Chapter One - The Coming of Naomh
Oisin reined in his horse, shielding strained eyes against early morning light flaring off the whitened-to-burning, steel colored surface of Lough Lean, before shifting his gaze to wave smothers of bright, fresh, variegated green rolling away downhill slopes to the shore. Spring has broken winter’s grip at last?he reflected, as every leaf, blade, and frond mirroring a night’s rain splintered the light into scatterings of gold/white gems. Oisin sighed, and his horse stamped, tossing his head, catching his master’s restless mood. Why am I thus? Why is my sleep disturbed? Hunting is a favorite pastime, and the Fianna’s spring chase a thing to be anticipated, so whence comes the foreboding? this abandonment of the hunt to my brothers??
Voices of hounds and horn were indeed becoming more distant as the Fianna hunted between spring green forest and sandy foreshore, leaving Oisin like a piece of tide-abandoned driftwood. Yet he was not quite alone, his father Finn, and son Osca having stayed with him, letting the hunt go its way-their horns silent, horses restlessly idle.
"What ails you, my son? You have not been yourself since sunup."
Oisin felt his father’s firm hand on his left shoulder, and turned to look at him. Finn MacCool, despite his muscular strength and upright carriage, was showing his age. The once fair hair that had engendered the nickname ?Finn? was now silver white, sheened over in dawn’s light, and his weathered face lined. Yet his manner was brisk and decisive as ever.
Oisin didn?t answer immediately, turning instead to look out over the Lough. The sky was cloudless but lightly hazed over. In the strengthening light, it shaded subtly from pearly white to pale blue. The distant mountains brooded, blue/gray with a hint of mauve, almost like a darkened and solidified extension of the sky. The honking call of a bittern from a clump of reeds briefly interrupted the silence, rolling over land and water in the wake of the retreating hunt.
"I am not myself," said Oisin eventually, in answer to his father’s patient query. "Since last nightfall I have endured a foreboding of change?of the imminent onset of something I do not yet understand. Of danger, yet also of a disturbing pleasure."
Finn looked at his son with understanding -
"Aye son, I understand you. I too have felt ill at ease, though I would have said nothing had you not spoken. It is sad that we have less to say to one another than we once did."
"We all know why that is."
The two turned sharply to look at Osca, who had spoken for the first time. The young man was black haired like his father, but shorter and slimmer in build, more like his grandmother-Finn’s first wife, Saba, who had been one of the fairy kind.
"I am sorry," said the young man, reading the pain and leashed anger in his grandfather’s look. "I spoke out of turn. Forgive me."
"There’s nothing to forgive," said Finn dully, letting the matter drop. But there was, and all three knew it. It was the matter of Diarmid and Grania that blighted their relationship-that tragic chain of events about which they were unwilling to speak.
Diarmid had been one of the greatest warriors of the Fianna, with whom they had shared such comradeship as is known only by those who have risked their lives together, standing shoulder to shoulder in battle. A comradeship that stood firm until Grania, daughter of Cormac Mac Art the High King, changed it forever. She?d been pledged to Finn as his wife after the death of Saba, and had put Diarmid under a geise, eloping with him. In the bitter time that followed, many died as Finn tried to execute vengeance on his erstwhile brother in arms. In this he failed, and eventually a peace of sorts was made.
Yet Diarmid was now dead-killed on a hunt by the Wild Boar of Ben Bulben-because Finn, who had the magical power of saving an injured person by giving water from his cupped hands, had failed to act. Still so unforgiving was he at heart.
There had been a spring nearby.
Now this death stood amongst the three of them, because Diarmid had also been Osca’s closest friend?
"What is that out on the Lough? a light that is not the sun?" asked Osca, suddenly cutting across their thoughts. "Let us go and see." So they rode down the forest track, through dappled green shade to the quiet shore.
As the sun rose higher, and a greater clarity hardened the foreground of the landscape, the light flare off the water’s surface became less dazzling. They saw, beyond the emerald green island of Innisfallen, a pattern of moving light. They were conscious of a shimmering in the air, a faint humming sound, and a gathering sense of anticipation. Their eyes turned first to the island, from which sound and shimmer seemed to emanate, before realizing that it was not the source of this approaching strangeness. Something was emerging, as if from behind the island?now between it and the shore. Moving, gliding inexorably towards them, a thing of golden light. They were becoming afraid, but being warriors of the Fianna they could not take flight. So they waited, curbing the restlessness of horses that had caught some of their unspoken fear, until they could divine what it was that drew near with such subtle, yet purposeful inevitability.
Yet the three men did not see alike, but each according to his psychic capacity. Osca saw a great white, winged horse with a golden mane surrounded by a nimbus of light, ridden by a tall, miraculously beautiful woman. Her flowing hair shone gold as the afternoon sun dropping into evening. Finn saw less clearly-only a great haze of light, with impressions of things moving within it. Oisin saw most sharply of all. His vision was of a chariot of light, drawn by two white horses, their plaited manes shining like silver threads. And for him, as for Osca, there was a beautiful golden-haired woman. But not riding, standing rather in the chariot, holding the reins.
