The Laughter of Peterkin
|Darthool and the Sons of
Thereafter days passed. On the morrow of the seventh day Darthool was wandering among the glades and thickets of the uplands far away from the lios, rejoicing in her new freedom and hoping that one day her eyes might look upon Nathos. She was dreaming her dream, when she started at a strange sound, the like of which she had never heard.
The far-off baying of hounds she knew, for oftentimes of old Concobar had ridden to the forest with his deerhounds: but that strange, wild, blazoning sound---- Was it the voice of the flying creature the hounds pursued?
Then the thought came to her that it was the hunting horn she had often heard of in the songs and war-ballads which Lavarcam and Aeifa were wont to sing to her.
But after that blast the horn no more tore the silence of the deep woods, and the hounds were still: for Nathos had left the chase of the deer and was now moving listless through the green grooms of the forest. Night and day since Lavarcam and the swineherd had told him of Darthool he had dreamed of the beautiful daughter of Felim the Harper. Remembering the last chant of Cathba the Druid, he recalled how Darthool had been named the Beauty of the World, and because he was himself a poet and a dreamer the vision had become part of his life, so that neither by night nor by day was there any hour wherein he did not see in his mind the tall, white-robed figure of Darthool, and the beauty of her eyes, and her face as the sweet wild face of a dream.
And so dreaming he stood at the edge of a glade, his swift eyes watching a fawn dispart a thicket that was close by. Yet it was no fawn as he thought: but rather was it 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 golden 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.
So exceeding great was her beauty that Nathos did not think of her as Darthool or as any mortal woman, but rather as a daughter of the elder gods, or of that bright divine face of the Tuatha-De-Danann, whose beauty surpassed that of human beings as the beauty of the primrose bank that of the brown sod. He looked upon her amazed, and in a silent worship. If she were indeed of the Dedannan folk, she might disappear at any moment as a shadow goes, that now is here asleep upon the grass and in the twinkling of an eye is among the things of oblivion.
At last speech rose to his lips.
"O fair and wonderful one, who I see well art of the old sacred race of the Tuatha-DeDanann, may I have word with thee? It may well be that thou art no other than the wife of Midir himself, she who lives in a fair shining grianan in the hollow of a hill, and lives upon the beauty and fragrance of flowers." Darthool looked at him, and her heart beat. He was in truth fair to see: fairer even than him whom she had imaged in her dreams, or him of whom Lavarcam had spoken.
"Speak. What wouldst thou?"
"I am faring idly through this lonely land, and I know not where I am. Yonder, in the valley behind the oak-glade, is a high-walled rath. Is it a place of the Shee, and so forbidden? or who dwells there, and shall a spear or welcome greet me if I enter?"
"Indeed, thou mayest enter there, and a welcome awaits thee, O Nathos, son of Usna."
"Thou knowest my name, O fair one; then, indeed, thou art of the old wondrous race, who know swifter than our thought, and whose sight is further and deeper than our sight."
"I am no queen, Nathos, nor am I of the Tuatha-De-Danann, but am a woman as other women are. If I am beautiful in thine eyes, of that I am right glad, for thou art fairer to me than any man I have seen or dreamed of, and my pulse leaps when thine eyes look into mine. I am Darthool, the daughter of Felim the Harper; yet am I no better than a slave, for here am I bound to stay, and see no one save Lavarcam and my two women, and here I shall die for loneliness and longing."
Nathos heard her sweet low voice with delight, and it was with joy at his heart he knew she was no strange Dedannan but a woman of his own race, and that she was Darthool. Love rose suddenly within him like a flame: a red flame was it that was in his heart, and a white flame in his mind, and out of these two flames is wrought the love of love and the passion of passion and the dream of dreams.
"Art thou, indeed, Darthool?" he whispered; art thou that Darthool of whom I have dreamed? Strange is the strangeness of this meeting, O white daughter of Felim. For so great is thy beauty that I was fain to believe I saw before me one of the queens of the Tuatha-De-Danann. But is this thing true, that against thine own will Concobar the high king keeps thee here like a trapped bird among these woods?"
