There were only a couple of patrons who had braved the weather and roads. After recent events, a few of the individuals sitting in the quiet in front of an early December hearth fire just wanted to relax with a few drinks and maybe listen to a little music. To that end, Conor was quietly picking at his guitar – a half empty Guinness within arm’s reach. He had been talking with friends about various topics – none of any importance in the grand scheme of things.
“Well I suppose if that’s your only frame of reference, then sure. Disney is fine. Though they lack the soul of the original tales I’m thinking,” Conor’s thick Galway brogue was especially pronounced.
“Ok then. I’ll bite. Show me. You’re a bard of the Fae, what was it like in the age of heroes?” The speaker was Matthew Consprite, a man with which Conor shared much recent history and danger.
“Conor you must! Please?! I’ve never seen you perform anything but music!” Spoke a voluptuous, dusky-skinned woman with thick curly black hair of Greek origin. She was Conor’s girlfriend, a supernatural herself and emissary of the Muses.
Smiling at his lady, the Irishman set down his guitar, stood up, and removed his hat and sweater. As he did so he looked around the room and took stock of who was there, the lighting, and several other intangibles. He looked out the room’s only window and saw that the nighttime rain was still coming down steadily but not with any force. Actually, on a night like this it was easy for Conor to forget how far away from Connemara he actually was.
“Well since my lady requests it, and in honor of the rain and cold…” He glanced at his guitar and let much of his mortal seeming fall away. His skin was a luminous white, traced faintly with the hints of ancient blue tattoos in Celtic patterns. His hair lengthened and his features became more Otherworldly. He called up his magic. The magic of his birthright and his mother’s gift… Glamour.
The guitar started playing a few soft chords, complex and Celtic, yet gentle. No human hand touched the strings.
“Long, long ago in Ireland when the Tuatha Dé Danaan lived above the soil there was a great chieftain. Lir (leer) was his name. He was as great as any king, but the fair folk had chosen his rival Bodhbh Dearg (bo JER-rig) to rule as High King. To forge a peace, the King had given to Lir his eldest daughter, Aobh (AY-o).”
“With her, Lir had four children who were as dear to him as the pulses of his heart; Fionnuala (finn-OO-la), Aodh (ay), Fiacra (FYAK-ra), and Conn (kon).” As Conor spoke, ghostly raiment covered his body and limbs as did a crown of gold. He appeared as an ancient man standing in front of four youths.
“Fionnuala was the eldest. Hers was a golden beauty like sunshine amidst spring boughs, heavy with blossoms. Aodh of the fire hair was like a high flying eagle in the sky; regal and proud. The twins, Fiacra and Conn were dark of hair and full of life as a stream burbling through the rocks and rushes. All were blue of eye and fair of skin and body.”
Then Conor again appeared as himself. As he continued to speak he gestured with his hands around the room, wherever he pointed there appeared ghostly images – as if the scenes in his mind’s eye were being projected upon the walls.
“In those days, sorrow was a stranger to Ireland. The high mountains were crowned in light. The white horses of the Dé Danaan drank in cold and pure streams crowned with flowers that reflected starlight and dusted the air with jeweled pollen. Lir gave each of his children one of these swift steeds as well as two loyal wolfhounds. He doted on his children as they were all that remained of his first love, for she had died giving birth to the twins. Needing to keep the peace, the High King gave his second daughter; Aoife (EE-fa), to Lir to be his new wife. She doted on her sister’s children and reveled in the honor and adoration of Lir’s people. However, a thorn was in her heart… she had no children of her own and Lir’s were loved better than she. That thorn festered until at last, claiming sickness, she removed herself from the eye of Lir’s people for a year and a day. In that time, she had prepared a dark spell.”
As Conor told of Aoife, a stately red haired woman had appeared. As he continued to tell the tale, the spectral form grew pale, sickly, and appeared to age. Her features hardened with bitterness.
“She returned to the fortress of Lir and all seemed well for a turning of the moon. One day, claiming that the waters would do her good. She took herself and the children of Lir by chariot to Lough Derravaragh, a mere 25 miles west of the Hill of Tara.”
Conor pantomimed driving a chariot and the guitar music paused momentarily; replaced with the sounds of a horse whinny and creaking leather and chariot wheels came to a stop. The spectral image of four youth in their teens stood crowded behind him.