The magical chariot glided unhurriedly shoreward, coming to rest on the sands about twenty paces from where they waited, wonderingly. By this time, Osca and Finn could both see, like Oisin, that it was indeed a chariot. And a solid one at that, though whether made of wood or gilded metal they could not tell.
"?Tis one of the Sidh" said Finn eventually. "Of that I am certain, but since it is not fitting that the Fianna should hold back through fear like common men, let us go to greet her."
They rode nonetheless cautiously up to the chariot, as the woman stepped out of it, awaiting their approach?Our horses seem to have lost their fear?The thought flitted through Oisin’s mind as the three men dismounted before their radiant visitor. Finn, as their leader, was first to speak.
"Hail, radiant one, whom we take to be an immortal. ?Tis not often that the Fairy kind are seen in Erin in these days, but, for whatever reason you have come, we give you the greeting of our land and people."
Oisin, strangely drawn to this shining entity, had been observing her while his father spoke. At close quarters it could be seen that she was no taller than a mortal woman, though certainly more perfectly formed, and flawlessly beautiful?But she was now speaking, her command of their language perfect, but the accent musically distinctive.
"Hail, warriors of the Fianna, for such I perceive you to be. I, Naomh, daughter of Bran, the king of Tyr n?a n?Og, bring you greetings from the Land of Eternal Youth. But to Oisin I bring more than greeting."
She turned her gaze fully on Oisin, catching him with the dark, but brilliant blue of her eyes, the golden light of her hair, and the beautiful movements of her perfectly formed body.
"Oisin, word of your valiant deeds and of your learning in the lore of Erin has come even to the halls of Tyr n?a n?Og. Moreover, I have a portrait of you, made by magical arts whose secrets you may one day learn. Through this portrait, and the knowledge we have acquired, I have come to love you."
There was a pause, and it seemed to Oisin at this moment that he had always known what she would say next.
"Come with me to the Land of Eternal Youth. I offer you marriage, love, by our arts endless pleasures, and the flowering of wisdom in a world where none are sick, grow old, or die?"
Intuition can never fully prepare one for revelation, and in the stunned silence following Naomh’s words the three men stared at each other in shock, taking in the enormous implications of what had been offered. Oisin in particular looked at the father he had always known, as if seeing him for the first time? His summer is past and autumn draws nigh. Already the sear hand of age touches him. Should I wait until a similar fate overtakes me??
But Finn responded. "My son, do not go. It is not fitting that mortal and immortal should thus be joined. Certainly we are kin from the far distant past, but much has changed since the high days of Numenor, and the drowning of Ys in our own mortal world. The ways of mortal and immortal have parted. Different destinies await us? ?tis too late now for such a joining."
But Oisin, himself bordering upon middle age, was scarcely listening, dazzled by the prospect of eternal youth. Until Osca responded in more homely fashion. "Friend and father, do not forsake comrades and kin for the blandishments of the Fairy kind, however generously intended. Remember our fellowship shared over many years, through good times and bad."
Oisin’s mind, however, was already made up. The lure of youth, beauty, and desire were too strong? Rarely have mortal and immortal been joined, but why should it not be so?? Resolutely he looked at Naomh-silent while the men debated.
"Yes, I will come, offering you my love forever in this world where youth does not fade."
Then he turned back to Osca and Finn. "Fear not, I shall not forget you. Indeed I will return from time to time, to feast with my family and companions as of old. Do not old tales tell that at times our kind have returned from distant worlds to greet their kin?"
"Indeed they do," responded Finn sadly, "but they have less to say about what our kind found when they did return." He sighed, "Even now the ghost of Diarmid haunts the Fianna; it is in my heart that you would not have acted thus had he still been among us?As for myself, I fear that we shall not meet again upon this side of the Great Sea that divides mortal and immortal."
But Oisin would have none of it. "Nonsense, Father, I am not so cold- hearted as to forget my kin, and be assured, it is not on Diarmid’s account that I have accepted this offer."
Then he embraced both father and son in turn, long and lovingly, before turning once more to Naomh. "I am ready."
"Then step with me aboard the chariot," she said, taking his hand.
When he stepped aboard, Oisin felt a certain lightness and shift in vision, as if he had been seeing the landscape as two slightly blurred images, now fused and clarified. Yet already the chariot was gliding away from the shore, out over clear water no longer glaring under the sun’s light. The figures of father and son were becoming ever more distant, diminishing, becoming scarcely real, until suddenly the chariot turned west and lifted, rising over the emerald green island of Innisfallen, before gliding as if on wings towards the mountains. And Oisin stood beside Naomh, holding the steadying bar at the front, with his free arm around her waist?in a brightly colored dream from which he desired never to awake.
On the shore Finn and Osca watched sadly as the chariot diminished to a speck, before vanishing into the bright day. As never before did Finn feel a growing weight of years, while the breeze that now ruffled the water, creating tiny, softly sibilant, shore-lapping waves, seemed to bear on its breath a touch of cold, like a smothered knocking on the door of his heart.