The Champion’s Portion 5

Chapter Five

‘Did you see that?’ Medb, wife of Ailil, king of Connachta, demanded, as the weapons hanging on the wall shifted imperceptibly as if the wall was vibrating.

She stood up, alarmed now at the noise of thunder despite the fact that the sky was clear.

‘Quick, Findabair, go up to your tower and tell me what you can see.’

Findabair, Medb’s daughter scampered up the steps and peered out over the plain before Crúachan.

‘There are chariots tearing along towards us. Two dappled greys are pulling the first polished wicker chariot with large black wheels, its yoke silver mounted.  The warrior has long, curling, fair hair and a forked beard.  A short red cloak, gold striped, billows from his shoulders.  He holds a bronze shield and a five-pronged javelin and there are feathers in his cap.’

‘If he’s coming in anger we are doomed,’ Medb cried, ‘for that sounds like Laoghaire of the red hands.  He will slice us down like you slice a leek at its base unless we make every effort to appease him.  Who else do you see?’

‘A roan and a bay pull another finely carved wicker and wooden chariot.  Like the other, the yoke is silver mounted but the wheels are bound in bronze.  The warrior has wavy brown hair and his cloak is of blue and red, a heavy wooden shield with bronze bosses, and a mighty spear are in his hand.’

‘That must be Conall and as easily as you cut a fish with a sharp knife, will he disembowel each and every one of us that he finds here if we don’t mollify him.  Is there anyone else?’

‘Two stallions, a grey and a black, pull a chariot with iron bound, yellow wheels. The yoke is silver with bronze mountings.  The warrior is a small, dark man, eyebrows black as soot but his teeth gleam like pearls. A crimson shield hangs from his shoulders and he grips a long iron sword. Javelins and spears jut from the high sides of his chariot.’

‘Those other two are the drops before the shower, for that can only be Cú Chulainn,’ Medb said.  ‘Like a ten spoked mill grinds very fine, so too shall we be if we do not accord with his demands.    Make preparations and prepare to receive these mighty warriors of the Ulaidh and let us hope that they come in peace.  Send out a troop of slave girls, comely in looks, full breasted and bare to the waist, along with their brats as well and get ready to serve strong drink.’

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Medb and Ailil waited on the dais in the central room of the great hall at Crúachan for the arrival of the heroes and warriors, for close behind Cú Chulainn, Conall and Laoghaire had arrived a cohort from Eamhain Macha, led by Conor, Fergus and Sencha, Ailil’s own son.

The bench on which they sat had silver designs chased on its front, framed in bronze and looked down on the main hearth but was screened off from the main section of the hall by a partition of red yew with carved bronze facings to waist height.

Overhead, triple bands of polished bronze, running through the roof beams of oak, caught the light from the hearth and reflected it back down on the royal couple so that they appeared bathed in its warm hue.

As musicians played, the might of the Ulaidh strode into the hall at the far end to where Ailil and Medb sat. A great feast for the noble visitors was proclaimed and at the end of three days of feasting and drinking, Ailil finally ventured to enquire as to the nature of their visit.

‘It’s like this,’ said Conor, leaning forward confidentially, ‘That bollix Bricriu, you know who I mean, the one over there with the long puss on him, well, you know he loves to stir up a bit enmity, just for the sake of it, curse him.’ 

‘I know what you mean,’ Ailil nodded, ‘we have a few like that the same.’

‘Anyway, didn’t the eejit promise the champion’s portion to each of my three lads and now, of course, they are bickering and quarrelling among themselves.’

‘And as if that is not bad enough,’ Fergus added, ‘their women are now involved, the bitches fighting over who has precedence over who at the feasts, if you don’t mind!’

Ailil remained silent for a moment before looking at Conor.

‘And why have you come here to me, then?’ He said quietly.

‘Well, we thought that with the three heroes’ rivalry for the champion’s portion and the ladies rivalry for precedence within Eamhain Macha, we thought you might be the best impartial judge of the matter.’

‘But what has it got to do with Ailil and Connachta?’ Medb demanded.  ‘Why should we earn the enmity of your champions by raising one above all?’

Sencha turned towards his father.

‘You really would be the best judge for all know of your moderation and we need to resolve this issue because the boy troop in the Craobh Ruadh need a model to aspire to.’

‘Well,’ his father considered, ‘I’ll have to think about it for it is not a task lightly undertaken.  I’ll need at least three nights and that’s the best I can do.’

Conor leaned forward and grasped Ailil by the forearm.  ‘This will be a seal of our friendship if you do this thing for us,’ he said quietly.

Standing up, the nobles thanked Ailil and Medb, cursed Bricriu for he had caused the quarrels between the heroes and their women and commended their champions into the hands of a rival king.

The Champion’s Portion 4

Chapter Four

No sooner had they left Dun Rudraige and returned to Eamhain Macha, than the old quarrel over the champion’s portion broke out again so much so that Conor, exasperated by the whole affair, ordered the three foremost heroes, Laoghaire the Triumphant, Conall the Victorious and Cú Chulainn, the Hound of the North, to travel to the far southern kingdom of Da Mumhainn to seek the judgement of Cu Roi mac Dáire at Sliabh Mis.  

‘You can be sure,’ Fergus added, ‘that it is a fair judgement you will get there from him for it is well known that he is just and fair-minded but it will be a brave man who questions him for he is well versed in enchantments and mysteries long forgotten, even by the Tuatha de Danamm, and he can do things that no other man can do.’

‘You should go first to my father, Ailil, king of Connachta for that is on your path,’ Sencha advised, ‘for the way to Da Mumhainn is long and treacherous, for you must go on the wooden plank road over the bogs.’

‘So be it,’ Cú Chulainn said, clapping his hands together.  ‘Let us get our horses yoked to the chariots but I would lifer Laoghaire go last as everyone knows his style of driving does not permit others to accompany him both for the clumsiness of his horses and the unsteadyness of his chariot.’

‘You’re right there,’ Conall agreed, ‘and besides, if we let him go first, the ruts his wheels churn up in the turf make tracks not easily followed for more than a season after he has passed that way.’

‘Ah, don’t be jeering out of you at me for that,’ Laoghaire snapped. ‘You both know I am quick enough to cross the fords and watercourses, to storm the shield wall and to outstrip all the warriors of Eamhain Macha, so don’t go comparing me with famed chariot men until I get more practice steering and racing through hard and rocky defiles until I gain the master hand,’

and he leapt unto his chariot and urged Sedlang to lash the horses on their way.  

