King Conor Mac Nessa gazed down at the lords and warriors of the Red Branch, guardians of the kingdom of the Ulaidh, assembled in the great hall at Eamhain Macha to celebrate the giving to Súaltaim of his desirable elder step-sister, Deichtine, daughter of the former king, Fergus Mac Rioch. Even now, the old fool sat at his knee alongside Conor’s mother, Ness, for whom he had so easily given up his kingdom. The hall, long and usually dim, but tonight resplendent with tallow lamps of Gaulish design hanging from the rafters, resounded to the roars and bellows of the warriors of the Red Branch as they clamoured for food and the sour, black brew of roasted barley, the air flavourful with the smells of roasted meat and fish, hazy from the central hearth smoke. And all this expense, Conor reflected sourly, just to get rid of the stuck-up bitch. He knew that Deichtine resented that he had duped her father out of his crown and that she looked down on him from her handful of seasons his senior. Good riddance to her anyway and if this was the cost, so be it. Glancing down at the table where his mother sat with Fergus, he raised his goblet and toasted his mother for all he had, he had got from her and from the draoidh, Cathbad. Where was the ould bollix now he wondered, isn’t he always lurking around in the shadows, never being where you wanted him and always there when you didn’t?
Standing up, he shook the golden rod with the three silver bells suspended over his head, gradually silencing the clamour in the hall. Conor gestured expansively at the long trestle tables loaded with platters of boar meat, venison and red fleshed fish, the lot embraced by wild fruits, nuts, herbs, mushrooms, periwinkles and oysters, before toasting the troop with his goblet of Falernian wine.
Deichtine, daughter of Fergus Mac Rioch, shook loose her long amber hair so that it rippled in a heavy wave over her creamy pale shoulders and down the back of her dress of costly, bleached linen and glanced up at her father where he sat with Ness, on polished red yew dais, below the table of Conor, the once boy king. Fergus lurched to his feet, the years showing on his face, hard and brown as aged ash wood, engraved with the fan lines of time. Raising his tankard, he waved down the scattered cheers of the men before turning to face Conor.
“Tonight is a great night not only for all of the Ulaidh but for my only daughter and the valiant champion who has claimed her, Súaltaim.” Fergus paused as raucous cheering broke out again and Conal, his beefy face as red as the neck of a rooster, staggered to his feet and roared his approval. “And we all give thanks,” he continued as the noise around him slowly subsided, “to the generosity of Conor, the high king whose bounty and fame exceed all others.”
More warriors, Bricriu of the bitter tongue, Deichtine noticed, and Conor’s sons, Cormac and Crúscraid the stammerer, rose up to roar out of them while oxen drinking horns, iron and wooden mugs were slammed down on the rough boards.
Her father was still up on his hind legs shouting over the din as Súaltaim turned and raised Deichtine to her feet and embraced her in front of them all. Not an overly strong man like the hewn block of a hacked and splintered oak shield, solid and square that Conal resembled, Súaltaim was slightly stooped from an old battle injury, mild mannered and gentle now, his short white hair receded while his eyebrows yet remained dark, over narrow, serene eyes. Deichtine pushed back her long tresses and returned the embrace. Closer to her father’s age than hers, Deichtine was yet grateful that she was being given to Súaltaim rather than some brute like Cethirn the bloody or the bitter and vengeful Bricriu.
Sitting down again, she accepted the goblet of wine her younger brother, Illand, poured for her. She would miss him, she reflected as she gazed around the assembled warriors and people she had known all her life. Illand, unlike his older brother Buinne, always made her laugh and had a knack for knowing what to say in every situation, his curly brown hair tied back from his clear forehead with the plaited band of a Craobh Ruadh warrior, enhancing his bright brown eyes; Fergus, her father she supposed too, for all his foolishness, and even Ness, her step mother, with her long honey-blonde hair framing her strong, angular face, always distant and cool, yet approachable in all ways, despite her being the mother of the cruel and arrogant Conor. How she despised him, with his snide remarks and leering looks, his pathetic vaunting of how great a warrior he was, despite the fact that harder men went before to protect him from the fray, his constant boasting giving the lie to his insecurity, fearful to make any decision for fear it might be wrong, unless supported by Cathbad the draoidh.
