"Tell me," one day she asked her teacher, "who made the stars, the firmament above, the earth, the flowers, both thee and me?"
And Cathbad answered: "God. But who God is, alas! no man can say."
Then Deirdre, an impetuous child, seized the druidical staff from the hand of Cathbad, broke it in two, and flung the pieces far out on the water. "Ah, Cathbad!" she cried, "there shall come One in the dim future for whom all your Druid spells and charms are naught."
Then seeing Cathbad hang his head, and a tear trickle down his face, for he knew that the child spoke truth, the child, grieved at giving pain to the friend whom she loved, threw her arms about the old man's neck, and by her kisses strove to comfort him.
As Deirdre grew older, Conor sent one from his court to educate her in all that any queen should know. They called her the Lavarcam, which, in our tongue, really means the Gossip, and she was one of royal blood who belonged to a class that in those days had been trained to be chroniclers, or story-tellers. The Lavarcam was a clever woman, and she marvelled at the wondrous beauty of the child she came to teach, and at her equally marvellous mind.
One winter day, when the snow lay deep, it came to pass that Deirdre saw lying on the snow a calf that had been slain for her food. The red blood that ran from its neck had brought a black raven swooping down upon the snow. And to Lavarcam Deirdre said: "If there were a man who had hair of the blackness of that raven, skin of the whiteness of the snow, and cheeks as red as the blood that stains its whiteness, to him should I give my heart."
And Lavarcam, without thought, made answer:
"One I know whose skin is whiter than the snow, whose cheeks are ruddy as the blood that stained the snow, and whose hair is black and glossy as the raven's wing. He has eyes of the darkest blue of the sky, and head and shoulders is he above all the men of Erin."
"And what will be the name of that man, Lavarcam?" asked Deirdre. "And whence is he, and what his degree?"
And Lavarcam made answer that he of whom she spoke was Naoise, one of the three sons of Usna, a great lord of Alba, and that these three sons were mighty champions who had been trained at the famed military school at Sgathaig in the Isle of Skye.
Then said Deirdre: "My love shall be given to none but Naoise, son of Usna. To him shall it belong forever."
From that day forward, Naoise held kingship over the thoughts and dreams of Deirdre.
And when Lavarcam saw how deep her careless words had sunk into the heart of the maiden, she grew afraid, and tried to think of a means by which to undo the harm which, in her thoughtlessness, she had wrought.
Now Conor had made a law that none but Cathbad, Lavarcam, and the nurse of Deirdre should pass through the forest that led to her hiding-place, and that none but they should look upon her until his own eyes beheld her and he took her for his wife. But as Lavarcam one day came from seeing Deirdre, and from listening to her many eager questions about Naoise, she met a swineherd, rough in looks and speech, and clad in the pelt of a deer, and with him two rough fellows, bondmen of the Ultonians, and to her quick mind there came a plan. Thus she bade them follow her into the forbidden forest and there to remain, by the side of a well, until they should hear the bark of a fox and the cry of a jay. Then they were to walk slowly on through the woods, speaking to none whom they might meet, and still keeping silence when they were again out of the shadow of the trees.
Then Lavarcam sped back to Deirdre and begged her to come with her to enjoy the beauty of the woods. In a little, Lavarcam strayed away from her charge, and soon the cry of a jay and the bark of a fox were heard, and while Deirdre still marvelled at the sounds that came so close together, Lavarcam returned. Nor had she been back a minute before three men came through the trees and slowly walked past, close to where Lavarcam and Deirdre were hidden.
"I have never seen men so near before," said Deirdre. "Only from the outskirts of the forest have I seen them very far away. Who are these men, who bring no joy to my eyes?"
And Lavarcam made answer: "These are Naoise, Ardan, and Ainle—the three sons of Usna."
But Deirdre looked hard at Lavarcam, and scorn and laughter were in her merry eyes.
"Then shall I have speech with Naoise, Ardan, and Ainle," she said, and ere Lavarcam could stop her, she had flitted through the trees by a path amongst the fern, and stood suddenly before the three men.
And the rough hinds, seeing such perfect loveliness, made very sure that Deirdre was one of the sidhe and stared at her with the round eyes and gaping mouths of wondering terror.
For a moment Deirdre gazed at them. Then: "Are ye the Sons of Usna?" she asked.
