This is my adaptation of the story of ‘Deidre and the Sorrows’, part of the Ulster Cycle, a pre-Christian mythology of Ireland. Completely rewritten to appeal to modern readers, I’ve added a new ending (Druid Cathbad’s actions in the last few lines) to integrate it into ‘Antler Jinny and the Rogue Faerie’, of which it may be the prologue. The only character that appears here and in the main book is, perhaps, Deidre herself.
As a Ewe Between Two Rams
Deidre, cold-eyed and thoughtful at the wall of the dûn, watched King Conor of the Red Branch leave them. Though the light was fading, she noticed his little skip on the forest path, an unusual movement for such an old man, revealing anticipation for the gift he was to receive. Deidre, sixteen years old, small, firm, exquisite, was that gift, and she was to marry the king on Samhain’s day—the day after next.
For Deidre was the fairest in the land. At her birth, the Druid Cathbad had foreseen as much, and having viewed the still-warm entrails of a brown calf, had declared, with wonder and awe, that she would marry a king. Yet his face had darkened as he probed deeper into the innards of the calf laid out before him. There could be no doubt; Deidre would bring much bloodshed to the province, and the banishment of the king’s three finest warriors.
Many of those present would have killed the baby then, but King Conor saw an opportunity.
“I will marry her myself,” he said, eyes gleaming. “I will take care she does not harm our land.”
The king had hidden her in this dûn in the darkest regions of the forest, out of sight of all men. As her beauty grew to fulfil the first of Cathbad’s predictions, this place and the women in it were all she knew. Today, watching the king’s less-than-stately departure, a sense of foreboding enveloped her. This aged man, to whom a skip was such an effort, would, she swore, never be her husband.
Of late, he had come often, and each time had held her closer, longer, as if he found it difficult to not despoil her soft, warm flesh, not to explore her young body with his cracked, veiny, stiff hands.
He had kissed her; wet, slimy fish-lips pressed against hers. Drool, that not forced into her mouth, dangled from his chin and stained his tunic. His sharp bones pressed her shoulders, his dank hair dangled over her face as, panicked, she tried to breath. He released her, stood before her, his hands fluttering around her bosom as if uncertain which juicy apple to enjoy first. She recoiled from his cold, wet hands, his red, excited cheeks, the dead-shark eyes and, more profoundly, his sense of possession.
Levercam, her nurse, would not leave him alone with her, and angry, disappointed, but constrained by custom, and promising to return with his court in two days, he took his leave of them. Deidre at the wall made her decision. On the eve of her wedding, alone in her bed, she would caress the cold steel of her dagger, and let dawn’s early fingers reveal her body, lifeless, in blood-soaked sheets. Let the king’s hands enjoy those cold, dead apples, and wish that he had commanded the servants to drag Levercam away from them today.
Her nurse joined her. New snow, moonlit now, had hidden the king’s footsteps, and the air, fresh with the sting of ice, shrouded the silvery trees with thin mist. There was blood in the snow, where a calf had died for their dinner. Dead calves, Deidre mused, accompanied all the most consequential moments of her life. As they watched quietly, each deep in her own thoughts, a raven, starkly black, pecked at the blood. The pure colours overwhelmed Diedre with sadness.
“That is how I wish the man I marry to be,” she breathed, almost to herself. “Snow-white skin, raven-dark hair, and the blush of blood on his cheeks.”
Levercam took Deidre’s hands in her own and looked down into her face. “Many a night have I spent grieving that one so young and fair is to be given to an old man like the king.” She pulled Deidre close to her, embraced her, and whispered, “I know a young warrior like this. One of the best in the king’s own court.”
Deidre’s heart caught, beat stronger. A way out? Was it possible? “Can you bring him? Will he come?”
“It may cost my old life,” Levercam answered, “but I am old, you are young, and I love you like my own child. I will bring him in the morning.”
His name was Naisi, the son of Usna, and the first man she had ever seen. As Levercam had promised, his hair was as black as a raven’s wing, his face the white of snow, though a blush the colour of blood marked his cheeks and lips. Deidre, overwhelmed at the sight of him, smiled shyly, as he stood before her, clothed in his best leathers, proud, strong, tall, and armed with sword and spear. Yet, he seemed wary, even frightened, unable to look at her face.
“Can you help me?” asked Deidre. “Tomorrow I am to marry the king—I fear I will not live this night if I do not escape.”
Naisi, looked over her shoulder, at the floor, and at the door, as if wishing he had not come. He flicked a spray of dark hair from his large, bright eyes, gulped, and answered in a quavering voice. “I am sworn to help a lady whenever I can, but defying a king, especially this king, can bring only tragedy.”
Deidre felt a surge of hope. The youth could not look at her, was already half in love with her. This would not be difficult.
“Do you like me, Naisi? Do you find me appealing?”
Naisi dragged his eyes from the wall and held hers, seeming trapped by them. He blushed deeply, his features sharpened by emotions he could not control.
“For with a little encouragement,” Deidre again smiled shyly at him. “I could fall deeply in love with you.”
