Levarcham had had neither word nor sight of her beloved foster daughter since that fateful day so many seasons ago when Deirdre had watched the scaldy crow stick its beak into the bright red blood of the freshly slaughtered calf on the snow bank and had dreamt of finding a young man with the same colouring of white, black and red. Now she hurried along under the over-hanging eaves at the rear of the great hall to the lodge of the Craobh Ruadh. Turning the corner, she gasped at the sight of heavily armed men massed around a campfire at the back of the red lodge. Strangers, she realised, from their accented way of speaking and their dress. Unlike the men of the Ulaidh, they wore short, knee-length trews under their loose tunics, while shaggy cloaks hung from their shoulders. Ducking back out of sight and keeping her head down and her hood tightly pulled around it, Levarcham scuttled as fast as her old legs could carry her around to the front of the lodge where Ardan opened the door to her tentative knocks.
Deirdre threw her arms around the neck of her old nurse and Naoise saw a flash of that warm smile he had been denied ever since Fergus’ arrival at Glen Etive a handful of nights before.
“Deirdre, my love,” the old nurse crooned, holding Deidre tightly in her arms. “Listen to me now, love of my heart, for I fear deceit at Conor’s hand, and such treachery here at the heart of the Ulaidh can only bring about the end of peace from this day out.”
“Speak your mind, old one,” Naoise said gently, gesturing behind his back at his brother. Ainle quickly fetched the old woman a warming draught of wine and between sips she told them of the fierce men she had seen gathering at the campfires behind the Red Branch. “Shut tightly the doors and the windows of the lodge and put a guard on them,” she begged, “for Conor has been drinking all day with Eoghean Mac Murthacht and now he himself has sent me to bring back news of you, to see if you are still lithe and lissom and as beautiful as I see you now to be.”
Deirdre blushed and hugged her nanny again before the old woman continued. “Oh Deirdre,” she wept, “My old heart wearies within me for doom and death I fear is fast approaching, the killing of kith and kindred and the crying and wailing of women in the night for why else would Conor have the men of the western clans from Da Mumhainn, encamped outside, led by that black-hearted Fermagh king? The honour of Eamhain Macha and the pride of the Craobh Ruadh is to be stained tonight.”
“But is not the one they call Cú Culainn, Sétanta the son of Súaltaim, not here?” Deirdre cried, feeling the despair wash over her, a sour taste in her mouth.
“Would that he were, my love,” Levarcham said, “but he stays with the lady Emer in
Dún Imrith and he knows nothing of your arrival here, I am sure. Ériu will not be the better for it to the end of time and the world.
“And stout sons of Fergus,” she said, turning to Illand and Buinne who crowded near to hear her words, “Defend what your father could not and keep them in your care bravely till Fergus comes, and you will have praise and the blessings of the Ulaidh for it.”
Deirdre hugged her nanny again and the two women wept and comforted each other in their own fashion until Ardan advised Levarcham that she should not tarry overlong with them if Conor had charged her to report on Deirdre’s looks and although the old woman wept piteously to leave Deirdre’s side, she returned to Conor to give her report.
Conor was lounging in his high chair on the low platform at the end of the great hall, his thin, dark face heavily flushed with the wine he had been drinking. Eoghean Mac Murthacht and his nephew, Gelban, along with a host of other western clansmen, sat at trestle tables on either side of Conor, holding mumbled conversations which slowly stopped when Levarcham was ushered into Conor’s presence.
“Well, woman, what news have you brought me?” Conor demanded, sitting upright and placing his bunched fist under his chin to stare at the old woman commandingly. “Tell me this much and tell me no more, how does that woman look?”
Levarcham shook off the arm of the retainer who held her unnecessarily tightly above the elbow and looked up at the cruel, dark face of the king.
“Good news, I have for you lord, good and, I fear, disappointing too.” She began hesitantly.