"True it is, and more: for it is not even by Concobar's will that I roam the woodlands. He was fain that I should never leave the rath save with Lavarcam, and that I should spend most of my days within the stone walls of the dreary lios where he has doomed me to dwell."
"Darthool, my heart is filled with a rising tide. That tide is love. Thou hast not seen the sea: but there, when the tide flows, there is nothing, there is no one, in all the world, which can say it nay. So is my love for thee, that now rises; and, once thine, will be thine evermore. Yet I would not put this upon thee; and if thy words and looks come out of thy frank, sweet courtesy and open maidenly heart, and mean no more than that thou carest for me as a brother, it is thy brother I will be, Darthool, to serve thee and succour thee and love thee evermore, and in that way only."
For a brief while she looked at him. Then the noon-blue of her eyes deepened, and a flush drifted through her face and waned into the deeper red of her parted lips.
"Nathos," she said in a low voice, which trembled as a reed in the wind, "I, too, love. It is thee I love. If it be wrong for me, a maiden, to speak thus, forgive me, for I have grown wilding here, and am more akin to the fawns of the forest than to womankind of mine own age or estate. But I love thee, Nathos: as of old, in the far-off Dedannan days, Dectura the queen loved the Green Harper, and went forth with him and was seen no more of her own people."
"If thou indeed wilt have it so, Darthool, be thou my Dectura, and let me be thy Green Harper. For beyond the reach of life or death is the greatness of the love I feel for thee, even now in this first hour of our meeting."
"Thy words are in my heart, Nathos; and because that this is so, I now put geas upon thee. Let thy sword be as my sword, and be thou to me as brother and friend and the holder of my leal love: and to this end, l!o I throw this yellow thistle against thy cheek, to raise a mark of shame there if thou dost not fulfil the bond, and there to be seen of all men as a sign and witness of thy disgrace; yea, even thus I put geas upon thee, to succour me in my ill fate, to take me unto thyself, to give thyself unto me, and to let us go forth together heedless of Fate."
Nathos looked at her with proud eyes.
"Of a surety, Darthool, there is no hero of the Red Branch who hath a courage greater than thine, even though it may be that thou speakest the more freely from knowing little of what may befall."
"What can befall save death, and dost thou fear death, son of Usna?"
Nathos smiled out of grave eyes.
"If I feared death, Darthool, I would not now be speaking with thee here. It is swift silence upon any who in this forbidden land speaks with the daughter of Felim the Harper. Concobar MacNessa has the ears of a hare and the eyes of a hawk and the swoop of an eagle. Dost thou remember the swineherd to whom thou givest word privily? Well, that night he lay in the grass tended only by the raven and the wolf for he was done to death with blunt spear-shafts."
"For that I have deep grief," said Darthool, with tears drifting like a rainy mist athwart the blue of her eyes.
"Nevertheless, he died with a smile, Darthool. Thou hadst looked into his eyes and kissed him. Even so, and for less now, would I too die."
"That thou shalt not do, Nathos"; and even as she spoke Darthool moved forward and put her honeysweet lips against the mouth of Nathos, and made his blood leap, and a flame come into his eyes, and a trembling come into his limbs.
Then, as though with that kiss she had become as a wild rose, she stood swaying lightly, her fair face delicately aflame. Nathos put his arms about her, and kissed her on the brow and on the lips.
"That kiss on the brow is for service," he said, "because from this hour thou art my queen; and that kiss on the lips is for love, for from this hour I shall love no woman save thee thyself, but shall be thine and thine only in life or death."
Nevertheless, though Nathos accepted the geas put upon him by Darthool, he was troubled at the thought of the anger of Concobar the high king. It would be a swift and bitter death for him, and for Darthool too it might be death or worse.
The thought in his mind swam into his eyes, and Darthool saw it. She shrank from him, and stood hesitating and as though about to flee at his first word of doubt. When he looked at her again his last fear went.
