Freedom

The night was cold and inky black and he tossed on his narrow pallet trying to sleep, listening to the night sounds of the other men – the sighing, moaning and the unconscious yet restless movements. The cold ate into the marrow of his bones, chilling him and he pulled the dirty, threadbare blanket tighter around him and prayed for the dawn and the watery sun that might thaw him out. He drew his legs up so that his knees were under his chin and rubbed his feet with his hands. God, they were so cold he could barely feel them. Oh God, would the dawn never come? Even when it did, he knew it wouldn’t make much difference.The few lousy minutes in the yard, the tasteless food, the work – as usual he knew that, after a few hours, he would be praying for night and sleep to come as he always did. The  unbroken, monotonous, endless wheel would have just gone round once more. Another day, another lifetime would have passed. God, if only Icould die, no-one would really miss me, no-one has seen me for so long now that it would make no difference if I died or not. 

Someone near him in the darkness groaned and he jumped. Oh God, I can’t go on like this, he prayed. Let me out or let me die, I just can’t go on, oh please … If he got out, the first thing he would do would be to have a bath and then the food …God, what would he have?A drink first, I suppose, a glass of good whiskey would go down well – he could imagine it burning his throat and scorching his chest and squeezing his guts with its fiery grip. Perhaps a few of them. Then the meal, a bowl of chicken soup, thick with lumps of white chicken, warm and satisfying. Fingers of thick white bread covered in golden butter to dip in the soup and suck. Then a steak, covering the whole of the plate, rings of fried onion, crisp and light brown, he didn’t like the soggy ones though he’d eat them with relish if he got them now. Straight golden chips, plenty of them sprinkled with vinegar, perhaps a little pool of tomato sauce on the side to bring out the full flavour. Salt and pepper of course. Then what? A bowl of ice cream and pears, tinned ones in their syrup. He’d always loved ice-cream ever since he was a kid when his grandfather used to buy him ice cream cones when they went out for a walk together. Yes, definitely, ice-cream and pears. 

He could barely remember the last time he had had it. It was a long time ago. A cup of strong coffee next, I suppose and a cigarette. Then another drink – another whiskey? Might as well have a bit of a change – a brandy! A brandy would go down well with the coffee. That would be the thing to have. Oh God, if only he could get out, he’d do anything. Anything. He’d go to the cathedral and pray, anything at all. He turned over on his side and shut his eyes. He shouldn’t have thought about the food, he could see it all now, set out on a long table, covered with a white cloth, everything, second helpings too. It was the worst thing he could have done – thinking like that. How was he going to face the slops this morning. Oh well, better not think about it, it would only get worse if he did. He crouched down into a smaller mound under the thin blanket and tried to see the brick wall which he knew was only inches from his face. He could see little bright lights flashing on and off and moving around, changing place, forming and holding patterns for a split second and then changing again. He couldn’t see the wall though. It was always like this in the darkness, he could see these little lights and didn’t know if it was his imagination or his eyesight. That’s another thing he’d have to do when he got out, have his eyes tested. For all he knew, he could be on the verge of going blind, some kind of vitamin deficiency. His eyes were always watering at all times of the day, especially when he was outside. For God’s sake, he told himself, stop thinking about it. Do you want to drive yourself insane? If you do, you’re going the right way about it. He turned over onto his other side and thrust his hands up under his armpits. God, his hands must stink, first his feet and now his armpits. Well, it wasn’t his fault, he couldn’t help it. What can’t be cured must be endured. Who used to be always saying that? He couldn’t remember, he couldn’t remember anything these days. He didn’t like the saying, it sounded smugly pious, like something out of a prayer book. All the same, you have to admit, he told himself it’s very true. – what can’t be cured must be endured.

He must have finally dozed off sometime because when he opened his eyes he could see the walls and the other men still sleeping. He was envious of them, the way they could sleep and forget the cold and the bad food and … and everything else. He wondered what the day was like, the small window was too high up in the wall for him to see out of, even if they stacked the pallets together. Not that it mattered, really, he’d still only get his handful of minutes outside in the yard no matter what the weather.

The door clanged open and the warden and two guards strode in, wrinkling their noses at the stench. God, it can’t be that late, those bastards must be early. Resentment swept over him and he felt like sobbing. They can’t even leave us a few extra bloody minutes in the morning. One of the guards bashed the butt of his gun against the door while the other kicked the men  too slow to lurch to their feet. The warden waited, staring around the cell until all the men formed up a line before him.

‘Prisoner Blake, Joseph step forward.’

All the men stood still and some looked at him. He straightened up slightly, he wouldn’t show the bastard he was afraid, but his legs were trembling slightly and his own voice sounded different to his ears when he spoke.

‘Get your things together and come with me, quickly now.’ The warden snapped.

‘Why, where am I going, what’s going to happen to me.’

Even as he spoke he was surprised by the strength in his voice and best of all, the fact that he had asked a question. Was this really him?

‘I don’t want any nonsense out of you, Blake. Just do as you are told and come along. The governor wishes to see you.’

Tense with fear and expectation, he sat down on his cot and put his boots on. The lace broke and he fumbled awkwardly to tie them. The governor,  what does he want to see me for. I haven’t done anything wrong. The bastards. He stood up, ready though his legs were still trembling and his hands were sweating.

‘Are you ready then, man. Have you got your things together?’ The governor asked.

He looked at him stupidly. ‘What things? All I’ve got is what I’m standing in. You took everything else when you brought me in here. I haven’t got anything else.’

‘All right, then, look sharp then and come along.’

He walked slowly and carefully out of the cell, looking back once over his shoulder. What kind of trickery was this? What was going to happen to him?

‘We’ll see you, Blakey kid. Good luck.’

‘Tell them what it’s all about, Blake.’

Don’t leave us for too long, kid.’

The heavy slamming of the door cut off the other men’s farewell cries. It was funny, really, the way they all called him kid, though he was older than all of them. He stood uncertainly in the corridor until the guard pushed him on, the warden striding ahead without looking back, his boots ringing on the flagstones, and the guards hurried him along after him.

‘What’s going to happen to me, lads? Where are we going?’ But the guards ignored him and urged him on at gun point.

They continued down the corridor, past the passage leading to the yard, turned left and went up a flight of steps, along a corridor and turned left again. The warden turned and looked at him with distaste.

‘Smarten yourself up, man. You are going to see the governor. Where is your self-respect?’

I’ve none, you’ve taken that away along with everything else, you bastard, he thought of saying but decided to keep his powder dry for the moment. He passed his hand over his greasy, wispy hair and one of the guards sniggered. The warden turned and knocked on a heavy wooden door before opening it.

‘The prisoner Blake, Jospeh, sir.’

The guard shoved him in the small of the back as he walked into the room, making him stagger and almost fall to his knees.. The governor sat behind a large desk with his back to the window. The sun, streaming in through the windows fell on his desk and he could see how dusty it was.

‘That will be all, Smith. Thank you.’The governor growled and the warden and the guards went out, closing the door behind them quietly.

He wasn’t able to see the governor’s lips moving.

‘Sit down, Blake.’ The governor pointed to a chair in front of the desk. Thankfully, he sank down on the chair and was able to see the man behind the desk clearly for the first time. He was very broad, verging on fat and his pink, smooth face had a babyish look at first glance. Looked at longer, the hard eyes and thin lips belied the infantile look.

‘A cigarette?’ He was leaning forward offering him a cigarette out of a carved wooden box.

He took one and suspiciously accepted a light. He shouldn’t have taken one, he realised as soon as he took his first drag on the smoke. Not on an empty stomach, especially as he hadn’t had one for so long. It was going to make him sick. He leaned over and stubbed it out carefully and put it in his pocket.

The governor leaned back in his chair and continued his appraisal. Suddenly he leaned forward, both forearms on the desk, a sheaf of official looking documents between them.

‘We are going to release you, Blake. Would you like that?’

He didn’t know what to say. It must be some form of a trick they were planning. The bastards wouldn’t release him just like that. He didn’t say anything.

‘What’s wrong with you, man? Don’t you want to be released?’

It was an effort to speak. His new found strength had dissipated

‘Yes, I do. I want that. It’s just … I don’t believe it.’ 

It must be some trick he told himself again. Don’t build your hopes on it, for God’s sake, otherwise, they’ll knock  them all down. That’s it, they want me to hope and then they’ll destroy it. It’s just another lousy trick.

‘Look here, man. This is no trick. Your case came up for review and it has been decided to release you.’ The governor leafed through the papers arranged neatly in front of him and selected one.

‘Ah, yes, here it is. All you’ve got to do is sign this and you are free. I’m sure you’d like to get out, Blake, wouldn’t you? You are an old man now, you don’t want to to stay in here for the rest of your life, do you? You want to get out and enjoy your remaining years, don’t you? Settle down somewhere nice and live peacefully, isn’t that right. All you have to do is sign this.’ He pushed a sheet of paper and a pen across the desk.

Blake sat there, looking at him. I’ve got to have time to think. They are not going to release me after all this time. His hands were trembling and he was afraid to pick up the paper.

‘What does it say – the paper, I mean” he finally asked, nodding at it.

‘Just sign it, Blake and you are free to go. You can have a shower and change your clothes and you can walk out of here a free man. Hurry up now, I haven’t got all day.’ The governor rummaged through the papers and put some in a desk drawer.

Slowly, he picked up the the sheet of paper and the pen and crouched awkwardly over the desk. Oh please God, let this be true. I want to be free. I have got to get out of here. Please God, let me out. He uncapped the pen and glanced again at the large man on the other side of the broad desk. He was leaning forward, watching him avidly, his thick fingers drumming on the desk.

He put the pen down.’I want to know why I am being released.’

‘I’ve already told you, man.’ The governor snapped.  ‘Your case came up for review and it was decided to release you.’

‘Why wasn’t I released earlier? Why have I been kept here? For so long? When I came in here, I had a full head of hair, now look at me.’ He leaned over the desk, his head bowed. ‘Look at me, my hair is falling out. Why did my case never come up for review before?’

The governor looked away, bored, his fingers drumming an impatient tattoo.

‘Hurry up, man. Sign it and you are free. You can walk straight out of here.’

He took up the sheet of paper again and squinted at it, reading it with difficulty. When he had finished, he read it again.

‘Why can’t I visit the men here after I have been released?’ He demanded. ‘Why can’t I see the ‘certain people’ I used to see before you dragged me in here? Why can’t I attend public meetings? Why do I have to check in with the police every week?’

‘Just sign it, Blake and you can go. I am sick of hearing you complaining. If you want to be released, sign it. If you don’t, get out of my sight. I haven’t got all day to spend on an old fool like you.’

The two men sat in silence. The broad strong man, sitting in the sunlight streaming into the lofty room, calmly reading a document, the dirty, haggard old man opposite him, sitting tense on the edge of his chair, looking at the paper in his hand.

‘Why do I have to sign this? Why can’t you just let me go just like you dragged me in here.You said yourself that the decision to release me has been made. Why can’t I just go?’ His voice was rising higher and he felt like having a cigarette now. He took the half smoked one out of his pocket and the governor, with a look of distaste, gave him a new one.

‘Look, Blake, do everyone a favour and sign. It’s just a formality and then you’ll be free to go.’ The governor’s voice had softened to match his words.

He took up the paper again and read it for the third time. He took his time, reading it slowly and carefully, his lips  forming the words. When he had finished, he put it back down on the desk and put the cap back on the pen.

‘It’s no use, I can’t sign that I’d be betraying everyone and everything I ever did. Everything I spoke out for, everything everybody else fought for. That is not freedom you are offering – that’s a living death. I’d be ashamed and shunned by all I ever knew. It’s against all I ever …’

‘Alright, alright, Blake, that is enough. I have no desire to hear one of your political speeches again. That’s what got you in here in the first place. Now, for the last time, will you sign the paper?’

With an effort, he picked up the paper and tore it in half and then in half again and watched the pieces flutter to the floor.. The governor stood up quickly and marched to the door, flinging it open.

‘Smith, take the prisoner  back to his cell on the double. Standard routine again.’

The guards wrenched him to his feet and frogmarched him out of the room and down the corridor. They walked back down the passage in silence until the warden turned suddenly and pushed him hard against the wall.

‘Ungrateful little bastard, aren’t you, Blake?’ he snatched the cigarette from his lips and dropped it on the stone floor and ground it out with the toe of his boot.’You’ll be sorry for this, Blake, mark my words, you’ll be sorry. Now, get moving.’

He didn’t say anything, his head hanging down so they couldn’t see his face. The bastards. God, I hate them.

They stopped outside the cell door and one of the guards unlocked it before pushing him roughly in and slamming the door behind him.

‘Hey, kid, are you all right?’

‘Tel us what happened. What did he want?’

The men clustered round him, eager and friendly.

‘C’mon kid, what did he say to you?’

‘Here, kid, eat this, we saved some for you.’

He pushed through them to his pallet without saying anything. He sat down and suddenly he began to cry, the sobs shaking his whole body. Through his tears he could see the men watching him anxiously and behind them the free and open world and a comfortable life. He raised his head and looked around him.

‘Oh God, I want to be free. I’ll do anything to be free, just let me out.’ 

He continued to sob openly, not wishing to hide his tears. Around him, the men stood silent and embarrassed.

The Mother

The mother, a confirmed hypochondriac as we all thought, had been complaining, for the last six months or so, of severe, stabbing pains in her chest. This had sounded so banal in comparison to her other litany of complaints that no-one took her seriously. Finally, she decided to go to the doctor as much out of a desire to spite us all by proving us wrong as out of a desire to actually get better. My father made an appointment for her to see a heart specialist and the following day, they went off together, my mother all the time grimly claiming that she would ‘show us’.

By the time they came back home, we had already started our evening meal. My father wore a worried look while my mother  had a resigned look of painful triumph. Sinking onto a chair, she told us that she had a very serious heart complaint with a medical diagnosis of angina. Brutally, my brother and I remained sceptical until my father wearily confirmed the news. Our mother was in a weak state and must take things easy and above all, not get excited or fussed. To us, this sounded an impossibility  as my mother, as well as being a hypochondriac, was also a highly excitable and fussy woman. 

Later my father told us that we must do everything possible to help and we must not contradict her, even if she was in the wrong for fear of bringing her blood pressure up. My brother summed up the feelings of us all by announcing that it was a ‘quare one’ and then going out for a drink.

