Anniversary and A.I.

I think it is almost 7 years since I started this nonsense of trying to get along in cyber space or whatever and the whole reason I did so was two-old. First I had just (self) published a novel I had spent 8 or 9 years writing (Raiding Cooley – still available on Amazon and other sites at the bargain price of $3.95, so go on, if you haven’t already, go ahead and take a look) and I thought I needed an ‘on-line presence’ to market the book.

So I started this blog thingy, initially on Celtic Iron Age stuff, and then it morphed into new things I was learning – Curves, Travel, Music, Food and that sort of thing.

Anyway, here I am now, years later and I can honestly say that my involvement with cyber space has not taken off. I have never used  – or even know what they are / do – Tik-Tok, Instagram, …. Snapchat? And, well , others like that, thank God about which I know nothing.

But all of that is now in the past because with one of these smart AI chatbots, the world is there for the picking. Just recently a bunch of pointy heads and Elon Musk wrote an open letter (to whom, I don’t know) calling for an immediate halt to AI until firmer / better regulations were in place to govern it’s burgeoning use. And recently, a major news outlet – The BBC ? – published results where an AI chatbot successfully passed the country’s Bar examinations – the entrance into the UK’s legal profession. The Economist magazine mentioned a 4% possibility of AI damaging humans by 20.. – oh, I forget the date mentioned but the future seems to be crowding in and who knows what A.I. is doing to Man’s more brutal pastimes – war, savagery, intelligent drones and so on.

Anyway, rather bravely, I though, I dipped a very tremulous toe into the murky water of AI. The website seemed keen to ‘teach me’ how to do some fairly simple procedures but after step two or so when It asked me to ‘clone a repository” I gave up and jumped to an end product which just looked – rather disappointingly, I thought –  like an ordinary google query point. The website provided dozens of examples  of what it could achieve if prompted and drawing upon millions of everyday interactions stored over the last several decades, it could produce a tailored, ordered examples of text with an input similar to this ‘Write a two sentence horror story with the word breakfast’ and bingo, nano seconds later it was there and … Wow, very good, I thought.

How I will eventually use something like that remains open – given my past record with FaceBook, Twitter and LinkedIn – but it might be fun to play around.

Anyway, for those who are interested

will take you to a basic starting point where there are loads of incredible examples – including the two sentence horror story mentioned above and others as well as tutorials on Building applications (!), Embeddings (?), Image generation and Text Completion modules.

However, if like me, you want to skip all the bells and whistles and just want to plug a prompt into OpenChat and get an immediate response go to

Obviously once A.I. has reached this level, there is no putting it back in its Pandoran box. Just as Atomic and Nuclear knowledge cannot be unlearned, so too A.I. has probably escaped into the wider world and will continue to learn and grow. Is the old Arnold Schwartznegger Terminator films, where an A.I. intelligence, Skynet, determines that humans are a danger to its continued existence and proceeds to exterminate them, one of those examples where fiction blends into reality? Certainly, academics and pointy heads around the world are all scratching their collective noggins as to the dangers and benefits but one thing is for sure, A.I. is not going away and is going to learn exponentially.

Saigon memories

I used to claim that even the hardest traveller only needed a minimum of four weeks to get used to (a new) culture shock and a new world. Of course a life is really needed for that, but a month or so will usually suffice to get you by and it was certainly that way when I moved from Australia to Hong Kong in 2000 where I quickly got used to the convenience and ease of shops and transport, the closeness of friends, the mobility a car affords, a semi-English speaking environment, the diversity of country parks and beaches and the cityscape.

That all changed when I moved to Saigon aka Ho Chi Minh City in 2012  and I have to admit it took me a bit longer than the blasé four week mentioned earlier but I did get used to a new way of life here, albeit slowly. Saigon was certainly a different world to everything I had experienced before.  Everything seemed strange and either ludicrous or just plain crazy.  Traffic, for instance, was no doubt governed by laws, but what those  were remained unfathomable to me. 

