Dominion of Dreams, by Fiona Macloed

THE BIRDS OF EMAR¹

When Cairill, King of the southlands of Albyn that are washed by the unquiet waters of the Moyle, was hunting, in a lonely place and with only one hound, he found that the two lives that are one life may touch and be at one. He was stooping over the print of a doe in the bracken, when his hound leaped aside and fled swiftly by the way they had come. Cairill stared, then moved back a spray of mistletoe which hung from the oak where he leaned. He heard a crackle under his feet, and saw a long, narrow ash-shaft break in two: and his feet trod upon the white hands of a man lying asleep. The man was young. He was clad in green, with a gold chain round his neck, with breast-bosses, necklet, and anklets of pale findruiney. When he rose, he was tall, lithe as a sapling, his face young and smooth as a girl's, his hair yellow-white like the bog-cotton in the shine of the sun.
Cairill looked at him.
"Though you are welcome to see," he said, I do not know your face."
"I know yours, Cairill mac Cairill. And because you have put this slight upon me I will do a hurt to your kingship."
"What hurt will you do, and who are you to do a hurt to Cairill Swiftspear?"
"I am Keevan of Emhain Abhlach.
² I can put any evil upon you. But it is my geas not to put evil upon any one who has meant me no evil."
"It is my geas to refuse no courteous, kingly offer in place of death or shame."
"That is well. You have done me a wrong by that treading upon me. I am not of your human clan. That tread shall be a bruise upon me for a year and a day. But let it be thus. For a year and a day I will take your shape upon me, and you will take mine; and I will go to Caer Charill, and you will go to Emhain Abhlach: and no one shall know this thing, neither your queen nor any of my lordly folk, nor your dogs nor mine, nor your sword nor my sword, nor spear, nor drinking-shell, nor clirsach nor tympan."

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¹For the original version of one or two episodes in these old dreams redreamed, and fashioned anew, the reader is referred to the Mabinogi of Pwyll, to the Mabinogi of Branwen, and to the Mabinogi of Manwyddan.
²Ciabhan.   Emhain Abhlach, the ancient Gaelic name of Arran, is also the Scottish equivalent of the Isle of Avalon. Both names mean the Isle of Appletrees. Ciabhan would therefore be a prince of Faery.

