An old Celtic Tale of Love and Death – Part 4

Goings and Comings

“We felt greatly honoured, of course, by Conor when he arrived suddenly at Dún Sobairce with Fergus Mac Rioch, and a great throng of the Red Branch champions,” Nuala admitted, sitting up straight and reaching up to adjust her hair. Anxious to disassociate herself from the deaths and to exonerate herself from the part she had unwittingly played, Nuala had sought Cathbad, seeking both support and sanctuary. Inside the bower, a fire burned briskly in the brazier and bondsmen brought ewers of warmed honeyed wines and platters of bread and cold mutton, the fat white against the brown meat. A weak winter sun filled the bower with soft light and the brazier kept the chill away although it did nothing to banish the ache in Cathbad’s heart caused by what he guessed must have happened

“At least, I did,” Nuala continued, “especially when the king presented me with a burnished bronze mirror. Although,” she paused thoughtfully, “I suppose he seemed fretful and made little of our unreadiness for his surprising and sudden visit. He said he had urgent business with the men from Dá Mumhainn and could not tarry but urged us to press hospitality, especially on Fergus and his companions when they returned from Dál Riata. I saw the king,” she added as an afterthought, “slipping a deerskin purse of gold into my lord Borach’s hand for that very purpose.”

Leaning down, she picked up the metal mirror decorated with enamel and glanced at herself quickly, running her fingers down one side of her head rearranging her hair and shrugging it back into place, before passing the mirror to the druid.

“So, a feast is it, you’ll be wanting – for Fergus and his companions on their return – is that it, my lord Borach wanted to know?” Nuala went on.

“Aye, a feast it is, Conor told us, but be sure it is you yourself, he nodded towards me, that invites him, for don’t you know that one of Fergus’ geas is that he cannot refuse a bite to eat and a sup to swally if he invited to do so by a lady.

The old fool, Cathbad thought, tossing the mirror aside, he could never pass up an invitation or a challenge from a woman. There is only one crime the gods will not overlook, he’d always say, and that is when a woman draws a man to her bed and he will not go!

“Fergus the noble he’d have liked to have been called. More realistically, some would say, Fergus the unwise, or Fergus the gullible,” Cathbad snapped.

Angrily, he stood up and walked over to the porch so that the weak sunlight showed the fear and worry lines etched clearly on his pale skin. “What about their return? Did you know who they were and what Fergus had sworn to do?”

“We were overjoyed to welcome Fergus and his sons Buinne and Illand so soon again, when they returned with the strangers. The men were all rejoicing and boisterous but the woman seemed withdrawn and cold.” Nuala got up and joined the druid respectfully by the door. “We had only heard tales of the sons of Uísliu but Fergus told us who they were and of course we recognised Deirdre because of her beauty which even her exhaustion could not hide. We were taken aback, I admit, when the travellers said they could not tarry to feast with us, the tall warrior saying he had taken an oath not to break his fast until he arrived in Eamhain Macha. Well, of course, Borach and I were very surprised” she continued “and I could see that the woman was under some great strain so I tried to persuade her to rest awhile as she was worn out emotionally. I offered her my handmaidens, a hot bath and a massage, but her lord was determined to press on and Buinne and Illand swore to accompany them.

“So why did Fergus stay?” Cathbad demanded, already knowing the answer and despising both the woman beside him and the weakness of the man.

Nuala blushed and lowered her head, reluctant to meet the draoidh’s eyes. “Borach reminded me about Conor’s insistence to have Fergus at least stay, so I turned to him, all coy but acting hurt, you know, bemoaning the fact that my hospitality, given freely, was being spurned. This cannot be the Fergus Mac Rioch of whom heroes speak? I said to him, taking both his hands in mine. Is this the champion who has sworn never to deny an invitation to feast and drink? Is this the hero who would refuse a woman’s invitation?”

“So, the poor fool, caught between the demands of his sworn geas and the promises he made to Deirdre and Naoise seized what, I suppose, he saw as an honourable way out,” Cathbad said. “He stayed on to feast and drink at Dún Sobairce and sent Deirdre and Naoise on to Eamhain Macha under the protection of his two sons?”

Nuala nodded, ashamed at having played her unwitting part in the scheme to waylay Fergus.

“But, did you not talk with the lady Deirdre at all? Cathbad inquired. “And what about his sons, Illand the Fair and Buinne the Red?”

