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However they go in the day,
Men will walk soberly in the evening
and dogs will take the mood from their masters.
Evening was drawing in and the Fianna decided to stop for the day. The hounds were whistled to heel, and a sober, homeward march began. The band was pacing through the soft, coloured dusk when suddenly a fawn leaped from cover and the air lit-up as dogs sprang forward, and a furious chase commenced.
Fionn mac Cumhail loved a chase. He loved the sound of the rustling grass that stretched to infinity, that moved and crept and swung under the breeze, he loved the line of the aloof, solitary trees that speckled the landscape and the way in which the occasional copse put-down its shadow. At any hour with his dogs, Bran and Sceo'lan, at his heels he could outstrip his troop until nothing remained but his own crystalline-world peopled with his hounds and their quarry, and in this evening’s air it was a nimble fawn that gave lead.
But even in his wildest moments Fionn was deliberate. There was nothing about the dogs that he didn't know, nothing that wasn't significant, that didn't matter to him; not a twitch or toss of the head, not a turn of the ear or tail. However on this chase he was lost. He had never seen such keen flight, the hounds were absorbed but they didn’t whine with eagerness nor cast a look in his direction for the supportive word. They glanced at him okay, but with a question and a statement in their deep-eyes. But he couldn't understand what they sought to convey.
Now and ag'in, one of the dogs turned and stared, distantly, backwards, over the plain where their companions had disappeared.“Call it, a Vran!" he shouted, "Bark it out, a Heo'lan!" They don't want the other dogs to hear or to follow, he murmured, and as his thoughts spilled, the dogs looked at him as if they knew or could read his mind. His mind: The fawn runs well. What is it, a Vran, my heart? After her, a Heo'lan! Up and away, my loves! There is more and to spare in that beast yet, she is not stretched to the full, nor half stretched. She may outrun even, you, Bran, he raged.
Again they looked at him, it was a look that he had never seen on a chase, as they continued to pull-away. To build silence-on-silence and speed-on-speed, until their lean, grey bodies were one with the motion as they all raced through the valley in a steady, speedy flight until suddenly, the fawn stopped and lay fearlessly on the grass. Fionn stared in astonishment. Crying out: 'You have her! go easy,' regretting the kill even as he undersood its nature.
But the dogs didn’t kill, they leaped and played about the fawn, licking its face, and rubbing delighted noses against its neck.
Fionn joined them: His spear lowered, his knife sheathed and the fawn and the two hounds played round him; the fawn was as affectionate as the hounds were; so that when a velvet nose was thrust in his palm, it was as often as not a fawn's muzzle as a hound's.
It was in this company that he returned to his fort on Allen of Leinster, where the people were surprised to see the hounds, and the fawn, and the Chief alone without the rest of the party that had set-out with them.
When the others reached home, Fionn told of his chase, and it was agreed that such a fawn must not be killed, but that it should be kept and well treated, and that it should be the pet fawn of the Fianna. But some of those who remembered Bran's parentage thought that as Bran herself had come from the Shi, this fawn might have come out of the Shi also.
The Lovely Lady from the Shi,
Luminescent, with eyes like fawn.
She is the light on the foam.
This sky-woman of the dawn.
Perfumed as apple-blossom.
She smells of spice; she's a honeyed swan,
My beloved, she is from beyond the world.
Late that night, when he was preparing for bed, Fionns' bedroom door slowly opened and a young woman entered the room. The Captain stared at her, he had never seen or imagined to see anything so beautiful. Indeed, she was not a woman, but a young girl with a bearing so noble that the chief scarcely dared look away believing that if he did she would disappear.
And as she stood within the doorway, smiling, shy as a flower, timid as a fawn, the Chief communed with his heart.
And that thought was delightful because she was such a sweet prospect and he was rueful because it was not yet realised, and might not be. As the dogs had looked at him on the chase with a look that he didn't understand, so she looked at him.
Quieting his heart, he said: "I don’t know you."
"You don’t! that's true." she replied.
"I should know every person that's here. What do you need from me?" he continued gently.
"I beg your protection, Royal Captain."
"I give that to all," he answered. "Against whom do you desire protection?"
"I am in terror of the Fear Doirche."
"The Dark Man of the Shi?"
"He is my enemy," she said.
"He is mine now," said Fionn. "Tell me your story."
