An Old Celtic Tale of Love & Death – Part Three

The Plot

The wind that had been blowing all day had eased off and darkness was not long away, not with those clouds building up there to the west, the gate-keeper thought. It’s cold enough, there’ll be snow tonight extinguishing what remained of the smouldering red house and the other outbuildings in Eamhain Macha. Smoke from the earlier fires drifted across the cold, damp evening and the smell of soot and burnt thatch hung heavy in the cold air.

Scél spat and turned away from the smashed gate he had once guarded and ducked inside the small hut inside the inner wall of Eamhain Macha, one of the few remaining intact huts within the blackened walls of the dún. A fire burning in the large brazier inside did little to offset the stench of the burnt out Craobh Ruadh, mingled with freshly spilt blood, which lay heavy in the air.

Fergus had left that morning, leading a throng out of Eamhain Macha, destroying as he went, heading for, some were already saying, Crúachan, Medb, the bitch queen’s seat of power in Connachta. Scél spat into the fire and clambered onto his stool before reaching for the mug of dark brew the serving girl had left by the brazier, along with a trencher of bread and a hunk of hard cheese.

He was halfway through the mug when the door was wrenched open and the lean figure of the draoidh stalked in, his cloak already dusted with snow. Cathbad’s face was livid, his white knuckles gripping his rowan staff.

“What has happened here?” He demanded. “Who has done this?” He gestured with one arm, his robe hanging slackly off his thin frame.

Scél hopped off his stool and hurried over to the aged draoidh, “A thousand welcomes, noble Cathbad, sorry it is I am to break this terrible news to you. Come in, come closer to the fire.” The homunculus scuttled over to the hearth and stirred the blocks of peat with an iron poker before climbing back on his stool near the board.

The draoidh strode into the centre of the hut, his eyes glittering, making Scél feel colder than he had felt for a long time.

“What in the name of the Mórrígna has happened here?” Cathbad demanded again, glaring down at the little man

“Sure, wasn’t it the wine trader himself that brought the news?” Scél nervously began, draining his mug noisily and replacing it on the low board, before looking up at Cathbad.

The draoidh lowered the hide skin bag carefully to the floor and opened it slowly. “So, what news was that?” He asked quietly, taking a clay vessel out of the bag and leaning it against the board. Scél looked at the amphora, still sealed with wax and resin, before continuing. “Anyway, this time, over a few mugs of our black ale,” he paused and wiped the back of his hand across his tangled beard, looking sideways as the draoidh broke the seal at the mouth of the amphora, before resuming, “Conor asked Breoga for news from whence he had come.”

Cathbad nodded. He knew the trader was a useful link not only in Ériu but also from further afield in Gaul and Hispania, Dál Riata and Greece for news – or gossip, as Ness used to say – from the courts and cities overseas far to the southwest from whence he came. He was a popular visitor at courts throughout the lands, bringing valuable trade items – meteorite iron blades, enamelled brooches, the polished mirrors and scented waters that the ladies loved – with him. Still probably looking for that wolfhound to take away, Cathbad reflected.

“Go on,” he said, his voice flat and cold.

“Well, didn’t Breoga mention that Scáthach, the warrior chieftain in the north of Dál Riata had granted Naoise and his brothers land to hold at Glen Etive as befitted champions?” Scél continued.

The draoidh placed a large earthen jug on the board and picking up one of the handles of the amphora and its pointed base, he poured a jet of the strong Caecuban wine, amber coloured and sweet, into the jug.

Never mind the news, Scél thought to himself, knowing the best Romish wine came in clay vases with two handles, etched wiith its seal of origin, and that was reason enough, he decided, to welcome the draoidh. Quickly, he pushed his mug towards the jug.

Cathbad raised the jug and filled the homunculus’ empty mug before moving to stand so that the weak light from the rush lamps and the glow from the fire illuminated the gatekeeper’s face. The small man hooked the mug closer to him with a rough, callused paw and squinted up at the lean draoidh before taking a long swig from his mug. Drops of wine glittered on his matted moustache and beard.

“Arragh!” The draoidh ground his staff into the dirt floor. “I assume Conor pretended no great interest in that story, dismissing it with a wave of his hand,” he said, imagining Conor thinking why should that foreign bitch have the pleasure of Naoise’s support when slitting his scrawny throat and shoving his balls down it was his, Conor’s, very own right.