“The brothers acted in good faith, Cathbad. They tried to persuade their noble father to come with them but when they saw he had made up his mind to stay a while with us, they forswore his company and made immediate preparations to leave for Eamhain Macha. Deirdre said not a word until they were leaving, as a blood red dawn awaited them. I remember Deirdre pointing it out with a trembling hand and saying ‘a red sky at dawn is a shepherd’s warn’ but Naoise scoffed at the idea, eager to be on his way.”

“The poor thing!” Cathbad burst out. “She knew well what was going to happen and that there was nothing she could do to prevent the looming tragedy, not with Naoise’s pride and stubbornness. How awful it must be to know your own future, we will never know, to be aware of it bloodiness and yet be unable to avert it.”

Dreams and Premonitions

Deirdre shrugged off the feelings of dread that her dream of the previous night had caused. Three crows had appeared to her, flying from out of the sinking sun where the kingdom of the Ulaidh lay, and each bird had carried a drop of golden honey, glistering against the blackness of their beaks. Circling Glen Etive, the birds had descended briefly but when she had tried to approach them, they had taken flight again but this time, each bird carried a ruby-red drop of blood, bright against their cruelly curved beaks and returned in the direction from which they had come. It was a dream, that was all and she smiled as the speckled chickens came running towards her as she emerged from the hut into the sunshine.   The chickens gave a semblance of normality to her life, making her feel settled for the first time since that desperate night, so many moons ago now, when she and Naoise, his brothers and bondsmen had fled from Conor’s jealous wrath, the clash of arms and the challenges of warriors ringing in her ears. The small signs of domesticity the chickens brought helped to cancel out some of the preceding days and nights of suspicion, fear, and then bloody certainty as everywhere they went, her beauty had stirred men’s passions, causing Naoise and his brothers to defend her again and again with their bloodied swords. Days of flight followed each encounter, scrambling and traipsing through the rough high and lowlands before they had met Breoga. Naoise had recognised the wine trader from his previous visits to Eamhain Macha and had determined to seek solace with the warrior chieftain, Scáthach, in this foreign land.

It had rained later that night, she remembered, pelting down, driven by a cold wind and the next morning, when they parted from the trader, they climbed into a high country, empty of all living things. The rain had continued to pelt down, lashing the pastures and the highlands where the bushes were stunted and gnarled, bending away from the cutting wind. A day’s march, Breoga had said but it had taken much longer than that, with the cold gnawing at their bones. They crossed the river at a shallow ford and continued to climb up through the trees, to the long ridge that stretched east and west. Woods crowded in to their left and what remained of a jumbled cairn of rocks to their right was half obscured in the grey sheets of rain hammering down across the landscape. That night they had been forced to find shelter as Scáthach’s dún seemed no closer. Ardan had used his sword to hack down ragged branches from the stunted trees to make a crude lean-to where a limestone crag reared up but it did little to keep the rain off that night and the bed of bracken underneath was already sodden while their wet cloaks gave them no warmth. A faint grey light broke the darkness to the east as the first hint of dawn broke the blackness around them and the weather began to clear, with the grey clouds being blown away to reveal a salmon coloured sky. They reached the dún just after midday on the second day just as a cold wind gusted in from the north. The track meandered through the trees, and was well shielded from view from the ridge but the trees thinned out a hundred paces from the river and the track crossed it by a shallow ford and the watcher on the wall spied them long before they had reached the squat, unadorned dún rearing up from an outcrop of limestone.

They were dirty, their cloaks ragged and spattered with mud, their hair and beards shaggy, unkempt and matted butt the warrior women had welcomed them with respect and kindness, the more so as both Ferdia and Cú Culainn had mentioned Naoise and his brothers many times before. Deirdre had liked Uathach and although her mother was called The Shadowy One, Deirdre had sensed no danger from either woman. Scáthach had readily agreed that the exiles be granted the ráth of Glen Etive to hold in the absence of champions to compare with Cú Culainn and Ferdia.

Scattering a handful of grain for the chickens at her feet, Deirdre strolled along the top of the wall, looking for her lord.   From where she stood on the broad wall of the ráth, she could see the twin mountain guardians to the north from where the river emerged. Fed by gentle streams to the north of Glen Etive, the river meandered south over the highlands before running downhill and along the floor of the long, U-shaped glen, before broadening out into a wide loch which took a sharp turn to the west, vanishing out of sight, descending in a series of rapids with a variety of falls and pool drops before eventually reaching open water.

