|Dominion of Dreams, by Fiona Macleod||
Ulad of the DreamsI
THE MELANCHOLY OF ULAD
In the sea-loch now known as that of Tarbert of Loch Fyne,
but in the old far-off days named the Haven of the Foray, there was once a grian‚n, a
sunbower of so great a beauty that thereto the strings of the singing men's clŗrsachs
vibrated even in far-away Ireland.
None knows whence Ulad came. In the Isles of the West men said he was a prince out of the realm of the Ultonians; but there, in the north of Eirť, they said he was a king in the southlands. Art the White, the wise old Ardrigh of the peoples who dwelled among the lake-lands far south, spoke of Ulad as one born under a solitary star on the night of the Festival of Beltane, and told that he came out of an ancient land north or south of Muirnict, the sea which has the feet of Wales and Cornwall upon its sunrise side, and the rocks and sands of Armorica upon that where the light reddens the west. But upon Iona, that is now Iona, there was one wiser even than Art the White-Dýach the Druid; and when questioned as to Ulad the poet-king, he said he was of the ancient people that dwelt among the inlands of Alba, the old race that had known the divine folk, the Tuatha-de-Danŗnn, when they were seen of men, and no mortality was upon their sweet clay. The islanders were awed by what Dýach told them; for what manner of man could this be who had seen Merlin going tranced through the Woods, playing upon a reed, with wolves fawning upon him, and the noise of eagles' wings ruffling the grooms of the forest overhead?
And of Fand, has even the secret wind an echo? BŤl, the Harper, whose songs and playing made women's hearts melt like wax, and in men wrought either intolerable longing or put sudden swift flames into the blood, sang of her. And what he sang was this: that Ulad had fared once to Hy Brŗsil, and had there beheld a garth of white blooms, fragrant and wonderful, under the hither base of a rainbow. These flowers he had gathered, and warmed all night against his breast, and at the thinning of the dark breathed into them. When the sunbreak slid a rising line along the dawn he blew a frith across the palm of his left hand. What had been white blooms, made rosy with his breath and warm against his side, was a woman. It was Fand.
Who, then, can tell whether Ulad were old or young when he came to the Haven of the Foray? He had the old ancient wisdom, and mayhap knew how to wrap himself round with the green life that endures.
None knew of his being in that place, till, one set of a disastrous day, a birlinn drove in before the tempest sweeping from the isle of Arran up the great sea-loch of Fionn. The oarsmen drew breath when the headlands were past, and then stared with amaze. Overagainst the bay in the little rocky promontory on the north side was a house built wondrously, and that where no house had stood, and after a fashion that not one of them had seen. All marvelled with wide eyes. The sunset flamed upon it, so that its shining walls were glorious. A small round grian‚n it was, but built all of blocks and stones of hill-crystal, and upborne upon four great pine-boles driven deep into the tangled grass and sand, with these hung about with deerskins and fells of wolf and other savagery.
Before this grian‚n the men in the birlinn, upon whom silence had fallen, and whose listless oars made no lapping upon the foamwhite small leaping waves of the haven, beheld a man lying face downward.
For a time they thought the man was dead. It was one, they said, some great one, who had perished at the feet of his desire. Others thought he was a king who had come there to die alone, as Conn the Solitary had done, when he had known all that man can know. And some feared that the prone man was a demon, and the shining grian‚n a dreadful place of spells. The howling of a wolf, in the opposite glen that is called Strathnamara brought sweat upon their backs; for when the half-human wish evil upon men, they hide their faces, and the howling of a she-wolf is heard.
But of a sudden the helmsman made a sign. "It is Ulad the Wonder-Smith," he whispered hoarsely, because of the salt in his throat after that day of flight and long weariness; "it is Ulad of the Dreams." Then all there were glad, for each man knew that Ulad the Wonder-Smith, who was a poet and a king, wrought no ill against any clan, and that wherever he was the swords slept.
