The Tragedy of Sionn and Maeve
The warriors sprawled in various poses stood, lifted their horn cups in salute and roared their approval. Even that outcry failed to disturb the placid baby, who simply observed the firelit scene through half closed eyes. A grizzled old charioteer noted this and called out, “Aye, and a fine babe ’tis! Nary a cry did the little lad give at our shouts. Nothing frights him at all!”
Finnean beamed upon the boy from his dark carved throne, pleased by such an omen. For a moment, no one noticed Taogh’s curious golden eyes grow darker, and his features change. Then, as one man after another caught sight of the fey look that had overcome him, silence spread throughout the hall. Even the dogs stilled, as if to better heed the bard’s words which soared above the tendrils of sweet smoke from the hearth.
“A fine lad, aye, and a fine man he’ll become. But let him beware! If in carelessness, he leaves untended that fertile ground whereon treachery may spring up, its shoots shall burst forth and overwhelm him. Cathal must seek to give none cause to betray him, else their betrayal shall prove the ruin of his life!”
No one moved or spoke until a pair of hounds, snarling, began lunging at one another. Cursing, the closest warriors drove them from the hall, while the rest went back to their drinking. Taogh shook himself, handed the infant to a waiting servant, and sank into his accustomed seat beside Finnean’s throne. The bard’s strange words were mentioned no more that day, yet no man there doubted them, and most would remember them for the rest of their lives. That was always how it was when the fey mood overtook Taogh.
Four winters passed. Cathal became a great favourite of the warriors who followed his father. They would toss him apples, or slip him slivers of honeycomb. When he wrestled with other boys, they gathered to cheer him on, even when he fought their own sons. He was sturdy and strong, and usually won these contests, even against boys who had seen two or three more summers. His mother grew great with child again, and in the early autumn she died giving birth to Finnean’s second son.
The women attending her were helpless to stop the flow of blood, and she did not even have time to nourish young Sionn before drifting into the Otherworld. There was no merrymaking in the great hall, and the bard remained silent. Finnean’s grief was great, and he refused to take another wife. A girl was found to nurse the baby, who went to live with her in a smaller building near the wall of the great fort. He too grew to be brave and strong and quick. In any other clan he would have been a favourite.
Yet his father and the men who served his father could not quite rid themselves of the memory of grief that clung to him like a bitter stench. They turned away from him whenever they could find some excuse for doing so. Sionn was often lonely, until the day he learned Cathal was his brother. From that day on, he followed the older lad everywhere. Since he treated Cathal as a hero, his older brother found no complaint with his presence, and gradually he was accepted by the others. Yet still none admired him for his own skill and wit, they simply tolerated him as he lurked in the crowd.
Cathal was always stronger, faster, better at anything he set his hand to. Sionn could only follow in his footsteps. Once or twice, by dint of mighty effort, he managed to do nearly as well as Cathal. On those occasions, Cathal would set his jaw and scowl at his brother, then exert himself to outdo his own feats. The other lads and the warriors would scowl and grumble at him as well, until Cathal generously set things right. Sionn soon learned it was better not to even attempt to best his brother.
Soon they were young men. Cathal grew into a tall, lithe fellow with a surprising strength and skill, and a face that made all the maidens quiver and giggle when he passed. Sionn was very much like his brother, but not quite as tall or quite as fast. The maidens all had their eyes on Cathal, and never bothered to glance his way. Sionn still loved his brother, very much, but he began to suspect he was just a bit too proud. He didn’t even have anyone he could confide these feelings to. His foster mother had wed and moved to an outlying farmstead as soon as he was old enough to live with the other warriors in training. Cathal was such a generous and friendly man in so many ways none of their companions would hear an ill word spoken of him.
One day, at one of the great festivals where all the clans mingled, Sionn grew restless and fled his brother’s shadow. Alone, he calmed and strolled along, enjoying the scents of cooking food, the fresh breezes, and the sunshine. He let his mind wander, until with a start he realised he had nearly walked into a strange young woman. Her skin was as pale as milk, her eyes were fresher than new grass, and her hair outshone newly forged copper. Her gown was fine and she wore ornaments of copper and gold. He gulped, and felt his face grow hot.
“Uh, I’m sorry, I didn’t... uh...”
When she smiled, a layer of himself he hadn’t even known he possessed tore open, and feelings he’d never imagined flooded him. “That’s right, you didn’t. Which is just as well for you; I’d have been quite angry with you if you’d made me soil this gown.”
