An Old Celtic Tale of Love & Death – Part 2

Dál Riata

The cold, grey sea surged up, sucking the pebbles away from under Deirdre’s feet where she stood on the empty, stony strand. The three ships sat low in the water as she watched the brothers’ bondsmen and retainers load their bales and weapons.

“We’ll be safe over there,” Naoise murmured pulling her close, his warm red lips nuzzling the soft skin of her neck. “That mad ould’ bastard won’t be able to reach us there in Dál Riata,” he promised.

Deirdre shuddered and pulled Naoise closer, her arms around his waist, allowing him to lift her over the gunwale of the small ship and guide her to a place in the sheltered stern where he pulled a deerskin hide around her. The woven cords, running up the heavy sail and to the steering oar beside her, creaked as the ship responded to the offshore swell under the bite of a cold northeast wind.

Long days and even longer nights had passed since she had met him, half pulling the ears off him before they kissed but already blood had been spilt as the brothers led their bondsmen and Deirdre away into the wild north of the kingdom, pursued by the jealousy of an outraged king.

One night of snatched passion had been followed by days and nights of flight, discovery by clans sworn to the king, challenges and skirmishes and Deirdre knew that there could be no respite while they remained within the kingdom of the Ulaidh.

The coast was now in sight, a grey green slash to the east and as the light grew, she could see the mouth of the loch, its sheer banks narrowing, bringing with it the smell of rich, dark soil. Stark forests, untouched yet by the rising sun, formed impenetrable barriers on either side of the loch but as they continued eastwards, the loch widened until Deirdre could barely see the other shore and then the keel of the swan-bellied boat grated harshly on the jumbled pebbles of a small crescent beach.

They had sailed north from the strand at Dún Sobairce with Conor’s men at their heels and threaded their way through the barren islets of Dál Riata before turning towards the direction of the rising sun and entering the dark waters of the sea loch. Deirdre stood up, stretching her cramped legs and braced herself on the mast and looked around. A long rocky, heavily forested, inlet stretched behind them as far as the open sea. In the half light of a nacreous dawn, nothing stirred and no bird or animal called, the only sound being dark loch water lapping the pebbled shore while a cold breeze soughed through the tall trees crowding the shoreline, encircling the small crescent beach where the three boats had pulled up on, but in the growing light Deirdre could see the bulk of the highlands rising up from where they swept down to the shore.

“It’s all right my love,” Naoise said, “We are safe now and here we will make our home – but not in this desolate spot, though, I promise”

Deirdre turned towards him and snuggled closer, feeling the heat of his body through the linen tunic he wore. Naoise put his arm around her and pulled her closer still, tugging her cloak around them both. Gently, he slipped his fingers under her chin, lifting her face up towards him, his heart overflowing with the love he felt for her.

“I know, my lord, and I am full content with the ground and the stars and the trees, the mountains and the sea, the glens and the forests as long as you are by my side.” Deirdre shook back her long golden hair and smiled up at Naoise, “I will always feel safe with you, my lord, and with such proud warriors as your brothers, Ardan and Ainle, to whom I now owe my life and my allegiance.”

“Right then so,” Ardan suggested, clapping his hands together briskly, “let’s stop here for the day and rest. We can light a fire and I’m sure there are good fish in this loch, even if the waters are so dark. Once we have something to eat and dry clothes, we’ll all feel better. Here, catch, Ainle.”

Ardan began to throw bales of goods from the swan-bellied ship that had breasted the waves so swiftly from the kingdom of the Ulaidh to this desolate shore in Dál Riata where Ainle now stood.

***

“Well, big brother,” Ardan turned the fish, skewered on a stripped green twig, over the low burning wood fire, squinting as the smoke blew in his eyes, “We can’t complain about the fishing here, and I‘m sure the hunting is good in the mountain yonder, but what do we do now?”

“Do?” laughed Ainle, “ I think you just mentioned it – fishing and hunting – what more could a man want in life. Here we are lords of all we see and by the strength of my sword arm, I mean to make it mine.”

“This land must belong to someone, some chieftain, someone we must meet and pay our respects to,” Naoise mused, flicking back the heavy lock of dark hair that Deirdre loved so much. “We have to greet this chieftain and offer our services in return for his protection”.

“I fear that the prophecy made at my birth might yet haunt me here,” Deirdre said apprehensively. “Even here, heroes will contend for me and already I have pulled you, the fairest of the Craobh Ruadh, into exile here in this desolate spot.”

“Truly, you have done so,” Ainle grinned, “so that, we, the three sons of Uísliu, may defend you and gain honour and renown, my lady, thereby merely receiving some of the glory reflected from one so beautiful as you.

“He’s right of course, Deedee,” Naoise murmured, pulling Deirdre closer to him, “but would you ever listen to the honey mouth on him!”

***

Ardan led the way up from the shore, following the scat and the faint tracks of deer and boar, the air heavy and cold with no trace of wood smoke. The valleys here were sheer and the forested slopes thick with undergrowth. It had rained earlier, soaking into their cloaks and chilling them to the bone as they climbed up towards the towering mountains. All around them was impenetrable silence, made all the more eerie by the drifts of mists that seemed to float everywhere. Tall trees and thick undergrowth blocked their view and stooping sometimes under the heavy wet boughs, the group continued to climb upwards.

Long before they broke out from under cover they could smell the village. The rancid smell of animal fat and the raw stink of the cesspool mingled with the stench of unwashed bodies living close beside their animals. The summit of the hilltop was surrounded by a ramped earthen wall, while an outer ring of roughly hewn logs, sharpened and fire-hardened faced outwards at an angle, their bases embedded solidly in the ground. Several thatch and wattle hovels clustered near the one gate which led into the mound and that was overlooked by walled platforms. Shaggy, armed men peered down the hillside.

Outside the outer mound and descending down the cleared slopes of the hill towards the encroaching forest, scattered huts nudged small plots of fenced land. Crops of oats and barley were well tended in small pastures and long horned cattle swung their heavy heads and gazed dully at their surroundings.

Peering from well within the sheltering tree line, the brothers considered their position.

“It looks both prosperous and well-defended,” Ardan ventured. “So what do?”

“All the better,” broke in Ainle excitedly, “if we circle around the back, we may well be able to take them by surprise. Then we…”

“Little brother, hold,” Naoise put out his hand and grasped Ainle’s arm. “We are not here for spoils of war or raiding, we need to seek sanctuary and establish where we are and what service we can provide.   I want more for Deirdre than living in the wilds and being hunted down like a fugitive.”

