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Deirdre and the Sons of Usna

Deirdre and the Sons of Usna:


There was among the lords of Ulster one named Felim, who on a certain day made a great feast for the king. And the king came with his Druid Cathbad, and Fergus mac Roy, and many other heroes of the Red Branch, and while they were living it up, a messenger from the women's apartments came to tell Felim that his wife had just given birth to a daughter. So all the lords and warriors drank health to the new-born babe, and the king commanded Cathbad, the Druid, to foretell what the future would have in store for Felim's new daughter. Cathbad was much troubled, but at length he said: "The infant shall be fairest among women, and shall wed a king, but because of her shall death and ruin come upon the Province of Ulster." Then the warriors would have put her to death upon the spot, but Conor forbade them. "I will avert the doom," he said, "for she shall wed no foreign king, but she shall be my own mate when she is of age." So he took away the child, and committed it to his nurse Levarcam, and the name they gave it was Deirdre. And Conor charged Levarcam that the child should be brought up in a strong fortress in the solitude of a great wood until she was of marriageable age. One day, when Deirdre was drawing near marriageable age, she and Levarcam looked over the rampart of their fortress toward the wood. It was winter, a heavy snow had fallen in the night, and the land before the fortress was a sheet of unbroken white, except that in one place a servant had killed a calf for their dinner, and the blood of the calf lay on the snow. And as Deirdre looked, a raven lit down from a nearby tree and began to drink the spilled blood. "0 nurse", cried Deirdre suddenly, "such, and not like Conor, would be the man that I would love, his hair like the raven's wing, and in his cheek the hue of blood, and his skin as white as snow." "You have pictured Naoise, son of Usna, a champion of the Red Branch," said the nurse. Thereupon Deirdre entreated Levarcam to bring her to speak with Naoise, and because the old woman loved the girl and would not have her wedded to the aged king, she at last agreed. Deirdre implored Naoise to save her from Conor, and he vowed he would do so. Then secretly one night, he came with his two brothers Adran and Ainle', and bore away Deirdre with Levarcam, and they escaped the king's pursuit, and they made their dwelling in Scotland and there lived in the wild wood by hunting and fishing. And the years went by and Conor made no sign, but he did not forget, and his spies told him of all that befell Naoise and Deirdre. At last, judging that Naoise and his brothers would have tired of solitude, he sent the bosom friend of Naoise, Fergus, son of Roy, to bid them return, and to promise them that all would be forgiven. Fergus went joyfully, but Deirdre foresaw evil, and would have sent Fergus home alone. Naoise blamed her for her doubt and suspicion, and reminded her that they were under the protection of Fergus, whose safe-guard no king in Ireland would dare to violate, and they at last made ready to leave that part of Scotland which had been their home. On landing in Ireland, they were met by Baruch, a lord of the Red Branch, who had his fortress close by, and he invited Fergus to a feast he had prepared for him that night. "I may not stay," said Fergus, "for I must first convey Deirdre and the sons of Usna safely to Conor." "Nevertheless", said Baruch, "you must stay with me to-night for it is a geis to refuse a feast." Deirdre implored him not to leave them, but Fergus feared to break his geis, and he bade his two sons, Illan the Fair and Buino the Red, take charge of the party in his place, and he himself stayed with Baruch. And so the party came to Emain Macha, Conor's castle, and they were lodged in the House of the Red Branch, but Conor did not receive them. After the evening meal, as he sat, drinking heavily and silently, he sent a servant named Trendorn to the Red Branch House to mark who was there and what they did. But when Trendorn came, the place was barred for the night, and so he mounted on a ladder and looked in at a high window. And there he saw the brothers of Naoise and the sons of Fergus playing chess and with them the fairest of women that he had ever seen. But as he looked, one caught sight of him. Seizing a chessman from the board, Naoise hurled it at the face of the spy, and it struck out his eye. Then Trendorn hastily descended, and went back with his bloody face to the king. Conor arose, called for his guards and bade them bring the sons of Usna before him for maiming his messenger. And the guards went, but Buino, with his retinue, met them and at the sword's point drove them back. Conor went to Buino, and with a great gift of lands he bribed him over to desert his charge. Then Illan took up the defense, but the two sons of Conor slew him. And then at last Naoise and his brothers seized their weapons and rushed amid the foe, and many were they who fell before the onset. Then Conor entreated Cathbad the Druid to cast spells upon them, and he vowed to do them no hurt if they were taken alive. So Cathbad conjured up, a lake of slime that seemed to be around the feet of the sons of Usna, and they could not move their feet from it. Then the guards and servants of Conor seized and bound them and brought them before the king. And the king called upon man after man to come forward and slay the sons of Usna, but none would obey him, till at last Owen, son of Duracht, came and took the sword of Naoise, and with one sweep he cut off the heads of all three, and so they died. Then Conor took Deirdre by force, and for a year she lived with him in the palace, but during all that time she never smiled. At length Conor said "What is it that you hate most of all on earth, Deirdre?" And she said: "You yourself and Owen, son of Duracht," and Owen was standing by. "Then you shall go to Owen for a year," said Conor. But when Deirdre mounted the chariot behind Owen she kept her eyes on the ground, and Conor said, taunting her: "Deirdre, your glance between me and Owen is the glance of a ewe between two rams." Then Deirdre flung herself head foremost from the chariot, dashed her head against a rock and fell dead. When Fergus mac Roy came home after the feast to which Baruch invited him, and found the sons of Usna slain and one of his own sons dead and the other a traitor, he vowed to be avenged on Conor with fire and sword. And he went off straightway to Connacht to take service of arms with Ailell and Maev, who were king and queen of that country. But though Ailell was king, Maev was the ruler in truth, and ordered all things as she wished, and took what husbands she wished, and dismissed them at her pleasure, for she was as fierce and strong as a goddess of war, and knew no law but her own wild will. When Fergus came to her in her palace in Roscommon she gave him her love, as she had given it to many before, and they plotted together how to attack and devastate the Province of Ulster.

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