The novelty of having an invalid mother in the house, however, soon began to wear thin. We had to listen, repeatedly, to her account of the fateful appointment with the doctor when her worst fears were confirmed. The conversation  between her and the doctor, when he told her the bad news, was related to us, word for word and with suitable facial expressions thrown in, so many times that I knew the whole story off by heart. 

Along with the bad news she brought home a mixed array of colourful, assorted tablets, to help her sleep, to tranquillise her, to get her blood pressure down and to combat a possible heart attack. We were told, repeatedly, what would happen if she took too many tablets, or too few or if she swallowed one rather than sucking it and vice versa until we all began to feel that we were practically experts on the subject of her disease.

The once rich food that had formerly adorned our table now began to disappear. Instead of rich, cream-laden fresh milk, insipid skim milk powder appeared, yellow, creamy butter gave way to greyish margarine made out of vegetable oils while things like biscuits and cakes soon became a thing of the past. Mixed grill weekend breakfast disappeared too as did our Sunday roast dinners of shoulders of pork or succulent legs of lamb.

However, without doubt, the major disadvantage to having mother in this condition was the extra burden of work foisted onto our shoulders. From the moment the doctor had mentioned taking things easy, my mother had taken him at his word. The slightest thing was now too much of a strain – she dared not even pour herself a cup of tea because the pot was too heavy! – ‘you boys know my heart isn’t too strong.’ Any ‘little job’ she had been nagging us to do for the last few months finally got done – cupboards were painted, shelves put up in the shed, the hedges cut, and, in fact, everything that we had avoided doing now got done. Her most successful way of getting us to do things was for her to say ‘I’d do it myself but you know the doctor said … ‘ and her voice would trail away and we’d be forced by our guilty conscience to do whatever she wanted.

Another annoying little habit brought on by her angina was the breakfast anecdotes. These were an account of the trials and horrors she had suffered the previous night, how she would wake up ‘nearly smothering’ and then find she hadn’t got the strength to suck or swallow, as the case may be, one of her tablets after she had spent agonising minutes looking for them. Alternating with this account was ‘I’d be there in the darkness, panting, unable to get my breath, trying to fall asleep  and I’d be so worried that I’d bring on my symptoms.’ Each account always ended with ‘you’ve no idea how terrifying …’ and she would leave the sentence hanging in mid-air so that we could judge for ourselves how terrifying it was.

One morning, however, we got a bit of a shock when, instead of the usual anecdotes, there was a new one –  She had woken up and felt as if a great weight was crushing down on her, her breath coming in short gasps, she had tried to call out but no sound came, finally she had managed to take one of her tablets and eventually began to feel better. This break from the ordinary alarmed us a little bit but it was never repeated so my brother concluded  that mother had brought in this story  to see if it suitably impressed  us and, seeing as it hadn’t – we always kept poker-faces when she was telling us of her trial of the previous night – she quietly dropped it.

Looking back on it all, I think the worst part of it all was the ‘martyr attitude’. This came about whenever mother felt  the we weren’t being sympathetic enough. She would then start off her conversation, particularly if a visitor was present with ‘Of course, I can’t expect to live forever …’ or ‘I’ve had a happy life and …’ or, best of all, ‘everyone has a cross to bear and I can only thank the Lord that mine is not a heavier one.’

Far from gaining sympathy, except from foolish visitors who did not know any better, we ignored her as much as possible when she started down that track for she knew, as we all did, that she led a normal and reasonably healthy life and certainly never missed out on anything she felt was important or that demanded her presence.

As my brother pointed out, the best thing was that we all learnt the if we ever had to live as hypochondriacs, we would at least know all the tricks of the trade.

True to form to the very end, mother outlived my father by almost 25 years – he died of a massive heart attack in the garden one summer evening – eventually succumbing at the grand old age of 97.

The Soldier

The upstairs lounge bar was practically empty and very quiet when I arrived and there was no sign of my friends. I stood at the entrance uncertain as to whether I should go in or not when the man sitting by himself at the bar called me over. I hadn’t noticed him when I had glanced around the lounge area but now I recognised him as the American who lived on the opposite side of the square to us. My parents knew his vaguely.

‘Well, young Sullivan, I haven’t seen you in a helluva long time What’ll you have – a pint?’

He was lean and rangy and very tall and sitting beside him I felt like a child. He bought me a pint and ‘the same again’, as he called it for himself, and I offered him a cigarette.

‘Anyway, how are your mum and dad and the rest of the family?’ He asked, blowing a stream of smoke rings at his drink.

‘Fine, fine thanks’ I said, wiping the creamy head of the Guinness off my lips with the back of my hand. ‘Actually, my brother got engaged last week and he’s thinking of getting married at the end of the summer.’

‘Goddamn fool, if he’s any sense, he’ll stay single. Marriage is the worst thing he could do.’

A bit taken aback by the conviction and force in his voice, I said nothing for a while. ‘You may be right but they say it’s hard to beat the married life – marital comfort and security, you know.’

‘Don’t give me that crap, kiddo’, he snapped. ‘Look what your marital comfort and security did for me, for chrissakes – I ended up in a divorce court. You tell your brother from me to stay single and to be grateful.’

Again I didn’t know what to say – I hadn’t known he had been divorced. Perhaps he was just an unlucky guy. Both of us smoked and sipped our drinks in silence until I felt bound to say something.

How’s your younger brother Paul? I haven’t seen him around for a while. Someone mentioned that he had returned to the States.’

‘I tell you, that kid is making out alright for himself – got into the Steel Corporation in Canada and he’s in the big time now. He’s doing fine.’

‘Canada? I would have thought he’d have got a job in America. I mean, you’ve still got lots of friends and relatives there, haven’t you? Of course, I suppose he’s a bit wary of the draft. That war – the way it is dragging on – is terrible. It is the one thing that would put me off from going to the States. It’s such a shameful war.’ 

He turned on me viciously. 

‘Don’t be so bloody goddamn superior, kiddo. That’s a moral war we are fighting and every American citizen has an obligation to fight in it.’ His voice had risen and he was squeezing my arm tightly, his eyes not seeing me, remembering …

‘I was there twice, right in the thick of it, and I know. It was the best thing possible for me, at the time.The marines took me in as some little jerky crumb that didn’t know his ass from his elbow and when it spat me out later, I was a man, but it had turned me into some kinda  animal in the meantime. I was discharged – I’d been wounded and sharpnel took half my head away – you can still see the scars.’ He leaned forward and brushed back his hair so I could see the pale white lines criss-crossing his temple and vanishing into his hair. I muttered something stupid like he was lucky he didn’t get his complete head blown away, which he ignored.

‘Anyway, when I came out,’ he said slowly, as if by speaking that way, he could re-live those days that sometimes frightened him and sometimes made him smile again. ‘I just realised I didn’t love my wife any more. I had no feelings for her one way or the other. I just didn’t give a shit about anything then, I suppose. I was on this stuff the docs gave me for my head and I was going to se some crummy psychiatrist at the same time and I suppose I wasn’t feeling too well. Anyway, once I realised that I hadn’t loved Louise for about the last then years – we had been married eleven – and the only thing I could do was leave her. I said to her, look Louise, you can have everything – I don’t want a thing. I just took a few clothes and left her the apartment, the car, all the furniture we had bought together – everything. Anyway, I moved way down, away from her, to another country and I started to live with this girl – God, she was beautiful. I tell you, I really loved that kid, I swear to Christ I did. We were just waiting for my divorce to come through – Louise had agreed to it – and then we were going to get married. And then – oh Jesus, when I think of it …’ he broke off and finished his drink in a gulp before ordering another one and another pint for me.

‘What’s that you’re drinking there anyway?’ I asked as the barman placed the tall glass full of transparent something or other in front of him. ‘It looks like Seven-Up or tonic water, or something.’

‘For all you know, kiddo, that’s right. I’m meant to be on the dry – according to my old man and the doc but I couldn’t, I just couldn’t. Anyway …’ he paused, lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply and I noticed his hands were trembling slightly.

‘Anyway,’ he repeated ‘Two days before my divorce was due to come through, she shot herself. The bitch shot herself through the head with my service pistol. Just as I grabbed the gun, she shot herself.’ He paused again and drank deeply, rolling the glass between his thumb and forefinger. His eyes, staring at me, were blank and a nerve was jumping high up in his cheek. I turned away, embarrassed.

‘Anyway,’ he went on quietly, ‘when the cops arrived there ten minutes later, I was still standing over the body with the gun in my hand. My prints were all over the sonuva bitch and the bastards laid into me, two of them held me and the third smashed me – they were so sure it was first degree murder and they scented promotion – you know the crap – determined cops overcome ruthless killer at risk to themselves,’

I nodded, as if I knew. ‘Go on anyway, what happened?’ I was completely involved in his story now, my pint forgotten.

‘Christ, I was lucky. I knew the sheriff and he gave me a chance to tell it how it was, otherwise I would have been up shit creek. When you are just out of the service, you have no friends – they are all either still inside, dead or else dodging the draft and you have no-one to help you if you’re in trouble. I was goddamn lucky in that the sheriff believed me and the court turned in a verdict of suicide. I don’t know, I didn’t feel relieved. In fact, if you want to know the truth, I felt sweet shit all. I mean – I had nothing left – I was completely alone and the realisation was only just beginning to hit home. The only thing I could do was re-enlist.’

I tool a long drink and lit a fresh cigarette. ‘I don’t know, I said, ‘I don’t think I would have done that.’

He didn’t answer, concentrating on blowing smoke rings, gathering his thoughts.

‘I became a squad leader and about a month later we were out on patrol when we walked straight into a goddamn ambush The little bastards hit us with everything they had. The squad was wiped out except for myself and a pfc – and we were both wounded pretty badly. – I got it in the guts …’ he traced the area on the outside of his shirt with a long forefinger – and the private got it in the arms and legs. Well, I tell you, that, for me, was the end. I just lay in this stinking little hospital praying that I’d die – I had nothing to live for – there wasn’t a goddamn thing worth anything to me. Anyway, I got out of hospital first and went to se the other guy. The docs had had to amputate both his arms and his two legs and the guy was just literally a torso. Anyway, I told him I was going to top myself and that everything I had I was leaving to him. I swear the little bastard just looked at me and then he called me a pot-bellied motherfucker and threatened to beat the shit outta me. I laughed then for the first time in months, I reckon  – I mean the whole idea of that ‘body’ getting out of bed and working me over – Jesus, he had no arms or legs and even if he had, he would still only be half my size. So I just asked who’d lift him out of bed and he said the nurse would and he’d beat me to death with his stumps. Christ, the nurse walked in then, she was a beautiful woman and she sat beside this little runt. Then he said to me, look, Billy, do me a favour and be my best man, we’re getting married when I get outta this place and I want you to come to my wedding. I’m telling you kiddo, I couldn’t believe it – a half-pint bastard with those disabilities and he was talking of getting married. I thought he was only joking but he was real serious. I didn’t know what to say or do, for chrissakes. I suppose I musta congratulated him or something and I promised to be the best man – but Jesus, I just couldn’t. I mean after Louise and the other woman and … and everything, I just couldn’t. Anyway, I left soon after that, I didn’t even say goodbye to the poor little sonuva bitch. I didn’t even write him a note or anything.’

I took another gulp of Guinness and felt that light-headed feeling come over me when I drink too much on an empty stomach. Curiosity gnawed at me yet I didn’t want him to think I was prying. I glanced quickly at him out of the corner of my eye – he was staring at his drink but I felt he wasn’t seeing it or even aware that he was in a bar.

‘Go on, anyway.’ I prompted gently.

‘It wasn’t all my fault, kid, I swear it.’ He insisted, grabbing my arm tightly. ‘It wasn’t really my fault, was it?’

I shook my head. ‘No, no, of course not. You were all broken up over everything that had happened.’

‘Yeah, that was it, kid. I mean, Jesus, when I came out I was just plain shagged. I was still going to this crummy shrink and I was drinking. Jesus, I was really drinking – two bottles of whisky a night – and the worst thing was I wouldn’t even be plastered after that. I’d just sit in this crappy little room, drinking my guts out, afraid to sleep. I suppose my nerves must have been shot too – every girl I saw, I’d think it was Marion and every time I fell asleep, I’d see her lying on the floor and me standing over her with the gun in my hand. Christ, I even began  to wonder if I had shot her. I tell you, I was going mad.

I gestured at the barman for another round and Billy nodded his thanks.

‘The next thing was, my old man came to see me. I hadn’t gone home since I had left Louise and I don’t know how the hell he got my address. Anyway, the old bastard starts in on me, calling me a drunken layabout and to pull myself together. I could take all of that – I mean, it was true. Then the bastard started to blame Marion, it was that whore you were living with, he said. Christ, I got the little sonuva bitch by his scrawny neck and, Jesus, I really hit him. He was lying half off the bed and I was just about to boot him when I realised, Jesus, Billy, this is your old man, your father and I just couldn’t hit him again. I just stood there, holding him and I began to cry. I was just shot, my nerves were gone, every goddamn thing was ruined. But I just couldn’t take what he said about Marion – I loved her, Jesus, I really did. I mean, if my old man walked in here right now and said the same thing, I swear, I’d kill him.’

 He paused and sipped the new drink the barman placed in front of him. ‘He wouldn’t though, the poor old bastard is still a bit scared of me although he pretends he has forgotten all about it.

Anyway, the folks decided to go back to the old country and mom wanted me to go with them. I mean, there wasn’t much left for me in the States – no goddamn friends, separated from my wife, and a suicide, I was really just in the shits and I suppose I knew I couldn’t just keep on going the way I was. Anyway, I reckoned the change would be good for me – Ireland couldn’t be much worse than the crummy slum I was living in at the time.’

He stubbed out his cigarette and lit another one immediately, playing with the match while it burnt down.

‘Well, how do you feel now, over here? I asked. “Do you feel better?’

‘Jesus’, he said thoughtfully, as if the idea had never struck him before. ‘I don’t know, I guess not. I’m still one helluva bastard. Even though I’m not fully divorced – Louise doesn’t want to give me one now, she still loves me, she says and thinks I’ll change my mind and come back to her – but I’m seeing someone else here. In fact, I’m supposed to be meeting her here around now. I’m sure you know her, at least to see In a village this size, everybody know everybody else, right? I mean there’s no secret about it. She and her parents know I am waiting for a divorce. My old man knows about her too – he even knows her parents for chrissakes.’