“He’s right,” Ardan agreed. “Don’t worry, brother, there will be many opportunities to fight and to show your prowess of which we all know you possess.”

Standing up straight, Naoise stepped forth from the undergrowth and called out, brandishing his linden shield and long ash spear in one hand while thrusting his heavy iron sword skywards.

“Hear me, gatekeeper, before you stand the three sons of Uísliu, of the kingdom of the Ulaidh, warriors unbeaten and valourous in the strife of battle, hardened in war and conflict, victorious in all encounters, who come in friendship and with greetings”.

Brass trumpets blared from within the mound and Naoise and his brothers could see a flurry of activity on the gate platforms with men shouting up and down to each other. Shortly afterwards, the heavy wooden gate leading into the mound was dragged open and a troop of men, surrounding their chieftain, appeared to meet the slowly advancing exiles.

Short, stocky with a broad chest covered with a thick pelt of greying hair, Marog, his belly thrust forward, farted contemptuously and examined the newcomers curiously, noting their iron weapons and fine clothes.

“Greetings, men of Ulaidh from Marog, chieftain of Dún Broch. Long has it been since such fine warriors from overseas have visited us. Welcome to the home of Marog, the Strong but your purpose here is unclear.” Marog squinted suspiciously at them. “Is it shelter and protection you are after here or do you mean to harry us with those fine weapons we see you hold so stoutly?”

Coarse laughter erupted from the throng of stunted men crowding curiously behind their squat chieftain.

Ainle’s hand tightened on the hilt of his long blade and he made to step forward challengingly but Naoise stopped him with a small gesture.

“Aye, my lord,” Naoise advanced half a pace and stopped, bowing courteously. “You have but some truth in what you say and in exchange for sanctuary within your stronghold, we place our weapons and our strong arms at your service.”

Marog paused, his small eyes fixed on the slim hooded figure behind the broad shoulders of the young men in front of him. A woman it would be, he thought to himself, and demure too, by the look of her.

“Come then, sons of Uísliu, for even here, in the highlands, have we heard of your illustrious names and the honour with which they are carried. Come, let us drink to our alliance for we have many foemen who would eagerly seek our kine and kith and kin.”

Stamping triumphantly on the muddy ground at his feet, Marog led the brothers, leering the while at Deirdre, into his rudely fortified palisade.

***

Naoise examined the layout of the ground in front of the village of mean huts, encircled by a rude rampart of thrown up earth surmounted by wooden stakes. Perhaps a score of huts huddled round a slightly larger wooden building ornamented with a sweep of oxen horn over the gable end. Behind the village the rough ground sloped away into tough gorse and heather while to the right of the village some oxen and sheep were penned. To the left, the ground fell away towards the loch, fed by a small stream which flowed under a corner of the crude ramparts.

In return for Marog’s hospitality, and true to the offer they had made him, the brothers had been in the van of many fights now with Marog’s enemies in the continual raiding of rival chieftain’s cattle and property. Each time, honour bound, Naoise had gone at Marog’s command, but each time he became ever more conscious of Marog’s covetous eye and his increasing desire to see his hooded woman. Each raid became a concern, not for his own safety or that of his brothers, but for the woman they had to leave behind with a handful of their trusted retainers, and each time he was ever more anxious to return to Deirdre.

Directly in front, the Pict barbarians were assembling in a noisy jostling crowd, pushing and shoving at each other to get into the foremost line of men. Naoise shivered slightly and glanced down the line of men on either side of him. His right hand loosened the sword in the scabbard at his waist while his left hefted the oval shield. “Check your weapons” he called out. In this cold, wet climate, swords and daggers often jammed in their sheathes, delaying a warrior for half a heartbeat and, Naoise knew, half a heartbeat was all it took for an enemy to plunge a sword deep into soft innards.

The braying of the brass horns deepened and the cacophony of noise seemed to reach a new crescendo as the Pictish warriors, small and sinewy, massed in front of their village. Roaring their defiance, brandishing their weapons, the Picts capered and cavorted, taunting Naoise and his companions.

The cold air was bitter with the smell of urine and lime which the clansmen had rubbed into their hair to stiffen and tease it out into fantastic shapes, underlined with the peaty smell of smoke from the squalid village. A rumbling sound announced the arrival of the Pictish chieftain on a small wicker chariot, pulled by two wiry horses. As the chariot rolled between the massed ranks of men, the rider, a sturdy brute in a wolfskin cloak, his bald head pale in contrast to his thick and matted red beard which did little to hide his pitted and poxed skin, thrust a javelin skywards and bawled out a challenge to single combat.

Naoise half drew his sword and the rasp of the heavy iron blade against the brass lip of the sheath made Ainle glance towards his brother. “Give me the honour, brother, this time.”

Naoise smiled briefly before shaking his head. Ainle, while strong and fleet, was a full three summers younger than Naoise and lacked the experience to go up against a hardened veteran the Pictish chieftain appeared to be. Stepping forward from the ranks, Naoise flung both arms out to the side, exposing his defenceless body to the enemy.

“Listen and fear, tremble all of you before the might of Naoise, son of Uísliu, giver of rings and cups, descended from the kings of the Ulaidh, noble in blood and in heart, fierce in battle, undefeated in strife.” Clashing his heavy iron sword against the raised boss on his shield, he brandished the weapons skyward.

The Pict, eyes fierce beneath a low brow, hopped from the chariot platform and made a series of short rushing steps towards Naoise before pausing and spitting a thick jet of mucous on the ground between them. Armed with a short stabbing spear and a round leather shield, he circled round Naoise cautiously, eying the tall dark haired man armed with the long iron sword and bright torc of gold around his neck. Naoise stood rock still, his gaze fixed on the small dark eyes of the man in front of him. Shuffling every closer, lunging with the stabbing spear, and then stepping back unnecessarily, the Pict edged crab-like around the still form. Naoise waited, judging the time when the Pict would feel close enough to reach him with a spear thrust, and waited for the flicker of the man’s hard eyes which, he knew, would signal the death rush.

