The Laughter of Peterkin
|Darthool and the Sons of
On the morrow all set sail. As they left the beautiful shores, than which for sure there are none more beautiful in all the realms of the Gael, Darthool took her harp and sat back among the deerskins in the stern of the galley and sang:
and for eight other verses in the old ancient Gaelic that has lived in her lament till this day.¹ ¹ This is a free paraphrase of the original as given by Dr. Cameron in the Reliquio Celtica. The original consists of nine short quatrains. In the second, the names mentioned are Dun Fiodha, Dun Fionn, Innis Droighin, and Dun Suibhne. In the following quatrains the old and modern names are practically identical. The modern Glendaruel was formerly Glendaruay (Gleann da Ruadh), the Glen of the Two Roes, or Glennaruay (Gleann na Ruadh), the Glen of the Roes. Innis Drofgliin is again alluded to in the last verse. It is now called Innis Draighneach, meaning the Island of Thorns, and is situate in Loch Awe.
Nathos was sad when he heard this lament from the mouth of Darthool, and Ailne and Ardan looked at each other and whispered that it was the beginning of the end. Nevertheless, they did not fear to confront the days to come, for whatsoever the decrees of fate may be a brave man does not draw back, but goes forward upon the way set before him. But Nathos was in a dream, and so heeded little, content too to chide Darthool because that she laid so much stress on vain imaginings.
The voyage was a swift and good one, and even Darthool's heart beat the quicker when once more she stood on the soil of Erin, her own land. In three days thereafter they came within sight of the Dun of Borrach, and Fergus MacRossa was glad, for soon he would be able to see Concobar the king, and tell him how great was his success.
It is a strange thing that a man such as Fergus Honeymouth could be so blind. Yet had he ever believed in the kinglihood of Concobar, and it was not till he reached the house of the son of Cainte that he knew in truth how the high king meant to play him false, and mayhap to deal treacherously with the sons of Usna. For after Borrach had greeted them all with affection and heartsome pleasure, he told them that word had come from Concobar that they were to press forward without delay, so great was the king's longing to see them again, and so deep was his love for three of the noblest of the knights of the Red Branch."But upon thee, Fergus MacRossa, I have a feast made ready, a festival of weeks, and thou knowest it is geas upon thee not to refuse any feast made for thee: and so as thou wouldst avoid putting shame upon me and deep disgrace upon thyself, thou must abide here with me." At that, Fergus flushed a deep red,¹ and was filled with anger. Yet could he not refuse, for his geas was sacred: and no man of that age dared break that bond.
So he turned to those with him, and asked what was now to be done.
"Let this be done," said Darthool: "either forsake the sons of Usna, or keep to thy feastbond."¹ Literally " O d'chuala Feargus sin, do rinneadh rothnuall corcra dhe O bhonn go bathas." (When Fergus heard this, he became a crimson mass from the foot-sole to the face.)
"My feast-bond I must keep, Darthool, yet will I not forsake the sons of Usna. My guaranty is known for sure: but over and above that I will send with them, and with thee, my two sons, Illann the Fair and Buine the Fiery, as further warranty."
But at these words Nathos turned away with a scornful smile.
"It is not at thee or thy feast-bond I smile, O Fergus," he said, "but at thy protection, good though thy sons be. For, by the Sun and Wind, I have never yet had need of any man to protect me, and go now, as ever before, confident in my own valour and might: and this I say not boastingly, but openly, so that Concobar and all Uladh may know it."
Thereafter Darthool and the sons of Usna left the house of Borrach, and fared southward, with Illann the Fair and Buine in their company. As for Fergus, he cursed his bond, but nevertheless assured himself, for, as he said over and over, if the whole five provinces of Erin were assembled on one spot, they would not be able to break the solemn pledge of his guaranty.
But on the way Darthool urged advice upon Nathos and his brothers.
Let us go," she said, "to the isle of Cullen, between Erin and Alba, and there await the day when Fergus will fulfil his bond. In that way he shall still keep the obligation of his geas, and yet we shall escape the evil that I know well awaiteth us."
"That we cannot do," answered the sons of Usna, "for we are in honour bound now to the king. Moreover, we have the guaranty of Fergus MacRossa."
"It was an ill day when we came here trusting to that word," Darthool replied: but said no more then.
