IN OLDEN days, when many Kings reigned throughout the Green Island of Erin, none was greater than the great Concobar. So fair was his realm that poets sang its beauty, and such the wonder of his palace that the sweetest songs of Erin were of its loveliness.
In a castle of this fair realm dwelt Felim, a warrior and harper dear unto the King. And it was told him that Concobar with his chief lords would visit the castle.
Then Felim made a feast, and there was great rejoicing, and all men were glad.
But in the midst of the feast an old magician, who was of those that had come with the King, stood up before the great gathering. Long and white was the hair that fell upon his bent shoulders, black were the eyes that gazed into space from beneath his shaggy eyebrows.
'Speak,' said the King to the old man, 'speak, and tell us that thou seest, for well we know thou piercest the veil that hideth from us the secrets of the morrow.'
Silently and with great awe did all the company look at the wise old man, for those things that he had already foretold had they not come to pass? The magician, also silent, looked from the face of one to the face of another, but when his eyes fell on Concobar, the King, long did they dwell there, and when he lifted them, on Felim did they rest.
Then the Wise Man spake:
'This night, O Felim the Harper, shall a girl-babe be born to thee within these castle walls. Loveliest among the lovely shall thy star-eyed daughter be; no harp-strings shall yield such music as her voice, no fairy strains pour forth such wonder-stirring sound. Yet, O Felim, in days to come, because of this fair child shall great sorrow come upon our King Concobar and upon all his realm. In those days shall Erin's chief glory perish, for if the House of the Red Branch fall, who shall stand?'
Then did a cry of fear burst from those gathered to the feast, and leaping to their feet, each man laid his hand upon his sword, for the word that the wise man had spoken would it not come to pass?
'Let our swords be in readiness,' they cried, 'to kill the babe that shall be born this night, for better far is it that one child perish than that the blood of a nation be spilt.'
And Felim spake: 'Great sorrow is mine that fear of the child who shall be born this night should be upon you. Therefore, if it please the King, let my daughter die, and so may peace yet reign in the realm. For dear as would be a child to my wife and to me, dearer yet is the common weal.'
But the answer of King Concobar came not for a time. His soul was filled with desire to see the star-eyed maiden and to hear the wonder of her voice. Still was the hand of each upon his sword when the King spake.
'Put far from thee, O Felim, the will to do this thing. Bend not thy mind to the death of thine own child. And ye, my people, sheathe your swords. Let the babe live. I, Concobar, will be her guardian, and if ill befall, let it be upon me, your King.'
At these words arose a Prince.
'It would be well, O King, but for the word spoken by the Wise Man, for hath he not said, "Because of this fair child shall great sorrow come upon the King Concobar"? If we let the babe live, then must thy people see thee in sore distress, for the word that the Wise Man speaketh, shall it not come to pass?'
'Of that am I not unmindful. Deep within the forest, beyond the Moor of Loneliness, shall her childish days be spent. Gently tended shall she be, but the eye of man shall not behold her, and solitary shall she live as some unmated bird in distant wilderness.'
Then with one accord did the people cry, 'Wilt thou indeed be guardian to this child, knowing the ill that the Wise Man hath foretold?'
'Yea, truly will I be guardian to the child, and when she be a woman then shall she be my wedded wife. And if with the maiden come sorrow, then be that sorrow upon me, and not upon the land.'
'What sayest thou, O Felim the Harper?' cried the people.
'It were better to slay the child than to let that come which hath been foretold.'
'And what sayest thou, O Wise Man?'
'That which shall come, shall come.'
At the same moment there entered the hall a servant of Felim, and loudly did he proclaim that the girl-babe, who had been foretold, was born. 'Right beautiful and strong is the child, most fair to look upon.'
'And Deirdre shall her name be,' said the Wise Man, 'Deirdre the Star-eyed.'
And because of the words that the King Concobar had spoken, the life of the babe was spared, and when the days of feasting were past, Concobar returned to his palace, and with him he took the infant child and her mother. Yet after a month he bade the mother return to Felim her husband, but the babe Deirdre he kept.
And deep within the forest, beyond the Moor of Loneliness, did the King command that a cottage be built, and when Deirdre was one year, thither was she sent with a trusted nurse. But on the trees of the forest and throughout the land was proclaimed the order of the King Concobar, that whosoever should hunt, or for other purpose enter the wood, death should be his portion.
Once each week did the King visit the fair babe, and daily were stores of food and milk brought to the lone dwelling. And Deirdre each year grew more fair, but none beheld her beauty, save her nurse, her tutor, and Lavarcam.
