A Book of Myths

Page: 156

“The tenderness of heartsweet Deirdrê”—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 Deirdrê and the Sons of Usna. Rumour came to him that the king of Alba [Pg 320] had planned to come against Naoise, to slay him, and to take Deirdrê for his wife, but that ere he could come the Sons of Usna and Deirdrê 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 Deirdrê, 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, [Pg 321] 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 Deirdrê 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. [Pg 322] 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 Deirdrê, that was the loss that gave the king the greatest bitterness. Now it came to pass that as Naoise and Deirdrê were sitting in front of their dun, the little waves of Loch Etive lapping up on the seaweed, yellow as the hair of Deirdrê, 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.