Batting the sudden thrust towards his groin away with his shield, Naoise swung the shield up and round to the left, pushing the central bronze boss hard into the man’s face, hearing the crunch of his nose. Staggering back under the impact, the Pictish chieftain’s shield hung wide and Naoise sliced his sword across the man’s torso, opening a thick weal of red blood across the matted hair. An astonished look crossed the chieftain face and he stopped short, looking down at the blood welling from the deep slice. Naoise stepped back out of immediate range of the short stabbing spear, now pointed aimlessly at the wet ground, and spun lightly on his heel. His blade, a whirling rush the clan chieftain was relatively unaware of, struck hard on the angle between head and shoulder and opened the man down to the far side of his chest.

Wrenching the blade free with a twist of his wrist, Naoise sprang past the slumped body and urged his line of men to sweep down on the remaining warriors. Already the timbre of the noise had changed from the frantic braying of the horns to the panicked cries of the leaderless Picts. Dodging under the wildly swung sword of one stocky warrior, Naoise plunged his sword into his belly and then used his booted foot to push the screaming man off his blade before slashing it across the neck of a man fighting with his younger brother, Ardan. Grinning his thanks, Ardan plunged on, his shield crashing against shields while his sword hammered heads and ribs, slipping beneath shields to rip up through unprotected thighs and soft bellies, into what was fast becoming a melee. Out of the corner of his eye, Naoise saw his little brother rush forward confidently, thrusting his sword over a clansman’s round shield and stepping back, parrying his attack so the blades clashed harshly in the damp air. Ainle parried quickly again and riposted fast before swinging his sword at the man’s bare legs and when the man dropped his own sword to block the stroke, he kicked the short bronze blade aside and lunged forward, thrusting his sword into the man’s unprotected neck. Moments later, the dispirited Picts broke and ran under the disciplined approach of Naoise, his brothers and their band of warriors.

***

Naoise slid the stone down the length of his oiled blade, concentrating on bringing the edge back to its keenness. Deirdre knelt behind him, her gentle hands kneading the aching muscles of his back and shoulders. Ainle was eagerly reviewing his part in the skirmish with Ardan, turning the spitted haunch of venison over the low fire in the centre of the hut Marog had provided for them. The warriors had returned to Marog’s village, tired but jubilant, driving the captured cattle in front of them, leading the defeated clansmen, yoked at the neck with braided rawhide thongs, and carrying the few spoils the Picts settlement had yielded, some small, pitted cauldrons, animal skins and a sack of rock salt. Marog had accepted the spoils gruffly, eyes darting at the hooded figure of Deirdre at Naoise’s side before dismissing the brothers with an abrupt wave of his paw.

“I don’t like the way Marog and those men look at me,” Deirdre said, sitting back and pulling the hood of her cloak closer around her face as if her words had reminded her of Marog’s interest in her.

“My poor love, you will have to give men leave to look upon you for that is the lot of pretty women the world over. Men have eyes for a good reason and that is to feast them on such a beauty as you are. Ask any man and there is no one who would turn their eyes away from such beauty even for fear of being blinded.”

“Now who is the one with the honeyed tongue?” Ainle jeered.

“No, what I mean is the way Marog’s men look at me – and all of us – it is not just lust but there is something else, I fear, greed, avarice, perhaps yet even more.” Deirdre complained.

“Do not overly worry your pretty head, my love, tomorrow we will talk to Marog, and we tell him it is our custom to have quarters outside these walls.”

***

“Sshh, Naoise, wake up, can you not hear that?” Deirdre whispered, caressing her lover awake. The darkness within the hut was absolute but Naoise could hear the rustle of men moving stealthily outside. Ardan and Ainle, already alerted by Deirdre’s whisper, were already reaching for their weapons when the first firebrand landed on the thatch roof, quickly setting it ablaze.

“This way, quick!” Ardan called, and with furious slashes of his broad sword, he hacked a gap in the wattle and daub wall opposite the low porch of the hut.

‘Watch out!” Ainle warned, as another burning brand landed on the earthen floor through the exposed gap in the roof, now burning fiercely, showing Deirdre’s drawn face pale in the ruddy glow of the flames.

Ardan scrambled out thought the gap he had made, his long shield held protectively above his head, his long sword in his right hand. A spear jabbing down from above was swept aside by his sword while his sharp-rimed shield swung hard against the unprotected legs of his attacker, toppling him, screaming to the ground. Ainle, right behind him, stabbed down with a short dagger, finding the man’s throat, pinning him to the ground. Naoise ducked and pulled Deirdre behind him, protected by his oval shield while Ainle slashed wildly round him, and Ardan barged his bloody shield into the face of a new attacker, the heavy bronze boss crushing the man’s eye before he swung the shield horizontally, the sharpened rim hewing into his neck, arterial blood hissing into the flames of the hut, now burning fiercely, as he ducked the frenzied swing of a bronze sword. Naoise had just time to parry a savage blow and as his attacker turned sideways to avoid the downswing of his sword, he kicked the side of the man’s knee, felling him to the ground where Ainle effortlessly finished him off.

Forming a rough circle with Deirdre in the middle, the three brothers charged the disorganized rabble with Marog urging his men on with guttural calls. Ainle in the van, feinted at the leading attacker and as his opponent raised his shield and sword protectively, Ainle kicked him in the bollix and ran, panting, past to meet the next. Slashing, stabbing forward, their shields both defensive and offensive weapons, the brothers stamped their way through the thin line of attackers and away into the darkness outside the glare of the burning hut, collapsing into its own ashes now. Naoise, in the rear, spun on his heel blocking with his long shield as Marog, his squat face distorted with rage at the loss the woman he lusted after above all things, jabbed his spear forward at her protector. The gaze of her crystal blue eyes and the windblown softness of her fine gold hair had maddened him and his attempts to separate the woman from the three men had all failed, despite putting them in the van of every battle. Infuriated too, at the failure of his night assault, he lunged forward with his short spear, twisting away from Naoise’s sword swing which would have bitten deep into the shorter man’s shoulder. Naoise swung the flat of his shield into Marog’s ribs, and as the chieftain stumbled back, he thrust his sword deep into his unprotected belly.

To Be Continued.

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

Desert Island Books

Someone asked me, ages ago, for a list of my favourite (fictional) books and I have cobbled together this one in no particular order along with a brief comment on each book. These 25 books are mostly dog-eared and grubby from extended readings and from being dragged around the world with me on my lengthy stays in Europe, Asia and Australia. I have read all of them multiple times and still return to them for a laugh or a shocked recollection of some thing or other. I know, I know, I should be reading more modern fiction – and, in my defence, I do and often – but these are the books I return to time and again like best old friends.