One-way streets, traffic lights and pedestrian crossings appeared to be the merest suggestions without any serious compliance expected.  Crossing any street was as fraught with as much excitement and danger as playing a computer game like Call of Duty as attackers” (motorbikes) could come at you from any direction and at any time without any warning whatsoever while lumbering buses and trucks made no allowance for either motorbikes or pedestrians. Pavements and sidewalks were fair game for motorbikes and the rule appeared to be that if you could stop your bike sideways on the pavement or in the middle of your living room, or even the road, why then, it is perfectly parked!  

Shortly after I arrived, it was much bruited among the ex-pat community here that the Saigonese police were about to initiate one of their regular crackdowns but this certainly would not involve stopping bikes rushing through red lights or going the wrong way up a one-way street or driving on the pavement; instead, it would be more of a crackdown on pedestrians in that if a pedestrian were involved in an accident, it must be the pedestrian’s fault!.  Similarly when driving at night, why run the risk of running your battery down when you can simply turn off your headlights at night and drive just as well in the dark.

Notwithstanding all that, my partner decided that, despite neither of us having any experience whatsoever with motorbikes, we had better get into the spirit of things and rent our own personal motorbike and for reasons best known to others, it was decided to rent a motorbike on the far side of the city to where we actually lived.  I made the rather tentative suggestion that we rent a scooter with automatic transmission – having spent at least a total time of less than one minute “practicing” on a Honda Airblade in Cambodia.  This would obviate the need to change cumbersome gears with the feet while attempting to maintain eyes forward, sideways and backwards and at the same time weave with the fluidity of a dust mote in a beam of sunlight, through the woof and weft of roundabout traffic.  This suggestion was quickly rebuffed as it is a well known motorbikes with automatic transmission are too powerful and have a tendency to “run away” with you if you twist the handlebar throttle too much!  Instead we settled on a Honda 110cc with manual gears because then “you can start it up in 2nd gear and it won’t run away on you”.

All well and good and the one-eyed tout renting the bikes appeared to have no qualms about renting a bike to a pair such as us who blatantly had no knowledge of where to even put the ignition key or whether to use the left or the right foot for the necessary gear changes.  A one-minute tutorial in Vietnamese (unexplained to me) and a 5 minute practice ride in, through and around the flower beds in a nearby public park sufficed and the keys were quickly handed over for a million dong  or so (about $65 Australian).

The immediate problem that presented us was two-fold; neither my partner nor I felt sufficiently confident to give the other a back pillion ride and, even if we were, neither of us had the slightest of idea how to circumnavigate the city to get to our far-flung district.  

Bit of an impasse, until a malleable plastic 50,000 dong note (about $3.5 Australian!) was slipped to the assistant of the one-eyed man and he drove my partner home, using the bike as a XÊ HỐM  ̣motorbike “taxi” or literally “hug machine” as the passenger is often obliged to hug the driver to avoid being jolted off the back as the rider careens over kerbs, potholes and the occasional bricks casually tossed onto the road.  I then spent the rest of the afternoon hunting for a bus which would go within reasonable distance of where we actually lived.

By the time I got back home, of course it was too dark to warrant venturing out onto the tangle of streets surrounding us so all we had to do was pay the gate-keeper where we lived another small fortune in well used plastic bank notes to allow us to park the bike under his supercillious nose.

The next morning, after the apparent ritual of handing over another bunch of crumpled plastic bank notes to the new gatekeeper which allowed him to  retrieve our bike from wherever his colleague had hidden it the previous night – we took it in turns – “remember to start the bike in 2nd gear” – to cruise cautiously up and down our local street, rented helmets with greasy, sweat-stained linings slipping down over our eyes, our arms extended stiffly on the handlebars, eyes flickering nervously down to our feet and then belatedly up to scan the street for the unwary chickens which patrol it haphazardly, tentatively trying out the horn (an absolute must for any aspiring driver here) and the indicators and stalling the bike in our attempts to bring it to a graceful stop actually in front of the street cafe rather than on top of one of its small tables.