For a terrible moment, he suspected she was mocking him, but then he saw her eyes were gentle. “I do beg your pardon. I was too attentive to my own thoughts to notice you there.”
“If you truly wish to earn my pardon, you’ll have to do better than that.” She smiled again. “I will only pardon you if you will come with me and consent to help me gather berries.”
Sionn gulped again. “Of course I’ll help you. I would do whatever you asked. I am Sionn, son of Finnean.”
She giggled. “I am Maeve, daughter of Macrath. Would you truly do anything I asked?”
Sionn felt his face grow hot again, but he managed to speak steadily. “Yes, I would.”
She giggled again, then led him off into the hills. They spent the afternoon gathering berries, with Sionn doing most of the gathering and Maeve eating most of the tangy berries. It was dusk when they trudged back. Sionn winced inwardly when he saw Cathal striding towards them, but it was too late to hide. Cathal called out to him, then hesitated when he noticed the woman by his side. A moment later, he stepped forward, hand outstretched to clasp Sionn’s arm.
“Sionn, I’ve been seeking you for hours! Yet I see that you’ve found better company.” He bowed in Maeve’s direction. “I am Cathal, son of Finnean of Dubh Tor.”
Maeve could not help smiling at his mock formality. “I am Maeve, daughter of Macrath of Dun Cuan.”
Cathal exchanged a few more polite remarks with her, then led Sionn off to join their warrior band around a distant fire. Sionn didn’t see Maeve again until the festival was over. The servants did not begin packing as expected for the journey home. Instead, they bustled about, making mysterious preparations, while most of the warriors speculated and Cathal and a few of his friends grinned secretively. Soon, Finnean approached them in company with another man wearing a golden torc, Maeve, and a severe young man in the robes of a bard. Sionn started to rush forward, but something in Maeve’s face held him back. Before he knew it, the bard was hand-fasting Maeve to Cathal before the gathered men of both their clans. Cathal had eyes only for Maeve, so he failed to notice Sionn was unable to swallow even a bite of the feast that followed.
He listened, dismayed, while both kings agreed the wedding must take place soon. It was meant to seal an alliance which would benefit both in the constant struggles between clans. Taogh looked troubled, and once leaned over to mutter in Finnean’s ear, but the king waved him away. Sionn stared into the leaping flames and imagined luring Maeve aside, snatching her onto the back of a horse, and riding like the wind until they were safe. As the men grew drunk, an older warrior reminisced loudly about the strange fate foretold at Cathal’s birth. A few men looked uneasy, and Taogh stirred again, but Cathal rose to his feet.
“I have been forewarned. I have had time to think on it, and there is clearly only one thing I may do. Should any give sign of betraying me, I will strike off their head before I give them the chance!”
Taogh held up one hand, but he was ancient by now, and the feeble gesture went unnoticed. The warriors, who loved bold boasts, roared their approval of Cathal’s solution. They shouted, sang, and drank every drop of the mead. When Sionn slipped away from the fire, no one even noticed. He walked for over an hour, then flung himself into a dark, chilly lake and swam until he was exhausted. To his disgust, when his body felt itself sinking, instinct took over and dragged him, panting, to the shore. He lay there for a while, then walked back to the silent camp just before dawn. In his imagination, even the stars were mocking him.
When he awoke, he was consumed by a terrible fever, and remembered little of the next few months. By the time he recovered, Cathal and Maeve were wed and had grown comfortable with each other. Now and then he thought she cast an apologetic look his way, but he could never be sure. Still, she seemed happy, and he resolved to cause her no trouble. He threw himself into raiding, and spent many nights in the open with only a few picked companions beside him. Within a few years, he was given the chance to settle in a smaller fort as a lesser chieftan in Finnean’s lands, and he accepted that gratefully. Like his mother, Maeve seemed to have difficulty quickening, so his brother remained childless. Finnean lived only a few more winters before crossing to the Otherworld, and Cathal was confirmed as ruler of the clan.
Sionn still avoided him as much as possible. His heart never stopped aching at the thought of Maeve in his brother’s arms. One afternoon, eight summers after Cathal was wed, he rode up to Sionn’s gate with Maeve and a large band of warriors. They dismounted, and Cathal embraced his brother. Maeve shifted uncomfortably, but stood beside him. Since he could not do otherwise, Sionn welcomed them into his home. The few servants scurried about, preparing such a feast as Sionn’s resources would allow. Cathal did not speak of the reason for his visit until they had eaten and were sitting quietly watching the flames dance in the hearth.