Scél nodded, as if he could read Cathbad’s mind and squinted up at the light glowing behind Cathbad’s silhouetted form.

“But how could he turn that news to his own advantage, you’re thinking, amn’t I right?” Scél paused intuitively and looked expectantly at the lean, deeply lined face of the old draoidh. Cathbad picked up the jug and said nothing, seeing Conor in his mind’s eye, his brain as busy as duck’s feet, churning with plots and schemes, while the man stayed outwardly calm.

“And that was when that ould eejit, Bricriu,” Scél continued, “trying to stir the pot as always, gave him the perfect opportunity.”

Cathbad bent over and refilled the gatekeeper’s mug.

Nothing from his recent visit to Brúgh na Bóinne had prepared the draoidh for the sight of the smouldering remains of Eamhain Macha which had greeted him on his return.

“What did he do?” he asked.

“Well, lookit, the next thing you know,” Scél continued excitedly, jumping off his stool, ‘you should pardon the lads’ some ould fool roared out of him. S’not right that a foreign queen of Dál Riata should be meddling with our chosen ones, someone shouted.” Scél hopped from one leg to the other and waved his arms animatedly to display the uproar that followed that remark.

“And then, Bricriu, it was, who called out,” the gatekeeper lowered his voice respectfully, and leered in the direction of the draoidh before he continued. “Deirdre was only a young wan, says your man, and by all accounts Naoise is a decent enough sort and we could do with the swords of the sons of Uísliu if that bitch Medb starts poking her nose into the Ulaidh, like I hear she’s thinking of doing. There were drunken roars of approval and suck-arses pounding Bricriu on the back and roaring support out of them.”

Cathbad tilted the vase, its pointed base resting easily on the hard floor, so that a flow of the Romish wine replenished the mug Scél had practically emptied. “What then?”

“Well, Conor sat there with that serious face he can put on, you know, but it was as clear as the nose on my face,” Scél, seated again on his stool, pointed at his, demonstrating, “that Conor was plotting to find a way to turn all of this to his own advantage and how to get the leg over that little bitch.”

“Weren’t you the one? Conor says to Breoga,” Scél gestured as if the imagined wine trader was sitting opposite him at the low board, “telling us all how Scáthach, was putting Naoise and the lads in the frontline of every battle and skirmishes but not a bit of harm could come to them, given the strength of their shield wall and their long iron swords? Fine young fellas they are, and no better man than their father.”

‘Any king would be proud to have them serve him,’ that big oaf, Conall Cernach then butts in. True enough, what you say Conall, adds Conor, looking wistful. By Lugh and all the gods, lads, I’d have them back right now but blood has been spilt and vows broken and women treated badly and …”

‘Send an envoy,’ some fool roared from the back of the hall and before you knew where you were, the whole hall was up on its hind legs bellowing Naoise’s name and lifting the roof with the roaring out of them.”

Scél paused and looked fixedly at the crude sketch of the sun and mountains etched in the handle of the tall amphorae. Cathbad poured another jet of wine into the small man’s empty mug. Scél took a long draught of the wine and sighed, shaking his head in sorrowful remembrance, before pushing himself upright to glare around the hut.

“Fair enough, says Conor, up on his hind legs and looking kingly, with one hand resting on the pommel of his sword,” Scél lurched to his feet, thrusting his own chest out, “But who can we send?”

“That put the cat among the chickens, I can tell you,” Scél grinned savagely into his beard before continuing. “Every man jackeen of them blurting out the names of their companions and professing what an honour it would be.”

‘Cú Culainn ’ roared one oaf, ‘Bricriu’ shouted another, ‘Conall’ another one and so on all bloody night like a gaggle of geese honking and squawking out of them. Conor let them get on with it, knowing full well who he could send that would serve his purpose perfectly – that gullible ould eejit, Fergus.”

Cathbad frowned at Scél’s lack of respect for the former king and paced slowly the perimeter of the hut. Was this the start of the prophecy he had foretold so long ago, that night in the sacred mound? He wondered. Despite having spent the last few nights in the inner chamber at Brúgh na Bóinne, he had had no warning of the events which had overtaken Eamhain Macha in his absence. He must not let his totem desert him now and lose all he had worked so hard to build up. There must still be a way to resolve the differences for, divided in its loyalties, the Ulaidh might not stand for long.