Suffice it to say, after a week or so, the bike remained safely parked in the basement bowels of our building, our helmets mouldered in a cupboard, and, since our arrival at this address, the local taxi mafia set up a permanent taxi-rank outside our front door.  Enough said about traffic and bikes, I feel, although there was some talk that we might return the bike and exchange it for an automatic one as, apparently, they are easier to drive!  Hmm, said I, non-commitedly.

Noise is a constant factor with motorbikes, buses, trucks and an increasing number of private cars having carte blanche to blast their klaxon-like horns constantly, mingling with the incessant noise of daily life on the streets – people crouched on tiny stools over  rickety tin tables, sucking down noodle soup at all hours of the days or night while small “cafes” simply appropriated the space before a closed shop or office and set up their stools and tables there.  Along with eating on the street, there are all the concomitant activities that go with it – obviously, cooking over an open charcoal fire on the pavement is perfectly normal, as are washing the dishes in a tub of greasy lather while it is perfectly acceptable to sprawl on the pillion seat of a motorbike with your bare feet propped on the handlebars while a foot massage or pedicure is administered. 

Why stop there, of course?  The street is a perfect place for a barber to attach a chipped mirror to the railing and set up a barber’s chair, and while you are at it, you might as well bathe the naked children on the main street as well.  Need a toilet, well there is a perfectly good tree that you can hug and pee away to your heart’s delight.   Feel like a nap? Just stretch out on any semi level piece of ground and snooze away.

  Shopping was another new experience.  Supermarkets were few and far between and the ones that do cater to western tastes – i.e. selling such delicacies as Kiwi shoe polish, Cornflakes, baked beans in tomato sauce, long-life UHT milk imported from new Zealand and Australia, pasta and P.G. Tips tea bags – are few and far between as well as being outrageously expensive. 

Instead, Vietnamese life centers around the market – usually a maze of narrow alleyways where fruit, veg, fish, meat and live poultry are haggled over down to the last dong.  Don’t feel the need to have an actual stall? 

Fine, just spread a torn sheet of plastic on the muddy ground and pile your veg there.  Want a nice pig’s tongue or a bucket of toads, or a basin of slippery eels? No problem, just scoop them up into the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag and slaughter away in the convenience of your own home.  

Nothing pressing to do today?  Well then, sprawl in a plastic garden chair and drink syrupy black coffee with ice, or, for a real taste buster, load up the glass – cups are rarely used – with sweetened, condensed milk, top up with a thick syrupy coffee and then dilute the dregs with the complimentary glass of iced jasmine tea, flicking your cigarette butts (Craven A – pronounced CARavan A) at pedestrians’ feet as they stumble past on the cracked and uneven pavements between the parked and zooming motorbikes, while fending off the legion of cripples and maimed selling lottery tickets, sunglasses, feather dusters, zippo lighters and manicure kits from a sandwich board contraption they sling over their deformed shoulders.

Ah, yes, different to HK, as I say. 

However, it WAS an experience and I coped quite well, I think. I enrolled in a Vietnamese language school and signed up for an elementary class with other would-be aspirants, but I was the only student and had the undivided attention of a pretty, charming, superbly fluent and patient 24 year old teacher.  

I signed up for 35 hours at the monstrous price of 4,000, 000 dong (yep, 4 million!) and have already completed 12 hours, most of which has been spent grappling with the tonal aspect of the language as well as learning to write using the correct tonal signals along with the assorted diacritics that the Vietnamese alphabet of 29 letters uses.  

