An old Celtic Tale of Love and Death – Part 4

Goings and Comings

“We felt greatly honoured, of course, by Conor when he arrived suddenly at Dún Sobairce with Fergus Mac Rioch, and a great throng of the Red Branch champions,” Nuala admitted, sitting up straight and reaching up to adjust her hair. Anxious to disassociate herself from the deaths and to exonerate herself from the part she had unwittingly played, Nuala had sought Cathbad, seeking both support and sanctuary. Inside the bower, a fire burned briskly in the brazier and bondsmen brought ewers of warmed honeyed wines and platters of bread and cold mutton, the fat white against the brown meat. A weak winter sun filled the bower with soft light and the brazier kept the chill away although it did nothing to banish the ache in Cathbad’s heart caused by what he guessed must have happened

“At least, I did,” Nuala continued, “especially when the king presented me with a burnished bronze mirror. Although,” she paused thoughtfully, “I suppose he seemed fretful and made little of our unreadiness for his surprising and sudden visit. He said he had urgent business with the men from Dá Mumhainn and could not tarry but urged us to press hospitality, especially on Fergus and his companions when they returned from Dál Riata. I saw the king,” she added as an afterthought, “slipping a deerskin purse of gold into my lord Borach’s hand for that very purpose.”

Leaning down, she picked up the metal mirror decorated with enamel and glanced at herself quickly, running her fingers down one side of her head rearranging her hair and shrugging it back into place, before passing the mirror to the druid.

“So, a feast is it, you’ll be wanting – for Fergus and his companions on their return – is that it, my lord Borach wanted to know?” Nuala went on.

“Aye, a feast it is, Conor told us, but be sure it is you yourself, he nodded towards me, that invites him, for don’t you know that one of Fergus’ geas is that he cannot refuse a bite to eat and a sup to swally if he invited to do so by a lady.

The old fool, Cathbad thought, tossing the mirror aside, he could never pass up an invitation or a challenge from a woman. There is only one crime the gods will not overlook, he’d always say, and that is when a woman draws a man to her bed and he will not go!

“Fergus the noble he’d have liked to have been called. More realistically, some would say, Fergus the unwise, or Fergus the gullible,” Cathbad snapped.

Angrily, he stood up and walked over to the porch so that the weak sunlight showed the fear and worry lines etched clearly on his pale skin. “What about their return? Did you know who they were and what Fergus had sworn to do?”

“We were overjoyed to welcome Fergus and his sons Buinne and Illand so soon again, when they returned with the strangers. The men were all rejoicing and boisterous but the woman seemed withdrawn and cold.” Nuala got up and joined the druid respectfully by the door. “We had only heard tales of the sons of Uísliu but Fergus told us who they were and of course we recognised Deirdre because of her beauty which even her exhaustion could not hide. We were taken aback, I admit, when the travellers said they could not tarry to feast with us, the tall warrior saying he had taken an oath not to break his fast until he arrived in Eamhain Macha. Well, of course, Borach and I were very surprised” she continued “and I could see that the woman was under some great strain so I tried to persuade her to rest awhile as she was worn out emotionally. I offered her my handmaidens, a hot bath and a massage, but her lord was determined to press on and Buinne and Illand swore to accompany them.

“So why did Fergus stay?” Cathbad demanded, already knowing the answer and despising both the woman beside him and the weakness of the man.

Nuala blushed and lowered her head, reluctant to meet the draoidh’s eyes. “Borach reminded me about Conor’s insistence to have Fergus at least stay, so I turned to him, all coy but acting hurt, you know, bemoaning the fact that my hospitality, given freely, was being spurned. This cannot be the Fergus Mac Rioch of whom heroes speak? I said to him, taking both his hands in mine. Is this the champion who has sworn never to deny an invitation to feast and drink? Is this the hero who would refuse a woman’s invitation?”

“So, the poor fool, caught between the demands of his sworn geas and the promises he made to Deirdre and Naoise seized what, I suppose, he saw as an honourable way out,” Cathbad said. “He stayed on to feast and drink at Dún Sobairce and sent Deirdre and Naoise on to Eamhain Macha under the protection of his two sons?”

