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The Human Hounds

Finn, who was dangling his hot feet in the water, looked up. He was a tall, thin young man, with dark hair and the beginnings of a beard. But you could tell by his eyes that he was very wise, for they were the eyes of an old, old man.

"What would you like to ask me?" he said.
"I would like permission to marry," Illan said softly, blushing slightly.

Finn smiled. He had seen Illan with his aunt over the past few weeks and he had guessed that this might happen.
"Would I know the lady?" he asked innocently.
"Aye," Illan nodded, it is your own mother's sister, Tuirean."
"My aunt," Finn said.
Illan nodded. "Your aunt. I love her you see," he continued, "and we wish to be married as soon as possible. And because you are my commander and since the girl's father - your grandfather - is no longer alive, I thought I should ask you." He paused and added, "What do you say?"

Finn pulled his feet up out of the water and began to dry them on the edge of his cloak. He glanced over at the older man. "What if I should say no?" he asked.

The smile faded from Illan's face. "well," he said uncomfortably, "if you were to say no, then I suppose we would just run away and get married anyway. But I hope you won't say no.

Finn stood up and Illan scrambled to his feet. He put his hands on Illan's shoulder and the young man smiled warmly. "Of course I wouldn't say no, and of course you can marry her - but only on one condition," he added.
"What's that?" Illan asked.
"If I find you are not good to my aunt, or that she does not like living at your fort, then you will allow her to return at once."
Illan smiled. "I will always be good to your aunt, and don't worry, I will be sending a messenger to my fort today with instructions to prepare it for my wife."

Finn laughed then shook Illan's hand in both of his. "I hope you will both be very happy together," he said.
"I know we will be," Illan said.

Even as they were speaking the scouts returned. They had come across fresh tracks further down the river and they had also discovered the remains of a camp-fire, which meant the thieves were only an hour or so ahead of the Fianna. Finn hoped into his sandals while Illan ran to gather up his belongings and pack them onto the back of his horse. Soon the knights of the Fianna galloped off down along the banks of the river. Illan couldn't resist laughing out loud. If they caught the thieves today he could be back home by midday tomorrow and he and Tuirean could begin preparations for their wedding.

The day wore on. Finn and the Fianna always seemed to be just a little behind the thieves, and once they even saw them in the distance just riding over a hill. The Fianna galloped after them, but by the time they reached the hill there was a thin column of smoke rising from behind it and when they rode over the crest they found the thieves had burned the bridge across a deep and rushing river. The Fianna were then forced to ride five miles upriver to find a spot where they could cross without any risk of being swept away, and of course by that time the gang had disappeared.

They spent that night in a small forest not far from the sea shore. As well as the rich, damp smell of the forest there was also the tangy salt smell of the sea. Finn posted guards because the forests then were dark and dangerous places with gangs of bandits and packs of wolves roaming through them.

Illan was one of the guards. He picked a spot a little away from the roaring camp-fire in a thick clump of bushes where he would be able to see anyone or anything approaching.

Back in the camp someone took out a harp and began to sing to it and Illan recognized the delicate voice of Cnu Derceaol, Finn's favourite singer, who had learned to sing in the fairy forts of the Sidhe (pronounced she). The men fell silent, listening to the beautiful voice. Slowly the night creatures in the forest stopped their creakings and croakings and twitterings to listen to the voice and Illan saw more than one pair of small round eyes staring out of the trees and bushes towards the fire.

The night wore on and the fire dies down to glowing embers, flaky pieces of wood crumbling every now and again to send red sparks spiralling up into the night sky. Soon the only noises were the night sounds of the forest, the gentle hissing of the sea and the snoring of the men in camp.

Illan was tired. It had been a long day and he had ridden far. He was eager to return home to tell Tuirean that they could be married. He hadn't really thought that Finn would refuse - but at least he had agreed without an argument and everything was all right now. He began to wonder what it would be like to be married ...

Something white moved through the trees. Illan caught his breath and stiffened. Very slowly he pulled out his sword. He waited, trying to to follow the movements of the white shape through the trees. He wasn't sure what it was but he was not going to call the camp awake until he was sure. He remembered when he was a young man shouting the alarm and it turned out to be nothing more than fog weaving through the tree trunks.

The shape came nearer. Illan was nearly sure now that it was a figure - a human figure - but something stopped him from calling out the alarm. Suddenly the shape seemed to melt into the ground and then someone spoke from behind him.
"Hello Illan."

He spun around, bringing his sword up to defend himself but it got tangled in the bushes' thorny branches and fell from his hands. The pale woman standing before him laughed merrily.
"Dealba!" he said in astonishment.