“Right then, tell us the good news first,” Conor ordered, clapping his scrawny hands together and rubbing them so that the rings on his long fingers clinked together. “I always like to hear good tidings, isn’t that right, Eoghean?” and the black bearded giant guffawed his approval.
“The good news is that rarely have I seen such a trio of stout champions and warriors. Any lord in this western isle and further beyond, to the gates of Scythia and the burning sands of Parthia, would welcome them, for upright they are in their moral certainty and the faith they hold in their fierce weapons for they are men not likely to waver in the shield wall or in the storm of sword and spear. However,” Levarcham paused and snatched a look at the darkening face of her lord before dropping her eyes to the flagstones at her feet and continuing, “the lady you asked about, the most precious charge I have ever had the grace to look after, she who was the most fair woman in all Ériu, she, I have to tell you, has not weathered the storms and vicissitudes of life so well for she no longer possesses the form and appearance of a maid but closely resembles the old woman that I have become,” and she wept and tore her thin, grey hair in despair.
Conor drained his goblet before smashing it down on the bench beside him. “Go on with you now, woman, for I have heard enough,” he said, dismissing her and gesturing at Crúscraid to refill his goblet before inviting Eoghean to join him at the high table.
“Don’t tell me you believe that old crone,” Eoghean said dismissively as Levarcham was led, shuffling, out of the hall. “Sure wasn’t she the bitch’s wet nurse and what do you expect from her – the truth is it?” Eoghean laughed again, spittle flying from his open mouth and blackened stumps of teeth. “Send an impartial witness if you want the truth, that would be my advice. Here, lookit to me,” Eoghean drained his drinking horn and stabbed the pointed end, tipped with iron, into the rough surface of the trestle “Why don’t you send my own nephew here, for he has no love of the sons of Uísliu for wasn’t it their father who struck his own father, my younger brother, down.” He gestured at his empty drinking vessel before continuing. “If you want a fair report on the state of the woman who, by all accounts, you have gone to a great trouble to fetch back here to you, send him.” Eoghean lifted one haunch off the bench and farted noisily.
Conor looked over at Gelban who was sprawled beside his uncle, a resolute looking young man, his dark hair swept back from a clear brow with a plain linen band, his brown eyes sparkling with life.
“So your ould fella was killed by Uísliu, was he?” Conor noted the shadow that passed over the young man’s face. “Is that the way it was?” he asked, leaning forward and beckoning the young man towards him.
“That whoreson of a bitch, Uísliu it was,” Gelban burst out, “rot his heart, for my father had drink taken at the time and he was taken unawares, the poor bollix.”
“Go now then,” Conor whispered “and tell me what you see of the woman at Naoise’s side but take care not to let them see you.”
Gelban tightened the belt around his tunic and shifted his sword at his side more comfortably and bowed quickly to Conor before nodding to his uncle, and slipping away from the long table at the end of the hall. The air outside felt cooler after the heat inside the hall. It was already dark now with the moon not up yet and flickering torchlight cast shadows on the crushed white shell path. Gelban stepped sideways on to the plain beaten earth and moved silently towards the Craobh Ruadh. The heavy front door to the lodge was firmly shut and the small windows higher up in the wall on the side of the building that he could see were all firmly shuttered. Lamplight spilled out into the dark around the shutters and through the area under the eaves.
Gelban looked around for something to stand on and saw an unyoked chariot leaning against the wall of the opposite building, the Téite Brec, the treasury of Eamhain Macha. The chariot was lightweight but even so the wheels crunched on the shell-strewn path but the noise was drowned out by the men drinking around the corner at their campfires as Gelban manoeuvred the chariot under the eaves. He could hear voices from inside the hut but not yet make out the words. Turning the chariot carefully Gelban placed the long shafts of the yoke on the ground before climbing onto the platform and leaned against the lodge’s heavy log wall so that he could see through a chink at the top of the wooden wall and the overhanging thatch. Holding his breath, Gelban moved slightly to get a better view.