At dusk they reached the White Cairn on Sliav-Fuad, and it was not till after they had left the watch-tower behind them that Nathos saw that Darthool was no longer of their company. So he retraced his way, and came upon her sleeping a deep sleep, though she awoke suddenly as he drew near.
"Is sleep so heavy upon thee, fair queen?" he asked, when he saw her startled eyes and pale face.
"I was weary, Nathos. Yet it is not weariness that has done this, but a dream. I dreamed a terrifying and dreadful thing. I saw thee and Ailne and Ardan and Illann the Fair, but on not one of these was the head remaining, but only on Buine the Fiery."
"And what will be the meaning of that, Darthool?"
"That Buine will leave ye ere death comes, and that a bloody death will be upon each. Nathos, I pray of thee that thou wilt go straightway to Dun Delgan, where the great and noble Lord Cuchulain is, and abide with him for a while. There we shall be safe. Listen, I pray thee: I see thine own shadow creeping up thee, and a dark cloud overhead, and a cloud of clotted blood it is by the same token."
"Fair woman, there is some guile upon thy delicate thin lips. Why shouldst thou see evil everywhere? Be assured that neither I nor Ailne nor Ardan will turn aside from our quest of Concobar the king."
Darthool sighed, and remembered some old wisdom she had heard from Lavarcam: that if misfortune will not come to a man swiftly, he will seek it and take it by the great boar-fangs and compel it to come against him.
But on the morrow, as they came within sight of Emain Macha, once more she gave counsel.
"Ye know well, Nathos and Ailne and Ardan, that in Emain Macha are three fair great houses of the king: that in one he himself is, with the nobles of Uladh who are his own following, and that in another are the wayfarers of the Red Branch, and that in a third are the women. Now I warn ye of this thing: that if Concobar welcome us into his own house and among the nobles of Uladh, all will be well: but that if he send us to the house of the Red Branch, that will mean a disastrous end to thee and to me.
They said nothing to that, and when they came late into Emain Macha they knocked at the gates of Concobar's house.
The messengers told the king that the sons of Usna, and Darthool, and the two sons of Fergus MacRossa, were without: whereupon he asked of those about him in what state of provision and comfort was the house of the Red Branch, and on hearing that there was abundance of food and drink and comfort, he bade the messengers return and conduct the newcomers to that place.
When that message was given, Darthool again gave counsel: but Illann the Fair was wroth thereat, and the others yielded. As for Nathos, he said only:
"Great is thy love, Darthool, queen of women: but great also is thy fearfulness."
At that Darthool smiled gravely, but said no more. Only in her heart she remembered what Lavarcam, in bitter irony, had told her once, that when a man foresaw evil and forefended it he was wise and strong in his courage, but that if a woman did the same she was timorous and whim-borne.In the house of the Red Branch the strangers were rendered all honour. Generous and pleasant foods and bitter cheering drinks were supplied to them, so that the whole company was joyful and merry, save the sons of Usna, and Darthool, who were weary with their journeying.¹
Thus after they had eaten and drunken, Nathos and Darthool lay down upon high couches of white and dappled fawn-skins, and played upon the gold and ivory chess-board.¹ This sentence is literal after the old Gaelic as translated by Dr. Cameron. Apropos of the mention of the chessboard in the next sentence (as once before, it may be added that the ancient Celtic kings and lords had a passion for chess.
It was at this time that a secret messenger came from Concobar to tell him if Darthool were as beautiful as when she fled from Erin. This messenger was no other than Lavarcam. The woman embraced Darthool tenderly, and kissed the hands and brow of Nathos. Then, looking upon them through her tears, she said:
"Of a surety it is not well for ye twain to be playing thus upon the second dearest thing in all the world to Concobar, Darthool being the dearest, and ye having taken both from him, Nathos, and now ye twain being in his house and in his power. And this I tell you now, that I am sent hither by Concobar to see if Darthool has her form and beauty as it was of old. Thy beauty then was a flame before his eyes, Darthool, and now it will be as a torch at his heart."
Suddenly Darthool thrust the chess-board from her.
"I have the sight upon me," she said in a strange voice with a sob in it.
"And what is that sight, my queen?" asked Nathos.
"I see three torches quenched this night. And these three torches are the three Torches of Valour among the Gael, and their names are the names of the sons of Usna. And more bitter still is this sorrow, because that the Red Branch shall ultimately perish through it, and Uladh itself be overthrown, and blood fall this way and that as the whirled rains of winter."
