2. Cathbad

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Fergus glanced around the dimly lit hall again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Breoga

At least there was one thing you could say for the Romans, Breoga reflected sourly as he topped the last rise in the chain of low wooded hills before beginning the slow descent to the neat rectangular camp on the plain below.  They knew how to make a good camp and tonight he would be sure of hot food and a visit to the public bath house before meeting up with the quaesor to haggle over the trade goods he was pulling along behind him in his small mule train.  And after that, he supposed, sour red wine while the minor tribunes would want to hear more stories about the Keltoi.

This camp, he could see, was far more than a temporary marching camp; instead it was a well-fortified base, housing at least two legions by the look of things.  Well and good, Breoga thought to himself – the more the merrier and the better the trading.  From his vantage point on the low hill, he could clearly see the rectangular shape of the fort, its clay ramparts surmounted by a timber palisade protected by a deep ditch cut around the outside, It’s Aquila standard, dwarfing the smaller Vexillium showing the legion’s name and emblem, stood proud against the darkening sky.

Another good thing, he thought ruefully, was the Roman road running as straight as a spear direct from the north to the south gate. Once down from the rough hillside track, he would make good time, even with his tired mules. 

Funny thing about the Romans, though, once you knew the layout of one camp or fort, then you knew the layout of them all, and Roman camps were no stranger to Breoga, a Gallaecian from northern Iberia. He had travelled far and wide with his merchant father and was well used to both the ways of the Romans and the Keltoi tribes, having traded in wine, slaves, perfumes, spices, hunting dogs, medical herbs, weapons, news and technology as well as more mundane goods such as cattle, hides and grain – agricultural produce suitable for an army – supplying many Roman camps in his native Hispania, in Gaul, Germania and as well as the tribal centres, in Brittanica, Dál Riata and Ériu. 

Once inside the main gate, having been cursorily checked by a bored legionnaire, Breoga headed down the via principalis towards the centre of the camp and the parade ground.  One side of the parade ground housed the base commander or praetor and his staff while opposite it was the squat quaestorium, housing the supply officer.  Perpendicular to that was the forum, a small duplicate of an urban forum, where public business could be conducted and where Breoga knew he could offload any of his trade goods the commissary rejected.

A tribune in a blue-banded tunic, accompanied by his scribe, strode briskly into the camp commissary and sat down behind his small desk. Despite his youth, Titus Publius, a narrow banded tribune of the IX legion was a confident soldier, having fought with Gaius Julius in Gaul and beyond in the northern lands.  Nevertheless, he was well aware of his lack of knowledge with regard to the tribes he was in daily contact with and eager for news about them.

 “And what wild stories do you have for me now, concerning our barbaric friends here and in Britannia?” Titus Publius inquired.  “You’ve been there, I gather, and speak enough Gaulish and other tongues to make some sense of what you see and hear, is that right?  Are the inhabitants of that mist shrouded isle so different from the tribes we deal with right now?”

“A thousand apologies lord,” Breoga raised his joined hands to his bowed head in a gesture of supplication, “but since we last met I have spent so little time in Albion, which you refer to as Britannia, that I fear there is nothing that I can tell you that you do not already know.”

Initially contact between the trader and the young Roman had been confined to the trading of small amounts of luxury goods in exchange for minerals and grain under the watchful eye of the quaesor, the supply officer, but the tribune learned he could gain much information of interest from the garrulous old trader about the lands he knew the Republic would soon wish to annex.

Titus rose from behind his writing desk and strode the length of the room impatiently.  “I know it is only a matter of time before the legions finish their work here in defence of our allies, the Remi. Then we will push further west across the narrow sea into Britannia and north into Dál Riata.  They say the Pictish tribes there are small, stunted little warriors, fierce, quick to scorn and always ready to back up their oaths with blood and violence?  Is that so? Could they overpower our legions were we to go there?”  Picking up a flask of wine, Titus waited until Breoga’s cup was empty.

The trader drained his beaker of the sour wine which the tribune seemed to favour and considered.  “Were the legions to go where no Roman legion has ever gone before, my lord, they, no doubt, would be as successful as all such forays by the legions have been and will be forever.”  

“They say our enemies, the Nervii are the fiercest warriors among all the Keltoi, some of them fighting buff naked,” Titus added, hoping to draw the old man, filling up his cup with more of the dark brown wine.

