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A Book of Myths

Page: 160

In the House of the Red Branch, Deirdrê 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 Deirdrê, and drank a drink, and went out against the [Pg 330] 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 Deirdrê 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 Deirdrê 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 [Pg 331] 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!”


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