Not to be out done, Conall followed suit at once but Sétanta dallied where he was, a beaker of wine at his elbow, amused by the chatter of the ladies and amusing them by juggling nine apples above his head never letting the one touch another nor letting one fall to the ground before doing the same with nine feather darts and nine bone handled knives, the iron blades flashing in the morning sun.

Meanwhile, Sedlang urged the grey mares westwards over the slopes of Brega until on a perilous descent from the heights, Laoghaire motioned for the charioteer to slow down as a thick, dank mist enveloped them, making it too risky to proceed.

‘Better stop here,’ Laoghaire ventured, pulling his cloak tighter around him as he surveyed the dismal scene.

Sedlang nodded as he attended to the horse, unyoking them from the chariot and leading them over to some stunted plants in the lee of the cliff.  Startled by his approach, a surly brute emerged from a fissure in the cliff where he had been sleeping. 

Grotesque in both size and deformity, the giant had a patch of coarse black hair growing down in a peek over his forehead which was large and bulbous.  Small close-set eyes glared above a loose, fleshy mouth. Bunched hairy shoulders supported a roughly hewn club while a kilt of crudely tanned skins hung to knees over broad spatulate feet.

‘Whose horse them be?’ He grunted at Sedlang.

Sedlang glanced over his shoulders for Laoghaire, before answering ‘The horses of Laoghaire.

’Ahh, fine fellow he is,’ said the brute, before suddenly swinging his huge cudgel at Sedlang knocking him sideways powerfully.

Laoghaire saw his servant fall from the corner of his eye and he bounded over.

‘What did you do that for?’ He demanded.

The brute eyed Laoghaire furiously.  

‘For the damage ye have done to my property,’ he snarled, before swinging his fearsome club again and laying Laoghaire low.

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Laeg, concerned about the amount of time Cú Chulainn was spending with the ladies, yoked the horses and stacked Cú Chulainn’s weapons in the chariot, before going over to him. 

‘You’re a right eejit, you know, squinting away here at the girls while those other two have gone on ahead of you.  I thought you wanted the champion’s portion.’

‘You’re right,’ Cú Chulainn said, ‘come on, Let’s go.’

Crossing Magh Brega, Laeg gave the horses their head so that they seemed to fly across the whole kingdom of the Ulaidh before beginning their descent in the darkness.

Laeg reined in and eased the Grey and the Dubh into a gentle walk as the dark fog closed in around them. No sooner had he unyoked the horses than a burly figure emerged from the mist. Gross and muscular, the giant held a heavy cudgel over one massive shoulder from which hung a rank kilt barely covering his rump, 

‘Whose horses them be?’ He demanded, nodding at the two stallions

‘They belong to Cú Chulainn,’ Laeg said, leaping back out of range of the giant’s club and calling out for his master. Cú Chulainn was there instantly, standing proudly between his charioteer and the brute.

‘What is it that you want?’

‘Reparation for the damage you have done,’ snarled the giant.

‘Well, take this then,’ smiled Cú Chulainn and in one fluid motion he had plucked the long sword which hung at his side and sliced the giant across the back of his legs, toppling him forward so that he could more conveniently lop the brute’s head off.

Almost instantly, the fog dissipated and Laeg was amazed to find no trace of the giant but in its place, the puzzled looking Laoghaire and Conall as well who appeared to be waking up from a deep sleep, curled beside their patiently waiting horses.

‘What class of enchantment is this?’ Conall demanded, sitting up and rubbing his eyes.  

‘We must have met some of Setanta’s Sídhe friends, I think,’ muttered Laoghaire.

But Laeg could help but notice as the trio rode on towards Crúachan the large bruises they both bore, evidence of the giant’s club.

The Champion’s Portion 3

Chapter Three

Bricriu cursed as he crept back from the edge of the loft from where he had been looking down at the tumult the demand for the Champion’s portion had caused.  The feasting had resumed and the men had made a circle around the fire and strong drink continued to soothe fierce spirits.

‘Bad cess to the lot of them, he swore, if they think that that was the best of my needles between their ribs.  If I can’t get the men to fight, perchance I may fare better with the ladies coming to blows for, as fierce as their men are, the women are as lusty and as savage as their men.’

Just then, he caught sight of Fedelma returning from the privy and he moved quickly to intercept her.

‘All good things be with you, Fedelma of the Bright Heart, wife of Laoghaire.  Truly I see that your name does you justice for your fresh heart can be seen in your open face and fine form.  I would be honoured if you, Fedelma, consort of Laoghaire the Triumphant first enter the hall leading the ladies at your heel when you to join the men. First among all women you shall be on entering so from here on’. Bricriu moved on, leaving the girl staring after him.

Lendabair, daughter of Eoghean mac Durthtacht, wife of Conall Cernach of the Victories was next and Bricriu determined to lay it on thick for Lendabair was already vain of her own standing among the women, having only recently become Conall’s woman.

‘Greeting Lendabair, most favoured of all women for your beauty and attributes. Just as your man, Conall is head and shoulders above all other men, so too are you above all other women of the kingdom and you would do me great honour if you were to lead the ladies of the Ulaidh into the hall later tonight.’

Emer was surprised to find Bricriu standing beside her.

‘Fair Emer, daughter of the shrewd Forgall, wife of the champion foretold in the ancient prophecies, whose name will live on in songs and of praise signifying great acts, you outshine the very stars we look upon this evening.  It is no surprise that might lords and kings, Lugaid and Erc among them, have contested for your hand.  Just as the sun outshines the very stars we see, so too does your beauty outshine all the women of the world for none can compare with your elegance and lustre, your proud name and sagacity.’

At first the ladies, mindful of Bricriu’s words but unaware that he had suggested the same thing to each of them, moved slowly towards the porch of the granian, each keeping a causal eye on the others’ level progress. But as they neared the door way, their steps became shorter but quicker and their elbows raised, they scrambled forward, keeping up with each other only by hoisting their skirts above their thighs in an effort to barge ahead and so be first into the hall where the men were, intent on being foremost to enter and thus be acknowledged as the first lady of the kingdom.

The noise of their bustle, all elegance and grace cast aside in their haste to be the first to enter the hall, was as if a herd of giant elk were crashing through the forest. The warriors within, alarmed at the noise, rose to their feet and sought their weapons.

‘Stand down,’ roared Conor, ‘it is not enemies we need fear here but our very own women, incensed, no doubt, by the poisoned tongue of our host. For the sake of our own lives, shut the door and bar entry to the women if it is peace that we want.’