Then taking the small harp by her side, she struck the strings and sang:
At that Nathos was silent awhile. He knew now that Darthool was right. He looked at his brothers: Ailne frowned against the floor, Ardan stared at the door, with a proud and perilous smile. He looked at Illann the Fair and at Buine the Fiery: Buine drank heavily from a horn of ale, with sidelong eyes, Illann muttered between his set teeth.
"This only I will say, Darthool," Nathos uttered at last, "that it were better to die for thee, because of thy deathless beauty, than to live for aught else. As for what else may betide, what has to be will be."
"I will go now," said Lavarcam, "for Concobar awaits me. But, sons of Usna and sons of Fergus, see ye that the doors and windows be closed, and if Concobar come against ye treacherously may ye win victory, and that with life to ye all."
With that Lavarcam left. Swiftly she sought Concobar, and told the king that it was for joy she knew now that the three heroes, the sons of Usna, had come back to Erin to dwell in fellowship with the Ardree and the Red Branch, but that it was for sorrow she had to tell that Darthool the Beautiful was no longer fair and comely in form and face, but had lost her exceeding loveliness, and was now no more than any other woman.
At first Concobar laughed at that; then as his jealousy waned he thought with sorrow of the loss of so great beauty; and then again his spirit was perturbed. So he sent yet another messenger on the same errand.
This was a man named Treandhorn. Before Concobar sent him to the house of the Red Branch he said:
"Treandhorn, who was it that slew thy father and thy brother?"
"Thou knowest, O King, that it was Nathos, son of Usna, who slew them."
Concobar smiled. "Now," he said, " go and do my behest."
When Treandhorn reached the house, he found all the doors and windows closed and barred. Then fear seized him, for he knew that the sons of Usna were on guard, and would have wrath upon them.
Nevertheless, still more did he fear to go back to Concobar with nought to tell him.
So the man, descrying a narrow window at one side, climbed to it from an unyoked chariot that was near, and looked in. He saw Nathos and Darthool talking each to each in low voices, where they lay upon the white and dappled fawn-skins, with the gold and ivory chessboard between them. He smiled grimly, when he saw how great and noble and kingly Nathos seemed, and how more wonderful and beautiful than ever were the wonder and beauty of the eyes and face and form of Darthool.
It was the last time he smiled. At that moment Nathos glanced upward. Swift as thought be lifted a spiked and barbed chessman and hurled it at the man's eye. Treandhorn fell backward, but rose at once and fled, with his right eye torn and blind for ever-more.
When he came to the king and told his tale, and how Nathos was like a king indeed, and Darthool more beautiful by far than she had been of old, Concobar sprang to his feet. A red light came into his eyes, and he threw back his head and laughed; and at that laughing every man there knew that his madness was come upon him, and that the blood-thirst was already sweating upon many swords.
"Ultonians," he cried, "will ye do the will of your king?"
"That will we!" they answered with a great shout.
"Then come ye, and all your followers and vassals, and surround the house of the Red Branch, and set it in a forest of red flames, and if any run from out thereof put them to the sword."
As all ran swiftly from the king's fort, a high terrible voice was heard. It was that of the dying Cathba the ancient Druid, and what he cried thrice was: "The Red Branch perisheth! Uladh passeth! Uladh passeth!"
But none heard him or paid heed, save only Lavarcam, who in that bitter crying knew well that the end was come.
In a brief while thrice three hundred men surrounded the fort of the Red Branch, and set red flames about it; and thrice three hundred more made haste to join them.
There was a mighty onset at the first led by Buine the Fiery, who slew many, and quenched the fires, and threw the Ultonians into confusion.
"Who is the hero who has done this? " cried Concobar.
"It is I, Buine Borbruay, the son of Fergus MacRossa."
"I will give thee great bribes, Buine, if thou wilt forsake these robbers of my wife that was to be."
"What are thy bribes?"
"I will give thee a cantred of land at thine own choice, and I will make thee my chosen comrade, and thou shalt be as next to the king."
Then Buine the Faithless laughed and said:
"Better the honours of a king than the thanks of dead men," and with that, for all the pledged guaranty of Fergus and the troth of his own word, he went over unto Concobar.
But when Illann the Fair heard of this he was wroth. He saw the bitter smile on the lips of Darthool, and he swore that he would not desert those upon whom lay the protection of his father's guaranty.
