As she murmured, “O wandering Oisin, the strength of the bell-branch is naught, for there moves alive in your fingers the fluttering sadness of earth.” ~William Butler Yeats
Three hundred years catch up with me quickly.
My eyes ache, and my skin is tight. I groan as nausea rolls through me and my bones shake. Holding out my hands, I see my own skin darken and gather into wrinkles and lines.
Here, in the cool embrace of my home forest, where my mother walked leaf-strewn paths and my father hunted with his warband, I lie.
I remember the sunlit waves of her hair when she came to us and offered me her hand. I stood with Father on one side and Conan on the other, the hounds scattered among our horses, wagging their tails. She said to my father, “I would have your son to kiss.”
He complained and battled his wit against hers, but I was full of love for her wild-ocean-beauty, for her pearl white hands and golden crown of hair, her dawn-tainted lips and eyes like rainbows. I’d have gone with her beyond death. So I laid down my harp and my sword, and mounted behind her to ride over the sea.
I remember the hazy light of her isle, of the always-twilight air and pastel fields of grass, peach trees and apple trees, the cloud-like towers of palace and hall.
I remember peace. And comfort. I remember her soft, careful kisses and the rough caress of the ground beneath me while Niamh’s hair blanketed us in sunlight. I remember her sleek thighs and delicate wrists.
I remember not remembering. Bliss made me forgetful; bliss and the honey-sweet food of her temples and gardens. I forgot this cold, emerald grass of my home island when I walked over the paler plains of hers. I forgot the hard shadows, the brilliance of the noontime sun, for the only sunlight on the Deathless Isle was in her hair.
I rambled through the groves and meadows, along the beach, through archways of smooth stone and crystal bricks. My fingers fluttered in senseless patterns as I walked, tapping on my thigh, waving in the air, and I did not remember why.
I loved her.
And then came the spearhead.
It was on an afternoon I wandered the beach, watching the silver sun through the glow of perpetual dusk. The sound of surf shook in the wind and warm water licked at my boots. I crouched, heels sinking into the white sand, and lifted a black stone from the foamy waves. It was smooth, triangular, and weighted lightly. A sharp point, sleek edges, with grooves at the base.
A spearhead. Recognition swept through me, and I clutched it tightly in my palm, so tightly it pinched my skin until I bled.
Drops of bright red slid down the length of the stone and dripped into the sand where they dissipated like memories.
War. I saw spears raised against the sky, fields of grass blackened by blood, trampled by horses and hounds and the feet of men, of the king’s army. My father’s army.
I remembered my father. He had eyes as gray and green as the streams rushing through the forest at home, and a beard tucked around his broad grin. His hands were large and hard, always pushing me at things: swords, hounds, horses, spears, women, music.
My harp. My harp.
The strings taut under my fingers while it rested against my left shoulder, a familiar gentle weight when I closed my eyes and played at the fire.
I stood up and the sea breeze caught me, embracing me with its tang of salt. I searched out over the waves, toward the horizon. Somewhere, over all that blue, churning water was my home. My father. The fian. My fist tightened and as blood dripped into the rising tide, pain woke me from the easy warmth of the isle. I left the beach.
She waited on the path before the palace in a blue silk gown, her dawn-stained lips turned down and delicate wrinkles marring the perfection of her brow. “Oisin,” she said, and her voice shivered with sorrow.
Niamh always knew what I felt before my heart even told me. I held out my hand, and she took it, mindless of the blood that seized at her sleeve. She opened my fingers and removed the spearhead. Holding it out, she released the stone to spin lazily in the air. It hung like a flag of war in our peaceful garden. Then she pulled me a step closer and took a lock of her long golden hair. With the strands she mopped away the blood pooling in my palm. As it soaked up into the golden curls and stained them a hard scarlet, I thought again of war, of the strife that drove across the kingdoms of men, and how I had escaped it to live in a deathless land.
