“I gave her into your care,” said Fionn, his voice ominously quiet. “Where is she?”
Iollan Eachtach shifted his position from one foot to the other, betraying his nerves. Iollen was Chieftain of the Ulster branch of the Fianna. Even so, he was still subject to Fionn, who was master over all, and answered only to the High King himself. Still young and new to his role, Fionn had nevertheless proved his mettle many times since his appointment. In the beginning, there were some who had secretly laughed behind his back, whilst others had openly rebelled. Fionn had acted swiftly and decisively to quell all objections. With Goll as his staunch ally, and fair-minded Fiacha to advise him, none remained who dared oppose him.
Fionn pushed back his unnaturally fair hair, and fixed his grim, blue eyes unwaveringly on Iollan, so that the poor man felt pierced to the core, innards exposed to this youngster’s mercy. Touched by lightning, some said, just like his Uncle, the great Lugh Lamfhada, but Iollan cared not for stories, unless he could get at the truth behind them. Fionn was an enigma; he guarded his secrets and owned the truth, bestowing them on only a favoured few. Clearly, Iollan was not now destined to be one of them.
Iollan was not willing to arouse Fionn’s displeasure, but there was no way around it.
“She never came, Rigfheinnid. I assumed she changed her mind.” The words were bitter in his mouth.
Fionn leaned forward in his seat, eyes blazing. “You assumed? She was carrying your child. Why would she change her mind?”
Muirne laid a restraining hand on her son’s shoulder. Her gesture did not go unnoticed by Iollan. ‘Muirne of the White Neck’ was how the bards sang of her. The passing years had not dimmed her beauty. Tall as a man, slim and supple as a willow, graceful as a swan, her radiance was unearthly, as befitted one born of the Sidhe. Iollan could see why Cumhall had laid down his life for her. Her uncanny resemblance to her sister, Tuirrean, was not lost on him.
He dropped his gaze to his feet, overcome with guilt, and fidgeted uncomfortably. The truth was, he had not cared for Tuirrean as a man should care for a wife. In fact, when she had not come, he had felt relief, for his heart already belonged to another. “I thought she may have heard the stories.”
Fionn arched his brows. “Stories?” There was a heavy note of sarcasm in his voice.
“He keeps a lover, a woman of the Sidhe, at his hall,” murmured Muirne contemptuously, in soft tones only he and her son could hear. “Her name is Uchtdealb.”
Fionn considered his sub commander. “Is this true?”
Iollan raised his chin, flashing defiance. “It is not a crime for an unwed man to keep a lover.”
Fionn slammed his fist down on the wooden table in front of him. “It is when that man has promised marriage to my aunt. Did you not think to enquire for her whereabouts and safety when she failed to arrive?”
Iollan bit back a reply and glared at Fionn. His face was sullen. Of course he had been concerned, but Uchtdealb was just too damn good at distracting him.
Fionn answered for him. “No, it is clear to me that you did not. You cared nothing for my aunt, other than it would join us as kinsmen, and enhance your status. Is that not so?”
Iollan said nothing.
“Bring forward the honour guard you sent for Tuirrean. I would interrogate each and every one of them till I get to the truth,” demanded Fionn.
A look of confusion replaced Iollan’s sultry expression. “Fionn, I sent no one for her. You had said you would deliver her to me yourself.”
“Aye, but then you sent a guard of honour to collect her. The slave-woman you sent to tend Tuirrean said you could wait no longer for the pleasure of your bride’s company. Bring her also, that I might question her.”
“Slave-woman? But Rífhéinní, I swear, I sent no one.”
Fionn narrowed his eyes and glared suspiciously at the nervous Ulster man. Iollan noted Muirne tighten her grip on her son’s shoulder so that her knuckles showed white through her already pale skin. She was trembling.
“You have your truth, Fionn. You have my word on it,” he added, realising that at last they believed him.
Fionn reached for his mother’s hand. “Then what trickery is this? Who, in the name of all the Gods, did I hand Tuirrean over to?”
It was Muirne who came by the answer to the puzzle before anyone else. Her clear voice rang out in alarm, loud as a bell, before she quite fainted away.