"Fair wonderful one, thou art as a fawn there in the fern where thou standest; Darthool, do not doubt the truth of my words. I am thine to love and to serve, and am under geas to thee. But my thought was this : if we two go hence and are waylaid, it will be death, and if we go hence and are not waylaid forthwith, it will still be death; for long is the arm, and heavy the hand, and tireless the quest of Concobar MacNessa. And this too: that if we cross the Moyle and go to Alba, it may still be death; yea, though for a year or for a brood of years we elude the undying wrath and vengeance of the king."
"He will forget when once the bird is flown. Neither the bird nor the wind leaves any track, so let our flight be as that of the bird and our way be as that of the wind."
"The king forgetteth not. If so be that we might escape him many years, he will yet have his will of us in the end; and this though thou wert old, Darthool, and wert no longer his desire, and though I were outlawed and broken and no more in his sight than a wolf of the hills, good to slay if come upon, but not worthy of chase."
"Concobar is not a king in Alba?"
"Then let us go to thine own land. He can do no more than send emissaries after us, and with these thou canst deal swiftly, Nathos."
At that, Nathos lightly laughed.
"Truly, I am seeing Concobar as a man sees his own shadow in the water. He is a great king in Uladh, but he is no more in Alba than any hero of the Red Branch. Come, Darthool; across the Moyle are the pine-green shores of Alba. It is a fair, beautiful land. The sealochs reach far among pine-clad hills, and green pastures are on the slopes of the great mountains and around the shadowy, inland waters. The forests are full of deer and wild birds, the rivers and lochs of fish, the pastures of cattle and sheep and swift brown mares. Thou shalt have milk to drink, and the red flesh of the salmon, and the brown flesh of the deer, and the white flesh of the badger. Thou shalt lack for nothing, who art my queen; and thou shalt have love till the sun grows a lordlier fire and the stars leap in their slow dance from dusk to dawn."
"I will come," Darthool whispered, with glad eyes.
"Only thou must not delay. Thy coming must be now. Thou must not even enter the rath again. Otherwise it is never the waters of the Moyle that we shall see, but only the red flame in the eyes of Concobar."
Even while Nathos spoke his eyes grew hard, and his hands slipped to the javelin he had by his side. While Darthool watched him in amaze, he swung the iron-pointed shaft at a place where a bent bracken hung listless in the air.
"Is it a wolf?" cried Darthool, in sudden affright.
"It is worse than a wolf," answered Nathos; "for if thou wilt go to that place thou wilt see either a slain man, or the form of a man, in the grass beneath the bracken."
Swiftly Darthool ran to the spot wherein the javelin had swung singing. There was no one there, but, where the javelin still quivered slightly, she saw the still warm shape of a crouching man, and discerned, by the bending of the bracken, what course he must have twisted away.
Nathos followed and stood beside her. As he stooped to pluck the javelin from the ground, he descried a wooden-hilted knife.
"It is as I thought," he said gravely. "Concobar has set a spy upon me. No Ultonian carries a knife such as this. It belongs to the hillmen of the north-west, of whom a few years agone we made slaves. Mayhap one of these men who were with the swineherd has been told to follow me secretly wheresoever I go."
Darthool turned and looked at Nathos with eyes filled with a new fear, because of her love of him.
He took her hand in his.
"There is yet time, Darthool. Wilt thou go back to the rath, and stay there till Concobar wills thee to be his wife?
"I cannot go back."
"Then come, O Darthool."
And with that the twain turned and moved swiftly northward through the forest by the way Nathos had already passed.
"By dawn we may reach the dun where my two brothers now are, and for that day and that night we may rest in safety," whispered Nathos, as Darthool turned and looked for the last time upon the place where she had lived all these years.
"But thereafter, O love that I have won, the wind must be in our hair and the dead leaves be upon the soles of our feet, for there can be no resting for us till we are away from this land: no, and not for us only, but also for Ailne and Ardan. Concobar will not rest content with bitter wrath, and, if he cannot track the stag, will slay the fawns."
Soon thereafter they drew near the place where Nathos had left his hounds and his huntsmen. Bidding Darthool hide among the bracken and undergrowth, he went forward alone and told the men to go back to the dun of the sons of Usna, but not till the third day, and by circuitous ways. Thus he hoped that he might the longer elude Concobar, whose emissaries would follow the track of his hounds.
