The quest to save his betrothed from a god's clutches draws a warrior into a mythical land
| The men of the Royal Branch dined with Conchobar mac Nessa, the High King of Ulidia, at the palace Emania on the night of Princess Dechtire’s hand fasting to the Knight Sualtam. They sat in their circle eating roasted pork while they told their tales and drank their ale. Fergus, the former ruler of Ulidia and now Conchobar’s Champion, was at his King’s right side, and beside him sat Sualtam, then Cathbad the Druid, Amergin the Poet, and finally the men of the Knights of the Royal Branch, in that order.
As the night wore on the revelers gradually grew weary, and the bride the most so, for her day had been long and tiresome. Her twelve serving maidens rose from the fire with her, and they stole away to prepare Dechtire for the wedding ceremony that would be held at the midnight hour. They dressed her in her emerald wedding gown and fastened her golden cloak with a fine broach. A white wreath of roses was gently set atop the fiery red crown that was her hair, and the serving maidens stepped back to look upon their mistress with wonder.
Dechtire’s beauty was so great that she attracted the attention of the very Gods, and Lugh the Long Handed came to stand before her. Her first glimpse of the God stopped any protest that would have come to her lips at the invasion of her bridal chamber. He was tall, so tall that he almost seemed a giant as she looked up at him, and his golden curls framed a face as pale as cream. His tunic was long and made of golden silk embroidered with thread the color of spun rubies, and over this kingly attire he wore a green cloak the color of the forest.
The God smiled and said, “We are two halves of a whole.”
“How so, my Lord?” she asked, gazing up into his eyes with wonder.
“Look down upon yourself, fair mortal, and behold what I see before me.” She did as he asked, and realized that the colors of his garments were the exact opposite of her own. “Will you come away with me?”
“Where to, my Lord?”
“If you will permit, I will take you to my home in Tir na nOg and make you my wife,” he said, and she did not refuse him.
Lugh turned his new bride and her twelve serving maidens into white swans, and himself into the largest, grandest bird of the flock. They all ascended into the air and flew westward toward the island Tir na nOg, the Land of Perpetual Youth.
When Sualtam finally came to lead Dechtire to the forest grove where their marriage would be consummated, he found that her chamber was dark and barren. The only lingering trace of his beloved and her serving women was the faint, fading scent of roses. After a frantic search that proved to be in vain, wrath and fury consumed him, and he drew his spears and gathered the rest of the Knights of the Red Branch. He told them that he feared his beloved had been kidnapped, and requested their help in rescuing Dechtire and exacting revenge upon the man who had taken her.
The Knights gave their battle cries and roared their rage out to the heavens, and then they gathered their charioteers and jumped onto their chariots. So great was their fury that all who heard their battle cries and the clanging of their swords ran indoors, for they thought the battle cries were from spirits walking the earth that Samhain night to create mischief for the living.
As the twenty warriors were riding into the darkness to rescue the Princess Dechtire they spotted fourteen swans crossing the moon. The birds, they saw, were flying toward the West, the direction of the Otherworld, where the dead came alive again and the Tuatha de Danann reigned over a land of happiness and beauty. When they saw this sign of the Sidhe their rage poured out of their veins like water, for they knew then that Gods had taken Dechtire, and that no mortal, or even an army of mortals, could hope to battle the Gods and win.
Yet Sualtam was a persistent man, and even as his rage faded it was replaced with something even stronger yet. Determination filled the spot left by his absent fury, and he vowed that he would get his love back. He decided then that he would journey west to Tir na nOg, and there he would persuade whatever God had stolen his beloved to release her and allow her to return with him to the human worlds.
With this plan formed in his mind, he sought the council of Cathbad, who was the head Druid of Conchobar’s court as well as the King’s father.
“Will you look to the stars, Cathbad, and tell me what day is the most favorable for this undertaking?” Sualtam asked.
Cathbad told him, “If, in a week’s time, a party of seven of Conchobar’s most loyal men depart, they shall reach Tir na nOg and be able to speak to Lugh the Longhanded, for it is he who has stolen your bride.”
Then Sualtam went to Amergin and asked him to name those most loyal to the King, for Amergin was a poet and saw much more about the nature of men than Sualtam did. Amergin named Fergus, Fingan, Lavercam, Cathbad, Sualtam, and himself, and he said that Conchobar should come as well, for Dechtire was the King’s half-sister and Conchobar longed for her safe return.
The company now numbered seven, and they immediately prepared to travel west to the land of the Gods and bargain with the Sidhe who had stolen Sualtam’s bride.
After seven days had come and gone the company put on their cloaks and mounted their horses. They left their spears and shields at home with their chariots, for they knew that the Tuatha de Danann did not favor iron and they did not wish to risk angering them. The Knights traveled over rolling hills and swift rivers, and camped for the night with their sleeping rolls arranged in a circle for protection against unseen dangers. They rose early in the morning as the sun was first climbing into the sky, and they did not stop until an apricot sunset descended over the hills.