Naisi swallowed again. “No man has seen a woman fairer than you, my lady. I would do much—all—for your favour, though it mean my downfall.”
Deidre smiled at him, grasped his hand and stood closer to him. The blood-red blush grew to cover the white of his cheek. Her lips brushed his, and she whispered into his crimson ear.
“Bring horses tonight. They will carry us away!”
That night, Naisi, and his two brothers, Ardan and Ainle, the three foremost warriors in Conor’s court, led Deidre into the darkness. Evading Conor’s search, they sailed for Scotland, where they took service with the king of the Picts. Deidre and Naisi, though unmarried, lived as man and wife, and for a while, were happy.
After some months, warning came that the king of the Picts had noticed Deidre’s fair face, and indeed was entranced by it. He plotted to kill Naisi and take her as his wife. Once again, Deidre and the three brothers must run.
They wandered far, travelled at night, never stopping in one place for long, for fear that the king of the Picts would find them. They came eventually to the Glen Etive, hidden by a forest, where they could live unseen, hunting, fishing, and gathering what they needed. For several years Deidre and the three brothers lived there, poor but happy, knowing only each other.
Early one evening, resting with the brothers in their hut after a simple meal of rabbit stew and root vegetables, Deidre heard the unmistakeable clanks and whinnies of approaching horseback-mounted warriors.
Naisi grabbed his sword, long-unused but always ready, and with his two brothers close beside him, went out to meet the visitors. Deidre, shivering with a sudden chill, pulled her sheepskin tight around her. Visitors could not be good news. She heard Naisi’s challenge, followed by shouts, laughter and heavy feet approaching the door. Naisi burst in with a large man, jovial, laughing, his hand on Naisi’s shoulder. The man stopped short at the sight of the candlelit Deidre, unable to wrench his eyes from her fair, though apprehensive, face.
“Deidre.” Naisi too was consumed with joy. “This is my closest comrade, Fergus. He has good news—the best news. We can go home!”
Deidre shrank further into her sheepskin. “I am home. Do not ask me to leave the place where we are content, Naisi.”
He knelt at her side and took her hand, his most winning smile on his lips. “You know how happy I am, Deidre, but listen to Fergus. We can go back to our friends, our families.”
“I have no family, nor friends, except my old nurse, and she is probably dead,” said Deidre. “My life—our life—is here. I want no other.”
Fergus stepped forward and bowed before her. A huge man, bearded, unable to stand to his full height beneath the cottage ceiling. “My lady Deidre. It is true what they say about your beauty. I thank the gods that I have lived to see it.”
“Hold your flattery for the kitchen wenches, Fergus!” said Deidre sharply. “It will gain you nothing here. My looks have brought me only disaster, and I fear if we listen to you, they will bring doom to us all.”
“Hear him, Deidre,” pleaded Naisi, still kneeling beside her, squeezing her hand. “For all our sakes.”
The reminder that more lives than hers were at stake softened Deidre’s sharp looks, and Fergus, encouraged, straightened, his neck still bent beneath the low roof, and smiling at meeting his old friends again, told her his news.
“For many years after you left, the humiliation of your flight festered in King Conor’s breast. Yet now, in the autumn of his years, his leaves brown and fallen away, he is left only with the dark branches of regret. Before he dies, he wishes most to right the wrong he did you, Deidre.”
“Ha!” Deidre laughed. “The king wished to steal my youth, and though I am older now, the difference in years remains. Can you not see that he wishes still to marry me?”
Fergus struggled before Deidre’s anger but continued. “The king has long known you lived here in Glen Etive but has taken no action against you. He begged me to come to you, saying, ‘There is no need for Deidre and my three finest warriors to live in such isolation. Tell them I have only good will for them, wish them to return, and will forgive all.’”
Deidre poured her scorn on this simple-mindedness. “I do not trust your king, Fergus. He has tricked you and would trick me too!”
“I give you my word you will be safe,” roared Fergus, just as angry as Deidre now. “My sons and my men await outside. Neither man nor king will dare harm you while you enjoy my protection.”
Naisi stood and joined his brothers by Fergus’s side. His arm around his comrade’s shoulders, he spoke quietly, to lessen the fury in the small hut. “Deidre, I trust Fergus. We will be safe with him.”
Forsaken by anger, failed by her scorn, Deidre turned to tears. “How dare you take this chance, Naisi?” she sobbed. “It will mean your death and my ruin.”
Naisi’s brothers spoke their minds. “Deidre, our life is wasting here,” said Ardan, while Ainle said, “We are meant to fight for our king, not fish, not dig roots. We wish to go with Fergus.”
Deidre looked from Naisi to his brothers in despair. She lowered her head. “The king will find a way to kill you all, my fine friends.”
With Fergus and his men, the group took ship back to Ireland, to be met by Baruch, a lord of the Red Branch.
“Fergus,” Lord Baruch proclaimed, “I have prepared a feast to celebrate your return. Come now to my dûn.”
