Boys' Cuchulain - Eleanor Hull

The Sorrowful Death of Usna's Sons

At the head of fair Loch Etive the sons of Usna had built for themselves three spacious hunting-seats among the pine-trees at the foot of the cliffs that ran landward to deep Glen Etive. The wild deer could be shot from the window, and the salmon taken out of the stream from the door of their dwelling. There they passed the spring and summer months, Usna's sons of the white steeds and the brown deer-hounds, whose breasts were broader than the wooden leaves of the door. Above the hunting-lodge, on the grassy slope that is at the foot of the cascade, they built a sunny summer home for Deirdre, and they called it the 'Grianan,' or sunny bower of Deirdre. It was thatched on the outside with the long-stalked fern of the dells and the red clay of the pools, and lined within with the pine of the mountains and the downy feathers of the wild birds; and round it was the apple-garden of Clan Usna, with the apple-tree of Deirdre in its midst and the apple-trees of Naisi and Ainle and Arden encircling it.

And Deirdre loved her life, for she was free as the brown partridge flying over the mountains, or as the vessels with ruddy sails swinging upon the loch.

But in the winter they moved down to the borad sheltered pasture-lands that lay on the western side of the loch near the island that was in olden days called Eilean Chlann Uisne  or the Island of the Children of Usna, but is called Eilean nan Ron  or the Isle of the Seals to-day; and there they built a mighty fortress for Deirdre and the sons of Usna which men still call the Caisteal Nighean Righ Eirinn  or the Castle of the Daughter of the King of Ireland, and thence they made wars and conquered a great part of Western Alba and became powerful princes.

One sultry evening in the late autumn, Deirdre and Naisi were resting before the door of her sunny bower after a day spent by the brothers in the chase. Below, their followers were cutting up the deer, and as they brought in the bags of heavy game, and faggots for the hearth, the voice of Ainle singing an evening melody resounded through the wood. Like the sound of the wave the voice of Ainle, and the rich bass of Arden answered him, as together the two brothers came out from the shadow of the trees, gathering to the trysting-place of the evening meal.

Between Naisi and Deirdre a draught-board was set, but Deirdre was winning, for a mood of oppression lay upon Naisi and his thoughts were not in the game. For of late, at evening, his exile weighed upon him, and little good to him seemed his prosperity and his successes, since he did not see his own home in Ireland and his friends at the time of his rising in the morning or at the time of his lying down at night. For great as were his possessions in Alba, stronger in him than the love of his kindred in Alba was the love of his native land in Erin. He thought it strange, moreover, that of those three who in the old time loved him most, Fergus and Conall Cernach and Cuchulain, not one of them had all this time come to bring him to his own land again under his safeguard and protection.

So, as they played, Deirdre could see that the mind of Naisi was wandering from the game, and her heart smote her, as often it had smitten her before when she had seen him thus oppressed, that for her sake so much had gone from him of friends and home, and his allegiance to his king, and honourable days among his clan. Wistfully she smiled across the board at Naisi, but mournful was the answering smile he sent her back.

"Play, play," she said, "I win the game from you." "One game the more or less can matter little when all else is lost," he answered bitterly. But hardly had the unkind words passed from him, the first unkindness Deirdre ever heard from Naisi's lips, when far below, across the silent waters of the lake, he caught a distant call, his own name uttered in a ringing voice that seemed familiar, a voice that brought old days to memory.

"I hear the voice of a man from Erin call below," he cried, and started up. Now Deirdre too had heard the cry and well she knew that it was Fergus' voice they heard, but deep foreboding passed across her mind that all their hours of happiness were past, and grief and rending of the heart in store. So quickly she replied: "How could that be? It is some man of Alba coming from the chase, belated in returning. No voice was that from Erin; it was a Scotchman's cry. Let us play on."