Books marked with an asterisk * are part of a trilogy or other collection of novels by the same author which form a complete unit.

  Title Author / Date Comment
1 At Swim-Two-BirdsBookPics 6 Flann O’Brien 1951 One of the funniest books I have ever read – part an attempt to write a novel, an introduction to University life in Dublin, a blend of Celtic myth, sheer nonsense and a delight in every sense. The novel begins with the premise that one beginning and one ending for a book is an unsatisfactory state of affairs and then goes on to prove the point. Great fun.
2 Highways to a War Christopher Koch 1995 An amazing tale of war in Vietnam and Cambodia influenced by the events of a real life war photographer missing in action, this novel blends history and character in a seamless portrait of a life lived on the edge of beauty and fear.
3 King Solomon’s Mines H Rider Haggard A classical 19th century adventure story set in the wilds of Africa filled with fierce native, savage animals, lost kingships and malevolent witch doctors.   The unassuming main character, Alan Quatermain, remains vivid in my mind since I first read the story decades ago,
4 Hiroshima JoeScanned Image 3 Martin Booth 1985 Set in Hong Kong in the early fifties, Joe is a survivor of a World War II labour camp in Japan, enduring a half-life as a drug addict and petty criminal attempting to find some reason in his tormented existence. His desperate plight is only gradually revealed as he plumbs his unfathomable depths.
5 Tristram ShandyBookPics 2 Laurence Sterne 1760 Properly entitled the Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, this is another novel about writing a novel which never seems to get anywhere – nor does it make much progress with Tristram’s life and opinions either. A difficult, but always comical, read from a master of innuendo, packed with characters like the irrepressible Uncle Toby, Corporal Trim, the widow Wadman and Dr. Slop, the novel pretends to be a biography but wanders off into digressions about the shape of one nose, the importance of names and whether novels should be written at all. Incredible and fascinating.
6 Catch-22 Joseph Heller Another war novel, this classic Anti-War novel of the 20th century follows the attempts of Yossarian to avoid being killed by people he is trying to bomb into oblivion while the war wages on interminably bound by the paradoxical rule of the Catch-22. Fantastic characters abound, from Major – De Coverly, so fearsome looking nobody had dared to ask his first name or the infuriating and incessantly tinkering Orr and the dead man sharing Yossarian’s tent.
7 Sometimes a Great NotionScanned Image Ken Kesey 1964 Set in a Oregon, the Stamper family, wildly independent, set out to break a logger strike out of sheer stubbornness and because they can. Kesey uses different points of view to show his characters embroiled in a showdown both with the outside world and their own selves while the two radically different Stamper brothers, Hank and Leland seek personal retribution for the sins of their past. Better than One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
8 The Gift of Rain Tan Twan Eng 2007 Set mostly in Penang Malaysia, before, during and long after the war, this beautifully lyrical novel is a tale of a youthful seduction, loyalty, betrayal, compromise, family and love. Absolutely stunning in its delicate and poetic descriptions, this is a beautiful read where one’s heart is torn along with that of Philip Hutton, the Anglo-Chinese protagonist.
9 Cutting for Stone Abraham Verghese 2009 Set in Ethiopia and later the US, this story of twin brothers bound by secrets of their birth and linked by the power of medical healing, this fantastic book of love and politics depends on the fatalistic trust of one of the brothers.
10 Cotillion Georgette Heyer 1953 A frothy, bubbling tale of Regency romance, Cotillion – originally a dance for four couples – revolves around the schemes and engagements of ladies and gentlemen all in pursuit of a harmonious marriage ably abetted by a large income promised to Kitty, the main protagonist by her cantankerous guardian.   Champagne stuff!
11 Great Expectations Charles Dickens 1861 What can I say? For anyone who has never read Dickens, kick off with this first person narrative by Pip the orphan sadly deluded by everyone around him.   The most elaborate and fantastical coincidences and misunderstandings as well as a case of human spontaneous combustion make this my favourite Dickens of all time.
12 For Whom the Bell Tolls Ernest Hemmingway 1940 The brutality of civil war is contrasted solidly here with the tenderness of the relationship between Robert and Maria (little rabbit). I have to admit I had a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye by the climatic end to this gripping and savage novel.
13 Frankenstein Mary Shelley 1818 In the form of letters written by an obsessive captain exploring the North Pole, the story of an equally driven man, Victor Frankenstein is gradually revealed as the deluded scientist who brought life to inanimate matter. The thing that amazed me when I first read the book was the sympathy I felt for Victor’s creation. An incredible read and a well though out narrative far surpassing any Hollywood attempt at the story.
14 AzincourtScanned Image 1 Bernard Cornwell 2008 Immortalised in Shakespeare’s Henry V, this is the gritty, muddy account of the men in two badly mis-matched armies in 1414, told from both the English and the French points of view. English longbows and an army of riff-raff and the crème of French aristocracy face off in the mud and rain. Fascinating and compelling.
15 * Lonesome Dove Larry McMurtry The best western I have ever read, this is almost Dickensian in its range of characters and emotions in this sprawling tale of a cattle drive and much more. Every character is alive and vibrant, even the downright nasty and vicious ones – and there are plenty of those – although it is Captains Call and McCrae, former Texas Rangers who take pride of place for their humanity and innate stubbornness.
16 2001: A Space Odyssey Arthur C Clarke 1968 Prophetic in its anticipation of space exploration as mankind had not yet set foot on the moon at the time of publication, A Space Odyssey, written in conjunction with Stanley Kubrick, traverses a time period of several millions of years and looks at the evolution we might face in the future. Most interestingly, it suggests that our humanity is not the end of evolution but only a step in the process.
17 * Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy John LeCarré 1974 The first in the “Karla Trilogy” this understated and unsensational spy thriller – so diametrically opposed to the James Bond style – follows the hunt for a Russian spy at the top of British Intelligence, led by the unassuming and taciturn George Smiley.  Le Carré, the pen name for David Cornwell, worked as a British intelligence officer in the 50’s and 60’s, based his novel on his experience of the McLean, Burgess and Philby spy scandals that rocked Britain at the time.
18 To Kill a Mocking BirdScanned Image 4 Harper Lee 1960 A heart-warming coming of age for Scout and Jem Finch in the deeply prejudiced world of the southern states as their lawyer father attempts to bring order into their confused and at times frightening world. Great characters like Boo Radley, Dill and the white trash Ewell family will always remain in my memory.   Super stuff.
19 * FlashmanBookPics 3 George MacDonald Fraser 1969 The eponymous hero of the Victorian novel, Ton Brown’s Schooldays, Harry Flashman is a swaggering libertine and poltroon masquerading as a hero. Accurately researched, Flashman appears in every major incident during the Victorian expansion of the British Empire. Unashamedly frank about the lying cur he really is, I always admire the rogue until, in each of the dozen or so novels, he invariably commits at least one unforgiveable act. Superb, racy reading.
20 * Jeeves in the OffingBookPics P.G. Wodehouse 1960 Country houses, fierce aunts, broken engagements, punctured hot water bottles, disastrous speeches at garden fetes, stolen silver cow creamers, oddly named characters, purloined policemen’s helmets, obnoxious nephews pushed into ornamental lakes so that dejected suitors can heroically rescue them before the eyes of the spurning girl, all under the Machiavellian eye of the fish reinforced brain of the suave manservant, Jeeves, while the footling attempts of upper class twit, Bertie Wooster to find and reject love make up the delightful world of an age that surely never was.
21 Brighton RockBookPics 4 Graham Greene 1938 The dark, surreal world of violence and terror in the sunny setting of 1950’s Brighton, where Pinky, the main character, has death at his fingertips, finding release only in viciousness and violence. Sinister yet childlike, the savage ending of the books still gives me a shiver of revulsion down the spine. A masterpiece.
22 The Catcher in the RyeScanned Image 2 J.D. Salinger 1951 The classical novel of teenage angst and desperation, Holden Caulfield is both immature and older than his years in many ways. Running away from his school and himself, Holden dismisses everything around him as being phony and fake while missing out and misinterpreting the goodness that he encounters on his wanderings through a chilly New York until he finds some sort of redemption in the simple joy his little sister expresses.
23 The God of Small ThingsBookPics 1 Arundhati Roy 1997 Blending religion and politics, cultural relations and the Indian caste system, forbidden love, discrimination and the disastrous effect small things can have on peoples’ lives, the Ipe family lives are laid bare in this excruciatingly vivid tangle of lies and deception that make me both laugh and (almost) cry.
24` * DissolutionIMG_0231 C.J. Sansom 2003 The first in a series of six, soon to be seven, historical crime series, the unassuming and humanist protagonist, Matthew Shardlake, lawyer initially in the service of Henry VIII’s Lord Cromwell, undertakes, with increasing reluctance, fascinating crime investigations in Tudor England where the smells and sights of a 16th century London are all too real. Really super reading.
25 Guys and DollsBookPics 5 Damon Runyon 1956 A collection of twenty short stories set among the mob, chorus girls, gamblers and race-track hustlers who inhabited a Broadway of yesteryear, these fabulous stories capture the actual tone of the gangsters and racketeers, converting them into magnificent, charming and very funny, though not necessarily politically correct by todays’ standards, accounts.

