The Laughter of Peterkin
|Darthool and the Sons of
For seven days they stayed by the shores of that sea-loch, under the shadow of mighty mountains. Ardan, with a scanty following, went through the hill-passes, and returned saying that the King of Alba had gone to his own country and that all the great lords of the region had departed with him, including Fergus.
So on the eighth day the galley sailed a short way southward once more, and entered into the Bay of Selma. There, on a rocky eminence, were the walls of their great dun, which Usna their father had built among the ruins of the chief stronghold of the Cruithne, the ancient people of Alba.¹
¹The Cruithne, or Picts, had their chief stronghold at Beregonium, overlooking the Bay of Selma, not far from the mouth of Loch Etive, below the Falls of Lora, in West Argyll.
It was with joy that the sons of Usna saw once more the house of their childhood, and with still greater joy that they found the people of the neighbouring glens and straths still loyal to them. Their father Usna had ever been at war with the King of Alba, and after many battles (the bards sang of the beauty of Usna's wife as the torch that lit those wars) he had conquered all this region. But at his death by treachery the king had overcome the stronghold and destroyed it.
But now again the sons of Usna had their home in their own eyrie. They knew not how long they might abide there in peace, for either the King of Alba, or Fergus of the Duns as his leader of men, would come again when once peace in the eastlands was secured.
There Nathos wished to dwell alone with Darthool and a few followers, but Ailne and Ardan once more refused to leave him then or ever. But glad were the thrice fifty vassals to return to their own land, and without regret the sons of Usna saw them set sail for Erin. They were men who cared little for aught save strife, and when not wielding sword or spear were haughty and bitter with all other men save those of the Red Branch, and so were only a danger and a weariness in that place.
Throughout that winter they lived there in peace, hunting and fishing. So great was the love of each for Darthool that every day was full of peace and content wherein they saw her. Nathos moved in a dream, and knew the extreme of joy. At night, before the fire, Darthool sang to them old-world airs of a sweet plaintive music, so sweet and plaintive that men said she must be no other than Fionula, she of the children of Lir who were turned into wild swans, and lived a thousand years in the old, old days.
But when spring came again---a spring so fair and sweet that it was as though May had come hand in hand with February---a rumour reached them that the King of Alba, though he could not penetrate the highlands of the west, intended, with the help of Fergus of the Duns and other chieftains, to proceed once more against the Dun of Usna. Moreover, he had sworn to raze it to the ground, and to slay Nathos, and to take Darthool to be his wife.
Nathos laughed at this, for he knew well that the King of Alba would never take him alive, or yet Darthool. But after long colloquy with Ailne and Ardan, all decided to set forth and pass northward to the land whence their mother had come, a land of endless mountains and narrow lochs, beautiful beyond any other, grander than any Darthool had seen, and remote beyond the reach of any Alban king.
So thither they set forth, and took with them in their great galley two score and ten men of their own clan. After long sailing up narrow lochs, the sons of Usna reached the mountain land whence their mother had come. Her father was dead, but the great dun he had built upon the summit of one of the hills overlooking the Black Loch had been left unharmed, and was tenanted only by wandering shepherds. Here Nathos and Darthool made their home, and in that beautiful land and in the glory of spring, knew the full joy and richness of life.¹
¹ To this day, the Highlander of Western Argyll and of Inverness-shire is familiar with the Fort of the Sons of Usna, above one of the lochs which constitute what is now known as the Caledonian Canal.
For a brief while all the people of the mountain lands round about gave in their adherence to Nathos, so that he became as a king in that region. So great was the fear in which the three sons of Usna were held, and so strong were they in their mountain home, that none dared to approach them with the flaming brand.
Thus three years passed, and in all the wide reaches of the world there was no man so happy as Nathos and no woman so happy as Darthool; and after these there were none so happy as Ailne and Ardan, who were well content to live so that they might be near the beautiful wife of Nathos, their sister, Darthool, fairest of all women in the world.