Thereafter Nathos and Darthool fared swiftly hand in hand through the sombre ways of the forest. While it was still light they emerged upon a great moor, which they crossed, and then ascended the gorges of the hills. There the night fell, as though a winddrifted darkness suddenly suspended and then swiftly enshrouded everything. They dreaded to rest, and yet so deep was the darknesss that they could fare no farther.
But while they were still whispering the one to the other, Darthool descried a soft, silver shining, like a dewy gossamer. It was the little group of seven stars that we call the Pleiades,
"See," she whispered, "An Grioglachan! When they shine, others will soon be seen." And so it was.
All through the night the fugitives hastened onward by the light of the stars, ever keeping close to each other, for the mountain solitudes were full of dreadful noises, and in the black tams among the peaty moss they could hear the moaning of the kelpie, or on the shores of the hill-lochs the shrill neighing of the waterhorses, terrible creatures of the darkness.
For the last hour of the dark they rested a brief while, lying close hid among the bracken, in a sheltered place on a rocky mountain slope. Darthool heeded little now the weariness and fears of that perilous faring by night, for she was with Nathos; and Nathos now was glad, and no longer cared whether death was sure or not. He fell asleep there under the morning stars, among the winter-brown bracken, with Darthool's head upon his breast; and his last thought was, that if the swineherd had died smiling because Darthool's eyes had looked into his, how well might he too die content if his hour came suddenly upon him.
The dawn wavered among the hills, but still they slept.
A wolf tracking a wounded doe howled, and the howling wailed from corrie to corrie. Darthool stirred, but slept again. An eagle screamed as it rode and wheeled against the broadening light, but its wild voice was drowned in silence. Then came the first sunrays rippling, dancing, leaping, from amid the crested heights and peaks to the eastward, and Nathos awoke.
For some moments he lay breathless with wonder. Darthool, in all her radiant beauty, was by his side, her golden hair ablaze in the sunlight, and her fair face like a flower amid the bracken. It was too great a wonder. Then he knew that Concobar's hounds might any hour now be upon them, and so he put his dream away from him, and stooped and kissed Darthool upon the lips. With a cry she woke, and put her arms about him. Hard it was for him to add to her weariness; but she rose at once, and seemed, indeed, in his eyes, as fresh as any fawn of the hill-side. She went to a little tarn close by and drank of the cool, sweet water.
As she drank Nathos looked at her, and again wondered if she were not one of the divine race of old, the mysterious Tuatha-DeDanann, whom, ages before, the Milesians had driven to the hills and remote places. So fair was she that his heart ached. Then a swift pulse of joy leaped within him, and he was glad with a great gladness.
Thereafter they sped swiftly onward, and now Nathos exulted, for he recognised the peaks and the trend of the valleys. Within an hour from the rising of the sun he saw the grey walls of the dun of the sons of Usna.
His long cry---that of the heron thrice repeated---brought Ailne and Ardan forth. Darthool looked at them wondering, for they, too, were taller and nobler than other men, and only less beautiful in her eyes than Nathos himself.
But if she wondered, much more did they marvel at what they saw. Never had they beheld any woman so beautiful, and their first thought was that of Nathos, that Darthool was of the fair divine race who were now so seldom seen of men.
But when Nathos had told them all, and that she who was now his bride was no other than that Darthool whom Concobar the high king had set aside to become his queen, they were filled with sorrow. Well they knew that Concobar MacNessa would not lightly relinquish the fair maid whom he had so long secreted in the forest-lios, and that blood would flow because of this thing.
"Moreover," said Ailne, "hast thou forgotten the prophecy? There is the saying of Cathba the Druid, of which we have all heard: that from the daughter of Felim the Harper would come sorrow to the king, and severance of the Red Branch from the lost kingdom of Uladh, and rivers of blood."
"That may be, Ailne, my brother," Nathos answered; "but I ask none to go with me into this doom, if that doom indeed must be, though mayhap the dark hour of it is passed. For Darthool and I shall now fare forward, with some of our following, and with horses and food, and haply we may reach the coast and find our great galley in the Creek of the Willows, where we secreted it, and so gain the shores of Alba before Concobar can overtake us."
