By the Barrow River by Edmund Leamy

There are some who see and cannot hear, and some who hear and do not see, and some who neither see nor hear, and you are one of these last, Dermod, son of Carroll.”

The speaker was a man of about forty years, a little above the medium height, of well-knit frame, of a sanguine complexion. His bushy brows, shaded pensive eyes, that one would look for in a poet or a dreamer rather than in a soldier, yet a soldier, Cathal, son of Rory, was, and one of the guards of Cobhthach Cael, the usurper, who reigned over Leinster; it was in the guard-room in the outer wall of the Fortress of Dun Righ that he addressed these words to one of his companions, a stripling of twenty, but of gallant bearing.

“But what did you see or hear, O Cathal?” said another of the guards, who numbered altogether some six or seven. “They say of you, Cathal, that the wise woman of the Sidhe came to you the night you were born and touched your eyes and ears, and that you can see and hear what and when others cannot see or hear.”

“What matters it what I see or hear? What matters it what is seen or heard, Domhnall, son of Eochy, when the king is blind and deaf, and those about him also?” answered Cathal.

“Why say you blind and deaf, O Cathal?”

“Was it not but the last night,” replied Cathal, “when the men of Leinster were gathered at the banquet, and when the King of Offaly rose up and the cry of Slainthe sounded through the hall like the boom of the waves on the shore of Carmen, that the king’s shield groaned on the wall and fell with a mighty clangour, and yet they heard and saw not, and pursued their revelry. But seeing this, and that they had not perceived, I rose and restored the shield to its place on the wall.”

“And what else did you see, O son of Rory?”

“What else did I see? Was I not keeping watch on the ramparts of a night, when the young moon was coming over the woods, and looking at herself in the waters of the Barrow, and did I not see the Lady Edain in her grinan looking out and waving her white arm—whiter than the moon—and did I not hear her moaning, as the wind moans softly on a summer night through the reeds of the river, and, as I listened and watched, did I not see coming to the banks of the river, a woman with a green silken cloak on her shoulders, who sat down opposite the dun, and she was weaving a border, and the lath, or rod, she was weaving with was a sword of bronze?”

“And what do you read from that, O Cathal, son of Rory?”

“What do I read from that? War and destruction I read from that, Domhnall, son of Eochy—war and destruction; for when a king’s shield falls from the wall it means that his house will fall, and the woman weaving with the sword was the long, golden-haired woman of the Sidhe—dangerous to look on is she, Domhnall, son of Eochy, for whiter than the snow of one night, is her form gleaming through her dress, and her grey eyes sparkle like the stars, and red are her lips and thin, and her teeth are like a shower of pearls, and dangerous is she to listen to, Domhnall, for less sweet are the strings of the harp than the sound of her voice; and she comes on the eve of battles, and she weaves the fate of those who will fall; and she sat on the banks of the Barrow, flowing brightly beneath the young moon, and when she will be seen there again it will be red with blood.”

“But the Lady Edain, was she talking to the woman of the Sidhe, Cathal, son of Rory?”

“Evil betide you for your evil tongue, son of Eochy, mention not again the name of the Lady Edain with that of the woman of the Sidhe, or it is against the stone there, at the back of your heart, that the point of my javelin will strike,” and Cathal’s soft eyes blazed with anger.

“Far be it from me to say or think evil of the Lady Edain, Cathal,” said Domhnall, “but you said the Lady Edain was looking from her bower when the green-cloaked woman of the Sidhe came to the Barrow bank?”

“But she did not see her, Domhnall. No! no! she did not see the green-cloaked woman, for who so sees her weaving spells, his hour is come. No no! my little cluster of nuts did not see her, Domhnall, and if she were moaning ’twas moaning she was for the youth that is gone away from her—for the young hero, Ebor, who is away with Prince Labbraidh, that is king by right, although you and I, are the guards of King Cobhthach Cael here to-night. Oh, no, Domhnall, son of Eochy, my little cluster of nuts did not see the woman of the Sidhe, for her life is young and it is before her. I remember well, Domhnall, son of Eochy, the night the dun was attacked, when I was as young as Dermod, the son of Carroll, sitting there beside you, and when I caught the little girsha from the flames, and she lay on the hollow of my shield—this very shield against the wall here, Domhnall, and did it not gleam like gold, ay, like the golden boss on the king’s own shield, because of the golden ringlets, softer than silk, that were dancing like sunbeams round her little face, and did she not look up at me and smile, Domhnall, son of Eochy, and the dun all one blaze. And, since then, wasn’t she to me dearer than my own, and have I not watched over her, and do you tell me now that she saw the woman of the Sidhe?”

