An Old Celtic Take of Love & Death – Part 5

The Exiles Return

Bolstered by the bright talk of Buinne and Illand and heartened by Fergus’ repeated pledges of safe conduct, their spirits freshened by the brisk wind that drove them westwards over the dark green waters, edged with creamy foam, of the north channel between Ériu and Dál Riata, the exiles made good time on their sea crossing, despite Deirdre’s dark forebodings and black mood, and safely reached Dún Sobairce in the late afternoon.

A bright ray of sunshine pierced the dark clouds scudding in from the west, throwing the tall columns of interlocking, glossy black columns of rock marching out from the rugged coastal cliffs, into sharp relief. The honeycombed shapes of the countless columns looked like stepping stones, Deirdre thought, leading away from the cliff foot and disappearing under the sea. She shuddered, remembering childhood stories at the feet of her nurse, Levarcham, about the old ones, the Fir Bolg and the Formorions, the Tuatha Dé Danann and the mysterious Sídhe from the far East who had once come to Ériu’s far flung western shore so long ago. Only the power and magic of the Sídhe she thought, could have made such a powerful causeway of standing stones stretching away under the sea to Dál Riata. Seabirds swooped and screeched, perching on columns before restlessly flying off again as waves dashed against their bases as the swan-bellied boats sailed past and into the deep, silent inlet leading out of the bay.

The fort, standing on the rocky hillside looking down on the inlet, loomed larger than any place Deirdre had ever seen, far larger, she realised, than Scáthach’s ráth. The dry stonewalls were almost twice as high as those at Glen Etive and the watchtowers on the walls seemed to glare down on the boats as they pulled up on the shingled shore. Naoise was jubilant at returning to his homeland and jumped eagerly off the bow of the boat into the cold surf and swept her off into his arms from the gunwale where she had perched. “Now, my sweetness, we have arrived safe and sound and there is a quare ould hunger on me for I vow not to eat until we reach Eamhain Macha and receive Conor’s bounty.”

Horns blared out then as Illand moored the boat and Deirdre looked up to see a welcoming party leave the fort and approach the beach in the sheltered bay. A small tub of a man, his fat jowls rubbing the top of his stained tunic which bulged over his soft belly, buttery blonde hair swept back from a round, red face, was advancing towards them, smiling broadly. Beside and slightly behind him a tall woman held out her arms in greeting, her eyes darting curiously at the new comers.

“Welcome, welcome Fergus Mac Rioch, and safely returned with the strangers, I see,” the fat man began effusively, embracing Fergus before turning to the group of exiles. “Allow me to introduce myself, Borach, guardian of the northern port here at Dún Sobairce and this,” he said with a flourish of his pudgy hand, “is my lady wife, the lady Nuala.”

Nuala bowed courteously to the men, the brisk breeze, which had driven the exiles home, tugging the hood of her woollen cloak across her face, before turning to Deirdre. Taking her by the hand, Nuala led her to a simple shelter of woven braches on the beach. “My lady, you look grievously tired and pale, a hot bath and a rest will surely renew you.”

“By the order of the king, Conor Mac Nessa,” Borach interrupted pompously, “it is my great honour to have a feast prepared for you, Fergus, and these visitors. The high king himself, king Conor Mac Nessa has entreated me to entertain you while he brokers deals with the wild clans of the west in Dá Mumhainn leading to a planned alliance there against the looming threat from a jealous Connachta,” he continued self importantly, his double chin wobbling as he spoke.

Before Fergus could speak, Naoise stepped forward and bowed his head respectfully towards the older man,

“We thank thee, Lord of the northern port, for your offer of hospitality, but know that we, the exiled sons of Uísliu, have returned under the safe conduct of Fergus Mac Rioch acting on the orders of the self same king, Conor Mac Nessa, and I have taken a vow not to break my fast until I do so at his court of Eamhain Macha. Forgive us, but we would leave as soon as we have disembarked the little we have brought with us,” he said courteously before turning away to help unloading the piles of skins, robes and weapons that they had brought with them from Dál Riata.