Even as Scél, the doorkeeper, moved to slam the door shut, Emer, a neck ahead of the other women, slammed her back against the door, just as it was fully closed by the homunculus. 

Calling out to Cú Chulainn, she was quickly joined by Lendabair and Fedelma who joined in their cries for their men to open the doors for them.

‘We’re banjaxed now,’ Fergus said to Conor, as he rose up to strike the silver bell suspended above his seat.

‘Ladies,’ Conor began, ‘you are most welcome but here we are not looking for a bloody strife but if it is a fight you want, then let it be with fair words.’

Soon there was a buzzing in the hall as if a giant hive or bees had been disturbed with each woman praising her own man and by reflection herself so that the men became uneasy and were ready to quarrel amongst themselves.

Fedelma claimed royal privilege, being daughter to Conor, as well as beauty being her key features.  Added to that, her man is Laoghaire, whose red hand has defended the borders of the Ulaidh from all enemies.

Lendabair countered with her beauty and the valour of her man, Conall, who is undefeated in battle and has ceaselessly defended the fords and passes of the kingdom  no-one can doubt his courage or his deeds and so, she should be paramount, of all the ladies, in the Ulaidh.

Emer rebutted the two by claiming that she is the fairest of all and that, if she wished it so, no other woman could retain her man if she set her eyes upon him. Added to that is the fact that her man is Cú Chulainn, and as the prophecies have made clear, his is the name that will endure while stories about him will last until the end of generations.  Let any one who doubt it prove it so by showing the strength of their love now for their woman, formerly barred from the feasting hall.

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Immediately both Laoghaire and Conall were up on their hind legs, looking around desperately for some way to show their strength of their love for their women. Laoghaire punched his way through the stout timbers of the wall to the side of the hall to create a doorway while Conall kicked a hole in the wall so hard that the roof beams overhead shook with the fierce impact and a fine dust drifted down upon their heads.

Cú Chulainn smiled lazily and without bothering to rise to his feet he stretched out his arm and dug his fingers into the packed floor of the hall and with a massive heave, wrenched the whole wall up to a height where the others at his bench could see the night stars glittering outside in the dark sky.

Slamming the wall down violently so that it sank into the earth a knees length, the loft where Bricriu had been gloating over the success of his plan, tilted and collapsed, sending Bricriu rolling in the midden, among the dogs outside his own hall.  Staggering to his feet, he stared uncomprehendingly at the lop-sided aspect his hall had now assumed, its wall breached in two places, lath and wattle bent and twisted, its oaken beams fractured and cracked.

Furious, he demanded entry and angrily remonstrated with the warriors of Eamhain Macha.

‘Lookit here to me,’ he roared, ‘I prepared a feast for you in good faith and this is how you repay my generosity – you wreck my new hall in wanton acts of destruction to impress your women. But I am not impressed and I lay a geas on all here to restore my hall to the way it was on your arrival before you can be further refreshed with food and drink.’

Shamefaced the men stood and together they began to effect repairs, straightening the pillars and repairing the daub and wattle on the walls but try as they might they could not tug the sunken wall out of the clinging earth so that even a blade of straw could pass between the wall and the ground.

‘No point beating your own back with someone else’s rod,’ remarked Sencha, ‘Ask the one who did the damage to repair it.  After all, none of us can eat or drink or sleep until the damage is repaired.’

Cú Chulainn stood up and stretched languidly before grinning at the others.  He sauntered over to where he had slammed the wall down and crouched, slipping both hands into the dirt, scrabbling to get a purchase of the wall with his fingertips. His muscles bunching on his back, he heaved and tugged but was unable to budge it.

Again he tried with no result until Laeg edged closer and whispered is this the famous hero songs will be sung about hereafter. Your strength must have gone if a little thing like a simple wall can defeat you.  If this is the best you can do, then I should be looking for another hero who has need of my chariot skills.

Grunting, Cú Chulainn spat on his hands and felt his battle wrath surge within his blood.

His body tensed and stretched, his joints unlocking and stretching so that a clenched fist could be placed between each pair of ribs.  His eyes started from their sockets and the veins in his face and neck stood out pulsing visibly as face contorted into an animal snarl of rage, his hair bristling on his scalp, each lock standing erect and, in the light of the central hearth, tinged with fire.

Assumed gigantic stature, he wrenched the whole side of the building up with a forceful tug and laid it carefully and gently down on the ground, smoothed by the stamp of his heavy foot.

The geas removed by their actions the warriors gathered around the central hearth and made way for the women who continued to laud their men until exasperated, Conor demanded a halt. 

‘Your words cut deeper than the sharpest weapon. Do you want to drive the pride of Eamhain Macha into the pride of battle for the vanity of women?  For you alone, of all beings, bring men to do things that would otherwise be left undone’.  

Despite Conor’s words, which only quietened the assembly for a short space of time, the hall soon became a babble of voices as Mugain, Conor’s wife, attempted to reassert control over the ladies but Emer’s voice continued to ring out.

‘If you think it shameful for a woman to praise her man, then it is truly wanton I am for I believe that there is no other man among the heroes of the Craobh Ruadh that can match Cú Chulainn in mind or body, his splendour and grace, his fury and valour in the battleline and it is my duty to proclaim so before all other men and women.’

‘No doubt, my lady you mean well,’ Conall rose to his feet and looked along the bench to where Emer sat beside her man, one slim hand resting on his knee, ‘but if what you say is true, let us hear it affirmed from the mouth of your champion himself so that we may contest it with him.’

‘Ahh, Conall, go on out of that with you.’ Setanta yawned and scratched his stomach. ‘Haven’t we had this feast already interrupted for no good reason and now I would fain satisfy my appetite for good food and strong drink for, in truth, I am sick and tired of this endless bickering and there nothing can be done until our good natures are restored to us by feasting with friends.’

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The Champion’s Portion 1

Chapter One

(I made a recording of chapter 1 if you care to listen.)

Bricriu thrust open the door of the Craobh Ruadh, so violently that the fire in the central hearth belched a cloud of smoke while the candles on the long table on the dais flickered before he stamped into the hall, slamming  the door shut and glaring around from under heavy black eyebrows before seeing Conor on the dais. The Craobh Ruadh, the Red Branch, was one of the three great halls within Eamhain Macha, the heart of the kingdom of the Ulaidh, and attracted the fighting men and champions who protected the northern kingdom and punished transgressors. These warriors and fighting men in turn were mentored by those former champions, heroes still, veterans like Conall, Ferdia, Fergus, Bricriu and others of their generation and older still, like Sencha the Draoidh. But now it was the time of the new generation of warriors and champions and, despite his age and seniority among the veterans of the Craobh Ruadh, Bricriu knew they called him The Bitter-tongued behind his back and refused to see him for what he believed he was.