“Not so, Cathal, not so, son of my heart,” said Domhnall, “but you saw the woman of the Sidhe,” said he, “and what does it mean for you?”

“Death,” said Cathal, “death, Domhnall, did I not tell you it means death for whosoever see her! But I am a soldier as you are, Domhnall, and my father before me, and his father, and his father again died in the battle; and why should not I, and no man can avoid his fate, Domhnall? But the colleen of the tresses!—why should she die now, Domhnall, why should she die now?” and Cathal spoke fiercely, “but woe that she should be here to-night, where she has been for many a year like a bird in a cage—and sure never bird had a voice so sweet—and ruin and destruction coming as swift as the blue March wind comes across the hills.”

“The king will keep her here, Domhnall,” he went on, answering himself; “for did not the Druid Dubthach, dead and gone now—and evil follow him and sorrow feed on his heart wherever he is—tell him that so long as the Lady Edain was kept a prisoner—ay, a prisoner, that’s what she is in the grinan—and so long as she remained unwedded, the dun would be secure against all assault; but love found its way into the grinan, Domhnall, and the Lady Edain gave her heart to Ebor, son of Cailté, though never a word she spoke to him; but he is gone, gone away with the exiled prince—gone, he who should be here to-night when the black ruin is marching towards the dun! But she did not see the woman of the Sidhe, Domhnall. No! no! don’t say she saw the woman of the Sidhe!” and Cathal bent his head down on his hands, and for a moment there was silence.

Then he started:

“Do you not hear, Domhnall—do you not hear?” and all the guards strained their ears.

In through the bare stone wall of the guardroom, a sound stole almost as soft as a sigh; then it increased, and a melody as lulling as falling waters in the heart of the deep woods fell on their ears, and, one by one, the listeners closed their eyes, and, leaning back on the rude stone benches, were falling into a pleasant slumber. Suddenly a brazen clangour roused them. Cathal’s shield had fallen from the wall on to the stone floor. The bewitching music had ceased, and they were startled to find that the “candle upon the candlestick,” which gave light to the room, had burned down half an inch. They must have been asleep for at least half-an-hour. Cathal started up, and, bidding his comrades stuff their ears if they heard the music again, he went out and mounted to the rampart. Within it all was silent, and silent all without. The midsummer moon, with her train of stars, poured down a flood of light almost as bright as that of day. The Barrow River shone like a silver mirror, and flowed so slowly that one might almost doubt its motion, and there was not air enough stirring to make the smallest dimple upon its surface. Cathal followed its course until it was lost in the forest that some distance below stretched away for miles on either side of the river. Between the forest and the dun, close to the latter, was the little town, or burgh, with its thatched houses, in which dwelt the artificers of the king. There too, all was silent, and as far as Cathal’s eye could see there was nothing stirring in any direction. He made the circuit of the rampart, pausing only when he came to the grinan of the Lady Edain. It was on such another night, only then the moon was not so full, he had seen her at her open casement—on just such another night he had seen sitting on the Barrow banks, the woman of the Sidhe. The casement was closed, and there was no sign of the Lady Edain. But coming from the woods along the bank, what was that gleaming figure? Cathal did not need to ask himself. It was that of the woman of the Sidhe, and now she sits upon the bank, and begins her task of weaving, and he notes the sparkle of the points of the sword as she plies it in her work. And as he looks, he sees, or thinks he saw, the Barrow river change to a crimson hue; but the moon still shone from a cloudless sky, and he knows that he is the victim of his imagination, and that its waters are silver bright.

But he knew also that this second coming of the woman of the Sidhe betokens that before the moon rise again—perhaps before this moon set—the river would be crimson with the blood of heroes, and yet King Cobhthach sleeps, fancying himself secure, in his dun, and there is no one to pay heed to Cathal’s warnings or visions, except, perhaps, some of his comrades in the guard-room. And when the moon arose again what would have been the fate of the Lady Edain—his little cluster of nuts. A groan escaped the lips of Cathal as the question framed itself in his thought. He could touch with his spear the casement within which she lay sleeping, dreaming, perhaps, of the young lover far away. For a moment the thought leaped to his mind that he should scale the grinan, force open the casement, and carry out the Lady Edain anywhere from the doomed dun; but her maids, sleeping next her, would be terrified, and cry out and spoil his plot, and the Lady Edain might see the woman of the Sidhe, and nothing then could save her. With a heavy heart he retraced his steps, and, coming over the guard-house, he descended and entered the guard-room. His companions were fast asleep. He strove to rouse them, but failed. Some spell had fallen on them, and even while making the effort he himself was smitten with the desire of sleep. The lids closed on his eyes as if weighted with lead. He sank down on the stone bench beside Domhnall, the son of Eochy, and faintly conscious of weird music in his ears, he, too, fell into a deep slumber.