And when they stood like stocks, frightened and stupid, she lashed them with her mockery, until the swineherd could no more, and blurted out the whole truth to this most beautiful of all the world. Then, very gently, like pearls from a silver string, the words fell from the rowan-red lips of Deirdre: "I blame thee not, poor swineherd," she said, "and that thou mayst know that I deem thee a true man, I would fain ask thee to do one thing for me."
And when the eyes of the herd met the eyes of Deirdre, a soul was born in him, and he knew things of which he never before had dreamed.
"If I can do one thing to please thee, that will I do," he said. "Aye, and gladly pay for it with my life. Thenceforth my life is thine."
And Deirdre said: "I would fain see Naoise, one of the Sons of Usna."
And once more the swineherd said: "My life is thine."
Then Deirdre, seeing in his eyes a very beautiful thing, stooped and kissed the swineherd on his weather-beaten, tanned forehead.
"Go, then," she said, "to Naoise. Tell him that I, Deirdre, dream of him all the night and think of him all the day, and that I bid him meet me here to-morrow an hour before the setting of the sun."
The swineherd watched her flit into the shadows of the trees, and then went on his way, through the snowy woods, that he might pay with his life for the kiss that Deirdre had given him.
Sorely puzzled was Lavarcam over the doings of Deirdre that day, for Deirdre told her not a word of what had passed between her and the swineherd. On the morrow, when she left her to go back to the court of King Conor, she saw, as she drew near Emain Macha, where he stayed, black wings that flapped over something that lay on the snow. At her approach there rose three ravens, three kites, and three hoodie-crows, and she saw that their prey was the body of the swineherd with gaping spear-wounds all over him. Yet even then he looked happy. He had died laughing, and there was still a smile on his lips. Faithfully had he delivered his message, and when he had spoken of the beauty of Deirdre, rumour of his speech had reached the king, and the spears of Conor's men had enabled him to make true the words he had said to Deirdre: "I will pay for it with my life." In this way was shed the first blood of that great sea of blood that was spilt for the love of Deirdre, the Beauty of the World.
From where the swineherd lay, Lavarcam went to the camp of the Sons of Usna, and to Naoise she told the story of the love that Deirdre bore him, and counselled him to come to the place where she was hidden, and behold her beauty. And Naoise, who had seen how even a rough clod of a hind could achieve the noble chivalry of a race of kings for her dear sake, felt his heart throb within him. "I will come," he said to Lavarcam.
Days passed, and Deirdre waited, very sure that Naoise must come to her at last. And one day she heard a song of magical sweetness coming through the trees. Three voices sung the song, and it was as though one of the sidhe played a harp to cast a spell upon men. The voice of Ainle, youngest of the Sons of Usna, was like the sweet upper strings of the harp, that of Ardan the strings in the middle, and the voice of Naoise was like the strings whose deep resonance can play upon the hearts of warriors and move them to tears. Then Deirdre knew that she heard the voice of her beloved, and she sped to him as a bird speeds to her mate. Even as Lavarcam had told her was Naoise, eldest of the Sons of Usna, but no words had been able to tell Naoise of the beauty of Deirdre.
"It was as though a sudden flood of sunshine burst forth in that place. For a woman came from the thicket more beautiful than any dream he had ever dreamed. She was clad in a saffron robe over white that was like the shining of the sun on foam of the sea, and this was claspt with great bands of yellow gold, and over her shoulders was the rippling flood of her hair, the sprays of which lightened into delicate fire, and made a mist before him, in the which he could see her eyes like two blue pools wherein purple shadows dreamed."
From that moment Naoise "gave his love to Deirdre above every other creature," and their souls rushed together and were one for evermore. It was for them the beginning of a perfect love, and so sure were they of that love from the very first moment that it seemed as though they must have been born loving one another.
Of that love they talked, of the anger of Conor when he knew that his destined bride was the love of Naoise, and together they planned how it was best for Deirdre to escape from the furious wrath of the king who desired her for his own.
Of a sudden, the hands of Naoise gripped the iron-pointed javelin that hung by his side, and drove it into a place where the snow weighed down the bracken.
"Is it a wolf?" cried Deirdre.
And Naoise made answer: "Either a dead man, or the mark of where a man has lain hidden thou wilt find under the bracken."
And when they went to look they found, like the clap of a hare, the mark of where a man had lain hidden, and close beside the javelin that was driven in the ground there lay a wooden-hilted knife.