It was then that the woman, Nuala, stood up, her lank grey hair falling either side of a long face and moved over to where the exiles and Fergus stood and began entreating him to stay, reminding him of his sworn geas not to refuse a request from a lady

Much to Deirdre’s amazement, Fergus gallantly knelt on the shingled shore before the lady and accepted her hand.

“I thank you from the bottom of my heart, my lady,” he began. “Nothing would be dearer to me than feasting with you by my side, knowing full well the depth of your hospitality, but I fear I must forego the pleasures you offer on this occasion,” he paused at the look of disappointment on Nuala’s drawn features. “I am sworn by my vow to travel with these exiles and to see them safely to Eamhain Macha,” he explained, gently releasing her hand. Ardan stood up from where he had been inspecting the two wheeled, wicker chariots that would carry them to Eamhain Macha and glanced over to where Fergus and the woman were still talking but was unable to hear what they were saying.

The small fat man, he noticed, said something quietly and insistently to the woman and she reached out, plucking at Fergus’ cloak as he turned to go.

“I beseech you, Fergus,” she cried out, “and I hold you to your geas to stay here and feast with me.”

Fergus stepped back, his face darkening as he frowned, uncomprehendingly, at Nuala. “But I must accompany them, woman! I have given my word.”

“Would you break a lifetime’s oath for a word so recently sworn as the one you mention? But no need to break either one, noble Fergus, stay but a night or two – see – the evening yet draws near – and let the brave warriors continue on safe in the hands of your sons for do they not carry your name as well and will they not guarantee the resolve of your word?” The woman begged.

Fergus hesitated, looking over at where Ardan and Ainle were helping his two sons load the chariots with their bundled spears and long swords. Naoise, he could see was still deep in conversation with Deirdre in the small shelter on the strand.

He felt a deep blush of red anger sweep over him and turning towards the lord of the port, he snarled, “It is a evil thing you have done, Borach, holding a feast for me, while Conor has made me vow that as soon as I should return to the Ulaidh with the exiles, no matter day or night, I would send on the sons of Uísliu to Eamhain Macha.”

“I hold you under your geas,” implored the woman again, “to stop and feast here with me now at this time and place.”

Buinne strode over, his red hair tangled and windblown, and announced that they had loaded the carts and were ready to leave. Fergus, flushed with anger, looked down at his feet, as Naoise led Deirdre over to the waiting carts before striding over to join the group of exiles.

“I leave you here, my lords,” Fergus began awkwardly, “in the gallant hands of my sons, while I am detained by an age-old geas that I swore as a young warrior in the Craobh Ruadh.”

“But what about your word to us?” Ainle burst out before Naoise laid a warning hand on his arm and stopped him.

“Do not concern yourself then about us,” Naoise said shortly, “For we have always protected ourselves by the strength of our own arms and nothing will deter us from doing that and we depend on no man’s help to do so.”

“You must choose now, Fergus,” reminded Deirdre bitterly, “Abandon the children of Uísliu here or feast in this spot and a blind fool can see which is the better course of action open to you.”

“I am not abandoning you,” said he, “My two sons, Illand Fionn and Buinne the Red will go with you to Eamhain Macha.”

Naoise turned on his heel trying to disguise his anger; Ainle spat on the ground at Fergus’s feet, and followed Ardan as Deirdre, and Fergus’ two sons hurried after Naoise, leaving Fergus bound by his geas.

Deirdre walked across to where Naoise was arranging a bundle of skins and robes in the lightweight chariot in which they were to travel. She put her hand on Naoise’s arm and pulled him aside.

“Do not put your trust in noble lords, my honey, listen instead to my dreams and premonitions, yes, even my worries and fears for ever since I first heard Fergus’s horn sound out on sweet Glen Etive, I know in my heart what will come to pass and I see death all around us. I see us alone, without Fergus, I see you, my sweet, bound and helpless. Hear me now, my love and take this advice that I offer freely to you from the depth of my heart – go not to Eamhain Macha but hasten away to yonder island there,” she pointed at the small island, Rechlainn, lying just off the coast between Ériu and Dál Riata, “ and we can wait there for Fergus to join us.”