He finished his drink and when I tried to buy him another one, he called me a sonuva bitch and ordered another pint for me and another for himself. I wanted to ask him how he could call the war a ‘moral’ one while claiming it had ruined his life and made an animal out of him but I hadn’t the nerve.

‘I’ll tell you one thing I either gained or lost in the war, kiddo, I don’t know, you may think it good or bad, it’s up to you to decide yourself,’ he said blowing a string of smoke rings.

I nodded wisely, sipping my Guinness slowly.

‘I lost any belief I ever had in God – no, don’t condemn me  …’ – I hadn’t said anything – ‘let me finish. I was fighting, right. I had to kill or be killed There were people dying all over the goddamn place – in screaming agony. I come out of the war, I leave my wife, and then the only woman I have ever loved goes and kills herself. Now, okay, you might say it was my own fault in the first place – getting called up, for leaving my wife, for living with another woman and I’d say to you, horseshit! If God is good, why the hell would he let it all happen?Why does he let people wade through all the crap and then, at the end of it – who knows? Maybe it was worth waiting your entire life for, while, on the other hand, there could be nothing there at all when you die. Anyway, I’ve decided to take my chances – I just can’t believe in God anymore. You just go and tell me why people suffer and then I might believe again.’

He leaned back on his stool and smiled. I said nothing. What could I say that meant anything?

‘Another thing I learned was to fight. I’m telling you, kiddo, if you’re ever in a fight, just remember, the fastest boot wins. If you get in first, you win. If you don’t, you’ll end up in a goddamn hospital for a month. Christ, I remember once down in Alabama.’

His eyes lost their focus again, remembering. ‘I was there with these guys, we had just got out on leave. Jesus, we had been drinking all night and the bar keep finally threw us out and we started looking for another place to drink when the cops stopped us. One of the guys with me was black and the cops started to push him around. We were all in plain clothes, they didn’t know we were in the marines so we weren’t taking any shit so I jumped one of the bastards and smashed him. Jesus, it was just a free-for-all in the middle of the goddamn street when one of the fat sons of bitches pulls out his pistol. Jesus, there wasn’t much point in getting our asses shot off. They took us down to the courthouse basement and started to take us apart.Two of them held Joe – he was the black guy and the third cop pistol whipped him. Jesus, I screamed and screamed until the sheriff came down and told them to lay off. When he found out we were in the service, he let us out with a helluva fine and told us to get our asses out of town. Christ, all I wanted to do was to take the fat bastard apart. I told the sheriff straight, I said if I ever met his fat, pot-bellied motherfucker of a deputy again, I’d castrate the bastard. I meant it too. Jesus, I really meant it. The sheriff knew and so too did the fat little sonuva bitch and he was scared of me, he really was, even though he had the badge and the gun. But the way he had two guys hold Joe while he smashed him with his gun – Jesus, it really sickened me. But the little bastard was definitely frightened.’

‘Yeah, I’d say he was.’ I said truthfully, thinking I’d be frightened if I had Billy after me too.

‘Lemme give you a bitta advice, kid.’ He leant forward unsteadily. The drink must have been taking effect now for his speech was a bit slurred too.’Hold on a minute, willya, kid, I’m gonna take myself a slash.’ He pushed himself off the stool and walked steadily enough across the lounge.

I lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, trying to clear my head. I was confused and slightly depressed but I wasn’t sure by what – the actual squalid facts or the way he had told it all, so dead-pan, unemotionally, except for the occasional pause to grip my arm for intensity.

‘Let me give you some advice from what I’ve picked up, kiddo, okay?’ He sat back down on his stool and drained his glass before gesturing at the barman for refills. Miraculously, his speech had cleared and his eyes were sharp and focused. No matter what else, I could well believe he could drink two bottles of whisky a night.

‘Never back down from a fight,’ he insisted. ‘Never let the other sonuva bitch know you’re afraid. Even if you’re shitting bricks, at least pretend to be eager for the fight and for chrissakes, get your boot in first.’

‘Hello Billy, I’m sorry I’m a bit late, I just couldn’t get away earlier.’ The woman stood slightly behind us, smiling. He immediately got up to offer her his stool, introducing us. “Right then, what’ll you have to drink?

‘Look, really, no more for me,’ I insisted. ‘Thanks a lot all the same. Anyway, I’ve just seen some friends of mine over there and I’d better go.’

‘Sure kiddo, sure. Just remember the advice I gave you and you’ll make it fine. Give my regards to your mom and pop, okay?’

I walked slightly unsteadily over to the table where my friends were sitting on the opposite side of the lounge bar and sank down onto a chair  ‘Sorry, I never noticed you guys coming in. Have you been here long?’

‘Long enough but it doesn’t matter. Who’s your man over there? Every time I looked over, there was a fresh pint in front of you.’

‘Ahh, he just lives on the other side of the square,’ I said quietly, trying to forget, but pictures I had never seen before, flashed, like a disjointed film, in front of my eyes. When I closed them it was worse. I opened them and lit another cigarette I didn’t really want.

‘Anyway, let’s finish up here  now, there’s party around the corner and we’re all invited,’ Jay told me.

‘Look, I don’t feel too well,’ I partially lied. D’you mind if I don’t go with you. I think I’ll just go back home.’

4. Deichtine

The Triple Births

In the cold of the early morning, Deichtine woke to find the lifeless body of the child beside her and the tears burst from her eyes.  Her grief reached such a pitch that no one in the hall could blot out the sound.  

“Ah child,” crooned Ness as she held the distraught girl in her arms, “What has been given has just as easily been taken away.  Cry not for there is no fault with you or your love for the child.  Sure ‘tis the way of the world and a hard way it is for all that live in it but none harder is it than for us women.  Here child, drink this.”

Deichtine snatched up the copper cup Ness handed her and drank deeply of the dark Burgundian wine, oblivious of the tiny fly that struggled feebly again on the surface of the wine.

***

The sour smell of sweat mingled with the tang of peat smoke in the dimly lit hut as the women crouched together. Tlachtga started crying. She was anxious, overwhelmed, and she knew she wasn’t ready.  It wasn’t right.  Everyone knew when a woman carries more than one baby in hers uterus, both mother and children are naturally malignant. Such a monstrous abundance as triplets reflected on her. Tlachtga arched her back as another wave of agony rolled through her body, her scream absorbed by the heavy thatch above her head. The midwife leaned forward to massage the girl’s ankles, her hands moistened with a decoction of flaxseed and peas. This had never happened before, not in her lifetime and nor that in her mother or her mother’s mother. In fact, she had never heard of it before but she knew the risks were not only for the girl squirming on the pallet beside her but also for the world outside the hut was fraught with mortal risks. The triple births of Macha had led to Conor, the king of the Ulaidh, bringing death and destruction for the heroes and the kingdoms.

The young girl panted, her breaths harsh in the dim light and, before she could stop herself, part of her hoped that the life inside her wouldn’t make it.  Calatin was a powerful man, with many sons, warriors all of them and … the pain pierced her again and the gemstones the midwife had lent her to ease childbirth were doing nothing for her … it was the féis of Samhain, the start of the Celtic year, the time when cattle were brought back in from the summer pastures and livestock were slaughtered for the beginning of the darker half of the year when her body would open split open to reveal the public manifestation of the hidden and forbidden acts that had haunted her since Imbolc. This monstrous abundance she carried did not presage well for the kingdom of Connachta. Tlachtga struggled to control her raging mind.  Ever since the mid wife had whispered to her that she carried three lives within her, she had been in a turmoil.  How would her lord take it when he found out.  He assumed she was bearing his own child and had so vaunted many a time in the hall.  Yet it was his own three sons who had raped her, nine moons ago at the féis at Imbolc.  She felt powerless then, unable to speak to her new husband, unable to forget the shame of what had occurred so suddenly and so violently. Unwilling to believe what the midwife had assured her of, she had soon felt the truth kicking and moving inside her.  The midwife had tried to explain, scratching with a stick in the dirt. One infant head down, another head up and a third lying sideways and she could feel them now, that way as the agony consumed her again and she screamed as the pain coursed through her.  

***

“Cathbad,” Deichtine called nervously  “I need your help.  I don’t know what to…”

“Is it that you think I don’t know what you need?” The draoidh replied, rising up to his full height from among the grove of oak trees where he had been inspecting the scat left by his totem, the wild boar.   

“Come here to me now, child, for you are among the women blessed among them all for what has happened to you.  Didn’t you have that dream that Lugh of the Tuatha Dé Danann, appeared to you?”

Deichtine, her eyes widening, nodded, bewildered by the draoidh’s foreknowledge and yet, for all that, chilled by his presence and the feeling that she had become, unwillingly, part of something bigger and more awful than anything she had ever experienced.

“Sure, wasn’t he the little fly you swallyed in the cup of wine Ness gave you?”

Deichtine nodded again and Cathbad continued.

“And in the dream, he told you that the child which you had cared for in this world was his, and that you are now heavy with child by him again and that you will bear a son who is to be called Sétanta. The colts that had been given to the boy are to be given to this Sétanta, and it is for Sétanta that the colts are to be reared.”

Even as he spoke, Deichtine felt the life stir within her and knew his words to be true.

“But Cathbad, help me, I beg you.”  

Angrily, Deichtine brushed away the tears she could feel seeping down her face.  “Hasn’t Fergus already declared that I am to be given to Súaltaim?  How can I go to his bed when I am already with child?  Help me, I beg you, sure you must have the knowledge to make this shame on me go away.”

“Shame, is it? Arr-aagh, go on with you, woman, sure haven’t you been chosen and even I can not foresee what the gods have in mind but one thing is certain, whatever I can do can just as easily be undone”  

Cathbad reached out his arm and touched Deichtine gently on the shoulder.  “Lookit, child, what has been done cannot be undone for the ways are foreseen and nothing that mortal man can do will bring about their changes unless it is the will of the ancient ones.”

Deichtine turned her tear-stained face up towards the unbending form of the draoidh  “But Cathbad, there must be something you can do, you who can cure the bloody flux in animals and who can …”

“Quiet, say no more,” Cathbad commanded.  “I will do what I can, but even that, I know, is nothing compared to what has already transpired and what will happen. Come to me tonight before the moon rises and meet me here in this grove of trees.  I can give you a potion.”

“Oh, yes, Cathbad, help me, save me from this … this shame,” Deichtine interrupted, gesturing at her still flat belly beneath her tunic.

***

With a gasp, Tlachtga realized that the midwife was directing her strained pushing, massaging her greased belly downwards and towards the hearth and she took a deep breath.

“Two more pushes, my love” the midwife crooned and the first of the infants slid out into her hands.  Swaddling it quickly, she passed it to a slave crouching by the pallet and returned her attention to the labouring girl.

Gently she explored the girl’s belly and could feel the child was upside down, its feet pressing down where the head should be in the birth canal. Moistening her small hand with the oil, she firmly manipulated the child back into itsproper position.

While the girl gasped and attempted to recover her strength, the mid wife leaned down and expertly opened a small ankle vein to assist in relaxing the girl.

‘Again my heart’, she urged and with several fierce pushes the second infant was delivered. The third infant which had been lying sideways suddenly shifted, flipping head down.  Arms up over its head, it slithered into the old woman’s hands. Three daughters born at the one birth, deformed, each of them having but one sense.

***

The potion was bitter and thin and the smell off it nearly made Deichtine gag but by holding her nose, she was able to force it down in great sickening draughts.  Be warned, Cathbad had told her, whatever the potion does to rid your body of the unwanted life within, the gods’ will can not be so easily thwarted.  Barely able to place the empty beaker on the floor beside her, Deichtine felt her entrails twist within her and her spine arched in agony as she grunted with the effort.  Again and again, her body twisted involuntarily and her bowels churned, a viscous fire consuming her entrails, eating away at the very life force within her. Gasping with the agony, she fell to her knees, retching and spitting a thick, mucous like saliva.  Again, her body writhed and it felt as if the very spirit within her was being torn asunder.  A burbling sound filled her ears, rising in pitch until she vaguely recognised that it was her own voice, broken and guttural, climbing to a shrill scream.  A wetness filled her lower body and the girl collapsed in a welter of her own blood and juices.

“Still, now child, the worst is over,” Cathbad’s voice was a soft hypnotic drone while his hand was cool on her brow.  “Rest now, little one, for your womb is empty and will remain so as long as you can maintain a fast.  Your body has been purged and there is nothing more that I can do for you.”  

Cathbad paused and gently wiped the girl’s sweating face with a cloth moistened with dew he had collected while the sun was still young, being careful to avoid touching her mouth.  

“But what of my giving to Súaltaim, will anyone know what has happened?

“Worry not about that, Deichtine, for the gods will find a way that is closed to mortal man.  When you go to Súaltaim, you at once will became pregnant to him, and bear him a son, just as you had so recently fostered and just as you had also in your womb until now” avowed Cathbad. “For the gods will not be denied.  This triple-conceived child, born of woman and the Gods, will be hailed by all, by warriors, kings and seers; his praises will be sung for many generations; he will avenge all your wrongs; he will defend your fords; he will fight all your battles because all this has been foretold just as three spears will end three kings.

3. Conor

King Conor Mac Nessa gazed down at the lords and warriors of the Red Branch, guardians of the kingdom of the Ulaidh, assembled in the great hall at Eamhain Macha to celebrate the giving to Súaltaim of his desirable elder step-sister, Deichtine, daughter of the former king, Fergus Mac Rioch.  Even now, the old fool sat at his knee alongside Conor’s mother, Ness, for whom he had so easily given up his kingdom.  The hall, long and usually dim, but tonight resplendent with tallow lamps of Gaulish design hanging from the rafters, resounded to the roars and bellows of the warriors of the Red Branch as they clamoured for food and the sour, black brew of roasted barley, the air flavourful with the smells of roasted meat and fish, hazy from the central hearth smoke. And all this expense, Conor reflected sourly, just to get rid of the stuck-up bitch.  He knew that Deichtine resented that he had duped her father out of his crown and that she looked down on him from her handful of seasons his senior.  Good riddance to her anyway and if this was the cost, so be it. Glancing down at the table where his mother sat with Fergus, he raised his goblet and toasted his mother for all he had, he had got from her and from the draoidh, Cathbad.  Where was the ould bollix now he wondered, isn’t he always lurking around in the shadows, never being where you wanted him and always there when you didn’t?  