Nuala nodded, ashamed at having played her unwitting part in the scheme to waylay Fergus.

“But, did you not talk with the lady Deirdre at all? Cathbad inquired. “And what about his sons, Illand the Fair and Buinne the Red?”

“The brothers acted in good faith, Cathbad. They tried to persuade their noble father to come with them but when they saw he had made up his mind to stay a while with us, they forswore his company and made immediate preparations to leave for Eamhain Macha. Deirdre said not a word until they were leaving, as a blood red dawn awaited them. I remember Deirdre pointing it out with a trembling hand and saying ‘a red sky at dawn is a shepherd’s warn’ but Naoise scoffed at the idea, eager to be on his way.”

“The poor thing!” Cathbad burst out. “She knew well what was going to happen and that there was nothing she could do to prevent the looming tragedy, not with Naoise’s pride and stubbornness. How awful it must be to know your own future, we will never know, to be aware of it bloodiness and yet be unable to avert it.”

Dreams and Premonitions

Deirdre shrugged off the feelings of dread that her dream of the previous night had caused. Three crows had appeared to her, flying from out of the sinking sun where the kingdom of the Ulaidh lay, and each bird had carried a drop of golden honey, glistering against the blackness of their beaks. Circling Glen Etive, the birds had descended briefly but when she had tried to approach them, they had taken flight again but this time, each bird carried a ruby-red drop of blood, bright against their cruelly curved beaks and returned in the direction from which they had come. It was a dream, that was all and she smiled as the speckled chickens came running towards her as she emerged from the hut into the sunshine.   The chickens gave a semblance of normality to her life, making her feel settled for the first time since that desperate night, so many moons ago now, when she and Naoise, his brothers and bondsmen had fled from Conor’s jealous wrath, the clash of arms and the challenges of warriors ringing in her ears. The small signs of domesticity the chickens brought helped to cancel out some of the preceding days and nights of suspicion, fear, and then bloody certainty as everywhere they went, her beauty had stirred men’s passions, causing Naoise and his brothers to defend her again and again with their bloodied swords. Days of flight followed each encounter, scrambling and traipsing through the rough high and lowlands before they had met Breoga. Naoise had recognised the wine trader from his previous visits to Eamhain Macha and had determined to seek solace with the warrior chieftain, Scáthach, in this foreign land.

It had rained later that night, she remembered, pelting down, driven by a cold wind and the next morning, when they parted from the trader, they climbed into a high country, empty of all living things. The rain had continued to pelt down, lashing the pastures and the highlands where the bushes were stunted and gnarled, bending away from the cutting wind. A day’s march, Breoga had said but it had taken much longer than that, with the cold gnawing at their bones. They crossed the river at a shallow ford and continued to climb up through the trees, to the long ridge that stretched east and west. Woods crowded in to their left and what remained of a jumbled cairn of rocks to their right was half obscured in the grey sheets of rain hammering down across the landscape. That night they had been forced to find shelter as Scáthach’s dún seemed no closer. Ardan had used his sword to hack down ragged branches from the stunted trees to make a crude lean-to where a limestone crag reared up but it did little to keep the rain off that night and the bed of bracken underneath was already sodden while their wet cloaks gave them no warmth. A faint grey light broke the darkness to the east as the first hint of dawn broke the blackness around them and the weather began to clear, with the grey clouds being blown away to reveal a salmon coloured sky. They reached the dún just after midday on the second day just as a cold wind gusted in from the north. The track meandered through the trees, and was well shielded from view from the ridge but the trees thinned out a hundred paces from the river and the track crossed it by a shallow ford and the watcher on the wall spied them long before they had reached the squat, unadorned dún rearing up from an outcrop of limestone.