This Lavarcam was a woman well trusted of the King, and she alone went to and fro between the palace and the cottage. It was she who told to Deirdre the old tales of knights and ladies, of dragons and of fairies that dwelt in the Enchanted Land.
When Deirdre was seven years old the King no longer came every week to the forest, but twice in the year only, and that as the Spring put forth her first green shoots, and again when Autumn gleaned her harvest of gold.
And when another seven years had sped, then came not the King thither, either when the earth was green or golden, nor in the blue summer nor the hoary winter, but from Lavarcam he heard that it was well with the maid.
One white winter's morning Deirdre looked from her window, and saw lying in the snow a calf. It had been killed by her nurse to provide food for the little household, and its bright red blood dyed the thick-lying snow. As Deirdre watched the flow of the scarlet stream, a raven, black as night, flew down and drank of the warm blood. Then Deirdre smiled.
'Where are thy thoughts, fair child?' asked Lavarcam, entering the room.
'Only did I think,' said Deirdre, 'that if a youth could be found whose skin was white as snow, his cheek crimson as that pool of blood, and his hair black as the raven's wing, him could I love right gladly.'
Then Lavarcam spake: 'Such a man have I seen, and one only.'
'His name, Lavarcam, his name?' cried Deirdre. 'Whence comes he, and wherefrom he be found?'
'The fairest of three fair brothers is this Nathos, the son of Usna, and now is he with Concobar the King.'
And Deirdre would thereafter think of none but Nathos, and Lavarcam was much troubled because of the words that she had spoken. And when Deirdre longed grievously by day and night to see this Nathos of whom she had heard, Lavarcam thought of a plan whereby she might end the maiden's dream.
One day, as she came from the palace of the King, she met on the Moor of Loneliness a swineherd and two shepherd lads. And well though she knew that none might enter the forest, she led them to a well in its leafy depths. Then said this woman trusted of the King, 'Wait here by this well until the jay cry and the hill-fox bark. Then move slowly on your way, but speak to none whom ye may meet, and when ye leave the wood let not your lips tell those things ye shall have seen and heard.'
With these words Lavarcam left the three men, and entered the cottage.
'Come, Deirdre,' she cried, 'the crisp snow glistens in the sunshine. Let us wander forth.'
And Deirdre came, and dreamily she trod where Lavarcam led. Of a sudden the older woman left her side, and bent as though she would gather a woodland flower. At the same moment was heard the cry of the jay and the bark of the hill-fox. Then came Lavarcam to the maiden's side.
'Passing strange is it,' said Deirdre, 'to hear the jay cry and the hill-fox bark while yet the snow lies thick.'
'Heed not strange sounds, fair Deirdre, but cast thine eyes toward yonder well.'
And as Deirdre gazed she saw, as in a dream, the forms of three men come slowly through the forest.
'These, Deirdre, are men,' said Lavarcam.
'Yet seem they not as the men I have seen ride by across the Moor of Loneliness, for they were fair to look upon, but mine eyes have no pleasure in beholding these strange forms.'
'Yet you look upon Nathos, for these men are none other than the three sons of Usna.'
Deirdre started. 'Idle are your words, false Lavarcam. Yonder walks not a man with skin white as snow, with cheek crimson as blood, nor with hair black as the raven's wing. You lie!' And the maid made haste, and she reached the men, and stood before them.
Amazed at her exceeding beauty, they gazed in silence. 'Tell me if ye be the sons of Usna. Speak!'
But in wonder at the loveliness of the maiden, and in fear of the anger of Lavarcam, the men were dumb.
'Speak!' she again cried. 'If indeed ye be Nathos and his brothers, then truly hath Concobar the King my pity.'
At these words the swineherd could no longer keep silence.
'It is thy exceeding beauty that telleth us that thou art that Deirdre whom the King hideth in this forest. Why mock us by asking if we are the fairest of Concobar's nobles? Clearly canst thou see we are but men of the hills, I a poor swineherd, and these men shepherds.'
'Then wilt thou, swineherd, for truly do I believe thy words, get thee to the sons of Usna, and say to Nathos the eldest, that in the forest beyond the Moor of Loneliness, Deirdre awaits his coming. Tell him that to-morrow, an hour before the setting of the sun, he will find her by this well.'
'If it be known that I so break the law of the King, I die, yet will I go right gladly.'
Then Deirdre left the men, and walked slowly after Lavarcam. And Lavarcam would fain have known what Deirdre had told the swineherd, but the girl told her nought, and was in a dream all that day and all the morrow.
