2. Cathbad

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Fergus glanced around the dimly lit hall again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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