Meanwhile Ardan lay, dreaming with a proud smile against the fire; and, upon the deerskins near the couch of Darthool, Ailne and Nathos played at chess, for little did they care to heed the treacherous valour of the Ultonians. They knew, too, that their hour was come; and being kingly, gave no thought to that little thing.
But Illann called the troops together and fared forth, and made so deadly an onslaught that he slew three hundred of Concobar's men. Then he quenched the fires, and went back to the fort and to where Ailne and Ardan were playing together.
"Is that rain that is making a noise without?" said Ailne to Nathos.
"No, it is a humming of gnats," answered Nathos. "Let us play on."
"My fate is heavy upon me, Nathos and Ailne," said Illann the Fair. "I have done well by thee, but I feel the heavy hand of fate is against me, and who can withstand fate?""No one," Nathos answered later, when he had thought upon his play. At that Illann the Fair drank a drink,¹ and went out again. The fires had been quenched, and there was a deep darkness. So he bade each man take a torch, and then all set furiously again upon the Ultonians. ¹ Agus d'ibh deoch, agus tainigh amach aris, etc., "and he drank a drink," etc.
It was then that Concobar bethought him of his son Fiacha the Fair, who was born on the same night as Illann the Fair. There was life to the life, or death to the death, in that.
So he called Fiacha, and bade him strive with Illann, and gave him the three famous weapons of the royalty of Uladh---the-moaning Orchaoin, and the terrible Corrthach, and the Notched-Bow.
But for all his enchanted weapons Fiacha did not prevail, and after a great and wonderful fight, which was girt about by a strange sighing, the sighing being the breath of the pulses of the watching host, Illann drove him to the ground where he crouched behind the shelter of his shield. Easily then he might have slain him but for this:---
The moaning Orchaoin made so great and terrible a voice that it was heard afar off. The Three Ceaseless Waves of Erin heard it, and roared responsive, so that all the coasts shook with their thunder: the Wave of Toth (Tuaithe), the Wave of Clidna (Cliodhna), and the Wave of Rudhraya (Rudhraighe). There was a great dun on these coasts, named Dun Tobairce, and there Conall Cernach the son of Amergin lived: and when he heard the roaring of the Three Waves of Erin, he knew that Concobar was in dire distress.
And that moaning of Orchaoin brought Conall Cemach on his magic steed that could fly through the night. He had with him his great sword "Blue Blade," and when he came to the place of the strife he moved swiftly up behind Illann the Fair, and plunged "Blue Blade" into the back, and through the heart, and out at the breast of the hero.
But when Conall Cernach heard from Illann's own lips what he had done, he was filled with wrath and grief.
"Thy faithless summons shall avail nought," he cried into the torchlit darkness where Concobar was; and with that he took his sword, and severed from its body the head of Fiacha the son of Concobar, and tossed it towards the king. Then, turning his back upon the host, he departed as he had come.
With the death of Illann the Fair, the Ultonians once more took heart. They surrounded the Red Branch fort, and again set red flames leaping against it.
Then Ardan came forth: laughing lightly, and with a proud joy.
The Ultonians saw then what it was to perish as mown grass. And when he had slain five times fifty, his arms grew weary.
"How many did Illann the Fair slay in that onslaught of his?" he asked.
"Thrice five score," he was told.
So Ardan slew two score and ten more, and then another score, for it did not befit so great a hero to slay less than an Ultonian champion, noble as Illann the Fair was.
When he was tired, he went into the fort, and told Ailne that there was still fresh carrion enough for a wild-hawk to glut its thirst with.
So Ailne rose from the chessboard and drank a drink, and went out, and did among the Ultonians even as Ardan had done, although he slew a score more, for he was older than Ardan, and so it did not befit him to put the stiffness and the silence upon fewer men.
Two-thirds of the night were now gone, yet Concobar did not withstay his wrath. For now the whole host of the Ultonians was gathered together, and he thought to have victory at the last.
But at their great shouting and the higher leaping of the flames Nathos rose. He kissed Darthool, then he drank a drink, and went out against the Ultonians.
In that hour thrice three hundred men grew cold and stiff.
Then he slew five score more.
"Go to Concobar," he said to a man, "and tell him that he has lost a thousand men over and above the hundreds slain by Illann the Fair and Ailne and Ardan. And now let him come to me himself."