Thus they traveled for seven full days, until at last they came upon the shores of a great lake, smooth as glass, with a narrow strip of green far in the distance that was the island of Tir na nOg.
“We must walk under the water, beneath the waves,” Cathbad told them. “Only by doing this will we reach that far shore, for only the horses of the Sidhe can walk on water across this great lake.”
With those words of advice they started across, leaving their horses on the bank behind them. Sualtam walked as far as he could without his head going under the waves, and when the water became too deep he began swimming, for he feared he would drown if he allowed himself to sink below the waters and walk along the bottom of the lake. The water swirled about him and threatened to sweep him away, and it was all he could do to keep swimming. Eventually his fear grew so strong that he decided to turn back, but just then the waters reached up and grabbed him, and they pulled him down until his feet touched the rocky bottom. Fish were swimming beside him, but he was so afraid that he closed his eyes tightly and did not see.
When he opened them again he lay on the green banks beside the lake, and he realized that he must have slept and allowed the water to pull him across, for he was now on the shore of Tir na nOg. The others were nowhere to be seen.
Sualtam cried, “I have survived to make it across to the land of the Tuatha de Danann, but alas, my comrades and my King have perished in the waters!”
There on the banks of Tir na nOg he stopped and mourned silently for his lost companions. Most of all he mourned the death of Conchobar, for he feared that the well-being of Ulidia would be jeapordized by the great King’s absence. He knew he should turn back and bear the ill news home, yet whenever he considered returning to Emania with his quest unfinished, his beloved’s face rose in his mind. Finally he resigned himself to saying his final goodbye where he stood; this was, after all, the Otherworld where the dead found new lives, and surely the spirits of his departed friends would hear his farewells.
At last he took to his feet and headed inland, where he hoped he would find the God Lugh and his own beloved Dechtire. For two days he traveled, and the sights he saw were so magnificent that it was all he could do to continue on. Only by reminding himself that his beautiful young bride was waiting for him, held captive by the lustful Lugh, was he able to keep going. He passed oak groves where men and women covered in silver and jewels danced, sang and feasted, and when they offered him the honeyed wine of their golden goblets he found that it was the sweetest drink he had ever tasted. None felt the need to eat in this place, and yet every tree was heavy with fruit, and where there was no fruit there were blossoms, or gigantic leaves that reached for the loving sun. In every place he searched for signs of Lugh and Dechtire, but none of the revelers ever knew where they were. They always offered him more wine, telling him to forget Dechtire and stay with them forever, and only his love for Dechtire gave him the strength to move on. Yet gradually his wonder of the Otherworld grew in him, until at last it was too difficult to take a single step. He wanted to lie down and sleep in the sweet grasses, or have one more taste of the honeyed wine and disappear forever into the blissfulness of the Otherworld. Thus it was that when he came upon a palace more terribly beautiful than anything else he had encountered in that strange land, he forgot his quest, boldly strode up to the oaken doors of the palace, and banged his fist on the hard wood.
Immediately the doors swung open, and a Sidhe warrior in a golden tunic with silver daggers at his waist greeted him and welcomed him inside without asking his business, as was proper in both the human world and this land of the Tuatha De Danann. He followed the warrior through a long winding corridor, where a snow-white hound and a lovely young woman joined them. Her beauty was unlike anything he had encountered in his life and her smile was such that any thoughts of Dechtire fled immediately from his mind, so that it was all he could do to hide his desire for her. Yet hide it he did, for it was obvious that she and the warrior were Lord and Lady of this palace, and he, a mere mortal, could never hope to be loved by a Sidhe Queen.
The warrior led him to a chamber where great tapestries hung on the walls and a multitude of soft rugs, pillows and blankets made of the finest silk and velvet lay on the ground. As he stood facing the magnificent couple in their shining crowns and clothes of golden silk, Sualtam, who in his own land was a noble in his own right, felt like nothing more than wretched peasant.
“You are weary, and it disheartens you,” the warrior Lord told him. “The lands of the Sidhe are hard on mortal bodies and minds and your people do not notice how much it fatigues you until it is too late and you have already become slaves to the pleasures of the Otherworld. Rest now, and when you wake we shall feast, and then you can tell me of your troubles.”
The Sidhe couple left him just as twelve serving maidens entered his chamber without a word to bathe him and dress him in finery that befitted a warrior and a noble. They departed just as silently, and he sank down onto the pillows in exhaustion and did not rise again until he felt refreshed.
When he woke he found that the warrior-king’s hound was in the room with him. Still held by the drowsiness of sleep, he regarded its shining white coat and red ears with fear, for he knew that the white hound was an omen of death. Then full wakefulness rushed upon him and he remembered that he was in the Otherworld where the death-hound had been born, and his fear faded just as his weariness had.