The woman was facing him, but playing a board game with a man sitting with his back to him. The unbound coils of the girl’s long, fair hair fell to her lap where she sat beside the hearth, the warm light glowing on her fair skin, pink as foxgloves, her eyes the blue of a western summer sea with the sun shining, her teeth white as pearls. Gelban moved cautiously higher on the back of the chariot to get a better view and suddenly the chariot lurched under him and the yoke grated against the side of the lodge. Deirdre glanced up at the sound, saw him looking down from the eaves and blanched. Naoise turned and threw with unerring accuracy the carved game piece he had been holding, making the blood spurt from his eye. But in the heartbeat before he lost his balance on the chariot platform and sprawled on the dirt below the eaves, Gelban had seen the simple beauty of the woman.
“And what appearance is there on Deirdre?” Conor demanded, ignoring the bloody wound in Gelban’s smooth face.
The young man drew himself up proudly, motioning away the clumsy efforts of his uncle to tend to his torn eye hole, making an attempt to focus on the king with his one good one, “If Naoise had not taken out my eye, I could have stayed there looking at her for a lifetime but I know you needed to know what I saw.”
“So what did you see,” Conor bellowed impatiently at the trembling youth.
“A slim, fair-haired girl with large doe eyes but there is not a woman in this world who is better in shape or of form than herself, for she is beautiful beyond all words,” the youth replied.
Conor grunted and sat back in his chair, and felt, as much as watched, the surge of anger build up inside him as he thought of what had been stolen from him that day Naoise fled from Eamhain Macha with his prize.
Gelban was being led away by a bondsman when Conor reached up above his chair and pulled the silver rod to which three golden apples hung. At the melodic chimes, the buzz of conversation died down and men turned to face Conor as he slowly rose to his feet.
“You see,” he declared, sweeping out his arm and pointing at the wounded boy. “This is how my hospitality is treated! I extended the hand of friendship both to you, valiant and stout hearted men of Dá Mumhainn and to your king, Eoghean Mac Murthacht of Fermagh as I have to those who are abusing my hospitality even now in the Red House. Like fierce wolves, they snap so recently at my very hand and my heart aches for the injury they have done,” Conor paused and nodded at the men standing around the hall, “is not against me but against you, my most favoured guest and allies.”
Eoghean lurched to his feet, sloshing wine from his drinking horn and threw his arm around Conor’s thin shoulders.
“Give me the honour,” he demanded, “of repaying your hospitality and of sealing the bond of our alliance,” before turning to gesture at men of his clan. “Everyone with me, we go to restore the honour of hospitality and to surround those oath breakers who spilled the blood of our clan. To the Red House we go to fight!” He roared, louder “Who is with me?”
Excited men tumbled to their feet, grabbing the shields and spears where they had propped them against the walls. Men hitched up their sword belts, gulped the last of what was in their cups and followed their king out of the great hall of Craobh Dearg to surround the Craobh Ruadh.
Buinne, crossing the hall to get some more meat, stopped when he heard the roar.
“Listen,” he said, turning to the others grouped by the fire. Ever since Deirdre had glimpsed a face at the eaves, they all knew that events beyond their control were now being set in motion. “They’re here,” he said, his voice tense.
Outside, drunken men shouted in rough voices and kicked at the solids walls or banged on them with the hilts and butts of their weapons.
Naoise stood up and patted Deirdre on the shoulder before striding over to the door to check that it was securely closed. “Who is it that disturbs the sleep of warriors, who dares to make such commotion in the area of the Craobh Ruadh?”
“Open up, open, bastards and oath breakers for it is I, Eoghean Mac Murthacht, king of the Fermagh and the western clans and we have come for vengeance for my brother and my nephew and to restore to king Conor of the Ulaidh what was stolen from him by you. Open or we will burn you out,” he threatened.
Inside, Deirdre paled and Naoise’s hand dropped to his sword hilt
“Is it the word of my father, Fergus Mac Rioch, you’d have me break?” Buinne got up and shouted angrily back through the solid door.