“They bathed and she was the first to arise from the waters,” he continued. “She took up her magic wand and when the children at last came for their clothes, she cast her spell. The Death Curse of the Tuatha Dé Danaan is potent; so her spell sought a different outcome.”
He made a motion as if he were waving a stick in his hands towards the center of the room, and light erupted in swirling emerald hues. His guitar struck a broken chord; and when the lights faded, in the center of the room were four shimmering swans of pure white.
“Hear me now,” Conor’s voice changed to that of a woman’s that reverberated with dark power. “Your luck is ended Children of Lir and taken from you forever. Only these flocks of birds will know your fate. Your friends will sing laments for you – for I shall tell of how you drowned and I, a woman alone, could not save you from the deep waters.”
He then spun on his heel to face the opposite direction, the spectral visage of a swan superimposed over his head and face. “It was Fionnuala that spoke. Powerful though the magic was, her royal blood was more potent still and she retained her voice and mind. ‘Witch,’ said she. ‘Though you strike us down, the doom that shall be visited upon you shall be worse by far. Your sorrow will be greater than this. If you seek any pity or mercy from thy fate… tell us how this curse might end.’”
Again Conor spun, his voice taking on the dark tones of the witch. “Three hundred years shall you dwell upon this lake. Three hundred years in the Straits of Moyle twixt here and Scotland. Then, three hundred years more on the Western Sea that has no boundary save the sky. Long will be those 900 years. After, the spell shall end when a man from the north weds a woman who is from the south. Now go.”
He motioned with his hand and four swans seemed to take flight, only to land across the room in what appeared to be water.
“Then, Aoife fled to the great fortress of her father the High King.” Conor continued in his normal voice and the guitar again picked up its tune.
“The High King was cunning, so too was Lir, and in time Aoife’s treachery was discovered. Fionnuala’s warning proved true. As punishment, the Bodhbh Dearg stripped away his daughter’s body. As a spirit of the air she exists still to this very day.” Across the room, the spectral form of Aoife screamed silently as her body dissolved like sand on glass blown by a strong wind, leaving nothing behind but two faintly glowing orange orbs where her eyes had been.
“Having at last learned where his children dwelled, Lir rode to the lake and called out to his children. ‘Come to me Fionnuala, come Aodh, come Fiacra, come Conn!’ Four white swans came from the sky and landed at his feet near the water’s edge.”
Conor dropped to his knees, anguish in his voice. He again appeared as Lir, in the shades of a gold crown and ancient clothing. “I cannot give you back your shapes until the doom that is upon you is ended, but come back with me; come home O children of my heart!”
By this time, several of the patrons of Atwater’s had come upstairs for various reasons; the room was getting a little crowded. Shining forth from several niches in the bookshelves where the glimmering shapes of Pixies – listening in transfixed fascination.
One of the swans spoke with the voice that Conor had been using for Fionnuala, “Father we cannot. The Witch’s curse prevents us from leaving the shores and waters of this lake.”
As Lir again, “The woman who ensnared you is long gone. Fierce winds drive her to all the restless places of the earth. Gone is her beauty and her body, she wanders as a spirit of the air; fearing daylight until the end of time.”
Then another swan spoke up, “Conn then spoke, ‘Though we cannot cross it; may good fortune be upon the threshold of your door from this time and forever, father. Know that we have kept the voices you knew and the songs you taught us. But now we must fly in the dusk, feel the water beneath our feet, and hear the lonesome cries of night. Red is thy crown by firelight, but redder still is the dawn and we must chase it.’ At that Lir covered his face with his cloak and wept bitter tears.”
Conor then stood up, leaving a spectral image of the kneeling Lir weeping into his cloak. The swans took flight, flapping in place just a few inches beneath the ceiling of the room.
“Three hundred years the swans dwelled upon the lake. Their father and kinfolk came to visit them often. Mortal harpers and singings came to hear their songs. Then, one day, the three hundred years were ended and the swans rose suddenly to fly far, far away. Never once did they touch earth. At last they came to the cold and stormy waters of the Straits of Moyle that lay between Ireland and Scotland.”
The swans had landed and were again swimming; one seemed to gather in the other three. Then Conor held his arms out like they were great wings, curling in to shield the other swans.
Once again in a different voice, “Fionnuala gathered her brothers together, ‘Let us choose a place where, should we become lost, we can meet and know to wait for the others. Let us meet at the Rock of the Seals for we all know it well.’ Her brothers agreed with her wisdom.”