It was in the wane of the morrow that Lavarcam went forth to take counsel of the King. And Deirdre ran with great speed to the well, but no man was there, and she waited long, but none came.
While Deirdre waited by the well, Lavarcam came near to the King's palace. And lo! there, on the ground before her, lay the dead body of the swineherd. Thus was it made known to Lavarcam that in some wise Concobar the King had heard that the swineherd had spoken with Deirdre.
Therefore Lavarcam went not to the palace, but turned aside to the camp of the sons of Usna. And Nathos came out to her, and she told him of the loneliness of the fair Deirdre and of her longing to see him.
Then said Nathos, 'But it may not be yet awhile, for Concobar found that the fair Deirdre had spoken with the swineherd, and for that cause lies he yonder, a dead man.'
'Yet tarry not long, for if thou wouldst hunt in the forest, beyond the well, then surely wouldst thou see Deirdre the Star-eyed, and none should know.'
Seven days passed, and Deirdre roamed in the wood dreaming her dream, when of a sudden there came an unknown sound. Ah, could it be the hunting-horn of which Lavarcam had spoken in her tales of chase? The maiden paused. The horn ceased. Nathos had left the hunt and wandered through the glade. There, against a background of blue haze, encircled by a network of blossoming blackthorn, shone forth the fairest vision mortal eye had beheld.
Speech tarried as Nathos gazed spell-bound.
At length the maiden questioned, 'Nathos, son of Usna, what wouldst thou?'
'Strange is it that thou shouldst know my name, most fair. No mortal art thou. Fain would I enter yonder cottage, did I but dare, and speak with the daughter of Felim the Harper. Yet it is death should the King know of my desire.'
'I am that Deirdre whom thou seekest, and if I be fair in thine eyes, it pleaseth me well. It is for thee I have watched long, for is not thy skin white as snow, thy cheek crimson as blood, and thy hair black as the raven's wing? Lonely are my days in this place, where none dwells save my nurse, my tutor, and Lavarcam.'
Never did harp-strings yield such music as her voice, never did fairy strains pour forth such wonder-stirring sound.
'Art thou indeed Deirdre the Star-eyed, and is it that King Concobar keepeth thee here like some caged bird?'
'I am Deirdre, and it is the King's will that I wander not forth from yonder cottage but by the side of Lavarcam. Ill would it please him that I should thus roam the forest alone.'
'I love thee, Deirdre, and I would serve thee ever.'
'I love thee, Nathos, and I would that I might be ever by thy side. Let me flee with thee from this place.'
Nathos knit his brows in thought. 'Fair one, if we are seen as we leave the forest, then is it death to us both; and if we are not seen, still is it death, for when it is known of the King that Deirdre is fled, then will the land be searched until she be found, and then shall we die.'
'But, Nathos, Concobar is not King in the land of Alba. Let us flee from Erin, and there in thine own land shall we surely find safety.'
'Thou speakest well, brave Deirdre. If a host be sent from Concobar to Alba, then shall it be met by a host of mine own land. And a fair land it is. Scented with pine and seaweed are its shores, blue as thine eyes are its waters, and of its setting sun the glory cannot be told.'
'Let us go forth,' said Deirdre.
'Then let it be now and without delay, or it may never be,' and as Nathos uttered these words Deirdre saw a strange look in his eyes, and in a moment he had flung his javelin among the bracken but a few paces apart.
'What beast wouldst thou slay?' cried Deirdre, affrighted.
'It was no beast,' said Nathos, 'but yonder among the bracken lieth a dead man, if my javelin missed not its mark.'
In fear and wonder Deirdre ran to the spot. No man lay there, but she saw on the bracken the form of a crouching man. She saw, too, the tracks that marked his escape.
Nathos followed her, and stooped to take his javelin from the ground. And there, beside it, lay a wooden-hilted knife.
'It is as I thought,' he said. 'This knife is used but by the hillmen who are in bondage to Concobar. The King seeketh my life. Go thou, then, back to thy lonely cottage, and await that day when he shall make thee his Queen.'
'Ask me not to turn from following thee, O Nathos, for thy way must be mine, this day and ever.'
'Come, then,' and Nathos took her by the hand.
Through the shadowy forest they walked swiftly, until of a sudden he bade her rest among the bracken. Then went he forward and told his waiting huntsmen to return by a long and winding path to the castle of the sons of Usna.
Three days would it thus take them to reach it, and Nathos with Deirdre would be there on the morrow, if, tarrying not, they walked on through the dark night. But Concobar's messengers would follow the hounds, thinking so to capture Nathos.