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"And what have I to fear in this?"
"I have a foe, Fergal. Beware of Fergal at the rising of the moon. And what have I to fear with you?"
"The love of Dorcha, who is my leman."
Keevan laughed.
"That is everywhere," he said; " among the dragons in the stars and the worms in the earth."
"And how shall I know that this is only for a year and a day, Keevan Honeymouth?"
"I swear it by the seven universal things: by the sun and by the moon, by flame and wind and water, the dew, and day and night."
With that they changed shapes, and Keevan went back to Caer Charill, and none knew him from Cairill, not even Dorcha when he lay with her, and she looked at him darkly, while he slept: and, in Emhain Abhlach, none knew Cairill to be other than Keevan, not even Keevan's wife, Malveen of the Honey Hair.
Thus was it for a year and a day.
Before the third quarter of that year, Dorcha put a serpent in a pillow of moss, and Iay by Keevan to see him die. But the fierce worm knew his kindred, and whispered in Keevan's ear. That whispering made a dream. Keevan rose, and took a reed with holes in it from the wall: and played silence and stillness on Dorcha, and so the serpent stained her white breast with its milk-white teeth, and at that little red spot she died.
And before the third quarter of that year, when, after a long hunting, Cairill lay by Malveen of the Honey Hair, Keevan's wife rose, and made a sign to Fergal. It was at the lifting of the moon. He stood in the shadow of an old oak, and the bow was drawn so that it hummed in the wind like a gnat, and an arrow was in that bow, and the arrow had the poison of moonseed that even the Tuathe Dé fear at the rising of the moon.
But the serpent in Keevan's ear had whispered this also: therefore he played a dream into Cairill's mind: thus the strayed king dreamed, and knew that dream for a divination. So Cairill rose, and threw his green cloak about Malveen, and bade her look if the moon had reached its third change of gold. She looked, and the arrow of Fergal went into her breast, and the moonseed moved into her heart, and she died.
Fergal came near, laughing low. "There will be lamentation in Faery," he said, "but you will be my queen now, Malveen of the Honey Hair."
"Yes," said Cairill, who had taken the arrow from Malveen's breast, "there will be lamentation in Faery."
And with that he flung the arrow at Fergal, and it entered into his eye, so that he knew darkness and silence and was no more.
At dawn the folk of Emhain Abhlach buried them, in hollowed places under running water, with two flat stones above them pointed flowward.
That night Cairill sat alone. Old dreams were with him. Greatly he longed.
A woman drew near. She was as white and wonderful as moonflame with the evening star in it. She had hair dusky and soft as the long, warm shadows of afternoon. Her eyes were more darkly blue than the wing of the kingfisher, and the light in them was like the dew that hangs in speedwells. Her hands were so white that when she played upon her little gold clArsach they were the foam of waves in moonshine. Through the green grass her feet moved, wandering lilies.
She played a song upon Cairill.
It was so passing sweet that his life died to a breath.
"What is the song?" he said.
"The song of longing," she said. Her voice was as an eddy of twilight air above white clover.
She played again. It was so wild a music that the blood clanged against his heart like a storm of swords against a shield.
"What is that song?" he asked.
"The song of desire," she said. Her voice was as the gathering of wind in woods.
She played again. He heard the waves of the sea lapping the snows on the summits of great hills, and all the white sap and green wonder of the earth moving into flame, and betwixt sun and moon the myriad tempest of the snow of stars.
"What is that song?" he asked.
"The song of love," she said. Her voice was as the still breath of a flower.
"My name is Emar," she whispered, "and I will come again. You are my desire and my one love."
But he did not see her again till he was once more in Caer Charill, and Keevan was in his own shape and in Emhain Abhlach again.
One day, when he was throwing javelins at an oaken disc, he saw a woman. She was more beautiful than any woman he had seen. She was fair as Emar, but her beauty was the beauty of a woman and not of those behind the dew and the moonshine.
"Who and whence are you, O fair one?" he asked.
"I am Emar," she said. Then she wooed him, and he made her his queen.
At the marriage feast a stranger rose.
He put down his drinking-shell, and when he spoke his voice made a sound like a distant horn against the shields on the wall.
"I claim a boon," he said.
"It is my geas not to refuse a boon to a stranger," said Cairill.
"I am Balva of Emhain Abhlach. Emar put love upon me long ago. I claim her as my boon."
Cairill rose.
"Take my life," he said.
But Emar went to his side. "Not so," she said. Then she turned to Balva.
"This day year you may come again." With that he smiled, and gave that respite, and went away.
But in that year Cairill and Emar knew the depth and wonder of love. "I must go, but I will come again," she said, when the day drew near. Then she told Cairill what to do.
On the dusk of the day when Balva came again and took Emar with him, Cairill put dew on his eyelids, and made a twisted wand out of withes of hazel and rowan, and at the rising of the moon went forth, disguised as a blind beggar playing on a reed-flute.
When he came upon Balva and Emar, Balva spoke.
"That is a sweet-singing flute, Blind One. If you will give it to me, I will give you your heart's desire. That is my geas, if I ask for a flute, a falcon, a hound, or a woman."
Cairill laughed. He put his blindness from him. "Give me Emar," he said.
For a year thereafter Cairill and Emar knew deep joy.
On the night when labor came upon her, a wind struck the place where she lay, and the child was whirled away like a blown leaf. Cairill was wrought with anger and grief, but Emar said no word. She dreamed against the dawn.
At dawn a young man approached them. He was more fair than any man Cairill had ever seen, fairer than Balva, fairer than Keevan. He came like spring through green woods.
"The hour is come," he said, looking at Emar.
"The hour is come," he said again, looking at Cairill.
"Who is this grown man of youth, with the beautiful years upon him?" asked Cairill.
"It is our son Ailill," answered Emar, "he who was born last night."
Emar rose and kissed Cairill on the lips. "Farewell, dear mortal love," she said.
Then Ailill took the reed-flute wherewith Cairill had won Emar again, and played old age upon Cairill, so that he grew white, and withered as an elm-leaf. When he was but a shadow Ailill played away the shadow of that shadow, and then the idle breath went out upon the wind.