They were dirty, their cloaks ragged and spattered with mud, their hair and beards shaggy, unkempt and matted butt the warrior women had welcomed them with respect and kindness, the more so as both Ferdia and Cú Culainn had mentioned Naoise and his brothers many times before. Deirdre had liked Uathach and although her mother was called The Shadowy One, Deirdre had sensed no danger from either woman. Scáthach had readily agreed that the exiles be granted the ráth of Glen Etive to hold in the absence of champions to compare with Cú Culainn and Ferdia.

Scattering a handful of grain for the chickens at her feet, Deirdre strolled along the top of the wall, looking for her lord.   From where she stood on the broad wall of the ráth, she could see the twin mountain guardians to the north from where the river emerged. Fed by gentle streams to the north of Glen Etive, the river meandered south over the highlands before running downhill and along the floor of the long, U-shaped glen, before broadening out into a wide loch which took a sharp turn to the west, vanishing out of sight, descending in a series of rapids with a variety of falls and pool drops before eventually reaching open water.

Until she had met Naoise, Deirdre had never known the pleasure of a young man’s smile, the joy of his company or the warmth of his embrace. Instead, she had been sequestered in an area secluded deep in the forest of the Ulaidh, secreted away for Conor’s future pleasure. There, she had grown up alone with Levarcham, her nanny, and except for rare visits from the draoidh and her father, she had experienced neither the joys nor the sorrows attendant on every life, taking what pleasure she could find only in the solitariness of a few dim woodland paths, always accompanied by her nanny.

Glen Etive was her home now and she could come and go as she pleased. Here, she was mistress of all she could see and this freedom was all she had ever wanted, that, she smiled to herself, and the man of her dreams. Ardan, she knew, was working the low fields and Ainle had left earlier that morning, promising to return with a fine stag to celebrate their new found life here in the security of the glen. All of that meant she could lead Naoise away down to the tarn where they had made such exquisite love before. Their bodies had been cool, still damp from the dark lake water, she recalled. She had felt small and childlike beside him but she was no child. Her long fair hair, beginning to curl at the ends as it dried, reached to the hollow at the small of her back, as she leaned back in his arms to look up at him, his soft brown eyes boring into hers as he began to slowly enter her. She had gasped, her arms around his neck involuntarily tightening.

Deirdre smiled again at the memory, remembering how safe she felt there in her lover’s arms as, giddy with pleasure, she had pushed back against his wild thrusts, when the faraway horn sounded, high and thin on the air. With a start, she came back to herself and saw Naoise, working at the base of the wall, cock his head as if he wasn’t sure if he had heard something or not, remaining motionless in a listening pose. Ardan, she noticed, straightened up from his work in the fields and came running towards them.

“D’ye hear that?” He shouted up to them as he ran.

A premonition gripped Deirdre’s heart. A sudden cold fear paralysed her and the sudden impact of it made her stagger, spilling more grain from the basket on her hip. The vision was stark – the blazing hut lighting up the night, the flash of swords in torch light, the shadows of men struggling and falling, silhouettes on a blood-red background – the image so sharp she could almost hear the clash of iron weapons, the roaring of the conflagration and the blaring of horns while warriors called out and died in the darkness.

Steadying herself against the wall, Deirdre waited to see what Naoise would say. He glanced up at her, a thick hank of dark hair flopping over one eye,

“Did you hear anything, honey?”

“No, nothing, what is it?” She lied desperately.

“I’m sure I heard something,” Ardan said. “It sounded like a horn, something like we’d hear back in the Craobh Ruadh.”

“It might have been one of those marsh birds, a bittern or a coot,” Deirdre called down, hoping in her heart that the sound she had heard might just be that.

“Ah, go on with you, Deedee, that was surely a horn and not the deep booming of the marsh birds,” Ardan called, just as they all heard the blare again, this time, clearer and closer.

“It is just a distant horn, of no special significance,” Deirdre said, her senses alert to the meaning of the horn, but she feigned indifference, keeping her hand on the rough stone wall to steady herself, the intensity of the vision still strong in her mind’s eye, the dream hovering around its edges.

