An Old Celtic Tale of Love & Death

Part 1 – The Elopement

An early seasonal snow covered the rutted and trampled ground inside the ráth, delaying preparations for the féis Phelim the harper was arranging for the king of the Ulaidh, Conor Mac Nessa. Samhain, a time for sacrifices and remembrance of the spirits of the dead, the season when livestock were killed in time for the coming, darker, part of the year with cattle brought in from the summer pastures, had just passed. As at Bealtaine, special bonfires had been lit, the acrid smoke of which the draoidhs deemed protective and cleansing for both man and beast, and the seasonal rituals involving them had just been completed. The leaves from the ash had long fallen and the bare branches of the oak and the alder and hazel were stark against the dark sky.

Fifteen long, cold winters had passed since that last fateful féis when Cathbad had made the dread prophecy. Phelim spat into the snow at the memory and cursed the gods for the needless expense and worry the whole affair had put him to, both then and now. The gallery to the new hall had been completed just in time for Conor’s visit, Phelim reckoned, as the northeast wind blew a sudden cold flurry of snow into his face. Trimmed oak trunks formed the outer walls of the rectangular hall, massive oaken beams inside supporting a high ridge roof allowing space for a small musician’s gallery under the gable. The gods alone knew the problems the last visit had caused and it would be foolish to hope for anything better this time around, Phelim reminded himself. The ould bollix was here to claim his prize he knew, and in doing so, would take away the love of his life, his own precious Deirdre.

Pushing open the heavy wooden doors to his hall, Phelim swept aside the heavy leather curtain hanging inside and straightened up wearily. He was a tall man, burly and strongly built with a ragged fringe of hair but a heavy weariness had descended upon him when he had learned that Conor’s visit was imminent and he had been unable to shake the feeling of doom that had followed him since then. He had everything and he knew it, but he also knew he had everything to lose which he pretended not to know and which he tried to conceal from Elva his wife, but could not hide from himself.

Polished boles of oak, making a wide passage the length of the hall, led to the central hearth, beside which sat an erect figure. Screens of woven wattle strips, the spaces between packed with clay, dried and whitewashed with lime, jutted out from the sides of the hall to some of the pillars where retainers had hung heavy war shields and polished weapons. Wide beams spanned the high thatched roof, allowing space for the gallery where musicians would play to accompany the story telling in praise of Conor when he made his appearance.

“Ah, by the hand of Lugh, there’s yourself,” he greeted the heavily robed figure sitting by the fire at the end of the hall. Breoga, the trader, was sitting cross-legged, a tall amphora of wine leaning on the bench beside him.

“Peace be on you, friend,” Despite his age of more than three score, the trader rose sinuously to his feet, touching his clasped hands to his chest in his native gesture of greeting. Phelim squinted through the smoke from the turf fire and kicked a brindled cur out of his way before sitting down on a bench opposite Breoga.

“Well now,” Phelim said, clapping his hands together and leaning forward, to peer into his visitor’s drinking horn to see if it was full, “I see your cup is full, may it always be so. There’s no harm, I suppose, in me having a cup or two before your man arrives.”

“In my land,” Breoga cautioned solemnly, “we say one cup for health, two for pleasure and love, three for sleep, four for uproar and drunken revel, five for black eyes and violence, and more for madness.”

“If that is the case,” Phelim commented sourly, “It was more then madness, let me tell you that much, the last time the king was here but go on, tell me this, what brings you to these parts of the Ulaidh now? Is it you wanting to witness my very own sorrow?”

Breoga leaned back against the pillar so that the cowl of his hood fell back slightly, showing lined skin the colour of old leather and his hooked nose above his grizzled white beard.

“Ah, my friend, sorrow you say, when the King of the Ulaidh, the great Conor Mac Nessa, battle hardened and always victorious, giver of rings and cups, is come tonight for the hand of your daughter. Sure, isn’t there joy in such a union, unless,” Breoga paused slyly, pouring more of the Gaulish wine into Phelim’s drinking horn “you fear the old prophecy.”

“Arragh, don’t talk to me of prophecies, you were not here that night, fifteen winters ago. How can a king be denied, for all the prophecies in the world,” Phelim leaned over and hawked noisily into the fire.

“Tell me the tale again, my old friend, for in so doing, it may ease your mind.”

Phelim shifted the drinking horn on the board in front of him and looked into the glowing sods of turf. He shivered with the memory and, lifting his carven horn, he downed the contents in a gulp, the amber coloured wine tricking into his grey beard.

Filling Phelim’s drinking horn again, Breoga lifted his own to encourage Phelim.