“It was Uchtdealb.”
Iollan returned home in foul humour. Exhausted from his journey, and furious with Fionn, he strode angrily through his hall, bellowing for Uchtdealb, scattering his armour and the accoutrements of travel on the floor for the servants to pick up. She joined him in his chamber, her eyes full of concern, as she watched him pace restlessly up and down.
“What did Fionn want with you?” she asked after a while, pouring him a cup of wine. “Come, sit with me and drink. Wash the dust of travel from your throat, and tell me what happened.”
Seating himself beside her, Iollan wasted no time in small talk. “They are saying you took her, Uchtdealb.”
Uchtdealb stiffened. She knew instantly what he meant. Her eyes sought his. “Is that what you think, too?”
Iollan jumped to his feet. “Come on, Uchtdealb, it wouldn’t be the first time the Sidhe removed someone to suit their whims. You know as well as I do that the Sidhe just take what they want, do what they want, with no care for the consequences. That poor woman was carrying my child. She was a good match. If you killed her…killed my child…because of petty jealousy, I will never forgive you.”
Unperturbed, Uchtdealb took a sip from Iollan’s untouched wine. “You should be marrying me, not her.”
Iollan sighed. “We’ve been through this before. I can’t marry you. My people would never allow it. They are afraid of you and your strange ways, your strange powers. They don’t trust you. Besides, in all the years we have been together, you have not borne me a child. I need an heir, Uchtdealb. Tuirrean is a good match. My people will love her. And she is already carrying my child.”
“You should have waited until you were wed,” snapped Uchtdealb, her eyes dark with jealousy.
“Should have, yes, but we did not. We were foolish, and hasty, but what did it matter? We were betrothed, the wedding was just a formality.”
Standing there in the middle of the room, with his sad eyes, and shoulders drooping in defeat, Iollan looked somehow vulnerable to Uchtdealb. She came to him then, wrapping her slim arms around him, pressing her lips to his, confident of her effect on him.
“Say you love only me,” she whispered, using her fairy magic to fill his mind with thoughts solely of her.
But Iollan was like a block of wood in her embrace.
“I have no time for this,” he said, pushing her away. “I have to find Tuirrean, or Fionn will have my head. As it stands, right now he is after yours. I have defied him, which does not bode well for our future. It could lead to war.”
Uchtdealb bit her lip. “You have many friends, my Lord. They will support you.”
Iollan laughed, a harsh sound full of bitterness. “You think so? Fionn has Cormac eating out of his hand. There are few indeed who would be foolish enough to rally against the High King and his Rigfheinnid. Unless your people would back me?” He looked at her hopefully.
Uchtdealb turned away. “The Sidhe do not concern themselves in the affairs of man.”
“Even when the trouble is caused by one of their own?” he said mockingly.
Uchtdealb whirled to meet his gaze. “So you do blame me?”
“Will you confess it?”
“I have nothing to confess, but I see you have already condemned me.”
Iollan snorted. “I know you well enough after all these years, to sense this has your hand in it. Have I not just told you that I defied Fionn, risking life and limb for love of you, and still you question my loyalty? Will my death be enough to satisfy you?” He stormed angrily from the room.
Uchtdealb stared after him for a while. Then she took down her cloak, tucked her glorious golden hair beneath it, pulling the hood low over her face, and slipped through the hall out into the night.
Emain Macha in Ulster, where Iollan had his home, lay many days journey from the bay of Galway, but the Sidhe have their own secret ways of travelling which humans are not privy to. Uchtdealb arrived suddenly, and unannounced, in the hall of Fergus Fionnliath, Chieftain of Gallimh Harbour only moments later. After recovering from the shock of her appearance by downing the contents of a pitcher of mead, Fergus revealed his displeasure at her request.
“You can’t bring me a gift, and then take it back. Besides, it is not yours for the taking. Fionn bestowed it upon me, and now it is mine to keep.”
Uchtdealb stared at him in surprise. “But you don’t even like dogs,” she protested.