Standing up, he shook the golden rod with the three silver bells suspended over his head, gradually silencing the clamour in the hall.  Conor gestured expansively at the long trestle tables loaded with platters of boar meat, venison and red fleshed fish, the lot embraced by wild fruits, nuts, herbs, mushrooms, periwinkles and oysters, before toasting the troop with his goblet of Falernian wine. 

Deichtine, daughter of Fergus Mac Rioch, shook loose her long amber hair so that it rippled in a heavy wave over her creamy pale shoulders and down the back of her dress of costly, bleached linen and glanced up at her father where he sat with Ness, on polished red yew dais, below the table of Conor, the once boy king. Fergus lurched to his feet, the years showing on his face, hard and brown as aged ash wood, engraved with the fan lines of time.  Raising his tankard, he waved down the scattered cheers of the men before turning to face Conor. 

“Tonight is a great night not only for all of the Ulaidh but for my only daughter and the valiant champion who has claimed her, Súaltaim.”  Fergus paused as raucous cheering broke out again and Conal, his beefy face as red as the neck of a rooster, staggered to his feet and roared his approval.  “And we all give thanks,” he continued as the noise around him slowly subsided, “to the generosity of Conor, the high king whose bounty and fame exceed all others.”

More warriors, Bricriu of the bitter tongue, Deichtine noticed, and Conor’s sons, Cormac and Crúscraid the stammerer, rose up to roar out of them while oxen drinking horns, iron and wooden mugs were slammed down on the rough boards.

Her father was still up on his hind legs shouting over the din as Súaltaim turned and raised Deichtine to her feet and embraced her in front of them all.   Not an overly strong man like the hewn block of a hacked and splintered oak shield, solid and square that Conal resembled, Súaltaim was slightly stooped from an old battle injury, mild mannered and gentle now, his short white hair receded while his eyebrows yet remained dark, over narrow, serene eyes. Deichtine pushed back her long tresses and returned the embrace. Closer to her father’s age than hers, Deichtine was yet grateful that she was being given to Súaltaim rather than some brute like Cethirn the bloody or the bitter and vengeful Bricriu.

Sitting down again, she accepted the goblet of wine her younger brother, Illand, poured for her. She would miss him, she reflected as she gazed around the assembled warriors and people she had known all her life.  Illand, unlike his older brother Buinne, always made her laugh and had a knack for knowing what to say in every situation, his curly brown hair tied back from his clear forehead with the plaited band of a Craobh Ruadh warrior, enhancing his bright brown eyes; Fergus, her father she supposed too, for all his foolishness, and even Ness, her step mother, with her long honey-blonde hair framing her strong, angular face, always distant and cool, yet approachable in all ways, despite her being the mother of the cruel and arrogant Conor.  How she despised him, with his snide remarks and leering looks, his pathetic vaunting of how great a warrior he was, despite the fact that harder men went before to protect him from the fray, his constant boasting giving the lie to his insecurity, fearful to make any decision for fear it might be wrong, unless supported by Cathbad the draoidh.

Idly she toyed with her goblet, twisting the fine copper stem between her fingers so that the gold ring Súaltaim had given her caught the lamp light and gleamed back at her.

The heat and noise in the hall was becoming oppressive and she leaned back in her chair, against the arm and took a deep draught from the goblet, seeing the struggling fly on the oily surface of the wine too late before the insect slid down her throat.  Gulping another mouthful to wash down the fly, Deichtine became almost instantly aware of a spreading numbness throughout her body. Voices boomed in her ear then faded away to sibilant whispers while objects around her seemed to suddenly increase in size before assuming minute forms.  Reaching out to put the goblet on the board in front of her, she misjudged the distance and felt herself floating up and away, out of her body and out of her chair, up towards the rafters of the hall, watching her goblet slip and fall, smaller now than a thimble and then further up and away from Eamhain Macha.

Súaltaim turned as the goblet clattered to the flagged stone floor and was just in time to catch Deichtine as she slid from her chair, a small smile forming on her lips as she swooned in his arms.

“Give room, move back, let my lady sister breathe,” Illand shouted as Buinne leapt over the table opposite, shouldering him aside, followed quickly by Conal and Cormac who brushed the food and drink from the table so that Súaltaim could lay the limp form there.  Bricriu was the first to stoop and pick up Deichtine’s fallen goblet.

“What mischief has taken place here?” he roared, brandishing the goblet so wildly that the little that remained sloshed onto the flagstones.  “Has my Lady been given some noxious bane?” he demanded, sniffing suspiciously at the lees that remained. 

Fergus forced his way through the throng and grasped his daughter’s wrist for the beat of her pulse.  “She yet lives and may come to her senses soon and …”

But then Ness was there, poised and composed giving directions for the bondmaids to carry the fallen girl to her own chambers while at the same time calming the inchoate cries of her grandson, Crúscraid who beat his own face with clenched fists at the sight of the prostrate girl.

Conor turned, startled, as Cathbad abruptly appeared beside him, his lean, pale features and shaven head gleaming in the lamplight, austere yet strangely calm amidst the hubbub surrounding them.

***

A full moon had passed since Deichtine had fallen into her trance and despite Cathbad’s skill he seemed powerless to rouse her from her slumber and the girl’s life seemed to hang in the balance while Ness nursed her as best she could, squeezing drops of honey into her slack mouth where they pooled in the hollow of her emaciated cheek.

The late afternoon sky was a lowering purple grey heralding a further fall of snow as the giant elk thundered ahead along the woodland track, its massive sweep of amber coloured horn thrusting aside the overhanging branches laden with a previous snowfall.  

Conor, Bricriu the bitter tongued, Conall and Fergus accompanied by their charioteers had been out hunting since the grey dawn, although without success when the great elk had broken cover suddenly and the chase was on, the cold winter air lashing their reddened faces. Through the bare winter boles of the trees, where the snow had gathered on the bare branches, Conor could see Bricriu ahead while Conall, to his left, pounded along behind him.  In a sudden fluid movement, barely glimpsed through the leafless hedges outlined in frost, the stag leapt and for that fleeting second, Conor retained that vision of the mighty beast in the air before it vanished from sight and he lurched violently to one side of the chariot as Eochaid, his charioteer, hauled on the reins to slew the chariot around, using all of his strength to hold back the yoked horses from hurling themselves over the chasm the stag had so lithely leapt.

“By the púca, that was a close one, well done there, Eochaid,” called Conal, full of admiration for the skill and strength of the slender man who drove the king’s chariot.  “I thought you were going to follow your man over the cliff for sure.”

Coaxing the horses back from the brink, Eochaid shrugged his shoulders and manoeuvred the chariot back along the track while Conor, torn between admiration at the stag’s escape and anger at the lost hunt, scanned their surroundings.  The Boann River curled away below them and they could see the majestic Sacred Mounds.  Night was not far away and yet Eamhain Macha was more than half a day’s travel, if they had fresh mounts.

“We’ll have to stay here so, for the night,” Bricriu commented sourly, looking around the frozen landscape.

“I saw smoke over yonder,” Conal remarked, pointing with his ash spear in the direction of a small knoll partially obscured by the low brush and the thin trees.

“Right so, Bricriu go and take a look,” Conor ordered.  “We’ll stay here with the horses.” 

Bricriu slouched over towards the hummock and sized up the house.  Small, and built low into a hollow in the ground, the heavy turf roof almost touched the snowy ground around it.  Smoke drifted through the sodden thatch in wisps in the greying evening light.

“We’ll be lucky if a morsel of food will pass our gullets here tonight,” Bricriu muttered to himself and at that moment, the low door to the house was pushed open.

“Come in out of that, come in with you, you are most welcome.”  The little man bowed and smiled, curtseying in a most seemly way.  Barely reaching Bricriu’s chest, he was a plump little man with a round, red, beaming face and a neat, forked grey beard, but what was lacking in height was more than made up for in girth, bundled round in a garish, green and red tunic over wide, baggy pantaloons.

“Is it yourself then, the mighty warrior, from far off Eamhain Macha?” The little man inquired, genially, but before Bricriu could open his mouth to answer, he continued,  “But tell me this much and tell me no more, is there anyone ailing at the court of the illustrious king Conor Mac Nessa?”

“That’s an odd question, right enough,” burst out Bricriu, his curiosity piqued by the tone of the man.  “But you are right, for the lady Deichtine has been in a swoon these long days past and she about to be given to Súaltaim,”

“Arr-aagh, don’t be bothering the head off you with that matter now for all things are fixed by the gods and I have no doubt that the lady will recover in the fullness of time.  Go on with you now and bring the rest of the lads in now.”

Conor was stamping his feet against the cold while Conall was sharpening the blade of his hunting spear against a stone when Bricriu returned.

“Well, any luck there at all?” Fergus demanded

“Well, it’s a quare enough place, I can tell you that much,” Bricriu replied, deciding not to mention the odd query the host had greeted him with, “but seeing as there is nothing else around, I suppose it will have to do us for the time being, but I’ll tell you this much, I’ll be glad to be gone out of here in the morning.”

The warriors and their retainers jostled in, the little man bobbing up and down with apparent pride and excitement and Conall, who had stayed near the door, puzzled at how there came to be a steady flow of warriors into the small room, yet it never seemed to fully fill up.  It was only then, as the thought struck him, that he noticed the small door off to the side which led into other areas.

Pushing his way forward, Conall found Conor, Fergus and Bricriu having the full of the drink and food that was being served to all and one and that there was no shortage of either.

***

The scream broke the night, jarring Conor awake so suddenly that he knocked over his goblet of brew. The rasp of sword against iron sheath guards sounded harsh in the sudden silence as the men drew their blades. “Would you mind telling me what the… ?” Bricriu began in the sudden cold silence.

“Ah, would youse accept my apologies, don’t be startling yourselves – I should have told you noble men and warriors all – but the lady of the house, her inside” the round ball of their host jerked his thumb over his shoulder -“do be having a young one.  This is our fifth, it is.”

No sooner had he ducked under the covering separating the men from a corner of the room than there was a cry from outside, immediately echoed by a cry from the corner where the woman laboured.  

“Be the Púca’s bollix, and what’s that now?” roared Bricriu, wrenching the heavy leather curtain away from the doorway and ducking out into the dark, the light from inside the hut making a small rectangle of brightness on the snow.  

The cry came again, this time a recognisable whinny from a mare in the lean-to at the side of the cottage and Bricriu paused to watch the miracle of a mare giving birth to a long-legged, gangly colt that suddenly plopped down on the snow, warm and steaming.

“He won’t stay there long, not with that cold up against his belly like that,” Bricriu thought to himself as the mare coaxed the colt into an upright position on its splayed, spindly legs.  Lurching and falling, the colt staggered unsteadily to its feet until it could lean against its mother side while its questing mouth latched on to a teat.

“Mother of the gods tonight,” Bricriu muttered in amazement, “It’s another one,” as the mare shuddered again, sweat streaming from its flanks as a second colt began to ooze out of its mother’s body.

Ducking back under the curtain, Bricriu re-entered the hut to tell the news only to find that he was eclipsed by the fact that the lady of the house had, at that moment, just given birth to a healthy son.

“By Lugh’s hand, sure isn’t that grand news.”  Conor clapped his two hands together and rubbed them briskly. “Two, you say, and colts as well.  Sure that’s grand all together.  Lookit here to me, we’ll give them to your man and the lady of the house inside there as a small gift and as a way of paying our compliments for the hospitality shown to us here tonight, what do you think”?

“Right so, good man, yourself,” Conall agreed immediately

And so it was done and the men continued drinking through the night.

***

“Conor, would you ever wake up.”  Fergus’ voice was no less urgent than the hand tugging at his shoulder.

Conor sat up and blinked in the cold brightness of the day.   

“Where is everything?”

“Sure, that’s what I’m after telling you – it’s all gone, there nothing here except for the babby and the colts – everything else  – it’s all gone!”

“Mother of the gods, do you mean to tell me…?” Conor scrambled to his feet and pulled his cloak tighter around him as he scanned the barren winter landscape – the lowering sacred mound in the distance, the stunted, bare windswept trees and a few frozen puddles that began to melt as the sun rose into a leaden sky – until his gaze came to rest on Eochaid cradling the newborn infant inside his cloak while the colts clustered together against the mare’s flank.

***

The fire crackled in the smoky warmth of the great hall and the smell of roasting meat hung in the peaty air.  The troop had returned to Eamhain Macha along with the infant and the two colts in the early afternoon without further adventure and with nary a sign of hide nor hair of their host of the previous night and with no explanation of the strange events which they had so unwittingly participated in, only to find that Deichtine had awoken from her deep sleep and eager to tell all who would listen about her dream.  

“So,” Fergus mused, holding his daughter in his arms and looking down at her, “you think it was the fly you swallyed then and …”

“Yes, and Lugh the Sun God came to me,” Deichtine broke in excitedly. “Don’t you see, he told me that I would have his child and then he changed me into a bird and I flew away with him to the Sacred Mounds and …”

“The Sacred Mounds, you say,” interjected Bricriu thoughtfully, “but you’ve never been there, have you?  How, by the Púca’s bollix, would you have known where you were, I’d like to know?”

“Amn’t I telling you,” Deichtine said, “It was a dream, I suppose, but you never know when you are dreaming, do you?  I mean, it was all so real, I was high in the sky, looking down on the mound and Lugh was there and he told me to call the child Sétanta and he would have two colts, the Grey of Macha and the Dubh of Sainglen  – and …”

“D’yis mean the two colts we found?” asked Conal.

“What other ones are there?” demanded Bricriu caustically, marvelling again at the question he had been greeted with by the little man the previous night.

“Never mind that for the moment,” Fergus began only to be interrupted by Conor.

“But who is going to raise him?” he demanded angrily.  

“Sure, didn’t we do well out of this, all the same,” intervened Conal.  “Didn’t the little round fellow give us shelter and keep the cold from the horses while we ourselves had a grand feed of food and drink and now, sure don’t we have the finest gift of all, a grand young fellow, by the look of him.”  

As if on cue, the child raised its head and its dark eyes sought and found Conal, while its pudgy grip tightened on Deichtine’s firm breast.

Cathbad arched his brows at the sight but didn’t comment and continued to twine the string of carved amber beads through his long, deft fingers while the discussion continued leisurely as the men relaxed in the hall by the roaring fire.