“I have no quarrel with Fergus or his sons,” bellowed Eoghean, “Nor do I owe allegiance to him but still I come for vengeance for my brother and my nephew.”
A heavy thud was felt as men outside started to use a battering ram to smash their way in.
“By Nuadu’s silver hand, though my father has broken his pledge with you, know that I will keep his word.” Buinne turned back from the door and looked at Naoise. “Help me here,” he cried, jumping up on a bench near one of the high shuttered windows. “Hold the shutter open for me while I slip out here and I can take them in the back and show them the class of man they trifle with.” Ainle climbed up beside him and held the heavy shutter open and helped Buinne wriggle through the small opening.
Landing lightly on his feet, Buinne grasped his sword and round shield firmly and crept around the corner of the lodge. A group of men, holding torches and drinking from flagons they passed from hand to hand, stood around the campfire while another, smaller group of men staggered under the weight of the battering log they were smashing into the door of the wooden inn.
“Mac Rioch,” Buinne screamed and holding his sword in front of him like a spear, he charged from the shadows into the line of men holding the battering ram.
He rammed his sword into a warrior’s lower belly and the man fell forward to his knees, clutching himself and squealing. Slashing at legs and shoulders with his long iron blade, Buinne whirled around fiercely, smashing the central boss on his shield into another man’s face, previously scarred by some ancient pox. Roars of anger erupted from the men by the campfire and Buinne raised his shield and charged again, knocking the first man off his feet with the fury of his charge, stabbing down as he stamped forward. Again he smashed his heavy shield into a dark face, blood spouting from a crushed nose and then, on the upswing, his sword cut up between the man’s legs, tearing up under his tunic and slicing into his guts. The man whimpered as Buinne twisted the heavy blade and then he ducked to ward off a wild blow, swinging and stabbing at undefended feet and ankles. A commanding voice halted Buinne’s bloody swathe through the surprised attackers.
“What great champion do we have here? Who is this that would wreak such havoc on my guests here? Surely no warrior of the Craobh Ruadh would ever disgrace himself so?” The voice was harsh but slightly slurred and Buinne raised his battered shield defensively, his bloodied sword extended warily.
Honeyed words might do the trick here, Conor thought to himself, aghast at the slaughter the young man had already wreaked, “Ahh, so it is yourself, the red-headed one, Buinne, sound man that your are. You are your father’s strong son, and there is no doubt of that, but lookit here to me, you and I have no quarrel with each other and these men you slay have no clash with you. What do you say?” Conor paused, “a block of land and …”
“And?” Buinne prompted
“A place at my table here and my own friendship and warmth. Or …” Conor gestured at the group of clansmen now standing shoulder to shoulder, their shield wall tight and Buinne realised he could make a choice here. Being friend to a king or to a widow made a difference, he knew, and from the size of the force gathered, he also realised that, with or without him, the brothers were doomed. Throwing down his sword, he stepped forward to accept Conor’s hand, “But I won’t fight against them,” he muttered.
Ainle had been peering out a through a shutter opened merely a crack and he called out in disbelief – “He’s surrendered, Buinne has thrown down his sword and gone over to the other side.”
Closing the shutter and securing it, Ainle dropped down to the bench and sat on it burying his head in his hands before looking up wildly at the others. “What does it all mean?”
“It means we fight,” said Illand. “Although my father and my brother have proved false in this matter to you, my lady, and to you all, I swear to you that I will die in defence of your honour and your safety.”
Illand shrugged away Ainle’s hand and jumped onto the bench under the shutter where Buinne had climbed out.
“Help me with the shutter,” he hissed, “I don’t want my sword to get caught.” Ardan climbed up on the bench and propped the heavy red wooden shutter open while Illand squeezed through.
Dropping cat-like to the ground outside, he moved furtively around to the front of the building where the warriors of the king of Fermagh had gathered. Of his brother, there was no sign. Slipping his left forearm through the rawhide straps on the inside of his leather bound shield, Illand wiped his sweating palm on his tunic before gripping his long iron sword firmly in his right hand. Cautiously, he peered around the corner again.