Three times the voice of Fergus came sounding up the glen, and at the last, Naisi sprang up. "You are mistaken, damsel; of a certainty I know this is the voice of Fergus." "I knew it all the time, whose voice it was," said Deirdre, when she saw he would not be put off. "Why then didst thou not tell us?" Naisi asked. "A vision that I saw last night hath hindered me," replied the girl. "I saw three birds come to us out of Emain from the King, carrying three sips of honey in their bills; the sips of honey they left here with us, but took three sips of our red blood away with them."

"What is thy rede of this vision, O Damsel?" Naisi asked. "Thus do I understand it," Deirdre said; "Fergus hath come from our own native land with peace, and sweet as honey will his message be; but the three sips of blood that he will take away with him, those three are ye, for ye will go with him, and be betrayed to death." "Speak not such words, O Deirdre," cried they all; "never would Fergus thus betray his friends. Alas! that words like this should pass thy lips. We stay too long; Fergus awaits us at the port. Go, Ainle, and go, Arden, down to meet him, and to give him loving welcome here." So Arden went, and Ainle, and three loving kisses fervently they gave to Fergus and his sons. Gladly they welcomed the wayfarers to Naisi's home, and led them up; and Naisi and Deirdre arose and stretched their hands in welcome; and they gave them blessing and three kisses lovingly, for old times' sake, and eagerly they asked for tidings of Erin and of Ulster especially. "I have no other tidings half so good as these," said Fergus, "that King Conor waits for you to give you welcome back to Emain, and to the Red Branch House. I am your surety and your safeguard, and full well ye know that under Fergus' safeguard ye are sure of peace." "Heed not that message, Naisi," Deirdre said; "greater and wider is your lordship here, than Conor's rule in Erin."

"Better than any lordship is one's native land," said Naisi; "dearer to me than great possessions here, is one more sight of Erin's well-loved soil."

"My word and pledge are firm on your behalf," said Fergus; "with me no harm or hurt can come to you." "Verily and indeed, thy word is firm, and we will go with thee."

But to their going Deirdre consented not, and every way she sought to hinder them, and wept and prayed them not to go to death. "Now all my joy is psat," she said; "I saw last night the three ravens bearing three sad leaves of the yew-tree of death; and O Beloved, those three withered leaves I saw were the three sons of Usna, blown off their stem by the rough wind of Conor's wrath and the damp dew of Fergus' treachery." And they were sorry that she had said that. "These are but foolish women's fears," said they; "the dropping of leaves in thy dream, and the howling of dogs, the sight of birds with blood-drops in their bills, are but the restlessness of sleep, O Deirdre; and verily we put our trust in Fergus' word. To-night we go with him to Erin."

Gladsome and gay were the three brothers then; they put all fears away from them, and set to prepare them for their journey back to Erin's shores. And early the next morning, about the parting of night from day, at the delay of the morning dawn, they passed down to their galley that rocked upon the loch, and hoisted sail, and calmly and peacefully they sailed out into the ocean. But Deirdre sat in the stern of the boat, and her face was not set forward looking towards Erin, but it was set backward looking on the coasts of Scotland. And she cried aloud, "O Land of the East, My love to thee, with thy wondrous beauty! Woe is me that I leave thy lochs and thy bays, thy flowering delightful plains, and thy bright green-smooth hills! Dear to me the fort that Naisi built, dear the sunny bower up the glen; very dear to my heart the wooded slope holding the sunbeams where I have sat with Naisi." And as they sailed out of Glen Etive she sang this song, sadly and sorrowfully:—

"Farewell, dear Alba of the free,

Beloved land beside the sea,

No power could drag me from my home,

Did I not come, Naisi, with thee.

Farewell, dear bowers within the Glen,

Farewell, strong fort hung over them,

Dear to the heart each shining isle,

That seems to smile beneath our ken.

Glen da Rose!

Where the white cherry and garlic blow,

On thy blue wave we rocked to sleep,

As on the deep, by Glen da Roe.

Glen Etive!

Whose sunny slopes these waters lave,

The rising sun we seemed to hold,

As in a fold, in Glen Etive.

Glen Masaun!