“Well, amn’t I the one nursing the child, shouldn’t I be the one to raise him?” Deichtine.

“Oh fair enough, Deichtine, no better woman than yourself, of course, to nurse him, but what about a name for the chiseler?  That’s the point, you know.” Bricriu put in his words.

“Well, if it’s just a name you’re after looking for, I will give the boy my name,” Conor said magnanimously.

“Hold on there now, but,” Fergus broke in.  “Do you mean he will be brought up here in your own household?”

“And why wouldn’t he?” Conor answered belligerently.  “Sure wasn’t I the one that first heard the squeal out of him?”

“Go on out of that” Bricriu snapped, rising to his feet.  “Youse all know that I was the…”

“Would the lot of youse be quiet and I’ll tell you what must be done” Cathbad cut in exasperated, his voice quiet but commanding respect.  Bricriu eyed the draoidh a moment before subsiding onto the heap of skins and reaching for his horn of ale.

“This is the way it will be and I’ll tell you this and I’ll tell you no more,” the draoidh continued.  “The boy will be with Deichtine to nurse him; Conor to give him a good name; Sencha, chief judge and chief poet of the Ulaidh to teach him words and speaking and Amergin the poet to be his tutor. Be guided by me and let that be an end to it.”  Without another word, Cathbad strode down the length of the hall and ducked out of sight behind the curtain separating his quarters from the common space.

Back to the origins!*

I haven’t paid much attention to this blog thingy over the last few while. I’ve been scribbling away in different areas, trying to write short pithy accounts about my own life but being more and more drawn back to the mythical age of heroes, whether it be Greek, Roman, or, inevitably, Celtic.

Anyway, I wrote about the Champion’s Portion and the Elopement of Deirdre earlier on in this blog as well as the courtship of Emer, and I decided to put them all in the context of a longer picture, presenting chapters of events, as it were, through the persona of a major player be it male or female in the overall picture.

Currently, as I shuffle character and episodes, I may now designate them as, retrospectively, 7 for Deirdre, 8 for Emer and 9 for the Champion’s Portion although this may change later on. Breoga kicks off the sequence and is followed by 2 for Cathbad.

For readers who already may have read Raiding Cuailgne / Cooley back in 2016 these character headed chapters, from both before, during and after the timeframe of my novel, will reveal new insights and details, previously unknown of the prophecies inherent in the myths.

  • I first wrote a book about Celtic heroes and then started this Blog thingy to promote it – and myself.. That was more than six years ago now and in that time, my book has faded into the electronic blackness somewhere in a void but the blog thingy has grown and changed and transformed into multiple lives of its own, But now, here I am back writing the same stuff that gave rise to the blog thingy in there first place! Going back to where it all started. Does that make sense?

2. Cathbad

The sacred mound dominated the landscape of the valley of the wide, slow flowing river Boann.  The moon broke through a gap in the lowering clouds showing the huge quartz and granite stones used to create the impressive white façade nestled in the bend of the river where the ground rose to form a long hill commanding a panoramic view of the valley.  The draoidh, Cathbad, paused by the outer ring of stone henges to catch his breath, for the journey here had been long and wearying.  Squatting down in the shadow of the henge, he laid aside his wooden stave and fumbled in his leather pouch for some of the dried mushrooms he had collected earlier when the moon was on the wane.  Breaking them into smaller pieces he chewed them thoroughly, washing them down with the cold spring water in the dried gourd he had slung over his shoulder.  The féis of Samhain was past and the now was the time, he knew, when the following dawn’s sunlight would pierce the inner chamber of the mound, marking the continuing of the cycle of seasons and the safe rebirth of Lugh sun god of the Tuatha Dé Danann – after the long dark days of winter.  Great portents were on the rise and kings would come and go but more than all this, it was clear that his hand was involved and the events that were foretold were now imminent.  

With a grunt, Cathbad heaved himself to his feet and approached the kerbstone before the entrance passage to the inner chamber of the drum shaped mound which towered above him.  Running his hand over the elaborately carved spirals, lozenges, coils and swirls which decorated the entrance stone, he marvelled at the perfectly carved designs etched into the stone before clambering over the kerb stone and, stooping, entered the passage lined on either side with large standing stones. Waiting until his eyes became accustomed to the pitchy blackness in the passage, Cathbad fumbled in his shoulder bag for his flint and kindling before managing to light his pine-resin torch.  The light flared briefly before the firebrand settled down to a crackling glow showing the passage ahead bending slightly to the right. Holding the light ahead of him, the draoidh slowly made his way along the passage to the chamber at the end, small in comparison to the size of the covering mound yet wondrously dome roofed with interlaced slabs of rock. Ignoring the two small recesses at the back and to the left of the chamber, Cathbad entered the larger recess to the right where two stone basins stood.  The upper basis had been painstakingly fashioned from a lump of granite and sat on a large slate stone and was partially filled with charred bones and ashes of those long dead.  Squatting down with his back to the lower basin, he propped up his torch and let the cool stillness envelop him with its aura of calm and peace. Almost immediately he began to feel a tingle throughout his body as he relaxed back against the ancient stones.  His senses appeared heightened and in the dim glow from his torch the relief patterns on the low slab roof above him appeared magnified, taking on a life of their own, swirling, curling and twisting across the surface of the stone and away into the further gloom around him. Surfaces seemed to ripple, shimmer, or breathe, while his stave, water gourd and leather shoulder bag appeared to warp, morph and change solid colours.  An aura surrounded the dying firebrand beside him and Cathbad felt himself melt into the womb of the chamber, everything so vivid around him that he felt as if he could not only taste but feel them as well.  Visions of the great hill fort at Eamhain Macha flickered across the back of his closed eyelids where a mighty king rose up, supported by a heroic champion in the greatest hour of need.  Women, tall and willowy but dimly obscured, appeared, weeping and beseeching, asking for help while screams rent the air of a feast in a long hall, armies on the march, torches flickering in the night while fires flared up over burning rooves. Horses reared and flailed the air with iron shod hooves while chariots swerved and long swords clashed. Badb, the scaldy crow of warfare, croaking over the blood soaked land but above all Lugh, the deity of light and all power appeared serene and all powerful announcing the future birth of his son who would deliver all from harm.

With a start, Cathbad came to himself, sore and stiff from the long vigil on the rocky floor of the chamber.  The torch had long since died out and the darkness surrounding him was complete.  Suddenly, gleaming rays of light shot through the gap above the entrance stone giving the passage and the chamber where he lay a golden hue and he clambered slowly to his feet and followed the ray of light down the passage and out over the kerb stone where the sun, rising higher in the early morning sky, bathed the ancient monument in its nacreous light.

Only one thing was clear, it would be a long journey before he could hope to reach the great hill fort of Eamhain Macha in the kingdom of the Ulaidh and hope to make sense of the visions he had seen.

***

Ness, the consort of Fachtna Fathach, was bored.  Sighing, she stretched her long legs before her and impatiently pushed her embroidery away.  There must be more to life, she thought, than sitting around, listening to the idle chatter of her slaves and doing embroidery that she was no longer interested in.  Instead her thoughts turned to her foster fathers and the cruel fate that had befallen them.  If she were a warrior, she would have avenged them, not like her fool of a father – the yellow heel!  Oh, to be a man, she thought and then giggled to herself as her mind jumped to the idea of having a man.  The mere thought made her blush and her loins ache and she jumped when one of her slaves, fearing that something was wrong, asked if she needed something.

“Arragh, don’t be at me.  I do be going mad, sitting here,” Ness stamped her foot and  pushed away the restraining hands of the slave girl and thrust her unfinished embroidery towards her.

“Would yis ever leave me alone,” she commanded.  “Sure, I wish to be by myself, so go on with yourselves back to the fort and build up the fires for you know my lord will soon be returning from the hunt, laden down with wild boar and deer and him roaring out of him for strong drink.  Go on with you now, I’m telling you.”

Pushing her long tasselled cloak over her shoulder, Ness picked up the hem of her light linen tunic and skipped out of the main entrance of the fort and headed down towards the river. In the cool shade of the willow tree she sat on a rounded boulder and dipped her feet into the water.  Silence all around her now, she waited and watched for something to happen.  Life could sometimes be so boring.  Why hadn’t her own father agreed to seek compensation for the death of her foster fathers, she wondered.  Everyone knew it was that band of outlaw warriors without the restraining hand of a liege lord who had slaughtered her beloved foster fathers as they sat together, befuddled with food and drink, roaring and singing out of them.  That was the time when she knew she could twist them all around her little finger and get just what she wanted from any one of them – another gold ring, or a finely wrought torc of bronze or perhaps a new brooch for her cloak, silver maybe, studded with amber, so smooth and warm to the touch.  Now, what did she have? She reflected bitterly.  A doddery father, afraid of his own shite – “but there were no witnesses to the attack, love of my heart,” he would whine, “and so we can not seek compensation for their deaths because of that.”  She had heard it all before, and more of the same from Fachtna who still had not managed to fire her loins and make the hair stand up on her head.  Another night of his pathetic fumbling, as he tried to disentangle her from her simple tunic and shift, his rough hands pawing ineffectually at her breasts, and yet, when she reached for him, yearning for a thrusting hardness, all she could find was a soft tumescence, a broken back worm wriggling feebly in her hand, and she would scream.  The smell of drink on him, and him cursing and snivelling, as he attempted to push his bod into her, it was enough to put the heart sideways in her, she thought crossly.

Bending down to pick up a twig to throw into the stream, she caught the flicker of movement among the bushes across the water.  Carefully and cautiously, she slipped off and behind the boulder she was sitting on.  A man it was, sure enough, but what class of one was he?  Not a warrior certainly for he had no sword or shield.  Not a noble either for his cloak was ragged and unadorned but a fine figure of a man, all the same, with the shaven head, smooth as a river pebble, on him, Ness thought to herself.  A craftsman maybe, for he looked capable enough, the hand holding the wooden stave, strong and lean, covered with fine black hair.  Before she could continue her furtive examination of the stranger, he saw her, his eyes, the pale blue of a thrush’s egg, suddenly binding her and compelling her to rise.

“The blessing of the day on you, Ness, consort of the king,” the man called out as he hoist up his robe, revealing strongly muscled legs covered in a coarse black pelt of hair, and waded nimbly across the stream towards the girl.

“May the road rise before you, stranger but tell me this and tell me no more, how is it that you know my name?”

“Sure, don’t I know the past and the future and I know it’s about your present you are concerned.”

“Well if you are so smart then so, tell me this then, what is this very hour lucky for?” Ness demanded impudently.

Cathbad paused and looked at the girl more carefully.  She was well grown and her breasts pushed tight against the fine, red-embroidered tunic under the speckled cloak she had pushed back over one bare shoulder.  Her honey-yellow hair was tied in three tresses; two of them wound in front of her head, framing her broad brow while the third fell down her back almost to her mid calf.  Her eyebrows were pitch black while the long eyelashes cast shadows on her pink cheeks.  Her lips, a deep Parthian red, were plump and sensuous and Cathbad felt the blood rush to his loins.

“I’ll tell you so, this hour is right for the making of a king on a queen like yourself”.

The words hung for a moment in the air between them and Cathbad could see the sudden intake of breath that their meaning made the girl take.

“Is that the truth now, or are you trying to take advantage of me, with that big thing there you have on you?”  The girl’s voice was husky and Cathbad felt a thrill run down his spine and, despite himself, his eyes dropped unashamedly to the prominent bulge under his cloak.

“By Lugh and all the gods that you and I both know, I swear that this is true.  A son conceived now, his name will be sung forever in this land and his actions will shake the world.”

Ness hesitated for a moment, looking nervously over her shoulder in the direction of Eamhain Macha and then made up her mind.  There was no one near them, certainly no other men, and the drooping branches of the willow formed an almost perfect screen.  The day was less than half over and Fachtna would not return before nightfall.

“Right so, come over here to me then” she whispered and felt again the grip of those pale blue eyes as the man approached her.

His hand felt rough but touched her breasts gently and she felt her nipples harden, his breath sweet on her cheek as one strong arm encircled her waist and lifted her off her feet before lowering her gently to the leaf strewn ground.  Her breath quickened as he pushed her tunic up over her hips and quickly she spread her legs, her hips arching up to meet his stiffened bod, already twitching with the life inside it.

His hands caressed her milk white body, while a flow of liquid fire suffused her and she thrust her loins up hungrily.  Her lips sought his and she wriggled deeper against him as his tongue, sweet and sharp, thrust into her mouth, mirroring his fierce and rapid thrusting, her hands gripping his shoulders to pull him more deeply into her warm, moist lips.  Again and again he pounded into her, his eyes alight with that strange blue fire, the sweat from his bare chest dripping onto her belly, oiling the two of them as their rhythmic thrusting and rocking brought the pair of them to the brink of no return.  Her legs locked tight around his calves, his pelvis ground into hers bringing her higher and higher as if she were mounting a never-ending spiral until Ness felt that she was looking down on herself from a great pinnacle, watching her own body twine and coil with his. Then deep inside her, she felt the hot rush of his seed and she knew the truth of what he had claimed.

***

Fergus Mac Rioch was sure of many things – he was a man hardened by fighting and brawling, knowing the way of the spear and the sword, hand to hand, face to face, smelling and feeling the hot gush of red blood from his opponent’s body in fierce mortal combat – but of this one thing he was not so sure.  He loved Ness.  Ever since Fachtna’s death, he had desired his widow, the cool, aloof Ness who somehow always, contrived to avoid his demands upon her.  He could have beaten her and forced her into submission, tied her like a slave or an animal and used her that way.  But he hadn’t.  The blood-lust part of him urged him to attack her, to subdue her physically and violently take her.  Ness, on the other hand treated him coolly, managing to avoid his bed while at the same time taunting and provoking him yet there was something cold and hard, some malevolent intelligence inside her that both stayed his hand from fear while at the same time made him crave for her touch. His love for her consumed him and she was in his head all the time.  The thought of the coolness of her long blonde hair, the warmth of her skin, the sweetness of her breath, enticed him while the lure of her nobility galvanized him in ways he did not yet understand.