“I cannot,” said Fergus, “for these people are under my protection and must make all haste to the king’s court.”
“Hah!” said Baruch. “Come you must, Fergus, for your geas forbids you from refusing a feast.”
It was true. His geas, laid upon him at birth by the Druid Cathbad, obliged Fergus to never refuse a feast, and in truth, he was tempted at the thought of a good meal. He spoke to Naisi. “My two sons, Illan the Fair, and Buino the Red, will protect you in my name. You must proceed to the king.”
“No!” screeched Deidre. “Can you not see this trick? These sons are not Fergus, and without him, we are helpless. This is the king’s plan unfolding.”
Yet Naisi and his brothers trusted Fergus and his sons, and though concerned at Fergus leaving them, they continued to Emain Macha, King Conor’s palace, and took residence in the cottage of the Red Branch, close to his court. They heard nothing from the king for several days.
On an evening like any other, the king was in his cups and maudlin. He sprawled on his seat, swung his flagon widely about him, and called on the aged Levercam to attend him.
“How do you find Naisi and his brothers, Levercam?” he asked.
“They do well, king,” answered Levercam, dreading the question to come. “Your best warriors have returned to you.”
The king, his face averted but crafty, asked, “And Deidre? How does she?”
“Deidre is well,” said Levercam, but she had recognised the glint in the old king’s eye from years before. “Her beauty is quite gone, worn down by years of toil at Glen Etive.”
After Levercam had left, the old king glowered into his wine, called for more, drank it, glowered again into the late evening. He shouted for his servant Trendorn, and said, “Go to the cottage of the Red Branch, tell me what you see there.”
Trendorn found the cottage secured for the night but, taking a ladder, he peered through a high window to see the sons of Fergus and brothers of Naisi tending to their weapons. Playing chess with Naisi was the fairest woman he had ever seen. Overcome by her allure he stumbled on the ladder, and catching sight of him, Deidre stood, pointed to the window and shrieked in fear.
Catching up a silver chess piece, Naisi threw it at Trendorn. It hit the unfortunate servant in his eye, blinding it. Trendorn, blood streaming down his face, returned to the king and reported to him, “Tonight I have seen the fairest lady of the land, and my eyes would be locked upon her still, had not Naisi maimed me.”
The king called his guards. “Go, arrest Naisi and his brothers. They have maimed my servant.” The two sons of Fergus prepared to fight the guards, but Naisi and Deidre continued with their chess game for, as Naisi said, “It would be dishonourable to defend ourselves while under the protection of the sons of Fergus.”
Buino with his own retinue fought back the king’s guards, but the king offered him lands and his life, and he abandoned his duty. His brother Illan took up the fight but was quickly slain. Only then did Naisi and his brothers take up their weapons, slaying many of the king’s guards. The king asked the Druid Cathbad to intervene lest the brothers should escape and become enemies of his people. Cathbad caused a lake of slime to appear at the feet of the sons of Usna, and Naisi, to protect her, lifted Deidre upon his shoulders. The guards seized the three men and the woman and dragged them before King Conor.
Deidre dropped to her knees, wailing in anguish that her prophecy had come true. “I am lost,” she said, and again, “I am lost.”
“Who will kill these men?” asked the king of his warriors, but all claimed no argument with the sons or Usna, and none stepped forward.
The king demanded again that Naisi and his brothers be killed, and Deidre knelt before them for one last desperate appeal for their lives. In a voice wretched with the end of hope, she beseeched the men, “Do not betray the sons of Usna, my lords, do not betray me.”
Then one, Owen, a man unlucky with women, and known for his lack of honour, strode forward. “I will kill them, my king.” He took the sword of Naisi, and to the screams of Deidre, beheaded the three men, one by one. Deidre, the blood of her lover and his brothers pooling on the ground, laid her head down, her destruction all but complete. Though she wailed and sobbed, servants dragged her to the king’s chamber, where shortly after, stinking of wine, the unwashed king Conor took from her that he had wanted so long.
A year passed but Deidre withdrew within herself, and showed no emotion towards the king, not even hatred. Tired of her coldness, the king asked one day in his courtyard, “Deidre, who do you hate the most?”
Deidre turned blank eyes to the king. She had spoken no word to him in the year of her torment, but now said, “After you, I hate Owen most of all, the murderer of my lover and his brothers.”
The king called Owen to his side. “Deidre, you will go to Owen for one year. When you look at him, or look at me, you will be as a ewe between two rams.”
Deidre, still secluded in her own thoughts, at first did not understand, but when servants dragged her into Owen’s chariot, she let out a monstrous shriek, tore free from those who held her, and threw herself from the chariot, dashing her head against the courtyard stones. Thus, Deidre escaped from the snare of her beauty and the foul deeds of King Conor.
The Druid Cathbad knelt by her corpse and fashioned her soul into a butterfly. Rising high above them all, the butterfly flew from the courtyard, over the wall and into the land beyond.
“Let us hope that Deidre finds more happiness in her next life,” said Cathbad.