The King of Alba, whom they had feared, was now dead, and the king who reigned in his place was well disposed towards the sons of Usna and sought their alliance. So this was done, and the name and fame of the three brothers spread throughout the land; while from the wild west to the Populous east the poets sang of the beauty of Darthool.
In the summer months they abode at the high fort of Darthool, for so they named it, on the heights above the Black Loch, or Loch Ness as we now call it; and from the first frosts till the cuckoo's song had ceased they lived at Dunuisneachan, their father's ancient stronghold by the shores of Loch Etive. Thence often they wandered far afoot, or sailed southward and eastward among the sea-lochs and narrow kyles. They hunted in Glenorchy and fished under the mountain-shadows on Loch Awe; or followed the deer through the woods of Glenlaidhe. When it was pleasant to be upon the waters, they sailed down the long fjord of Loch Fyne, and rested awhile at the Haven of the Foray, and watched the coming and going of the rainbows on the rocky headlands which guard that place; then they would cross to the Cowal, and enter the narrow Kyles of Bute, where on the little isle we call the Burnt Island they built a vitrified fort. Thence they followed past the Hills of Ruel to Glendaruay (Glendaruel), and so to the head of Loch Striven and up Glenmassan, and thence down by the sweet inland waters of Loch Eck, and waterward again by the bay we now call the Holy Loch. Thence up the long, narrow fjord of Loch Long they sailed, till among the mountains they crossed the short pass to Loch Lomond, and perhaps met the soldiery of the King of Alba at the inland lakes, or came upon the great fort of Dumbarton on the Clyde; or they may have crossed the hill to the Gareloch, and so returned westward once more by the blue frith of Clyde, past the precipitous isle of Arran, and so up Loch Fyne again; or seaward by the Mull of Cantire, and thence northward past the isles to their own place, and could once more watch the salmon leaping through the Falls of Lora or chase the deer on the hills of Etive.
But during all this time Concobar, the high king of the Ultonians, nursed his bitter thoughts. He had heard of the great fame and happiness of the sons of Usna, and more than ever he yearned after Darthool, his wrath at his loss being the greater because that all the old Prophecies about the beautiful daughter of Felim were unfulfilled.
One day the high king made a great festival in Emain Macha, and never in Erin was seen one more royal and magnificent. The princes and nobles from all the regions in the sway of Concobar were there, and all the musicians, singers, and poets in Uladh.
In the midst of the festival Concobar asked those present at his board if now, in the height of the glory of the Red Branch, they wanted for anything; but they answered as with one voice that they were content.
"And that is what I am not," he answered.
"And wherefore, O king and lord?"
"Because that the three greatest of ye are absent from us. I speak of the three Torches of the Valour of the Gael: Nathos and Ailne and Ardan, the sons of Usna, the son of Congal Claringnech. For now I the king say this: that it is not fitting these three heroes, the pride of our chivalry, should be in exile, and this only because of a woman. By the Sun and Wind, there is no woman alive who is worthy to be the cause of this. Far better were it that the sons of Usna were once more in our midst. Even now they hold half the lands of Alba under the shadow of their sword. Truly they are heroes, and if dark days come upon us, as the soothsayers foretell, then indeed we shall be in sore need of them."
All there were rejoiced at that. There was not one who had not lamented the fierce anger of Concobar, and who was not fain to have the sons of Usna again among the chivalry of the Red Branch. Only fear had not allowed them to speak, for the high king had slain a man who had said that Nathos was too great a lord to be exiled.
"And since ye are so glad at this thing," Concobar added, "and would fain have these heroes among us, to be the chief pride, glory and defence of Uladh against all other kingdoms and provinces of Erin, I say to ye: Go and bring hence again from Alba the three sons of Usna."
"That is well," their spokesman answered; "but who is to prevail with Nathos and his brothers? We are willing to go, but we cannot bring Nathos against his will. Moreover, is he not under geas not to put foot again in Erin?"