“Sure it was just like it is now, so it was,” Phelim began, his hand resting on the shoulder of the dog sitting beside him. “The first snow of the season had just fallen, delaying arrangements for the Samhain feast being arranged for the king. Many winters have passed since then but every moment of that night is etched in my mind,” Phelim paused and passed a hand over his face as if to push away the memories emerging from the mists of time.

“The king, a handsome and striking figure of a man he was then, was here, of course, along with all his court, Fergus Mac Rioch, Conall Cernach, Bricriu and that evil, twisted man, Cathbad the seer”

“And Sétanta, was he not also there, being such a favourite, I hear, of the King?” Breoga inquired.

“By the hand of Lugh, if he had been here, things might well have gone differently,” Phelim conceded, taking another long draught of the wine. “However at that time the Hound, for that is what he was called then, was busy at Culainn’s forge but– you know that story of how the boy, Sétanta, came by that name of Cú Culainn?”

Breoga scratched his sparse beard and nodded slowly “The Hound of the Forge, Culainn’s hound, isn’t that it? I heard the story from Scél, the gatekeeper as I was leaving Eamhain Macha. Long have I sought to get a litter of those hound pups but they are more valuable than hen’s teeth, it seems? But go on, what happened next and why do you call Cathbad the Wise evil and twisted?”

“Sure the feast had well started with your man at the high board and all around him his followers and retainers, your man Bricriu, moaning about not getting the hero’s cut of meat while I mollified the king, though my mind was not well on it for my wife, Elva, was due to give birth at any time.”

Phelim paused again, remembering the fateful night torn apart by a dreadful scream. As Elva’s waters broke, the carousing warriors in the main hall were silenced by that terrible shriek. Men lurched to their feet, knives and swords rasped out of bronze-bound sheaths and the warriors looked warily around them. It was then, in that sudden silence that Cathbad, placing his hands on the belly of my trembling woman, made the prophecy. “It was the child who screamed, not the woman,” he said. “She screamed,” he claimed, “out of the horror of her own future. The child will be a girl of unsurpassed beauty and every man will fight to make her his own. Deirdre of the Sorrows, she will be called and her beauty will bring down the kingdom of the Ulaidh and lay Eamhain Macha to the fire and sword.”

“Bricriu, the bitter tongued, well named,” Phelim continued, “was the first of the warriors to regain his composure. Brandishing his sword, he roared out to kill the newborn child there and then and thus evade the outcome of Cathbad’s fearful prophecy. More and more men stood up, roaring their assent or dissent with Bricriu. In the hubbub and flickering rush-lights in the hall, no one noticed the actual birth of my child into Elva’s hand until Conor stood up and wrenched the child away from the exhausted and terrified mother, raising the still bloodied infant aloft, displaying to all her sex.

Roaring out for silence, Conor stood alone as one by one the men drifted back to their places, silenced by the sight of the man and infant that Conor then vowed to keep under his protection, aloof from the world of men.”

Breoga nodded his head in understanding, the cowl of his hood falling forward again as he imagined that scene.

“How then, Conor had boasted,” Phelim went on, “shall she stir men’s hearts, how then shall the Ulaidh fall and Eamhain Macha burn, for she will be his queen and how would a queen destroy her own home.”   Phelim pushed the hound out of his way before leaning over and hawking noisily into the fire. He looked up at Breoga, sitting motionless, his face shadowed, “The gods favour the king and, through his bounty and goodness, they have favoured me as well.” He paused and looked slowly around the hall as if seeing it for the first time before continuing, “but I would give everything that you see here to have what I most treasure safe by me tonight.”

“Well, my friend,” Breoga said, “tonight is the night when your lord comes to fetch his queen, may the gods grant favour to all in need of it.

***

“I’m telling you, no!” Cathbad insisted. “You were there yourself, man, you saw and heard it all for yourself.” Impatiently, he rose to his feet and paced the length of the hut, his staff clunking on the flagstones as he strode up and down. Conor and his troop of nobles had just arrived at the ráth and the men were drinking in the hut Phelim had provided for them while he attended to last minute preparations for the feast later that night in the new hall.

“Arragh, heard what, saw what?” Conor snorted “Sure weren’t you the one doin’ the telling then and here you are now, at it again, gabbling away out of you. Go on with yourself now, I’m telling you, I’m having that young one tonight. Lugh alone knows I’ve been patient and waited long enough.”

“Lookit here to me now, Conor, blood, death, destruction and division among the Ulaidh, is that what you are after wanting?” Cathbad demanded.