 

 

Medea, Princess of Colchis

I loved the heroic stories of the ancient Greeks when I was a kid. I actually knew the difference between Theseus and Perseus and knew all about Helen of Troy (‘was this the face that launched a thousand ships?’), the labours of Hercules but I particularly enjoyed the tale of Jason and the Argonauts in their quest on the oracular ship, the Argo, for the Golden Fleece1. guarded in the kingdom of Colchis. Just as Troy was re-discovered as a real place, in the nineteenth century, Colchis too has been identified as an actual place at the eastern end of the Black Sea, in modern day Georgia.

I never bothered to visit Troy when I was in Turkey recently but I was intrigued to pass through the former kingdom of Colchis, just north of Batumi in the former soviet republic Georgia. In the main square, there was no statue of the so-called hero Jason, but instead, on a towering column, proudly holding aloft the Golden Fleece, the statue of Medea, Hecate’s witch-priestess, the sorceress daughter of King Aeëtes and the Caucasian nymph Asterodeia and Jason’s accomplice in his quest for the Golden Fleece.

Statues generally honour male heroes but here was a statue honouring this incredible woman, driven by forces beyond her knowledge, and led by her own ambitious, driving powers committing the most appalling acts of fratricide, regicide and filicide in the name of love helplessly engendered by the very gods themselves. Mind you, I wouldn’t say Jason was much of an angel, either. Here’s my take on Medea’s story.

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Medea, the daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis, the guardian of the Golden Fleece upon which the security of the kingdom depends, is smitten by Jason on first sight because the goddesses. Hera, who had sworn to aid Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece, and Athene, who wanted revenge for the past misdemeanours of Pelias, usurper of Jason’s throne, persuade Aphrodite to bribe her son, Eros, to make Medea conceive of a fierce passion for the Argonaut.

Aeëtes refused to hand over the Golden Fleece, reasonably enough and threatened to tear out Jason’s tongue out and chop off his hands. Medea convinced her father, the king of Colchis, against his will, to offer Jason the fleece on condition of fulfilling seemingly impossible tasks – yoking fire breathing, brazen hoofed bulls, sowing dragon’s teeth, from which fully armed warriors will spring, itching for a fight and other heroic acts.

Medea promises to use all her powers to help Jason to yoke the twin bulls and to overcome the sprouting warriors on condition that he love her forever and take her back to Greece on his return. Jason swears by all the gods of Olympus to keep faith with her. Medea concocts blood-red pomegranate juice mixed with the two stalked Caucasian crocus and honey, which shields Jason’s body and weapons.

Aeëtes, shocked at the ease at which Jason performs the impossible tasks and unaware of his daughter’s assistance to the hero, goes back on his word and foolishly confides in her that, during a banquet to celebrate Jason’s achievements, he plans to burn their ship, the Argo and massacre all his companions, the Argonauts.

Medea immediately leads Jason and his companions to a grove where the Golden Fleece hangs, guarded by a dragon of a thousand coils, larger than the Argo itself. Medea soothes the hissing monster with her occult incantations as Jason stealthily unhooks the Golden Fleece from the oak tree and hurries down to the cove on the Black Sea where the Argo waited.

Setting sail immediately, an enraged Aeëtes followed Medea and Jason, chasing, not only his daughter and the fleece but also, his only son, Medea’s brother, Apsyrtus who had accompanied them. Desperate to slow her father, Medea kills her younger brother and tosses him, piece by piece, overboard, forcing her father to stop and collect each piece in order to be able to provide full funeral rights.

