Oisin and Niamh
By: Michael A. Arnold

A ghostly cold mist hung over the world, but Oisin and his retainers were happy–war might have been avoided. Despite the rivalry between their peoples, they found the king of the Queldadonen to be a good man, with fair judgment. His retainers planned to drink the good wine as soon as they got home to Fianna, and they joked and jabbed at one another. But Oisin, always thinking of his responsibilities, silently replayed his conversation with the Queldadonen king over and over in his mind, so he could tell his father everything that had been said. He was sure the two kingdoms were just starting to build a strong bridge of friendship.

But Oisin was also prone to fancies and indulging in beauty. It was nearly the end of the year, and the trees were as brown as their leaves. As his line of comrades moved through heavy woodland, Oisin was idly admiring it all. He liked the way the mist was hanging, like it was light duvet that was being pinned down by the damp trees. Then she appeared.

She was approaching on the back of a strange, bright yellow horse, riding with all the grace of a fairy from the old legends. Oisin and retainers stopped in their line and stepped aside to let her pass. When she passed Oisin she dropped a napkin, and asked him if he would pick it up. When he did their eyes met, and their minds met. She asked him if he would accompany her on her way home. Oisin could not help himself. He told his retainers to go on without him and tell his father everything about their meeting with the Queldadonen. He would return to Fianna in good time.

So Oisin accompanied her, riding on alone. While they traveled, they talked. He learned her name was Niamh, and she was from the Land of Youth (in later days known as the Land of the Fairies) and like the fairies in the old legends, she had a graceful, angular face with bright golden hair that flowed down to her waist. From him, she learned that the land they were riding through was called Ireland. He found that she had intelligence far beyond his own, and she found he could appreciate the beauty of the world, and the way it animated him was infectious. While she could teach him many of the world's secrets, he could teach her to see it anew, and their new friendship quickly turned into love.

She led him to the great ocean. There she asked him if he would journey still further with her to the Land of Youth. He said he would, and she told him he must get on the back of her horse to do so, and to trust her, because she was going to be riding across the sea. At first, he was very skeptical, so she told her horse to ride onto the water. When Oisin saw that her horse was walking on the sea's surface as if it were land, it's feet only wetted by the moving waves, he agreed to go. She came back to land so he could mount her horse, and then the two set off across the sea, into the north of the world.

Soon they rode into a wall of dancing fog that waits beyond the horizon. Oisin loved the way the mist curled around them, and every thought of home quickly ran from his mind. He was so distracted he did not count the passing seconds, and so had no idea how much time passed as they traveled through the mist, and there was also no way of knowing how far they went. Eventually, the mist began to brighten; then it began to glow.

The mist glowed brighter and brighter until it dissipated, and Oisin could see a strange and beautiful island. There was a towering castle on it like nothing he had ever seen before—it looked like it had been built with a pearl–like stone and it reached so high into the sky that Oisin was sure only magic could hold it up so high. There was a thick, dark woodland surrounding this castle, and behind all this was a line of mountains capped with snow. Seeing it all, Oisin felt delight like he never had before.

Even though Oisin knew they had set off from Ireland in the afternoon, he could now see the sun rising in the east—but he knew a whole night could not have passed since then. He asked Niamh about this, and she said that he was no longer in the Mortal World, and that time was not at peace between the two worlds. Also, because of this, people in the Land of Youth aged so slowly it would take until a day when the lights of the stars had faded from sight for anyone in the Land of Youth to die of old age.

They rode into the castle grounds. It had a huge courtyard, covered with marble and tapestries of ancient heroes. Niamh dismounted, and Oisin followed her into a wide and lively hall she told him was called The Hall of Friendship. Everyone around him was so strikingly beautiful that Oisin could not want to turn his eyes away. After a welcoming party, Oisin was shown to a room where he could sleep. That night he slept deeper than he ever had before and woke late the next morning to explore the castle.

The castle had a large library in which the people often fed their minds, and many rooms where people talked and played music together. Feasts were held in The Hall of Friendship every night—which had a large, circular table to indicate that one person was not of any more or less importance than any other. Many people wanted to sit with Oisin and to know more about the Mortal World. He liked the attention, but he was always more interested in being with Niamh above anyone else. They were often seen walking together, talking and debating on many things so they learned more about each other. Everyone could see they were truly in love.

In the Land of Youth, it always seemed to be spring. There Oisin saw colors he had never seen before, and those he knew were somehow more distinct and vibrant. The sounds of birds seemed to fill the woods, and at night the light of the moon would come down from the sky and dance on the surface of the water. It was not long before Oisin asked Niamh to marry him, and she agreed. A hundred smiles could be seen in every direction at their wedding ceremony–Oisin could not remember ever being so happy.

