In the days of long ago there lived in the Green Isle of Erin a race of brave men and fair women—the race of the Dedannans. North, south, east, and west did this noble people dwell, doing homage to many chiefs.
But one blue morning after a great battle the Dedannans met on a wide plain to choose a King. ‘Let us,’ they said, ‘have one King over all. Let us no longer have many rulers.’
Forth from among the Princes rose five well fitted to wield a sceptre and to wear a crown, yet most royal stood Bove Derg and Lir. And forth did the five chiefs wander, that the Dedannan folk might freely say to whom they would most gladly do homage as King.
Not far did they roam, for soon there arose a great cry, ‘Bove Derg is King. Bove Derg is King.’ And all were glad, save Lir.
But Lir was angry, and he left the plain where the Dedannan people were, taking leave of none, and doing Bove Derg no reverence. For jealousy filled the heart of Lir.
Then were the Dedannans wroth, and a hundred swords were unsheathed and flashed in the sunlight on the plain. ‘We go to slay Lir who doeth not homage to our King and regardeth not the choice of the people.’
But wise and generous was Bove Derg, and he bade the warriors do no hurt to the offended Prince.
For long years did Lir live in discontent, yielding obedience to none. But at length a great sorrow fell upon him, for his wife, who was dear unto him, died, and she had been ill but three days. Loudly did he lament her death, and heavy was his heart with sorrow.
When tidings of Lir’s grief reached Bove Derg, he was surrounded by his mightiest chiefs. ‘Go forth,’ he said, ‘in fifty chariots go forth. Tell Lir I am his friend as ever, and ask that he come with you hither. Three fair foster-children are mine, and one may he yet have to wife, will he but bow to the will of the people, who have chosen me their King.’
When these words were told to Lir, his heart was glad. Speedily he called around him his train, and in fifty chariots set forth. Nor did they slacken speed until they reached the palace of Bove Derg by the Great Lake. And there at the still close of day, as the setting rays of the sun fell athwart the silver waters, did Lir do homage to Bove Derg. And Bove Derg kissed Lir and vowed to be his friend for ever.
And when it was known throughout the Dedannan host that peace reigned between these mighty chiefs, brave men and fair women and little children rejoiced, and nowhere were there happier hearts than in the Green Isle of Erin.
Time passed, and Lir still dwelt with Bove Derg in his palace by the Great Lake. One morning the King said, ‘Full well thou knowest my three fair foster-daughters, nor have I forgotten my promise that one thou shouldst have to wife. Choose her whom thou wilt.’
Then Lir answered, ‘All are indeed fair, and choice is hard. But give unto me the eldest, if it be that she be willing to wed.’
And Eve, the eldest of the fair maidens, was glad, and that day was she married to Lir, and after two weeks she left the palace by the Great Lake and drove with her husband to her new home.
Happily dwelt Lir’s household and merrily sped the months. Then were born unto Lir twin babes. The girl they called Finola, and her brother did they name Aed.
Yet another year passed and again twins were born, but before the infant boys knew their mother, she died. So sorely did Lir grieve for his beautiful wife that he would have died of sorrow, but for the great love he bore his motherless children.
When news of Eve’s death reached the palace of Bove Derg by the Great Lake all mourned aloud for love of Eve and sore pity for Lir and his four babes. And Bove Derg said to his mighty chiefs, ‘Great indeed is our grief, but in this dark hour shall Lir know our friendship. Ride forth, make known to him that Eva, my second fair foster-child, shall in time become his wedded wife and shall cherish his lone babes.’
So messengers rode forth to carry these tidings to Lir, and in time Lir came again to the palace of Bove Derg by the Great Lake, and he married the beautiful Eva and took her back with him to his little daughter, Finola, and to her three brothers, Aed and Fiacra and Conn.
Four lovely and gentle children they were, and with tenderness did Eva care for the little ones who were their father’s joy and the pride of the Dedannans.
As for Lir, so great was the love he bore them, that at early dawn he would rise, and, pulling aside the deerskin that separated his sleeping-room with theirs, would fondle and frolic with the children until morning broke.
And Bove Derg loved them well-nigh as did Lir himself. Ofttimes would he come to see them, and ofttimes were they brought to his palace by the Great Lake.
And through all the Green Isle, where dwelt the Dedannan people, there also was spread the fame of the beauty of the children of Lir.
Time crept on, and Finola was a maid of twelve summers. Then did a wicked jealousy find root in Eva’s heart, and so did it grow that it strangled the love which she had borne her sister’s children. In bitterness she cried, ‘Lir careth not for me; to Finola and her brothers hath he given all his love.’
And for weeks and months Eva lay in bed planning how she might do hurt to the children of Lir.
At length, one midsummer morn, she ordered forth her chariot, that with the four children she might come to the palace of Bove Derg.
When Finola heard it, her fair face grew pale, for in a dream had it been revealed unto her that Eva, her step-mother, should that day do a dark deed among those of her own household. Therefore was Finola sore afraid, but only her large eyes and pale cheeks spake her woe, as she and her brothers drove along with Eva and her train.
On they drove, the boys laughing merrily, heedless alike of the black shadow resting on their step-mother’s brow, and of the pale, trembling lips of their sister. As they reached a gloomy pass, Eva whispered to her attendants, ‘Kill, I pray you, these children of Lir, for their father careth not for me, because of his great love for them. Kill them, and great wealth shall be yours.’
But the attendants answered in horror, ‘We will not kill them. Fearful, O Eva, were the deed, and great is the evil that will befall thee, for having it in thine heart to do this thing.’
Then Eva, filled with rage, drew forth her sword to slay them with her own hand, but too weak for the monstrous deed, she sank back in the chariot.
Onward they drove, out of the gloomy pass into the bright sunlight of the white road. Daisies with wide-open eyes looked up into the blue sky overhead. Golden glistened the buttercups among the shamrock. From the ditches peeped forget-me-not. Honeysuckle scented the hedgerows. Around, above, and afar, carolled the linnet, the lark, and the thrush. All was colour and sunshine, scent and song, as the children of Lir drove onward to their doom.
Not until they reached a still lake were the horses unyoked for rest. There Eva bade the children undress and go bathe in the waters. And when the children of Lir reached the water’s edge, Eva was there behind them, holding in her hand a fairy wand. And with the wand she touched the shoulder of each. And, lo! as she touched Finola, the maiden was changed into a snow-white swan, and behold! as she touched Aed, Fiacra, and Conn, the three brothers were as the maid. Four snow-white swans floated on the blue lake, and to them the wicked Eva chanted a song of doom.