Until she had met Naoise, Deirdre had never known the pleasure of a young man’s smile, the joy of his company or the warmth of his embrace. Instead, she had been sequestered in an area secluded deep in the forest of the Ulaidh, secreted away for Conor’s future pleasure. There, she had grown up alone with Levarcham, her nanny, and except for rare visits from the draoidh and her father, she had experienced neither the joys nor the sorrows attendant on every life, taking what pleasure she could find only in the solitariness of a few dim woodland paths, always accompanied by her nanny.

Glen Etive was her home now and she could come and go as she pleased. Here, she was mistress of all she could see and this freedom was all she had ever wanted, that, she smiled to herself, and the man of her dreams. Ardan, she knew, was working the low fields and Ainle had left earlier that morning, promising to return with a fine stag to celebrate their new found life here in the security of the glen. All of that meant she could lead Naoise away down to the tarn where they had made such exquisite love before. Their bodies had been cool, still damp from the dark lake water, she recalled. She had felt small and childlike beside him but she was no child. Her long fair hair, beginning to curl at the ends as it dried, reached to the hollow at the small of her back, as she leaned back in his arms to look up at him, his soft brown eyes boring into hers as he began to slowly enter her. She had gasped, her arms around his neck involuntarily tightening.

Deirdre smiled again at the memory, remembering how safe she felt there in her lover’s arms as, giddy with pleasure, she had pushed back against his wild thrusts, when the faraway horn sounded, high and thin on the air. With a start, she came back to herself and saw Naoise, working at the base of the wall, cock his head as if he wasn’t sure if he had heard something or not, remaining motionless in a listening pose. Ardan, she noticed, straightened up from his work in the fields and came running towards them.

“D’ye hear that?” He shouted up to them as he ran.

A premonition gripped Deirdre’s heart. A sudden cold fear paralysed her and the sudden impact of it made her stagger, spilling more grain from the basket on her hip. The vision was stark – the blazing hut lighting up the night, the flash of swords in torch light, the shadows of men struggling and falling, silhouettes on a blood-red background – the image so sharp she could almost hear the clash of iron weapons, the roaring of the conflagration and the blaring of horns while warriors called out and died in the darkness.

Steadying herself against the wall, Deirdre waited to see what Naoise would say. He glanced up at her, a thick hank of dark hair flopping over one eye,

“Did you hear anything, honey?”

“No, nothing, what is it?” She lied desperately.

“I’m sure I heard something,” Ardan said. “It sounded like a horn, something like we’d hear back in the Craobh Ruadh.”

“It might have been one of those marsh birds, a bittern or a coot,” Deirdre called down, hoping in her heart that the sound she had heard might just be that.

“Ah, go on with you, Deedee, that was surely a horn and not the deep booming of the marsh birds,” Ardan called, just as they all heard the blare again, this time, clearer and closer.

“It is just a distant horn, of no special significance,” Deirdre said, her senses alert to the meaning of the horn, but she feigned indifference, keeping her hand on the rough stone wall to steady herself, the intensity of the vision still strong in her mind’s eye, the dream hovering around its edges.

Naoise dropped the mattock he had been using and straightened up, pressing his hands into the small of his back to ease the muscles there before climbing up to stand beside her. Putting his arm around her slender waist, he pulled her closer to him.

“What is it, honey? You are trembling.”

“Nothing, my love,” she reassured him quickly before turning away to gaze to the west, the only direction from which enemies could approach. “You are right, my lord, it is just a horn and may even be that of Ainle returning from his hunt.”

A third time the horn blared out its brassy note, clearer now and closer and Deirdre’s straining ears could just pick up the sound of a man’s stentorian voice but the words were yet indistinct.

“I know that horn, I swear it,” Ardan insisted, looking up at his brother where he stood gazing in the direction Deirdre was staring.