Naoise dropped the mattock he had been using and straightened up, pressing his hands into the small of his back to ease the muscles there before climbing up to stand beside her. Putting his arm around her slender waist, he pulled her closer to him.

“What is it, honey? You are trembling.”

“Nothing, my love,” she reassured him quickly before turning away to gaze to the west, the only direction from which enemies could approach. “You are right, my lord, it is just a horn and may even be that of Ainle returning from his hunt.”

A third time the horn blared out its brassy note, clearer now and closer and Deirdre’s straining ears could just pick up the sound of a man’s stentorian voice but the words were yet indistinct.

“I know that horn, I swear it,” Ardan insisted, looking up at his brother where he stood gazing in the direction Deirdre was staring.

The Invitation

Illand, stocky and bare-headed, his tousled hair looking like he had cut it himself with a knife, was the first to round the bend in the loch and see the distant figures on the ráth to the northeast. The wind gusted, lifting the long strands of his fair hair, as he shaded his eyes with his palm, and stared up the shining waters of the loch towards Glen Etive, noting its secure position on the hillside. Around the strong dry-stone wall enclosing the huts, the sons of Uísliu had dug a deep ditch with an inner, encircling mound topped by outward pointing, sharpened stakes. Small hills tinged with soft shades of yellows, greens and purples sloped down behind the ráth and the land to the front and sides was already showing signs of husbandry. Buinne, his deep barrel chest straining the thongs of his tunic covered with iron studs, shouldered roughly past his brother and had raised the horn to his lips again when Fergus stepped forward, laying his hand on his redheaded son’s forearm, and shook his head.

“It’s Fergus Mac Rioch and his two sons, Buinne the red and Illand Fionn,” Naoise called down excitedly to Ardan. “They must be bringing news from the Ulaidh. Maybe Conor is …”

“Dead,” whispered Deirdre to herself, before turning away to see Ainle, with a young buck over his shoulders, coming downhill from the opposite direction as Fergus led his sons up the track to the ráth.

***

Fergus had brought enough of the uisce beatha, the water of life, or, as some said, the water of fire, Deirdre noticed, for the men continued to drink their fill and were relaxed now after the initial wary and then boisterous greetings between the exiles and the envoy from the Ulaidh. Braziers burned brightly and rush lamps cast flickering shadows around as the men squatted by the fires and laughed and joked, their voices slurred and loud.   The fire flared up as the haunch of venison dripped its rich fat into the embers in the hearth where a clay pot of rabbit meat, beans, grains and herbs stewed. Deirdre, for the first time since she had chosen Naoise, found herself in the role of hostess and mistress of the ráth at Glen Etive as she welcomed the former king of the Ulaidh, Fergus Mac Rioch, or Fergus the gullible, she thought to herself, remembering the stories she had heard. Fergus was accompanied by his two sons Buinne, his scraggly red beard doing little to hide the smirks he had first thrown her on arrival, and Illand the Fair whose courtesy contrasted sharply with his older brother. The young men sprawled on cloaks and animal skins strewn upon the flagstone floor, talking excitedly to Ardan and Ainle. All day she had been assailed by the recurring memory of her awful, violent vision, and nagged by the mystery of her dream and Buinne’s smirks did little to offset Fergus’s avowals of safety and now she found it difficult to play her new role.

“It was all true,” Illand was insisting earnestly. “All the lords of the Craobh Ruadh were there when Conor said he wished for your return, the homecoming of the sons of Uísliu. Many were keen to have undertaken the task of accompanying your return to the Ulaidh, but Conor, knowing the respect everyone had for Fergus, asked my father to go,” he continued proudly.

“So, Conor is willing to forget the past, is he?” Ardan grunted, looking hard at the fair-headed youth and his grey bearded father.

“I assure you,” Fergus intervened, “Your father, Uísliu, and I were close and you may remember I guided and aided you, along with Cú Culainn and Ferdia, when you were yet boys at the Craobh Ruadh as if you were my very own sons and this I say to you now, you are safe under my protection and by the power of my honour and life none shall lift a finger against the valiant sons of Uísliu without fear of fierce fighting and retribution from me and mine.” Fergus glared around the assembled company and Buinne flexed his heavy shoulders before smirking again at Deirdre.