“So, anyway,” Scél continued, “the next morning, while Fergus was sitting in the weak sunshine, nursing his head and sharpening his sword, Conor started to pump Breoga for news about Medb and the army she was purporting to be mustering at Crúachan for her next raid, knowing full well that Fergus was all ears.

By the power of the púca, says Conor, as if to himself, if that news be true, Naoise and his brothers’ swords would be useful, right enough, and we’d say no more about anything else. The only problem is, he says to Breoga, who could we send that Naoise would trust and respect enough? No point sending a child to do a man’s work, says he, and all the time, out of the corner of his eye, he could see Fergus nodding his head in agreement,” Scél continued.

“I’d send Crúscraid, my own flesh and blood, Conor continues, thinking out loud, staring off into space over Fergus’s head, but if I were honest, I doubt the poor eejit would garner Naoise’s respect. But who then? Not Bricriu, for he is sure to poison rather than sweeten Naoise against me and there he paused, drumming his fingers on the board, willing the old man, whom he had gulled before, to speak up.

And then,” Scél paused dramatically, throwing out his arm, “with almost vegetable slowness, Fergus finally spoke. Heaving himself to his feet and thumping himself so hard on the chest, he almost fell over, he fixed Conor with a red-eyed boozy glare. ‘Give us a brace of hard men,’ he declared, ‘my own two stout sons, Buinne Ruthless Red and Illand the Fair and a swift ship and we’ll bring the sons of Uísliu home, safe and sound, by my honour as a warrior and on this sword I swear that no harm will befall any who travel by my side.’

‘Well said, noble Fergus, my old and true friend,’ Conor roared, and so he began to plot his revenge.” Scél finished his mug, spilling most into his beard and grinning foolishly at Cathbad.

“So Fergus left for Dál Riata, then?” the draoidh thought, looking at the little man who had slipped off his stool and was sprawled next to the brazier. What happened there in Glen Etive? He wondered? And where is he now?

 ****

“Naoise, my love,” Deirdre began. “I fear wherever we go in this harsh land, we will face the same treatment at the hands of the wild chieftains here for it has been told that my destiny will always bring sorrow to those who look upon me but cannot possess me, even for you, my lord.”

“Arragh, what sorrow have you brought me, my sweetness?” Naoise interrupted. “Sure wasn’t I a mere fief man at Eamhain Macha to the vain glorious Conor Mac Nessa while here I am sovereign lord of all that I see and behold. Sure, amn’t I the luckiest man alive to have the love of such a woman as yourself – Deirdre of the Joys, I would fain call you for you have brought nothing but pleasure into my empty life.”

“Lookit, Deirdre,” Ainle laughed, deftly skinning the rabbit he had snared earlier. “We are warriors of the Red Branch and what do warriors do but look for new battles with which to nourish our spirit and soul. Without you to serve, my lady, we would have nothing to fight for and nothing to gain and how then could we call ourselves champions and men of renown, for don’t you know, we relish the though of proving ourselves in the fray and what did we have in the Ulaidh but the occasional scuffle with the feeble-minded men of Dá Mumhainn or the dotards of Connachta?” He leaned forward and put the jointed rabbit on a small rock, ready to be cooked.

“You’re right there,” Ardan broke in, agreeing with Ainle “Here we can carve a veritable kingdom for ourselves and we have the waters and the wild to hunt and fish, and the bards will sing of the glorious lives of the sons of Uísliu, the warriors of the Red Branch and the beautiful woman, Deirdre of the Joys that we all so gladly serve.” He seized Deirdre’s cold hand in his own and brought it to his lips.

Since fleeing Marog’s village, they had crossed several small streams before beginning a long, gentle climb through oak woods below the ridge, a barren rocky place of coarse turf and heather, running north and south. The grass on the ridge was thin and wiry with boulders sticking up here and there through the sparse grass. To the west small streams traversed wooded hills. As Deirdre kept a fearful watch, a young hawk climbed the thermals above while the brothers made a small encampment in the lee of some smoke blackened boulders and before the evening light faded, they had built a fire near the head of a deep dark tarn, the south-eastern end of which emptied into a river that gushed down through the rocky lowlands far below them. Naoise stirred and kicked an ember back into the small fire before pulling Deirdre closer into his arms, away from Ardan, as Ainle carefully arranged the rabbit pieces with a handful of root vegetables, oats and barley in a pot over their small fire.