The young woman smiled, showing her small, sharp teeth. "So you remember me," she said softly, her voice sounding as ghostly as the wind.
"Of course I remember you," Illan said, "how could I ever forget you?" He shivered a little then, because Dealba frightened him and Illan Eachta was afraid of neither man nor beast, but he did fear the fairy folk and Dealba was one of the Sidhe folk. She was a banshee, a fairy woman.

Illan had met her a few years ago when he had been doing coast guard duty, watching the shores for any signs of pirates or bandits attempting to land on Erin's coasts. They had met one stormy winter's night when the seas had been pounding in over the beach, sending foam high into the sky, roaring and crashing like a hungry animal. When Illan had seen the white woman moving up the beach he had thought she was a ghost. When she was closer he realized that she was just one of those very pale people that he sometimes saw in the King's court and her white clothing made her seem even paler. They had become friends sort of a sort then; coast guard was a lonely duty and Dealba was someone to talk to and laugh with. It was not until later that he learned that she was one of the fairy women - the terrible banshee.

Illan suddenly realized Dealba was speaking.
"I'm sorry, what did you say?"
Dealba frowned. "I said that I have heard that you have a new woman in your life now."
Illan nodded. "Yes, her name is Tuirean and we will be married soon."
"And what about me?" Dealba asked.
Illan shook his head. "What do you mean?" he asked.
"I thought we would be married one day!" she said. "You told me so yourself," she reminded him.
"Yes, but that was before I knew you were one of the Sidhe. You know a human and a Sidhe can never marry."
"You said you would marry me."
"I cannot," he said.
Dealba's face grew cold and angry. The air around her grew chill and frost formed on the leaves and branches. "You will marry me," the fairy woman warned.

Illan shivered with the cold. His fingers and toes grew numb and he saw streaks of white ice forming on his armour and glittering on the metal of his sword which was still lying on the ground. He bent down to pick it up and when he straightened he shook his head. "I will not marry you," he said. "I do not love you."

Dealba pointed her hand at Illan and said something in the language of the Sidhe. Immediately the air grew even colder and then the leaves on the bush's around the man froze one by one until they were like glass. The branches hardened and turned to a silver colour and Illan's sword turned so cold that it burned his fingers and he had to drop it. When it hit the ground it broke apart. The fairy woman took a step backwards and began to fade into the night.

"Wait," Illan said. He didn't want the banshee to put a curse on him - he would never be able to get rid of it. He reached out for the woman and his arm brushed against a branch. The leaves immediately shattered and fell apart with a tinkling sound, like small silver bells. Illan stepped backwards with fright and touched against another branch. It too shattered into a fine silvery dust and as the man watched the whole clump of frozen bushes collapsed into dust all around him with the sound of breaking glass.

Finn and the rest of the guards came running up, their swords and spears ready.
"What happened?" Finn shouted. "What was that noise?"
"A banshee," Illan said quietly, beginning to grow warm now that the cold had vanished. He looked over at Finn.
"She has cursed me. What will I do?"
"What sort of curse?" Finn asked.
"I don't know - yet."
The captain of the Fianna looked troubled and then shook his head. "There is nothing you can do but wait for the curse to catch up with you. When you know what it is you might be able to fight it."

Illan and Tuirean were married a week later. The wedding was a huge happy affair, with all the knights of the Fianna and the nobles and their ladies there. It started at sunrise when the chief priest, the Arch Druid, married them in the first rays of the morning sun. It went on all day with eating, drinking, dancing and later contests and games. When night fell the bards came and sat around the huge fires telling stories about the ancient peoples who had come to the land of Erin. They told about the woman called Ceasir Banba who came from the land of Egypt and had given her name to the island. They told about the terrible Fomorians who were the demons from the icy north and they told about the magical Tuatha De Danann.

After the wedding Tuirean and her husband headed off to Illan's palace in the north of the country where they would have a few days holiday before he had to return to his duties as one of the Fianna.

However only two days later a messenger arrived from Finn asking Illan to come back immediately. He said that a huge pirate fleet had been sighted off the coast and Finn wanted his best men by his side should they try to land.

Tuirean stood by the tall wooden gates of the fort and waved at her husband until he had rounded the bend in the road and was out of sight. She was turning to go back indoors when she heard the sound of hooves. She looked back thinking Illan had forgotten something. But it was not her husband but a young man wearing a messenger's cloak. He pulled his horse to a stop a few feet away from Tuirean and climbed down. He bowed.
"My lady," he said, "has my lord Illan set off yet?"
Tuirean looked surprised. "He left only a few minutes ago - but surely you passed him just around that bend?" she asked, pointing down the dusty road.
The young man smiled and shook his head. "I'm sorry my lady, I saw no one."

Tuirean shook her head in wonder. Even if Illan had been galloping surely he wouldn't have reached the distant crossroads so soon?
"Was there a message for my husband?" she asked then.