The Invitation

Illand, stocky and bare-headed, his tousled hair looking like he had cut it himself with a knife, was the first to round the bend in the loch and see the distant figures on the ráth to the northeast. The wind gusted, lifting the long strands of his fair hair, as he shaded his eyes with his palm, and stared up the shining waters of the loch towards Glen Etive, noting its secure position on the hillside. Around the strong dry-stone wall enclosing the huts, the sons of Uísliu had dug a deep ditch with an inner, encircling mound topped by outward pointing, sharpened stakes. Small hills tinged with soft shades of yellows, greens and purples sloped down behind the ráth and the land to the front and sides was already showing signs of husbandry. Buinne, his deep barrel chest straining the thongs of his tunic covered with iron studs, shouldered roughly past his brother and had raised the horn to his lips again when Fergus stepped forward, laying his hand on his redheaded son’s forearm, and shook his head.

“It’s Fergus Mac Rioch and his two sons, Buinne the red and Illand Fionn,” Naoise called down excitedly to Ardan. “They must be bringing news from the Ulaidh. Maybe Conor is …”

“Dead,” whispered Deirdre to herself, before turning away to see Ainle, with a young buck over his shoulders, coming downhill from the opposite direction as Fergus led his sons up the track to the ráth.

***

Fergus had brought enough of the uisce beatha, the water of life, or, as some said, the water of fire, Deirdre noticed, for the men continued to drink their fill and were relaxed now after the initial wary and then boisterous greetings between the exiles and the envoy from the Ulaidh. Braziers burned brightly and rush lamps cast flickering shadows around as the men squatted by the fires and laughed and joked, their voices slurred and loud.   The fire flared up as the haunch of venison dripped its rich fat into the embers in the hearth where a clay pot of rabbit meat, beans, grains and herbs stewed. Deirdre, for the first time since she had chosen Naoise, found herself in the role of hostess and mistress of the ráth at Glen Etive as she welcomed the former king of the Ulaidh, Fergus Mac Rioch, or Fergus the gullible, she thought to herself, remembering the stories she had heard. Fergus was accompanied by his two sons Buinne, his scraggly red beard doing little to hide the smirks he had first thrown her on arrival, and Illand the Fair whose courtesy contrasted sharply with his older brother. The young men sprawled on cloaks and animal skins strewn upon the flagstone floor, talking excitedly to Ardan and Ainle. All day she had been assailed by the recurring memory of her awful, violent vision, and nagged by the mystery of her dream and Buinne’s smirks did little to offset Fergus’s avowals of safety and now she found it difficult to play her new role.

“It was all true,” Illand was insisting earnestly. “All the lords of the Craobh Ruadh were there when Conor said he wished for your return, the homecoming of the sons of Uísliu. Many were keen to have undertaken the task of accompanying your return to the Ulaidh, but Conor, knowing the respect everyone had for Fergus, asked my father to go,” he continued proudly.

“So, Conor is willing to forget the past, is he?” Ardan grunted, looking hard at the fair-headed youth and his grey bearded father.

“I assure you,” Fergus intervened, “Your father, Uísliu, and I were close and you may remember I guided and aided you, along with Cú Culainn and Ferdia, when you were yet boys at the Craobh Ruadh as if you were my very own sons and this I say to you now, you are safe under my protection and by the power of my honour and life none shall lift a finger against the valiant sons of Uísliu without fear of fierce fighting and retribution from me and mine.” Fergus glared around the assembled company and Buinne flexed his heavy shoulders before smirking again at Deirdre.

“You are very quiet, my lady,” Illand said.

“Yes, Deedee, what do you think of this offer of a safe return to our homeland?” Naoise asked, as she bent to replenish his wooden flagon.

She straightened and stared out the open doorway. The sun had nearly dipped out of sight and the evening sky was a violent fiery red, reminding her again of her premonition, burnishing her lover’s face with a crimson glow.

“What do I think, my lord?” Deirdre paused and looked at her lover’s face, so perfect and yet so innocent. “I think here you are lord and master of all that you see in this fine ráth on the hillside of Glen Etive. Why then do you seek to return to a homeland that hunted you down like wild boar and where a jealous king awaits? My dreams and thoughts are full of dire events and forebodings and I would not willingly see the man I love, and the clan to which I now belong, endanger themselves for so meagre a prize compared to what we now have here in this glen.”

“By Nuada’s silver hand,” Ardan applauded, “That was well said, sister. Fair play to you, you speak your mind clearly.”

“But,” broke in Ainle, leaning forward eagerly, his animated face catching the last rays of the setting sun, “What is the point of being a warrior and a hero in the wilderness?”