“But here, we must live on a knife edge, forever watchful that every man’s gaze will bring death and sorrow in its wake,” Deirdre continued fearfully. “Look, see, for the smoke from our fire has already been discovered,” and she pointed down the crag, up which several men could be seen labouring towards them.

Naoise snatched up his shield and long spear and pushed Deirdre behind his brothers’ shield wall before bounding down the crag towards the strangers.

Ardan stepped forward, peering cautiously over the top of his shield as he heard Naoise’s welcoming salutation and saw his older brother greet a grey bearded, older man. Minutes later, Naoise led Breoga, followed by a train of bondsmen carrying heavy sacks of trade goods, into the rough camp the brothers had made and towards the small fire.

“Welcome you are and it brings joy to our hearts to see a familiar face in this desolate spot,” Ainle propped his weapons against a boulder and strode over to greet the trader warmly.

“Aye,” Ardan added, “but we’d better catch some more rabbits in a hurry if we are to feed you hospitably.”

“Stay your hand,” Breoga said, “for we have dried flesh aplenty with us and besides, what class of trader would I be if I could not exchange some honeyed highland dram for a seat by your fire? My lady,” he continued, turning towards Deirdre where she sat beside the fire, “it is long since I have been at the home of your father, Phelim, but it does me good to see you so hale and hearty,” Breoga raised his clasped hands to his forehead before touching them to his chest in greeting to the silent Deirdre, before turning to one of his bondsmen and ordering him to share the food and drink he carried.

“So, what news do you carry, and from whence have you travelled?” asked Naoise, leaning back comfortably against a boulder and drawing Deirdre closer to his side. The firelight in the lee of the large boulders where the retainers had set up a lean-to, glowed on the faces of the brothers while Deirdre’s hood shielded her from the glare of the flames. Ainle leaned forward with a stick to stir the pot of rabbit, oats and barley that was beginning to bubble on the hearthstones.

“Long have we been away from the Ulaidh and fain would we know of news from Eamhain Macha and the champions of the Red Branch?” he asked.

“And if the fair women there miss me sorely?” Ardan added with a laugh.

“Apologies, lords but I cannot tell you that,” Breoga replied seriously, shaking his head, “for it is many moons now since I left your part of the world but I can tell you of succour not so far away from here now.”

Ainle carefully put his mug of uisce beatha on a flat stone beside him and leaned forward eagerly. “Succour?” he inquired eagerly. “And what would that be?”

“It was my good fortune,” Breoga began, his deeply lined face thrown into sharp relief by the firelight, “to visit with the Shadowy One, Scáthach, whose dún is not more than a day’s march from here, on the other side of the ridge you can see on the far side of the river there.” “There was a ford there,” he told them, pointing, “if you follow the crest of the ridge to the east.”

“Sure isn’t that where Cú Culainn and Ferdia trained?” demanded Ardan, moving over closer to the fire and stirring the cauldron which Ainle had forgotten about. “Why then, if it was good enough for them, it should suit us well. What do you say, brothers?”

“Gladly would I go there with you, my lords,” Deirdre smiled, “for this Scáthach is held to be the most noble and gracious of all the warriors of these lands, bar those among whom I now count myself most fortunate to be with.”

Noonday Sun* Chilli Jam

img_2611Almost without my noticing it, the chilli plant in the outdoor bed was suddenly flooded with brilliant red, small Birdseye chillies. I had no real idea of how hot they might be as they got watered whenever the others – sage, basil, rosemary, marjoram and parsley – got a soaking. Too much water reduces the chilli heat, while too little kills the other, thirstier, plants. The Scoville Scale was developed to measure the heat of ‘peppers’ ranging from zero for a capsicum to 2.2 million for some chillies! And one part capsaicin – the thing that makes chillies hot – per million equals about 15 Scoville units!

Keep it simple for crying out loud! It reminds me of the former currency in Italy – my first ever time being a millionaire yet living hand-to-mouth at the same time. Ridiculous!