Conor Mac Nessa, the once boy-king, looked up from the game of fiduchell he had been playing with Fergus mac Rioch and frowned. ‘Guard yourself,’ he muttered to his companion, ‘and keep a civil tongue in your head for you know full well the bile that man produces’. Fergus glanced over his shoulder and then shifted on his haunch so the his sword lay unimpeded by his side.

Conor knew the noisy arrival of Bricriu would do nothing to ease the ache he already felt in his temples and the top of his head from too much of the unwatered wine he and Fergus had been drinking but hospitality demanded guests must be allowed to eat and drink before stating their business but he guessed what Bricriu would demand.

Sétanta mac Sualtáim, or lately called Cú Chulainn, the Hound of the North, had recently returned from a lengthy foray into Alba and almost immediately on his return, had taken forcibly to wife, Emer, daughter of the wily Forgall Manach and there was much talk for what this would all mean, for Emer was from the southern kingdom of Laigheann.

‘An’ why wouldn’t ye have a feast for yer man?  Sure isn’t he just home here himself with his new woman and how else can we build relationships and keep our brotherhood strong?’ Bricriu demanded, knowing full well the old king’s reluctance to engage in extravagance.

‘It would not be seemly at this time,’ Conor replied.

‘Give Cú Chulainn a chance to settle down,’ Fergus chipped in.  ‘After all, it is a new experience for us as well as for the Hound.’ 

Annoyed by the old fool siding with the man who had usurped him, Bricriu was more than ever determined to go through with the plan he was beginning to hatch to sow discord among the heroes of the Craobh Ruadh, especially now that Fergus continued to belittle him

‘Well, lookit here to me,’ Bricriu said slyly, ‘if you lot won’t have a feast for your man that all will remember, then I will.  I will return on the morrow and you can give me the honour of accepting an invitation to feast with me.’ He pushed his cup of wine away and stood up abruptly. ‘Until tomorrow then.’.

‘What do you think, Fergus?’ Conor asked glancing over at the older man. Fergus the Unwise they called him, and with good reason, Conor reminded himself, after he had ceded this kingdom of the Ulaidh in return for the favour of his widowed mother, Ness. That was more than three decades past and the kingdom under Conor had prospered in that time and Conor had grown used to listening to the older man’s advice.

‘I’ll tell you this much,’ Fergus sat up and spat into the fire, ‘If we go to a feast organised by that venomous tongued pot-stirrer, there will be more of us dead afterwards than there would be to begin with. Mind you,’ he said, shifting painfully on the bench, ‘if he wants to have a feast let him build his own hall in his own grounds and the expense of that might soften his cough.’

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Bricriu feigned delight when Conor agreed to his idea of a feast for Cú Chulainn and his newly claimed woman, Emer of Laigheann.

‘And yes,’ Conor continued, ‘you may organise the feast, Bricriu but you will also bear the expense not just of the food and drink but you must also provide a hall worthy of our Craobh Ruadh and our heroic warriors of the Ulaidh.’

‘Not only that,’ Fergus butted in, ‘You yourself will not be welcomed at that self same feast you organise for if you attend, I know that there will be enmity and malice aplenty.’

Sencha coughed and reminded Conor that he should insist on taking hostages and Bricriu cursed silently at the effort it caused him to hold in his rage at this treatment.

Leaving Eamhain Macha he immediately began preparation for a feasting hall to be built at his lands at Dun Rudraige.  Remembering what Conor had said about the honour of the Craobh Ruadh, he determined to surpass the wonders of that building with his own great hall fit for heroes.  The Craobh Dearg, the second of the great halls within Eamhain Macha, was just a barracks for warriors, a place to store weapons and equipment always to hand, but this, Bricriu determined, his hall would surpass all buildings for heroes in the same way that heroes surpassed all other men. He smiled suddenly, a plan formed for these prancing upstarts, these so smart, so-called heroes, they would be his guests at his hall soon enough and he would see what they were capable of.

The huge pillars of oak had been labouriously brought by teams of six horses and the combined effort of all the slaves was needed to position each of the central pillars into the post holes that the Draoidhs had arranged down the central aisle of the hall while seven strong men were needed to hoist each pole into the rafters overhead so that the roof could be attached.  

The long hall was split in two by a walkway, on either side of which were trestle tables and benches with groups  separated by panels of beaten bronze laced with gold swirls and interlocking circles so that all had a space around the huge central hearth.

Every imaginable aspect, whether it be shape, plan, embellishment, pillars and facades, portals and design, was such that the whole outshone its parts. Artisans had expertly filled the inner wattle walls separating the area, fit for queens, furnished with the cured furs and pillows, the benches draped with quilts and skins, from the feasting hall for the men. A massive platform spanned the forepart of the hall, its facing panel studded with rich stones and the burnished metal of shields and naked swords. On that platform were the seats for Conor mac Nessa, king of the Ulaidh and the leaders of Craobh Ruadh, the Red Branch warriors, before whom all trembled.

All of which Bricriu could easily look down on from the loft off to one side among the rafter beams, which he had built, knowing the men of the Ulaidh would not tolerate him to be at his own feast.

Making sure there was a full supply of food and drink, he set out for EM to deliver the formal invitation.

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Conor was sprawled on his bench, idly looking at the boy troop exercising on the sward outside the Craobh Dearg when Fergus nudged him, alerting him to Bricriu’s approach.

Sencha sat up straighter and looked at the king enquiringly.  They had discussed Bricriu’s impending visit and they all knew that nothing would suit the cantankerous man unless they all immediately responded with enthusiasm to his invitation to a feast at his newly erected feasting hall at Dun Rudraige. It had been more than two hands worth of moons since he had first suggested holding a feast for the Hound of the Ulaidh and all attempts to delay the inevitable had finally stopped but the Ulaidh were still not resigned to going. Bricriu stepped a pace closer and looked at the faces of the men on the dais before looking around him scornfully.

‘I’ll tell you this much and I’ll tell you no more but what with the expense it has put me to, in not only its construction and victualing, but also in its style and grace, I will be hard put out if the brave warriors of the Craobh Ruadh do not deign to honour my hall with their presence.’