“Truly spoken,” agreed Buinne, lifting his mug in acknowledgement. “Where does the champion exist if there is no audience to lavish praise on the hero?”

“The more so,” Illand mentioned, lowering his voice confidentially, “As they say Medb of Connachta is raising an army among the four fifths of Ériu to rage against us.”

“Heroes and champions – that is what the Ulaidh needs in times of threat,” Buinne continued, thumping himself in the chest.

“So, what, my lady, do you fear?” Fergus inquired, looking directly at her.

“Oh Fergus, by all the gods, you ask me the impossible! You are a good man, and I, and all here, know that; guile is far below you but yet I dread and fear your words, so honeyed, but not yet your own, just some verse you have been taught to repeat. Forgive me, my lord,” Deirdre broke off and saw again in her mind’s eye the carnage ahead before continuing, “But I have had such a dream, the meaning of which now seems clear to me and I fear for my beloved’s life were we to return to the Ulaidh.”

“Know this, that I,” Fergus paused as he lurched to his feet, raising his sloshing tankard in token toasting of the lady, “I,” he continued, “Fergus Mac Rioch, do pledge my life and my honour against your safe return, my lady. Know this, sons of Uísliu, and fair lady, that no harm can come to you while I and my stout sons draw breath.”

***

“We can’t go back, I tell you,” Deirdre insisted, running her hands through her long yellow hair in frustration at Naoise’s refusal to understand all the portents she could see so clearly.

Fergus and his sons had retired to Ainle’s hut while Deirdre, Naoise and Ardan remained discussing the offer the envoys had brought.

The rush lamps had burnt low but she could still see the flush of excitement on Naoise’s face.

“Don’t you see?” she continued desperately, “This is what my dream meant. The three drops of honey the birds carried are the honeyed words that Fergus delivers and the three drops of blood the crows took away with them are you three – the three sons of Uísliu. If we go back, I know my destiny is to bring ruin on the Ulaidh for I have been cursed with the foreknowledge that my beauty will destroy heroes and a kingdom.”

Naoise’s face in the flickering rush light remained ecstatic.

“But this is the only way,” he exclaimed excitedly. “Don’t you see? This is what we have been waiting for – the chance to go home, to return to the Ulaidh and to the Craobh Ruadh – not as pardoned outlaws but as lords in our own right. Don’t tell me you haven’t dreamt about home, for your own country is better by far than where you, an exile, can lay your head.”

“Of course I have thought of it,” Ardan said.   “But we are already lords here, as Deedee has pointed out– why should we go back to Conor and eat his humble pie?”

“Why not? Isn’t he our lawful lord? What are you afraid of? Old words from old men? Fergus has given his word, hasn’t he?” Naoise appealed to Deirdre but she turned her back to him, wordlessly.

“You know why not,” Ardan replied shortly.

“I don’t,” Naoise swore, passionately. “I just know that Ériu is dearer to me than all the high and lowlands of Dál Riata and that I have dragged you and all our bondsmen into exile on my behalf. Fain would I remove the disgrace from our proud name by returning to face the king, thereby taking away the stain of cowardice our flight here has caused.”

“Lugh’s bollix, Naoise,” Ardan swore. “You know the prophecy as well as anyone. By all the gods, our father was there, wasn’t he? You have heard his story often enough and what the draoidh Cathbad said and you know the enmity Conor bears for what you did,” Ardan insisted, “And yet you still think you can trust his word.”

Naoise put down the carved horn he was drinking from and paused – the stories had always been there. He had only been a child, of course, but his father Uísliu had been there, and besides everyone knew it. On the feast of Samhain, Conor and his retinue had stopped to feast with his most favoured harper and storyteller, Phelim. The hero’s cut had been distributed despite the raucous calls for favour and the dogs were beginning to curl up by the glowing braziers as Phelim’s heavily pregnant wife was crossing the hall when suddenly the uproar was hacked apart by the unworldly scream. Men were up on their hind legs, swords scraped from sheaths, drunken buffoonery blossomed into alertness and fear as the cry grappled each man’s soul and stilled their natural courage. It was then that Cathbad stood forward, erect, and unafraid, his staff upright in has hand, his eyes seeing into that other world that warriors avoided until the inevitable.