A serving woman met him at the door as he opened it and she led him through the winding corridors of the palace to the Feasting Hall. There he found the master of the house sitting at the head of the table entertaining a host of other Lords and Ladies of the Tuatha de Danann who were waiting for Sualtam to arrive so that they could eat. Yet nowhere could he see the beautiful Lady of the house.
“My wife is caught in the pains of childbirth and cannot join us this night,” the warrior said, as if he knew Sualtam’s innermost thoughts.
And Sualtam thought, “How is it she can be in the pains of childbirth, when yesterday she did not appear to be with child?” Yet he did not question his host, for he knew that time ran differently in the Otherworld, so that a mortal day might seem to be years or mere seconds in the Sidhe lands.
They feasted on the fruits of the Otherworld, and afterwards there was music, laughter, and much drunken revelry. Then at the midnight hour the host gathered all his people around him, and entreated Sualtam to tell his tale.
“Two weeks ago I was in the land of Ulster, in the East. On the third night of Samhain I was going to marry my bride, the beautiful Dechtire.”
“You did well to marry on the third night of Samhain,” one Sidhe Lord said. “The extinguishing of the fires all over Eriu that night and their relighting make it a time for new beginnings.”
“I chose the night well, yes, but not well enough, for on that third night of Samhain I did not get married after all,” Sualtam explained.
“How so?” his host asked.
“When I went to fetch my bride and bring her to the sacred groves for our marriage, I found she had been stolen from her chamber. Her twelve serving maidens were gone also, and so I called on the other Knights to help me find them and avenge myself upon their captor. Then I learned that she had been taken by one of the Sidhe and I knew that I could not win her back by strength of arms.”
“How did you know she departed with the Sidhe? Could not a mortal man have stolen her away?” his host said with a smile.
“Yes, my Lord, a mortal man could have stolen her away, but no mortal man could have turned himself and thirteen maidens into swans and led them west to Tir na nOg.”
“You speak truth,” his host said. “I have never yet known a mortal man who was able to perform this feat. There are those among your race who can change their own form, but none who can change the form of another as well.”
“What did you do after you learned that your bride had been taken by this Sidhe?” a Sidhe Lord asked.
“I consulted Cathbad the Druid for advice, and he told me I would find Dechtire if I left in seven days with a party of seven men. Thus did Amergin, Fergus, Cathbad, Fingan, Lavercam, Conchobar, and I embark upon this journey. For many days we traveled, until we reached the lake that sheltered Tir na nOg at its center.”
“How did you come to pass this lake, when none but the Sidhe can master the powers of water and walk across its surface?” a Sidhe Lady wished to know.
“We walked along the bottom with fish swimming past our heads.”
“And where are your companions now?” his host said.
“I fear they have drowned, my Lord. I have not seen any signs that any of the others have reached Tir na nOg. That is why, even if I recover my lost love, this quest so saddens my heart. I will have to bear the news of King Conchobar’s death home with me, and I fear his absence will bring ruin down upon his kingdom. He has no heir other than his sister Dechtire, who is a woman, and not a warrior like the Queen Maeve of Connaught. And Dechtire has been stolen away to the Otherworld, possibly never to return.”
“This is grave news indeed,” his host said. “But a question plagues my mind. Do you know which Lord of the Sidhe it was that stole your bride?”
“Yes, I do, my Lord,” Sualtam said. “I did not see him, other than in his swan form, but Cathbad the Druid told me that the one who took my bride was Lugh the Longhanded.”
“Indeed. Tell me, Sualtam, how do you plan to go about getting your lost love back?”
“I intend to find out where this Lord of the Sidhe is and bargain with him for my love’s return.”
“Then you still have a difficult journey ahead of you. Will you be staying with us for a few days, or do you wish to depart on the morrow? You are, of course, welcome to remain among us for as long as you wish.”
“Your offer is kind, my Lord, but I fear my quest is much too urgent for me to remain here for more than a single night. I will stay the night here and wake at the first light of the morn to depart.”
“Stay this night then, and be welcome.”
“Thank you, my Lord. You do me much kindness.” Then, claiming weariness, he bid the Sidhe Lords goodnight and retreated to his chamber.
In the dark hours of the night he woke, sitting up sharply in his bed, and wondered what had awakened him. Then he heard the far off sound of a babe’s cry somewhere in the depths of the palace, and smiled. The Lady of the house had given birth at last. Silently he wished her a strong son, and drifted back off to sleep.
True to his word, he rose the next morning as the first grey light of day was creeping through the windows. Even as he pulled the coverlets back, three serving maidens entered his chamber as if they knew he was awake and led him outside to where water boiled up from the ground in steamy, soothing pools. There he bathed with the serving women attending him, and when he was clean and dressed again he was led back to the palace to partake in the morning meal.
