In olden days, when many Kings reigned throughout the Green Island of Erin, none was greater than the great Concobar. So fair was his realm that poets sang its beauty, and such the wonder of his palace that the sweetest songs of Erin were of its loveliness.
In a castle of this fair realm dwelt Felim, a warrior and harper dear unto the King. And it was told him that Concobar with his chief lords would visit the castle.
Then Felim made a feast, and there was great rejoicing, and all men were glad.
But in the midst of the feast an old magician, who was of those that had come with the King, stood up before the great gathering. Long and white was the hair that fell upon his bent shoulders, black were the eyes that gazed into space from beneath his shaggy eyebrows.
‘Speak,’ said the King to the old man, ‘speak, and tell us that thou seest, for well we know thou piercest the veil that hideth from us the secrets of the morrow.’
Silently and with great awe did all the company look at the wise old man, for those things that he had already foretold had they not come to pass? The magician, also silent, looked from the face of one to the face of another, but when his eyes fell on Concobar, the King, long did they dwell there, and when he lifted them, on Felim did they rest.
Then the Wise Man spake:
‘This night, O Felim the Harper, shall a girl-babe be born to thee within these castle walls. Loveliest among the lovely shall thy star-eyed daughter be; no harp-strings shall yield such music as her voice, no fairy strains pour forth such wonder-stirring sound. Yet, O Felim, in days to come, because of this fair child shall great sorrow come upon our King Concobar and upon all his realm. In those days shall Erin’s chief glory perish, for if the House of the Red Branch fall, who shall stand?’
Then did a cry of fear burst from those gathered to the feast, and leaping to their feet, each man laid his hand upon his sword, for the word that the wise man had spoken would it not come to pass?
‘Let our swords be in readiness,’ they cried, ‘to kill the babe that shall be born this night, for better far is it that one child perish than that the blood of a nation be spilt.’
And Felim spake: ‘Great sorrow is mine that fear of the child who shall be born this night should be upon you. Therefore, if it please the King, let my daughter die, and so may peace yet reign in the realm. For dear as would be a child to my wife and to me, dearer yet is the common weal.’
But the answer of King Concobar came not for a time. His soul was filled with desire to see the star-eyed maiden and to hear the wonder of her voice. Still was the hand of each upon his sword when the King spake.
‘Put far from thee, O Felim, the will to do this thing. Bend not thy mind to the death of thine own child. And ye, my people, sheathe your swords. Let the babe live. I, Concobar, will be her guardian, and if ill befall, let it be upon me, your King.’
At these words arose a Prince.
‘It would be well, O King, but for the word spoken by the Wise Man, for hath he not said, “Because of this fair child shall great sorrow come upon the King Concobar”? If we let the babe live, then must thy people see thee in sore distress, for the word that the Wise Man speaketh, shall it not come to pass?’
‘Of that am I not unmindful. Deep within the forest, beyond the Moor of Loneliness, shall her childish days be spent. Gently tended shall she be, but the eye of man shall not behold her, and solitary shall she live as some unmated bird in distant wilderness.’
Then with one accord did the people cry, ‘Wilt thou indeed be guardian to this child, knowing the ill that the Wise Man hath foretold?’
‘Yea, truly will I be guardian to the child, and when she be a woman then shall she be my wedded wife. And if with the maiden come sorrow, then be that sorrow upon me, and not upon the land.’
‘What sayest thou, O Felim the Harper?’ cried the people.
‘It were better to slay the child than to let that come which hath been foretold.’
‘And what sayest thou, O Wise Man?’
‘That which shall come, shall come.’
At the same moment there entered the hall a servant of Felim, and loudly did he proclaim that the girl-babe, who had been foretold, was born. ‘Right beautiful and strong is the child, most fair to look upon.’
‘And Deirdre shall her name be,’ said the Wise Man, ‘Deirdre the Star-eyed.’
And because of the words that the King Concobar had spoken, the life of the babe was spared, and when the days of feasting were past, Concobar returned to his palace, and with him he took the infant child and her mother. Yet after a month he bade the mother return to Felim her husband, but the babe Deirdre he kept.
And deep within the forest, beyond the Moor of Loneliness, did the King command that a cottage be built, and when Deirdre was one year, thither was she sent with a trusted nurse. But on the trees of the forest and throughout the land was proclaimed the order of the King Concobar, that whosoever should hunt, or for other purpose enter the wood, death should be his portion.
Once each week did the King visit the fair babe, and daily were stores of food and milk brought to the lone dwelling. And Deirdre each year grew more fair, but none beheld her beauty, save her nurse, her tutor, and Lavarcam.
This Lavarcam was a woman well trusted of the King, and she alone went to and fro between the palace and the cottage. It was she who told to Deirdre the old tales of knights and ladies, of dragons and of fairies that dwelt in the Enchanted Land.
When Deirdre was seven years old the King no longer came every week to the forest, but twice in the year only, and that as the Spring put forth her first green shoots, and again when Autumn gleaned her harvest of gold.
And when another seven years had sped, then came not the King thither, either when the earth was green or golden, nor in the blue summer nor the hoary winter, but from Lavarcam he heard that it was well with the maid.
One white winter’s morning Deirdre looked from her window, and saw lying in the snow a calf. It had been killed by her nurse to provide food for the little household, and its bright red blood dyed the thick-lying snow. As Deirdre watched the flow of the scarlet stream, a raven, black as night, flew down and drank of the warm blood. Then Deirdre smiled.
‘Where are thy thoughts, fair child?’ asked Lavarcam, entering the room.
‘Only did I think,’ said Deirdre, ‘that if a youth could be found whose skin was white as snow, his cheek crimson as that pool of blood, and his hair black as the raven’s wing, him could I love right gladly.’
Then Lavarcam spake: ‘Such a man have I seen, and one only.’
‘His name, Lavarcam, his name?’ cried Deirdre. ‘Whence comes he, and wherefrom he be found?’
‘The fairest of three fair brothers is this Nathos, the son of Usna, and now is he with Concobar the King.’
And Deirdre would thereafter think of none but Nathos, and Lavarcam was much troubled because of the words that she had spoken. And when Deirdre longed grievously by day and night to see this Nathos of whom she had heard, Lavarcam thought of a plan whereby she might end the maiden’s dream.
One day, as she came from the palace of the King, she met on the Moor of Loneliness a swineherd and two shepherd lads. And well though she knew that none might enter the forest, she led them to a well in its leafy depths. Then said this woman trusted of the King, ‘Wait here by this well until the jay cry and the hill-fox bark. Then move slowly on your way, but speak to none whom ye may meet, and when ye leave the wood let not your lips tell those things ye shall have seen and heard.’
With these words Lavarcam left the three men, and entered the cottage.
‘Come, Deirdre,’ she cried, ‘the crisp snow glistens in the sunshine. Let us wander forth.’