Then said Naoise: "Well I knew that Conor would set a spy on my tracks. Come with me now, Deirdre, else may I lose thee forever."
And with a glad heart Deirdre went with him who was to be her lord, and Naoise took her to where his brothers awaited his coming. To Deirdre, both Ainle and Ardan swiftly gave their lifelong allegiance and their love, but they were full of forebodings for her and for Naoise because of the certain wrath of Conor, the king.
Then said Naoise: "Although harm should come, for her dear sake I am willing to live in disgrace for the rest of my days."
And Ardan and Ainle made answer: "Of a certainty, evil will be of it, yet though there be, thou shalt not be under disgrace as long as we shall be alive. We will go with her to another country. There is not in Erin a king who will not bid us welcome."
Then did the Sons of Usna decide to cross the Sea of Moyle, and in their own land of Alba to find a happy sanctuary. That night they fled, and with them took three times fifty men, three times fifty women, three times fifty horses, and three times fifty greyhounds. And when they looked back to where they had had their dwelling, they saw red flames against the deep blue sky of the night, and knew that the vengeance of Conor had already begun. And first they travelled round Erin from Essa to Beinn Etair, and then in a great black galley they set sail, and Deirdre had a heart light as the white-winged sea-birds as the men pulled at the long oars and sang together a rowing song, and she leaned on the strong arm of Naoise and saw the blue coast-line of Erin fading into nothingness.
In the bay of Aros, on the eastern shores of the island of Mull, they found their first resting-place, but there they feared treachery from a lord of Appin. For the starry eyes of Deirdre were swift to discern evil that the eyes of the Sons of Usna could not see. Thus they fared onward until they reached the great sea-loch of Etive, with hills around it, and Ben Cruachan, its head in mist, towering above it like a watchman placed there by Time, to wait and to watch over the people of those silent hills and lonely glens until Time should give place to his brother, Eternity.
Joy was in the hearts of the three Sons of Usna when they came back to the home of their fathers. Usna was dead, but beyond the Falls of Lora was still the great dun—the vitrified fort—which he had built for himself and for those who should follow him.
For Deirdre then began a time of perfect happiness. Naoise was her heart, but very dear to her also were the brothers of Naoise, and each of the three vied with one another in their acts of tender and loving service. Their thrice fifty vassals had no love for Alba, and rejoiced when their lord, Naoise, allowed them to return to Erin, but the Sons of Usna were glad to have none to come between them and their serving of Deirdre, the queen of their hearts. Soon she came to know well each little bay, each beach, and each little lonely glen of Loch Etive, for the Sons of Usna did not always stay at the dun which had been their father's, but went a-hunting up the loch. At various spots on the shores of Etive they had camping places, and at Dail-an-eas they built for Deirdre a sunny bower.
On a sloping bank above the waterfall they built the little nest, thatched with the royal fern of the mountains, the red clay of the pools, and with soft feathers from the breasts of birds. There she could sit and listen to the murmur and drip of the clear water over the mossy boulders, the splash of the salmon in the dark pools, and see the distant silver of the loch. When the summer sun was hot on the bog myrtle and heather, the hum of the wild bees would lull her to sleep, and in autumn, when the bracken grew red and golden and the rowan berries grew red as Deirdre's lips, her keen eyes would see the stags grazing high up among the grey boulders of the mist-crowned mountains, and would warn the brothers of the sport awaiting them. The crow of the grouse, the belling of stags, the bark of the hill-fox, the swish of the great wings of the golden eagle, the song of birds, the lilt of running water, the complaining of the wind through the birches—all these things made music to Deirdre, to whom all things were dear.
"Is tu mein na Dearshul agha"—"The tenderness of heartsweet Deirdre"—so runs a line in an old, old Gaelic verse, and it is always of her tenderness as well as her beauty that the old Oea speak.
Sometimes she would hunt the red deer with Naoise and his brothers, up the lonely glens, up through the clouds to the silent mountain tops, and in the evening, when she was weary, her three loyal worshippers would proudly bear her home upon their bucklers.