“I told you then that she should have been left out in the snow that very night to avert the tragedy that Cathbad here says is clearly staring you – us all – in the face,” Bricriu added.

“D’yis not remember that night, Conor?” Fergus chimed in. “Hadn’t Phelim prepared the feast, sure wasn’t the ould eejit all ready to show off his stories again and then that scream broke the night – it put cold daggers of ice through every man’s blood that heard it then.”

“Every woman screams during childbirth,” Conor commented sourly.

“But this wasn’t the woman, I’m telling you.” Cathbad pointed out. “It was the child herself inside the womb screaming out in horror at her own future.”

“Herself?” Conor laughed harshly. “And how did you know it was going to be a girl? A lucky guess, I’d say. Sure, it had to be one or the other.”

“But it was a girl, and one so already perfect in form and looks that she is destined to ruin the Ulaidh and burn Eamhain Macha itself. Why do you think she was destined to be called Deirdre of the Sorrows?” The draoidh insisted.

“I’ll give you sorrows across the back of your neck! I’ll see that she doesn’t play with fire,” Conor bellowed. “I’ve warned all away from her so that she has no experience of men or your wiles, Cathbad.”

“Wiles?” Cathbad roared. “Ungrateful whelp, your mother Ness is alive and well in you, Conor, for your coldness and …”

“Tonight,” bellowed Conor, “Tonight, I tell you, after the feast, bring her to me.”

***

Roars of drunken laughter and shouting filled the dimly lit hall as the liege men from Eamhain Macha mingled with Phelim’s household, almost drowning out the music on the gallery where harpers and pipers played. The feast of Samhain was long gone and there were many longer, dark nights before Imbolc would mark renewal, purification and fertility, so the gleemen tumbled and cavorted among the noisy throng. Men surrounded long boards on trestles clamouring for more drink and food. Flagons of Gaulish wine sloshed into wooden drinking mugs as the serving women skirted the grasping hands of the men. Night had fallen and the long hall was crowded with men eager to make the most of this feast before the long nights of the dark part of the year swept in, blanketing the world in cold and whiteness.

Serving women boxed the ears of small boys turning the spits of pork and beef in the massive stone hearths while platters of veal and mutton and the cauldron of strong black ale, the Ol nguala, kept most content.

Deirdre pushed back her long fair hair and peeped cautiously down from behind one of the beams in the gallery for a moment, her gaze flitting across the hall at the men clustered at the high table, – old men, all of them, she thought, – Fergus the Gullible and his cold, aloof wife, Ness, with Conall Cernach while Bricriu of the bitter tongue lolled beside them.

Conor and his half-wit son, Crúscraid the stammerer, sat with her father, Phelim, at the end of the high table. Conor’s lank, stringy hair was already tinged with grey, his eyes dark and hooded, his features drawn, but it was his hands that drew Deirdre’s attention. Old man’s hands, she thought with a shudder. Thin and scrawny, mottled with brown grave spots, they were the talons of a rapacious bird of prey, sharp and grasping.

***

Deirdre crept down from the gallery and returned to her nanny on the porch at the back of the hall. Gloomily, she watched the bondsman expertly sectioning the carcase for the feast later that evening. How could her father afford such extravagance, she wondered briefly. She shivered and pulled her cloak closer around her before turning to her lifelong companion.

“Did you not see his face? So lined and wrinkled and dark? And his hands, old and blotched with grave marks – he is an old man, I tell you!” Deirdre cried

“Sure what do you know of old men, my love?” Levarcham, Deirdre’s childhood nurse, asked. “Isn’t he the king himself and he does you and your father great honour?”

“I know all of that, nanny,” Deirdre cried. “ I have heard the stories all my life and why I should be grateful to the king but … oh, I don’t know, but there must be more to my life than that.”

“You owe your very life to him, you know,” Levarcham sniffed and cuffed her red nose with the sleeve of her soiled tunic. “After Cathbad named you and described your future, many of the lords present wanted you killed there and then to avert any disaster. But Conor stopped them all. He rose up and held you in his arms, he pressed you to his heart and then hoisted you up high for all to see. She lives! He cried out. And she will be mine when she comes of age and the tide of fortune will be controlled.”

“I know all of that, nanny,” Deirdre said again, “I tell you, but have you never felt a desire, a need for just once in your life to express yourself, to be free, away from all these dark forebodings. I want simple, strong things. I want everything to be in sharp contrast for me. I don’t want old stories, prophecies and poems, I have youth and I want life. You know, I dreamt last night of a young man, his form upright and commanding, his hair as dark as that crow there, his skin as soft and pure and white as the snow while the full blush of manly youth shaded his cheeks like the red of the blood there,” Deirdre nodded her head towards a crow pushing its beak into the crimson coloured snow, the steam still rising form the carcase of another calf the bondsman had just finished butchering.