The messenger nodded again. He was a young man who looked no more than fifteen or sixteen with a head of snow white hair and a sharp sort of face.
"I have a message for my lord Illan and for you too my lady," he said with a smile.
"For me?"
"Yes, my lady. Finn fears that the pirates may land in some of the smaller bays around here and try to sneak south to attack him. He does not wish you to be caught out here with no one to protect you."
"But the fort is guarded," Tuirean said.
"I think Muiren, Finn's mother and your sister, has insisted that he bring you south for greater protection," the messenger said.

Tuirean shook her long jet black hair and stamped her foot in annoyance.
"Sometimes my older sister is worse than a mother, always fussing."
"But does that not show that she cares for you?" the messenger asked quietly.
Tuirean said nothing and stamped off to pack a small satchel and have her horse saddled.

A little while later Tuirean and the messenger rode away from the fort and headed south in the same direction Illan had taken. They reached the crossroads by midday and then the messenger stopped. He leaned forward and pointed down one of the roads.
"That way."
Tuirean hesitated. "I thought it was this way," she said, pointing down another road.
"We could go that way," the messenger said, "but this way is safer. It takes us away from the coast where the pirates might come ashore."

Tuirean nodded doubtfully. She wasn't sure about that but still she followed the messenger down the side road. Soon they rode into a group of trees, short fat ancient oak trees with broad leaves and moss growing on the trunks. There was a little clearing beyond the trees and then the road continued on into a forest where the trees were growing so closely that their branches grew twisted together above the path and hid the sun and sky from their sight. Tuirean had to squint to see the path and she could barely make out the shape of the messenger ahead of her.

Suddenly there was the sound of thunder over head and then it began to rain. Hard heavy drops patted against the closely grouped leaves, spattering and splashing but very few actually reached the ground below. The messenger raised his hand and stopped, but Tuirean was so close that her horse actually bumped into his.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
"Nothing," the messenger said, "but there is a clearing ahead and if we ride across it we will be soaked."

Tuirean peered over his shoulder and saw what he meant. Ahead of them the trees had been cut away leaving an almost circular clearing through which the path ran in a straight line. She saw the rain then for the first time. It was falling straight down drumming and thrumming onto the hard ground. Tuirean looked up to the sky but all she saw were heavy, full looking grey clouds.
"How long will it last?" she asked the messenger.
He shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know, not long now I hope."

But the rain continued to pour down, soaking into the hard earth turning it into soft muck. Now water began to find its way down through the thick umbrella of leaves over their heads and began to plink and drip onto the two riders making them shiver and pull up their long riding cloaks.

"I think we should hurry on," Tuirean said, pushing her long dark hair out of her eyes. "We might be able to catch up with Illan."
"Perhaps the lord Illan is also sheltering, "the messenger said.
Tuirean nodded. "That's what I mean. If he is sheltering from the rain we might just catch up with him."
The messenger nodded slowly. "Yes, we might," He said, but he didn't move.
"Well, let's go then," Tuirean said angrily.
"Stay where you are!"
Tuirean turned to look at the messenger in amazement. How dare he speak to her in that way! "What did you say?" she demanded loudly.
"You heard me." the messenger said rudely. He urged his horse forward, out into the centre of the clearing and then turned the animal around so that he was facing Tuirean again. The woman was about to speak again when she noticed something strange about the messenger. All the colours of his clothes, his skin, his hair - even the colour of the horse - were being washed away, running like wet paint.

Tuirean closed her eyes, squeezed them tight then opened them again. But the colour was still running down the man in long streaks. It had started at his head: dark brown streaks from his skin mingled with the brown from his eyes, ran down onto the front of his jerkin, and then the browns and greens of the cloth ran from that and dripped onto his legs. The colours then fell onto the horse's back and soon its brown coat was dripping away into a dark mucky pool about his hooves. Underneath he was white - snow white, ice white, cold white. And 'he' no longer looked like a 'he'. 'He' looked like a 'she'

Tuirean looked at the creature and then felt her heart begin to pound with fright - it was a banshee! She tried to turn her horse around but suddenly all the trees around her turned white with ice and frost. A tree cracked with the sudden weight of ice and sleet and fell across her path, blocking her escape. She turned back to the banshee.

"Who are you? What do you want?" she said as loud as she could.
The banshee smiled, showing her sharp white teeth. "I am Dealba," she said so softly that Tuirean had to strain to hear her, "and I have come for you."
Tuirean grew very frightened then. "What do you mean?"
"You married Illan," the banshee said.
"Yes," nodded Tuirean, "I married him."
"But he should have married me," Delba suddenly shouted. "He knew me first!"
"But a human cannot marry one of the fairy folk," the woman said quickly.
"He should have married me!" Delba insisted. "But since he will not have me I'm going to make sure he will not have you either!"