A “D” not surprisingly, is not, of course, pronounced “Duh” but instead sounds a bit like a “Yuh” while the (new to me) letters such as Ă, Â, Ê, Ô, Đ, Ư and Ơ still retain that aura of mystique.  Add the tones then on top of those letters and it becomes even more baffling as in Ầ or Ẩ or Ẫ while a simple and important word like “wine” becomes unrecognisable in RƯƠỤ – notice the all important dot under the final U!

However, having whinged about all that, to my rather modest surprise, I appeared to pick up some of the language fairly quickly.  My class was from 10:00 – 11:30 (but then again it might just be from 10:30 – 12:00 noon) three mornings a week so after the lesson I used to wander around and get lost in this sprawling city and finally, in a sweating, red-faced, sodden mess, I would attempt to squeeze my bum into a plastic chair clearly made for kindergarten kids and slurp coffee – (Cà phê) – while mumbling such phrases as I believe I had mastered only to later discover that I had just told the waitress that “her mother is a beautiful grave”!.  

Then the wearisome search for a bus home would begin.  Saigon is a maze of one way  streets and while this is blithely ignored by motorbikes and small utility trucks powered by oily, smoke-belching, ancient motorbikes engines, buses here do tend to follow the standard traffic direction.  So, getting off the bus and carefully noting the stop – all bus stops are conveniently identified with XÊ BỨYT stencilled in faded letters on the road itself – is all to no avail as the street apparently is a one-way street and the return bus would not just simply chug along on a parallel street but perhaps take a more tortuous route several blocks away.  My several attempts at asking directions in my newly fluent Vietnamese had one gentleman hawk a gob of spit at my feet while a rather prim lady blushed and pulled her paisley-patterned surgical-type mask firmly over her face and stalked off without a word.

Apparently, it is not just the beach that can make a lady’s skin dark.  It is, rather, the mundane situation of being anywhere outdoors between dawn and dusk.  Here in Saigon, of course is the added problem of “the dust” which necessitates every single female between the ages of 11teen and 90 wearing a plain or haute-couture designed face mask, much like the style favoured by bank-robbing cowboys.  

 Those particularly concerned with the “whiteness” of their features would additionally opt for the more comprehensive cover of a gorget or wimple. Along with the face mask, covering everything from below the eyes, a floppy hat is also de rigeur.  Add to that, elbow length evening style gloves, similar to those worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and, finally, as a finishing touch, wear fish-belly grey knee length stockings with a convenient cleft between the big and first toe, all the more suitable for slipping your foot into the ineveitable thongs / flip-flops that many ladies here seem to favour.

However, to make up for everything, we had a rather nice apartment in the Bình Thạnh District (notice the dot under the “a” again!).  It is bright, clean, airy and spacious – much larger than our former apartments In HK.  We have two large bedrooms, two loos and two balconies with a reasonable view of the city and a glimpse of the snaking Saigon river.  By motorbike taxi, less than 20 minutes into the city centre, perhaps 30 minutes by public bus, so all in all, not too bad.

I mentioned the figure of 4 million Dong – the Vietnamese currency – recently for my Vietnamese lessons and while I was vaguely familiar with large amounts – I remember once my peculiar joy at being both a millionaire and simultaneously broke while living in Italy in the late 70’s – but it is the excess of the numbers here  that put the heart sideways in me– I just couldn’t get used to dealing in millions for relatively simple purchases.  The first time I ever came to Vietnam, back in 1996, I needed a plastic shopping bag to carry the cruddy paper bank notes around.  Now, a semblance of sense exists and the notes are all the new, shiny, plastic bank notes, originating, I think from Australia.  The largest note is a 500,000 dong note, followed by a 200,000 and then a 100,000,  and then down the scale at 50,000, 20,000, 10,000, and the rather lowly paper notes of 5,000 2,000, 1,000 and finally the rather pitiful 500 dong note (approx. $0.02 Australian or Euro cents !) How easy it was to confuse a zero here or there and (usually) end up being massively overcharged.

Saint Paddy’s Day again.