Fergus bent and fondled the ears of his favourite hound, which lay on a lambskin at his feet. She turned her head, licked his hand, then returned to grooming the two tiny pups which suckled eagerly at her belly. He straightened up.
“But I like this one,” he insisted. “She is the best huntress I have ever seen, and that is because she comes from Fionn’s own kennels. Everyone knows he loves his hounds. Now I see why.”
“Quite,” agreed Uchtdealb, eyeing the pups. “But unfortunately, she was taken from Fionn without his knowledge. Now he is furious, and promising death to he who has her. He doesn’t yet know that man is you, but when he does…”
Fergus’s eyes bulged. “Are you threatening me?”
Uchtdealb shrugged. “Will you give her up, or will you risk Fionn’s wrath?”
His face red with fury, Fergus reached for more mead. “What choice do I have?”
“It is well you cared for her. Knowing how much you hate hounds, I half expected you would have beaten her to within an inch of her life,” Uchtdealb said, lip curling in contempt.
Fergus gave her a quick glance. She sounded regretful, almost as if she hoped he had beaten the poor creature. He shuddered. It never bode well to accept a gift from the Sidhe. What had he been thinking? Too flattered by half at the thought of receiving such a special gift from Fionn mac Cumhall.
“As compensation, you may keep the pups.” Uchtdealb interrupted his thoughts.
“What good are they to me without the mother to rear them? They’ll never survive without her. You may as well take them also. I don’t want Fionn coming after me with his Fianna.”
Uchtdealb smiled at his cowardice, her eyes glittering with disdain. “Then drown them, for all I care. It is better that way.” She slipped a silver chain around the dog’s neck, and gave it a tug. The bitch resisted, howling piteously. She did not want to leave her pups, but Uchtdealb muttered a few secret words under her breath, and the hound calmed, following docile as a lamb.
Fergus watched them leave, shaking his head, and shuddering at such a flagrant, grotesque display of magic. He grabbed the mewling pups, one in each hand, and looked from one to the other.
“I dare not drown you. You belong to Fionn. Let him rear you, if you should survive that long without your mother.”
He dropped them into a basket, fastened the lid over the top, and called for his steward.
Out in the forest, with only the creatures of the night and the stars to witness the deed, Uchtdealb restored Tuirrean into her human form. The poor woman sank to the ground, weeping for her babies. Uchtdealb watched her coldly, then grabbing her by the hair, she dragged her to her feet.
“Listen to me, Tuirrean, and listen well,” she hissed. “I am taking you back to your family. They will try and wed you with Iollan, but you will refuse. You will not mention any of this to Fionn, or anyone else for that matter. If you do, I will have your babies killed. Do you understand?”
“Let me go back to them. They need me. They will not survive without me. Restore them, as you did me, I beg you,” pleaded Tuirrean, as the tears streamed down her cheeks, silvered by the moonlight.
Uchtdealb was unmoved. “I cannot. Although they started life as human in your womb, they were not born human, as you were.”
Tuirrean was desperate. “Then turn me back into a hound, and let me return to them, please.”
“That I cannot do. Your nephew has threatened Iollan unless you are returned safely.”
Tuirrean looked on the cold exterior of the woman who had ruined her life, and knew her entreaties were in vain.
“Remember; not a word, if you want your babies to live,” spat Uchtdealb, secure in the knowledge that the pups were already dead, drowned at the hands of Fergus. Alive, they were too much of a threat to her own position with Iollan. If he knew about them, he would retrieve them, and force her to bestow upon them human form. He would have the heirs he so wanted. She could not allow that. It was better this way.
She helped Tuirrean mount the horse she had brought for her, then tied her to the saddle, not trusting the grief stricken woman to refrain from attempting escape, or worse.
In time, Tuirrean recovered enough from her sorrow to agree to a marriage with Lugaidh Lamha, with whom she went on to have a quiet life. In Fionn’s care, the pups grew strong and healthy, destined to become great hunters and fighters. He named them Bran and Sceolan, and he was rarely seen without them. Little did he know they were Tuirrean’s children, his own cousins, yet the bond between the three of them was strong nevertheless.