“Ah Dee, what class of man or warrior would you have me be if I feared all your dreams, for that is all they are – dreams, and no more, a figment of our wildest imaginations but for all that, they are just passing thoughts and have no substance in reality.” Naoise reassured her, taking Deirdre in his arms and cuddling her against him.

“Anyway,” Ainle said, joining them and checking the rawhide reins running through the terret rings on the horse’s bridles, “Conor is our high king and he has sent his envoy of friendship and it would be bad cess and shame on us to refuse the hand he has offered. We cannot tarry, like whipped children, while we wait for Fergus to arrive for we are fighting men and fear not dreams and premonitions.”

“Besides,” broke in Illand earnestly, “You have us, my lady and I pledge my life and my honour to your safety as my father and brother have done,” he knelt and took Deirdre’s cold hand in his rough red ones.

Deirdre looked around at the open faces of the youths about her before gently raising the fair-headed boy to his feet. “This day my heart is loaded down with sorrow. I ache for you, so young and fair. I see Ainle without shield; I see Ardan without breastplate, I see Conor asking for blood; I feel my face wet with tears. I wipe my tears away now for you brave and valiant ones, who are my dear companions.”

Turning away, she pulled her cloak tighter around her to conceal her tear-streaked face from the worried gazes as the men continued final preparations of the chariots that would carry them to Eamhain Macha.

“Do not upset your head, Dee, with such ill-omened thoughts, my love” Naoise implored. “Put aside your fears along with your dreams, Deedee, for soon we will replace them with peace and honour. You know yourself that there is no real joy being cut away from your roots, for you compare everything you see with what you had and the ache and the want is always there, no matter where you are, to be back, grounded again, in your native soil. There is where honour is gained and respected, where custom and tradition, a man’s word, his oath, his very geas stand for him, for they are the very bonds that bind our society together. Don’t you see, Dee, without these, we could never trust another and our lives would be consumed with endless petty quarrels, so I say again, put aside your fears for we are safe within the obligations that each one of us must observe.”

“Anyway, the point is, we are here now and we have to make the best of it,” interposed Ardan tactfully, turning to take the heavy, sharp-edged shields from Ainle before putting them in the cart. “Fergus may be bound by geas to stay here but we are not and beside, didn’t you say something about not eating until you did so at Eamhain Macha?” he reminded Naoise light heartedly.

“Stay here, I beg you, for I have had such a vision of Fair Illand, his head cruelly hacked from his bleeding body while Buinne still walked among the living, his sword sheathed and you, my lords,” Deidre paused and looked directly at Naoise, “You lay with Illand.”

“Stoppit now, Deirdre, would you? Fergus would never have come to Dál Riata to lead us back like sheep to be butchered.”

“My sweet, my own lover,” Deirdre threw her arms around Naoise. “My fears are for you because without you I would have no reason to live for all I could wish for would be gone.”

***

The track led up from the coast and crossed boggy, low-lying land before ascending into the low hills that had once been Deirdre’s childhood home. The rain had begun in the middle of the night and the steady downpour had turned the rough track into a quagmire of gooey mud that clung to the iron rimmed wheels of the chariots and slowed the tired horses to a trudge. The clouds had built up, blotting out the moon and the few remaining stars and in the darkness the rain seemed to fall with increased force and Deirdre flinched as lightening seared her eyes followed almost immediately by a grumble of thunder which rolled across the sky while the rain slashed down forcibly. The sheltered torches, needed when crossing the narrow causeways through patches of bog land, bridged by beams of enormous oak planks laid side by side on birch wood runners, had guttered low and repeatedly gone out and been replenished when the darkness of night began to lessen to a vague grey as the first hint of dawn broke the blackness around them in which tendrils of mist still wreathed the stony track way they had been following since leaving Dún Sobairce. The faint grey light blended into a pale salmon pink along the horizon as they crested a low rise where they rested the horses and gazed across at the sight of the massive hill fort at Eamhain Macha, Dominating the country around, the immense ring fort surrounded the entire top of the hill, encircled with the high earthen bank, outside of which lay a deep ditch. At the top of the mound, the huge round hall of Craobh Dearg, Conor’s seat of power dwarfed the smaller buildings of the Craobh Ruadh and the Téite Breach, the armoury where the spears and javelins, swords and shields, plates and rims, hoards of goblets, cups and drinking horns were stored. Ainle pulled back on the reins, the tired horses slumping to a panting halt, and looked at the massive hill fort at the head of the valley.