***

“One look, I’m telling you, just one look is all I want. I just want to see her before she goes to Conor’s bed.”

“You’re a mad one, Naoise,” Ainle his brother jeered. “You know she is as unobtainable to you as the salmon of knowledge is, so why torment yourself with something you’ve never seen and will certainly never have.”

“I’m telling you, I just want to see if she is as beautiful as they say. One look can’t hurt, now can it? Or is it that you are afraid of old women’s tales and the wrath of a king?” Naoise jeered.

“Come on, boyo, relax, sure isn’t she just another girl in the long run?” Ardan laughed, stretching his long legs in front of him.

The three brothers, the sons of Uísliu, were sitting together in a corner of the outer courtyard, idly drinking and playing at dice, waiting for the feast to mark Conor’s arrival to take up the oath he had made so long ago.

“Easy for you to laugh, boyo, sure weren’t you out all last night chasing young wans,” Naoise smiled, “and you didn’t catch me trying to talk some sense into you, did you now?”

“Deirdre of the Sorrows, Cathbad called her,” mused Ainle. “Must be a reason for that. You’ll be telling me next that you can take away her sorrows,” he teased his older brother.

“By Lugh’s hand, you’re in luck so,” said Ardan, “here she comes, look! Now’s your chance.”

Naoise jumped up and looked across the courtyard. Quickly he stepped back, away from his brothers and slipped behind one of the pillars supporting the inner gallery. Deirdre was more beautiful than Naoise had ever imagined any woman could be, and he and both his brothers were well known to many of the girls in the area, but she – Deirdre – was the most enchanting person Naoise had ever seen. Her long fair hair, the colour of sun-ripened wheat was pulled back from her high forehead with a slender hoop of woven gold and fell in a plait, tied with a strip of ribbon, to the small of her back, while her skin had a translucent hue to it as if it were lit from within. A cloak of fine wool, dyed a deep Parthian red, seemed to float on the air behind her as she walked, while her simple tunic of bleached linen moulded itself to her slender form. Before he could help himself, Naoise blurted out “Aren’t you the fine young heifer, wandering around alone by yourself there?”

Taken unawares, Deirdre swung around, startled, and snapped curtly “Sure, why wouldn’t I be, there are no bulls nearby, are there?”

Aghast at what she had just said, Deidre paused to take in the young man who had accosted her so suddenly and importunely.

Tall and upright, the lean young man looked battle hardened but there was still something that attracted the eye, a handsomeness that defied explanation. A thick lock of black hair fell over his forehead and, as Deirdre looked, he flicked it back with a toss of his head. Dark brown eyes intensified the whiteness of his skin, which was further deepened by the soft blush on his cheeks.

“The way I hear it, you have the greatest bull of all, king Conor himself,” Naoise replied boldly, stepping closer to her.

“Arragh, how can an old bull match a young one like yourself for strength?” Deirdre said from the depths of her heart, remembering Conor’s wrinkled, mottled hands.

“But, but there’s the prophecy… Cathbad the draoidh said that.,” Naoise stammered, his heart hammering in his chest.

“And is it you that is afraid of an old man’s words? Would you reject me for an old man?”

Naoise could feel the blood burning in his cheeks. His tongue felt heavy in his mouth and he shuffled his feet awkwardly.

“No, no, I wouldn’t but there’s the prophecy and the …”

“Come here to me, you,” Deirdre grabbed Naoise’s two ears and pulled them hard, dragging his face down to her level.

“May you have two ears of shame and mockery from this time on if you have the nerve to reject me.”

Get away from me woman, Naoise wanted to cry before Deirdre’s hot breath caressed his face, her blue eyes boring into his, her long nails digging into his ears, his senses dissolving from her sweet perfume and then her lips touched his and seemed to fuse together while the tip of her tongue caressed his lips and slipped inside.

“Too late, we will never leave each other,” Deirdre murmured, cupping his face in her two hands.

***

“By all the gods, Naoise, what in Lugh’s name have you done? Don’t you have a lick of sense in you to realize that …” Ainle broke off, as Deirdre’s gaze fell on him, her beauty silencing his outburst.