Breoga put down his beaker and looked up at the tribune before continuing, “But even beyond Britannia and Dál Riata, there lies the far flung western isle, so remote and untouched by Roman civilization and there, they say, the fiercest warriors of the Keltoi, the Craobh Ruadh, remain, in wild and wooded country, ruled by warlike kings, greedy queens, fierce warriors banded together by loyalty and honour in defence of their kingdoms and demi-gods, intent on seizing and maintaining power by warfare, conquest and cattle raiding.”

“This far-flung isle you speak of, is that what we Romans call Iuverna?” Titus asked eagerly, his young face flushing as he displayed his worldly knowledge.

Breoga reached down to the sack at the side of the low table and withdrew a bulging leather wineskin.  “Try this wine, my lord and I will tell you what I know of that isle you speak of, for I have been there many times, ever since I was a child, accompanying my father there in the hopes of acquiring one of their fearsome hounds.”

Titus picked up his beaker and allowed Breoga to pour a jet of wine before sniffing suspiciously at the liquid.  There appeared to be a faint sheen on the surface, as if oil floated there, mingled with a strong smell of resin, with which the inside of the leather wineskin had been coated.  Putting it down untouched, he turned to face the trader.

“So, tell me, when did you first go to Iuverna?”

“I first set foot on that far-flung western isle when I was a child.  I remember it well, looking back now that I am in my middle years, but I’ll tell you this much, that isle was a place of wonder and magic and awe.  The green hills, forests thick with wolves, elk and boar, swept down right to the edge of that cruel, grey sea and the wind would cut the face off you.  But the people, did they notice the cold and the wind and the rain that would tear the flesh off your very bones?  They did not.”

The old man paused and drank deeply before continuing.

“Certainly, they were the men that would tramp barefoot over the thorny ground, splashing through the icy bogs and not a bother on them.  And weren’t their women folk as fierce? Often they would be fighting alongside their menfolk, the lot of them stripped down to the pelt, the bodies smeared with ochre and other dyes, the hair on the heads piled up and stiff as a helmet, the long swords hacking and cutting while the wolfhounds would tear the throat out of a man and without as much as a snuffle, they’d bound on to the next warrior, the jaws on them as high as a tall man’s shoulder.  Sure, didn’t I see lions in Sumeria that looked like pups compared to those hounds and the noise and the brassy bellow of their trumpets and the roaring out of the lot of them would freeze the blood of a mortal man?”

Titus picked up his beaker, sniffed at it again before taking a tentative sip.   “Go on,” he said.

“I remember the first time my father took me there from our home in Hispania.  Wolfhounds, he’d say, those are the hounds I want and the high king, or Ard Rí, they call him there, a fierce ould bollix, would demand more than his fair share of the fine amphorae of wine that we had brought, aye, wine and more than that.  We would sit in the great hall, night after night, listening to their vaunting the exploits of warriors and champions.

“But could you get your hands on a hound that easily?”  Breoga laughed harshly before turning to spit into the brazier. “Not for nothing did we ply the ould’ fella with the latest artifices and I couldn’t tell you what not but it wasn’t until the young fella took the throne that we felt we had the chance.” 

“Do you mean Conor Mac Nessa?” Titus asked, a quickened note of interest in his voice, 

Breoga stopped and pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulder as he inched closer to the brazier.  A mottled hand hooked the beaker of Falernian wine closer to him and not until its position was adjusted to his satisfaction on the low table before him, did he look up at his interlocutor.

“Aye,” he nodded.  “Conor Mac Nessa, and yer man, the real power behind the throne, the draoidh, Cathbad the seer.  A quare ould’ bollix he was, always there when you didn’t want him and never there when you did.”  

An Old Celtic of Love and Death – Part 7

A Ewe between Two Rams

Smoke lay heavy in the night air as the burning thatch on the Craobh Ruadh spread down from the rafters, the flames licking hungrily at the seasoned, dry wooden walls of the old building. Eoghean had stamped away to bury his clansmen and to drown his anger in the vat of Ol nguala leaving Conor to curse at the flight of the brothers with his woman.

“You have to help me here, Cathbad,” Conor pleaded. “Who better than yourself to remember the prophecy when it was you, yourself, that made it? Help me now before this goes any further. Lookit, haven’t I already lost a fine son? What more do you want me to lose?” he went on, the sullen rage he felt at Crúscraid’s impotent attack and Conall Cernach’s desertion welling up inside him.

“I tried to warn you with that prophecy but you refused to listen, Conor. You were a fool then and you are a fool now, bringing doom on all of us,” Cathbad thundered, his staff thumping the stone flagged floor of the great hall.