The unborn child, already full term, would be a girl, green-eyed and fair skinned, graceful, alone in her beauty and aloofness, adored and wanted by all, she would split asunder the trunk of our strength, cast brother against father and kin, welcome strangers into the land and bring down the might of the Ulaidh, dividing and burning all that they now knew. The roaring of protest, at first muted, rose to a rumble causing the dogs to twitch and growl in their sleep. Bellicose and scared, warriors around the hall lurched to their feet demanding blood to offset the dire future Cathbad had painted. It was at this point that Conor had stood up, pulling Cathbad back behind him.   Listen to me now, he had roared. While I am king of the Ulaidh there will be no blood spilled here while we are guests in my harper’s house. Would you have me break the ancient laws of hospitality by shedding blood? Do youse hear me? What harm is there in a child? Do you know what it is? I’ll have her. She’ll be my queen and what’s the harm in that? She’ll be kept far from the sight of men, well looked after by a few chosen ones and when she is of age, she will rule with me.

The roaring and rumbling continued, so Uísliu had said, and the wine continued to flow and the cauldron made its rounds until the men’s fears were allayed and forgotten.

“Prophecies and dreams,” Naoise burst out, “are but the wanderings of lonely and melancholy minds. What are they compared to the sworn word of a man, especially of a honourable man like Fergus Mac Rioch?   We have honour and what else do we have but the honour our actions bring us in this life? We can raid and kill but we still have our honour and our word and we obey our geas and never break them. How then can we trust anyone if we give up on that?

“Naoise, my beloved,” Deirdre began, “Fergus only carries the words of Conor and I had such a vision of death and destruction when I heard the horn this morning – and yes, to my shame, I lied and pretended not to hear – but, oh, Naoise such a vision it was, coming on top of my dream, I beg you to listen to me and the counsel of your brother, Ardan the ever practical.”

“Deirdre’s right. You can’t deny a man like Conor,” Ardan went on. “For him, it is not just spite or even jealousy – it’s more than that. For him, it’s honour and the only way his type of honour can be satisfied is by blood, you know that, Naoise, your blood!”

“Ah, go on with you.” Naoise smiled confidently. “Fergus is here; isn’t he? Sure why would a stout man like Fergus Mac Rioch put himself to shame, and that for Conor? Don’t you know, full well, there is no love lost between your man and Conor. Why would he disgrace himself for that ould eejit?”

“Would you ever listen to yourself? You know why – you don’t throw a leg across one of Conor’s fillies, much less run off with them.”

 

An Old Celtic Tale of Love & Death – Part Three

The Plot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cathbad bent over and refilled the gatekeeper’s mug.

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

“What did he do?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Old Celtic Tale of Love & Death – Part 2

Dál Riata

The cold, grey sea surged up, sucking the pebbles away from under Deirdre’s feet where she stood on the empty, stony strand. The three ships sat low in the water as she watched the brothers’ bondsmen and retainers load their bales and weapons.

“We’ll be safe over there,” Naoise murmured pulling her close, his warm red lips nuzzling the soft skin of her neck. “That mad ould’ bastard won’t be able to reach us there in Dál Riata,” he promised.

Deirdre shuddered and pulled Naoise closer, her arms around his waist, allowing him to lift her over the gunwale of the small ship and guide her to a place in the sheltered stern where he pulled a deerskin hide around her. The woven cords, running up the heavy sail and to the steering oar beside her, creaked as the ship responded to the offshore swell under the bite of a cold northeast wind.

Long days and even longer nights had passed since she had met him, half pulling the ears off him before they kissed but already blood had been spilt as the brothers led their bondsmen and Deirdre away into the wild north of the kingdom, pursued by the jealousy of an outraged king.

One night of snatched passion had been followed by days and nights of flight, discovery by clans sworn to the king, challenges and skirmishes and Deirdre knew that there could be no respite while they remained within the kingdom of the Ulaidh.

The coast was now in sight, a grey green slash to the east and as the light grew, she could see the mouth of the loch, its sheer banks narrowing, bringing with it the smell of rich, dark soil. Stark forests, untouched yet by the rising sun, formed impenetrable barriers on either side of the loch but as they continued eastwards, the loch widened until Deirdre could barely see the other shore and then the keel of the swan-bellied boat grated harshly on the jumbled pebbles of a small crescent beach.