'By dawn, Deirdre, shall we reach the castle, and there may we rest in safety one day and one night. Then must we set out for the hills and lochs of Alba, and with us Ailne and Ardan, for if the King cometh and findeth me fled, then will he slay my brothers.'
On and on they sped, through the forest, across the Moor of Loneliness, up the glens and gorges, and over the hills. Above glimmered the pale stars, around them was the screech and the moan of wakeful bird and beast.
It was not till the dawn broke that they rested on the mountain-side. There they stayed till the pink stole through the grey, and the sky gleamed mother-o'-pearl. Then they rose and followed the stream that trickled to the valley below. And now Nathos was glad.
'Look, Deirdre, yonder stands the castle of the sons of Usna.' And with that he gave a cry known by the brothers each of the other, and Ailne and Ardan came forth gladly. But when they stood before Deirdre, so great was their wonder at her exceeding beauty, that they stood spell-bound and uttered no word.
Then Nathos spake: 'The fair maiden whom ye behold is none other than Deirdre, the daughter of Felim the Harper. From this day I hold her as my wedded wife, and to you she cometh as a sister.'
But when the brothers heard, they were filled with fear, for had not the King Concobar vowed that this same fair maid should be his Queen? And had not the Wise Man foretold the sorrow that the daughter of Felim should bring upon the land?
'I ask none to share the sorrow that may come,' said Nathos. 'To-morrow Deirdre and I set forth for the bay where our galley is harboured, and if so be that we gain the shores of Alba, before Concobar overtake us, there, if he come thither, shall he be met by a host of our own land. Yet, lest the King should follow me hither, and, finding me not, seek to slay you, were it not well that ye leave this place?'
Ardan spake: 'Not for fear of that which might come upon us, but for the love we bear you and our fair sister Deirdre will we never leave thee. If sorrow come upon thee, let it be upon us also. Are we not the children of one mother, and if death come, let us face it together like men. Are we not under a bond that we will stand each by each, even unto death?'
Then said Ailne, 'As Ardan hath spoken, so let it be, for although the words of the Wise Man come to pass, and sorrow be upon us, yet will we not henceforth leave thee.'
But when Deirdre heard how the sons of Usna would thus face death for her sake, she sighed aloud. 'Alas! it is not for me to bring sorrow upon the land. Let me even now return to the cottage in the forest, and there with Lavarcam will I live and die, unless it be that Concobar take me thence.'
But Ardan answered: 'For fear of what may befall us, the sons of Usna, shalt thou never leave us, nor shalt thou go forth from us, but of thine own free will.'
Early next morning one hundred and fifty men rode with the three sons of Usna and Deirdre, the wife of Nathos, toward the bay where their black galley was harboured. It was not till night, when on the high ridge of a hill, that they looked backward, and there in the far valley below, where stood the castle of the sons of Usna, they beheld a column of flame.
And Nathos' brow grew dark. 'The fire that ye see in the valley below devours the castle of the sons of Usna. The hand that lit the fire is none other than the hand of Concobar the King.'
Then they rode on and rested not until they reached the black galley in the golden bay. The scent of the sea and the gleam of its blue waters and dancing waves made them strong and glad and free.
As for Deirdre, who had never beheld the sea and its great wonders, she laughed with joy and sang a song of the ocean which Lavarcam had taught her long since and when its meaning was dark.
At sundown the galley came to the shores of Mull, and because the wind fell they put into a bay, and as they gazed across the waters to the rocky headlands of Alba, they talked long as to whither they should sail on the morrow. Should it be to crave protection of the King, or should it be to where their father's castle had stood before it had been destroyed?
But that night there came a galley from the long island to the north. In it sailed twenty men with their chief. And with the chief came a richly-clad stranger, but so hooded that none might look upon his face.
Steadfastly did the stranger gaze upon Deirdre, as the chief urged the sons of Usna to cross the sea to Alba, and journey inland to the palace of the King.
'But first come, Nathos, to my high-walled castle,' said the stranger, 'and bring with thee thy wife and thy brothers.'
'It were not well to come to a man's castle and know not the man's name,' said Nathos.
'My name is Angus,' answered the stranger.
'Then, Angus, let me behold thy face, for it were not well to come to a man's castle, having not looked upon the man's face.'
So Angus threw back his hood, and Nathos saw that Deirdre's lips grew white, as she said, 'Not to-morrow, Angus; but on the morn that follows, if thou wilt come again, then shalt thou lead us to thy high-walled castle. This day have we travelled far and would fain rest.'