A group of battle hardened warriors, their dark cloaks blood-red in the firelight, their shields hanging on their backs, long swords and spears by their side, stood or squatted around the fire. Another smaller group of men, unarmed, were struggling to lift the massive beam of oak to renew the battering against the heavy red wood doors of the lodge. Illand counted his heartbeats while watching the men heave up the beam and stand silent for a moment, gaining their balance and adjusting to the unaccustomed weight. Another heartbeat as they staggered forward so that the end of the beam was at an arms length from the door and then they began to swing the heavy beam, gently at first, back and forward. More heartbeats and the beam began to reach its highest backward point before beginning its downward swing to smash into the door and, when Illand saw that the men would be most off-balance, he charged at the head of the group holding the pillar of oak, making the entire line of men stagger and fall, the beam trapping two men helplessly on the ground. Illand smashed his shield into the face of the unsuspecting warrior who had been standing at the rear of the line before swinging his sword and thrusting at the second in line, his sword sliding into his unprotected belly. Twirling he stabbed down at the breast of a man pinned down across his waist by the beam, smashing the sharpened rim of his shield into the neck of another trapped man.
“By right of the royal blood of my father, Fergus Mac Rioch, former king of the Ulaidh, I, Illand, demand the right to single combat in order to clear the stain from our name and to maintain the oath our father took when he guaranteed the safety of the sons of Uísliu on their return to the heartland, as sworn and agreed by you, false king, Conor Mac Nessa.” he called out defiantly.
Conor paused, his hand on the door to his hall, on hearing the proud vaunt, recognising the younger son of Fergus, amazed at the innocence of the youth in believing that honour could be so easily restored.
Crúscraid tugged at his sleeve, offering him another beaker of the dark wine he had been drinking since noon and Conor turned and looked at his idiot son. Crúscraid looked like a fighter, his hair cropped short and unevenly on his round head, his nose broken from long ago, Conor saw, but the youth’s arms and shoulder were massive and he smiled for the first time at his son.
“You were born that same day as Illand, the son of Fergus, curse him,” Conor began, “you knew that, didn’t you?”
Slack-jawed, Crúscraid nodded his great head shyly. “Leh-leh-let me fuh-fuh-fight him,” he stammered pleadingly
Conor paused as if to reflect on the suggestion before he went on, placing his thin hand on his son’s broad shoulder and feeling the bunched muscle there.
“You could fight him, right enough, couldn’t you? I would give you my very own shield, Ochain the moaner, and no weapon can pierce it. You shall have that and here, look,” he paused and fumbled at the sash around his waist. “Here,” he continued, handing the heavy thong from which his battle sword hung, to the youth. “Take this my own sword too, go, my son, and make that arrogant fool eat his words.
Crúscraid grinned and hefted the shield before knotting the broad rawhide strap around his own waist. Turning, he slid the sword free of its long, wooden sheath, inlaid with panels of bronze and held the sword aloft, before ducking his head to his father and turning towards the door.
The two men were equally matched in terms of age but in little else, for Illand was fit and experienced in the field of battle, yet he circled his opponent carefully for he could see the pent-up excitement and thrill the other man was feeling, despite lacking the skill or the experience to be a skilled warrior. In addition, he had no desire to kill the youth for they had grown up together and Illand knew that the stammerer was no challenge to him.
Crúscraid was not as tall as Illand, but he was broad across the shoulders and, holding his sword awkwardly in front of him like a spear, he charged, relying on his brute, animal strength. Not bothering to parry the blow, Illand stepped aside and smashed his heavy shield hard into his squashed face, flattening his already broken nose and then swung the flat of his sword at his legs, knocking him to the ground. Crúscraid crouched under Conor’s heavy shield as Illand swung his sword, clanging futilely, on the iron-studded, oaken shield which boomed dully with each blow. He paused, his sword upraised for the next hammer blow on the stricken youth at his feet when a sharp burning pain, almost exquisite in its sudden intensity, seared through his guts and he gazed in horrified surprise as the smooth iron tip of the ash spear, smeared with his own blood and gore, suddenly appeared beside his navel.