"My name is Sadhbh, and I am a woman of Faery," she commenced. "In the Shi' many men gave me their love, but I gave my love to no man of my country."
"That was not reasonable," the other chided with a blithe heart.
"I was contented," she replied, "and what we don’t want we don’t lack. But if my love went anywhere it went to a mortal, a man of the men of Ireland."
"By my hand," said Fionn in mortal distress, "I marvel at who that man might be!"
"He is known to you," she murmured. "I lived thus in the peace of Faery, hearing often of my mortal Champion, for the rumour of his great deeds had gone through the Shi', until a day came when the Black Magician put his eye on me, and, after that day, in whatever direction I looked I saw his eye."
She stopped at that, and the terror that was in her heart was on her face.
"He is everywhere,
He is in the bushes,
And on the hill.
He looks up at me from the water,
And he stares down on me from the sky.
_His voice commands me out of the spaces,
And it demands secretly in the heart.
He is not here or there,
He is in all time, in all places."
"I cannot escape from him," she said,
"and I am afraid," and at that she wept noiselessly.
"He is my enemy, then too." Fionn growled. "I name him as my enemy."
"You will protect me?" she implored.
"Where I am let him not come," said Fionn. "I also have knowledge forI am Fionn, the son of Uail, the son of Baiscne, a man among men and a god where the gods are."
"He asked my hand in marriage," she continued, "but my mind was full of my own dear hero, and I refused the 'Dark Man'."
_"That was your right, and I swear by my hand that if the man you desire is alive and unmarried he shall marry you or he will answer to me for the refusal."
"He is not married," said Sadhbh, "and you have small control over him." The Chief frowned thoughtfully. "Except the High King and the kings I have authority in this land."
"What man has authority over himself?" said Sadhbh.
"Do you mean that I am the man you seek?" asked Fionn.
"It is to yourself I gave my love." she replied.
"This is good news," Fionn cried joyfully, "for the moment you came through the door I loved and desired you, and the thought that you wished for another man went into my heart like a sword."
Indeed, Fionn loved Sadhbh as he had not loved a woman before and would never love one again. He loved her as he had never loved anything before. He could not bear to be away from her. When he saw her he did not see the world, and when he saw the world without her it was as though he saw nothing, or as if he looked on a prospect that was bleak and depressing. The belling of a stag had been music to Fionn, but when Sadhbh spoke that was sound enough for him. He had loved to hear the cuckoo calling in the spring from the tree that is highest in the hedge, or the blackbird's jolly whistle in an autumn bush, or the thin, sweet enchantment that comes to the mind when a lark thrills out of sight in the air and the hushed fields listen to the song. But his wife's voice was sweeter to Fionn than the singing of a lark. She filled him with wonder and surmise. There was magic in the tips of her fingers. Her thin palm ravished him. Her slender foot set his heart beating; and whatever way her head moved there came a new shape of beauty to her face.
"She is always new," said Fionn. "She is always better than any other woman; she is always better than herself."
He attended no more to the Fianna. He ceased to hunt. He did not listen to the songs of poets or the curious sayings of magicians, for all of these were in his wife, and something that was beyond these was in her also.
"She is this world and the next one; she is completion," said Fionn.
The thunder blasted through the night,
and lightning spotted ships--.
Ghostly ships from olden days had sails
that billowed murderous tales.
And men and women's screams were heard,
as sheets of rain fell on life's herd --
Persistent rain fell in straight lines.
Its lines of light washed out the signs of dread.
It happened that the Men of Lochlann3 crossed the sea and came on an quest to conquer Ireland. A monstrous fleet rounded the bluffs of Ben Edar4, and the Danes landed there, to prepare an attack which would render them masters of the country.
Fionn and the Fianna marched against them. Fionn didn't like the Men of Lochlann at any time, but this time he moved against them in wrath, for not only were they attacking his beloved , this time they had come between him and his lady; the deepest joy his life had known.
It was a hard fight, but a short one. The Lochlannachs were driven back to their ships, and within a week the only Danes remaining in Ireland were those that had been buried there.
Once finished, Fionn made ready to leave the victorious Fianna and return swiftly to the Plain of Allen, for he could not bear to be one unnecessary day parted from Sadhbh.
Goll mac Morna: "You're not leaving us!"
Fionn:"I must go."
Conan:"You will not desert the victory feast,"
Caelte: "Stay with us, Chief."