‘We will need those nine hostages,’ Fergus reminded him.

Bricriu ignored him and continued, ‘I will cause enmity between lords and men, between heroes and champions if they will not come to my feast.’

‘Listen to him Conor, worse things will happen,’ Fergus pleaded.  ‘If we go with him it will mean mayhem.  But if we must go, we must go on our terms.’

Bricriu shrugged. ‘I will cause enmity between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters and even between the two teats of the women until they are red, raw and bleeding and begin to grow hair and rot,’ he continued.

‘By the gods around us.’ swore Fergus, ‘I will not attend this bitter feast for I tell you now, that our dead will outnumber us if we accept.’  

‘If I may suggest’. Sencha intervened, ‘Perhaps, Fergus, you would reconsider if Bricriu not only withdraws from his very own feast but also permits a nine-man troop of your choosing to guard and protect him at all time.’

Conor nodded sharply at the former king and Fergus grunted ‘I will only attend if you yourself, Bricriu, are not present.’ before slamming his mug down on the table, sloshing some of its contents over his bunched fist. 

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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

 

An Old Celtic Tale of Love and Death – Part 6 (the penultimate part)

Treachery

Levarcham had had neither word nor sight of her beloved foster daughter since that fateful day so many seasons ago when Deirdre had watched the scaldy crow stick its beak into the bright red blood of the freshly slaughtered calf on the snow bank and had dreamt of finding a young man with the same colouring of white, black and red. Now she hurried along under the over-hanging eaves at the rear of the great hall to the lodge of the Craobh Ruadh. Turning the corner, she gasped at the sight of heavily armed men massed around a campfire at the back of the red lodge. Strangers, she realised, from their accented way of speaking and their dress. Unlike the men of the Ulaidh, they wore short, knee-length trews under their loose tunics, while shaggy cloaks hung from their shoulders. Ducking back out of sight and keeping her head down and her hood tightly pulled around it, Levarcham scuttled as fast as her old legs could carry her around to the front of the lodge where Ardan opened the door to her tentative knocks.

Deirdre threw her arms around the neck of her old nurse and Naoise saw a flash of that warm smile he had been denied ever since Fergus’ arrival at Glen Etive a handful of nights before.

“Deirdre, my love,” the old nurse crooned, holding Deidre tightly in her arms. “Listen to me now, love of my heart, for I fear deceit at Conor’s hand, and such treachery here at the heart of the Ulaidh can only bring about the end of peace from this day out.”

“Speak your mind, old one,” Naoise said gently, gesturing behind his back at his brother. Ainle quickly fetched the old woman a warming draught of wine and between sips she told them of the fierce men she had seen gathering at the campfires behind the Red Branch. “Shut tightly the doors and the windows of the lodge and put a guard on them,” she begged, “for Conor has been drinking all day with Eoghean Mac Murthacht and now he himself has sent me to bring back news of you, to see if you are still lithe and lissom and as beautiful as I see you now to be.”

Deirdre blushed and hugged her nanny again before the old woman continued. “Oh Deirdre,” she wept, “My old heart wearies within me for doom and death I fear is fast approaching, the killing of kith and kindred and the crying and wailing of women in the night for why else would Conor have the men of the western clans from Da Mumhainn, encamped outside, led by that black-hearted Fermagh king? The honour of Eamhain Macha and the pride of the Craobh Ruadh is to be stained tonight.”

“But is not the one they call Cú Culainn, Sétanta the son of Súaltaim, not here?” Deirdre cried, feeling the despair wash over her, a sour taste in her mouth.

“Would that he were, my love,” Levarcham said, “but he stays with the lady Emer in

Dún Imrith and he knows nothing of your arrival here, I am sure. Ériu will not be the better for it to the end of time and the world.

“And stout sons of Fergus,” she said, turning to Illand and Buinne who crowded near to hear her words, “Defend what your father could not and keep them in your care bravely till Fergus comes, and you will have praise and the blessings of the Ulaidh for it.”

Deirdre hugged her nanny again and the two women wept and comforted each other in their own fashion until Ardan advised Levarcham that she should not tarry overlong with them if Conor had charged her to report on Deirdre’s looks and although the old woman wept piteously to leave Deirdre’s side, she returned to Conor to give her report.

***

Conor was lounging in his high chair on the low platform at the end of the great hall, his thin, dark face heavily flushed with the wine he had been drinking. Eoghean Mac Murthacht and his nephew, Gelban, along with a host of other western clansmen, sat at trestle tables on either side of Conor, holding mumbled conversations which slowly stopped when Levarcham was ushered into Conor’s presence.

“Well, woman, what news have you brought me?” Conor demanded, sitting upright and placing his bunched fist under his chin to stare at the old woman commandingly. “Tell me this much and tell me no more, how does that woman look?”

Levarcham shook off the arm of the retainer who held her unnecessarily tightly above the elbow and looked up at the cruel, dark face of the king.

“Good news, I have for you lord, good and, I fear, disappointing too.” She began hesitantly.

“Right then, tell us the good news first,” Conor ordered, clapping his scrawny hands together and rubbing them so that the rings on his long fingers clinked together. “I always like to hear good tidings, isn’t that right, Eoghean?” and the black bearded giant guffawed his approval.

“The good news is that rarely have I seen such a trio of stout champions and warriors. Any lord in this western isle and further beyond, to the gates of Scythia and the burning sands of Parthia, would welcome them, for upright they are in their moral certainty and the faith they hold in their fierce weapons for they are men not likely to waver in the shield wall or in the storm of sword and spear. However,” Levarcham paused and snatched a look at the darkening face of her lord before dropping her eyes to the flagstones at her feet and continuing, “the lady you asked about, the most precious charge I have ever had the grace to look after, she who was the most fair woman in all Ériu, she, I have to tell you, has not weathered the storms and vicissitudes of life so well for she no longer possesses the form and appearance of a maid but closely resembles the old woman that I have become,” and she wept and tore her thin, grey hair in despair.

Conor drained his goblet before smashing it down on the bench beside him. “Go on with you now, woman, for I have heard enough,” he said, dismissing her and gesturing at Crúscraid to refill his goblet before inviting Eoghean to join him at the high table.