Then a cold wind started up out of nowhere in the room. Since it was merely Glamour only the people felt its damp touch upon their skins; napkins and clothing were unaffected. The guitar was silent again as thunder and rain seemed to come from the ceiling, the raindrops vanishing inches from the heads of the people clustered in the room.
“Well did Fionnuala make this plan for the Straits of Moyle are stormy. Soon enough they found themselves separated by the violent winds, their voices drowned as they were blown hither and tither. In the pale light of morning, Fionnuala found her way to the Rock of the Seals. ‘O Conn that I sheltered under my right wing come to me! O Fiacra who nestled under my left, come to me! O Aodh my dear brother, come to me!’ When she did not see them, sore was her misery and lamentation.”
A single spectral swan was swimming in the center of the room; its head tucked in under a wing. In Fionnuala’s voice it cried out, “O bitter night, darker even that they day Aoife struck us with her curse, for my brothers are gone, the three that I loved!”
Standing, Conor continued in his regular voice as the guitar once again started up, “But by the red light of morning she saw Conn approaching. His feathers were broken and he seemed half drowned. Fionnuala gathered him up beneath her wings to comfort him. ‘This day would be perfect if only Fiacra and Aodh were in it.’ Shortly thereafter before the sun was fully in the sky, Fiacra also arrived. His feathers were also broken. He too found comfort nestled neath his sister’s wings. ‘Oh Aodh, where are you?’”
In the center of the room was the semi-transparent image of a great swan, with two smaller swans nestled beneath her wings tenderly. Conor let that image draw all eyes for a moment before he continued. The illusory rain and wind had stopped.
“Then, when the sun was high in the sky, Aodh appeared, his feathers bright and whole. He landed to be with his sister and brothers. They asked with one voice ‘Aodh, where have you been?’ and Aodh replied, ‘I was flying and beheld a Warhost of the Sidhe with its many white horses camped at the mouth of the River Bann. Though I could not leave the Straits of Moyle, I was able to find shelter from the storm there.’ And with that, the Children of Lir took flight to the mouth of the Bann. There they feasted with the Warhost of the Sidhe that was loyal to the High King. Though they never again saw the sidhe, they passed their next 300 years upon the dark deep waters of the Moyle and the mouth of the Bann. “
Once again the swans in the center of the room took flight, seeming to fly stationary just below the ceiling and above everyone’s heads.
“When their time was ended, they felt the call of the Western Sea. They flew straight and landed in those cold and merciless waters that look out upon the black Atlantic Ocean. When they came ashore, the rocks were so cold at times it would tear flesh and leave sores that would hurt whenever the sea flowed in.”
At that the illusory storm started up again, lashing the swans and listeners both. Several of the patrons shivered and seemed to rub their arms to get rid of the bumps.
“For three hundred years they did not know comfort and saw none of the sidhe, nor horses or hounds. The saw strangers move upon the islands that they did not know. At last, their time was ended. Fionnuala said ‘Let us go home!’ and they took wing to seek the fortress of their father.”
Conor then created four swans flying in formation against the back wall, and “beneath them” projected upon the back wall itself flew by various ghostly images.
“But Ireland had changed. The Tuatha Dé Danaan were gone from the lands, as were the brightmaned horses and white hounds. Through all the hills and vales, strangers tilled the soil and tended the flocks. They sang different songs and played different music. Everywhere were strange buildings with crosses and men in robes with shaved crowns who dwelled there.”
Now the illusory swans settled down upon a hilltop littered the stones and rubble.
“For you see, the Gaels and Patrick had come, as had the worship of the White Christ. At last they arrived at the fortress of their father and beheld the ruin. Nothing remained but hillocks and nettles. Gone were the herds, the kennels, and the stables. Gone was the hearth fire, the hearthstone, and even the Great House itself.”
“Fionnuala said, ‘Beauty is gone from the earth, we have no home.’ Conn next spoke, ‘Every place is dark to us, even the hills.’ Fiacra cried, ‘To see this place as it is now, it is bitterness to my heart!’ Aodh looked around the longest before he spoke, ‘No hounds, no horns, no cups; no heroes, no riders, no women; it is clear that our father – though great amongst the Tuatha Dé Danaan – is no longer amongst the living.’ And the Children of Lir cried together and slept the night on the barren hilltop where once they knew so much joy.”