"What is a feast without Fionn?" they complained.
But he would not stay.
Fionn: "By my hand, I must go. She will be looking for me from the window."
Gol: "That will happen indeed."
Fionn: "That will happen and when she sees me far out on the plain, she will run through the great gate to meet me."
Cona'n: "It would be the queer wife that would neglect that run."
Fionn: "I shall hold her hand again," he whispered to Caelte's ear.
Caelte: "You will do that. Surely!"
Fionn:"I shall look into her face," his lord insisted. But he saw that not even beloved Caelte understood the meaning of that, and he knew sadly and yet proudly that what he meant could not be explained by anyone and could not be understood by anyone.
Caelte: "You are in love, dear heart."
"In love he is," Cona'n grumbled. "And what is it but a cordial for women, a disease for men, and as state of wretchedness."
"Wretched, it's true," the Chief murmured:
"Love makes us poor.
We have not eyes enough,
To see all that is to be seen,
_Nor hands enough to seize the tenth of all we want.
When I look in her eyes I am tormented,
Because I am not looking at her lips,
And when I see her lips my soul cries out,
'Look at her eyes, look at her eyes.'"
"That is how it happens," said Goll.
"That way and no other," Caelte agreed.
And the Champions looked backwards in time on these lips and those, and they knew that their Chief would go.
When Fionn came in sight of the Great Keep his blood and his feet quickened. As he got closer to the Dún he waved his spear in the air. However there was no sign of Sadhbh: "She does not see me yet," he thought mournfully and then reproached himself saying: "She cannot see me yet." But his mind was troubled, for he felt that had the positions been changed he would have seen her at twice the distance. "She thinks that I've been unable to get away from the battle, or that I was forced to remain for the feast." And, with that, his mind rambled of its own accord and again he thought that had positions been changed he would have known that nothing could contain the one that was absent, yet still he made excuses. "Women," he said, "are shamefaced, they don't like to appear eager when others are observing them."
But he knew that he wouldn't have noticed if others were observing him, and that he wouldn't have cared about it if he had, and with that he knew that his Sadhbh would not have seen, and would not have cared for any eyes other than his. He gripped his spear on that reflection, and driven by dread he ran, as he had never run in his life, so that it was a panting, dishevelled man that raced heavily through the gates of the Great Dún.
He was met with disorder. Servants were shouting to one another, and women were running to and fro aimlessly wringing their hands and screaming; and, when they saw the Champion, those nearest to him ran away, and there was a general effort on the part of every person to get behind, or to hide behind, every other person. But Fionn caught the eye of his butler, Gariv Crona'n, the Rough Buzzer, and held it.
"Come you here," he said.
And it was a subdued man who approached.
"Where is the Flower of Allen, where's Sadhbh?" his master demanded.
"I don't know, master," the terrified servant replied.
"You don't know!" exclaimed Fionn. "Well. Tell me please what you do know."
And the man told him this story.
And he sang where sun lit settings found in dawn's old haze
And he sighed as horrors lit in holy days,
And on graves where pulpiteers had stood and spun
From tomes the poems and stories long begun,
In deathly sermons found in olden ways,
As he saw her shadow lightly creep-- in daze.
"When you had been gone for a day the guards were on look-out, scanning the land from the heights of the Dún, and the Sadhbh was with them. She, for she had a quest's eye, suddenly called out that the master of the Fianna was coming over the ridges, the guards were surprised and caught unawares they watched as she ran from the keep to meet you."
"It was not I," said Fionn.
"It bore your shape," replied Gariv Cronan. "It had your armour and your face, and the dogs, Bran and Sceo'lan, were with it."
"They were with me," said Fionn.
"Well they appeared to be with it," said the servant humbly.
"Tell us this tale," cried Fionn.
"We were distrustful," the servant continued. "We had never known Fionn to return from a combat before it had been fought, and we knew you could not have reached Ben Edar or encountered the Lochlannachs. So we caughtp with our lady and urged her to let us go out to meet you, but to remain herself in the Dún."
"It was good urging," Fionn assented.
"She would not be advised," the servant wailed. "She cried to us: 'Let me go to meet my love.'"
"Alas!" said Fionn.
"She cried on us: 'Let me go to meet my husband, the father of the child that is not born.'"
"Alas!" groaned deep-wounded Fionn.