But while Ailne pondered, Ardan spoke.
"That shall not be, Nathos. Listen! By the Sun and the Wind I swear that where thou goest I will go, and that I will never desert thee nor Darthool, who is now our sister. If the doom must come, let it come. What is death, that it should put a paleness into the face of love? Are we not close-kin, children of one mother, and is not Darthool thy wife now and our sister, and are we not henceforth as one? Speak, Ailne, is it not so?"
"It is so. Ardan has spoken for me. But I say nothing, for I feel upon us the shadow of that doom of which, as we have heard, Cathba the Druid spoke."
But here Darthool moved forward.
"Listen, Nathos, and ye, Ailne and Ardan, my brothers: it is not for me to bring sorrow upon the king and upon the Red Branch and upon Uladh, and still less upon ye, my brothers, and upon thee, Nathos. Therefore, let me now go back to the lios, and tell Lavarcam, who will tell the king, that I have no will to stray, and that I will abide in that place till I die, or till Concobar dare put his face against Fate and take me thence."
At that Nathos smiled only. There was no word to say; in his eyes was all his answer to Darthool.
But Ardan answered for himself and Ailne:
"Though the stars fall, beautiful daughter of Felim, who art now Darthool, our sister, we shall not leave thee, nor suffer thee to go from us save by thine own free will, and that in no fear for what may befall us. Nathos and Ailne and Ardan are the three sons of Usna upon whom long ago geas was set, that each would abide by each until death."
Thereupon all kissed each other, and took the deep vow of fealty. The sons of Usna knew well that it would be a madness to withstand Concobar in their dun, strong as it was; for in time he would take the place, as dogs hunt out the badger from its lair, and at the best would still starve them into surrender or death.
So with all speed they summoned those of their following who were under the swordbond, and put together food and raiment, and then mounted and rode swiftly away.
As they passed the highest ridge to the eastward that night, they looked back. A red light flared in a valley far to the west. It was their dun, a torch amid the darkness. A single column of flame rose above it, and wavered to and fro. And by that sign they knew that the long arm and heavy hand of Concobar MacNessa had already reached out towards them. Three times fifty men went with them, and so swift was their flight and so sure their way that before long they came to the coastlands. There, in the Creek of the Willows, the long black galley was found; and swiftly all embarked.
It was with glad eyes that Darthool and the sons of Usna saw the dancing waves of the sea, and felt its free breath break upon them. From three great tiers, fifty score men to each, the vassals thrust out their long oars, and with their blades threshed the waters into a yeast of foam. In the dazzle of the sea Darthool rejoiced, and made the hearts of all there to swell because of an exceeding sweet song she sang.
Nathos and Ailne and Ardan sat beside her, and could scarce take from her face their dreaming eyes.
Towards noon the wind shifted, and slid out of the north towards the west. Then the great sail was hoisted, and bellied out to the steady breeze, and the oars were shipped. The black galley now flew along the waters like a cormorant. Darthool laughed with joy at this new beautiful world of the sea, and never tired of trailing her hands in the swift lapsing wave, or in the send of the following billow.
In the afternoon they came close to the shores of Alba, and made northward, past many isles and through narrow straits and fjords. In one and all Darthool took pleasure, and was glad indeed that the land of Nathos was so beautiful.
At sundown they reached the eastern shores of the great island of Mull, and there the wind failed them, so the galley was put into a bay that is now the bay of Aros.
There the sons of Usna debated long as to what course to follow. Nathos and Ailne thought it best to move inland, and to gain the protection of the high king of Alba; but Darthool feared this because of a dream she had thrice dreamed, wherein she saw a strange king and a strange folk laughing over the slain body of Nathos, while she stood by crowned but a captive. As for Ardan, he said only that the sons of Usna should go to where their father's dun had been, before the last king of Alba had destroyed it.