“Offer them terms of peace, yes, … peace and friendship, I swear it,” Conor insisted. “Tell them that they need not fear us but swear fealty to us and all will be forgotten, for who would refuse the services of the mighty lords of Uísliu.” Conor cursed deeply inside himself and continued to press the draoidh for a solution to make the brothers put down their arms.

***

Cathbad guessed all three had been wounded to some degree in their frantic flight and would be unable to travel far. There was only one place in the vicinity where they might feel safe, he guessed, the most likely place such a group would flee to. And yet, there was just a chance that the prophecy could still be averted if he could find the brothers and talk to them. He did not fear for his safety at their hands for he was a draoidh and although no one went willingly into the dark woods at night for fear of the little men and the Sídhe that roamed the woodlands, Cathbad encountered nothing except a large white owl which swooped silently down from the trees on his left as he approached the standing stones on the crest of the low hill to the south of Eamhain Macha.

The stones, the height of a tall man, formed a crude circle fifteen paces across. One of the stones had fallen and Cathbad caught the glimmer of a small fire inside the circle from where he stood.

There was a sliver of a moon, now, cold and high and the night was bitterly cold and Naoise, fearing they would perish without a fire, had built one carefully in the lee of the fallen stone in a small dip in the ground.

“You need not fear me,” Cathbad said softly as he stepped out from behind one of the taller stones and watched the girl jerk her head up from where she had been lying, curled up beside the small fire.

“Cathbad? Is that you?” Naoise stood up from where he had been sitting on a small rock beside the woman, his sword extended.

“I come with a message from the king,” the draoidh said solemnly, stretching out his arms so that his robe clung to him, outlining his spare figure. “An offer of peace with terms of friendship. Wrongs have been done on both sides but enough blood has been spilt. This madness must stop now for the sake of the kingdom. Lay down your arms now and swear fealty again to Conor. This time he means it, I am sure,” the draoidh continued, seeing the hunger and the need on the tired faces of the men. Deirdre was pale and, except for the crust of dried blood on her arm from a jagged cut, she seemed unhurt. “Don’t listen to him,” she begged. “Don’t you see? It is another trap. Conor will never stop, I’m telling you.”

The draoidh moved over to where the girl crouched and gently examined the gash on her arm before opening a small vial and smearing honey on the wound and binding it tightly with a scrap of linen he took from within his robe.

“Beauty can stir feelings of hate as well as desire in some men’s breasts,” Cathbad continued, staring into the girl’s frightened eyes, “But Conor now seeks peace with you if you will only swear fealty to him and to the kingdom. “ It’s the only way,” he went on and leaning forward, from his closed fist, he threw a handful of herbs and aromatic twigs on the fire around which they all sat. There was silence then as the colour of the fire changed and sparkled brightly before a thick and pungent smoke filled the air around them. Cathbad waited a few moments before slipping easily to his feet, and watched as talk around the fire died out and the woman remained silent.

***

“You fool,” Cathbad hissed, “don’t you see what you have done? You told me that you needed their strength to repel Medb of Connachta’s schemes and that there would be peace between you and them if they would only lay down their arms and swear allegiance to you.”

“I’m the fool, am I?” Conor snarled. “You think I would let my honour, my laws, my very rules be flouted by upstarts like those bastards. I treated them with honour and grace until they wounded a loyal retainer of my guest. Blood calls for blood, you know that but my hands are clean.” He laughed cruelly, switching mood suddenly. “My good friends from the far Dá Mumhainn will be more than happy to exact vengeance for me, seeing as that bastard brood destroyed many of their clansmen,” he nodded his head in the direction of the doors.

“Come,” he declared, walking outside the hall to where dawn was approaching and a thin streak of grey edged the blackness of the night. The three young men and the girl were kneeling, their arms securely tied behind their backs, on the pounded earth beside the white path. Conor’s force had surprised the somnolent group who had put up little resistance when they had burst out of the darkness and they had been led back, yoked at the neck and with their arms tied behind their backs, to the inner circle inside Eamhain Macha where Conor waited, gloatingly, for them. Beside him stood the black bearded giant, the king of Fermagh, Eoghean Mac Murthacht who glowered at the captives. The faint grey light blended into a pale salmon pink along the horizon as the sun hovered behind the trees to the east.

“With your permission, my lord, these outlaws have wounded my own nephew, slaughtered my unarmed men, insulted my house and honour and only blood can wipe clean the measure between us.”

Conor paused and looked at the object of his envy, hate and fear. Any king, he reminded himself, would be loath to take back such traitorous, oath-breaking bastards as these black-hearted warriors for soon enough, he knew, they could turn their schemes on him and his kingship. He motioned with his head and a retainer pulled the woman away from the three kneeling men.

