A Devastating Illusion

Last week the battle began, and one of Deirdre and Naoise’s allies betrayed them…

More cries and clashes sounded. There was nothing but this clamour for a long time. It ebbed and flowed through my ears.

Naoise, Ainlle, and Ardan paced the floor like wild boars on leashes, their eyes glittering savagely in the dim lamplight. I could see how much they wanted to be out helping Fergus’s son fight, but they were bound by the customs governing oaths.

As for me, every moment seemed to pass like a dream. Inside the little house, all was silent, cocooned by the cosy wattle and daub against all the violence. Even fear seemed dulled, and I struggled to put one word in front of another inside my mind.

They paced up and down, up and down, up and down…

“Fight bravely, Naoise.” cried a voice in desperation.

“Let’s go,” Naoise cried. Their faces breathed excitement as they charged out the door.

Naoise’s going jerked me back. I wriggled to the doorway and peeped out.

My husband and brothers stood back to back, in the middle of a sea of warriors, fighting brilliantly. Their swords cascaded in shining arcs through the air, so fast you could never see the blades, only where they were a moment ago as they left silver trails behind them. I stared, mesmerised.

So mesmerised was I that I didn’t see or hear a few men breaking away from the main body of warriors and just as quietly rejoining a few moments later.

I only felt it. A pleasant cushion of heat pressing on me.

I turned and gasped. The whole roof was ablaze. I screamed. Like magic, Naoise’s head turned and he saw the whole situation as once. They ran to me and took me in the middle of them, making their circle once more.

And then I saw him.

I had never seen him before. How could I have done? But I knew who he was.

What he would do.

He rose on the wind. In the semi-darkness the torches lit up his face starkly, his white robes flapping. He lifted his hand as he yelled.

Cathbad. The king’s father. The most powerful magician in Ireland.

This was it.

I screeched out his name, but too late. All at once we were in the middle of the sea and my protectors dropped their weapons to swim.

“It’s not real!” I cried desperately. “It’s Cathbad’s illusion!”

They shook their heads and kept swimming.

And then they were hit.

All at once the lapping waves and the emptiness vanished and we were back in Emain Macha.

The boys lay on the floor, biting their lips in pain, as I stood over them, facing our nemesis. Conchobar towered over us, hawk-like; cruel and cold, taking in every detail. A hawk with a king’s crown.

King Conchobar gestured to some soldiers. “Bind them,” he ordered, his voice harsh in his throat.

They didn’t resist. I felt a sudden rush of love for the boys, as I was also caught and held tightly. They just held their heads up as well as they could, and so would I. My proud Naoise.

There were a few whispered words. My heart lifted. Would they parley?

But just as the thought was fully formed, a great sword flashed, and my husband lay dead before me.

Someone screamed, the high feeble call drifting upwards. I dimly realised it was me before I fainted.