II

Ailill brought fruit to Emar, and he gave her a flower that he had in his hair. She knew the smell of that flower, where it grew in Emhain Abhlach: and she had eaten of that fruit when she had known immortal things.
For an hour she and Ailill talked of mysteries, and of beauty.
"You have forgotten much," he said: since you ask me why that I have my comely manhood upon me when you bore me only last night."
"I asked as a woman, Ailill. I bore you."
He smiled.
"If, last night, you had put dew in your hand, and let a ray of the Secret Star fall into it, you would have known. I was a long way from here when I heard you calling. As I came, the wind wore me to a shadow. When I was beside you, I was a little eddy of air. Then the Haughty Father breathed, and I was in his breath, and the breath quickened that which was within you. When Balva snatched me away he flung me at the feet of Him who is the mystery of the Red and White and Black: and my mortal clay was like the old wax of bees: and that you have Ailill for son is because Angus and Midir, who loved you long, long ago, and ever love you, came between me and the wind."
"I remember," said Emar softly.
"Angus lifted me. 'He is mine,' he said, 'because he is the child of love, that is all in all because it is love. And he is mine, because those who die young are mine. And he is mine, because I am the Dart-thrower.'
"Midir, who wore a cloak of green leaves, with the veins under his earth-brown skin filled with white sap, lifted the ash-staff he carried. At the end of it was a little moonwhite flame. This he put to the clay that was as the old wax of bees: and I felt the sap rise and the blood flow, and I was on my feet, leaning against the tree into which Midir had gone, as the wind goes into grass, and looking into the sky where I saw Angus the Helmsman sitting in the Great Galley, and singing as he sailed along the shining coasts of the stars."
Emar leaned and kissed Ailill. "Then you came to me, my dream?"
"Yes. And because we are of the kin of Angus, the dream that we dream is beyond the thrust of the spear."
Then Emar and Ailill talked of secret things.
At noon, that is at the hours of hours, they rose and went out into the world. None went with them but the three birds, under a spell of sleep, which Ailill had brought to Emar from Angus, who loved her.
They fared far.
One day they came to the City of the Rock, and stayed there for seven days. These were seven years, in the reckoning of men- For seven days they stayed there, listening to the song of the three birds of Emar.
Then they left the City of the Rock, and fared north.
One day, at dawn, in a wood, they saw a fair girl herding milch-deer, with two fawns by her side. Emar saw a flush come into Ailill's face, and his eyes shone. One of the sleeping birds flew, and hovered above the fawns, singing. The girl lifted her face, and her eyes saw Ailill, and she grew white with her eye immortal love, and shadows came into her eyes.
"I am Muireall," she said, "the daughter of Eoan and Finola, and am of the old race, as I see you are, Emar daughter of him of the grey dominions, and, Ailill son of Emar."
Then they knew that the bird had sung their names. She took them to her grianAn on a sun-swept mound in the wood. Her father lay there. Long ago he had eaten mistletoe-berries in moonshine, and had not waked again. Finola, loving him more than life, had changed herself into the white stillness of sleep, and was a dream in his mind, and lay quiet and glad and at rest.
For seven days, that were years, Emar and Ailill stayed with Muireall in the grianân. Ailill learned the three songs of Angus. There is no joy and no wonder like that joy and that wonder.
At the end of that time Eoan heard the singing of Emar's birds, and rose. Finola was still a dream in his mind, but she too waked and stood beside him, lovely in changeless youth.
On the morrow Emar and Ailill and Muireall left the grianân in the wood. They went into the world and wandered many days. They followed the stars called the Hounds, that point to the North Star. They saw none but shepherds and wandering folk.
One night, in a wood of old lichened trees, they met a god, with the head and breast of a hawk. His eyes were terrible, but he did not speak to them, nor do evil. They followed him, and came to a place where he crouched and worshipped. They saw nothing but an ancient flat stone, above which, though there was no wind, a maze of dead leaves whirled ceaselessly.
Three days after that they heard the inland sigh of the sea. It was among dry trees and bent grass. The shadows of seabirds often were, and in a moment were not, on green slopes.
At sundown they came suddenly upon a sandy dune, and saw a man walking swiftly. He was fair and wonderful. Two waves ran behind him like hounds. By these, and by the foambells on his sunbright lock, Ailill knew that he was Manànn the son of Manànn mac Lir.
There was great joy in that meeting. Manànn looked on Emar, and knew that he need dream no more. He took them to a sunfilled cave by the sea, and gave them food and drink. Ailill bestowed Emar upon him, and Emar and Manànn loved as Ailill and Muireall loved.