"Not so. I know that Nathos is under geas not to return to Erin unless it be in the company of Fergus, the son of Lossa the Red, or Conall Cemach, or Cuchulain. And look you, each of these is now here, so that I shall well know who most loves me."
So, when the feast was over, Concobar first drew Conall Cernach aside.
"Tell me, O warrior lord," he said, "what wouldst thou say or do if I should send thee for the sons of Usna, and that at my secret command they should be slain privily---a thing, nevertheless, Conall, which I do not purpose to do."
"That could not be done, O king and lord, without a bitter and wrongful bloodshedding, for I could not do otherwise than put death upon each and all of the Ultonians who might be with me on that day."
"That may be so, Conall Cernach. So now, go."
Thereafter the king sent for Cuchulain. The young champion came to him fearlessly, for the whole heart of the warrior prince was noble and courageous.
Concobar asked him the same question as he had asked Conall Cemach.
"What would I do, O lord and king?" answered Cuchulain with proud disdain. "This thing I would do, and my troth to it: that if thou through me broughtest about the death of the sons of Usna, thou mightest flee eastward to Innia Iarrtharaigh¹ itself, and yet not be safe from perishing by my hand because of thy deed."
¹ Western India.
Concobar smiled grimly.
"I knew well, Cuchulain, that ye bore me no love," he said; and bade the hero begone.
Thereafter the king sent for Fergus, the son of Rossa, and to him he put the same question as to Conall Cemach and to Cuchulain.
"This much I say," said Fergus, " that never would I raise hand or weap on against thee: nevertheless, there is not one Ultonian who might fare forth on that errand who would not get the shortness of life and sorrow of death from me."
"It is thou, Fergus, son of Rossa, who dost truly love thy king. It is to thee I entrust this thing, who shalt be greater in Erin than any son of Usna. Go forth on the morrow, and remember thy name of old---Fergus Honeymouth. Of a surety Nathos, with Darthool, and Ailne and Ardan, shall come from Alba with thee. When thou art again in Erin, go at once to the house of Borrach, the son of Cainte; and when thou art there stay, because of one of thy geasa never to refuse a feast, and beforehand I shall warn Borrach of this thing. Then send forward at once and without covenant and without protection, to Emain Macha, the three sons of Usna."
So on the morrow Fergus went forth, taking none with him save his two sons, Illann the Fair, and Buine of the Red Locks, and a man Cullen to steer the sea-barge wherewith he would set sail.
It was a fair voyage, and soon the black barge of Fergus sailed past the isles and headlands of Alba, and came to Loch Etive and the Bay of Selma, where the great fort of Dun Usneachain lay black against the ivyclad heights beyond.
This was in the first heats of summer, and Nathos and Darthool, with Ailne and Ardan, had left the fort and were among the rocky declivities of the woodland near the sea. There they had three hunting booths: one for Nathos and Darthool, one for Ailne and Ardan, and one wherein to have their eating and drinking. In front of one of these booths Nathos and Darthool sat, on that day of the days, playing on the Cemrcaem (the chessboard), the very chess-board which had belonged to Concobar, but which the king had left in the dun of Ailne and Ardan when hunting near by, on the day before that on which they fled with Nathos. It was all of ivory, and the chessmen were of wrought gold and in the likeness of strange kings and priests and fantastic animals wrought in immemorial years in the Orient.
And while they were playing a great shout was heard, coming upon them from a branch-hid hollow of the sea.
"That is the voice of a man of Erin," said Nathos, holding in the air a golden knight.
"Not so," answered Darthool, "it is the voice of a Gael of Alba." Yet well she knew that Nathos had guessed aright, and that even now were the footsteps of fate drawing close. For none can prevail against destiny.
Once more a loud cry was heard, and a voice called upon Nathos and the sons of Usna.