With last year’s crop, I froze most of them and used them continuously over the course of the year but I still had loads left. Now, with this new bumper crop, as it were, I was a bit overwhelmed until I thought of chilli jam.

Anyway, when I actually got around to picking the chillies, I ended up with about 225g.

img_2613Rooting around in the cupboards and fridge, I came up with garlic, shallots, and ginger, fish sauce, vinegar, cherry tomatoes, and even a few capsicums and a smallish knob of ginger. There was also a half empty jar of roasted peppers and the only thing I had to buy was a jar of Tamarind paste.

I found an assortment of glass jars and gave them a good soapy wash before putting them into a 200-degree oven to dry and sterilize. You could use the dishwashers instead, if you had one. I also stuck a small saucer in the freezer, remembering something my mum used to do when she made marmalade.img_2625

I chucked the capsicum, the chillies, garlic, shallots and ginger along with more than half of the sliced cherry toms into a processor, dribbling in the fish sauce at the same time. I had to do it in batches, as my processor thingy is not very big.

Anyway, I ended up with this and I still had the sugar, vinegar and the tamarind paste, and, on a sudden whim, I decided to include raw cacao powder – chilli and chocolate? Why not?img_2618

I brought all the liquid stuff to the boil very slowly, stirring to make sure all the sugar dissolves fully and then added all the pureed chilli mix and the remaining cherry toms, along with their juice. I brought the lot up to a hard, roistering boil for ten minutes or so before reducing the heat to a gentle simmer. After about 45 minutes,img_2621

I tried my mum’s tip and carefully poured a spoonful of the chilli goo onto the saucer from the freezer, waited a minute and then pushed my finger into the goo, leaving a visible furrow behind indicating that the jam was ‘set’.img_2624

I turned off the heat and carefully removed the baked hot glass jars from the oven and put them on a mat. I ladled the chilli jam into a small jug and carefully filled the jars.

While still hot, I covered the tops with several layers of tinfoil and screwed the lids on tight and waited for the jars to cool down.

img_2628The next morning I lightly toasted some sourdough bread and then slathered on my new jam and the first bite … the sensation is instantaneous – my mouth floods with flavour, no part is untouched. A sourness – the tamarind, the vinegar? – along with the sweetness and the mellowness of the capsicum and cherry toms overlay the pleasing heat of an enjoyable burn, much like a aged Scotch, rolling around the mouth and between the teeth and over the roof, before extending its pleasurable warmth down the throat while the whole sensations lengthens and extends, the lips glowing in appreciation.

Wow! There you are.

We had chicken that night and I slathered on the jam again, making the meal irresistible. What’s not to like about it – you can use it with any meat, fish, fried or otherwise, mixed with rice, poured on pasta, spread on bread, stuffed into mushrooms, filled into pies, added to dhal, spicing up the soup, the list is … well not endless, but you know what I mean.

It has certainly changed my mind about breakfast – delicious on poached eggs, or an avocado half filled with jam or with crispy bacon or … see what I mean?

For measurements and capacities, see below but it wouldn’t matter, much, if more or less is used.

180g Birdseye chillies, washed and trimmed 200ml Vinegar – I used Red Wine but Apple Cider or any Vinegar would be fine.
8 – 10 cloves of garlic 3 – 4 Tablespoons Fish Sauce
2 red capsicum, cleaned and chopped 3/4 cup of dark brown sugar / 130 g
6 large shallots, chopped 4 Tablespoon of Raw Cacao
750g cherry tomatoes 3 – 4 Tablespoons Tamarind paste
Thumb size piece of ginger Salt, if desired. I actually forgot.

If I had to guess, I’d say – on the scale of 0 – 2,200,200 my Noonday Sun (moderate climate) would be about 19,530, so fairly low, I suppose.

* I have always liked the line

‘Hot chilli peppers in the blistering sun…’

in Bob Dylan’s outlaw song, Romance in Durango and I wanted to call my jam after it but ‘blistering’ didn’t quite suit so I came up with the more moderate ‘noonday sun’!