Unfortunately, the oracular beam of the ship Argo, refused to sail further with them aboard until atonement be made for the murder.

Jason and Medea travel overland to Aeaea, the island home of Medea’s aunt, Circe who reluctantly purified them of the murder with the blood of a young sow! The Colchian pursuers, guessing that Jason and Medea would be picked up from there, demand from the king of Aeaea, on behalf of their king, Aeëtes, the return of both the fleece and Medea herself.

Citing ill treatment at the hands of her father, Medea sought protection from the local queen. The king was obliged to respond to the demands of the Colchians and, influenced by his wife, proclaimed that if Medea was virginal, she must be returned to her father but otherwise she could stay with Jason. The queen immediately told Medea and she and Jason bedded there and then on the Golden Fleece.

Heading home, passing the isle of Crete, Talos, a monstrous bronze guardian, blocked passage to the Argo by but Medea soothed the brute with her honey mouth, promising to make him mortal if he would only drink from the potion she offered. Gulping it down greedily, Talos fell into a deep sleep and Medea removed a bronze plug from his heel which sealed the single vein running the length of his body. Out gushed a colourless fluid which had served him as blood, rendering him inanimate.

Finally reaching Jason’s home of Iolcus, they discover, that in their absence, the usurper Pelias has finally killed Jason’s aged father and mother and fortified the city so that it is impenetrable to the Argonauts. Medea then offered to take the city single handedly and told Jason to hide the ship nearby and wait for her signal of burning torches on the palace roof. Disguising herself as a crone and carrying a hollow image of the goddess Artemis, Medea approached the city gates and demanded entry, crying out that the goddess Artemis wished to honour the piety of Pelias by making him young again so that he could sire heirs to his throne.

Pelias, no fool, doubted her until Medea transformed herself before his very eyes into her youthful and beguiling form. Behold now the power of Artemis, she cried as she chopped an aged ram into thirteen pieces and boiled them in a cauldron before the king’s wondering eyes. Muttering Colchian incantations and appealing to Artemis to assist her, Medea pretended to rejuvenate the ram by suddenly producing a frisky lamb from inside the hollow stature of Artemis that she had positioned beside the cauldron. Fully convinced now, Pelias, lulled by Medea’s charms, fell into a deep sleep on his couch. Medea then ordered his daughters to cut up their father’s body, just as she had done with the ram, and boil him in the same cauldron so that the rejuvenation could begin. As soon as the bodily parts were in the cauldron, Media led the daughters up onto the roof of the palace, each of them carrying a lit torch so that they could invoke the power of the moon while the cauldron was simmering. Seeing the lit torches being waved on the palace roof, Jason and the Argonauts stormed the city successfully only to later accept banishment by the Iolcus council. Jason, fearing the vengeance of Pelias’ daughters for the cruel murder of their father, wisely abandoned the city to them.

Following Medea’s advice, Jason set sail again on the Argo and presented the Golden Fleece to the temple of Zeus before heading to the Isthmus of Corinth. Medea, the only surviving child of her father Aeëtes, the rightful king of Corinth before he moved to Colchis, now claimed the throne and the Corinthians, awed by both Medea and Jason’s deeds, accepted Jason as their king.

A prosperous decade passes and Medea presents Jason with several children but his eye is caught by Glauce, daughter of king Creon of Thebes, and he renounces his vows to Medea, determined to take Glauce to his bed. Medea urges him not to, reminding him that he also owes the throne of Corinth to her but Jason insisted that an oath made under pressure was non-binding. Medea appeared to give way and sent all of Jason’s children to Glauce bearing a hand-woven white gown and a tiara of fine gold as a peace offering. No sooner had Glauce slipped on the gown and placed the tiara on her head when she burst into unquenchable flames, consuming not only her, but also her father, King Creon and all the child messengers that Medea had borne Jason.

Leaving a destitute Jason, unloved by the gods for having forsaken his vows to Medea in their name, Medea, fled in a chariot pulled by fearsome serpents, first to Thebes and then Athens before hearing her uncle Perses had usurped the throne of Colchis from her father Aeëtes. Hastening home Medea restored and then expanded and ruled the kingdom with her father.IMG_1855

 

I suppose that counts as a happy ending for Medea but poor old Jason wandered destitute until, finally returning to his birthplace, he sits down to rest under the beached remains of his ship, the Argo, and a beam from the bow falls on him, killing him outright!

 

  1. Apparently it was quite common to stretch a sheepskin on a wooden frame and place it at an appropriate place in the river where gold particles could be deposited and colleced later.

Lunar New Year of the Dog and Dog Days

Friday 16 February marks the 2018 Lunar New Year of the Dog, heralding spring. However, where I am right now the end of summer is approaching with autumn just down the road. I suppose that the Year of the Dog is related to the Dog Star, Sirius – so named as it appears to follow at the heels of the hunter, Orion. Dog days are also reputed to be the hottest period of the year. IMG_5215

I used to think the 12 Zodiac animals of the Lunar New Year matched with the Western horoscope of the dozen star-signs and I knew what I was in both systems – a snake and a crab respectively. A few years ago, when I lived in Vietnam, I realised that each animal had an aspect attached to it. I felt absurdly smug when I realised I was a water snake, having an affinity with that element, as opposed to, for example, fire, wood, metal or an air snake. And just as the 12 animals of the Zodiac follow each other in set order, so too does each aspect as they cycle through one or other of the five elements: Metal, Wood, Water, Fire, and Earth

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It is often referred to as Chinese New Year, which must rankle with non-Chinese people who also observe the Lunar New Year, much like, perhaps, people in South American countries resent citizens of the USA claiming themselves to be American.

Despite having lived in Hong Kong for a full cycle of the Zodiac, I only encountered the frustration and delays as a massive migration of people took place and never really experienced the almost frantic excitement in the build up to the start of the festival that I encountered when I lived in Vietnam.

Tết Nguyên Đán to give it its full name in Vietnamese, like the Christian Easter, is a movable feast, usually falling around the end of January and before the middle of February.

However, with Tet being such an important holiday, it is essential to approach it with suitable reverence and intense preparation. Much like a western Christmas when shops start to gear up for the festive season as soon as Hallowe’en is over, so too do Tet preparations begin in earnest not only in shops and businesses but also in every home in the country. Shops fill up with gaudy decorations, usually some variation of the phrase Chuc Mung Nam Moi, ideally wrought in fine gold on a red velvet background – red and yellow being the principle lucky colours for an auspicious start to the New Year – but of course all variations on that theme, provided the colours are maintained, is acceptable.