But when Concobar heard that, he sent a messenger to Lavarcam to ask if Cathba the Druid were yet dead; and when he heard that he was not, he bade that the old man should be brought to him on a litter.
When Cathba was brought, he asked if the king meant death to the sons.
"I swear I mean no death," said Concobar; but only honourably to subdue them and to obtain Darthool. And so I pray of thee to put an enchantment upon them, otherwise they will slay every Ultonian in the land."
So Cathba raised himself, and put an enchantment between the sons of Usna and the host of the Ultonians. That enchantment was a hedge of spears, taller than the tallest spear-reach, and more thickset than thorns on a bramble-bush.
But Nathos and Ailne and Ardan put their shields about Darthool, and came forth from the blazing house, and cleft a way through the hedge of spears, and, laughing loud, garnered a red harvest among the swaying corn of the Ultonian host.
Then there was a strange roaring heard, and a vast and terrible flood came pouring from the hills. The Ultonians fled to the high ground, but Darthool and the sons of Usna were cut off by the rushing waters.
Soon the flood rose to their waists, but then it ceased rising.
"The wind will soon blow," whispered Darthool, "and then the flood will rise, and we shall be drowned."
Nathos answered nothing, but raised her in his arms, and kissed her thrice upon the lips. Then he put her upon his left shoulder, where she sat with her white arms round his neck.
There was a smile in the blue eyes of Nathos.The flood now subsided, but the Usna could not move, for their feet were in a morass. On a dry spit of land close to them a man walked. This man was Maine of the Red Hand, a man of Lochlin,¹ in the train of Concobar.
Concobar had bidden some hero go forth and slay the sons of Usna. But none would stir. A deep shame burned in all. But Maine's father and two brothers had been slain by Nathos, and he said he would do likewise unto the sons of Usna.
When he drew near, Ardan spoke.
"Slay me first," he said, "for I am the youngest of the sons of Usna: and it may be that with my death the tides of fortune may flow again."
"That cannot be," said Nathos. "Here is the sword which Manannan, the son of Lir, gave me, and that cannot leave any remains of blow or stroke. Let this man Maine take it, and strike at us at one and the same time, so that not one of us may have the shame and sorrow of seeing the other beheaded."
And so it was. But while the man reached for the sword, Darthool sprang from the shoulder of Nathos, and strove to kill Maine of the Red Hand. With a blow he reeled her aside, and then whirled the great sword of Manannan on high.
There was a flash in the air, and then the heads of the three fairest and noblest heroes of Alba fell. There was a long and terrible silence, till suddenly the whole host of Uladh broke into lamentation. Only Concobar stood leaning on his sword, and stared at the stillness that was now fallen upon the House of Usna.
But already afar off Darthool had descried the champion Cuchulain, and she fled towards him.
"Thou shalt be safe with me, beautiful one," he said. "Tell me what thou wantest me to do."
"I do not wish to live, but I wish to live yet a brief hour, and not to be taken in shameful life before the eyes of Concobar." So the twain returned to where the dead lay. Darthool fell upon her knees, and spread out the glory of her hair, and put her lips to the blood-wet lips of Nathos.
Then she. rose, and looking upon the silent Ultonians, chanted this chant:
And with that Darthool stooped, and lifted the head of Nathos, and cleaned it of blood and foam, and the sweats of death, and kissed the eyes and the lips, and put her love upon the dear face, and her sorrow upon it, and her grief upon it, and put it to her white breast, and to her lips again, and gave it again her grief and her love.
Then at the bidding of Cuchulain three graves were digged. In each grave a son of Usna was placed, and as each stood there his head was placed upon his shoulders.
But the grave of Nathos was made wider. Darthool stood therein and held his hands in hers, and put her lips often to his lips, and often whispered to him.
One other death there was in that hour, and in that place.
Cathba the Druid died there: and again he cried: "The Red Branch perisheth! Uladh passeth! Uladh passeth!
And so it was. On the morrow Emain Macha fell before a great host, and was thenceforth a place of ruin and wind-eddied dust. The Red Branch became as scattered leaves, and were no more. And Uladh was given over to blood and rapine, and Concobar died in a madness of grief, and throughout Erin for many years the tides of death rose and fell.
But the sons of Usna slept, and the world dreams still of the beauty of Darthool.