Love to all those who here were born!

Across thy peak, at twilight's fall,

The cuckoos call, in Glen Masaun.

Farewell, dear Land,

From Alba's strand I ne'er had roved

Save at the call of my beloved,

Farewell, dear Land!"

The next day they reached the shores of Ireland not far from the fort of Borrach. And as they landed there, messengers from Borrach met Fergus, saying, "Borrach hath prepared a feast for the King, and it is the King's command that the honour of this feast be given to thee. Come therefore and spend this night with me; but the King desires to hasten the sons of Usna that he may welcome them, and he bids them press onward to Emain this very night."

When Fergus heard that, sudden fear and gloom overshadowed him, lest in very truth Conor had evil designs towards the sons of Usna. "It was not well done, O Borrach, to offer me a feast in Conor's stead this night, for I was pledged to bring the sons of Usna straight to Emain without delay." "It is the King's command," said Borrach; "needs must a true vassal obey the King." Still was Fergus loth to stay and he asked Naisi what he ought to do about this. "Do what they desire of thee, O Fergus," said Deirdre, "if to partake of a banquet seems better to thee than to protect the sons of Usna. However to me it seems that the lives of thy three friends is a good price to pay for a feast."

"I will not forsake them," said Fergus; "for my two sons, Illan the Fair and Buinne the Ruthless Red will be with them to protect them, and my word of honour, moreover, with them; if all the warriors of Erin were assembled in one place, and all of one mind, they would not be able to break the pledge of Fergus."

"Much thanks we give thee for that," said Naisi, for he saw that Fergus feared to fall foul of Conor more than he cared for their safety; "never have we depended on any protection but that of our own right hands alone; we will then go forward to Emain Macha, and see there if the word of Fergus will be sufficient to protect us."

But Deirdre said: "Go not forward to-night; but let us turn aside, and for this one night take shelter with Cuchulain at Dundalk; then will Fergus have partaken of his feast, and he will be ready to go with you. So will his word be fulfilled and yet your lives will be prolonged." "We think not well of that advice," said Buinne the Ruthless Red; "you have with you the might of your own good hands, and our might, and the plighted word of Fergus to protect you; impossible is it that ye should be betrayed." "Ah! that plighted word of Fergus'; the man who forsook us for a feast!" said Deirdre. "Well may we rely on Fergus' plighted word." And she fell into grief and dejection. "Alas! Alas!" she cried. "Why left we Alba of the red deer to come again to Erin? Why put we trust in the light word of Fergus? Woe is come upon us since we listened to the promises of that man! The valiant sons of Usna are destroyed by him, the Lights of Valour of the Gael. Great is my heaviness of heart to-night! Great is the loss that is fallen upon us."

In spite of that the sons of Usna and their two friends went onward towards the White Cairn of Watching on Sliab Fuad; but Deirdre was very weary and she lingered behind in the glen, and sat down to rest and fell asleep. They did not notice at first that she was not with them, but Naisi found it out and he turned back to seek Deirdre. He found her sitting in the wood on the trunk of a fallen tree, just waking from her sleep. When she saw Naisi she arose and clung to him. "What happened to thee, O fair one?" said Naisi, "and wherefore is thy face so wild and fearful, and tears within thine eyes?"

"I fell into a sleep, for I was weary," she replied; "and O Naisi, I fear because of the vision and the dream I saw." "Thou art too apt to dream, beloved," said Naisi tenderly, "what was thy dream?" "Terrible was my dream," said Deirdre; "I saw thee, Naisi, and Ainle and Arden, each of ye three beloved ones, without a head, thy headless bodies lying side by side near Emain's fort; and Illan lay there too drenched all with blood, and headless like ye three. But on the other side among our enemies, fighting against us, was the treacherous Buinne the Ruthless Red, who now is our protector and our guide; for he had saved his head by treachery to thee." "Sad were thy dream indeed," said Naisi, "were it true; but fear it not, it was an empty vision grown out of weariness and pain." But Deirdre clung yet to him, and she cried, "O Naisi, see, above thy head, and o'er the heads of Ainle and of Arden, that sombre cloud of blood! dost thou not mark it hanging in the air? All over Emain lies the heavy pall; but on thy head and theirs red blood-drops fall, big, dusky, drenching drops. Let us not go to Emain." But Naisi thought that from her weariness the mind of Deirdre had become distraught, and all the more he pressed them onward, that she might have rest and shelter for the night. As they drew near to Emain, Deirdre said, "One test I give you whether Conor means you good or harm. If into his own house he welcomes you, all will be well, for in his own home would no monarch dare to harm a guest; but if he send you to some other house, while he himself stays on in Emain's court, then treachery and guile is meant towards you."