“You are very quiet, my lady,” Illand said.

“Yes, Deedee, what do you think of this offer of a safe return to our homeland?” Naoise asked, as she bent to replenish his wooden flagon.

She straightened and stared out the open doorway. The sun had nearly dipped out of sight and the evening sky was a violent fiery red, reminding her again of her premonition, burnishing her lover’s face with a crimson glow.

“What do I think, my lord?” Deirdre paused and looked at her lover’s face, so perfect and yet so innocent. “I think here you are lord and master of all that you see in this fine ráth on the hillside of Glen Etive. Why then do you seek to return to a homeland that hunted you down like wild boar and where a jealous king awaits? My dreams and thoughts are full of dire events and forebodings and I would not willingly see the man I love, and the clan to which I now belong, endanger themselves for so meagre a prize compared to what we now have here in this glen.”

“By Nuada’s silver hand,” Ardan applauded, “That was well said, sister. Fair play to you, you speak your mind clearly.”

“But,” broke in Ainle, leaning forward eagerly, his animated face catching the last rays of the setting sun, “What is the point of being a warrior and a hero in the wilderness?”

“Truly spoken,” agreed Buinne, lifting his mug in acknowledgement. “Where does the champion exist if there is no audience to lavish praise on the hero?”

“The more so,” Illand mentioned, lowering his voice confidentially, “As they say Medb of Connachta is raising an army among the four fifths of Ériu to rage against us.”

“Heroes and champions – that is what the Ulaidh needs in times of threat,” Buinne continued, thumping himself in the chest.

“So, what, my lady, do you fear?” Fergus inquired, looking directly at her.

“Oh Fergus, by all the gods, you ask me the impossible! You are a good man, and I, and all here, know that; guile is far below you but yet I dread and fear your words, so honeyed, but not yet your own, just some verse you have been taught to repeat. Forgive me, my lord,” Deirdre broke off and saw again in her mind’s eye the carnage ahead before continuing, “But I have had such a dream, the meaning of which now seems clear to me and I fear for my beloved’s life were we to return to the Ulaidh.”

“Know this, that I,” Fergus paused as he lurched to his feet, raising his sloshing tankard in token toasting of the lady, “I,” he continued, “Fergus Mac Rioch, do pledge my life and my honour against your safe return, my lady. Know this, sons of Uísliu, and fair lady, that no harm can come to you while I and my stout sons draw breath.”

***

“We can’t go back, I tell you,” Deirdre insisted, running her hands through her long yellow hair in frustration at Naoise’s refusal to understand all the portents she could see so clearly.

Fergus and his sons had retired to Ainle’s hut while Deirdre, Naoise and Ardan remained discussing the offer the envoys had brought.

The rush lamps had burnt low but she could still see the flush of excitement on Naoise’s face.

“Don’t you see?” she continued desperately, “This is what my dream meant. The three drops of honey the birds carried are the honeyed words that Fergus delivers and the three drops of blood the crows took away with them are you three – the three sons of Uísliu. If we go back, I know my destiny is to bring ruin on the Ulaidh for I have been cursed with the foreknowledge that my beauty will destroy heroes and a kingdom.”

Naoise’s face in the flickering rush light remained ecstatic.

“But this is the only way,” he exclaimed excitedly. “Don’t you see? This is what we have been waiting for – the chance to go home, to return to the Ulaidh and to the Craobh Ruadh – not as pardoned outlaws but as lords in our own right. Don’t tell me you haven’t dreamt about home, for your own country is better by far than where you, an exile, can lay your head.”

“Of course I have thought of it,” Ardan said.   “But we are already lords here, as Deedee has pointed out– why should we go back to Conor and eat his humble pie?”

“Why not? Isn’t he our lawful lord? What are you afraid of? Old words from old men? Fergus has given his word, hasn’t he?” Naoise appealed to Deirdre but she turned her back to him, wordlessly.