"She ran towards your appearance, it had your arms stretched out to her."
At those words Fionn put his hand before his eyes, seeing all that happened.
"Tell on your tale," said he.
"She ran to those arms, and when she reached them the figure lifted its hand. It touched her with a hazel rod, and while we looked-on she disappeared, and in her stead, there was a fawn standing and shivering. The fawn turned and bounded towards the gate of the Dún, but the hounds that were standing by flew after her." The servant stared into Fionn's eyes as he drew the scene.
Like a lost man Fionn stared back at him.
"They took her by the throat--" the shivering servant whispered.
"Ah!" cried Fionn in a terrible voice.
"And they dragged her back to the figure that seemed to be Fionn. Three times she broke away and came bounding to us, and three times the dogs took her by the throat and dragged her back."
"You stood to look!" the Chief snarled.
"No, master, we ran, but she vanished as we got to her; the great hounds vanished away too, and that being that seemed to be you, master, disappeared with them. We were left in the rough grass, staring about us and at each other, and listening to the moan of the wind, and the terror of our hearts."
"Forgive us, sir," the servant cried.
But the great captain made him no answer. He stood as though he were dumb and blind, and now and again he beat terribly on his breast with his closed fist, as though he would kill that within him which should be dead and could not die. He went so, beating on his breast, and so retired to his inner room in the Dún, and he was not seen again for the rest of that day, nor until the sun rose over Moy Life in the morning.
He knew that he didn't know
enough to mark-in-red the meaning
of the words that he had heard and read.
For many years after that time, when he was not fighting against the enemies of Ireland, Fionn was searching and hunting through the length and breadth of the country in the hope that he might again chance on his lovely lady from the Shi'. Through all that time, each night, he slept in misery and each day he rose to grieve. Whenever he hunted he brought only the hounds that he trusted, Bran and Sceo'lan, Lomaire, Brod, and Lomlu; for if a fawn was chased each of these five great dogs would know if that was a fawn to be killed or one to be protected, and so there was small danger to Sadhbh and a small hope of finding her.
When seven years had passed in fruitless search, Fionn and the chief nobles of the Fianna were hunting Ben Gulbain. All the hounds of the Fianna were out, for Fionn had now given up hope of encountering Sadhbh. Then as the hunt shimmied along the sides of the hill, a outcry of hounds swept down from a narrow place high-up on the slope, and then rising over the uproar there came the savage baying of Fionn's own dogs.
"What is this for?" said Fionn, and with his companions he pressed on to the spot whence the noise emanated.
"They are fighting. All the hounds of the Fianna are fighting." cried the Champion.
And they were. The five wise hounds were in a circle. They battled a hundred dogs at once. Bristling and terrible: each bite from those great jaws was woe to the beast that received it. Nor did they fight in silence as was their custom and training, but between each onslaught the great heads were uplifted, and they pealed loudly, mournfully, urgently for their master.
"They are calling on me," Fionn roared.
And with that he ran, as he had only once before and the men who were near to him went racing as they would not have run for their lives. They came to the narrow place on the slope of the mountain, and they saw the five great hounds in a circle keeping-off the other dogs, and in the middle of the ring a little boy stood.
He had long, beautiful hair, and he was naked. He was not daunted by the terrible combat and clamour of the hounds. In fact, he didn't even look at the hounds, but like a young prince he stared at Fionn and the Champions as they rushed towards him scattering the pack with the butts of their spears.
When the fight was over, Bran and Sceo'lan ran whining to the little boy and licked his hands.
"They do that to no one," said a bystander. "What new master is this they have found?"
Fionn bent to the boy. " Well my little prince, tell me your name and how you have come to be in the middle of a hunting-pack, and why are you naked?"
But the boy did not understand the language of the men of Ireland. So he put his hand into Fionn's, and the Chief felt as if that little hand had been put into his heart. He lifted the lad onto his great shoulder.
"We have caught something on this hunt," he said to Caelte mac Rongn. "We must bring this treasure home. You shall be one of the Fianna, my darling," he called upwards. The boy looked down on him, and in the noble trust and fearlessness of that regard Fionn's heart melted away.
"My little fawn!" he said.
And then he remembered that other fawn. Fionn set the boy between his knees and stared at him earnestly and long.
"There is surely the same look," he said to his awakening heart; "that is the very eye of Sadhbh."