Cathal sighed and glanced at Maeve. “Brother, there is war amongst the clans. I must lead most of my warriors into battle. Maeve has lately lost a child, and may not ride with us. Yet I fear she may not be safe in my fort with the few warriors I can spare.”
Sionn found he could not speak, so he simply nodded.
“I want you to bring your men, to accompany Maeve to the fort and to stay there with her, until I return.”
Maeve did not speak, but she shifted, and Sionn could see she was concerned for her own safety. His heart lurched within him. For her, he could endure even this. “I’ll tell my men tonight, and leave one or two oldsters here to tend the place. We’ll ride out with you on the morning.”
Cathal smiled. “That’s settled, then.”
Cathal and his men rode off that night, too eager to join battle with their foes to tarry. In the early morning mists, Sionn rode beside Maeve, his tiny war band surrounding them. They spoke only when necessary, but glanced at each other often. It was well past noon by the time they passed the gates of Dubh Tor. The few remaining warriors greeted them, they ate a cheerless meal, and the servants prepared a chamber where Sionn could rest. He spent all the time he could outdoors, but he still found himself alone with Maeve for the second time in his life two days later.
She did not touch him, and she kept her voice low and her gaze on the ground. “I want you to know, I never had a choice. My father told me I was to marry Cathal. I could hardly object.”
“I know. We should not be speaking of this.”
“We will only speak of it once. It is something I thought you should know. Yet he is not a bad man, and I have made my peace with him.”
“Thank you for telling me. I did hope, once, but you seemed to be happy...”
“Yes, I’ve been happy. I just wanted you to understand that I never intended to hurt you. I know why you agreed to come back here, even for a short while, and I would never have asked you, myself.”
Sionn was about to say more, but a serving woman approached with a problem only Maeve could solve. They parted silently, and Sionn kept even more to himself after that. The weeks passed, until one rainy afternoon, when he spotted a war band riding up to the gates. There were a few less men, and a few of those that returned were visibly battered, but the men were singing and seemed to be in good spirits. Sionn arrived in the dark hall just a few moments before Cathal strode in. He glanced at Maeve, standing near the doorway, then at Sionn.
“You’ve behaved youselves, then?” He kept his tone light, but his face was solemn.
Sionn hesitated. He had no desire to cause any trouble for Maeve, but it would be satisfying, just once, to watch Cathal squirm for a moment. In that moment, he saw Cathal’s face harden, and realised he had made a mistake. He opened his mouth, then shut it. Cathal snarled in rage, and it was clear that now he had raised even a slight suspicion in his brother’s mind, no reply was likely to satisfy him. He glanced helplessly at Maeve, who realised the danger a moment before he did. She whirled to flee, but stumbled.
“You’ve betrayed me!” Cathal roared as he swept out his sword. “You’ll not get the chance to ruin my life!”
Before Sionn could reach them, Cathal’s sword had sliced into Maeve’s neck, her head was rolling on the hall floor, and her blood was spouting everywhere. Sionn had his sword out, and in a blind rage, he hacked wildly at Cathal. All his pain, all his loneliness, flowed from him and into his sword arm. For that moment, he was a mightier warrior even than his brother. He stood, gazing down at the bodies of his brother and the woman he loved, sobbing wildly. He did not even trouble to wipe the blood from his face. The warriors, aghast, stood uncertainly. Once they began to comprehend what had just happened, Cathal’s men began silently drifting away.
Sionn wept until dusk, then seized his brother’s body and flung it outside, to the hounds. He gathered up Maeve’s pitiful remains and carefully wrapped them in a shroud. Then, for three days and three nights he roamed the deserted fort, howling and raging until even the owls sought more peaceful nests. At the end of that time, he set to work with his own hands. Despite the pain wracking him, he forced himself to work with care, building a proper tomb for Maeve’s rest. It took him three years, but at last he tenderly gathered up the shroud and its contents and laid it in the tomb he had prepared. With that task over, he walked, day and night, until he reached the bank of a broad river and threw himself in. He was wiser this time, and swam with the current, out to sea.
Maeve’s tomb still stands. Few can read the old language any more, but for those who can, the inscription over the doorway is still clear.
“Maeve, daughter of Macrath.
She was the fairest woman ever to grace this isle.
An innocent victim of a lie told in silence.”