Nevertheless they marvelled much that he was there alone, and in that silence, with his face prone upon the wilderness, while the sunset flamed overagainst the grian‚n that was now like wine, or like Springing blood, light and wonderful. But as tide and wind brought the birlinn close upon the shore, they heard a twofold noise, a rumour of strange sound. One looked at the other with amaze that grew into fear. For the twofold sound was of the muffled sobs and prayers of the man who lay upon the grass, and of the laughter of the woman who was unseen, but who was within the grian‚n.
Donncha, the helmsman and leader of the seafarers, waved to his fellows to pull the birlinn close in among the weedy masses which when the galley lay hung from the rocks.
There, all but hidden, and each man's head was beneath the wrack, Connla rose. Slowly he moved to where Ulad lay, face downward, upon the silt of sand and broken rock that was in front of the grian‚n. But before he could speak, the young king rose, though not seeing the newcomer, and looking upon the sunbower, whence the laughter suddenly ceased, raised his arms.
Then, when he had raised his arms, song was upon his lips. It was a strange chant that Connla heard, and had the sound in it of the wind far out at sea, or of a tempest moving across treeless moors, mournful, wild, filled with ancient sorrow and a crying that none might interpret. The words of it, familiar to the helmsman, and yet with a strange lip-life upon them, were as these:
"Ah, you in the grian‚n there, whose laughter is on me as fire-flames,
What of my sorrow of sorrows because of my loving---
You that came to me out of the place where the rainbows are builded,
It is woman you are, O Fand, who laughest up there in thy silence? Sure, I have loved thee through storm and peace, through the day and the night;
Sure, I have turned my singing of songs to a marvellous swan-song for thee;
And death have I dared, and life have I dared, and gloom and the grave,
And yet, O Fand, thou laughest down on my pain, on my pain, O Fand. All things have I thrown away gladly only to win thee---
Kingship and lordship of men, the fame of the sword, and all good things---
For in thee at the last, I dreamed, in thee, O Fand, Queen of Women,
I had found all that a man may find, and was as the gods who die not. But what of all this to me, who am Ulad the King, the Harper,
Ulad the Singer of Songs that are fire in the hearts of the hearers,
Ulad the Wonder-Smith, who can bridle the winds and the billows,
Lay waste the greatest of dŻns or build grian‚ns here in the wilds--- What of all this to me, who am only a man that seeketh,
Who seeketh for ever and ever the Soul that is fellow to his---
The Soul that is thee, O Fand, who wert born of flowers 'neath the rainbow,
Breathed with my breath, warmed at my breast, O Fand, whom I love, and I worship? For all things are vain unto me, but one thing only, and that not vain is---
My Hope, my Fand, my Dream, my Passion, whom I won from Hy Brŗsil:
O Dream of my life, my Glory, O Rose of the World, my Dream,
Lo, death for Ulad the King, if thou failest, for all that I am of the Dŗnann who die not."
And when he had chanted these words, Ulad, who was young and
wondrous fair to look upon, held out his arms to Fand, whom yet he did not see, for she
was within the grian‚n.
Thereupon a low laugh was heard, and Fand came out of the
grian‚n. White and beautiful she was, the fairest of all women and Ulad was glad. When
near, she whispered in his ears, and hand in hand they went back into the grian‚n.
For three years after Ulad wooed Fand in the grian‚n in the
Haven of the Foray, none who knew him of old beheld his shining eyes.
All men knew the tale, for BÍl sang it by forest-fires and in the raths where the women, too, listened with shining eyes.
Was she a woman as other women are? they wondered; she whom Ulad had wrought in Hy Brŗsil out of a garth of white blooms gathered under the hither base of a rainbow---gathered, and warmed all night against his breast, and at dawn become a woman there by his side.
Meanwhile dark days were upon all the regions of the Gael, in Eri, and in Alba. Wars went to and fro. The sword was like a travelling bird.
Great kings perished: some in battle, some taken unawares, some ignobly. The ollavs and the bards were awestricken. A sound of lamentation prevailed throughout distracted lands. In the dim recesses of the ancient woods the deathless alien folk congregated in the obscurities of twilight, in the blackness of night. Old forgotten gods came and sat by desolate pools, staring into prophetic waters. The tall deathly women who take their hearts in their hands and play the fatal music of impossible desires, moved in the black pine-forests. Among the oaks, inhuman shapes sat and brooded. Strange portents were upon the mountains in the west, in the north, and in the east: out of the south came wild rains, thunders, shakings, and tremblings of the earth.