Someone mentioned to me recently that it was Ash Wednesday, the traditional day introducing the Christian Lenten period (approximately 40 days and night) prior to Easter and, on the spur of the moment, I reverted to my childhood habit of ‘giving up something’ for Lent, for the first time, I have to admit, in several decades.

Back then, it was things like chocolate and sweets, candies, lollies or whatever sugary confections are called nowadays. Later in adolesence, it was coffee, cigarettes and beer so, foolishly perhaps, I made a rather abrupt decision about three weeks ago to avoid, abstain from and eschew all red, white and rosé wines as well as all spirits of an intoxicating nature – whiskey, brandy, cognac, tequila, rum (dark and light), vodka, gin, vermouth, Campari, Cointreau. That leaves me with beer, of course, but as I never have or drink beer at home  – usually wine or spirits sufficing – and only rarely venture out to the pub – yes, really! – I have to admit I am finding the whole business not only tiresome but also frustrating 

Well, it is almost that time of year again – thank God for Saint Patrick – when Irish people around the world raise a toast – in my case, a pint of Guinness – to the national saint and patron of the far flung western isle. As I mentioned in a previous post on this topic, St. Patrick’s Day, coming as it does, halfway through the Lenten period is a particularly important day for those struggling with their resolutions and abstentionism because St. Patrick’s Day – 17 March – is considered not only a Holy Day of Obligation (where practicing Catholics must attend a church service) it is also a Day of Dispensation when all vows, resolutions, renunciations, abjurations, disclaimers and abnegations are temporarily lifted so that a toast may be made to the Patron Saint. Yippee!

In honour of him – and all things Irish, I’d like to present a sample from the little known corpus of Jim Casey, the Bard of Booterstown * in this singular paean, not to the national saint, but to the national drink!

The Working Man’s Friend

When things go wrong and will not come right,

Though you do the best you can,

When life looks black as the hour of night – 

A pint of plain is your only man.

When money’s tight and is hard to get

And your horse has also ran

When all you have is a heap of debt –

A pint of plain is your only man.

When health is bad and your heart feels strange,

And your face is pale and wan, 

When doctors say you need a change,

A pint of plain is your only man

When food is scarce and your larder bare

And no rashers grease your pan

When hunger grows as your meals are rare –

A pint of plain is your only man.

In time of trouble and lousy strife

You still have a darlin’ plan

You still can turn to a brighter life – 

a pint of plain is your only man.

* Excerpt taken from the amazing novel set in Dublin At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien 1951, 1966. First published in London in 1939, about as unalike Joyce’s Ulysses as a novel can be, any attempt to explain the ‘plot’ must founder on the incredible, mishmash of Celtic myth, drunken nonsense and the ‘biographical reminiscence’ sections inserted by the narrator and the magic of plain language perfectly delivered at a lyrical level.

‘This is just the book to give your sister if she is a loud, dirty, boozy girl’ according to a review by Dylan Thomas.

Beef Cheeks

I love to eat out. It is a simple pleasure. It does not have to be done every day or even every week but whenever it is done, it should always be a time of satisfaction and pleasure and not simply an excuse to stuff my face. I like to have something that I could not prepare at home either because it is too difficult technically or because I had never heard or even thought of that particular dish before.  The worse thing is when I get a meal that is inferior to what I could prepare myself at home. I wrote previously about a simple potato dish  – a potato terrains – that I had recently in a small restaurant on the river and how I attempted to recreate it at home. Certainly not technically difficult – just something I had never thought of before.

Similarly, when I first came to Australia, I had never eaten octopus (never having been to Greece in my previous wanderings) until I was introduced to it in a small basement restaurant (sadly no longer there) near where I lived at the time. The beauty of it at the time – the early 1990’s – was that octopus was as cheap as chips. Main stream restaurants hadn’t cottoned on to it as a gourmet lure and I could buy a kilo of fresh octopus for less that five dollars. Jump to todays’ prices and it will be more likely fifty dollars plus a kilo.