Fergus had assumed the kingship of the Ulaidh when his brother Fachtna, King of the Ulaidh had died over a minor disagreement in the feasting hall.  Dark and smoky, lit by banked peat fires and rush lamps, the men of Ulaidh ate and drank their fill, sprawled on hides and skins covering the floor of the hall.  Boasting drunkenly of former exploits, Aenghus reached out to take the hind leg of meat for himself and was stopped by an outraged Fachtna.  What should have been settled with curses and dares followed by mere blows slipped instead into bloody violence when an unlucky dagger thrust caught the drunken king under the ribs, ripping open his heart.  Fergus had taken his place then, both through bloodline and seniority and there was no man there, drunk or sober, who could have stood up to Fergus in things physical.  No man, true, Fergus thought to himself, no man right enough but a woman, Ness, mother of the child Conor, had managed to evade his hardening desire for too long now.  That was going to change soon because he had challenged her to a game.  And she had accepted.  She stood to gain anything and everything she wanted, while he knew that he could give her anything for he had it all.  All that is, except for her.  He ached to give her whatever she asked in return for control and ownership of all that she could offer up to him, the cool but puzzling aloofness a thing of the past. As for her, she had nothing to lose!

***

“Of course he’ll agree,” the tall, lean draoidh snapped.  “Don’t you see he must?  He can’t fight it.  One sight of your paps and you’ll have him drooling like a hound, and then you will have secured a place for the boy.”  Cathbad paused and looked across to where the boy, Conor, was quietly playing with a flat bladed ash wood hurling stick.  Conor was now ten winters old and was accustomed to going on long walks with the draoidh who filled his head with stories and the songs of ancient gods, heroes and their brave deeds.

Ness smiled as she saw the intense expression on Cathbad’s face.  “Yes, but I don’t think even Fergus is that stupid”.

“He’ll do it,” insisted Cathbad, rising to pace excitedly.  “Of course he will, he won’t be able to resist.  Just treat it lightly and make much of how fond he is of the boy.”

That was true enough, Ness reflected.  Conor seemed to have attracted the attention of the king and it would be no great difficulty, Ness thought to herself, to persuade Fergus, in return for her pleasure, to allow the boy to hold the reins of kingship, for however brief a time.

***

“Oh my honey,” Ness cooed, pouring more of the dark red Gaulish wine into Fergus’ cup while she stroked the back of his neck with a languid hand.

They were lying on a pile of bearskins behind the heavy leather curtain that separated them from the rest of the feasters in the great hall at Eamhain Macha.  

“Don’t you see, you’ll still be the real king, Conor will just be a token figure?  And besides it will only be for a year.”  Her lips grazed Fergus’ rough cheek while her perfume seemed to enflame his senses as the wine soothed and nourished him.  Ness’ hand travelled slowly down over Fergus’ chest and down under his loose tunic towards his groin where his thickening member stirred expectantly at her cool touch. 

“Yes, my darling, anything you want,” he moaned, closing his eyes and leaning back as, Ness, on her knees, lowered her head to give homage to his rising power.

***

No sooner had Fergus fallen into a deep and soporific slumber than Ness began her search for his fabled wealth so that she could give it away to the nobles and warriors to buy favour for herself and especially her son.  Cathbad had assured her that if she gave away enough rings of silver and jet stone, oxen, ornamented brooches in the swirling new patterns, to the nobles and the tapered iron swords and shining daggers, shields of woven willow reinforced with iron bosses and studs to the warriors, food, drink and patronage to the bards, that she would be able to guarantee her and Conor’s success.

Aghast at the outflow of his wealth and the ever shifting allegiances away from him and over to his ethereally beautiful wife and her son Conor, his foster son, Fergus counted the days until he would be released from his sworn geas and his power and wealth restored to him.

Rising unsteadily to his feet now, Fergus peered down the length of the great hall.  On either side of the hearth-way, warriors and nobles lay or sprawled in groups around food that had mostly been already eaten.  Pots of potent black ale had been generously distributed along with the liquid fire, so honey golden in colour in the firelight.  Ness and her son reclined on Fergus’ left hand and behind them stood the thin gaunt figure of the draoidh, remote and hard.

“Men of the Ulaidh I do, this day and time, by the line of Rioch, hereditary king of the Ulaidh, claim back my kinship from the regency of my foster son, Conor, and my wife, the queen Ness”.

Fergus glanced around the dimly lit hall again.

“Let he who gave all of it away so freely and so recklessly, now let him reclaim it if he must.” The roar came from the back of the hall and Fergus squinted uncertainly in the dim light to see who it was who had called out so ungraciously.

The wink of torch light, the gleam of firelight on naked metal sparked bright in the smoky hall and then Cathbad strode forward, his arms upraised to quell the sudden tumult of shouting that had arisen.

“Lookit here to me,” Conall Cernach lumbered to his feet and grabbed Cathbad’s shoulder but the draoidh spun on his heel, breaking free of the giant man’s grip.

“Would the lot of youse ever wait there now,” although Cathbad’s voice was quiet there was a certain resonance to it, backed up by the humming blur of his staff whirling around his head. “Let Fergus speak.”

As the noise died down, Fergus belched, swaying on his feet, one hand brandishing his goblet, the other hand resting on the hilt of his sword,

“Would youse ever listen to me, your liege lord” were the words he meant to roar in defiance but to his own ears his voice was hardly more than a squeak, an unintelligible keening of sound, almost a bat’s squeak.  Looking around wildly, his feet transfixed to the ground, his whole body swaying as if drunk, Fergus roared silently against the power of the draoidh’s sapphire blue eyes which now held him in their rigid grip.

Sinking back into the robes, Fergus watched mesmerized as Cethirn lurched to his feet and brandished his horn, slopping wine on the men crouched watchfully at his feet. Cethirn of the Red Sword Edge was a warrior known to all, respected by all, including himself, Fergus thought bitterly, not only for his fighting ability but for his voice that could talk a trout out of a stream and into your waiting hand.

“Hold your horses there, my fine bucko, we didn’t like you just handing over the kingship in the first place to a young gossoon just for the asking, but, mind you, he did right by us and was a decent lad, what with all the swords, shields, rings and, I couldn’t tell you what not, that he forked over to us, so stand and defend yourself because if you don’t, we’ve decided that we want to keep Conor Mac Nessa, not you, Fergus Mac Rioch, the Unwise.”

Locked by the tight blue eyes of Cathbad from across the hall of feasting and drinking men, rising to their feet to toast in drunken obeisance their new king of the Ulaidh, Fergus could only struggle within his invisible bounds as the boy beside him rose to his feet, receiving and accepting the roar of the crowd.

And so the boy Conor became – and stayed – king.

1. Breoga

At least there was one thing you could say for the Romans, Breoga reflected sourly as he topped the last rise in the chain of low wooded hills before beginning the slow descent to the neat rectangular camp on the plain below.  They knew how to make a good camp and tonight he would be sure of hot food and a visit to the public bath house before meeting up with the quaesor to haggle over the trade goods he was pulling along behind him in his small mule train.  And after that, he supposed, sour red wine while the minor tribunes would want to hear more stories about the Keltoi.

This camp, he could see, was far more than a temporary marching camp; instead it was a well-fortified base, housing at least two legions by the look of things.  Well and good, Breoga thought to himself – the more the merrier and the better the trading.  From his vantage point on the low hill, he could clearly see the rectangular shape of the fort, its clay ramparts surmounted by a timber palisade protected by a deep ditch cut around the outside, It’s Aquila standard, dwarfing the smaller Vexillium showing the legion’s name and emblem, stood proud against the darkening sky.

Another good thing, he thought ruefully, was the Roman road running as straight as a spear direct from the north to the south gate. Once down from the rough hillside track, he would make good time, even with his tired mules. 

Funny thing about the Romans, though, once you knew the layout of one camp or fort, then you knew the layout of them all, and Roman camps were no stranger to Breoga, a Gallaecian from northern Iberia. He had travelled far and wide with his merchant father and was well used to both the ways of the Romans and the Keltoi tribes, having traded in wine, slaves, perfumes, spices, hunting dogs, medical herbs, weapons, news and technology as well as more mundane goods such as cattle, hides and grain – agricultural produce suitable for an army – supplying many Roman camps in his native Hispania, in Gaul, Germania and as well as the tribal centres, in Brittanica, Dál Riata and Ériu. 

Once inside the main gate, having been cursorily checked by a bored legionnaire, Breoga headed down the via principalis towards the centre of the camp and the parade ground.  One side of the parade ground housed the base commander or praetor and his staff while opposite it was the squat quaestorium, housing the supply officer.  Perpendicular to that was the forum, a small duplicate of an urban forum, where public business could be conducted and where Breoga knew he could offload any of his trade goods the commissary rejected.

A tribune in a blue-banded tunic, accompanied by his scribe, strode briskly into the camp commissary and sat down behind his small desk. Despite his youth, Titus Publius, a narrow banded tribune of the IX legion was a confident soldier, having fought with Gaius Julius in Gaul and beyond in the northern lands.  Nevertheless, he was well aware of his lack of knowledge with regard to the tribes he was in daily contact with and eager for news about them.

 “And what wild stories do you have for me now, concerning our barbaric friends here and in Britannia?” Titus Publius inquired.  “You’ve been there, I gather, and speak enough Gaulish and other tongues to make some sense of what you see and hear, is that right?  Are the inhabitants of that mist shrouded isle so different from the tribes we deal with right now?”

“A thousand apologies lord,” Breoga raised his joined hands to his bowed head in a gesture of supplication, “but since we last met I have spent so little time in Albion, which you refer to as Britannia, that I fear there is nothing that I can tell you that you do not already know.”

Initially contact between the trader and the young Roman had been confined to the trading of small amounts of luxury goods in exchange for minerals and grain under the watchful eye of the quaesor, the supply officer, but the tribune learned he could gain much information of interest from the garrulous old trader about the lands he knew the Republic would soon wish to annex.

Titus rose from behind his writing desk and strode the length of the room impatiently.  “I know it is only a matter of time before the legions finish their work here in defence of our allies, the Remi. Then we will push further west across the narrow sea into Britannia and north into Dál Riata.  They say the Pictish tribes there are small, stunted little warriors, fierce, quick to scorn and always ready to back up their oaths with blood and violence?  Is that so? Could they overpower our legions were we to go there?”  Picking up a flask of wine, Titus waited until Breoga’s cup was empty.

The trader drained his beaker of the sour wine which the tribune seemed to favour and considered.  “Were the legions to go where no Roman legion has ever gone before, my lord, they, no doubt, would be as successful as all such forays by the legions have been and will be forever.”  

“They say our enemies, the Nervii are the fiercest warriors among all the Keltoi, some of them fighting buff naked,” Titus added, hoping to draw the old man, filling up his cup with more of the dark brown wine.

Breoga put down his beaker and looked up at the tribune before continuing, “But even beyond Britannia and Dál Riata, there lies the far flung western isle, so remote and untouched by Roman civilization and there, they say, the fiercest warriors of the Keltoi, the Craobh Ruadh, remain, in wild and wooded country, ruled by warlike kings, greedy queens, fierce warriors banded together by loyalty and honour in defence of their kingdoms and demi-gods, intent on seizing and maintaining power by warfare, conquest and cattle raiding.”

“This far-flung isle you speak of, is that what we Romans call Iuverna?” Titus asked eagerly, his young face flushing as he displayed his worldly knowledge.

Breoga reached down to the sack at the side of the low table and withdrew a bulging leather wineskin.  “Try this wine, my lord and I will tell you what I know of that isle you speak of, for I have been there many times, ever since I was a child, accompanying my father there in the hopes of acquiring one of their fearsome hounds.”

Titus picked up his beaker and allowed Breoga to pour a jet of wine before sniffing suspiciously at the liquid.  There appeared to be a faint sheen on the surface, as if oil floated there, mingled with a strong smell of resin, with which the inside of the leather wineskin had been coated.  Putting it down untouched, he turned to face the trader.

“So, tell me, when did you first go to Iuverna?”

“I first set foot on that far-flung western isle when I was a child.  I remember it well, looking back now that I am in my middle years, but I’ll tell you this much, that isle was a place of wonder and magic and awe.  The green hills, forests thick with wolves, elk and boar, swept down right to the edge of that cruel, grey sea and the wind would cut the face off you.  But the people, did they notice the cold and the wind and the rain that would tear the flesh off your very bones?  They did not.”

The old man paused and drank deeply before continuing.

“Certainly, they were the men that would tramp barefoot over the thorny ground, splashing through the icy bogs and not a bother on them.  And weren’t their women folk as fierce? Often they would be fighting alongside their menfolk, the lot of them stripped down to the pelt, the bodies smeared with ochre and other dyes, the hair on the heads piled up and stiff as a helmet, the long swords hacking and cutting while the wolfhounds would tear the throat out of a man and without as much as a snuffle, they’d bound on to the next warrior, the jaws on them as high as a tall man’s shoulder.  Sure, didn’t I see lions in Sumeria that looked like pups compared to those hounds and the noise and the brassy bellow of their trumpets and the roaring out of the lot of them would freeze the blood of a mortal man?”

Titus picked up his beaker, sniffed at it again before taking a tentative sip.   “Go on,” he said.

“I remember the first time my father took me there from our home in Hispania.  Wolfhounds, he’d say, those are the hounds I want and the high king, or Ard Rí, they call him there, a fierce ould bollix, would demand more than his fair share of the fine amphorae of wine that we had brought, aye, wine and more than that.  We would sit in the great hall, night after night, listening to their vaunting the exploits of warriors and champions.

“But could you get your hands on a hound that easily?”  Breoga laughed harshly before turning to spit into the brazier. “Not for nothing did we ply the ould’ fella with the latest artifices and I couldn’t tell you what not but it wasn’t until the young fella took the throne that we felt we had the chance.” 

“Do you mean Conor Mac Nessa?” Titus asked, a quickened note of interest in his voice, 

Breoga stopped and pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulder as he inched closer to the brazier.  A mottled hand hooked the beaker of Falernian wine closer to him and not until its position was adjusted to his satisfaction on the low table before him, did he look up at his interlocutor.

“Aye,” he nodded.  “Conor Mac Nessa, and yer man, the real power behind the throne, the draoidh, Cathbad the seer.  A quare ould’ bollix he was, always there when you didn’t want him and never there when you did.”  