The Kitchen God – and every household has one – must be propiated with gifts and offering because it is he, and he alone, who will report back to the Celestial Jade Emperor on the family’s efforts over the previous year and it is the Jade Emperor who will decide the future prosperity of each household.

Once the home has been thoroughly cleaned, paying special attention to the kitchen, then it must be suitable decorated. Red and yellow flowers will predominate although orange marigolds may be included. Yellow forsythia branches must adorn the home while peach and cheery blossom trees are especially popular. Kumquat trees laden with small fruit are also popular, symbolizing fecundity and abundance, something everyone aspires to in the New Year.

The largest, voluntary, world-wide migration of people take place prior to the Lunar New year as millions of Chinese and other Asian people return to their home birthplaces, similar, dare I suggest, to the mass gatherings for the Haj which followers of Islam feel it is incumbent on them to perform at least once in their lifetime.

Part of the excitement in the build-up to Tet, of course is preparing to receive long-absent family members and to scrupulously clean the home before Tet, as once the holiday begins, no cleaning may be done lest one inadvertently sweeps or throw away the good luck one is due on account of the preparations you and your family have made.

Imagine, if you can, having your birthday, Christmas, Easter, Wedding, Anniversary, Valentine’s Day, Buddha’s Birthday, St. Patrick’s day and all other major belief systems’ days of veneration all rolled into one glorious holidays where everything can be devoted to a glorious extravaganza of eating, drinking and gambling. Add to that, of course, the annual rollover of age in that at the beginning of Tet, every single person becomes a year older, so in fact, it is your birthday so what is there not to celebrate?

It’s bit different where I live now – although I am going to a Lunar New Year buffet. Unlike China and Vietnam whereat least 10 work free days is de rigeur, here in Australia it is just another day at the office although the Asian communities here of course plan their celebrations and lion dances, but for the ordinary Aussie, it is no big deal.

So, tomorrow, Friday 16 February is the first day of Tet and is considered the most important as the first visitor to the family home will set the luck for the coming year and is reserved for the nuclear family focused on the paternal side of the family. Children dressed in their new finery, bow to their parents and offer traditional greeting – Sống lâu trăm tuổi (Long life of 100 years) and formally receive a red packet – a small red envelope, decorated with traditional wishes, containing assorted bank notes while friends wish each other Tiền vô như nước (May money flow in like water).

The second day of Tet is then reserved for the maternal side of the family and for respected friends and acquaintances.

Anyway, this is first year of the Earth Dog since the last Earth Dog back in1958. Communicative, serious, and responsible in work, it seems, according to the characteristics assigned to that Zodiac. Hmm … as opposed to an Intelligent, hardworking, and sincere Fire Dog or the conservative, desirable, cautious, and always ready to help Metal Dog or the sincere, reliable, considerate, understanding, and patient Wood Dog or finally the brave and self-centered, even seemingly selfish, well-versed in dealing with financial issues Water Dog! Wow! Hard to choose among them all. Why can’t they all be combined in one?

The Year of Earth Dog also means that we will not see another one until 2078!

Inspired, enthused and curious about the frequency of dog in current English, I present the following words that are badly written or expressed – Doggerel!

If you are bored see if you can match up the dictionary definition with the numbered and italicised phrases in the following. Answers some time later, if anyone is interested. Happy New Lunar Year of the Dog!

 Doggerel

He felt his commanding officer had discarded him as someone worthless 1 and it really ranked. Who did they think they were to treat him like this, giving him menial tasks to do, as if he were a junior in some boring office .2.

He ground out the butt of his cigarette 3. under his heel and replaced his fatigues and military I.D.4. with a soutane and a clerical collar 5 before slipping his knife into a side pocket.

Despite the full heat of the last days of summer 6, he broke into a gentle trot7. This was a chance to redeem himself. Up until recently, his time in the unit had been less than happy, problems and unfair treatment 8. seemed to follow him wherever he went 9.

Worn out 10, he felt his luck had deteriorated 11 and this was just another period of inactivity or decline 12. He took out the small shabby notebook, the corners worn and battered with use 13. and looked at the directions and notes he had been given, knowing full well he had no chance 14. of making her change her mind 15.

A sharp bend 16in the road ahead revealed the villa on the hillside and he knew he would have to emphasize how delighted he was 17 when he met the selfish 18. occupant there if he was to overcome her suspicions.

The old lady was wearing ridiculously smart and ostentatious clothes 19 but it was obvious that her health had deteriorated 20. Her skin was lined and wrinkled, soft and doughy but her eyes remained sharp, as did her long nails. She lay back, weak and exhausted as if from influenza or gastroenteritis 21.

He’d be disgraced and more than probably dropped from favour 22. if he didn’t complete this mission. This was the last and least pleasing part 23. of something he had to do but it was necessary if he was to regain favour.

Distracting her with some debased form of Latin he vaguely remembered from his school days, he slipped the knife from his pocket in a fluid, easy motion and …

A. Dog days ^ K. dog-in-the-manger
B, in the doghouse L. dog leg
C. dogsbody M. dog’s life
D. dog end ^ N. dressed up like the dog’s dinner
E. dog eared O. gone to the dogs
F. dog tired P. like a dog with two tails
G. dog trot Q. a dog’s chance
H. dog tags R. throw to the dogs
I. dog collar S. teach an old dog new tricks
J. dog’s disease T. Dog Latin

^ Two distinct meanings!

OH! Almost forgot – It’s a dog’s life can refer to a life of ease and luxury as in these pampered muttsIMG_2204

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The Sea

I first read John Banville’s extraordinary tale, The Book of Evidence, based on a real-life murderer staying as a guest at the Irish Attorney General’s residence while on the run,

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back in the late eighties. Banville’s insightful recount of the “grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented*” set of circumstances which arose in Dublin in the early eighties was fascinating.

Funny how things change, along with latitudes, and Banville, like other authors I read back then, became forgotten, discarded and in competition with an increasing variety of TV shows, movies and the advent of video recorders and that was before VCD or DVD and Blue Ray!

Anyway, jump forward to now.