“It is I, your grateful ally, that should beg favours of you, my noble lord,” Conor said, gravely nodding his head, exulting within as Eoghean Mac Murthacht drew his sword and stepped forward towards Naoise.

Eoghean paused a moment, as if feeling the weight of sword in his hand, before his shoulder muscles bunched as he rose the heavy blade to chop down towards Naoise’s exposed neck when Illand, lying unnoticed on the path beside Naoise, his life blood trickling away from the gaping holes in his back and belly, gathered his draining strength and surged to his feet in front of the kneeling Naoise. The sword hissed down, cutting deep into the corner of the youth’s neck and shoulder. Eoghean cursed and used his booted foot to push Illand off the blade before swinging it again and burying it deeply in the other side of his neck, almost severing the head. He jerked the sword free and prepared to strike anew at Naoise when Ainle called out, squinting up at Eoghean. “Hold your hand there, and a request, if it pleases you. Kill me first, I implore you for I am the youngest of my brothers and would not wish to see those whom I love more than life itself, be killed.”

“Listen not to him,” Ardan cried. “I would not have it so. Being the youngest, Ainle should live yet the longest of us three. Kill me first, I beg you.”

“Do neither such thing,” Naoise called out “for here at my side I had the sword that Manannan, the son of Lir, once gave to our clan and for a while I carried it as befitted the leader of our clan and the stroke of it cleaves cleanly through all; so strike the three of us together, and we will all die together at the one time as we have lived all our lives together.”

Mac Murthacht looked around for the sword and called out for it but the sword no longer hung by Naoise’s side. A bondsman came running out from the hall nearby where the sons of Uísliu’s arms had been heaped inside the door.

“A fine blade,” he said admiringly, throwing aside the tooled leather scabbard and extending the blade towards the captives. He sighted along the dull sheen of the dark iron blade, the thin groove along the top inside of the blade for the blood to run, making it easier to pull the weapon out of the clinging flesh.

“Lay down your heads, then lads and let it be known that I, Eoghean Mac Murthacht, king of the Fermagh, do so treat the traitorous scum of my proud ally, the king of the Ulaidh.” And he slashed down hard and expertly so that the three heads of the young men bounced together on the hard ground as the blood spouted and pooled around them and one bound body twitched a last time.

A roar of thunder sounded and the noise rolled over Eamhain Macha for a count of three as Conor looked up from the blood-splattered Mac Murthacht to the darkening eastern sky where thick clouds blotted out the sun. Lightning flickered within ripe, plum-coloured clouds.

Deirdre shrugged away the restraining hand of a tall man with a ragged fringe of hair, his drooping eye, bloodshot and fearful gaping at the scene around them and rose to her feet, crying pitifully, whipping her long fair hair from side to side as she violently swung her head backwards and forwards. Throwing herself forward, she fell across the headless torso of Naoise and tenderly kissed his chest three times before allowing herself to be pulled up like one who had lost her wits.

“Come now to my house, my queen,” Conor said, stepping forward and cutting the thongs that bound her hands behind her back. “There is no need to be fearful, or to feel hatred or jealousy or sadness for together we will make a new future for the Ulaidh and the kingship.”

Seeing Deirdre glance bewilderedly at Eoghean and himself, Conor smirked and winked at the blood-streaked ruffian beside him.

“Come now, Deirdre, you have the cute look of a ewe caught between two rams. I am a fair man and I’ll give you a choice – a night with my good self or a year with my friend here,” and he nodded towards Eoghean standing over Naoise’s headless body before pulling her close to him, his arms encircling her slim figure.

Deirdre raised her arms around Conor’s middle and her small hand touched the bone handled knife he had used to cut her bonds and she seized it quickly, pushing Conor away and holding the knife to her throat.

“May your bones grow hair and rot, Conor Mac Nessa, false king of Eamhain Macha and treacherous dog that you are, for that is no choice at all. Know this, false king Conor, for you have brought destruction on yourself and on your clan for no one in the Ulaidh will profit from your actions this day. Gone from this world are the sons of Uísliu and with them the spirit of nobility, the courage of the truly brave, for they dared all for a woman’s love and know that I gave it freely to them that set me free from the bonds of your rapacious desires.” Deirdre thrust the dagger up under the soft part of her throat and remained proudly standing for a moment before her legs gave way and she slid gracefully to the ground, her blood mingling with the pool surrounding the sons of Uísliu.

The End