Idly she toyed with her goblet, twisting the fine copper stem between her fingers so that the gold ring Súaltaim had given her caught the lamp light and gleamed back at her.
The heat and noise in the hall was becoming oppressive and she leaned back in her chair, against the arm and took a deep draught from the goblet, seeing the struggling fly on the oily surface of the wine too late before the insect slid down her throat. Gulping another mouthful to wash down the fly, Deichtine became almost instantly aware of a spreading numbness throughout her body. Voices boomed in her ear then faded away to sibilant whispers while objects around her seemed to suddenly increase in size before assuming minute forms. Reaching out to put the goblet on the board in front of her, she misjudged the distance and felt herself floating up and away, out of her body and out of her chair, up towards the rafters of the hall, watching her goblet slip and fall, smaller now than a thimble and then further up and away from Eamhain Macha.
Súaltaim turned as the goblet clattered to the flagged stone floor and was just in time to catch Deichtine as she slid from her chair, a small smile forming on her lips as she swooned in his arms.
“Give room, move back, let my lady sister breathe,” Illand shouted as Buinne leapt over the table opposite, shouldering him aside, followed quickly by Conal and Cormac who brushed the food and drink from the table so that Súaltaim could lay the limp form there. Bricriu was the first to stoop and pick up Deichtine’s fallen goblet.
“What mischief has taken place here?” he roared, brandishing the goblet so wildly that the little that remained sloshed onto the flagstones. “Has my Lady been given some noxious bane?” he demanded, sniffing suspiciously at the lees that remained.
Fergus forced his way through the throng and grasped his daughter’s wrist for the beat of her pulse. “She yet lives and may come to her senses soon and …”
But then Ness was there, poised and composed giving directions for the bondmaids to carry the fallen girl to her own chambers while at the same time calming the inchoate cries of her grandson, Crúscraid who beat his own face with clenched fists at the sight of the prostrate girl.
Conor turned, startled, as Cathbad abruptly appeared beside him, his lean, pale features and shaven head gleaming in the lamplight, austere yet strangely calm amidst the hubbub surrounding them.
A full moon had passed since Deichtine had fallen into her trance and despite Cathbad’s skill he seemed powerless to rouse her from her slumber and the girl’s life seemed to hang in the balance while Ness nursed her as best she could, squeezing drops of honey into her slack mouth where they pooled in the hollow of her emaciated cheek.
The late afternoon sky was a lowering purple grey heralding a further fall of snow as the giant elk thundered ahead along the woodland track, its massive sweep of amber coloured horn thrusting aside the overhanging branches laden with a previous snowfall.
Conor, Bricriu the bitter tongued, Conall and Fergus accompanied by their charioteers had been out hunting since the grey dawn, although without success when the great elk had broken cover suddenly and the chase was on, the cold winter air lashing their reddened faces. Through the bare winter boles of the trees, where the snow had gathered on the bare branches, Conor could see Bricriu ahead while Conall, to his left, pounded along behind him. In a sudden fluid movement, barely glimpsed through the leafless hedges outlined in frost, the stag leapt and for that fleeting second, Conor retained that vision of the mighty beast in the air before it vanished from sight and he lurched violently to one side of the chariot as Eochaid, his charioteer, hauled on the reins to slew the chariot around, using all of his strength to hold back the yoked horses from hurling themselves over the chasm the stag had so lithely leapt.
“By the púca, that was a close one, well done there, Eochaid,” called Conal, full of admiration for the skill and strength of the slender man who drove the king’s chariot. “I thought you were going to follow your man over the cliff for sure.”
Coaxing the horses back from the brink, Eochaid shrugged his shoulders and manoeuvred the chariot back along the track while Conor, torn between admiration at the stag’s escape and anger at the lost hunt, scanned their surroundings. The Boann River curled away below them and they could see the majestic Sacred Mounds. Night was not far away and yet Eamhain Macha was more than half a day’s travel, if they had fresh mounts.
“We’ll have to stay here so, for the night,” Bricriu commented sourly, looking around the frozen landscape.
“I saw smoke over yonder,” Conal remarked, pointing with his ash spear in the direction of a small knoll partially obscured by the low brush and the thin trees.
“Right so, Bricriu go and take a look,” Conor ordered. “We’ll stay here with the horses.”