Now as they reached the Court of Emain, messengers came out to meet them from the King. "King Conor bids you welcome," said the men; "right glad is he that you are come again to Erin, to your fatherland. But for this one night only is he not prepared to call you as his guests to his own court. To-morrow he will give you audience and bid you to his house. For this one night, then, he bids you turn aside into the Red Branch House, where all is ready for your entertainment." "It is as I thought," said Deirdre, "King Conor means no good to you, I ween." But Naisi replied, "Where could the Red Branch champions so fitly rest as in the Red Branch House? Most gladly do we seek our hall, to rest and find refreshment for the morrow. We all are travel-stained, but we will bathe and take repose, and on the morrow we will meet the King."

But when they came to the House of the Red Branch, so weary were they all, that though all kinds of viands were supplied, they ate but little, but lay down to rest. And Naisi said, "Dost thou remember, Deirdre, how in that last game of draughts we played together, thou didst win, because we were in Alba, and my heart was here at home? Now are we back at last, and let us play again; this time I promise I will win from thee."

So the the lightsome spirit of a boy, Naisi sat down to play; for now that once again he was at home among his people and in his native land, all thought or dread of evil passed from him. But with Deirdre it was not so, for heavy dread and terror of the morrow lay on her heart, and in her mind she felt that this was their last day of peace and love together.

But in his royal court, King Conor grew impatient as he thought that Deirdre was so near at hand, and he not seeing her. "Go now, O foster-mother, to the Red Branch Hall and see if on the child that thou didst rear remains her early bloom and beauty, and if she still is lovely as when she went from me. If she is still the same, then, in spite of Naisi, I'll have her for my own; but if her bloom is past, then let her be, Naisi may keep her for himself."

Right glad was Levarcam to get leave to go to Deirdre and to Usna's sons. Down to the Red Branch House straightway she went, and there were Naisi and her foster-child playing together with the board between them. Now, save Deirdre herself, Naisi was dearer to Levarcam than any other in the world, and well she knew that her own face and form were upon Deirdre still, only grown riper and more womanly. For, without Conor's knowledge, she oft had gone to seek them when they stayed in Alba.

Lovingly she kissed them and strong showers of tears sprang from her eyes. "No good will come to you, ye children of my love," she said with weeping, "that ye are come again with Deirdre here. To-night they practise treachery and ill intent against you all in Emain. The King would know if Deirdre is lovely still, and though I tell a lie to shelter her, he will find out, and wreak his vengeance on you for the loss of her. Great evils wait for Emain and for you, O darling friends. Shut close the doors and guard them well; let no one pass within. Defend yourselves and this sweet damsel here, my foster-child. Trust no man; but repel the attack that surely comes, and victory and blessing be with you."

Then she returned to Emain; but all along the way she wept quick-gushing showers of tears, and heaved great sighs, for well she knew that from this night the sons of Usna would be alive no more.