“If you do not heed my words, my lords, look and see how the gods welcome you home,” Deirdre said bitterly as the early rising sun turned the turbulent, low lying clouds over Eamhain Macha a fiery red. “Look, even now, see what the dawn brings” and she turned and pointed in the direction of Dál Riata as a blood red, waning gibbous moon hung low in the autumn sky.

“It is not too late, Naoise – see there where the track way turns – we can go there to Cú Culainn at Dún Delga,” Deirdre appealed one last time, “and he will be our envoy in place of the feeble Fergus,” she continued imploringly.

“Lookit here to me, woman.” Naoise twisted around to stare at Deirdre, his face set and fierce in the wan light. “I am a warrior of the Craobh Ruadh and Conor is my high king and I am not afraid to face my king for we have been given safe conduct. Now we are here and I put my trust in honour and the laws of the Ulaidh and The Red Branch. All you speak of is of death and blood and fire. Is there no joy in your mind for a return to where you were born? Don’t let your nameless fears darken the joys of our return.”

“I’m only thinking of you, my love, for of you all, the only one I see still alive is the red-headed one. Listen to me, I beg you. Conor will hold court in his great hall, the Craobh Dearg, and if he invites you there, along with all his noble lords, well then, I say to you that you are safe and that Conor bears you no enmity and will not break the geas of hospitality laid upon a great lord. But, Naoise, if you are not greeted by Conor himself and led instead to the Craobh Ruadh lodge, then I fear for your safety for Conor means you ill”

“Now we find out so,” said Ardan “For we are here now.” Watchers on the wall blared out horns of greeting for the weary travellers as they approached the ponderous oaken doors to the outer ring fort.

***

The horns, signifying the arrival of the exiles, sounded throughout the great hill fort, silencing Conor for a moment where he sat between his mother, Ness, and Eoghean Mac Murthacht, the king of Fermagh. The two men sat facing each other on the low platform panelled in red yew, at the back of the hall while screens of copper, inlaid with bars of silver and decorated with golden birds with jewelled eyes, separated them from the drunken murmur of the clansmen from Dá Mumhainn where they sprawled among the rushes on the flagstones.

Conor leaned forward and glared down at the diminutive gatekeeper, his grip tightening on the carven boar arms of the heavy chair in the great hall.

“What do you mean, they are nearly here? Is Fergus with them and what of the woman?” he demanded and before Scél could reply, he looked over towards his mother and smiled, “You will have to greet them, woman, and make them welcome. If I had but known they were coming …, Conor paused and gestured hopelessly towards Eoghean before turning to the gatekeeper. “Tell me this much, how are we fixed for food and drink at the Craobh Ruadh?”

Scél bobbed his head, his tangled hair and beard completely obscuring his face. “If the five fifths of Ériu were to descend on us now, lord, they would find their fill, and more, of all that is good to eat and drink and still there would be enough,” he explained proudly.

“Good enough, then, but unfortunately, as you see, I have other, more pressing, business to attend to with my noble lord, Eoghean Mac Murthacht here with his clans from the west, and I must deal with him first. Take our honoured guests to the lodge of the Red Branch, as is fitting for warriors of the Craobh Ruadh,” he continued, leaning back in his chair, dismissing Scél and turning toward Ness.