“Don’t tell me you believe that old crone,” Eoghean said dismissively as Levarcham was led, shuffling, out of the hall. “Sure wasn’t she the bitch’s wet nurse and what do you expect from her – the truth is it?” Eoghean laughed again, spittle flying from his open mouth and blackened stumps of teeth. “Send an impartial witness if you want the truth, that would be my advice. Here, lookit to me,” Eoghean drained his drinking horn and stabbed the pointed end, tipped with iron, into the rough surface of the trestle “Why don’t you send my own nephew here, for he has no love of the sons of Uísliu for wasn’t it their father who struck his own father, my younger brother, down.” He gestured at his empty drinking vessel before continuing. “If you want a fair report on the state of the woman who, by all accounts, you have gone to a great trouble to fetch back here to you, send him.” Eoghean lifted one haunch off the bench and farted noisily.

Conor looked over at Gelban who was sprawled beside his uncle, a resolute looking young man, his dark hair swept back from a clear brow with a plain linen band, his brown eyes sparkling with life.

“So your ould fella was killed by Uísliu, was he?” Conor noted the shadow that passed over the young man’s face. “Is that the way it was?” he asked, leaning forward and beckoning the young man towards him.

“That whoreson of a bitch, Uísliu it was,” Gelban burst out, “rot his heart, for my father had drink taken at the time and he was taken unawares, the poor bollix.”

“Go now then,” Conor whispered “and tell me what you see of the woman at Naoise’s side but take care not to let them see you.”

Gelban tightened the belt around his tunic and shifted his sword at his side more comfortably and bowed quickly to Conor before nodding to his uncle, and slipping away from the long table at the end of the hall. The air outside felt cooler after the heat inside the hall. It was already dark now with the moon not up yet and flickering torchlight cast shadows on the crushed white shell path. Gelban stepped sideways on to the plain beaten earth and moved silently towards the Craobh Ruadh. The heavy front door to the lodge was firmly shut and the small windows higher up in the wall on the side of the building that he could see were all firmly shuttered. Lamplight spilled out into the dark around the shutters and through the area under the eaves.

Gelban looked around for something to stand on and saw an unyoked chariot leaning against the wall of the opposite building, the Téite Brec, the treasury of Eamhain Macha. The chariot was lightweight but even so the wheels crunched on the shell-strewn path but the noise was drowned out by the men drinking around the corner at their campfires as Gelban manoeuvred the chariot under the eaves. He could hear voices from inside the hut but not yet make out the words. Turning the chariot carefully Gelban placed the long shafts of the yoke on the ground before climbing onto the platform and leaned against the lodge’s heavy log wall so that he could see through a chink at the top of the wooden wall and the overhanging thatch. Holding his breath, Gelban moved slightly to get a better view.

The woman was facing him, but playing a board game with a man sitting with his back to him. The unbound coils of the girl’s long, fair hair fell to her lap where she sat beside the hearth, the warm light glowing on her fair skin, pink as foxgloves, her eyes the blue of a western summer sea with the sun shining, her teeth white as pearls. Gelban moved cautiously higher on the back of the chariot to get a better view and suddenly the chariot lurched under him and the yoke grated against the side of the lodge. Deirdre glanced up at the sound, saw him looking down from the eaves and blanched. Naoise turned and threw with unerring accuracy the carved game piece he had been holding, making the blood spurt from his eye. But in the heartbeat before he lost his balance on the chariot platform and sprawled on the dirt below the eaves, Gelban had seen the simple beauty of the woman.

***

“And what appearance is there on Deirdre?” Conor demanded, ignoring the bloody wound in Gelban’s smooth face.

The young man drew himself up proudly, motioning away the clumsy efforts of his uncle to tend to his torn eye hole, making an attempt to focus on the king with his one good one, “If Naoise had not taken out my eye, I could have stayed there looking at her for a lifetime but I know you needed to know what I saw.”

“So what did you see,” Conor bellowed impatiently at the trembling youth.

“A slim, fair-haired girl with large doe eyes but there is not a woman in this world who is better in shape or of form than herself, for she is beautiful beyond all words,” the youth replied.

Conor grunted and sat back in his chair, and felt, as much as watched, the surge of anger build up inside him as he thought of what had been stolen from him that day Naoise fled from Eamhain Macha with his prize.

Gelban was being led away by a bondsman when Conor reached up above his chair and pulled the silver rod to which three golden apples hung. At the melodic chimes, the buzz of conversation died down and men turned to face Conor as he slowly rose to his feet.

“You see,” he declared, sweeping out his arm and pointing at the wounded boy. “This is how my hospitality is treated! I extended the hand of friendship both to you, valiant and stout hearted men of Dá Mumhainn and to your king, Eoghean Mac Murthacht of Fermagh as I have to those who are abusing my hospitality even now in the Red House. Like fierce wolves, they snap so recently at my very hand and my heart aches for the injury they have done,” Conor paused and nodded at the men standing around the hall, “is not against me but against you, my most favoured guest and allies.”

Eoghean lurched to his feet, sloshing wine from his drinking horn and threw his arm around Conor’s thin shoulders.

“Give me the honour,” he demanded, “of repaying your hospitality and of sealing the bond of our alliance,” before turning to gesture at men of his clan. “Everyone with me, we go to restore the honour of hospitality and to surround those oath breakers who spilled the blood of our clan. To the Red House we go to fight!” He roared, louder “Who is with me?”

Excited men tumbled to their feet, grabbing the shields and spears where they had propped them against the walls. Men hitched up their sword belts, gulped the last of what was in their cups and followed their king out of the great hall of Craobh Dearg to surround the Craobh Ruadh.

***

Buinne, crossing the hall to get some more meat, stopped when he heard the roar.

“Listen,” he said, turning to the others grouped by the fire. Ever since Deirdre had glimpsed a face at the eaves, they all knew that events beyond their control were now being set in motion. “They’re here,” he said, his voice tense.

Outside, drunken men shouted in rough voices and kicked at the solids walls or banged on them with the hilts and butts of their weapons.

Naoise stood up and patted Deirdre on the shoulder before striding over to the door to check that it was securely closed. “Who is it that disturbs the sleep of warriors, who dares to make such commotion in the area of the Craobh Ruadh?”

“Open up, open, bastards and oath breakers for it is I, Eoghean Mac Murthacht, king of the Fermagh and the western clans and we have come for vengeance for my brother and my nephew and to restore to king Conor of the Ulaidh what was stolen from him by you. Open or we will burn you out,” he threatened.

Inside, Deirdre paled and Naoise’s hand dropped to his sword hilt

“Is it the word of my father, Fergus Mac Rioch, you’d have me break?” Buinne got up and shouted angrily back through the solid door.

“I have no quarrel with Fergus or his sons,” bellowed Eoghean, “Nor do I owe allegiance to him but still I come for vengeance for my brother and my nephew.”