When he entered the feasting hall he nearly fainted with surprise, for standing before him in a clump, looking as shocked and confused as he himself was, were Fergus, Cathbad, Amergin, Fingan, Lavercam, and the King himself. As Sualtam entered and gaped at them in shock and delight, Fingan the physician stepped forward eagerly and called out to the others, “Sualtam is in this place as well!”
“Me?” Sualtam said. “I have been here all along! My friends, I thought you were all dead! When did you arrive?”
“Yesterday, at midday,” King Conchobar said, and the others echoed the same thing.
“How strange,” Sualtam said, “for I arrived then as well, but I did not see you. Indeed, when I emerged from the other side of the lake to find that none of you were with me, I thought you had perished!”
“I believed the same,” King Conchobar said.
“And I!” the others said.
“Last eve I feasted with the Lord of this palace and told him of my troubles, but he did not tell me that the rest of you were here,” Sualtam told them with much confusion.
“No,” King Conchobar said, “this cannot be so. I dined with the Lord last eve and I did not see you at all. Indeed, my host treated me as if I myself were a great Lord of the Sidhe, instead of a mere mortal King. He had me dressed in finery and directed that I bathe in the hot pools this very morning. Yet it is only now that I have seen you others. It frightens me, for I am in the Otherworld and I fear you may all be apparitions!”
“They are no apparitions,” a voice said behind them. They all whirled around to see their host standing before them, with the Lady of the house at his elbow. In her arms, wrapped in white silk, she held an infant with hair the color of gold and skin as fair as cream.
“They are no apparitions,” the warrior-Lord said again. “All of you are alive and well, and ready to start off on your quest. Yet you may find that you no longer wish to do so.”
“Of course I do! I will not abandon my love to the trickery of the Sidhe!” Sualtam said with passion.
“Your love understands the trickery of the Sidhe far better than you,” the Lady said, “for within her veins flows the blood of the Tuatha De Danann, and it is with them that she wishes to remain.”
“If she wishes to remain then she has surely been bespelled by the Sidhe, for it is me that she loves!” Sualtam cried indignantly. “Tell me where she is, so that I might speak with her!”
The Sidhe Lady ignored the request. The Lord said, “Dechtire wishes me to pass her farewell gift on to you. She believes that with the receiving of this gift, you will come to understand.”
“Will you accept the gift?”
Sualtam sighed at the evasion but was eager to receive anything that his beloved Dechtire sent him. “If it is a token from my love, then of course I will accept.”
Then the Sidhe Lady passed her husband the slumbering infant, and after gazing lovingly down upon the child for a moment, the Lord handed the babe over to an astonished Sualtam.
“This is Dechtire’s son,” the Sidhe Lord said. “His name is Setanta and he is her gift to you.”
Sualtam glared angrily at the Sidhe Lord. “He is your son as well! Did you think I would not notice his hair, his skin? His is your exact likeness! What makes you think I want another man’s child as a gift?”
The Lord gazed scornfully down upon Sualtam. “He borne of Dechtire’s womb, and it is you, not I, that she would like to raise her child. He has a great destiny that can only be fulfilled in the human lands.”
“He is indeed Dechtire’s child… I can see you in his eyes, Dechtire, in his lips. Every time I see him I will be reminded of you,” Sualtam said softly. He glanced up at the Sidhe Lady. “I cannot refuse this gift, though it will bring me great pain in the future to watch this child grow with your face and Lugh’s hair. He will remind me every day that you were never meant for me, that I could never have given you this child, borne of god and goddess. And yet you give me this great gift. You have given him to me instead of yourself. I will raise him as my own son, and cherish him forever.”
The Sidhe Lady took a step forward and gazed deep into Sualtam’s eyes. “Now you truly understand. But Sualtam, with my gift comes a request. Will you honor it?”
“What is this request?” Sualtam asked, tears pouring down his cheeks.
“That my babe be allowed to remain in my care until he reaches the age of seven years. I would like him to know me, and his Sidhe heritage, even if he will never again visit the Otherworld in this life. After that time, will you take him in and bring him up to manhood as your own son?”
“Of course. I swear it. But I in turn have one request.”
Dechtire nodded. “What is it?”
His voice was nearly a whisper. “Before I let you go forever, will you grant me one last kiss?”
She smiled gently. “Of course.” Leaning into the gap between them, she lay a sweet, gentle kiss on his lips. He closed his eyes in sorrow. She was Lugh’s wife now, forever.
When he opened his eyes again he found that he lay on the banks of the lake with his companions sleeping at his side. In his hand he clutched a piece of white silk still warm from where Dechtire’s and Lugh’s son—his son, too—had slumbered. In the distance, he could see the faint outline of the island of Tir na nOg over the wide waters.