The Lady Edain, even at the very moment when Cathal was looking towards her casement, was tossing uneasily on her embroidered couch. Her maids lay sleeping around her. She had been dreaming—dreaming that she was wandering with her lover through a mossy pathway, lit with moonlight, in the heart of the woods. And when her heart was full of happiness listening, as she thought, to the music of his voice, suddenly through the wood burst out on the pathway an armed band, and Ebor had barely time to poise his spear when he fell pierced to the heart. She awoke with a scream. There was light enough coming through the slits in the casement to permit her to see that her maids were sleeping peacefully. Yet, she was only half satisfied that she had been dreaming. She rose from her couch, and, flinging a green mantle over her, fastening it with a silver brooch, stepped softly to the casement, and, opening it, leaned out. Her golden tresses fell to her feet, some adown her breast, others over her shoulders, and as she sat there, in the full splendour of the moon, one might well believe that it was the beautiful golden-haired, green-robed woman of the Sidhe that had seated herself in the maiden’s bower. The soft influence of the moon descended upon the heart of Lady Edain, and subdued its tumult. She glanced at the lucent waters of the silent river, and along its verduous banks, but she saw no vision of the woman of the Sidhe, for love had blinded her eyes to all such sights; else she was doomed. Then she looked up at the moon, now slowly sailing across the edge of the forest, and the thought came to her heart, which has come to the lover of all ages and all countries, that the same moon was looking down on him who was far away, and, perhaps, even at that moment he, too, was gazing at it, and thinking how it shone on the Barrow river; then her eyes rested on the line which divided the forest from the fields that lay between it and the dun, and she saw the track over which her lover had passed out into the forest on that fatal day when he set out with Prince Labraidh into banishment.

And even as she watched she thought she saw something emerge from the forest and come in the direction of the dun. After a while she caught the glint of weapons, and saw it was a horseman approaching—some warrior, doubtless, seeking the hospitality of Dun Righ. She watched as they came along, horse and man, casting their shadows on the grass. They came right up under the rampart of the dun farthest from where she was, and near to the door that led past the guardroom.

While she was idly speculating whom he might be, she heard a strain of music that seemed to creep along the rampart like a slow wind across the surface of a river. She looked in the direction from which it seemed to come, and then she saw a muffled figure somewhat bent, and saw gleaming in his hands a small harp, while over his shoulder were two spears.

Immediately the thought of the harper, Craiftine, who had gone away with the banished prince, came to her mind. Perhaps he had come back, sent by her lover to bring a message!

“Only Craiftine,” she said to herself, “could win from strings such music as she now was listening to,” and while she listened a soft languor crept through her frame, and, leaning her head upon her hand, felt as if she were falling asleep, but the music at once changed, and it breathed now like the wind blowing over the fountain of tears on the island of the Queen of Sorrow in the far western seas, and sorrow filled her heart, and the tears, welling up into her eyes, banished sleep from them, and, raising herself up, she looked straight at the harper approaching.

Yes, it was Craiftine! His bent head and stooping shoulders betrayed him and his bardic cloak. He came on, still playing, until he stood on the rampart facing the casement.

Then the cloak was flung off. The stooping figure became erect, and in the shining moonlight Edain beheld her warrior-lover, Ebor!

Making a gesture to her to draw back, he placed his two spear shafts against the casement, and in a second he was in the room, and the Lady Edain was in his arms.

He looked around him and saw the sleeping maidens.

“We need not fear their awakening,” he said softly. “All in the dun, even the guards, are under the spell of the strain of slumber. Craiftine came hither a while ago, and reduced all to sleep, save Cathal, son of Rory, the captain of the guard, but he, too, now is under its spell. He lent me his harp, which, even in my hands, retains some of its power. But we have no time to spare. Array yourself quickly. My horse is below the rampart; we have not a moment to lose.”

Edain needed no word to urge her. In a second she was ready. In another Ebor was carrying her in his arms across the spear shafts to the rampart.

Letting himself down and then standing on the horse’s back, he caught her descending, placed her on the steed before him, and swifter than light galloped off to the shelter of the forest.

But, alas, for Ebor, as they rode away he glanced towards the banks of the shining river, and he saw the woman of the Sidhe weaving her fateful spells.

The pathways of the silent forest were well known to Ebor, and he rode on with his charge over pleasant mossy ways, reminding Edain of those which she had seen in her dream. They had gone not more than a quarter of a mile when she, who had been prattling merrily to Ebor, uttered a frightened cry:

“Oh, Ebor, look; there are armed men!”