Falling forward, Illand propped himself up on his outstretched arms, he gaped back in disbelief as an old man, large and big bellied, with a great unruly mop of white hair, jerked the spear back from his body.
“It’s an evil thing you have done here,” Illand gasped, “for I was protecting the sworn oath of my father, Fergus Mac Rioch and myself that we would safeguard the lives of the noble sons of Uísliu,” before slumping, face down, on the bloody ground beneath him.
“By Lugh and all the gods, Conor,” Conall bellowed, leaning on his bloodied spear, surveying the dead scattered all around him, “’Tis a fine night’s work you have done here. What treachery is this for I will have no part of it? If it is not you under your own shield Ochain, so then it must be an imposter.” and sweeping the shield aside with one boot, he stabbed down again with the bloody spear, transfixing the cowering youth through the throat to the ground beneath. Ripping the blade free, a bright spray of arterial blood splashed his feet and the old man stepped back. “You have destroyed the sanctity of hospitality, broken your vows, Conor and made other – aye and better – men than you disgrace themselves and all for what? Let this be the end, now, of Eamhain Macha and let the prophecy be fulfilled for not one moment longer will I serve you or your kind. I curse the day that you were born. I leave you to your schemes, bad cess to you now and for always.” Throwing down the bloody spear, the old man stared down the warriors now all standing around the campfire and stalked away into the darkness.
“Who was that? Did you see?” Gasped Ainle, his mouth hanging open in shock. “He just killed Illand and then he killed Crúscraid.”
“And we’re next,” added a grim faced Ardan. “We are on our own now brothers and we must put our hope, as always, in each other and no longer make obeasieance to anyone at this time.”
The pounding on the front door to the lodge began again as new men took up the task of battering down the stout wooden doors.
“Look,” Deirdre cried despairingly, pointing as a wisp of smoke curled down from the thatch covering the solid rafters “smoke! They will burn us out even if the doors continue to hold.”
“Either way,” grimaced Ainle, the tang of smoke already in his throat “we can wait for them here and be smoked out like rabbits from their burrow or we can break out now and make a dash for it. Hit them when they least expect it,” he continued excitedly, “If we time it right, we can wrench open the door the moment the ram hits it and, then, while they are swinging it back to strike again, we slip out and head left towards the main gate. We let them blunder into the open doorway while we dash for our lives. It’s going to be our only chance.”
Naoise hugged Deirdre and then stood up to join his brothers.
“You’re right, little brother. Let’s do it,” he said, pulling his two brothers close to him so that all three could clasp each other’s shoulder, before turning to pick up his shield and going to stand at the girl’s side.
Ardan grinned and hoisted his shield and checked his sword was not stuck in his scabbard. From where he crouched, closest to the door, Ainle tried to count his heartbeats in between each thunderous boom of the battering ram and the roar of the men who pounded on the door again and again. Already, the posts on either side of the thick slabs of wood had shifted and he was relieved when Naoise shouted and he darted forward lifting up the heavy locking bar keeping the gate closed and toppled it to the ground. Jumping back as the heavy doors swung inward, Ainle and Ardan sprang forward, their shields locked and their swords outstretched like spears and stabbed and hacked at the men leaning back into their swing of the ram. Naoise rushed forward, his shield up, Deirdre clinging onto the strap around his waist and hacked back-handed at the nearest warrior he saw and then they were clear, avoiding the open campfire where the men had been drinking and heading towards the outer wall, the gateway to which was still open. Ardan and Ainle dropped back so that they formed a rear guard and Naoise led them at a fast trot across the open ground towards the earth wall where Scél sprawled next to a flagon of drink and the ditch.
To be continued