"What are the tidings that you have for me?" King Conor asked. "Good tidings have I, and tidings that are not good." "Tell me them," said the King. "The good tidings that I have are these; that the sons of Usna, the three whose form and figure are best, the three bravest in fight and all deeds of prowess, are come again to Erin; and, with the Lights of Valour at thy side, thine enemies will flee before thee, as a flock of frightened birds is driven before the gale. The ill-tidings that I have, are that through suffering and sorrow the love of my heart and treasure of my soul is changed since she went away, and little of her own bloom and beauty remains upon Deirdre." "That will do for awhile," said the King; and he felt his anger abating. But when they had drunk a round or two, he began to doubt the word of Levarcam. "O Trendorn," said he to one who sat beside him, "dost thou recollect who it was who slew thy father?"

"I know well; it was Naisi, son of Usna," he replied. "Go thou therefore where Naisi is, and see if her own face and form remain upon Deirdre."

So Trendorn went down to the House of the Red Branch, but they had made fast the doors and he could find no way of entrance, for all the gates and windows were stoutly barred. He began to be afraid lest the sons of Usna might be ready to leap out upon him from within, but at last he found a small window which they had forgotten to close, and he put his eye to the window, and saw Naisi and Deirdre still playing at their game peacefully together. Deirdre saw the man looking in at the window, and Naisi, following her eye, caught sight of him also. And he picked up one of the pieces that was lying beside the board, and threw it at Trendorn, so that it struck his eye and tore it out, and in pain and misery the man returned to Emain.

"You seem not so gay as when you set out, O Trendorn," said the King; "what has happened to thee, and hast thou seen Deirdre?" "I have seen her, indeed; I have seen Deirdre, and but that Naisi drove out mine eye I should have been looking at her still, for of all the women of the world, Deirdre is the fairest and the best." When Conor heard that, he rose up and called his followers together and without a moment's delay they set forward for the house of the Red Branch. For he was filled with jealousy and envy, and he thought the time long until he should get back Deirdre for himself.

"The pursuit is coming," said Deirdre; "I hear sounds without." "I will go out and meet them," said Naisi. "Nay," said Buinne the Ruthless Red, "it was in my hands that my father Fergus placed the sons of Usna to guard them, and it is I who will go forth and fight for them." "It seems to me," said Deirdre, "that thy father hath betrayed the sons of Usna, and it is likely that thou wilt do as thy father hath done, O Buinne." "If my father has been treacherous to you," said Buinne, "it is not I who will do as he has done." Then he went out and met the warriors of Conor, and put a host of them to the sword. "Who is this man who is destroying my hosts?" said Conor. "Buinne the Ruthless Red, the son of Fergus," say they. "We bought his father to our side and we must buy the son," said Conor. He called Buinne and said to him, "I gave a free gift of land to thy father Fergus, and I will give a free gift of land to thee; come over to my side to-night." "I will do that," said Buinne, and he went over to the side of the King. "Buinne hath deserted you, O sons of Usna, and the son is like the father," Deirdre said. "He has gone," said Naisi, "but he performed warrior-like deeds before he went."

Then Conor sent fresh warriors down to attack the house. "The pursuit is coming," said Deirdre. "I will go out and meet them," said Naisi. "It is not thou who must go, it is I," said Illan the Fair, son of Fergus, "for to me my father left the charge of you." "I think the son will be like the father," said Deirdre. "I am not like to forsake the sons of Usna so long as this hard sword is in my hand," said Illan the Fair. And the fresh, noble, young hero went out in his battle-array, and valiantly he attacked the host of Conor and made a red rout of them round the house. "Who is that young warrior who is smiting down my hosts?" said Conor. "Illan the Fair, son of Fergus," they reply. We will buy him to our side, as his brother was bought," said wily Conor. So he called Illan and said, "We gave a possession of land to thy father, and another to thy brother, and we will give an equal share to thee; come over to our side." But the princely young hero answered: "Thy offer, O Conor, will I not accept; for better to me is it to return to my father and tell him that I have kept the charge he laid upon me, than to accept any offer from thee, O King." Then Conor was wroth, and he commanded his own son to attack Illan, and furiously the two fought together, until Illan was sore wounded, and he flung his arms into the house, and called on Naisi to do valiantly, for he himself was slain by a son of Conor. "Illan has fallen, and you are left alone," said Deirdre, "O sons of Usna." "He is fallen indeed," said Naisi, "but gallant were the deeds that he performed before he died."