Bricriu slouched over towards the hummock and sized up the house. Small, and built low into a hollow in the ground, the heavy turf roof almost touched the snowy ground around it. Smoke drifted through the sodden thatch in wisps in the greying evening light.
“We’ll be lucky if a morsel of food will pass our gullets here tonight,” Bricriu muttered to himself and at that moment, the low door to the house was pushed open.
“Come in out of that, come in with you, you are most welcome.” The little man bowed and smiled, curtseying in a most seemly way. Barely reaching Bricriu’s chest, he was a plump little man with a round, red, beaming face and a neat, forked grey beard, but what was lacking in height was more than made up for in girth, bundled round in a garish, green and red tunic over wide, baggy pantaloons.
“Is it yourself then, the mighty warrior, from far off Eamhain Macha?” The little man inquired, genially, but before Bricriu could open his mouth to answer, he continued, “But tell me this much and tell me no more, is there anyone ailing at the court of the illustrious king Conor Mac Nessa?”
“That’s an odd question, right enough,” burst out Bricriu, his curiosity piqued by the tone of the man. “But you are right, for the lady Deichtine has been in a swoon these long days past and she about to be given to Súaltaim,”
“Arr-aagh, don’t be bothering the head off you with that matter now for all things are fixed by the gods and I have no doubt that the lady will recover in the fullness of time. Go on with you now and bring the rest of the lads in now.”
Conor was stamping his feet against the cold while Conall was sharpening the blade of his hunting spear against a stone when Bricriu returned.
“Well, any luck there at all?” Fergus demanded
“Well, it’s a quare enough place, I can tell you that much,” Bricriu replied, deciding not to mention the odd query the host had greeted him with, “but seeing as there is nothing else around, I suppose it will have to do us for the time being, but I’ll tell you this much, I’ll be glad to be gone out of here in the morning.”
The warriors and their retainers jostled in, the little man bobbing up and down with apparent pride and excitement and Conall, who had stayed near the door, puzzled at how there came to be a steady flow of warriors into the small room, yet it never seemed to fully fill up. It was only then, as the thought struck him, that he noticed the small door off to the side which led into other areas.
Pushing his way forward, Conall found Conor, Fergus and Bricriu having the full of the drink and food that was being served to all and one and that there was no shortage of either.
The scream broke the night, jarring Conor awake so suddenly that he knocked over his goblet of brew. The rasp of sword against iron sheath guards sounded harsh in the sudden silence as the men drew their blades. “Would you mind telling me what the… ?” Bricriu began in the sudden cold silence.
“Ah, would youse accept my apologies, don’t be startling yourselves – I should have told you noble men and warriors all – but the lady of the house, her inside” the round ball of their host jerked his thumb over his shoulder -“do be having a young one. This is our fifth, it is.”
No sooner had he ducked under the covering separating the men from a corner of the room than there was a cry from outside, immediately echoed by a cry from the corner where the woman laboured.
“Be the Púca’s bollix, and what’s that now?” roared Bricriu, wrenching the heavy leather curtain away from the doorway and ducking out into the dark, the light from inside the hut making a small rectangle of brightness on the snow.
The cry came again, this time a recognisable whinny from a mare in the lean-to at the side of the cottage and Bricriu paused to watch the miracle of a mare giving birth to a long-legged, gangly colt that suddenly plopped down on the snow, warm and steaming.
“He won’t stay there long, not with that cold up against his belly like that,” Bricriu thought to himself as the mare coaxed the colt into an upright position on its splayed, spindly legs. Lurching and falling, the colt staggered unsteadily to its feet until it could lean against its mother side while its questing mouth latched on to a teat.
“Mother of the gods tonight,” Bricriu muttered in amazement, “It’s another one,” as the mare shuddered again, sweat streaming from its flanks as a second colt began to ooze out of its mother’s body.
Ducking back under the curtain, Bricriu re-entered the hut to tell the news only to find that he was eclipsed by the fact that the lady of the house had, at that moment, just given birth to a healthy son.
“By Lugh’s hand, sure isn’t that grand news.” Conor clapped his two hands together and rubbed them briskly. “Two, you say, and colts as well. Sure that’s grand all together. Lookit here to me, we’ll give them to your man and the lady of the house inside there as a small gift and as a way of paying our compliments for the hospitality shown to us here tonight, what do you think”?