So the happy days passed away, and in Erin the angry heart of Conor grew yet more angry when tidings came to him of the happiness of Deirdre and the Sons of Usna. Rumour came to him that the king of Alba had planned to come against Naoise, to slay him, and to take Deirdre for his wife, but that ere he could come the Sons of Usna and Deirdre had sailed yet further north in their galley, and that there, in the land of his mother, Naoise ruled as a king. And not only on Loch Etive, but on Loch Awe and Loch Fyne, Loch Striven, Loch Ard, Loch Long, Loch Lomond and all along the sea-loch coast, the fame of the Sons of Usna spread, and the wonder of the beauty of Deirdre, fairest of women.
And ever the hatred of Conor grew, until one day there came into his mind a plan of evil by which his burning thirst for revenge might be handsomely assuaged.
He made, therefore, a great feast, at which all the heroes of the Red Branch were present. When he had done them every honour, he asked them if they were content. As one man: "Well content indeed!" answered they.
"And that is what I am not," said the king. Then with the guile of fair words he told them that to him it was great sorrow that the three heroes, with whose deeds the Western Isles and the whole of the north and west of Alba were ringing, should not be numbered amongst his friends, sit at his board in peace and amity, and fight for the Ultonians like all the other heroes of the Red Branch.
"They took from me the one who would have been my wife," he said, "yet even that I can forgive, and if they would return to Erin, glad would my welcome be."
At these words there was great rejoicing amongst the lords of the Red Branch and all those who listened, and Conor, glad at heart, said, "My three best champions shall go to bring them back from their exile," and he named Conall the Victorious, Cuchulainn, and Fergus, the son of Rossa the Red. Then secretly he called Conall to him and asked him what he would do if he were sent to fetch the Sons of Usna, and, in spite of his safe-conduct, they were slain when they reached the land of the Ultonians. And Conall made answer that should such a shameful thing come to pass he would slay with his own hand all the traitor dogs. Then he sent for Cuchulainn, and to him put the same question, and, in angry scorn, the young hero replied that even Conor himself would not be safe from his vengeance were such a deed of black treachery to be performed.
"Well did I know thou didst bear me no love," said Conor, and black was his brow.
He called for Fergus then, and Fergus, sore troubled, made answer that were there to be such a betrayal, the king alone would be held sacred from his vengeance.
Then Conor gladly gave Fergus command to go to Alba as his emissary, and to fetch back with him the three brothers and Deirdre the Beautiful.
"Thy name of old was Honeymouth," he said, "so I know well that with guile thou canst bring them to Erin. And when thou shalt have returned with them, send them forward, but stay thyself at the house of Borrach. Borrach shall have warning of thy coming."
This he said, because to Fergus and to all the other of the Red Branch, a geasa, or pledge, was sacrosanct. And well he knew that Fergus had as one of his geasa that he would never refuse an invitation to a feast.
Next day Fergus and his two sons, Illann the Fair and Buinne the Red, set out in their galley for the dun of the Sons of Usna on Loch Etive.
The day before their hurried flight from Erin, Ainle and Ardan had been playing chess in their dun with Conor, the king. The board was of fair ivory, and the chessmen were of red-gold, wrought in strange devices. It had come from the mysterious East in years far beyond the memory of any living man, and was one of the dearest of Conor's possessions. Thus, when Ainle and Ardan carried off the chess-board with them in their flight, after the loss of Deirdre, that was the loss that gave the king the greatest bitterness. Now it came to pass that as Naoise and Deirdre were sitting in front of their dun, the little waves of Loch Etive lapping up on the seaweed, yellow as the hair of Deirdre, far below, and playing chess at this board, they heard a shout from the woods down by the shore where the hazels and birches grew thick.
"That is the voice of a man of Erin!" said Naoise, and stopped in his game to listen.
But Deirdre said, very quickly: "Not so! It is the voice of a Gael of Alba."
Yet so she spoke that she might try to deceive her own heart, that even then was chilled by the black shadow of an approaching evil. Then came another shout, and yet a third. And when they heard the third shout, there was no doubt left in their minds, for they all knew the voice for that of Fergus, the son of Rossa the Red. And when Ardan hastened down to the harbour to greet him, Deirdre confessed to Naoise why she had refused at first to own that it was a voice from Erin that she heard.
"I saw in a dream last night," she said, "three birds that flew hither from Emain Macha, carrying three sips of honey in their beaks. The honey they left with us, but took away three sips of blood."
And Naoise said: "What then, best beloved, dost thou read from this dream of thine?"
And Deirdre said: "I read that Fergus comes from Conor with honeyed words of peace, but behind his treacherous words lies death."