The grief flooded out of his heart as at a stroke, and joy foamed into it, in one great tide. He marched back singing to the encampment, and men saw once more the merry Chief they had almost forgotten.
Deeds grow old in a day
and are buried in a night.
New memories come crowding
and one must learn to forget
as well as to remember.
Just as at one time he could not be parted from Sadhbh, so now he could not be separated from this boy. He had a thousand names for him, each one more tender than the last: My Fawn, My Pulse, My Secret Little Treasure, or he would call him: My Music, My Blossoming Branch, My Store in the Heart, My Soul. And the dogs were as wild for the boy as Fionn was. He could sit in safety among a pack that would have torn any man to pieces, and the reason was that Bran and Sceo'lan, with their three whelps, followed him about like shadows. When he was with the pack these five were with him, and woeful indeed was the eye they turned on their comrades when these pushed too closely or were not properly humble. They thrashed the pack severally and collectively until every hound in Fionn's kennels knew that the little lad was their master, and that there was nothing in the world so sacred as he was.
In no long time the five wise hounds could have given over their guardianship, so complete was the recognition of their young lord. But they did not so give over, for it was not love they gave the lad but adoration.
Fionn even may have been embarrassed by their too close attendance. If he had been able to do so he might have spoken harshly to his dogs, but he could not; it was unthinkable that he should; and the boy might have spoken harshly to him if he had dared to do it. For this was the order of Fionn's affection: first there was the boy; next, Bran and Sceo'lan with their three whelps; then Caelte mac Rona'n, and from him down through the champions. He loved them all, but it was along that precedence his affections ran. The thorn that went into Bran's foot ran into Fionn's also. The world knew it, and there was not a Champion but admitted sorrowfully that there was reason for his love.
Little by little the boy came to understand their speech and to speak it himself, and at last he was able to tell his story to Fionn.
There were many blanks in the tale, for a young child does not remember very well. And a whole new life had come on this boy, a life that was instant and memorable, so that his present memories blended into and obscured the past, and he could not be sure if that which he told of had happened in this world or in the world he had left.
"I used to live," he said, "in a wide, beautiful place. There were hills and valleys there, and woods and streams, but in whatever direction I went I came always to a cliff, so tall it seemed to lean against the sky, and so straight that even a goat would not have imagined to climb it."
"I don't know of any such place," Fionn mused.
"There is no such place in Ireland," said Caelte, "but in the Shi' there is such a place."
"There is in truth," said Fionn.
"I used to eat fruits and roots in the summer," the boy continued, "but in the winter food was left for me in a cave."
"Was there no one with you?" Fionn asked.
"No one but a deer that loved me, and that I loved."
"Ah me!" cried Fionn in anguish, "tell me your tale, my son."
"A dark stern man often came after us, and he used to speak with the deer. Sometimes he talked gently, softly and coaxingly, but at times again he would shout loudly and in a harsh, angry voice. But whatever way he talked the deer would draw away from him in dread, and he always left her at last furiously."
"It was the dark magician of the men of god," cried Fionn despairingly.
"It was indeed. My soul!" said Caelte.
"The last time I saw the deer," the child continued, "the dark man was speaking to her. He spoke for a long time. He spoke gently and angrily, gently and angrily, so that I thought he would never stop talking, but in the end he struck her with a hazel rod, so that she was forced to follow him when he went away. She was looking back at me all the time and crying so bitterly that any one would pity her. I tried to follow her also, but I could not move, and I cried after her, too, I cried with rage and grief until I could see and hear her no more. Then I fell on the grass, my senses left me, and when I awoke I was on the hill in the middle of the hounds where you found me."
That was the boy whom the Fianna called Oisi'n, or the Little Fawn. He grew to be a great fighter and he was the chief maker of poems in the world. But he was not yet finished with the Shi. He was to go back into Faery when the time came, and to come thence again to tell these tales, for it was by him these tales were told.
Editor: Marie Lynam Fitzpatrick
1: Sadhbh, Pronounced Sive. In Irish folklore Sadhbh was the daughter of Boderg and the wife/partner of Fionn mac Cumhail
2: Eve: Evening
3: Men of Lochlann: Raiders, most especially Vikings
4: Ben Edair: The Hill of Howth, in Dublin
5: Dún: Fort
6: The Lochlannachs The Invaders
Irish Fairy Tales by James Stephens