That night a galley came to them from the long island of Lismore. In it were a score of men, commanded by a lord of Appin, named Fergus of the Three Duns. With him was a stranger clad in a rich robe of fur, so claspt across the throat with gold that the hood he wore fell about and covered his face. While Fergus spake with the sons of Usna, and told them how they had been seen by men of his in a swift war-galley, off the south coast of Mull, and urged them also to go inland to meet the king, the stranger looked steadfastly upon Darthool.
When at last he had to speak to the brothers he addressed them courteously, but in a Gaelic strange to their ears. He bade them come with him to his high-walled dun, a brief way inland: to come alone, as his guests, and to bring Darthool with them.
"It is not well to go to a man's dun and not be knowing that man's name," said Nathos courteously.
The stranger hesitated, and looked at Fergus.
"They call me Angus Mudartach," he said. But at that Darthool asked him to let her look upon his face.
"For it is not meet," she added " that we should go to a man's dun and not have seen his face."
Angus of Moidart drew back his hood.
Darthool's lips grew pale. Then she smiled.
"Let us rest here for to-night, Angus Mudartach," she said, "and, if thou wilt come again on the morrow after to-morrow, thou canst take us with thee to thy great dun. But meanwhile we have travelled far and swiftly, and would fain rest: and, as thou seest, the skies are clear, and we want for nothing."
Once more Angus pleaded to the sons of Usna.
"Ye are brave men, and can laugh at weariness or danger. But if the island be swept by a great storm to-night, or if the followers of Concobar, king of the northlands of Erin, come upon ye, or if other misadventure befall, shall we wantonly expose this fair young princess? Nay, rather, let her come with me, and she shall not only be safe in my great rath of Dunchraig, but there my wife and her maidens shall make much of her and give her white robes and golden torques and garments of delicate furs. This maid whom ye call Darthool is too young to be thrown thus idly before the feet of the evil powers who are for ever clamouring for death."
But, at a sign from Darthool, Nathos refused; saying, with gracious words and courteous mien, that it would rejoice them all to visit Angus Mudartach later, but not then.
So Angus of Moidart turned, frowning, and went back to his galley with Fergus of the Three Duns. And as he went he asked mutteringly how many men the sons of Usna had with them. When he learned that there were thrice fifty, and that Fergus had but score and ten men with him, he said no more.
When the strangers had gone, Nathos turned to Darthool and asked why she had not shown more graciousness to one who was surely a great lord among the Alban Gaels, and why she would not go with him.
"Because, Nathos, that man who called himself Angus Mudartach is no other than the King of Alba. He it is whom I saw in my dreams, laughing over your slain body, and beside whom I stood crowned and yet a captive. And by that token I warn ye of this thing: that the Alban king desireth me, and would fain slay ye all, or deliver ye into the hands of Concobar MacNessa."
Nathos stood brooding, but Ardan stepped forward.
"Darthool is right. And wise she was, too, to bid this Angus of Moidart come on the morrow after to-morrow. Nevertheless, I know well by hearsay of his vassal, Fergus of the Three Duns, and that the man is called Fergus the Wily. He will not wait, but at dawn will be about us, with thrice fifty and thrice fifty again."
"Ardan has spoken well," added Nathos. There is but one thing to be done. Weary we are, but we must go hence at once."
And so it was. The dusk was heavy upon sea and land that night, and a sea-mist came up and obscured the skies, so that not a star was visible.
Soundlessly they launched the great galley again, and once more set sail. The nightwind was from the south-east, whereat they rejoiced, for thus there was no need of the oars, and so no betraying thresh would be heard.
When they were well north of Lismore they put out the long oars and swung the galley northwards. It was with relief that the sons of Usna passed the Appin lands, and before dawn rowed into a great sea-loch.
There, however, they learned that the King of Alba, he who had called himself Angus Mudartach, was in the westlands only for a brief while, and would have to haste to Dunedin straightway, as runners had come with tidings of a great rising. He had no rath of Dunchraig, and no dun there; and so in truth the sons of Usna knew that the king had lied to them, and that Darthool was right. As for Fergus of the Three Duns, he was no longer a great lord, but had been despoiled, and at the most could summon two score and ten men.
So the sons of Usna greatly rejoiced, for now they could go to their own land in safety, which lay beyond the region held by Fergus of the Duns.