Cannelloni

I stopped of at an Italian cafe nearby recently and had an excellent coffee – a macchiato – and then spoiled myself with one of Tony Soprano’s* favourite treats, a chocolate filled cannolli – a hard, crunchy, flaky pastry tube filled with a succulent chocolate – Nutella? – filling

Inspired by all things Italian, I decided to try my hand at something more savoury today and opted for baked Cannelloni but when I fished out the box of dried cannelloni tubes, most of the tubes were broken, cracked and cockroach nibbled and in disgust I threw the lot out, along with another (already opened) box of dried lasagne sheets. I know they say that it is a poor man who can’t support a mouse but I draw the line at cockroaches – and in my dry foodstuff pantry too! 

So, for the first time ever, I bought soft pliable sheets of fresh pasta from an Italian deli down the road, as well as a tub of Ricotta cheese. I had fresh spinach at home, actually probably about a week old, as well as grated cheese and shaved parmesan along with a variety of nuts and a vague memory of spinach and ricotta cannelloni.

I remember when I was in Naples – Napoli 1980 or thereabout – I fell in love with these pasta tubes stuffed with luscious, voluptuous  fillings. I don’t know if they were  a speciality of the region but I rarely came across them elsewhere in Italy. Anyway, back in the day as it were, I remember them being served with two sauces – white and red while the pasta tubes nestled in the white, creamy sauce lavishly sprinkled with grated nutmeg and then topped with a rich tomato sauce and melted cheese. I also remember the hassle of trying to fill the pre-bought hard pasta tubes (so much enjoyed by my unwanted house guests), shoving the mixture down the tubes with the end of a spoon or with two chopsticks reversed so the blunt end could press the filling – sometimes with beef or pork minced meat – and spilling more than I could cram into the tubes. The obvious answer was to use a a pastry bag and funnel! 

Anyway, I am sure that somewhere over the last few decades I have cooked my attempt at Canelloni and with two sauces. I don’t remember the filling but it was probably spinach and ricotta and that is what I decided to do tonight. But not quite, because I wanted to do other things and I wasn’t prepared to make my own red and white sauces so I took a few shortcuts. And then, as I was getting the spinach and the cheeses out of the fridge, there was packet of my old standby – Serrano Ham, sliced ever so thinly – so I thought I would throw that in as well.

The spinach was a bit sad looking, I admit so I gave it a good soak in cold water before spinning it dry and chopping it finely. It looked a lot sadder then, I have to say.

A couple of cloves of finely minced garlic, half the tub of ricotta, a handful of pine nuts and some shaved parmesan, a fresh egg, a good dash of freshly ground pepper and a good hard mix with a fork took care of the filling.

The fresh pasta sheets were designed for lasagne and were much too big to use for cannelloni so I cut each sheet into quarters, and put a wafer thin slice of Serano on each square, followed by a dollop of the spinach & ricotta mix and rolled up the contents into an open ended tube.

Instead of the, I think, traditional white bechemal sauce the cannelloni would be rested in before being covered with the savoury tomato and cheese sauce, I opened a jar of commercial pasta sauce – Tomato and Basil, I think – and poured a bit into an oven proof dish before laying the filled cannelloni, seam side down, in the dish. A sprinkle of cheese and the remains of the bottled sauce spooned over the top. Into the oven form about 25 – 30 minutes at 175 degrees.

A fresh sprinkle of Cheese a few minutes before taking out of the oven.

Gorgeous – the ham melting into the pasta, the spinach and ricotta lushious on the tongue

  • The Sopranos – an HBO TV Serial from a good few years ago concerning Tony Soprano, his family and associates. While purportedly in the ‘waste disposal’ business, in reality, Tony, the family man, is an unscrupulous Mob boss heavily involved in prostitution, enforcement, loans and much more. A super tv show, with stellar performances from all the cast, including Tony’s aged mother, – a withered harridan whose main purpose in life seems to be to make everyone’s else life a living hell.

Emer

 

The very last of the blackberries and haws had long withered off the stark brambles as a final reminder that the old fruit was truly over and Imbolc, heralded by the blooming of deciduous plants, was not far off. The imminent feis, the time the old gods demanded sacrifice to ensure the birth of animals, renewed crops, along with the rejuvenation of all living things in the coming fertile time of the land, should be a time of joy but Emer knew the preparation for the feasting her father and brothers demanded meant extra work for her. She lived with three older brothers and her father, Forgall Monach the Cunning, in the dreary ráth, on the promontory defended on three sides by the cold grey sea while triple defensive ramparts protected its rear.

Hemmed in by the sea and wattle palisades, Emer longed to leave, to see and be part of the life at the court of Conor, king of the Red Branch warriors at Eamhain Macha, the sacred heart of the Ulaidh, tales of which she had overheard from Breoga, the trader, and she ached to go there.   She hated everything.  She had never known her mother who had died of the bloody flux when Emer was yet an infant and she hated that. She hated her home here – the only place she had ever known.  

She despised and feared her father who either ignored her or vented some unknown rage on her, usually after drinking too much of his favoured black brew.  She detested her hulking and brutal brothers who treated her badly even though she was a fully-grown woman, scaring off possible suitors and bullying her with their constant threat of unprovoked violence. Recently, Scibar, her eldest brother, in a fit of rage at the lack of barley beer he liked to drink, smashed the supporting branches of seasoned ash she used for her loom. Cursing her mindlessly, he had hurled away the heavy stones used for pulling down the strands of wool and scattered her precious purple and red vegetable dyes and the tiny strands of ochre that produced a glowing yellow which Breoga claimed were the stems of flowers.  

Endlessly turning the heavy top stone of the quern to grind the wheat and barley for their pottage and stews, Emer felt irritated beyond all measure by her brothers’ grunts and bellows as they practiced at arms, stamping round and round the trampled yard so it was hard to know if it was two against one or all three against each other. Impulsively, she stood up and wandered down the muddy, rutted track leading from the porch outside the hall to the palisade gates, the woodland sounds of the nearby forest replacing the clash of wooden training swords against light wicker shields.  

From where she sat, outside the entrance to the ráth, she could smell the richness of the soil as the bondsmen tilled their fields of barley and oats bordering the forest where the Ailibine river, swollen now with runoff, marked the end of the territory of the Fingal in the hilly country to the south.

In the other direction, Emer could see the ancient burial mounds of the Fir Bolg at Cerma, which lay, she had been told, north from her home here on the promontory of Benn Etair, to the sacred site of Teamhair and on to Eamhain Macha and she was determined to go there. She knew that she could do anything and was equal to any task.  What she lacked in strength, she made up for with intelligence; what she lacked in skill, she made up for with flexibility and speed.

Sitting by the gates, plaiting her long golden hair, she was pleasantly alarmed by the sight of a chariot skilfully driving over the corrugated log track emerging from the forest.  Squinting into the glare of the noontime sun, she could just make out the seated charioteer, a yellow band around his forehead.  Standing behind him on the open framework of the chariot was a slight figure.  Almost unconsciously, Emer noted his handsome muscled frame and his cocky self-assuredness but what really struck her was his startlingly dove grey eyes which seemed to transfix her.  A flush crept up from her neck, tingeing her creamy pale cheeks with a soft hue while the charioteer reined in his horses effortlessly with one hand.  The youth, beardless and black browed, his hair, thick and smooth as if a cow had licked it, three hanks hanging down over his muscled shoulders, stared at her in open-mouthed admiration, his gaze dropping shamelessly to her breasts pushing up over her tight bodice

Annoyed by his blatant stare, she recovered her poise and stood up, flinging her long plait back over her shoulder.

“May your road be blessed, stranger,” she said boldly, forcing him to meet her eyes. 

“May the apple of your eye see only good,” he replied, dropping his eyes again to gaze at her breasts.  “I see a sweet valley where I could lay my weapon to rest,” he smiled, lighting up his sombre face and showing the dimples in his smooth cheeks.

Blushing despite herself, Emer pulled her linen cloak firmly around herself but before she could reply to his insolence, Scibar, and her two other brothers, Connad and Ecet, appeared from inside the ramparts, still clutching their notched and battered wooden training swords.

“Who is this beardless brat and what does he want here?” Scibar rudely demanded while Connad and Ecet sniggered and grinned, jostling forward to enjoy the stranger’s mortification at the rough hands of Scibar.  

“Put a guard upon your tongue, grimy one, or the tongue that runs so glibly in your head should run the very head off your shoulders,” the stranger replied casually, looking the three brothers up and down from tousled head to dirty feet before returning his gaze to Emer and giving her his full attention.

With a roar of rage, Scibar raised his wooden training sword but before he could begin the downward swing, the stranger vaulted one-handed over the side of his light chariot, stepped inside the swing and punched him hard in the mouth. 

Scibar rocked back on his heels and before he could recover, the stranger with a lithe movement, slipped behind and kicked his legs out from under him, while snatching the wooden training sword from a startled Ecet and smashing the heavy hilt up into his nose, sending a sudden mist of blood to splatter across Connad’s incredulous stare.  

Flipping the sword in the air, the stranger caught it by its blood-smeared hilt and slammed the flat of the blade once, then twice, across Connad’s ribs.  The rounded tip of the training sword digging suddenly into the base of his neck suddenly arrested Scibar, stunned by the suddenness of the attack, from struggling to his feet while the youth winked insolently at Emer,

Before she could gather her wits, Forgall the Cunning, attracted by the noise, appeared at the entrance to the palisade.  Taking in at a glance his bruised and battered sons, he held up a commanding hand to stop further fighting while the youth bowed his head courteously to the older man.

***

Dusk was falling when Forgall, disguised as a pedlar, was admitted through the gates of the great hill fort at Eamhain Macha, home to the Red Branch, defenders of the Ulaidh, before they were closed for the night.  Progress had been slow since leaving the promontory fort until he reached he great road leading directly to Eamhain Macha itself – but even then, it had been a long trek across the plains of Brega and crossing of its numerous fords had all taken time.

Common hospitality now saw his admittance to the hill fort and the heavy packs of trade goods slung on his mule ensured it. Once the gates closed, guards and dogs patrolled the gates and walls and no one would be admitted unless first acknowledged by Scél the gatekeeper but, at last, Forgall smirked, he was inside and led to the lodge of the Craobh Ruadh. Here in the great feasting hall of the once boy king, Conor mac Nessa, it was custom for all visitors to Eamhain Macha to pay their respects in the great feasting hall.  Forgall glanced around the crowded benches where boys, supervised by older women, oversaw the spits on which oxen roasted. Dogs lay panting, around the hall, all looking towards the main fire pit. The trestle tables were almost full and most men were drinking, waiting for their meat.  Girls, the skirts hitched to avoid the soiled rushes strewn on the beaten earth and to avoid the outstretched dogs, scurried among the benches keeping the men’s mugs topped up. Most were drinking the dark drink of hops and barley, flavoured with honey and heather from the western mountains.

 Good, Forgall thought, the pup was there, talking to that old fool, Fergus Mac Rioch. Fergus, who by right of birth had been king, had thrown it all away for the lures of Ness, daughter of the yellow heel, Conor’s mother. Conor became king, for a year once, and then that year had extended until today.  That was many years ago now and people whispered that at the time, Cathbad, the draoidh, had influenced the situation in, as yet, unseen ways. Hunching down slightly, Forgall pulled the hood closer around his face and assumed the humble look of an honest peddler looking for favour from a noble host.

Conor showed the effect of his debauched youth. Long, lank, greying hair framed a foxy narrow face. Thin and restless, he seemed to almost squirm in his seat, bored with the tales of his lords, Conall Cernach the Victorious, red-faced and solid as a block of oak and Bricriu of the Bitter Tongue on either side of him.  Forgall took a space on a bench further down from the head of the hall.  Opposite, but to his left, Phelim the harper, father to the hapless Deirdre long promised to Conor, sat talking to Dáire, lord of the bull of Cooley. Fergus sat further away beside his queen, Ness who was talking to the slack faced youth on her other side.  Other warriors, unknown to Forgall, jostled each other, already noisy with the drink in them. Trenchers of bread were being laid on the tables and Forgall took the opportunity to grasp a serving girl by the wrist as she passed and obtain a mug of the dark brew the men were drinking. Ness, he saw, held a delicate vessel of some semi translucent material into which she had a kneeling girl serve her from a flagon of Gaulish wine.

Deichtine, Conor’s step-sister – or some say, Forgall sniggered to himself, his one time lover and favoured chariot driver – amused herself by the antics of a wolf hound pup rolling on its back at her feet.

Conor’s eye fell on the hooded figure and he leaned forward on the table, rapping the flagon in front of him with the ivory hilt of his knife to gain attention. 

“So, peddler, from where do you come and what news do you bring us from your travels, for we have not seen you here before?” he called out in a high, piping voice.

Standing and bowing slightly but keeping his face averted, Forgall called out, 

“I come from the land to the south of the border with the gracious lady, queen Medb of Connachta and have marvelled at the bounty and grace of the noble lady but rarely have I seen such splendour with which King Conor is surrounded.”

“Well spoken, peddler,” broke in Bricriu, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand as he sloshed down his mug, “but still we have not heard your news.”

“I am just a plain peddler with some trinkets that might amuse the ladies but I fear I have little of interest for the lords of Eamhain Macha, except, perhaps, tales of a young hero to whom Queen Medb has shown favour.”

“Heroes,” roared Conall Cernach, his stentorian voice in booming contrast to Bricriu’s high-pitched tones.  “Who needs heroes when we have champions enough, for every man here,” he glared along the table, “is a champion while our boys in the Red Branch will take the red cloak of the warrior soon enough?”

“So who is this hero that Medb favours, do tell us, another young bull to add to her herd?” cut in Conor, his voice flat and disinterested.

Forgall paused, taking in quickly the rapt attention of the young man at Fergus’ side – the beardless pup, who did he think he was to attempt robbing Forgall of his golden haired treasure?

“No, my lord,” he murmured.  “A true hero sent by the Lady Medb to train in far Dál Riata, with Domnall Mildemail. Only such a man is fit to be called a hero, much less a champion, one who has mastered the arts of war shown by Domnall the Soldierly. They say,” Forgall paused and glanced sideways at the youth, “he has been promised the hand of Emer, daughter of Forgall Monach, the lord of Ben Etair on his return.”

Fergus looked up and grunted, “Aye, I have heard of Domnall of Dál Riata and the warriors he trains at his fortress there.  No finer men would you find in a long day’s march. Aye, I met Domnall in long days past – a hard man, I’d say.”

“His fortress of stone and solitude,” scoffed Bricriu, “a barren wasteland with no pasture for cattle. Let him keep his kingdom there and stay in peace for if the men of the Ulaidh were to rise up, this narrow sea between here and Dál Riata would evaporate from the heat of our passage and reveal the fullness of the dark stone causeway.” boasted Bricriu.