A heavy thud was felt as men outside started to use a battering ram to smash their way in.

“By Nuadu’s silver hand, though my father has broken his pledge with you, know that I will keep his word.” Buinne turned back from the door and looked at Naoise. “Help me here,” he cried, jumping up on a bench near one of the high shuttered windows. “Hold the shutter open for me while I slip out here and I can take them in the back and show them the class of man they trifle with.” Ainle climbed up beside him and held the heavy shutter open and helped Buinne wriggle through the small opening.

Landing lightly on his feet, Buinne grasped his sword and round shield firmly and crept around the corner of the lodge. A group of men, holding torches and drinking from flagons they passed from hand to hand, stood around the campfire while another, smaller group of men staggered under the weight of the battering log they were smashing into the door of the wooden inn.

“Mac Rioch,” Buinne screamed and holding his sword in front of him like a spear, he charged from the shadows into the line of men holding the battering ram.

He rammed his sword into a warrior’s lower belly and the man fell forward to his knees, clutching himself and squealing. Slashing at legs and shoulders with his long iron blade, Buinne whirled around fiercely, smashing the central boss on his shield into another man’s face, previously scarred by some ancient pox. Roars of anger erupted from the men by the campfire and Buinne raised his shield and charged again, knocking the first man off his feet with the fury of his charge, stabbing down as he stamped forward. Again he smashed his heavy shield into a dark face, blood spouting from a crushed nose and then, on the upswing, his sword cut up between the man’s legs, tearing up under his tunic and slicing into his guts. The man whimpered as Buinne twisted the heavy blade and then he ducked to ward off a wild blow, swinging and stabbing at undefended feet and ankles. A commanding voice halted Buinne’s bloody swathe through the surprised attackers.

“What great champion do we have here? Who is this that would wreak such havoc on my guests here? Surely no warrior of the Craobh Ruadh would ever disgrace himself so?” The voice was harsh but slightly slurred and Buinne raised his battered shield defensively, his bloodied sword extended warily.

Honeyed words might do the trick here, Conor thought to himself, aghast at the slaughter the young man had already wreaked, “Ahh, so it is yourself, the red-headed one, Buinne, sound man that your are. You are your father’s strong son, and there is no doubt of that, but lookit here to me, you and I have no quarrel with each other and these men you slay have no clash with you. What do you say?” Conor paused, “a block of land and …”

“And?” Buinne prompted

“A place at my table here and my own friendship and warmth. Or …” Conor gestured at the group of clansmen now standing shoulder to shoulder, their shield wall tight and Buinne realised he could make a choice here. Being friend to a king or to a widow made a difference, he knew, and from the size of the force gathered, he also realised that, with or without him, the brothers were doomed. Throwing down his sword, he stepped forward to accept Conor’s hand, “But I won’t fight against them,” he muttered.

Ainle had been peering out a through a shutter opened merely a crack and he called out in disbelief – “He’s surrendered, Buinne has thrown down his sword and gone over to the other side.”

Closing the shutter and securing it, Ainle dropped down to the bench and sat on it burying his head in his hands before looking up wildly at the others. “What does it all mean?”

“It means we fight,” said Illand. “Although my father and my brother have proved false in this matter to you, my lady, and to you all, I swear to you that I will die in defence of your honour and your safety.”

Illand shrugged away Ainle’s hand and jumped onto the bench under the shutter where Buinne had climbed out.

“Help me with the shutter,” he hissed, “I don’t want my sword to get caught.” Ardan climbed up on the bench and propped the heavy red wooden shutter open while Illand squeezed through.

Dropping cat-like to the ground outside, he moved furtively around to the front of the building where the warriors of the king of Fermagh had gathered. Of his brother, there was no sign. Slipping his left forearm through the rawhide straps on the inside of his leather bound shield, Illand wiped his sweating palm on his tunic before gripping his long iron sword firmly in his right hand. Cautiously, he peered around the corner again.

A group of battle hardened warriors, their dark cloaks blood-red in the firelight, their shields hanging on their backs, long swords and spears by their side, stood or squatted around the fire. Another smaller group of men, unarmed, were struggling to lift the massive beam of oak to renew the battering against the heavy red wood doors of the lodge. Illand counted his heartbeats while watching the men heave up the beam and stand silent for a moment, gaining their balance and adjusting to the unaccustomed weight. Another heartbeat as they staggered forward so that the end of the beam was at an arms length from the door and then they began to swing the heavy beam, gently at first, back and forward. More heartbeats and the beam began to reach its highest backward point before beginning its downward swing to smash into the door and, when Illand saw that the men would be most off-balance, he charged at the head of the group holding the pillar of oak, making the entire line of men stagger and fall, the beam trapping two men helplessly on the ground. Illand smashed his shield into the face of the unsuspecting warrior who had been standing at the rear of the line before swinging his sword and thrusting at the second in line, his sword sliding into his unprotected belly. Twirling he stabbed down at the breast of a man pinned down across his waist by the beam, smashing the sharpened rim of his shield into the neck of another trapped man.

“By right of the royal blood of my father, Fergus Mac Rioch, former king of the Ulaidh, I, Illand, demand the right to single combat in order to clear the stain from our name and to maintain the oath our father took when he guaranteed the safety of the sons of Uísliu on their return to the heartland, as sworn and agreed by you, false king, Conor Mac Nessa.” he called out defiantly.

Conor paused, his hand on the door to his hall, on hearing the proud vaunt, recognising the younger son of Fergus, amazed at the innocence of the youth in believing that honour could be so easily restored.

Crúscraid tugged at his sleeve, offering him another beaker of the dark wine he had been drinking since noon and Conor turned and looked at his idiot son. Crúscraid looked like a fighter, his hair cropped short and unevenly on his round head, his nose broken from long ago, Conor saw, but the youth’s arms and shoulder were massive and he smiled for the first time at his son.

“You were born that same day as Illand, the son of Fergus, curse him,” Conor began, “you knew that, didn’t you?”

Slack-jawed, Crúscraid nodded his great head shyly. “Leh-leh-let me fuh-fuh-fight him,” he stammered pleadingly

Conor paused as if to reflect on the suggestion before he went on, placing his thin hand on his son’s broad shoulder and feeling the bunched muscle there.

“You could fight him, right enough, couldn’t you? I would give you my very own shield, Ochain the moaner, and no weapon can pierce it. You shall have that and here, look,” he paused and fumbled at the sash around his waist. “Here,” he continued, handing the heavy thong from which his battle sword hung, to the youth. “Take this my own sword too, go, my son, and make that arrogant fool eat his words.