“Lookit, what’s done is done, we all know that great evil will come from this for none of us can forestall the prophecy made by Cathbad so long ago. But it is not the prophecy I am worried about. It’s what Conor will do when he finds his prize with us. We have got to move now,” Ardan the practical, interposed breaking the sudden silence that surrounded them all so completely, the silence of conspirators.

“Naoise, my beloved, your brother is right – we can’t stay here now for I fear Conor’s wrath when he discovers that I am gone,” Deirdre cried, clinging to Naoise’s arm.

“Conor will not rest until he has destroyed you, brother and as for you, lady, Lugh alone know what he will do with you to slake his anger and his vengeance,” Ainle added.

“You’re right there,” Ardan said. “The feast will start when the sun goes down and it is not far from the horizon now. We have no time to lose. We must collect our arms, our retainers and bondsmen and flee from here – now!”

***

The long trestle table was littered with the remains of ham bones and gristle amid the puddles of spilled drink, men on either side of the boards talking or hammering time with their fists or the hafts of their knives to the beat of the flat goatskin drums. Conor leaned back in the high chair at the top table and gazed up at the candles and oil lamps flickering around the harpers on the gallery above. The music and the heat in the hall throbbed around him and thoughts about the young girl he had not seen now for several seasons flowed pleasantly through his mind. Tonight, he promised himself, she would be his. All those years ago, the scream that night, Cathbad and his prophecies and the vow that he, Conor, had made, all that and more and now there would be an end to it. For tonight she would be his queen and in his bed.

Bricriu belched and leaned forward to pour more of the black brew into Conor’s cup before helping himself. “I’ll say this for your man, the food and drink is nourishing enough, but by the Púca’s bollix, I could do without the ould music up there” he scowled up at the harpers.

“Wwwwould you guh-guh-guh-go on out o’ that, muh-muh man?” Crúscraid said, knocking his mug over in his excitement. “Shu-shu-Sure aren’t we in Phe-Phe-Phelim’s hall and he the kuh-kuh-king’s own buh-buh-buh-bard and storyteller.”

“Speaking of the man himself, where is he?” Fergus glanced around the dimly lit hall. Conor leaned back in his chair, his mind full of Deirdre’s fabled beauty, his bushy eyebrows pulled down over sunken eyes. Below the high table, retainers and warriors of the Craobh Ruadh were scattered along the length of the hall, some still eating while others hoarsely cheered the few men on their feet drunkenly whirling to a wild reel played by a piper in one corner.

“There’s your man now,” Bricriu nudged Fergus, “Look!”

Phelim had just edged around the main door of the hall before approaching and crouching sheepishly behind Conor’s chair. Fergus watched idly as the harper bent forward and whispered something in Conor’s ear.

With a roar, Conor surged to his feet, startling the hound lying under his chair. “Wha? What do yis mean, gone? Gone where ……my bollix! Who? Gone with who.” Conor roared, his face purpling with rage.

“My lord,” Phelim cringed, his voice shaking, “Her nurse, Levarcham, said that she had run off with the sons of Uísliu.”

“Why would she do that?” Conor grabbed Phelim by the front of his tunic and began shaking him.

“It mmmmmight not bbbbbe that she ran off with him, but that he ababababducted her,” Crúscraid said, placatingly.

Bricriu leaned forward, “The lad’s right. All three of them could have done that, right enough.”

Fergus shook his head at Conor and the king let go of Phelim and pushed him away before sitting down and reaching for his cup.

“Kidnapped, wha’? I’ll cut the bollix off the lot of them. The sons of Uísliu, you say, the three of them?

“Where have they gone? Cathbad had just appeared from behind a screen at the rear of the hall and Fergus was surprised to see the intensity on the draoidh’s drawn face.

“They were said to be riding to the north, my lord.” Phelim volunteered.

“Send after them,” the draoidh snapped. “Do it now, before this goes any further.” He whirled on his feet and glared at Conor before stalking away, his staff clicking on the stone floor.

To Be Continued

Author: serkeen

I am Irish, currently living in West Australia. I have a degree in Old & Middle English, Lang & Lit and, despite having worked in Kuwait, Italy, Malaysia, USA, Brunei, Australia and Hong Kong over the last 40 years, I have a strong interest in Ireland’s ancient pre-history and the heroes of its Celtic past as recorded in the 12th and late 14th century collection of manuscripts, collectively known as The Ulster Cycle. I enjoy writing historical novels, firmly grounded in a well-researched background, providing a fresh and exciting look into times long gone. I have an empathy with the historical period and I draw upon my experiences of that area and the original documents. I hope, by providing enough historical “realia” to hook you into a hitherto unknown – or barely glimpsed - historical period.

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