So when I came across slow braised beef cheeks served with grilled broccolini, peas on royal blue mash and red wine jus in a local pub recently, I ordered it impulsively, not 100% sure what beef cheeks were but imagining some type of a stew.

Instead, it was a meltingly tender slab of beef served on mashed spuds, with greens and gravy. Absolutely gorgeous. Rich and thick and flavoursome the beef was moist and succulent. What more could I say? This weekend I determined to replicate a cut of meat I had never heard of, having previously shied away from things like pigs trotters, chicken feet, ox heart, lung and brain.

What was amazing was the price – the local butcher had an entire area of a shelf display of neatly presented beef cheeks and yes, he assured me, yes, that is exactly what they are, the cow’s cheeks – that’s why they come in pairs, one from each side.  And, as the cow basically spends its life chewing, the muscles in the cheeks are quite well developed and that is why slow, gentle cooking is demanded.

Right, thinks I. This will do nicely. Getting a few more culinary tips from the butcher – always a good source about how to cook meat – I picked up a few more items and went home to prepare Beef Cheeks a lá traditional!

I give the cheeks a good rinse in running water and then patted them dry with a paper towel and snipped off any unnecessary fatty or gristley bits before dropping them into a large snap-lock bag with flour, seasoned with salt and pepper.

Seal the bag and I gave it a good shake coat the meat. I shook off excess flour and transferred the beef to a plate. Next, heat a tablespoon of oil in a large non-stick pan over a medium high heat and brown the two floured cheeks on each side for approximately 3 minutes before removing to a plate again.

I generously deglazed the pan with the red wine and poured the liquid into a casserole dish.

Another splash of oil in the pan before adding the chopped onion, garlic, carrots, reconstituted mushrooms, bay leaves and Swiss chard stalks to the pan, stir cooking for a few minutes until golden before adding a cup of beef stock, one Tbs. of sugar, two Tbs. of tomato paste and a handful of thyme leaves I had left over from something else.

I simmered everything gently and then poured some of the onion and carrot mixture into the casserole dish with the scrapings from the deglazed pan. The two beef cheeks lay snugly on top and I covered them with the remaining onion and carrot mixture.

Bang on a lid and I jammed the casserole dish into a preheated oven at about 160 degrees and cooked for two hours or so before ‘turning the cheeks; and giving them another two hours. After 4 hours the cheeks should be tender enough for a fork to pull the meat apart. If not, continue to cook for another hour. The cooking time will depend, of course, on the size of the cheeks and the breed of cattle.

Once done to your liking, Remove the beef cheeks for the cooking liquid, then set aside and keep warm.

Someone mentioned to me a few Wednesday ago that I should not eat meat that particular day. A quick look at the calendar confirmed that it was Ash Wednesday, the traditional start to the Lenten period before Easter, something I have completely ignored for years. As a child I always had to ‘give up’ something for Lent, perhaps sugar in my tea or jam on my bread or biscuits, lollies and cake, that sort of thing. Later on in life it was something like abstaining from alcohol or stopping smoking or similar nonsense to that. Needless to say, that was all in my youth and I have not given Lent or abstaining from anything  any notice whatsoever for the last couple of dozen years. Anyway, as I say, someone mentioned it to me and on the spur of the moment I decided, voluntarily, to give up drinking red and white wine and all spirits – gin, tequila, vodka, Bacardi, whiskey, Bundaberg rum – until Easter Sunday.

Unfortunately, that put me in a bit of a quandary that weekend as I bought more beef cheeks to slow cook but unlike the recipe above I was unable to use any red wine due to my new abstemious phase.

Rooting around in the cupboards, I came across garlic and ginger, soy sauce, star anise, cardamon pods, cinnamon quills and an old bottle of Chinese cooking wine (not made from grapes, so it fell outside the proscribed items). Right, thinks I, I’ll have a go at an Asian style approach to slow cooked beef cheeks.