“No doubt that is true,” the peddler assented, his head still bent submissively, “but they say only the hero who has mastered the skills of warfare at Domnall’s rough hands will win the love of the lady Emer.”

“Surely everyone from this kingdom is better than the best that this Domnall can train?” The dark haired youth beside Fergus suddenly erupted angrily.  Up on his feet, one bunched fist grinding against the trestle table in front of him, he glared around the hall.

“Good man, Cú Chulainn,” Bricriu jeered. “You’re the very man to uphold the honour of the Red Branch and Ulaidh.”

Pushing back from the table so that he stood fully erect, before all eyes, the boy shimmered and changed, no longer a callow youth who sat submissively at the side of his sworn lord, his body contorted and transformed into the lean, muscled form of a warrior with the blood lust on him. The thick hanks of dark hair falling to his shoulders caught the light from the tallow lamps behind him and appeared edged with fire while his eyes, hard and grey, flicked from man to man with the harshness of slingshots, dominating the room. Hushed, lords and men, serving girls and even the dogs seemed suspended in motion, like dust motes caught in a ray of sunlight in a darkened porch.

“What talk is this, men of the Ulaidh? Let no man among us, even beyond the borders of the five fifths of Ériu, dare say that Ulaidh does not have a warrior who exceeds any man that this Domnall of Dál Riata can train, excelling even over the hard Domnall himself.”

Cú Chulainn paused and glared down the hall, his immense shadow flickering and shifting on the panelled wall behind him.

“Should any man here doubt that the Ulaidh has the equal and the best part of any so-called hero that comes from the rocky, barren coast of Dál Riata, I myself, Sétanta mac Súaltaim, the hound of Culann, will undertake the voyage over the cold, grey sea to meet and best this master of warfare before returning to the Ulaidh to claim the prize of the hand of the lady Emer.”

“Well spoken, Cú Chulainn, my favoured nephew, but no one here could ever doubt the ability of one such as yourself.” murmured Conor. The momentary silence following the king’s pronouncement was interrupted by a discreet cough and the king turned his jaded eyes on the peddler.

“Well and bravely spoken, young master,” Forgall began hesitantly, as if reluctant to speak frankly of the thoughts that all would behold to be common truths.

“Yes, go on; speak your mind, man,” rumbled Conall.

“Well, it is known that Domnall only accepts the best of the best, men at their battle prime and even then,” Forgall paused for regretful respect, “many are the men who do not return from their training and I say men, because no beardless youth such as the young lord here, could possibly master the feats – the shield vault, and the arts of slaying unknown to most – to even dream of being admitted to such a testing environment.” 

Forgall bowed his head lower in mute subjection to the favour of the king, but not before he saw the youth, now returned to his early form, tense again, only to be restrained by the cautionary hand of Fergus.  

“In fact,” the peddler continued quietly, “I have heard that Lugaid Mac Nois is preparing to undergo the challenge and all know that Lugaid is well–seasoned in the art of warfare and raiding.”

At the mention of Lugaid’s name Cú Chulainn sat up straighter and glared at the hooded peddler.

***

“So, what happened then?” Ferdia mac Damáin, fostered at Eamhain Macha since childhood, had become fast friends with the small, dark-haired boy when he had arrived so unexpectedly at Eamhain Macha the first time. Now, he had ridden up to the heights of Sliabh Fúait, bringing stirabout made with fresh milk and wheaten meal flavoured with honey as well as a flask of red wine, to hear more of Cú Chulainn’s tales from his recent trip south to Laighain.

“Well, the old man made it clear that only a hero would be worthy of his daughter’s hand and that as far as he was concerned, I wasn’t exactly hero material,” Cú Chulainn began.

“But you’d just beaten the cess out of his three sons, wasn’t that enough for the ould fool?” Ferdia put in.

“Arragh, I could have done that with my eyes closed and one arm behind my back!” Cú Chulainn boasted. “Anyway, as I was leaving, Emer, … oh Ferdia, she is so beautiful, if I could just rest my head between … I mean on …” 

“Yeah, yeah, but go on, Emer what?” Ferdia demanded, passing over the wine skin to his foster brother.

“Right, as I leaving, I managed to have a few words with her and she told me that her father would not tolerate any suitor for her hand unless he had killed a score of men at every ford on the river Ailibine and done the salmon leap carrying twice his weight in gold.”

“Is that all?” Ferdia laughed.  “You’re right, you’d have to be a quare ould hero to do all of that stuff, right enough.”

“It’s no laughing matter,” Cú Chulainn snapped, glaring at his friend.  “To make matters worse, she told me that the whole thing is just her father’s way to get rid of suitors.”

“What did you say then?” Ferdia asked, more sympathetically.

“What do you think?”  Cú Chulainn gulped more wine, a trickle running down his smooth chin.  “I said I would do it all and more for her and nothing would keep me from her and she promised that she wouldn’t even look at any other men until I returned for her.”

 “He’s not called Forgall the Cunning for nothing, is he?” Ferdia said, clunking his mug gently against Cú Chulainn’s.  “Does that mean you are going to do it, crazy as it sounds?”

Cú Chulainn paused, gulped from the mug before getting up and pacing up and down beside where Ferdia sat.

“That’s what the peddler said,” he continued. “A suitor to Forgall’s daughter’s hand has to complete training with the warrior chieftain Domnall Mildemail the war-like and the chieftain, Scáthach the Shadowy One, in Dál Riata, as well as being able to perform other wondrous feats, that sort of stuff.” 

“Well, you know, look at it this way, a bit of travel, see a different world, meet new people …, it could be a chance to have some fun.” 

Ferdia leaned back against the boulder and stared up at his friend.  

“She must have been very special, I’ve never seen you like this before, what’s this her name is, again?”

“Emer.” Cú Chulainn spun around and stared at his friend, “I tell you, when I first saw her sitting there, the blue of the sea dulled by the beauty of her eyes as bright as flowers, as I came down the track from Magh Brega, I just knew, she has to be the one. She has the most amazing…,” Cú Chulainn stopped and started again “…she looks so … she’s …,” words failed him and he suddenly sat down opposite Ferdia.

“So, what are you going to do?”

“What can I do? I promised to return, I told her.  You would too if you could have glimpsed that sweet valley.” Cú Chulainn drained his mug and banged it on the ground beside him. “I said that no father or brother or any man alive would stop me the next time I come looking for her.  And I meant it.”

“Lookit here to me,” Ferdia suddenly said, “Cú Chulainn, I’ll go with you, we’ll watch each other’s backs, what do you say?  We are foster brothers, aren’t we, sworn to each other by blood oaths and firm friends?  We’ll go together and take on all comers and make our own mark in the world for how else are heroes made? Not by sitting on our arses here, that’s for sure.”

***

Dusk was falling and Scél mac Bairin had herded the lactating ewes inside the lambing enclosure and was hobbling around inside, busy lighting rush torches in the courtyard around the Craobh Ruadh in celebration of the lengthening days and the early signs of the passing of Samhain.  The flares from the torches and the blackthorn fires reminded Cú Chulainn, recently returned from Dal Riata, of the return of warmth and the increasing power of the sun over the coming days and Cathbad had already noted the new sprouting of leaves, and the appearance of the first crocus flowers.

Scél, his diminutive shadow bobbing against the wall of the Red Branch lodge, cackled with pleasure at the thought of badgers coming out from their den now that the dark days of Samhain were coming to an end until Cú Chulainn barked at him to find Ibar the charioteer.

Cú Chulainn sat back by the camp fire of blackthorn wood, which burned slowly with good heat and little smoke, his long, dark hair tinged with crimson from the firelight, thinking of the girl he had promised to find when he had returned from his training in Dál Riata. 

Lugaid mac Nois had openly admitted the night before that he had been invited by Emer’s father to court the girl but had manfully refused when Emer had told him of Cú Chulainn’s prior interest.  Cú Chulainn looked up from the flames at the sound of a discreet cough and saw a small man waiting respectfully nearby.

“My father told me to tell you that he can’t come.  He sent me instead.  He’s got a bit old now and says he is not up to your tricks.”

Cú Chulainn glared at the young man for a long moment before he understood the glimmer of humour in his eyes.

“And I suppose you think you are up to it?” he demanded, standing up and pushing the youth in the chest.

Laeg remained stock still under Cú Chulainn’s jabbing finger. He was barely taller than the homunculus, Scél the gatekeeper, but he was broad chested and long limbed with strong arms and he stood firmly on stout legs.

“My name is Laeg mac Ibar mac Ringambra and like my father and his father before him, I wear the yellow band of the master charioteer now,” he said proudly “and anything my father could have done, I can do – and better,” 

“Right then so,” Cú Chulainn grinned, clapping his hands together and rubbing them briskly.  “I need a driver who knows how to leap chasms, not afraid to use the goad and able to back up straight without me being a backseat driver. I fight, you drive, and if you want to give advice, I’ll ask for it.”

“When do you want to leave?” Laeg asked, pleased with Cú Chulainn’s obvious acceptance of him.

“First light in the morning, harness the sickle chariot and we go to Ben Etair in the kingdom of Laigheann where there is a girl I fain would see now and let no man or beast prevent me from doing so!”

***

Laeg hopped onto the open front of the chariot, taking the reins in his left hand, his right shoulder against the right forward side arch of ash wood with one foot braced against the opposite arch, his right foot extended onto the pole leading to the yoked ponies.  At a nod from Cú Chulainn, he expertly guided the light chariot over the coarse grassed, bumpy plain, rutted with old chariot tracks, to the north of Brúgh na Bóinne and forded the Boann river heading south towards Luglochta Logo, the iron-shod wooden wheels sending up gouts of water on either side of the chariot, drenching Sétanta, who balanced easily on the interwoven strips of rawhide which made up the springy strap work floor.

“Hold on,” shouted Laeg, the cold wind whipping his long hair back as he urged the ponies on and over the first of the horizontal logs which made up the corrugated trackway of oaken beams laid over the boggy ground stretching before them. Cú Chulainn grunted and allowed his knees to bend slightly to counteract the jolting although the rawhide straps supporting the body of the chariot provided a rough suspension.

The watcher on the highest platform behind the palisade blew a long, wavering note on the horn to signify the arrival of armed strangers.  The palisade, Cú Chulainn noted, had been reinforced with outward pointing, sharpened stakes and a crude watchtower had been erected atop the wall beside the gate and he could see the hulking figure of Scibar pushing shut the entry gate to the triple walls closing off the ráth on the promontory. 

“It doesn’t look like they want to see you,” Laeg commented drily, swinging the chariot around so that its left side challenged the watchers on the wall.

Cú Chulainn made no answer but climbed nimbly onto the rim of the chariot and leapt on to the chariot pole and ran its length until he stood astride the yoke as Laeg thundered past, the clods of earth thrown up by the sickle wheeled chariot hammering the walls.  Twisting in the air, Cú Chulainn leapt like a salmon at the first wall, hauling himself up and over in one fluid movement and landed lightly on his feet, his sling shot already sending whirling death to Ecet, Emer’s brother, who was crouched beside an unyoked chariot, feinting with short spear thrusts. Cú Chulainn dropped his slingshot and grabbed his fallen spear and charged the still open gate in the second wall, panicking Connad by his sudden attack.

Connad lunged his spear towards Cú Chulainn’s groin but he swept the point away and down with the butt of his spear before raising it and ramming the iron-tipped point into the man’s unprotected gullet and bounding past him. Sweeping more men aside, he flailed the spear like a staff before him, keeping his movements quick and sharp, blocking thrusts and stabs and immediately attacking faces, throats and groins before moving on towards the final, inner wall. Running forward swiftly, Cú Chulainn reversed the spear in his hand and thrust the pole end into the dirt before the wall and completed a salmon leap so that he was inside the court.

Scibar was waiting there for him, a long iron sword in his hand.  “So the beardless pup is here again,” he bellowed, charging at him, sword extended and Cú Chulainn spun on the balls of his feet to ward off the attack of the overhead swing. Stamping forward, he slashed his blade at Scibar’s ankle before wrenching the keen-edged blade up between his open legs. Scibar staggeredd back, ashen faced, as blood poured from under his tunic, pooling on the ground at his feet. Snarling, he lurched forward, swinging his sword up so that the point flicked towards Cú Chulainn’s throat.  Cú Chulainn swayed to one side, avoiding the cut and moved forward, inside Scibar’s range and thrust his own blade forward into Scibar’s throat. Scibar let his sword fall with a clang from his powerless hand and his breath bubbled wetly in his throat. Cú Chulainn twisted the sword, using both hands before wrenching the iron blade out from his throat so that the blood ran down the grooved blade, streaming over his hands.

Forgall, seeing his sons fallen and his fort taken, scurried around to the back of the ráth, and scrambled up a ladder leaning against the inside wall onto the parapet overlooking the grey sea at the side of the promontory on which the ráth was built, hampered by the heavy sacks of valuables he was lugging over his shoulder. 

Cú Chulainn stopped and looked at the older man, noting the trapped, desperate, look in the old man’s narrow eyes.

“Stay back,” Forgall screamed, waving a short bladed knife in Cú Chulainn’s direction.

“I offer you safe passage in return for the hand of your daughter,” Cú Chulainn cried, thrusting his bloody sword point down into the ground at his feet. 

Forgall turned back to glare at the still warrior,  “Bad cess and short life to you. Never will I surrender my daughter or my gold to your blood-stained hands,” he screamed. The old man scrambled away along the parapet but the weight of the sacks he was carrying caused him to slip and fall to his death on the salt-washed rocks below. 

Cú Chulainn spat after him, plucked his sword from the ground and went to look for Emer in a small area off the main hall.

Retrieving the two sacks of gold and silver Forgall had dropped and putting one bag under each of his oxters and tossing Emer over his shoulder, he leapt the walls again to where Laeg was waiting for him.  Forgall’s men, enraged at the death of their ring-giver and liege lord, pursued them until they reached the ford on the river Ailbine, and Cú Chulainn killed a score of them there. 

Again, they were overtaken at another ford on the Boann, and Cú Chulainn pushed Emer down from the chariot, so that he could more easily follow his enemies along the bank of the river. 

At each of these fords Cú Chulainn killed a score of men, and so he kept his word to Emer, and they came safely to Eamhain Macha, toward the fall of night.