Niamh told him that because they were wed, all his needs and wants would be instantly met—and he found this was true. Whenever he felt hungry, bread would instantly appear beside him. Whenever he was thirsty, a drink would appear as water or mead. Whenever he went hunting, whatever injuries he had from the day would magically heal themselves as he slept at night in Niamh's arms.

This was how Oisin lived in the Land of Youth, and he never cared to notice how many days passed. But, eventually, thoughts of home started to darken in his mind, and the darkness did not stop growing. He wondered how the Flannan people were weathering the trials and dangers of the Mortal World, and he wanted to see them again. His thoughts of home became so strong, he went to Niamh and asked if there was any way he could visit his homeland again.

She saw how much he wished to return to Ireland, and she was moved by it. She told him there was a way, but in the Land of Youth, only two horses could journey to the Mortal World—her two horses, one bright yellow and one sea white. Her yellow horse could travel freely on both ocean and land, but the white horse could only walk on the ocean. So she gave him her bright yellow horse to ride, and told him to ride out beyond to horizon, until he hit the wall of fog that separated the two worlds—and once there, to not be tempted from his horses' path, because they might get lost and never able to find their way again. Once in the Mortal World, Niamh told him, because he and Niamh were wed, he now belonged in the Land of Youth and could not let his feet touch the earth. If he did, he would never be allowed to return, because the Mortal World would reclaim him. With this in mind, Oisin set off—galloping fast across the ocean. When his horse entered the wall of fog separating the two worlds he took one look back at the Land of Youth before it disappeared from view.

Long his horse rode without stopping or slowing, and Oisin did not know how long they traveled before he found himself on a familiar beach, under a grey sky. He journeyed until he found roads he felt he knew, but somehow they felt very different. It was strange for him to be back in the Mortal World, and this made him press on faster to Fianna. He might have taken it as a bad omen, but he paid little attention to the winter sky that looked, to him, like a sheet of hard ice suspended high above.

When he reached Fianna, instead of a thriving town, Oisin saw it was a mass of rotting and ruined buildings, and the only things living there were weeds and rats. He wandered the ruined streets, calling out for anyone to hear and come to him–but no one did. Dread weighed down on him so heavily, each of his horse's steps sounded slower and heavier. The worst thing for him was seeing places that held happy memories. There was the place his friends liked to gather and drink as teenagers, there was the home of a girl he once loved, and there was the street where his friends liked playing in when they were children. All of that was gone, and it felt like shadows had consumed the whole world. When he reached his father's castle and saw only barren, broken clumps of wall. He called again for anyone to come, but his words only came back as an echo. With no idea of what to do, so he decided to return to the Land of Youth. On the roads he knew would take him back to that beach his heart was cluttered with sadness.

But while traveling, he came across two people trying to remove a large boulder from their land. Oisin asked them what they were doing, and they said they were trying to set up a farm — but that boulder would make ploughing difficult. They were poor, had only recently married, and were trying their best to find their way in the world. Oisin was so moved by what they said, he jumped off his horse and helped them push the boulder away. But the longer he worked, the weaker he felt, and the young farmer stopped to look at Oisin with terror.

Oisin saw his own hands suddenly had deep wrinkles running across them, and that he now had a long beard reaching to his feet that was white with age, and he remembered what Niamh had told him. Then he understood all; he had been a young man only moments before, but now he was withered and old – and as life passed out of his body he cried out the names of his family, the Flannan people, and lastly, he called for Niamh. Then he died. This left the young couple horrified, but what he had cried out deeply concerned them too. Most of the words Oisin had cried had not been familiar, except 'Fianna' – that was the name of a town their fathers had wiped out, years before – and so great was their rivalry with the people of Fianna they had left the town a ruin, never to be rebuilt.

In the Land of Youth, Niamh waited for her love to return. But a long time passed slowly, until she could not wait anymore. She took her only available horse and rode to the Mortal World. But because it was her sea white horse, she could not go on land. After days of wandering Ireland's coasts she still had not found Oisin, but by then she had worked out what had happened. She has remained in the Mortal World to this day, forever riding over the ocean's waves, using her white horse to slowly pull the land into the waters. By doing this she hopes that one day, perhaps, she will find Oisin's bones to take them back with her to the Land of Youth so he can be buried, and be at peace. And, eventually, she could be buried beside him when she too dies, on a day when the lights of the stars have finally faded away.

THE END

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