Fionn gave a short, sharp whistle and the two hounds fell into step beside him. They were trembling with excitement. What would Fionn be after today? The brave wild boar which tore up the forest with its savage tusks, or the giant Elk with its impossibly large set of antlers?
The Fianna hunted on foot this morning. As men and hounds milled about, making a meal of their preparations, Fionn slipped away, knowing the others would catch up with him in due course. This was the part of the hunt he loved most; the still dark quiet of pre-dawn, the eagerness and anticipation, the challenge of pitting his skill against that of his quarry. For him, it wasn’t about the kill. It may be a brave, fierce fight before death took their victim, yet in the end it always seemed to him such a waste of life.
But man and hound needed fresh meat, and one soon tired of fowl, fish, mutton and beef. There was nothing quite like a whole roast hog, or venison, and his mouth watered at the thought. Yes, this hunt was long overdue.
Fionn and his hounds crossed the bog of Almu via one of the wooden causeways, and loped easily onto the firmer ground of the surrounding forests. As the sun rose, its warming rays filtered through the branches, enticing the bird population into song. The hounds roamed free, flushing out nothing larger than the odd hare. Fionn’s breath billowed in great clouds into the chill morning air, as he relaxed into his run.
After an hour or two, Sceolán’s excited belling alerted him to the fact that she had scented something, sending a thrill of adrenalin coursing through his body. This was it! The hunt had begun. Bran joined the chase now, adding his voice to the din. Leaving the path, Fionn followed the sound of his hounds crashing through the undergrowth. They were well ahead of him, their baying fading into silence. He followed the tracks of their heedless, headlong flight, and found the trees suddenly giving way to a small, sun-dappled clearing.
There were the hounds, but to his amazement, they had not made a kill, nor were they guarding prey for their master. Instead, they were frolicking playful as lambs around the grove with a small doe, their tails wagging so hard, he imagined they might wag them clean off. Every now and then, one of the pair would lean in towards the deer, and lick her affectionately. When the doe caught sight of Fionn watching them, she lay down in the grass, trembling. At once, the hounds followed suit, one on either side, tongues lolling and tails beating the ground as they eyed their master.
Speechless, Fionn came forward, and fondled his hounds’ silken ears. He had never seen Bran and Sceolán behave in such a peculiar manner. At a loss, he regarded the three animals curiously. He was no fool; he realised that there must be something special about this little doe, something the hounds had recognised. It would be ill-omened indeed to kill such a beast. Looking her over, he saw there was little enough flesh to be had from her, in any case. Besides, he sensed the taint of magic in the air, and shuddered. The Sidhe were not to be trifled with. If this little doe was one of them, it would be wise indeed to let her be.
He whistled to his hounds, and they bounded over to him obediently.
“Come, let us be on our way. We will let this little one run free, but we must needs find meat to feed the men and hounds of the Fianna. I would not return empty handed, or it will be empty bellies for the two of you this night, and I will be the subject of much ridicule and jest.”
He made to leave the clearing, but the hounds returned to the side of the little doe, tails swinging sheepishly.
“You defy me?” Incredulous, Fionn called them sharply to heel. The little doe got to her feet and followed. Sighing, Fionn stooped, picked up a small stone and cast it at the doe, hoping to drive her away. It hit the earth before her and she started, but kept her ground. Fionn bent to pick up another stone, but Bran stepped forward and growled at him.
Fionn straightened and regarded Bran with severe expression. “Growling at your master will bring you punishment, Bran. You have seen what happens to disobedient hounds.”
Bran whined, and swung his tail slowly.
“Very well, let us be off. I will deal with you later.”
Fionn headed out of the clearing and back through the woods. The hounds trotted behind him, and behind them, the little doe stubbornly followed. In this fashion, they all four moved slowly through the forest to the path. Impatient, Fionn waited there till they caught him up.
As they drew level, Fionn gave them his sending off call, but the hounds ignored him.
“You wanted to hunt, so go hunt!” he shouted in exasperation, but the hounds only whimpered and hugged closer to the doe, as if they feared what he might do to her.
“Well, clearly we are not going to get much further. We may as well turn about and head home.”
No sooner were the words out of his mouth, than the little doe and her two new friends set off down the path for Almu. Fionn shook his head, bewildered, and with little choice in the matter, followed along behind.
It wasn’t long before they came across the rest of the Fianna and their hounds. Some of the animals leaped snarling toward the doe, sensing easy prey, but Sceolán and Bran jumped to her defence as she cowered between them. There were not many dogs foolish enough to pick a fight with Fionn’s hounds, and they immediately backed off.
“Hey Fionn, you’re going the wrong way,” someone called out as they passed, all eyes on the doe.