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

Ratatouille

A (very) long time ago, when I was a student, I ended up working nights in a small French, basement restaurant in Leeson Street in Dublin – La Belle Epoque. I have no recollection of either how I got the job – dishwasher à la kitchen hand and general dogsbody- or retained it for most of the academic year because the restaurant never seemed to have any customers. Jack, one of two full time chefs, said something about the previous owners not having paid their telephone bill so the service was suspended and the new owners – my employers – refused to pay the outstanding charges. So, no phone and hence no reservations and the only customers we used to have were the very occasional punters dropping in on the off chance and, sometimes, the music group Dubliners and that was only because Jack, I think, was one of their mates.

Anyway, among other delights, like unlimited access to ice cream sorbet and gargantuan meals that the chefs would prepare every night – for themselves and the other staff – I fell in love with a simple, rustic-style vegetable dish – ratatouille that always seemed to be available.

Years passed and it slipped, like so many other things, from my memory until recently, travelling along the south shore of the Black Sea, I came across variations on a theme and fell in love with it all over again.

Back home I made it myself for the first time but my wife was aghast at the amount of olive oil I used and I may very well have been a little bit heavy handed there, I admit.

Anyway, jump to the present and, foolishly perhaps, after a sustained and concentrated boozy December, I decided to abstain from all alcohol for the month of January and while I was considering the difficulties that might impose upon me, I thought I might as well go the whole hog and become vegetarian for the month as well, in addition to submitting myself to some form of daily exercise – it is summer here after all and the beach is only a few kilometres from where I live. Anyway, casting around the other day, bored and listless – Day 10 alcohol free – I decided to cheer myself up with a succulent dish of summery vegetables of eggplant, zucchini, capsicum and tomato.

Taking advantage of my wife’s temporary absence I commandeered the kitchen and all the paraphernalia I would need and decided to cook the vegetables separately first, then combine them to cook to a glorious creamy stew.img_2568

Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil,

1 large eggplant, roughly diced,

5 garlic cloves, chopped,

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper,

2 zucchini, sliced into rounds about as thick as a doubloon or a sovereign (!),

2 large onions, diced,

4 red capsicums, roughly diced,

1 kg tomatoes, seeded and chopped,

1 400g can of tomatoes,

Bunch of thyme, parsley and basil, chopped,

1 Tablespoon of sugar

img_2570I decided to cook the veg separately. But, as an alternative to frying the eggplant, which would soak up a huge amount of oil, I decided to toss the diced eggplant in a little oil in a plastic bag and then spread it in a single layer under a very hot grill to brown, before tipping the lot into a large bowl.img_2579

img_2574I heated a generous splash of oil in a heavy-duty casserole dish over a low heat and lightly fried the chopped garlic along with a generous sprig of rosemary. I scooped out 2/3 of the garlic and discarded the rosemary before adding the zucchini and sautéing until tender, then added it to another bowl.img_2575

Next up, I returned the pan to the heat and added just a splash more oil, another third of the garlic, and sautéed the onion, and capsicum until tender. Once again I dumped the lot into a dish as before. By this stage I had too much stuff for my casserole dish so I img_2587combined all the cooked vegetables into a large pot and added the seeded and chopped tomatoes along with a tin of toms which I whizzed in the blender before simmering the lot gently for about 1½ hours. Remove from the heat, taste for seasoning and stir in the chopped basil. I also used dried thyme and marjoram as I had forgotten to pick up some fresh stuff.

img_2591Serve with a soft-boiled poached egg, so the yolk can anoint the delicious vegetables.

As I mentioned, I seem to have made rather a lot but leftover ratatouille has many possibilities – fill a long, crusty bread roll with it or slather it on a slice of sour dough toast. A small amount of ratatouille makes a lush filling for an omelette or scrambled eggs along with some chopped pitted black olives and a little fresh goat’s cheese or coarsely grated Parmesan. Yum-oh!

Solstice & Christmas

I love astronomical words like ‘gibbous’ referring to one of the moon’s phases, even though I don’t fully understand what it means in the same way that I haven’t really come to grips with solstices (longest & shortest days?) and equinoxes (equal nights and days?) but I do know that one of them – the summer solstice – is just around the corner.

Falling usually on December 21 or, in this case, on Saturday, 22 December 2018, the summer solstice is the longest day of sunlight we can expect for the next year.

Solstices are specific times on opposite sides (north and south) of the equator, which is the imaginary belt running snugly around the Earth’s belly and thus occur twice a year.

The winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere (Europe etc.) is around December 21, the darkest day of the year, while around June 21, is the summer solstice.