As they spake, Ardan and Fergus and his following climbed up the height where the bog-myrtle and the heather and sweet fern yielded their sweetest incense as they were wounded under their firm tread.
And when Fergus stood before Deirdre and Naoise, the man of her heart, he told them of Conor's message, and of the peace and the glory that awaited them in Erin if they would but listen to the words of welcome that he brought.
Then said Naoise: "I am ready." But his eyes dared not meet the sea-blue eyes of Deirdre, his queen.
"Knowest thou that my pledge is one of honour?" asked Fergus.
"I know it well," said Naoise.
So in joyous feasting was that night spent, and only over the heart of Deirdre hung that black cloud of sorrow to come, of woe unspeakable.
When the golden dawn crept over the blue hills of Loch Etive, and the white-winged birds of the sea swooped and dived and cried in the silver waters, the galley of the Sons of Usna set out to sea.
And Deirdre, over whom hung a doom she had not the courage to name, sang a song at parting:
The Lay of Deirdre
"Beloved land, that Eastern land,
Alba, with its wonders.
O that I might not depart from it,
But that I go with Naoise.
Beloved is Dunfidgha and Dun Fin;
Beloved the Dun above them;
Beloved is Innisdraighende;
And beloved Dun Suibhne.
Coillchuan! O Coillchuan!
Where Ainnle would, alas! resort;
Too short, I deem, was then my stay
With Ainnle in Oirir Alban.
Glenlaidhe! O Glenlaidhe!
I used to sleep by its soothing murmur;
Fish, and flesh of wild boar and badger,
Was my repast in Glenlaidhe.
Glenmasan! O Glenmasan!
High its herbs, fair its boughs.
Solitary was the place of our repose
On grassy Invermasan.
Gleneitche! O Gleneitche!
There was raised my earliest home.
Beautiful its woods on rising,
When the sun struck on Gleneitche.
Glen Urchain! O Glen Urchain!
It was the straight glen of smooth ridges,
Not more joyful was a man of his age
Than Naoise in Glen Urchain.
Glendaruadh! O Glendaruadh!
My love each man of its inheritance.
Sweet the voice of the cuckoo, on bending bough,
On the hill above Glendaruadh.
Beloved is Draighen and its sounding shore;
Beloved is the water o'er the pure sand.
O that I might not depart from the east,
But that I go with my beloved!"
Translated by W. F. Skene, LL.D.
Thus they fared across the grey-green sea betwixt Alba and Erin, and when Ardan and Ainle and Naoise heard the words of the song of Deirdre, on their hearts also descended the strange sorrow of an evil thing from which no courage could save them.
At Ballycastle, opposite Rathlin Island, where a rock on the shore ("Carraig Uisneach") still bears the name of the Sons of Usna, Fergus and the returned exiles landed. And scarcely were they out of sight of the shore when a messenger came to Fergus, bidding him to a feast of ale at the dun of Borrach. Then Fergus, knowing well that in this was the hand of Conor and that treachery was meant, reddened all over with anger and with shame. But yet he dared not break his geasa, even although by holding to it the honour he had pledged to the three brothers for their safe-conduct and that of Deirdre was dragged through the mire. He therefore gave them his sons for escort and went to the feast at the dun of Borrach, full well knowing that Deirdre spoke truth when she told him sadly that he had sold his honour. The gloomy forebodings that had assailed the heart of Deirdre ere they had left Loch Etive grew ever the stronger as they went southwards. She begged Naoise to let them go to some place of safety and there wait until Fergus had fulfilled his geasa and could rejoin them and go with them to Emain Macha. But the Sons of Usna, strong in the knowledge of their own strength, and simply trustful of the pledged word of Conor and of Fergus, laughed at her fears, and continued on their way. Dreams of dread portent haunted her sleep, and by daytime her eyes in her white face looked like violets in the snow. She saw a cloud of blood always hanging over the beautiful Sons of Usna, and all of them she saw, and Illann the Fair, with their heads shorn off, gory and awful. Yet no pleading words could prevail upon Naoise. His fate drove him on.
"To Emain Macha we must go, my beloved," he said. "To do other than this would be to show that we have fear, and fear we have none."