Tuirean managed to scream once before the banshee's ice magic touched her. Delba raised her hand and the air around her froze so that the rain which was falling close to her turned to snow and sleet, and the mud on the ground hardened into ice that cracked loudly. The banshee then pointed her finger at Tuirean and a thin sparkling line of white fire darted over and wrapped itself around the woman, spinning and hissing, cracking and popping. It lasted only a few moments and when it had passed Tuirean had disappeared and and in her place was a huge coal black Wolfhound. It glared at the banshee for a few moments and then growled deep in its throat. Dealba laughed quietly.
"If Illan will not have me," she said to herself, "then I will not allow him to have you."

When Illan reached Finn's fort he found there were no pirates off Erin's coast and that Finn had not sent any messenger north for him. When he looked for the messenger that had brought him the message he could not be found. Illan grew frightened then and thundered back to his fort, accompanied by Finn and some knights of the Fianna. They knew something was amiss.

When they reached the fort one of the guards there told Illan about the messenger who had come with the message from Finn for the Lady Tuirean. And they had not seen her since.

Illan raged and swore. He and the Fianna searched the surrounding countryside and he even hired men and sent them searching all over the country looking for his missing wife but for a long time there was no sign of her. Nearly a year passed.

It was high summer when Illan received a message from Finn. The Lord of the Fianna had heard a strange story concerning Fergus, one of the western lords. Now this Fergus was well known for his dislike of dogs because he had once been bitten on the leg when he was a boy. From that day he would not allow a dog into his fort. But what was curious was that Fergus had been keeping a huge Wolfhound for the past few months and treating it very well indeed. And what was even stranger was that Fergus insisted that Finn had sent the dog to him for safe keeping. But Finn insisted he had sent no dog to this man and wanted Illan to investigate. So the knight saddled up his horse and set off on the long road to the west.

He had ridden a few miles down the road when something white flitted through the trees and stepped onto the path. It was Dealba.
"What do you want?" Illan demanded.
The banshee smiled strangely. "Where are you going?" she asked.
Illan was about to tell her but then stopped. "Why do you want to know?" he asked.
Dealba smiled again. "Perhaps you're heading into the west to visit Fergus, Lord of the Seashore?"
Illan felt a strange chill run down his back. "how do you know that?" he whispered.
The banshee smiled. "I know many things," she said.
"Do you know where my wife is then?" he asked.
"I might."
"Where is she?" Illan suddenly shouted, making his horse jump and sending the birds in the trees up into the sky.
"She is with Fergus, Lord of the Seashore," Dealba said.
Illan knew then. "And is everything all right?" he asked.
"She is in good health," Dealba said and then added with a grin, "Fergus has taken very good care of her."
Illan suddenly pulled out his sword and pointed it at the fairy woman. "You have changed her into a dog!" he shouted.
Dealba laughed, "I have."
"Change her back," Illan said, "or else...."
"Or else what?" Dealba asked. "I could turn you into a block of ice before you have taken a single step closer. But I will turn her back into a human shape for you....for a price."
"And what is the price?" illan asked with a sigh.
"You must come with me into the fairy fort."
Illan didn't stop to think. "Yes, I'll do it."

Dealba disappeared in a rush of cold air and the reappeared almost immediately with a huge black Wolfhound at her side. As soon as the dog saw Illan it began to bark furiously and wag it's tail back and forth.
"This is your wife," the banshee said and she touched the dog with the tips of her fingers. A white covering like snowflakes formed on the dog's hair. It grew thicker and thicker until the dog was buried beneath a mound of snow. Then suddenly it all fell away. And standing there in her human shape was Tuirean. She cried out with joy and ran over to her husband.
"You've saved me," she said, "I knew you would."
Illan kissed her gently. "But to save you I have to go with her," he nodded towards Dealba, "but don't worry, I will be back to you as soon as I can."
"Must you go now?" Tuirean asked in a whisper, tears forming in her huge dark eyes.
"I must," he said, "but I will be back."
Dealba reached out and touched Illan and he was immediately frozen within a bloke of ice and then both she and it disappeared in a glitter of silver snowflakes, leaving Tuirean standing alone.

A little more than a week later, Tuirean, who had been expecting a baby before she had been turned into the Wolfhound, gave birth to twins. But they were not human twins - They were two lovely Wolfhound cubs.

Tuirean gave the pups to Finn to care for. The greatest magicians and sorcerers in the land were called in to try and give the dogs a human appearance but they couldn't because the fairy magic was so strong.
Finn named the pups Bran and Sceolan. They were magic hounds: faster, stronger and more intelligent than any other dogs in the land of Erin. They were human hounds.


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