“Not much flesh on that one. Is it the best you could do?” mocked another.
“We’re hunting for meat, not pets.” This remark was followed by a great guffaw of laughter.
“Long story. Don’t ask,” grumbled Fionn. “Just make sure you come back with a good kill. And make it a big one.”
The little doe went with them all the way to Almu. Once in the Dun, she stayed by Fionn’s side at all times. The hunt did not return that night. When Fionn went to bed, the little doe jumped up onto the pallet and slept beside him. Full of wonderment, Fionn felt the tug of fondness at his heart as he gazed down upon this strange little creature.
He awoke sometime during the night with a start. The bright moon was staring in at him; he must have forgotten to draw the hide curtain. Then he realised he was not alone.
He sat up suddenly in alarm, his hand automatically grasping for his sword where it rested always within reach. A woman was sitting on the edge of his bed with her back to him, dusky long hair cascading down her back and over her shoulders. She looked like a ghost in the silver moonlight.
“Who are you, Lady, and what are you doing here?” he gasped.
At the sound of his voice, the woman clutched a blanket from his bed around her shoulders to hide her nakedness. When she turned to look at him, he instantly recognised the look in her eye.
“My name is Sadbh,” she said. “I want to thank you for the kindness of giving me sanctuary here in your Dun. For three long years I have been forced to wander this land in the form of a doe, all because I refused the love of the Dark Druid. He was so angry at my rebuttal, that he struck me with his hazel wand and changed my life forever. But here I am safe from his power, and as long as I remain here he cannot harm me. Will you let me stay, Fionn mac Cumhall?”
Fionn looked deep into her big, brown eyes and felt something stir within him, a feeling which was new to him, stronger, and more intoxicating than anything he had ever felt.
“Gladly will I let you stay, my Lady,” he replied, and she smiled, but there was sadness in it.
The Fianna returned a week later, bringing much meat with them, and were amazed to hear Fionn’s story, and meet Sadbh.
“It is well your hunt was so successful,” cried Fionn happily, “for we will have much need of this meat at my wedding feast.”
There was great celebration then, as Fionn was well-loved by his people, and they took the fair and gentle Sadbh to their hearts. She and Fionn fell more in love with each passing day, and it wasn’t long before she began to swell pleasantly with child.
Then one day, news came to Almu of invaders from the sea who were laying waste to the shores of Ireland, wreaking havoc and destruction where they willed.
“The Fianna must ride,” he told Sadbh gently.
“But our baby is due any day,” she said. “I am afraid that if you go to battle, our child may grow never knowing you.”
Fionn smiled. “I am the Rífhéinní. I will be back soon. Watch for me from the ramparts.”
Then Fionn gathered his men and his horses and his hounds and his chariots, and they set out for battle, hungry for blood and victory and the spoils of war.
Every day, Sadbh watched for Fionn’s return from the ramparts, as he had bid her. After three days she saw a lone figure approach from the horizon on foot, accompanied by two large hounds.
Her heart began to beat faster. Could this really be Fionn, or were her eyes playing tricks on her? But there, clearly, were Bran and Sceolán; the hounds were instantly and irrefutably recognisable. But where was Fionn’s horse, and where were the rest of the Fianna?
As the figure drew nearer, she saw the sunlight glinting off the thick mane of shaggy almost-white hair, and she knew then that this was, without a doubt, her husband. She hurried down the off the rampart, and out through the gates of Almu, throwing herself into his arms. The hounds bounded around them joyfully.
But the arms which held her didn’t feel like Fionn’s arms. The chest she huddled against didn’t feel like Fionn’s chest. The heart she could hear beating within him didn’t sound like Fionn’s heart. She drew back then, and looked up into his face. His hands gripped her tightly, and he smiled down on her with love in his eyes, but those eyes weren’t Fionn’s eyes.
Too late, Sadbh realised her mistake. With a light touch of his hazel wand, the Dark Druid transformed her back into the form of a doe, and with that, she, he, and the two hounds disappeared into thin air.
Fionn’s rage on his return was terrible to behold. Eventually, it gave way to deep sorrow, and for seven years, he went out from Almu almost every day, searching for his lost love.
One day his search led him to the wooded slopes of Benbulben, in Co. Sligo. As they had once before, Bran and Sceolán led Fionn into a small, secret clearing where they found, much to his astonishment, a grubby, naked boy-child with long, ragged hair. He was as wild as the birds and the bees, with no grasp of language. But when Fionn looked into those big brown eyes he instantly saw something of Sadbh in them, and he knew with all certainty that this was his son. He named the boy Oisin, which means ‘little deer’, after his mother. But what became of Sadbh, he never found out, and he never saw her again.