“They are friends, Edain,” he replied, “friends, and now my bonnie bride is safe at last.”

They had come to a wide glade. It was crowded with warriors, and through the trees wherever the moonlight fell, Edain caught a glimpse of figures and the glint of arms. Ebor jumped from his horse, and taking the Lady Edain in his arms lifted her gently down. A warrior, of stately mien and wearing the golden helmet of a king, advanced towards them.

“A hundred thousand welcomes, Edain,” he cried, as he clasped her in his arms.

It was her kinsman, Labraidh, the rightful King of Leinster, who had come back to claim his own. Labraidh had been across the seas seeking allies. On his return, he landed at the mouth of the Slaney, and, by forced marches through the woods, had come hither. Unwilling to risk his cousin’s life by making an assault on the dun while she was still in it, he easily yielded to the entreaties of his harper, Craiftine, and of Ebor to allow them to undertake the task of effecting the escape of Edain. He had known of old the skill of Craiftine and the courage and address of Ebor, and did not doubt their success. And now that Edain was free he determined to push on at once, and try the hazard of an assault on the dun. But first he led the Lady Edain to his tent, where his wife, the Lady Moriadh and her women were, and entrusting her to Moriadh’s care, he returned and put himself at the head of his troops, and gave them their orders to push on as quickly as possible until they came to the edge of the forest, within view of the dun. Ebor was at the prince’s side, happy in the knowledge that the Lady Edain was safe, and too full of the desire of battle to give even a moment’s thought to the vision of the woman of the Sidhe. When they arrived at the edge of the forest they halted for a while. They could see the ramparts plainly, and that no one was moving on them. The moon had by this time gone down over the forest, and in the east there was the first faint grey streak of dawn. Then the prince drew out his forces into three battalions. The centre he commanded in person, that to the right was under Ebor, and it was to move along the river bank and make the assault in that direction. The third battalion was to push round the fortress to the left. Orders were given that no trumpets were to be sounded and no shout raised until the troops were face to face with the foe.

The garrison not dreaming of the near approach of Labraidh, who was not known to be in Erin, was buried in sleep almost as deep as that which sealed the lids of Cathal and his comrades in the guard-room. The ramparts were scaled without much difficulty, and it was not until they had passed within the inner wall and had surrounded the house of the usurper that their presence was discovered, and then only when they began to batter in the door. The noise was followed by the cry, “to arms!” which rang through the whole fortress. It was heard by the warriors in the other houses, who, hastily arming themselves, burst out. A desperate hand-to-hand struggle took place, but surprise had given complete advantage to the assailants. They hemmed round the now desperate garrison with a ring of steel, growing ever narrower as their ranks were thinning. Soon the cry of fire was raised. The king’s house was ablaze. He in front of it was fighting desperately, but one by one his men were falling round him. The roar of the flames, which had now spread to the other houses, mingled with the cries of the warriors and the clangour of stricken shields. Prince Labriadh again and again pressed forward to engage Cobhthach, but the tide of battle swept them apart. To save the dun had become impossible, and Cobhthach determined if he could to cut his way out. By desperate efforts he drove those who were in front of him back against the inner rampart, and before they could recover succeeded in leaping on it. He was perceived by Ebor, who, guessing his design, leaped, by the aid of the handles of his spears, on the rampart, and called on Cobhthach to turn and fight like a warrior and not run like a coward, and he launched a javelin against him which glanced off the helmet of Cobhthach. But Cobhthach stayed not, and Ebor launched the second with a surer aim, which, striking Cobhthach through the back, pierced his heart as he was endeavouring to spring to the outer wall, and the usurper fell dead in the intervening ditch. Ebor was on the point of again descending into the dun when his eye caught the sight of a figure on the river bank. It was the woman of the Sidhe, no longer weaving, but dabbling her hands in the waters of the river that were now running red with blood. A cold chill seized his heart, for he thought of the Lady Edain, and he knew that his hour had come. But he would die fighting. He turned round, and coming against him along the rampart was Cathal, son of Rory. The latter hurled his spear, to which Ebor presented his shield, but it had been hurled with such force that it pierced the shield, and entered into the vitals of Ebor. His only weapon now was his sword, and as Cathal, son of Rory, pressed on him, he, with all his remaining strength, drove it into Cathal’s side; but the effort exhausted his last strength, and he fell back dead, and Cathal, son of Rory, fell dead beside him, and the woman of the Sidhe still continued dabbling her hands in the crimson waters of the Barrow river.