They had sailed north from the strand at Dún Sobairce with Conor’s men at their heels and threaded their way through the barren islets of Dál Riata before turning towards the direction of the rising sun and entering the dark waters of the sea loch. Deirdre stood up, stretching her cramped legs and braced herself on the mast and looked around. A long rocky, heavily forested, inlet stretched behind them as far as the open sea. In the half light of a nacreous dawn, nothing stirred and no bird or animal called, the only sound being dark loch water lapping the pebbled shore while a cold breeze soughed through the tall trees crowding the shoreline, encircling the small crescent beach where the three boats had pulled up on, but in the growing light Deirdre could see the bulk of the highlands rising up from where they swept down to the shore.

“It’s all right my love,” Naoise said, “We are safe now and here we will make our home – but not in this desolate spot, though, I promise”

Deirdre turned towards him and snuggled closer, feeling the heat of his body through the linen tunic he wore. Naoise put his arm around her and pulled her closer still, tugging her cloak around them both. Gently, he slipped his fingers under her chin, lifting her face up towards him, his heart overflowing with the love he felt for her.

“I know, my lord, and I am full content with the ground and the stars and the trees, the mountains and the sea, the glens and the forests as long as you are by my side.” Deirdre shook back her long golden hair and smiled up at Naoise, “I will always feel safe with you, my lord, and with such proud warriors as your brothers, Ardan and Ainle, to whom I now owe my life and my allegiance.”

“Right then so,” Ardan suggested, clapping his hands together briskly, “let’s stop here for the day and rest. We can light a fire and I’m sure there are good fish in this loch, even if the waters are so dark. Once we have something to eat and dry clothes, we’ll all feel better. Here, catch, Ainle.”

Ardan began to throw bales of goods from the swan-bellied ship that had breasted the waves so swiftly from the kingdom of the Ulaidh to this desolate shore in Dál Riata where Ainle now stood.

***

“Well, big brother,” Ardan turned the fish, skewered on a stripped green twig, over the low burning wood fire, squinting as the smoke blew in his eyes, “We can’t complain about the fishing here, and I‘m sure the hunting is good in the mountain yonder, but what do we do now?”

“Do?” laughed Ainle, “ I think you just mentioned it – fishing and hunting – what more could a man want in life. Here we are lords of all we see and by the strength of my sword arm, I mean to make it mine.”

“This land must belong to someone, some chieftain, someone we must meet and pay our respects to,” Naoise mused, flicking back the heavy lock of dark hair that Deirdre loved so much. “We have to greet this chieftain and offer our services in return for his protection”.

“I fear that the prophecy made at my birth might yet haunt me here,” Deirdre said apprehensively. “Even here, heroes will contend for me and already I have pulled you, the fairest of the Craobh Ruadh, into exile here in this desolate spot.”

“Truly, you have done so,” Ainle grinned, “so that, we, the three sons of Uísliu, may defend you and gain honour and renown, my lady, thereby merely receiving some of the glory reflected from one so beautiful as you.

“He’s right of course, Deedee,” Naoise murmured, pulling Deirdre closer to him, “but would you ever listen to the honey mouth on him!”

***

Ardan led the way up from the shore, following the scat and the faint tracks of deer and boar, the air heavy and cold with no trace of wood smoke. The valleys here were sheer and the forested slopes thick with undergrowth. It had rained earlier, soaking into their cloaks and chilling them to the bone as they climbed up towards the towering mountains. All around them was impenetrable silence, made all the more eerie by the drifts of mists that seemed to float everywhere. Tall trees and thick undergrowth blocked their view and stooping sometimes under the heavy wet boughs, the group continued to climb upwards.

Long before they broke out from under cover they could smell the village. The rancid smell of animal fat and the raw stink of the cesspool mingled with the stench of unwashed bodies living close beside their animals. The summit of the hilltop was surrounded by a ramped earthen wall, while an outer ring of roughly hewn logs, sharpened and fire-hardened faced outwards at an angle, their bases embedded solidly in the ground. Several thatch and wattle hovels clustered near the one gate which led into the mound and that was overlooked by walled platforms. Shaggy, armed men peered down the hillside.

Outside the outer mound and descending down the cleared slopes of the hill towards the encroaching forest, scattered huts nudged small plots of fenced land. Crops of oats and barley were well tended in small pastures and long horned cattle swung their heavy heads and gazed dully at their surroundings.

