Once upon a time, Ossian and his father, the famous king known as Finn, and their fellow warriors, went hunting. As they traveled through the forest, they came upon a beautiful maiden. The men were startled at the sight, for the maiden’s horse had hooves of gold and a golden crescent upon its forelock. Her hair was golden, too, and she wore a white garment embroidered with gold. She stopped when she reached the warriors.
“Why do you ride so slowly?” she asked. “Why do you look so sad? Hunters’ faces usually are filled with life and excitement. Your faces are pale and covered with tears. What has happened?”
Ossian was the first to speak. “We have bravely fought many battles,” he said, “but our race, the great Fenians, is nearly ruined.” He looked into her kind and gentle face. “Tell me, fair maiden, who are you?”
“My name is Niam,” she answered, “and I come from there.” She pointed at the distant wild sea. “I have come to look for the famous poet known as Ossian.”
Ossian blushed. “That is I,” he said softly. And she, as quietly, said, “I have come to marry you.”
“I will,” Ossian said, amazed but knowing he had found his heart’s desire.
“Follow me,” Niam said, “across the sea, to Tir Nan Og, the Island of Perpetual Youth. There we will live in joy and peace. Climb upon my horse and ride behind me,” and without hesitation, and before the other men could say a word, Ossian dismounted his own horse and climbed upon Niam’s.
The great horse wheeled and galloped away. A moment later he was dashing across the ocean waves. As they rode, Niam sang, and her voice was so enchanting Ossian thought he must be dreaming. They traveled on, but Ossian lost track of space and of time. Then he saw a deer racing past them over the water, and other creatures followed hounds and men, maidens and horses. Everyone traveled atop the sea, and Ossian knew he must have entered another world.
At long last they neared a castle, and Niam said, “A beautiful princess lives there, but she is under the spell of a cruel giant who will not set her free.” Ossian was a warrior, so hearing this, he said, “We must save the princess.” Niam told him she had heard the tales of his heroic battles. “Legend has it you have fought wild boars and foreign invaders, ogres and enchanters, and giants alike.”
“Yes,” Ossian said, “this is true.” But he never had waged a battle so fierce as the one that night. Ossian attacked the giant, and for days the two battled. At long last Ossian slew the terrible creature.
The princess, overjoyed, came and healed his wounds with a precious, secret balm, and Ossian buried the giant.
Niam and Ossian mounted the white horse again and galloped away over the waves. Again Niam began to sing, and soon they drew near a shore where the trees trembled, for thousands of birds sat in the branches and sang. When they reached the shore, one hundred youths and one hundred maidens rushed toward them and embraced them, and soon they too began to sing.
Ossian joined in the singing. He chanted with amazing spirit something new and melodic, but as he sang of human joys, he remembered his people, those who had died, and tears came to his eyes. “Put away your sorrows,” one of the youths said to him. “Sing with us,” and Ossian changed his song. He began to sing about the joys of these people, and he forgot the sorrows of his youth.
Hundreds of years passed. Ossian enjoyed the greatest joy he had ever known, and the kindest, gentlest love. One day he chanced to walk upon the beach when a battered, bloodied lance floated in. Ossian remembered the days of wars and of his anguished youth and his father, the great Finn, and he remembered that he had left behind his tribe.
Niam saw him. “Human sadness has returned to your eyes,” she said. “Come with me. You must see your old home,” and she walked him to the white steed. Once again they began to gallop over the sea. “Dear husband,” Niam said, “you must be careful never to dismount for one moment. If your feet touch the soil, the horse and I will vanish forever.”
“I promise,” Ossian said, and so they rode on, to Ireland. Ossian looked around, but he saw only little people who stared at this enormous man. “I am looking for Finn,” Ossian called to the strangers, and they nodded.
“Finn and the Fenians are gone. They are the stuff of legend,” the little people said.
“That cannot be,” Ossian cried. “Perhaps they are in the forests hunting wolves in the night as we did when I was just a boy,” he said to Niam. “Perhaps they sleep during the daylight hours as we did.”
And then Ossian remembered. He knew he had been gone hundreds of years. “My people are gone,” he said to Niam. “Look at how these little people struggle with the simplest tasks.” Some men were attempting to lift a huge boulder. They struggled and cursed, grunted and groaned.
“Allow me,” Ossian said, and he leaned from his saddle and lifted the stone with one hand. He tossed it yards away, but as he did, his girth broke, and he fell to the ground. The white horse shook himself and neighed mightily. Then he galloped away into the mist, with Niam on his back.
The beautiful young Ossian turned into a withered old man, with frail limbs and white hair. The Island of Youth, he realized, could be known only by those who lived always within it, and those who departed never could live there again.