Ness shook her head, her long hair, the colour of burnt ash, framing her lean, intelligent face, amazed at her son’s apparent indifference to the arrival of the sons of Uísliu and the women he had plotted and lusted for. Despite having more than three score summers behind her, the same cold aloofness and beauty that had enslaved Fergus Mac Roich’s heart so many years ago after the drunken death of his brother when first he desired her, still shone from her glowing skin. Conor raised his cup to toast his mother, “Welcome them in my name and give them my deepest apologies and promises to attend to them as soon as I can,” he smiled grimly and stood up. “You know what to do.” For his mother Ness, the former king, Fergus Mac Rioch had given everything up, Conor thought, and she, for the love of him, would do everything she could to protect what she had gained. “Come, my lord,” he said to Eoghean, “we have much to discuss.”

***

Scél met the strangers as the visitors crossed the wide boards laid across the deep ditch, surrounding the outer wall of packed and beaten clay, and pulled open the heavy oak doors while guards in the wooden watchtower above the gate stared down curiously. Small wooden huts and lean-to’s for the brew house, the smithy and the butchery crowded the space between the outer wall and the inner wall of wooden trunks where labourers and bondsmen who both depended on the hill fort and supplied it with its voracious appetites, lived by the stables with their animals.

Inside the second wall of upright logs buried deep in the ground, making a barrier taller than the tallest warrior, lived the artisans and the granary and cookhouse, and it was there that the lady Ness met them. Taking Deirdre’s hands in hers, she pulled the girl towards her, examining her closely before turning to the men and smiling.

“Welcome my lords and know that it does the king, Conor Mac Nessa, ring-giver, lord of the Ulaidh and feared in battle, great joy to have you returned safely here and he bids you welcome but regrets he cannot entertain you now as the king of Fermagh, Eoghean Mac Murthacht of the Dá Mumhainn is here.” Ness paused and looked at the young men in front of her to gauge the reaction her words had had.

Naoise stood tall and proud, his long black hair plaited loosely down his back. His plain tunic was belted at the waist and his long sword hung at his side. He opened his mouth as if to say something then shut it again as if he had changed his mind.

Stepping back, Ness bowed her head courteously and indicated they should enter within the final wall of the hill fort. Stepping through the huge bronze gate to the third and last inner wall of Eamhain Macha, Naoise stepped aside and paused to allow the others to file through the gate. Directly ahead, he could see Conor’s great hall, the Craobh Dearg, a massive hall with a conical roof made of rushes and thatch. Crushed seashell and river pebbles formed a path directly from where Naoise stood to the heavy bronze doors of the hall before diverging on either side to other massive buildings. If Deirdre was right, he thought to himself, slipping an arm around her waist and gently squeezing her, we’ll go there and everything will be resolved.

Footsteps crunched on the path and Naoise turned to see a burly man, long, curly black hair falling over his shoulders, a wolf skin cloak fastened at his neck with an iron brooch, armed with a heavy hunting spear and a long iron sword blocking his way. A thick moustache, tinged now with grey hung down to a set chin and the eyes that met his were not friendly. Naoise stared into his cruel, dark eyes and sensed the man’s ruthlessness and guessed what his message would be.

“Hold, fellow,” the stranger commanded stiffly, holding his arm forward, palm out. “I have been ordered to take you to your lodging,” and without waiting for their reply he took the path to the side of Conor’s Hall.

“But where are we going, where are they taking us?” Deirdre stopped and asked Ness who was a step behind them. Ardan and Ainle behind her stopped also and Buinne and Illand bringing up the rear bumped into them, surprised by their sudden stop.

“The Craobh Ruadh, of course,” Ness said, sounding surprised that Deirdre should ask such a question. “Surely the sons of Uísliu, champions of the Craobh Ruadh would welcome the opportunity to revisit where they first became men and champions? Or are they too proud to enter the lodge where once they were boys?”

***

Scél arrived leading a troop of bondsmen carrying fresh rushes and straw for the floor in the lodge of the Craobh Ruadh while baskets of cooked meats and bowls of thick gruel were laid out on the trestle tables. It was late afternoon and the tired travellers sat and watched as the bondsmen scurried around, setting the fire in the central hearth and arranging the animal skins and mattresses stuffed with straw for them to rest on.