Thus at last did they arrive at Emain Macha, and with courteous welcome Conor sent them word that the house of the heroes of the Red Branch was to be theirs that night. And although the place the king had chosen for their lodgment confirmed all the intuitions and forebodings of Deirdre, the evening was spent by in good cheer, and Deirdre had the joy of a welcome there from her old friend Lavarcam. For to Lavarcam Conor had said: "I would have thee go to the House of the Red Branch and bring me back tidings if the beauty of Deirdre has waned, or if she is still the most beautiful of all women."
And when Lavarcam saw her whom she had loved as a little child, playing chess with her husband at the board of ivory and gold, she knew that love had made the beauty of Deirdre blossom, and that she was now more beautiful than the words of any man or woman could tell. Nor was it possible for her to be a tool for Conor when she looked in the starry eyes of Deirdre, and so she poured forth warning of the treachery of Conor, and the Sons of Usna knew that there was truth in the dreams of her who was the queen of their hearts. And even as Lavarcam ceased there came to the eyes of Deirdre a vision such as that of Cathbad the Druid on the night of her birth.
"I see three torches quenched this night," she said. "And these three torches are the Three Torches of Valour among the Gael, and their names are the names of the Sons of Usna. And more bitter still is this sorrow, because that the Red Branch shall ultimately perish through it, and Uladh itself be overthrown, and blood fall this way and that as the whirled rains of winter."
Then Lavarcam went her way, and returned to the palace at Emain Macha and told Conor that the cruel winds and snows of Alba had robbed Deirdre of all her loveliness, so that she was no more a thing to be desired. But Naoise had said to Deirdre when she foretold his doom: "Better to die for thee and for thy deathless beauty than to have lived without knowledge of thee and thy love," and it may have been that some memory of the face of Deirdre, when she heard these words, dwelt in the eyes of Lavarcam and put quick suspicion into the evil heart of the king. For when Lavarcam had gone forth, well pleased that she had saved her darling, Conor sent a spy—a man whose father and three brothers had fallen in battle under the sword of Naoise—that he might see Deirdre and confirm or contradict the report of Lavarcam. And when this man reached the house of the Red Branch, he found that the Sons of Usna had been put on their guard, for all the doors and windows were barred. Thus he climbed to a narrow upper window and peered in. There, lying on the couches, the chess-board of ivory and gold between them, were Naoise and Deirdre. So beautiful were they, that they were as the deathless gods, and as they played that last game of their lives, they spoke together in low voices of love that sounded like the melody of a harp in the hands of a master player. Deirdre was the first to see the peering face with the eyes that gloated on her loveliness. No word said she, but silently made the gaze of Naoise follow her own, even as he held a golden chessman in his hand, pondering a move. Swift as a stone from a sling the chessman was hurled, and the man fell back to the ground with his eyeball smashed, and found his way to Emain Macha as best he could, shaking with agony and snarling with lust for revenge. Vividly he painted for the king the picture of the most beautiful woman on earth as she played at the chess-board that he held so dear, and the rage of Conor that had smouldered ever since that day when he learned that Naoise had stolen Deirdre from him, flamed up into madness. With a bellow like that of a wounded bull, he called upon the Ultonians to come with him to the House of the Red Branch, to burn it down, and to slay all those within it with the sword, save only Deirdre, who was to be saved for a more cruel fate.
In the House of the Red Branch, Deirdre and the three brothers and the two sons of Fergus heard the shouts of the Ultonians and knew that the storm was about to break. But, calm as rocks against which the angry waves beat themselves in vain, sat those whose portion at dawn was to be cruel death. And Naoise and Ainle played chess, with hands that did not tremble. At the first onslaught, Buinne the Red, son of Fergus, sallied forth, quenched the flames, and drove back the Ultonians with great slaughter. But Conor called to him to parley and offered him a bribe of land, and Buinne, treacherous son of a treacherous father, went over to the enemy. His brother, Illann the Fair, filled with shame, did what he could to make amends. He went forth, and many hundreds of the besieging army fell before him, ere death stayed his loyal hand. At his death the Ultonians again fired the house, and first Ardan and then Ainle left their chess for a fiercer game, and glutted their sword blades with the blood of their enemies. Last came the turn of Naoise. He kissed Deirdre, and drank a drink, and went out against the men of Conor, and where his brothers had slain hundreds, a thousand fell before his sword.
Then fear came into the heart of Conor, for he foresaw that against the Sons of Usna no man could prevail, save by magic. Thus he sent for Cathbad the Druid, who was even then very near death, and the old man was carried on a litter to the House of the Red Branch, from which the flames were leaping, and before which the dead lay in heaps.