As before, I washed the cheeks thoroughly and then snipped off any redundant fatty bits. I shaved strips off a knob of ginger the size of my thumb as well as long peels from a large orange with a potato peeler and then squeezed the juice into a bowl with the minced garlic, added ½ cup of soy sauce, ¼ cup of the Chinese Cooking wine (Shan Xing), a couple of star anise, 3 small cinnamon quills, the cardamom pods and 2 Tablespoons of brown sugar to balance the saltiness of the soy sauce and gave everything a good stir before dumping the beef cheeks in and mixing everything around.

I covered the lot with cling film and left it in the fridge to marinate over night.

The next day, I turned on the slow cooker, heated a pan with a splash of olive oil and quickly browned the drained beef cheeks for 3 or 4 minutes per side before tossing them into the slow cooked with the rest of the marinade and a cup  of water.

For good measure, at the last moment I threw in a handful of small dried chillies and set the slow cooker to do its magic. Obviously, the chillies are optional but I like a bit of fire with the beef. I actually gave them 4 hours before fishing the cheeks, almost falling apart, out and reducing the cooking sauce down in a small pot over a high heat.

Serve with a potato  mash, rice or cous-cous. Tonight couscous with chopped green beans and tomatoes. Gorgeous.

5. Medb

‘Isn’t it well for you,’ Ailil Mac Mata, king of Connachta laughed, nudging Medb in the ribs, ‘that you have a man like myself to keep you safe from fostering monsters while at the same time making you the richest and most powerful woman in the land’.

Medb, consort to the king, rolled her eyes in exasperation, and pushed away the ape which the trader had recently presented to her. The ape, a tiny homunculus from the hot lands to the south of Breoga’s homeland, sprang from the couch in the hall and scrambled, chattering angrily, up the wicker partition in their private quarters within the great royal hall of Cruachan, where finely hewn pillars of oak supported the arching roof.

‘Arr-aagh, would you go on with you out of that,’ she murmured lazily, ‘Sure, wasn’t I a queen in my own right in my father’s house, well off enough without you and the talk out of you.  Didn’t I have fifteen hundred armed men paid for myself out of my own pocket, and that was just my own household at the time.  And then sure I was never short of a gold torc or a finely fashioned comb of wrought ivory brought to me by Breoga from the far-flung lands to the east.’

‘Oh-ho, is that the way it was, then?  Your wealth was something I didn’t know or hear about, except, of course, for your woman’s things –  your combs and chains and such like.’

‘You’re a great one to be talking so,’ Medb replied, pushing Ailil back.  ‘Sure isn’t it talk I can get from any fool at any time of the day or night?’

‘Fool, is it?  Aren’t you the one that is much better off today than the day I married you, despite your fostering those monstrous daughter of Calátin.’

Medb shook back her long squirrel-brown hair and thought back to the three girls she had fostered so long ago now. Blind, deaf and dumb as each of the children were in turn, totally dependant on one another to be their eye, the ear and tongue, they were already well versed in black arts. Their father, Calatin Dana, a thickset, swarthy brutish man, widely known for his venom coated weapons, ferocity in battle, and the force of kinsmen that always accompanied him and fought as one, had merely grunted when Medb swept into his ill-kempt rath and arranged to foster the triplet girls, at the royal court at Cruachan. 

Ailil had scorned her choice then and demanded they foster Calátin’s sons.  What was gained by fostering three monstrous girls at the royal court? They could do nothing for us and he could not abide them within his sight, he had claimed.

The ape jabbered beside her as Medb pushed away Ailil’s hand and stood up abruptly.

‘Do you know what it is that I’m going to tell you?  I didn’t marry you for your wealth or your power – for didn’t I have both already myself – but for a wedding gift few women could ever get from their husband – the absence of meanness, jealousy and fear.  