Deirdre waited until the last bondsman had left before getting up and closing the heavy red wood door to the lodge and dropping the locking beam into place. “I told you, I told you all, this would happen. It is not to late, listen to me, Naoise, if we leave now before we break our fast, it will still be all right,” she pleaded desperately.

Illand looked up from the stool where he was helping himself to a leg of boiled chicken.

“We will not leave, Deirdre, for we will have no-one think us cowards. We have given our words, lady,” he said and glanced over to his brother who was draining a jug of the dark brew, “and we will not allow any harm to befall you.”

Deirdre turned away from the food and drink, sickened by her own worries and fears and saddened by the sobering effect her premonitions were now having on the three men she loved the most, for none of them had turned to the food and wines that had been provided. Picking up the chessboard lying on a bench, she took Naoise’s arm and led him towards the hearth.

“It is true what Ness said, you know.” Naoise began before Deirdre could remonstrate with him again. “This is where I grew up when I joined the Red Branch, the greatest champions of the Ulaidh.” He looked around the heavy walls, panelled with red yew, on which they had hung their weapons and shields, remembering the honour of belonging, knowing he was a part of the best champions to be found in the five fifths of Ériu. “We are safe here, Dee, believe me.” Sitting down on a stool beside a trestle table, he pulled her onto his knee and pushed back the hood of her heavy travelling cloak and kissed her neck. “There is only one entrance in here and you can see how narrow it is. That means it is easy to defend, one man can hold off a troop here for there is no room in the entranceway for an enemy to use his sword. Come, enough of these gloomy thoughts – a game and a cup of wine will warm our spirits.”

***

Conor had continued drinking heavily in order to keep pace with Eoghean Mac Murthacht of Fermagh but at least he was sure that the ruffians from Dá Mumhainn accompanying him would do his bidding when the time came. It had cost him dearly in food and drink, drink, mostly and Conor again thanked the gods for the gift of Gerg’s vat, which he had taken when the Craobh Ruadh had killed the wizard in his glen. The vat, or Ol nguala, as Gerg had called it, could satisfy two score noble drinkers, and never be emptied.

Conor leaned back in his chair and scowled at Crúscraid, his idiot son who had just approached and refilled his cup. By Lugh’s bollix, Conor thought to himself, fingering his pointed beard, which one was the mother of that eejit? A young wan, now that was what he needed and here was Deirdre herself at hand now.

“Wipe your lip,” he snarled at Crúscraid “and go and find Levarcham for me, quickly now! Tell her to visit Deirdre and the sons of Uísliu in the Craobh Ruadh and come back and tell me how she looks, go on now with you.”

Crúscraid dragged the sleeve of his tunic across his slack mouth before stumbling off to find Deirdre’s old servant.

“You should treat the boy gently, Conor. He is your son and he would do anything for you, look at the way he follows you around,” Ness reminded him gently. “Anyway, I told you already, the girl you lusted for is no longer the same. Life’s hard work of gathering firewood and chopping kindling, drawing water, milking cows, churning butter, pounding dough and washing clothes have hardened the girl so that her hands are red and chapped while her face is lined. She is a woman now, and a poor one at that, so put her from your thoughts, my son, for you may have more pressing issues with Connachta for surely you have heard the news that Medb has put her kingdom on a war footing.”

Conor raised his jadeite beaker and drank deeply before replying. “Ahh, lookit here to me, I will deal with that bitch when the time is right,” he said wiping his beard clear of the wine. “Haven’t we got Cú Culainn, my own nephew, the hound of the north they call him now, and what harm can befall us when we have the very son of Lugh himself to defend us.” Conor laughed triumphantly. “But listen here to me. I just want to know what your one looks like. If she is still the tender fruit I came so close to plucking or has the fabled hardness of Dál Riata beaten the softness out of her, as you say? If so, Naoise is welcome to her but if she still has the blush of youth on her soft cheek, then, by the power of the gods, I will have her, whether it be point or edge that the sons of Uísliu have to contend with, but I will have her.”