But Angus turned him again to the sons of Usna and pleaded that they should linger no longer in the isle. 'To-night may this island be tempest-swept, to-night may the host of Concobar be upon you, and then what shall befall this fair one? Bring her rather to my castle, and there let her rest in safety with my wife and her maidens.'
But as Nathos glanced at Deirdre, he saw that her purpose was firm, and he said once again the words she had spoken, 'Not tomorrow, Angus; but on the morn that follows, if thou wilt come again, then shall we come with thee to thy high-walled castle'
Then Angus, frowning, went with the chief and his men to their galley. And as they set sail he asked how many men the sons of Usna had with them. But when it was told him that they numbered one hundred and fifty, he said no more, for there were but thirty that sailed with the chief, and what could one man do against five?
It was not until the strangers had gone that Nathos asked Deirdre wherefore she delayed to visit so great a lord as Angus.
'Thou shalt hear wherefore I went not this day, nor shall go on any day to come to the castle of him who calleth himself Angus. So he calleth himself, but in truth he is none other than the King of Alba. In a dream was it so revealed unto me, when I saw him stand victorious over your dead body. Nathos, that man would fain steal me from you, and deliver you into the hands of Concobar.'
'Deirdre hath wisdom,' said Ardan. 'By the morn after to-morrow we must be far hence, for ere the sun shall rise may not yonder chief be upon us with thrice the number of our men?'
And Nathos, though he was sore grieved for the weariness of Deirdre, bowed his head. So they set sail, and through the thick mist of a starless night their galley silently breasted the unseen waves. But when they came north of the long island, they bent to their oars, and as they rowed yet northward Deirdre laughed again for joy, as she listened to the music of the rowers' strokes.
When dawn glimmered they came to a sea-loch, its waters o'ershadowed by the sleeping hills. And there they were told that the King of Alba, who had called himself Angus, had no castle in the west, and had already left for Dunedin. They heard, too, that the chief who sailed with him to Mull was no longer a great lord, and that they had nought to fear.
Greatly did the sons of Usna rejoice, for now might they sail south to the land upon which their father's castle had stood in their boyhood.
But for eight days they lingered by the shores of the sea-loch, and as its salt breath touched Deirdre's cheeks, she grew yet more fair, and as her eyes drank in the glory of Western Alba, they shone with a radiance that dazzled the beholder.
Then when the eighth day was come, they sailed forth and settled close by the ground on which had stood their boyhood's home. And it was with great joy that those who dwelt on hill and shore heard of the return of the sons of Usna, and many gathered around them, doing homage.
Then the hundred and fifty men whom Nathos had brought with him, sent he back to their own Green Isle.
'And thou, Ailne, and thou, Ardan, will ye not also return? Here may Deirdre and I, with a few followers, dwell alone in safety.'
But his brothers would not leave Nathos, for were they not under a bond that they would stand each by each, even unto death?
All through the winter they dwelt in peace and content. By day they would hunt and fish, and when night fell Deirdre let fall from her lips such wonder-stirring sounds that their heroic bosoms swelled with dreams of noble deeds and high endeavour.
But when Spring burst upon the land with her blossom and her singing-birds, it was told the sons of Usna that the King of Alba had sworn to burn to the ground every stone that stood on the land that had been their father's, and to slay Nathos, and wed the Star-eyed Deirdre.
So in their great galley they set forth, taking with them fifty men. Northward they sailed, through narrow sea-lochs, until they reached the mountains that had been the childhood's home of their dead mother.
On the summit of a high hill stood the castle where she had once dwelt. Now it was forsaken of all save wandering shepherds and nesting birds, and here, in all the glory of spring, did the sons of Usna make their home. Nor was it long before the chiefs of the mountain-lands swore allegiance to Nathos and did him homage, and he was as a king among the people of his mother's land.
And while yet the wild thyme bloomed, word was brought to the sons of Usna that the King of Alba was dead, and that the King who now reigned would fain sign a bond of friendship with Nathos and his brothers.
And the bond was signed, and for three years the sons of Usna dwelt in peace and great joy. In the north they rested while yet the mountain-sides were aglow with the purple and gold of heather and bracken, but ever before the first frosts came would they sail south to the land that the brave Usna had ruled, where now they could dwell in safety and in peace.
Thence ofttimes in the young summer would they sail southwards. No bluer blue, no greener green, had it been given mortal eye to behold. And throughout the land of Alba was it told of the fame of the sons of Usna, and no poet or bard had a song so fair as that which sang of the wondrous beauty of Deirdre.
In his dazzling palace in the Green Isle of Erin, Concobar dwelt with gloomy thoughts of vengeance. This Nathos who had stolen Deirdre from the forest beyond the Moor of Loneliness should no longer be suffered to live in peace. He should surely die, and Deirdre the Star-eyed should yet be Concobar's Queen.