They dwelled together for seven days that are years, while the birds of Emar sang.
One day, at the end of that time, Dalua, the Amadan Dhu, passed that way and looked at them as they slept. The two waves of Manànn were blind too, flat and motionless.
Long ago he too had loved Emar. But ManAnn had slighted him, and Manànn mac Lir had banned him from the sea.
He took his reed-pipe and played softly. He played silence upon the two waves: deep sleep upon the sleepers. Then he changed one of the singing birds of Emar into a swallow, and it flew to the south: and another to a cuckoo, and it flew to the west: and the third to a crane, and it flew to the east. Then out of the north he brought a swarm of crows and told them to eat up the land and the ripe grain. Then Dalua took his reed again, and played one of the songs that are older than the Tuatha Dé.
When Manànn and Aillil and Muireall woke they heard no singing of the birds, and saw that Emar was no longer with them. The land was already desolate.
"Dalua has done this," said Manànn, frowning with black rage: "and we shall all know death if we do not move to where life is. The crows eat up the grain, and a blight is on every green thing, and on the earth."
As they passed from the cave Muireall looked longingly at a white flower that grew in a little sunlit space of soft grass and seapinks. But her heart was too heavy to pluck it.
It was Emar, whom Dalua had thus changed, and himself into the green stalk with grey silky petals which enclosed and upheld her.
But by the loss of the birds, and through the spells of Dalua, they were as folk of perishing clay again.
After many wanderings, for many seasons, wherein Manànn made baskets and other wicker-woven things, while Muireall sang, and Ailill played upon a tympan, and so thus won food and shelter, they came again to the Alban southlands, and to Solway shores.
The wind and tide were from the south: and when Manànn lifted the foam to his brow he had his old Powers again, and when he looked behind him he saw his two following waves, leaping and playing upon the yellow sands.
But Ailill and Muireall were sad, because to them no change came. On the morrow a worse evil chanced: for as they walked silently through a wood, the tribesmen of Scarva, who had usurped the kingship of that realm, took them captive, and they were thrown into a dark hollow in the rock on which Dun Scarva was built.
Scarva and Gâra his wife would have been glad to take Manànn also, but could not. One day he was walking in the wood, and saw a white fawn running through the bracken. He sent his two waves after it, for he knew it was Gâra, and that she had hoped to wile him to throw the one spear he carried. The two waves came upon her, and she would have died drowning, but that she cried for mercy. Manànn spared her, if she would swear by the sun and by the moon, by flame and wind and water, by the dew, and by day and night, that Ailill and Muireall should be set free. Further, that Scarva should give to him for three days, and a, day and a night, the White Hound he kept, which Myrlyn had given him because of a service.
And that was done.
On the first day, the White Hound led Manànn and Ailill and Muireall through an enchanted forest down to the sea, and thence by a secret way to the Isle of Manànn mac Lir; so that Manànn went to and fro again in his own land.
On the second day, the White Hound swam before the galley in which Ailill sat alone, and led him and the two following waves of Manànn to Emhain Abhlach, where he too was in his own land.
On the third day, the White Hound led Ailill through a wood to where Dalua slept, with his hazel-wand on the moss, and with Emar by his side.
Ailill lifted the wand and waved silence and trance upon Dalua. In that moment Dalua dreamed, and because of his shifting dream Emar was changed into a white flower, and lay upon his breast. But Ailill plucked the flower, and whispered, and Emar stood beside him again, fair and wonderful, with dark immortal eyes.
Before Emar and Ailill went, with the two waves of Maninn, and the three birds, red, and white, and black, Ailill waved "following " upon Dalua, so that he rose and followed the White Hound. All that night and all the next day they moved swiftly across unknown ways, till they reached the edge of the world.
It was then that the spell passed from him, and he waked, and looked down into the abyss where the stars were shining.
Then Dalua wept, because of that infinitude, and because he knew that a thousand years would pass before he could win his way again to Emhain Abhlach.
On the night of that day, which was the end of the three days and a night and a day, Scarva the Ardrigh waked suddenly for he heard the baying of the White Hound. And when he let the hound in, the hound lay down and died. There was a black spot on the whiteness between his red eyes.
"What is that?" asked the King of a druid who knew mysteries.
"It is the touch of Dalua," said the druid.
"It is the touch of Dalua, the Amadan Dhu, that gives madness or death."
And still the birds of Emar sing old forgotten songs that are for ever new: and there is none that may not hear, at the rising of the moon, in the falling of the dew, amid the greening of the world.

CONTENTS