At the end of the third year there was no great king left.
Brooding chieftains eyed each other jealously, but there was no commune of swords.
The rich and the poor, the lordly and the ignoble, dwelled in fear of their fellow-men, and in worse fear of the demons the congregating gods out of forgotten places, the laughter of a dreadful folk, winged and crested, heard often in the moonshine, and followed always by a sound as of stabbings and a wild screaming. Who were they who laughed in the moonshine, and stabbed for joy, and fed upon the screaming terror of strayed men? None knew; no more than any knew who lit the sudden fires upon trecless hills, or of what the echoes were that made a dreadful mocking among the hollows in the mountains. One king only survived; but he did not reign. Colla was old and weary. He lived alone, in a raised house of wicker-boughs, at the forest-end of the great lake of Bandore, at whose head was the rath of the King of the North-a rath dishevelled and unfrequented now, save by a feeble, eager folk, for there was no King of the North, nor any feudal kings, save only Colla that was too weary with age and sorrow.
One night Colla sat by the pine-logs, staring through the flame into the past. He heard no sound, but suddenly knew that some one stood by him.
When he looked, startled, he saw a tall woman, taller than any woman he had ever seen, and of a beauty dreadful and wonderful. She was clad in a green robe that hung about like innumerous little leaves; her eyes were dark and shadowy as forest-pools; but whenever they moved, they had a flame in them as of a windblown torch.
"Peace be with you," said Colla. The demon laughed.
"It is not for peace I come, O Colla," said the woman; "but to play to you upon my heart, that you may have wisdom."
With that she took her heart out of her breast, and blew the red out of it into a bloody foam, and then played upon the seven strings that were laid bare.
When she had played a brief while she stopped. Her eyes were upon Colla as two wind-spent fires. He rose.
"I know now what to do, O Woman out of the Woods," he said. "But where shall I find BÍl the Harper, and where shall I find Ulad the Dreamer, and where shall I find AithnÍ his Dream?"
"You shall hear the harping of BŤl when you speak to the people three days hence at the Rath of Bandore. And there shall be an echo, after BÍl's playing, which shall tell him where he may find Ulad. But of AithnÍ I can tell you nothing, save that she dwells under the rainbow in the west."
With that the woman turned and went back into the night.
Till dawn Colla sat and dreamed of life, and death. He passed into that shadowy realm where memories move with august and mournful eyes. Lordship of men and women, forlorn vicissitudes, dropping decays: thus moved the circuit of his thoughts. He had seen the wheels of fortune---chariot-wheels of a dreadful and unseeing God.
When the morrow came he left his retreat among the reeds of Bandore and went to the rath. There he bade the war-horns be blown, and all the people summoned from far and near: every prince and every warrior and every man who bore a sword or carried spear and bow. All were to assemble there to hear what he had to say, to hear the last words of the last of the kings.
It was a mighty concourse that assembled at noon on that third day. Many sons of kings were there, and great lords. All were weary of an unruled realm; the hearts of all were heavy because of the portents, and of the return of the old banished gods and of the lighting of mysterious fires and of the congregation of demons, and nocturnal laugter, cries, and prophesyings. So that when Colla said what he had to say, all listened with eagerness. At the close a great shout went up. Even those who held aloof from the revelation of a demon were glad that a great king should be found to rule over all the northlands of the Gael; and if Ulad lived, there was none better than he, for all that no man there knew more of him than that he bore a great name, and was accounted one of the lords of the world, though where his own kingdom was, and what his people, none knew.
"But where is he? Where is Ulad the Lonely? Where is Ulad our King?" the whole assemblage cried as with one voice, when Colla sat back on the golden chair of Bandore.
It was then that a wild, sweet harping was heard.
All turned and looked toward the reedy end of the Lake of Bandore, whence the rumour of the music. Along the path from the west a man walked, harping as he came.
It was BÍl the Harper.