And the King made a feast so magnificent that such had never been seen in the Green Isle. And to it were called all the princes and nobles of the land over which Concobar held sway.
It was in the midst of the feast, as they sat around the board, that a hush fell upon the great company, while Concobar spoke to them of his discontent. 'It is not meet that these three heroes of the realm, Nathos, Ardan and Ailne, should be exiled from our isle for the sake of a woman, be she fair as May. Should dark days befall, sore would be our need, therefore let the sons of Usna be brought hither from their northern mountain home.'
At these words great was the joy of all, for there was not one but knew that it was for fear of the pitiless anger of Concobar that Nathos had fled from the Green Isle.
'Go forth,' said Concobar, when he saw the gladness of the people, 'go hence to Alba and come not again until ye bring with you the three sons of Usna.'
Then spake one among them, 'Right gladly we go, but who can bring to thee Nathos, if it be not his will?'
'He who loves me most,' answered the King, 'he it is that will fail not to bring with him the exiled heroes.'
And after the feast the King drew aside a warrior prince, and spake thus: 'Were I to send thee to Alba to the sons of Usna, and if at my command thou didst see them slain before thee, what then wouldst thou do?'
'Then, O King, would I slay those who did the monstrous deed, even were it at thy command.'
Again the King called to him a warrior prince. To him he spake as to the first. And this prince made answer, 'If by thy command I saw the sons of Usna lie dead before me, then woe be upon thee, for with mine own hand should I take thy life.'
Then spake the King likewise to Fergus, and Fergus answered, 'Let what may befall the sons of Usna, never shall my hand be lifted against the King.'
'To thee, good Fergus, do I intrust this thing. Go thou to Alba and bring hither with thee Nathos, and Ailne, and Ardan. And when thou art come again to Erin, keep thou thy bond to feast at the house of Borrach, but the three sons of Usna send thou straightway hither.'
So it was that on the morrow Fergus set sail in a black barge for Alba, taking with him but his two sons and a steersman.
The bloom of early summer made bright the earth, and Nathos and his brothers had not yet left their father's home for the castle in the north. But the days were hot, and they had pitched three tents on the seashore, one for Nathos and Deirdre, one for Ailne and Ardan, and one in which to eat and to drink. It was on a bright noon that Nathos and Deirdre sat before the tents, playing chess.
The chess-board was of ivory, the chessmen were of wrought gold, and they had belonged to Concobar, for on the day before the sons of Usna fled from Alba, the King had been hunting by their castle, and there had he left the board and men.
As Nathos and Deirdre played, of a sudden was a cry heard from adown the shore.
'Yonder is the voice of a man of Erin,' said Nathos, as they paused in their game.
Again a loud cry, and the sons of Usna were called by name.
'Yea, most truly is that the cry of a man of Erin.'
But Deirdre said, 'Nay, thou dreamest, Nathos. Let us play on.'
Then nearer and clearer came a third cry, and there was none but knew that it was indeed the voice of a man of Erin.
'Go, Ardan,' said Nathos, 'go to the harbour, and there welcome Fergus from the Green Isle, for he indeed it is and none other.'
But when Ardan went, Nathos saw that Deirdre's lips grew pale and a great fear looked out from her eyes.
'What terror is it that hath hold of thee?' he asked.
'Hath it not been revealed to me in a dream, O Nathos, that this Fergus who should come with honey-sweet words hath in his mind the shedding of our blood?'
Even as she spake Ardan led Fergus to where the two sat on either side of the chess-board.
Eagerly did the exiled sons of Usna beg for tidings of their friends in the Green Isle.
'I come to you,' said Fergus, 'with greetings from Concobar the King. Fain would he see once more in Erin the fairest and bravest heroes of his realm. Peace he would pledge with you, and great shall be your welcome, if ye will come back with me.'
But before the brothers could answer, Deirdre spake. 'Here in Alba is Nathos now lord over lands wider than the realm of Concobar. Wherefore then should he seek forgiveness of the King?'
'Yet,' replied Fergus, 'Erin is the land of his adoption. Since his boyhood's days Nathos has been a hero in the Green Isle, and it were well that he should yet rejoice in the land, and, if need be, defend it still.'
'We have two lands,' said Ardan, 'and both are dear unto us. Yet, if Nathos will go with thee to Erin, so also will Ailne and I, myself.'
'I will go,' said Nathos, but he looked not at his star-eyed wife as he spake the words.