It is the exact opposite here, of course, in the Southern Hemisphere (Down Under). During the December solstice, which is summer here, the Sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn (another imaginary band around the Earth’s knees, as it were) and has reached its southern-most position on the globe, when the North Pole is tilted furthest away from the Sun.

The Solstice is actually at a specific moment – when the Sun is exactly over the Tropic of Capricorn, (latitude 23° 30′ South), and occurs at 06:23 in Perth, West Australia, this year.

The summer and winter solstices were crucial points of reference for ancient civilizations, including the Celts.   Only the druids who had angled their sacred sites so that they either faced, or stood, in a geometrical relationship to the rising sun of the solstice, could reveal the paths of heavenly bodies, showing the workings of the universe and the designs of the gods as the solstice is one of the two times of the year when the sun rises and sets in almost exactly the same place, several days in a row

The term solstice comes from the Latin word solstitium, meaning ‘the Sun stands still’, because on this day, the Sun reaches its southern-most position as seen from the Earth. The Sun seems to stand still at the Tropic of Capricorn and then reverses its direction. Some cultures referred to this period as the day the Sun turns around.

Ancient people are thought to have seen the sun rising and setting ever further to the north or south and to have assumed that, without a good deal of prayer, procession and bloody sacrifice, it would either get stuck in the same place – with disastrous consequences for agriculture – or, worse, continue in the same direction until it disappeared for ever. Absolute nonsense of course, given that these self same Neolithic peoples built enormous, astronomically aligned stone temples so that their priests, and spiritual leaders could guide their peoples through the obligatory festivals and celebrations of the astronomical events of the year.

Both Greece and Rome revered the sun with Hercules seen as a sun god. His twelve labours were equated with the twelve constellations of the zodiac through which the sun passes in the course of a year while Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, was the official sun god of the later Empire of Rome.

Emperor Aurelian reintroduced the sun god and cult in 274 A.D. The Emperor Constantine the Great, with the Edict of Toleration, proclaimed at Milan, made Christianity legal throughout the Roman Empire in 313 A.D., but continued to have his coins inscribed with the words, “Sol Invicto Comiti”, which means Committed to the Invincible Sun. Accordingly, Constantine’s adoption of Christianity in the Roman Empire was more likely a matter of political strategy than religious conviction.

St. Patrick (the patron saint of Ireland) blended pre-Christian, pagan beliefs onto his brand of Roman Christianity introduced to Ireland c. 432A.D. by taking druidic beliefs in the sun god, Lugh and fashioning them into orthodox Christianity. The addition of a circle (the wheel – like the pocket-sized votive wheels still found in Celtic sanctuaries – was a symbol of the sun. The eight spokes are thought to represent the cardinal points and the rising and setting of the sun at the summer and winter solstices) onto the Christian cross became the commonly recognised Celtic Cross, bringing together elements of paganism and Christianity.

So too were dates chosen to offset pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Natalis Invicti. In ancient Rome, the winter solstice festival Saturnalia began on December 17 and lasted for seven days. The festival was held to honour Saturn, the father of the gods and was characterized by the suspension of discipline and reversal of the usual order. The date of Christmas itself celebrating the birth of the “true light of the world” was aligned with the December solstice because from that point onwards the days began to have more daylight in the Northern Hemisphere. Mind you, what that has to do with anything is anyone’s guess.

Happy Solstice (winter or summer, wherever you are) and a very happy Christmas to all.

 

 

 

Trains and Boats and Planes

With the exception of balloons, submarines and helicopters, I have tried most major forms of transport – yes, even camels, elephants and horses – but I have to admit that trains are my favourite mode of travel – especially long distance ones, with a sleeper and a restaurant car, hurtling me through time and space.

There have been disappointments of course. One time, on a short trip from Dublin to Cork, I treated myself to a first class ticket, but warm cans of Guinness from a ‘bar-cart’ – not even a bar-car! – detracted from the overall experience.