“I must see again my father’s face, Niamh,” I said. “If only for a twelve-hour day, for a moment, for a breath. I must look into his eyes and see that he is well.”
“You have been happy here.”
“Yes, but.” I looked at the suspended spearhead. “But I had forgotten, in the comfort of this place.”
She stepped to me and took my face in her long, pale hands. “Take Embarr, my love, and ride over the sea with him. He will know the way to Eire.” She kissed me and her lashes brushed my cheeks. I wrapped her in my arms. She was warm and golden and delicate, like sunlight made flesh.
“I love you,” I said against her skin. “I shall return.”
“Do not step a foot on the earth, Oisin. Remain mounted on Embarr, and never stray from his saddle. One gentle brush of your shoe on the ground, on a rock or tree or flower and you shall be bound there again, and away from me. Please, Oisin. Remember.”
I kissed her again, and plucked the spearhead out of the air. Being bound again to Eire did not seem so awful, for she might come again to fetch me again, and I might remain a fortnight or so to hunt with Father.
I turned, and there stood her moonlit stallion, neck arched and silver bells tinkling. Mounting, I called out to Naimh, “I shall remember, your words and your love.” I saluted her and urged Embarr into motion. With a leap, he was in the air.
We charged across the sea like a bitter wind and when we reached Eire the stallion danced over the cliffs and onto the green hills. So brilliant they were after the paleness of the Deathless Isle, so glorious and pretty. And filled with song.
Birds called, the wind brushed through leaves and grass, and the ocean crashed on the rocks below us. I could hear the tune of my harp in the beating blood that rushed through my veins.
We rode inland, sweeping past villages and grave mounds, the ruins of forts and newly tilled land. I saw vast tracts of cows and sheep, roads more complex than those I had known, and I did not find clues to lead me to my father’s stronghold. Nor was their sign of fianna.
I stopped at a crossroads, where a stone obelisk rose high in the shape of a sword. The words were strange, their poetry unfamiliar to me. They spoke of a Father on High, of a deathless prince, of a shining sumerland and everlasting life.
There, beside the sword-stone, I waited with Embarr. The sun arced through the blue skies, and as it began its downward slipping, two men approached in boots and leather of no style I knew.
“Tell me of Finn, the great king Finn mac Cumhal.” I ordered, drawn up tall in the saddle. “Tell me where he is.”
The men shared a glance, eyebrows raised. “Under a mound of stone and earth, buried under all the honor of Eire.”
“Three hundred years gone, sir, three hundred years gone.”
I shook my head. It was impossible
One of the men pointed west. “Aye, sir, that way, you’ll find the graves of his descendants and ancestors both.”
Land blurred with the speed of our running. Embarr galloped over creeks and through trees as I yelled to him and urged him onward. I would find my father. We hurled faster and faster, and I kicked and prodded at Embarr, heedless to his comfort. I strained in the saddle.
I felt a jolt and a snap and I crashed to the ground.
At first, dazed, I only stared up at Embarr’s silver mane, and the wide blue sky beyond. Then, I remembered Niamh’s crystal voice. You shall be bound there again, and away from me.
Embarr backed away, one prancing step at a time. I pushed to sit as panic, anger, hope, uncertainty all caught in my throat as a great twisting ball.
The stallion stretched out one foreleg and bowed, eyes closed, nose skimming the dark grass. No, I thought, don’t leave me, a second before the moonlit withers gathered and he leapt into the sky.
I wait in the darkening eve, as quiet descends and soon the night birds and prowling beasts will disturb the calm.
I remain, aching, as I grow old in the space of a thousand breaths. Night passes and I think I must get up and find aid, find water or bread. But my bones hurt, my skin burns, my eyes are cloudy and my sight dim.
Dawn comes, and all I wish for is someone to tell. Anyone. Only my name. To know if I have been forgotten as I forgot.
Bright sunlight breaks through the leaves, streaming down and sweeping through the black branches like the curls of Niamh’s hair. It falls toward me, and I reach out.
But here, sunlight is an illusion.