He stopped when he came to the white cliff to the west side of the rath. He stared a long while, for he had seen no such concourse of the people, nor any such assemblage of mighty ones, since the day when the Seven Kings of the North lost all, in the great battle beyond the mountains of Doon.
Colla rose, and called to BÍl.
"Hail, O King. I hear. Glory to our lost land!"
"Play to us, O BÍl."
Then BŤl played upon his harp, and he sang. The hearts of all were like running water when he played, and like melted wax before his singing was done.
In the silence that followed his singing, and the marvellous sweet harping whereof the secret was his own, there was heard a strange thing. The music of the stricken strings moved upward like a homing dove seeking her way; or like blue wood-smoke when there is no wind. It moved against the face of the white cliff, clinging wanderingly there with pale, aŽrial wings of sound, or breaths of invisible song.
A sweet, wild air incommunicable, delicate as falling dew, stole from the cliff, the fragrance of the spiral music netted among the unseen facets wrought of wind and sun. None knew what it forebode, nor could any there liken the sweet, fantastic rhythm to any rare sounds made by mortal man.
All saw that BÍl the Harper stood as though entranced: for his own harping was the most wonderful since Cravetheen played death into the love of Cormac Conlingas, and the beatitiful Eilidh whom he loved so passing well.
"Speak, BÍl!" cried Colla: "speak! For all may see that you hear what we cannot hear, in that echo upon the cliff of Bandore."
Slowly, the Harper looked round: slowly he slowly advanced. He spoke no word till he was near the golden chair of the king. "O king . . . it is you, Colla of the House of the Amergin the Great King, whom I thought dead, as are all other kings in this weary land now, save one . . . O king, that is no echo that seems an echo up there on the cliff - I know that strange, sweet singing."
"If it be not an echo, what then is that singing and confused murmur as of reeds in the wind? And where, O BÍl, have you heard that strange, sweet singing?"
"I have heard that singing , ay, and that confused murmur as of reeds in the wind, long, long ago, when I was a boy. It was when I had sailed three days and three nights, without food or water, driven seaward on the crest of an endless, wind-harried wave. I did not know then that the land I came to, and lingered in for what may have been a day or a year, or a day of many years, was Hy Brŗsil."
At this a low whisper went from mouth to mouth among all who listened. At last Colla spoke:
" Then, BÍl, that sweet music that has now ceased is like unto that which long years ago was sweet against your ears, in the Land of Youth, over-sea?"
"Even so, O king. There is none like it. No man playeth it, no man knoweth it. Only the heroes in Flatheanas hear it: it is like dew upon the grass in Tir-na'n-Og, if that indeed be other than Hy Brŗsil itself. Only those may hear it who put their left ear against the wind at the rising of the moon. The green people know it, and the silent ones whom we see no more, and those who dwell in shadow, and the unremembered gods, and the demons."
"And there is none that plays it, none that knows it?"
"I have known none save two others than myself. As for me, I play but an echo of it. But I know it."
"And the two others?
"One was Cravetheen the Harper, whose soul is with the demons because of the fiery death he wrought upon Cormac Conlingas, and upon the beauty of Eilidh. His soul now is a torn harp whereon demons play when they see beauty debased or destroyed.
"That is the sin of sins, O king: to destroy beauty."
"And the other?"
"The other is Ulad the Dreamer, him whom I have sung of so often, Ulad the Lonely. And by the same token, it is of Ulad and no other that the swarm of music on the cliff was."
"Tell us the hidden word. Speak without fear. As for me, I reign here only until the Ardrigh, the High King, shall come."
"The singing was like this: though my words, O Colla, are as bats after the brown birds that sing in the night. . . .
WhenBÍl the Harper ceased, all there gave a great shout.
Swords leapt into the air.
"Ulad! Ulad!" all cried. "Go hence, O BÍl, and bring back Ulad the King to reign over us."
Thereupon Colla stepped forward.
"Hearken, O BÍl, and all ye warriors and folk. I, Colla the King, hold peace here until that day when Ulad the King shall return with BÍl the Harper to be Ardrigh of all the northlands of the Gael, from the two seas and the waist of Eri, to the coasts of Alba and the Isles of the North."
And so it was.