The Sea by John Banville caught my eye recently. Seen through the haunted eyes of the narrator, Max, an art historian, who returns to the seaside village where so many disturbing events one childhood summer took place.

Bereft of his recently deceased wife, Anna, Max seeks to come to terms both with his bereavement and the events that have haunted him since that summer so many years ago.

The early mention of the strange tide at the seaside village and Max’s odd assertion that he would not swim again combined with the novel’s bleached out seascape cover hooked me. My childhood summers too were spent down at the seaside so the title resonated with me too!

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Anyway, Max switches, ably assisted by booze, from recent episodic memories of the surgeon’s almost unseemly haste in washing his hands of the death of his wife, Anna (“At that, as if released Mr. Todd gave his knees a quick smack with two flat palms and jumped to his feet and fairly bustled us to the door”) to other, less well understood images from a traumatic childhood summer when the insouciant and feckless Grace family arrived for the summer holidays at the small seaside village.

The first thing I saw of them was their motor car parked on the gravel inside the gate. It was a low-slung, scarred and battered model with beige leather seats and a big spoked polished wood steering wheel … on the shelf under the sportily raked back window … was a touring map of France, much used. …the girl’s voice coming down from on high, the running footsteps and the man here below with the blue eyes giving me that wink, jaunty, intimate and faintly satanic.”

Mingled with scenes from his current stay at the Cedars – the cottage where he has retreated since his wife’s death.

“There goes the Colonel, creeping back to his room That was a long session in the lav. Strangury, nice word. Mine is the one bedroom in the house which is, as Miss Vavasour puts it with a demure little moue, en suite.”

Staying now at the same guesthouse which the wealthy Graces had rented that summer, Max drifts in and out of the past and present, interspersing his memories of the twins, the withdrawn Milo and the petulant Chloe, their lush mother, Connie Grace, jovial Carlo her husband and the outsider Rose, with the newly discovered trivia of his life at Miss Vavasour’s guesthouse where he is the only other guest along with the Colonel.

“Miss Vavasour is downstairs playing the piano. She maintains a delicate touch on the keys, trying not to be heard. She worries that she will disturb me, engaged as I am up here in my immense and unimaginably important labours.”

Unfamiliar with their world, Max attributed godlike stature to the Grace family but it was with the voluptuous Mrs. Grace that attracted the young Max.

“Was that a complicit smile? With a heaving sigh, she turned and lay down supine on the bank with her head leaning back on the grass and flexed one leg so that suddenly I was allowed to see under her skirt along the inner side of her thigh all the way up to the hollow of her lap and the plump mound there sheathed in tensed white cotton.”

Slowly, the three threads of Max’s memories coalesce and mysteries, cunningly concealed throughout the novel, are revealed and minor characters assume major proportions while the erstwhile understandings are now shown to have been misunderstandings.

Gracefully the strands, of seemingly unconnected events from the triad of introspective settings that Max relives, are woven into a stunning denouement whereby all is made clear from what had been only partially hinted at and mistakenly understood before.

Fantastic, a great read.

 

*          Attributed to Dr. Conor Cruise O’Brien with reference to Charlie Haughey’s government during that period.

The Argument

When I first started this blog – God, more than a year ago, some time in 2015 I think – the original idea was to promote my book, Raiding Cooley which I published as an E-book back then.  I confidently expected to start on my next masterpiece almost immediately.  Raiding Cooley CoverSee how wrong I can be!  Anyway, this blog thingy morphed into different paths, some, or all, of which I hope to continue pursuing. However, the consequent result was that I never got around to doing any new creative writing – i.e. another blockbuster!  Ideas did float around in my head, sequels and prequels and so on but it was always too easy to find a reason to do something else.  I suppose a story depends upon a character and the plot natuarlly evolves from what the character does and what happens to the character. So, here is my initial draft of God knows what – an initial character.  Comments, suggestions, ideas, complaints … anything?  Anyone?

An Introductory Paragraph

406 A.D. Roman rule is collapsing in Britannia as the legions are recalled to continental Europe. Barbarian tribes assail the Empire from all sides. Maewyn, scion of proud Brythonic stock long accustomed to Roman rule, refuses to assume his father’s role as Decurion, the “exactor” of taxes from the local Brythonic people.The scene takes place in a Roman style villa in the far western Brythonic province of Britannia.

The Argument

‘You know what your father needs’ Conchessa paused until her son looked up at her. ‘You do, don’t you?’ she insisted, adjusting her toga.

‘I told you before. I am not going to collect the taxes. I don’t care about being Decurion, do you not hear me? I refuse to do Rome’s dirty work.’

Contemptuous of both his parents’ Roman status and their newly adopted Christian piety, Maewyn glared at his mother opposite the atrium fountain.

‘Your father will explain everything later to you,’ Conchessa continued quietly.

‘There is nothing to explain.’ Maewyn snapped. ‘Do I have to tell him how things are here, in this far-western province of a crumbling Empire?’

”Don’t talk like that to your father. If Calpurnius becomes a deacon in the State religion, his property and responsibilities are passed on, in their entirety to you, his son.’

*

Maewyn pulled the copper goblet towards him, cradling it in his pale hands and smelling it, before looking up at his father.

‘Don’t you understand?’ Calpurnius demanded. ”The legate is insisting taxes must be collected as usual. Do you think I want to give up all of this?’

He gestured at the tilled fields stretching from the walls around the villa down the hillside, bounded by the blue line of the sea below them.

‘The legate! All the Belgae and Germania auxiliaries in Seguntium are being recalled, even now.’ Scornfully, Maewyn pushed the goblet away. ‘Roman power is collapsing along our coast, and everywhere else.”

‘Listen to your father.’ Conchessa pleaded. ‘Is there anything that you ever wanted that has not been provided for? Ask yourself, where does our wealth come from?’

‘I don’t care where it comes from. You want it, not me. And besides,’ Maewyn spat scornfully, ‘Barbarian raids are increasing. Soon there will be no-one to tax and nobody to give it to, despite your new religion.’

‘Don’t talk to me like that, you ungrateful whelp” Calpurnius shouted, his face purpling with rage. ‘We are Roman citizens and we have a responsibility to our position as Decurion and to Emperor Honorius.’

‘I thought we were proud Ordovices, the last tribe in Britannia Prima to have withstood the might of the Romans?’ he demanded of his father. Standing up abruptly, his stomach roiling in fear at his defiance, he pushed his stool back so that it crashed on the mosaic floor.