"Of a surety, that is the voice of a man of Erin," said Nathos eagerly, for his heart was fain to see an Ultonian again, and to hear of the Red Branch and of the fate of Uladh, and as to whether Concobar reigned still.
"Indeed, it is not so," answered Darthool, and turning the great glory and beauty of her eyes upon Nathos she bade him play on. Then a third cry, nearer and clearer, was heard; and now all knew that it was the voice of a man of Erin.
"And if there be no cloud upon me," said Nathos, "that is the voice of no other than Fergus, the son of Rossa the Red, whom I knew well of old, and for whom my heart is fain. Ardan, do ye go down at once to the haven, and bid Fergus welcome, and all who may be with him. It is a good day this for us, when once more we may hear the voices of the Red Branch."
While Ardan went to the haven, Darthool told Nathos she had known from the first that the newcomer was a man out of Erin, and moreover that he came from Concobar and that his coming boded no good.
"And how will you be knowing the one and the other, Darthool?"
"From a dream that I had: to wit, that three birds flew hither from Emain Macha, and brought with them three sips of rare honey, and then that they left us with that honey but took away instead three sips of our blood."
"Tell me, my queen, what is the reading you put upon that dream?"
"That Fergus comes to us with the honeywords of peace, but that behind them lies the shedding of blood, and that blood ours."
Meanwhile Ardan welcomed Fergus, and brought him and his companions to where Nathos sat playing with Darthool upon the ivory and gold chess-board of Concobar the king. As the fair-smiling Ultonian drew near, he smiled a grimmer smile behind his beard, to see Nathos there with the two chiefest treasures of the king's heart---the woman he wished to make his queen, and the chess-board that had come to him from some great king's palace in the dim remote Indies of which the poets sang.
Great was the rejoicing, and Nathos and his brothers and Darthool embraced Fergus and his sons, and eagerly questioned them for tidings.
"The best tidings I have," Fergus answered, is that I have come to ye with messages of loving peace from Concobar, whose heart is smitten by your long absence, and who would fain see in Erin again the three noblest lords in his or any other realm. Moreover, he has sent me to you with covenants and guarantees of loving good faith. He has pledged his kingly word, and I, too, have pledged mine, and ye know well, ye sons of Usna, that Fergus MacRossa Rua is not a man of light word. So come back to Erin with me, Nathos and Ailne and Ardan, and I pray of thee, come thou too, Darthool, wife of Nathos. Great shall be the welcome given to ye all, and sure it is a good thing to end a feud, and to put an unwaking sleep upon the sword and the spear."
"That is a good word," said Nathos, who was well pleased; but a sob was in the heart of Darthool, and her lips quivered as she spoke.
"Surely," she said, "Concobar MacNessa forgets. The sons of Usna are no tributaries. Nathos is overlord now of a country greater in extent than all the province of Uladh over which Concobar is king. It ill befits a king of an isle to go as a forgiven guest to the lord of a rock."
"That is true," said Fergus quickly, "Darthool has justice for what she says. But there is truth in what I say also, and it is a truth which the sons of Usna know, and will act by, that a man longs to see the land which is his own land or the land of his adoption. And were not Nathos and Ailne and Ardan among us as children and as boys and as youths, and are they not heroes of the Red Branch? Surely, it is a good thing for a man to see his own land each day, and to rejoice therein?"
"We have two lands," interrupted Ardan, we who are of both Alba and Erin. Nevertheless, it would ill befit us not to look upon ourselves of the Red Branch first and foremost. So if Nathos is ready to go with thee, so also are Ailne and I myself."
"I am ready," said Nathos, though he kept his eyes away from those of Darthool.
"And ye know that my guaranty is sure?" added Fergus.
"It is sure," said Nathos.
That night all were full of joyous pleasure, save only Darthool, who in her heart knew that the shadowy feet of Fate were all about them, and that she at least and perhaps none other there would ever again see Alba.