I was looking forward to different train trips in the Caucasus but unfortunately there were no trains along the southern shore of The Black Sea in northern Turkey which I covered in hops and leaps in very comfortable, intercity coaches but I was really looking forward to the overnight train from Batumi, just over the border from Turkey, in Georgia to the capital, Tbilisi.IMG_1860

Because of prior difficulties regarding statehood, nationality, form of government and current strains of economics and global trade, the entire region seemed to be unhappy with its immediate neighbours. ‘Turkey has no friends,’ lamented one young professional who had taken her masters at a Dublin university and that story was echoed in one way or another in each of the countries I visited.IMG_1861

Tbilisi would be my hub and from there I could get an overnight train to Yerevan in Armenia and to Baku in Azerbaijan. The only problem was that since none of the countries permitted inter-travel, I would have to retrace my steps to Tbilisi each time before heading off again. While I could enter Armenia from Georgia I couldn’t continue on to Azerbaijan. I’d have to return to Tbilisi the same way and then take another train to Baku on the shore of the Caspian Sea.

Similarly, I could take a train from Tbilisi to Baku but I couldn’t go from Baku to Yerevan in Armenia. What that all meant was a lot of overnight train trips from Tbilisi throughout the Caucasus.

Impressed with the modern Stadler train which whisked me effortlessly from the brand new looking station in Batumi to Tbilisi, I expected, foolishly perhaps, something similar on a longer, overnight, cross border experience.IMG_1862

Despite starting in Georgia, the train was Armenian and didn’t look remotely like the sleek brute that had delivered me to Tbilisi a few days previous. This particular train looked like trains did in Hitchcock movies so, pre-warned there was neither bar nor restaurant car on the fifteen hour trip between the capital cities, I stocked up on red wine and brandy accordingly. Thank God I had because the only amenities provided turned out to be a box of sugary jellies, a bottle each of still and fizzy water along with a fresh pillowcase and sheets.

I handed over my first class ticket to the burly blonde guarding the steps outside my carriage who glared uncomprehendingly at me when I greeted her and asked her name. ‘Lana’ she growled before ushering me up the steps impatiently as if the train were just about to depart.

IMG_1865Strolling up and the down the narrow corridor outside my compartment – there was another twenty minutes before the train was due to leave – the only differences I could see between the carriages was mine had the top two bunks removed, leaving only the bottom two.

The window in the compartment was sealed shut and masked with voluminous drapes of bleached out nylon. Only every third window in the carriage corridor outside opened partially. Not a major issue if the air conditioning worked, but when I found Lana, brewing coffee in her private ‘office’, and made IMG_1864panting sounds, mopping rivulets of sweat running down my face and neck and pleaded for the air con to be turned on, the brutal blonde overseer of the first class compartment seemed not to notice the 37 degree heat and only reluctantly turned the a/c on low, only to turn it off every time the train crawled into another small, sun-baked station.

When I tried to open the half window in the corridor outside my compartment to get a breath of air, she bustled bossily down and shouted at me, along with emphatic hand gestures, to close the window.

“Well, turn the bloody a/c on again” I retorted peevishly, the sweat stinging my eyes and my shirt sticking like a wet rag to my streaming skin.

My initially chilled beer  was almost tepid when, glaring at the sugary jellies and the bottles of water I opened it.

Usually, the regular clack-clack of the train would lull me to sleep but this time, seeming to compound the heat, the train groaned along, accompanied by what sounded like extended and sporadic heavy machine gun fire from the iron wheels.  I had already finished the wine and was about to dose myself with the brandy when immigration marched down the train, collecting passports and then disappearing with them for a worrying length of time before returning them just as the train ground to a noisy and shuddering halt at the border with Armenia. IMG_2083 Surprisingly – and pleasingly – smartly dressed Armenian officials came down the corridor with laptop computer scanners and handed back my passport within a minute of collecting it.

Dawn broke as I panted by a window I had furtively opened – no sign of the bossy Lana – looking at a high white cloud before eventually realising it was the snow-capped peak of Mount Ararat towering over the plains. IMG_1876Arrival time rolled around and the train still trundled noisily over flat, dusty plains with no sign of an imminent city. IMG_2081Questions to Lana about the expected arrival time were dismissed with a brusque hand gesture and a shrug and it was a good four hours late before the train finally shuddered to a halt in Yerevan itself.

I was here, that was the main thing and Armenia is famed for (among other things) its brandy – the only brandy Winston Churchill would drink, apparently – so what could go wrong? And there was the return trip to look forward to and to compare with the overnighter to Baku later on.