Then the warriors and mercenaries of Conor drew closer round the house, and they took lighted torches and flung them into the house, and set it on fire. And Naisi lifted Deirdre on his shoulders and raised her on high, and with his brothers on either side, their swords drawn in their hands, they issued forth to fight their way through the press of their enemies. And so terrible were the deeds wrought by those heroes, that Conor feared they would destroy his host. He called his Druids, and said to them, "Work enchantment upon the sons of Usna and turn them back, for no longer do I intend evil against them, but I would bring them home in peace. Noble are the deeds that they have wrought, and I would have them as my servants for ever." The Druids believed the wily King and they set to work to weave spells to turn the sons of Usna back to Emain Macha.

They made a great thick wood before them, through which they thought no man could pass. But without ever stopping to consider their way, the sons of Usna went straight through the wood turning neither to the right hand or the left. "Good is your enchantment, but it will not avail," said Conor; "the sons of Usna are passing through without the turning of a step, or the bending of a foot. Try some other spell." Then the Druids made a grey stormy sea before the sons of Usna on the green plain. The three heroes tied their clothing behind their heads, and Naisi set Deirdre again upon his shoulder and went straight on without flinching, without turning back, through the grey shaggy sea, lifting Deirdre on high lest she should wet her feet.

"Thy spell is good," said Conor, "yet it sufficeth not. The sons of Usna escape my hands. Try another spell."

Then the Druids froze the grey uneven sea into jagged hard lumps of rugged ice, like the sharpness of swords on one side of them and like the stinging of serpents on the other side. Then Arden cried out that he was becoming exhausted and must fain give up. "Come thou, Arden, and rest against my shoulder," said Naisi, "and I will support you." Arden did so, but it was not long before he died; but though he was dead, Naisi held him up still. Then Ainle cried out that he could go no longer, for his strength had left him. When Naisi heard that, he heaved a heavy sigh as of one dying of fatigue, but he told Ainle to hold on to him, and he would bring him soon to land. But not long after, the weakness of death came upon Ainle, and his hold relaxed. Naisi looked on either hand and when he saw that his two brothers were dead, he cared not whether he himself should live or die. He heaved a sigh, sore as the sigh of the dying, and his heart broke and he fell dead.

"The sons of Usna are dead now," said the Druids; "but they turned not back."

"Lift up thy enchantment," said Conor, "that I now may see the sons of Usna." Then the Druids lifted the enchantment, and there were the three sons of Usna lying dead, and Deirdre fluttering hither and thither from one to another, weeping bitter heartrending tears. And Conor would have taken her away, but she would not be parted from the sons of Usna, and when their tomb was being dug, Deirdre sat on the edge of the grave, calling on the diggers to dig the pit very broad and smooth. They had dug the pit for three only, and they lowered the bodies of the three heroes into the grave, side by side. But when Deirdre saw that, she called aloud to the sons of Usna, to make space for her between them, for she was following them. Then the body of Ainle, that was at Naisi's right hand, moved a little apart, and a space was made for Deirdre close at Naisi's side, where she was wont to be, and Deirdre leapt into the tomb, and placed her arm round the neck of Naisi, her own love, and she kissed him, and her heart broke within her and she died; and together in one tomb the three sons of Usna and Deirdre were buried. And all the men of Ulster who stood by wept aloud.

But Conor was angry, and he ordered the bodies to be uncovered again and the body of Deirdre to be removed, so that even in death she might not be with Naisi. And he caused Deirdre to be buried on one side of the loch, and Naisi on the other side of the loch, and the graves were closed. Then a young pine-tree grew from the grave of Deirdre, and a young pine from the grave of Naisi, and their branches grew towards each other, until they entwined one with the other across the loch. And Conor would have cut them down, but the men of Ulster would not allow this, and they set a watch and protected the trees until King Conor died.