That night all rejoiced save Deirdre. Heavy was her heart as she thought she would never again, in shadow or in sunlight, rest in the land of Alba of the lochs.
On the morrow they set sail, and swiftly the galley bore them to the shores of the Green Isle. And when Deirdre stood once more on the soil of her own land, then was her heart glad, and for a brief space she remembered not her fears or her dreams.
In three days they came to the castle of Borrach, and there had Fergus to keep his bond to feast with Borrach. 'For,' he said, turning to those with him, 'my feast-bond I must keep, yet send I with you my two sons.'
'Of a surety, Fergus, must thou keep thy feast-bond,' answered Nathos, 'but as for thy sons, I need not their protection, yet in the company each of the other will we fare southward together.'
But as they went, Deirdre urged that they should tarry, and when they had gone further, Nathos found that his wife had vanished from his side. Going back he found her in deep sleep by the wayside.
Gently waking her, Nathos read terror in her starry eyes.
'What aileth thee, my Queen?'
'Again have I dreamed, O Nathos, and in my dream I saw our little company, but as I looked, on the younger son of Fergus alone, was the head left upon his body. Turn aside, and let us go not to Concobar, or that thing which I saw in my dream, it shall come to pass.'
But Nathos feared not, for had not Fergus come to them with the bond of peace from the King?
And on the morrow they came to the great palace.
When it was told Concobar that the three sons of Usna and Deirdre the Star-eyed, and the two sons of Fergus were without, he ordered that they should be taken into the House of the Red Branch. And he ordered, too, that there should be given unto them of pleasant foods, and that all that dwelt in the castle should do them honour.
But when evening was come, and all the company was merry, Deirdre was wearied with journeying, and she lay upon a couch draped with deerskins, and played with Nathos upon the gold and ivory chess-board.
And as Deirdre rested, the door opened, and there entered a messenger from the King. And this messenger was none other than Lavarcam, who had been sent to discover if Deirdre were still as fair as in days of old. And when Lavarcam beheld Deirdre, her eyes filled with tears. 'You do not well, O Nathos, thus to play upon the chess-board which Concobar holds dearer than aught else save Deirdre, thy wife. Both have ye taken from him, and here, within these walls, are ye now in his power.'
Of a sudden Deirdre spake, her gaze fixed as if on some strange thing. 'I see as in a dream. As in a dream I see three torches. The three torches are this night put out. The names on the torches are Nathos, Ailne, Ardan. Alas! it is but for the beauty of a woman that these brave ones perish.'
The sons of Usna were silent awhile, and the sons of Fergus spake not. Then said Nathos, 'It were better, Deirdre, to be a torch quenched for thy sake than to live for aught save thee. That which shall come, shall come.'
'Now must I get me hence,' said Lavarcam, 'for Concobar awaiteth my coming. But, sons of Usna, see ye well to it, that the doors and windows be this night barred.'
Then Lavarcam hastened to the King and told him how that the sons of Usna had come to Erin to live peaceably, but how that the beauty of Deirdre had faded until she was no longer fairest among women.
Then was Concobar wroth, and he sent yet another messenger.
To this man he said, 'Who was it that slew thy father and thy brother?'
'Nathos, son of Usna, O King!'
'Then go thou to the House of the Red Branch, and bring me word hither if Deirdre be still the fairest among women.'
And the man went. But when he found that bar and bolt were drawn across door and window, he knew well that the sons of Usna were warned of the wrath of the King. But espying one open window, he put his eye near to the lower corner that he might glance within. And Deirdre saw the man's eye, and told Nathos, and he, with the ivory bishop that was in his hand, took aim as if with a javelin, and the chessman pierced the spy's eye, and it became blind.
And the man returned to King Concobar and said, 'Of a surety Deirdre, the wife of Nathos, is yet of all fair women the most fair.'
Then could not Concobar contain his wrath, but burst forth, 'Arise, ye Ultonians; the fort that surroundeth the House of the Red Branch set ye in flames.'
And the Ultonians set it in flames.
Then came out the younger of the sons of Fergus from the burning fort, and he rushed upon the Ultonians and killed three hundred men. And when King Concobar beheld the onslaught, he cried aloud, 'Who hath done this thing?'
And when it was told him that it was the son of Fergus, he said, 'To such a hero will I give the choice of lands, and he will be to me as a son, if he will but forsake the sons of Usna.'
And the son of Fergus made answer, 'I swear to abide by thee and to return not to the House of the Red Branch.'
And when he returned not, Deirdre, said, 'Even as Fergus hath deceived us, even so hath his son.'