Conor then stopped, picked up his guitar and began actually playing, “The Children of Lir then travelled the length and breadth of Ireland seeing how it had changed, but at last, weary in the heart, they travelled to Inishglora, the holy island. You see, Inishglora was one of the few places – when they were trapped on the Western Sea – where they were ever able to find reliable shelter. The strangers that had built their stone buildings and worshipped their strange God had been friendly to them and it was to Inishglora that the siblings would invariably return.”
“Each night, they would sing the old songs of the Tuatha Dé Danaan that they had learned from their father. A young man of the stranger-race, heard Fionnuala singing and came to listen and learn.”
Behind Conor a spectral image of an ancient Irish monk appeared, he wore undyed wool robes and his head was shaved in the “Irish Tonsure” (bald from a line from ear to ear across the top of the head and forward, completely bare of forehead and hair uncut and long in the back) and he bore a scraggly beard. He was sitting at the water’s edge and appeared to be listening to the swans.
“In time the young monk, Aibric, came to know the story of the Children of Lir and he wrote it down in his great books at the monastery. From Aibric, the Children of Lir learned of what had happened in the past 900 years. They shared each other’s songs and much was relearned by men that had been forgotten. In time, many scholars, musicians, and poets would come to Inishglora to learn from the Children of Lir. To protect them from these strangers, Aibric had forged a chain of bright silver for each of the swans and when the strangers came, he would keep the chain attached to him lest the swans be stolen.”
“Now Inishglora was in Connacht, and the Gaelic King of Connacht was Laidgnen, son of Colman, son of Cobthaig. His wife was Deoch, daughter of Finghin. She had heard of these wondrous singing swans and wanted them for herself. Now Laidgnen was a King of the north, and his wife was a Queen of the southlands but this was unknown to the Children of Lir. The King went to the monastery at Inishglora to demand the swans. Aibric, now the head abbot there, refused.”
The scene behind Conor was now one of an old monk arguing with a huge warrior dressed as one might imagine a king of the dark ages might be dressed.
“Laidgnen was a warrior king and did not accept no for an answer. He grabbed up the swans, two under each arm. No sooner did he lay his hands upon them than the feathers turned to dust and instead of four beautiful white swans, there were three wrinkled naked old men and a wrinkled naked old woman.”
The image behind him reflected his words.
“The King dropped the strange ancient people and backed away from what he knew to be black magic. Aibric knelt beside his old friends. Even as he watched, 900 years of time was swiftly catching up to their bodies. Soon they too would be mere bones. He spoke, ‘Old friends, allow me to baptize you before you pass from this world. For all the meals we’ve shared together, all the stories, all the tales and memories, allow me to help you this one last time.’”
“Fionnuala spoke next, ‘We are not of your White Christ’s people Aibric, but for our friendship you may do this thing if you grant one last request.’”
“You have but to ask Fionnuala, quickly.”
“Bury us standing in the old way; Conn and Fiacra beside me, and Aodh facing me. As we lived, so let us return to our own people.”
Conor then put back his mortal seeming, standing there with guitar in hand.
“And Aibric did baptize his dear friends. He buried them standing in the old way. Their mortal bodies perished but their spirits, which were always of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, returned to the spirit world and there they are still my friends; dining and singing with their father in the eternal courts of the Fae.”
Conor then reached over to retrieve his hat, placing it back in his usual fashion, with a nod to some of the fae assembled in the room. “That is my story.”
Ok, this is 3500 words… far more than I ever intended to write.
When I was learning Irish, the Children of Lir was the first Irish folktale I ever translated. The Lady Gregory and Ella Young English versions were also known to me. The Children of Lir is a keystone of Irish Literature and cultural identity… it’s not a happy tale really. I wanted to tell it from the point of view of a Fae that lived IN the Dresdenverse, I also wanted to play around with what a Bard could do with Glamour.
You see, in 1997 I had the pleasure to watch a one-man play by Macdara Mac Uíbh Aille (who now lives in New York). It was entirely in Irish Gaelic (I was only a 2 year student at the time) and all he had was a tape player, a couple of masks, and a couple of robes plus a prop or two. For an hour he held me spellbound with just his voice and the story he told. I perfectly understood what was going on thanks to his pantomime and acting skills (plus the rudimentary Gaelic I had back then). I wanted to somehow bring some piece of that to Conor.
The in-game reason I did the story was because I’m increasing Conor’s power with a new refresh point, so I wanted to show that he was getting more in touch with his Fae nature.