“Right so, good man, yourself,” Conall agreed immediately
And so it was done and the men continued drinking through the night.
“Conor, would you ever wake up.” Fergus’ voice was no less urgent than the hand tugging at his shoulder.
Conor sat up and blinked in the cold brightness of the day.
“Where is everything?”
“Sure, that’s what I’m after telling you – it’s all gone, there nothing here except for the babby and the colts – everything else – it’s all gone!”
“Mother of the gods, do you mean to tell me…?” Conor scrambled to his feet and pulled his cloak tighter around him as he scanned the barren winter landscape – the lowering sacred mound in the distance, the stunted, bare windswept trees and a few frozen puddles that began to melt as the sun rose into a leaden sky – until his gaze came to rest on Eochaid cradling the newborn infant inside his cloak while the colts clustered together against the mare’s flank.
The fire crackled in the smoky warmth of the great hall and the smell of roasting meat hung in the peaty air. The troop had returned to Eamhain Macha along with the infant and the two colts in the early afternoon without further adventure and with nary a sign of hide nor hair of their host of the previous night and with no explanation of the strange events which they had so unwittingly participated in, only to find that Deichtine had awoken from her deep sleep and eager to tell all who would listen about her dream.
“So,” Fergus mused, holding his daughter in his arms and looking down at her, “you think it was the fly you swallyed then and …”
“Yes, and Lugh the Sun God came to me,” Deichtine broke in excitedly. “Don’t you see, he told me that I would have his child and then he changed me into a bird and I flew away with him to the Sacred Mounds and …”
“The Sacred Mounds, you say,” interjected Bricriu thoughtfully, “but you’ve never been there, have you? How, by the Púca’s bollix, would you have known where you were, I’d like to know?”
“Amn’t I telling you,” Deichtine said, “It was a dream, I suppose, but you never know when you are dreaming, do you? I mean, it was all so real, I was high in the sky, looking down on the mound and Lugh was there and he told me to call the child Sétanta and he would have two colts, the Grey of Macha and the Dubh of Sainglen – and …”
“D’yis mean the two colts we found?” asked Conal.
“What other ones are there?” demanded Bricriu caustically, marvelling again at the question he had been greeted with by the little man the previous night.
“Never mind that for the moment,” Fergus began only to be interrupted by Conor.
“But who is going to raise him?” he demanded angrily.
“Sure, didn’t we do well out of this, all the same,” intervened Conal. “Didn’t the little round fellow give us shelter and keep the cold from the horses while we ourselves had a grand feed of food and drink and now, sure don’t we have the finest gift of all, a grand young fellow, by the look of him.”
As if on cue, the child raised its head and its dark eyes sought and found Conal, while its pudgy grip tightened on Deichtine’s firm breast.
Cathbad arched his brows at the sight but didn’t comment and continued to twine the string of carved amber beads through his long, deft fingers while the discussion continued leisurely as the men relaxed in the hall by the roaring fire.
“Well, amn’t I the one nursing the child, shouldn’t I be the one to raise him?” Deichtine.
“Oh fair enough, Deichtine, no better woman than yourself, of course, to nurse him, but what about a name for the chiseler? That’s the point, you know.” Bricriu put in his words.
“Well, if it’s just a name you’re after looking for, I will give the boy my name,” Conor said magnanimously.
“Hold on there now, but,” Fergus broke in. “Do you mean he will be brought up here in your own household?”
“And why wouldn’t he?” Conor answered belligerently. “Sure wasn’t I the one that first heard the squeal out of him?”
“Go on out of that” Bricriu snapped, rising to his feet. “Youse all know that I was the…”
“Would the lot of youse be quiet and I’ll tell you what must be done” Cathbad cut in exasperated, his voice quiet but commanding respect. Bricriu eyed the draoidh a moment before subsiding onto the heap of skins and reaching for his horn of ale.
“This is the way it will be and I’ll tell you this and I’ll tell you no more,” the draoidh continued. “The boy will be with Deichtine to nurse him; Conor to give him a good name; Sencha, chief judge and chief poet of the Ulaidh to teach him words and speaking and Amergin the poet to be his tutor. Be guided by me and let that be an end to it.” Without another word, Cathbad strode down the length of the hall and ducked out of sight behind the curtain separating his quarters from the common space.