TO BE CONTINUED

 

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.”

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

Travel and Transport

Transport options were fairly limited in Iron Age Ireland. There were no paved roads although at its simplest, trackways of single planks laid end to end across boggy surfaces would have been used by single pedestrians. A more stable surface would consist of tightly packed bundles of hazel or birch twigs laid in thick layers across boggy and marshy land. More elaborate were “hurdle” trackways which consisted of woven panels of brushwood placed end to end, over which logs and crude planks were laid sideways.

Excavation in a peat bog in 1994 uncovered the Corlea trackway, the largest trackway of its kind to be uncovered in Europe, extending as it did for more than a kilometre in a NW – SE direction before turning to a SW direction for a further kilometre.

Near the village of Keenagh in County Longford, Ireland, the trackway dates from approx. 148 BCE and consists of packed hazel, birch and oak planks placed lengthways. The upper surface of the

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Photo taken ar Corlea Visitor Centre by author.

trackway was up to four metres in width with planks laid side by side on top of parallel beams and must have been used for wheeled transport.

Hundreds of oak trees would have been felled, trimmed and then labouriously split by pounding in wooden wedges along the natural grain of the wood until the trunk split into two halves, each half being then further split into crude planks. Such a major construction project of the time would have involved hundreds of people and, unlike other bog trackways or “toghers” catering to the needs of local farmers moving animals and goods across country, may have been part of a larger communication

network.

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Photo taken at Corlea visitor Centre by author

Overland journeys were made on foot or on horseback or in heavy 4-wheeled wagons, pulled by oxen.

Despite my inclusion of chariots in my novel, Raiding Cúailnge, no archeological evidence has been found to support the use of chariots inIron Age, Celtic ireland although chariot use was widespread among European Celts.

Light, fast two-wheeled chariots were often decorated with bronze and enamel fittings and were pulled by two horses yoked together and controlled by up to five terret rings through which the reins passed, setting the angle at which the charioteer could pull on the reins.

Chariots were usually open, front and back, with double hooped sides of woven wicker, joined to a flat, springy base of interwoven rawhide strips. The base, upon which the warrior would stand, was suspended within the frame of the body, thus providing a very rough form of suspension, similar to the stage coaches used so much later in the Wild West of the USA.

Wheels had twelve wooden spokes on a fixed axel. The outer part of the wheel was the rim and the wheel itself was fashioned either by using an ash sapling which was bent and shaped until it required the requisite shape or made with six felloes. A felloe was an arc cut from a board of timber with each one abutting its neighbour. Iron was forged into a hoop and put on the wheel while still hot and as it cooled, it contracted and tied all components of the wheel together.

Coracles, small circular boats, designed for rivers and lakes, were made of cow leather stretched over a latticed wooden frame and were powered and steered by a single oarsman standing erect leaving room for one or two people only. Larger, sea-going boats had removable oars and a mast for the sail.

 

Iron Age Trade

cropped-img_0322_edited1.jpgIt is easy to assume that groups of people – tribes, clans and so on – were isolated in the Iron Age. In fact, the opposite was true – trade routes were well established connecting Ireland, Britain and continental Europe. Rome was the only game in town, spreading across North Africa, Mauretania, Cyrenaica, Arabia, Mesopotamia, Parthia, Scythia, Sarmatia, Germania, Gaul and Hispania. There was no Internet, not even a Telex or a news agency but there was the empire and its administrators, its quantity surveyors and its salesmen, purveying its values and influencing its colonies and satellites.

There was a common understanding – and appreciation – of the value of things. “Why do you, with all these grand possessions, still covet our poor huts?” was an apparent lament of the oul’ Brits when Caesar arrived in 55 BCE or something like that. I take that to mean that the Brits had some understanding of what the empire stood for and had prominent citizens and traders visiting huge cites which dwarfed their own, possibly, more humble dwellings. Big fish in small ponds suddenly made aware – but so far ignored – that there were bigger fish in larger ponds.