Moving to the curved couch opposite Ailil, she reclined, caressing the hairy creature crouched at her side.

‘A mean man I would never marry either because it would look so bad, me being generous and giving. As for a frightened fellow, it would be a disaster too because, as you know, I’ve never shied away from a bit of danger or a wild gallop.’  

Ailil beckoned for the slave girl to refill his goblet as he looked at Medb

‘As for a jealous man, that wouldn’t do me either as I’m used to getting what I want’ Medb sat up suddenly, startling the ape. ‘What I wanted was to raise the triplets and provide all they needed. They desired to further their dark arts so blackly taught by the old gods in the far cities of the eastern world, Memphis, Petra, Ctesiphon, Artaxata and Tarsus and I arranged and provided them with all they had needed. Think of it, my love,’ she continued, ‘It will be a matter of honour for them to come to our aid when we require it. I assisted them to journey through the whole world, to get knowledge of spells and enchantments from those that have it, the way they will be able to do our bidding when the time comes.’


‘Who are here?’ Ailil demanded.

Mac Roth, the court steward looked away from the king, and turned hastily towards Medb, ‘The daughters of Calátin are here now and demanding to see you,’ Mac Roth, shook his bald head ponderously.

Ailil gave a  discrete cough, ‘Your monstrous fostering, all of them, the triplets are back.’

‘Well, what do they want?’ Medb snapped. She knew full well what the arrival of the triplets meant.

‘They won’t say – they insist on speaking to you alone.’ Mac Roth said hesitantly.

‘Remind me of what was agreed,’ Medb demanded, speaking directly to the steward and ignoring Ailil, ‘and what arrangements we might have made with these three hags, for that is what they were, when last we laid eyes on them and, I have no doubt, hags they remain at best. Given that they are still alive and back here, I can safely assume that they have returned for a reason and also to impose in some way on us but,’ she paused here and looked sharply at her steward. ‘If we can find a way to turn their purpose away from us to a far worthier target, then let us by all means see them shortly and listen to their plaint.  Don’t you agree, darling?’ Medb flashed a bright, brief smile at Ailil who was occupying himself with feeding his gyrfalcon further down the long trestle table on the dais at the head of the hall ‘These very monsters, as you call them, they will be our monsters to do our bidding when the time comes.’

Mac Roth stood to the side, his head bowed respectfully.

‘You willingly listened to their demands and arranged for them to learn the darker arts of poison and invocation in those havens of power and blood, across the inland sea from Alexandria and they swore to put their dark arts at the hands of their lord.’

‘Yes, yes,’ snapped Medb impatiently, ‘but what about the bitches – what do we do with them now, you fool.’

‘Their lord?’ Ailil swung around suddenly; upsetting the bird perched on the stand beside his stool.  ‘And they now can be used as we will? Against whoever dares to infringe upon our rights?’

‘My lady,’ Mac Roth said respectfully, ‘may I caution you against using these triplets.  Evil beyond words they were before, respecting neither honour nor loyalty, imagine how much more so they are now that they have returned so many years later.  Placate them by all means, please them if you have to, but above all, be wary of them and their dark skills for they have on them the aspect of fury and battle and venom and I advise you to avoid any enticement they might possibly offer.’

‘Well spoken, Mac Roth, like the true counsellor you are,’ Ailil clapped his hands ironically. ‘Know Medb and I treasure your words and advice but now that the daughter of Calátin are here and even demanding my lady’s presence, we would do well to greet them.’

Medb beckoned Mac Roth closer and when he approached, she gripped the front of his tunic in a tiny, bunched fist and wrenched the taller man’s face down level to hers where she lay on the leather covered bench.

‘Make sure a score of the Galeóin, fully armed, are to be placed behind the screens there so that they may not be observed by the hags for I understand their one eye is more than equal to the task of surveying all around them.’

Released suddenly, Mac Roth stood back and glanced quickly at Ailil before turning and leaving the royal apartment.


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.