Then went forth the elder son of Fergus, and he fell upon the Ultonians, and there perished by his hand three hundred men. And when Concobar saw who it was that had done this thing, he called his own son, who had been born the same night as this son of Fergus. 'Take these, my magic arms,' he cried, 'and fall upon the foe.'
Then did the son of Concobar strike with his enchanted weapons, and all the waves of Erin thundered at the stroke. And a great warrior, hearing the thunder, came riding across the plain, and in his hand he held a magic sword with blade of blue. Coming upon the fighting men, he rushed at the son of Fergus from behind, and thrust the blue blade through his heart. 'I would that mine enemy had fought me fair,' said the dying man.
'Who art thou?' asked the stranger.
And the son of Fergus told his name, and of that which had come to pass in the House of the Red Branch.
Then answered the stranger, 'I shall not depart hence, no, not until the son of Concobar be slain in the dust'; and thereupon he rushed upon the King's son, and with one stroke of the blue blade severed his head from his body. So he departed, and soon the son of Fergus also lay dead.
And now the Ulstermen surrounded the House of the Red Branch and set fire to its walls. But Ardan came forth, and put out the fire, and slew three hundred men, and after he had gone in, then came Ailne forth, and slew a countless multitude beside.
A glimmering ray of dim grey light now broke, and spread over the forms of dead and dying men.
It was at that hour that Nathos kissed Deirdre and went forth from the House. And there was not a man but quailed as the hero rushed upon the Ultonians and slew a thousand men.
When Concobar heard this, he sent for that Wise Man who in the house of Felim the Harper had foretold the sorrow that would come upon his realm.
And when the old man had come, Concobar said, 'I swear that I mean no harm unto the sons of Usna, yet will they slay every Ultonian in the land. Therefore I would that thou wouldst help me by thy magic power.'
And the Wise Man believed the words of Concobar, and he caused a hedge of spears to encircle the burning House. And as the flames rose higher the sons of Usna came forth with Deirdre the Star-eyed. And around her they placed their shields, and they cleft a way through the Hedge of Spears and came safely to the plain beyond.
But when the Wise Man saw that his magic availed nought, he laid upon the land yet another enchantment, for the plain upon which Deirdre stood with the sons of Usna, he caused to be covered with tempestuous water.
And the magic sea rose higher and yet more high, so that Nathos raised Deirdre on his shoulder, and there she rested, her white arms around the hero's neck.
But now the waters grew calm, and it was seen that drowning was not their doom.
Then, as the waters withdrew from the plain, soldiers came to bind Nathos, Ailne, and Ardan, and to take them before the King. And Concobar commanded that they should be slain before his eyes.
'If such be our doom, then slay me first,' said Ardan, 'for I am the youngest of Usna's sons.'
'Nay,' said Ailne, 'but let the first blow fall upon me.'
Then Nathos spake: 'It were not meet that we three, the sons of one mother, should be divided in death. Together have we sowed the seeds in the springtime, side by side have we plucked the fruits of summer; autumn is still afar, yet must we be cut down as ripe corn. But let us fall each by each, that there may not be left the one to mourn the other. With this sword that was given me by a hero of the land may our heads at one stroke be severed from our bodies.'
With that they laid their heads upon the block. A flash of the steel, and Alba was bereft of the fairest and noblest of her sons. And the air was rent with cries of lamentation.
Then did a great champion ride across the plain, and to him did Deirdre tell of the fate of the sons of Usna. And under his care the star-eyed maiden came where the heroes lay dead.
And Deirdre kneeled, and she bent low over the head of Nathos, and kissed his dead lips.
Then, at the bidding of the champion, three graves were digged, and in them, standing upright, were buried Nathos and Ailne and Ardan, and upon the shoulders of each was his head placed.
And as Deirdre gazed into the grave of Nathos, she moaned a lay which told of the brave deeds of the sons of Usna. It told, too, of her love for Nathos, and as she ended the mournful strain, her heartstrings broke, and she fell at the feet of her husband, and there did she die, and by his side was she buried.
In that same hour died the Wise Man; and as he died, he cried aloud, 'That which shall come, shall come.'
And so it was, for on the morrow Concobar's host was scattered as autumn leaves, and the House of the Red Branch perished, and ere long Concobar died in a madness of despair, and throughout the Green Isle was mourning and desolation.
But through the ages has the tale of the wondrous beauty of Deirdre been sung, and yet shall it be told again, for when shall the world tire of the sorrowfullest of 'The Three Sorrows of Story-telling,'--the Fate of the Sons of Usna and of Deirdre the Star-eyed?