Anyway, inevitably, people traveled, spreading news, ideas and culture and bringing with them desirable trade items – spices, scents, slaves, ivory from North Africa used for armor (see the account of Ferdia’s armor in The Táin) while the far flung western isle had, at least, both wolf hounds and gold.

Extensive trade was long established with Gaulish Europe along settled sea routes while movement between the east coast of Ireland and what is now Scotland, Wales and England was common. Contact was probably less frequent with Greece, Scythia, Parthia, but shared knowledge – pottery, smelting – could never be unlearned while commodities like copper, tin, enamel, tortoiseshell, Tyrian purple dye from Murex glands, Falernian wine and slaves were common – but expensive – items.

Houses, Ráth and Dúns

cropped-img_0322_edited1.jpgCeltic Iron Age homes were generally timber framed round houses with conical thatch roofs. Doorways were low and protected by a porch to keep out wind and rain Spaces between the timber posts making up the walls were filled with woven branches of willow and plastered with straw, clay, mud and animal dung on the outside to form a waterproof shield (wattle and daub) and then whitewashed with lime on the inside if you wanted to be ThumbDCP04603_1_fancy. Roof timbers were covered with a thatch made from reed or straw. Grain was kept in underground pits or storerooms and domestic animals often shared the same space as their owners. While most houses were round, the great halls at Eamhain Macha or Cruachain were rectangular.

Noble women often had exclusive use of a Grianán (a sunny bower) but furniture was limited to rough boards or trestle tables and stools or benches. Beds usually comprised of mattresses made of straw covered with animal skins and nearly all residences were surrounded by strong defensive walls.

Lake villages were built on artificial islands – crannogs – linked to the land by narrow wooden bridges.

Settlements were called Ráth or Lios and situated at or near the mouths of rivers. Something a bit more substantial or a noble residence was called a Dún. These, usually, hilltop forts were made by heaping up huge banks of earth around the summit of a hill and then topping these ramparts with wooden walls made by rows of sharp stakes driven into the steep earth banks.

Photo from http://www.technologytom.com/html/ancient_britons.html

The Táin and the Manuscripts

cropped-img_0322_edited1.jpgAn Tána – or in English, the Táin – is the Old Irish word for a raid or a foray, usually involving attacking a neighbour and carrying off slaves and cattle and whatever else was available, although most wealth in those days involved cattle. The most famous examples are the Táin Bó Fraoch or the Cattle Raid of Fraoch and the Táin Bó Cúailnge, or the Cattle Raid of Cooley (an area in the north east of Ireland).

The latter is the central tale in the manuscripts dealing with what is known as the Ulster Cycle comprising almost eighty tales of heroes. Unfortunately, most of early Irish literature has been lost. Originally, tales were passed down in a strictly oral tradition until the advent of Christianity in the mid fifth century. The mythological and heroic tales were then recorded by scribes in the early monasteries and centres of Christian learning and it is not surprising that they overlaid the pagan tales with Christian overtones. The manuscripts that survive show clear linguistic signs of having been copied from earlier manuscripts, now lost, having been destroyed between the eight and eleventh centuries during the incessant Viking raids of that period. Much of what was saved was then, in turn, destroyed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by the organised policy of the English Penal Laws in a deliberate attempt to destroy Irish culture.

The oldest of the surviving manuscripts is the Book of the Dun Cow, or Leabhar na hUidre, an 11th century manuscript written in the monastery at Clonmacnoise, now preserved in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. Unfortunately, the MS contains a rather jumbled version of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, which is augumented by another jumbled account in The Yellow Book of Lecan, a 14th century manuscript now held at Trinity College Dublin.

The origins of the Táin are much older than the surviving manuscripts. The language of the earliest versions of the tales have been dated to the 8th century while some of the verse elements are possibly two centuries earlier. Most Celtic scholars now believe that the tales of the Ulster or Heroic cycle must have had a long oral existence before they were given a Christian overhaul bu monastic scribes.