“You know why not,” Ardan replied shortly.

“I don’t,” Naoise swore, passionately. “I just know that Ériu is dearer to me than all the high and lowlands of Dál Riata and that I have dragged you and all our bondsmen into exile on my behalf. Fain would I remove the disgrace from our proud name by returning to face the king, thereby taking away the stain of cowardice our flight here has caused.”

“Lugh’s bollix, Naoise,” Ardan swore. “You know the prophecy as well as anyone. By all the gods, our father was there, wasn’t he? You have heard his story often enough and what the draoidh Cathbad said and you know the enmity Conor bears for what you did,” Ardan insisted, “And yet you still think you can trust his word.”

Naoise put down the carved horn he was drinking from and paused – the stories had always been there. He had only been a child, of course, but his father Uísliu had been there, and besides everyone knew it. On the feast of Samhain, Conor and his retinue had stopped to feast with his most favoured harper and storyteller, Phelim. The hero’s cut had been distributed despite the raucous calls for favour and the dogs were beginning to curl up by the glowing braziers as Phelim’s heavily pregnant wife was crossing the hall when suddenly the uproar was hacked apart by the unworldly scream. Men were up on their hind legs, swords scraped from sheaths, drunken buffoonery blossomed into alertness and fear as the cry grappled each man’s soul and stilled their natural courage. It was then that Cathbad stood forward, erect, and unafraid, his staff upright in has hand, his eyes seeing into that other world that warriors avoided until the inevitable.

The unborn child, already full term, would be a girl, green-eyed and fair skinned, graceful, alone in her beauty and aloofness, adored and wanted by all, she would split asunder the trunk of our strength, cast brother against father and kin, welcome strangers into the land and bring down the might of the Ulaidh, dividing and burning all that they now knew. The roaring of protest, at first muted, rose to a rumble causing the dogs to twitch and growl in their sleep. Bellicose and scared, warriors around the hall lurched to their feet demanding blood to offset the dire future Cathbad had painted. It was at this point that Conor had stood up, pulling Cathbad back behind him.   Listen to me now, he had roared. While I am king of the Ulaidh there will be no blood spilled here while we are guests in my harper’s house. Would you have me break the ancient laws of hospitality by shedding blood? Do youse hear me? What harm is there in a child? Do you know what it is? I’ll have her. She’ll be my queen and what’s the harm in that? She’ll be kept far from the sight of men, well looked after by a few chosen ones and when she is of age, she will rule with me.

The roaring and rumbling continued, so Uísliu had said, and the wine continued to flow and the cauldron made its rounds until the men’s fears were allayed and forgotten.

“Prophecies and dreams,” Naoise burst out, “are but the wanderings of lonely and melancholy minds. What are they compared to the sworn word of a man, especially of a honourable man like Fergus Mac Rioch?   We have honour and what else do we have but the honour our actions bring us in this life? We can raid and kill but we still have our honour and our word and we obey our geas and never break them. How then can we trust anyone if we give up on that?

“Naoise, my beloved,” Deirdre began, “Fergus only carries the words of Conor and I had such a vision of death and destruction when I heard the horn this morning – and yes, to my shame, I lied and pretended not to hear – but, oh, Naoise such a vision it was, coming on top of my dream, I beg you to listen to me and the counsel of your brother, Ardan the ever practical.”

“Deirdre’s right. You can’t deny a man like Conor,” Ardan went on. “For him, it is not just spite or even jealousy – it’s more than that. For him, it’s honour and the only way his type of honour can be satisfied is by blood, you know that, Naoise, your blood!”

“Ah, go on with you.” Naoise smiled confidently. “Fergus is here; isn’t he? Sure why would a stout man like Fergus Mac Rioch put himself to shame, and that for Conor? Don’t you know, full well, there is no love lost between your man and Conor. Why would he disgrace himself for that ould eejit?”

“Would you ever listen to yourself? You know why – you don’t throw a leg across one of Conor’s fillies, much less run off with them.”

 

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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