Crúscraid grinned and hefted the shield before knotting the broad rawhide strap around his own waist. Turning, he slid the sword free of its long, wooden sheath, inlaid with panels of bronze and held the sword aloft, before ducking his head to his father and turning towards the door.

***

The two men were equally matched in terms of age but in little else, for Illand was fit and experienced in the field of battle, yet he circled his opponent carefully for he could see the pent-up excitement and thrill the other man was feeling, despite lacking the skill or the experience to be a skilled warrior. In addition, he had no desire to kill the youth for they had grown up together and Illand knew that the stammerer was no challenge to him.

Crúscraid was not as tall as Illand, but he was broad across the shoulders and, holding his sword awkwardly in front of him like a spear, he charged, relying on his brute, animal strength. Not bothering to parry the blow, Illand stepped aside and smashed his heavy shield hard into his squashed face, flattening his already broken nose and then swung the flat of his sword at his legs, knocking him to the ground. Crúscraid crouched under Conor’s heavy shield as Illand swung his sword, clanging futilely, on the iron-studded, oaken shield which boomed dully with each blow. He paused, his sword upraised for the next hammer blow on the stricken youth at his feet when a sharp burning pain, almost exquisite in its sudden intensity, seared through his guts and he gazed in horrified surprise as the smooth iron tip of the ash spear, smeared with his own blood and gore, suddenly appeared beside his navel.

Falling forward, Illand propped himself up on his outstretched arms, he gaped back in disbelief as an old man, large and big bellied, with a great unruly mop of white hair, jerked the spear back from his body.

“It’s an evil thing you have done here,” Illand gasped, “for I was protecting the sworn oath of my father, Fergus Mac Rioch and myself that we would safeguard the lives of the noble sons of Uísliu,” before slumping, face down, on the bloody ground beneath him.

“By Lugh and all the gods, Conor,” Conall bellowed, leaning on his bloodied spear, surveying the dead scattered all around him, “’Tis a fine night’s work you have done here. What treachery is this for I will have no part of it? If it is not you under your own shield Ochain, so then it must be an imposter.” and sweeping the shield aside with one boot, he stabbed down again with the bloody spear, transfixing the cowering youth through the throat to the ground beneath. Ripping the blade free, a bright spray of arterial blood splashed his feet and the old man stepped back. “You have destroyed the sanctity of hospitality, broken your vows, Conor and made other – aye and better – men than you disgrace themselves and all for what? Let this be the end, now, of Eamhain Macha and let the prophecy be fulfilled for not one moment longer will I serve you or your kind. I curse the day that you were born. I leave you to your schemes, bad cess to you now and for always.” Throwing down the bloody spear, the old man stared down the warriors now all standing around the campfire and stalked away into the darkness.

***

“Who was that? Did you see?” Gasped Ainle, his mouth hanging open in shock. “He just killed Illand and then he killed Crúscraid.”

“And we’re next,” added a grim faced Ardan. “We are on our own now brothers and we must put our hope, as always, in each other and no longer make obeasieance to anyone at this time.”

The pounding on the front door to the lodge began again as new men took up the task of battering down the stout wooden doors.

“Look,” Deirdre cried despairingly, pointing as a wisp of smoke curled down from the thatch covering the solid rafters “smoke! They will burn us out even if the doors continue to hold.”

“Either way,” grimaced Ainle, the tang of smoke already in his throat “we can wait for them here and be smoked out like rabbits from their burrow or we can break out now and make a dash for it. Hit them when they least expect it,” he continued excitedly, “If we time it right, we can wrench open the door the moment the ram hits it and, then, while they are swinging it back to strike again, we slip out and head left towards the main gate. We let them blunder into the open doorway while we dash for our lives. It’s going to be our only chance.”

Naoise hugged Deirdre and then stood up to join his brothers.

“You’re right, little brother. Let’s do it,” he said, pulling his two brothers close to him so that all three could clasp each other’s shoulder, before turning to pick up his shield and going to stand at the girl’s side.

Ardan grinned and hoisted his shield and checked his sword was not stuck in his scabbard. From where he crouched, closest to the door, Ainle tried to count his heartbeats in between each thunderous boom of the battering ram and the roar of the men who pounded on the door again and again. Already, the posts on either side of the thick slabs of wood had shifted and he was relieved when Naoise shouted and he darted forward lifting up the heavy locking bar keeping the gate closed and toppled it to the ground. Jumping back as the heavy doors swung inward, Ainle and Ardan sprang forward, their shields locked and their swords outstretched like spears and stabbed and hacked at the men leaning back into their swing of the ram. Naoise rushed forward, his shield up, Deirdre clinging onto the strap around his waist and hacked back-handed at the nearest warrior he saw and then they were clear, avoiding the open campfire where the men had been drinking and heading towards the outer wall, the gateway to which was still open. Ardan and Ainle dropped back so that they formed a rear guard and Naoise led them at a fast trot across the open ground towards the earth wall where Scél sprawled next to a flagon of drink and the ditch.

To be continued

 

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

 

The Red Branch of the Ulaidh.

Conor mac Nessa, the king of the Ulaidh, currently Northern Ireland, more or less, presided over three royal houses at Eamhain Macha – modern day Navan Fort, near Armagh – in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology.

In such a society where one individual is paramount, other members of the social group are ranked in relation to that person. In early Iron Age society in Ireland, the hierarchy was most definitely Chieftains & Kings / Nobles, Warriors & Druids / Farmers / Craft-workers, and at the bottom of the heap, slaves.

The bonds holding such a society together depended upon superstition and belief, taboo and powerful social obligations between the differing strata of society and the consequence of breaking those bonds often led to semi-divine retribution.

To maintain this society, virtues such as loyalty and battle prowess, often accompanied by excessive boasting, are exalted and no better place existed for such vauntings than the Red Branch or Craobh Ruadh, one of the three houses within the kingly compound.

Old Irish had two words for “red”: dergh, bright red, the colour of fresh blood, flame or gold; and ruadh, russet, used for the colour of dried blood and for red hair.

The Craobh Ruadh was where the king sat, surrounded by his nobles and warriors while

The Cróeb Derg (modern Irish Craobh Dearg, “bright red branch”) was where severed heads and other trophies of battle were kept.

The third house was called the Téite Brec or “speckled hoard”, where the heroes’ weapons were stored.