And Conor besought him to help him to subdue the Sons of Usna ere they should have slain every Ultonian in the land. So by his magic Cathbad raised a hedge of spears round the house. But Naoise, Ardan, and Ainle, with Deirdre in their centre, sheltered by their shields, burst suddenly forth from the blazing house, and cut a way for themselves through the hedge as though they sheared green wheat. And, laughing aloud, they took a terrible toll of lives from the Ultonians who would have withstood them. Then again the Druid put forth his power, and a noise like the noise of many waters was in the ears of all who were there. So suddenly the magic flood arose that there was no chance of escape for the Sons of Usna. Higher it mounted, ever higher, and Naoise held Deirdre on his shoulder, and smiled up in her eyes as the water rose past his middle. Then suddenly as it had come, the flood abated, and all was well with the Ultonians who had sheltered on a rising ground. But the Sons of Usna found themselves entrapped in a morass where the water had been. Conor, seeing them in his hands at last, bade some of his warriors go and take them. But for shame no Ultonian would go, and it was a man from Norway who walked along a dry spit of land to where they stood, sunk deep in the green bog. "Slay me first!" called Ardan as he drew near, sword in hand. "I am the youngest, and, who knows, my death may change the tides of fate!"
And Ainle also craved that death might be dealt to him the first. But Naoise held out his own sword, "The Retaliator," to the executioner.
"Mannanan, the son of LÓr, gave me my good sword," he said. "With it strike my dear brothers and me one blow only as we stand here like three trees planted in the soil. Then shall none of us know the grief and shame of seeing the other beheaded." And because it was hard for any man to disobey the command of Naoise, a king of men, the Norseman reached out his hand for the sword. But Deirdre sprang from the shoulder of Naoise and would have killed the man ere he struck. Roughly he threw her aside, and with one blow he shore off the heads of the three greatest heroes of Alba.
For a little while there was a great stillness there, like the silence before the coming of a storm. And then all who had beheld the end of the fair and noble Sons of Usna broke into great lamentation. Only Conor stood silent, gazing at the havoc he had wrought. To Cuchulainn, the mighty champion, a good man and a true, Deirdre fled, and begged him to protect her for the little span of life that she knew yet remained to her. And with him she went to where the head of Naoise lay, and tenderly she cleansed it from blood and from the stains of strife and stress, and smoothed the hair that was black as a raven's wing, and kissed the cold lips again and again. And as she held it against her white breast, as a mother holds a little child, she chanted for Naoise, her heart, and for his brothers, a lament that still lives in the language of the Gael.
"Is it honour that ye love, brave and chivalrous Ultonians?
Or is the word of a base king better than noble truth?
Of a surety ye must be glad, who have basely slain honour
In slaying the three noblest and best of your brotherhood.
Let now my beauty that set all this warring aflame,
Let now my beauty be quenched as a torch that is spent—
For here shall I quench it, here, where my loved one lies,
A torch shall it be for him still through the darkness of death."
—Fiona Macleod's Translation.
Then, at the bidding of Cuchulainn, the Ultonian, three graves were dug for the brothers, but the grave of Naoise was made wider than the others, and when he was placed in it, standing upright, with his head placed on his shoulders, Deirdre stood by him and held him in her white arms, and murmured to him of the love that was theirs and of which not Death itself could rob them. And even as she spoke to him, merciful Death took her, and together they were buried. At that same hour a terrible cry was heard: "The Red Branch perisheth! Uladh passeth! Uladh passeth!" and when he had so spoken, the soul of Cathbad the Druid passed away.
To the land of the Ultonians there came on the morrow a mighty host, and the Red Branch was wiped out for ever. Emain Macha was cast into ruins, and Conor died in a madness of sorrow.
And still, in that land of Erin where she died, still in the lonely cleuchs and glens, and up the mist-hung mountain sides of Loch Etive, where she knew her truest happiness, we can sometimes almost hear the wind sighing the lament: "Deirdre the beautiful is dead . . . is dead!"
"I hear a voice crying, crying, crying: is it the wind
I hear, crying its old weary cry time out of mind?
The grey wind weeps, the grey wind weeps, the grey wind weeps:
Dust on her breast, dust on her eyes, the grey wind weeps."