Peering from well within the sheltering tree line, the brothers considered their position.

“It looks both prosperous and well-defended,” Ardan ventured. “So what do?”

“All the better,” broke in Ainle excitedly, “if we circle around the back, we may well be able to take them by surprise. Then we…”

“Little brother, hold,” Naoise put out his hand and grasped Ainle’s arm. “We are not here for spoils of war or raiding, we need to seek sanctuary and establish where we are and what service we can provide.   I want more for Deirdre than living in the wilds and being hunted down like a fugitive.”

“He’s right,” Ardan agreed. “Don’t worry, brother, there will be many opportunities to fight and to show your prowess of which we all know you possess.”

Standing up straight, Naoise stepped forth from the undergrowth and called out, brandishing his linden shield and long ash spear in one hand while thrusting his heavy iron sword skywards.

“Hear me, gatekeeper, before you stand the three sons of Uísliu, of the kingdom of the Ulaidh, warriors unbeaten and valourous in the strife of battle, hardened in war and conflict, victorious in all encounters, who come in friendship and with greetings”.

Brass trumpets blared from within the mound and Naoise and his brothers could see a flurry of activity on the gate platforms with men shouting up and down to each other. Shortly afterwards, the heavy wooden gate leading into the mound was dragged open and a troop of men, surrounding their chieftain, appeared to meet the slowly advancing exiles.

Short, stocky with a broad chest covered with a thick pelt of greying hair, Marog, his belly thrust forward, farted contemptuously and examined the newcomers curiously, noting their iron weapons and fine clothes.

“Greetings, men of Ulaidh from Marog, chieftain of Dún Broch. Long has it been since such fine warriors from overseas have visited us. Welcome to the home of Marog, the Strong but your purpose here is unclear.” Marog squinted suspiciously at them. “Is it shelter and protection you are after here or do you mean to harry us with those fine weapons we see you hold so stoutly?”

Coarse laughter erupted from the throng of stunted men crowding curiously behind their squat chieftain.

Ainle’s hand tightened on the hilt of his long blade and he made to step forward challengingly but Naoise stopped him with a small gesture.

“Aye, my lord,” Naoise advanced half a pace and stopped, bowing courteously. “You have but some truth in what you say and in exchange for sanctuary within your stronghold, we place our weapons and our strong arms at your service.”

Marog paused, his small eyes fixed on the slim hooded figure behind the broad shoulders of the young men in front of him. A woman it would be, he thought to himself, and demure too, by the look of her.

“Come then, sons of Uísliu, for even here, in the highlands, have we heard of your illustrious names and the honour with which they are carried. Come, let us drink to our alliance for we have many foemen who would eagerly seek our kine and kith and kin.”

Stamping triumphantly on the muddy ground at his feet, Marog led the brothers, leering the while at Deirdre, into his rudely fortified palisade.

***

Naoise examined the layout of the ground in front of the village of mean huts, encircled by a rude rampart of thrown up earth surmounted by wooden stakes. Perhaps a score of huts huddled round a slightly larger wooden building ornamented with a sweep of oxen horn over the gable end. Behind the village the rough ground sloped away into tough gorse and heather while to the right of the village some oxen and sheep were penned. To the left, the ground fell away towards the loch, fed by a small stream which flowed under a corner of the crude ramparts.

In return for Marog’s hospitality, and true to the offer they had made him, the brothers had been in the van of many fights now with Marog’s enemies in the continual raiding of rival chieftain’s cattle and property. Each time, honour bound, Naoise had gone at Marog’s command, but each time he became ever more conscious of Marog’s covetous eye and his increasing desire to see his hooded woman. Each raid became a concern, not for his own safety or that of his brothers, but for the woman they had to leave behind with a handful of their trusted retainers, and each time he was ever more anxious to return to Deirdre.

Directly in front, the Pict barbarians were assembling in a noisy jostling crowd, pushing and shoving at each other to get into the foremost line of men. Naoise shivered slightly and glanced down the line of men on either side of him. His right hand loosened the sword in the scabbard at his waist while his left hefted the oval shield. “Check your weapons” he called out. In this cold, wet climate, swords and daggers often jammed in their sheathes, delaying a warrior for half a heartbeat and, Naoise knew, half a heartbeat was all it took for an enemy to plunge a sword deep into soft innards.

The braying of the brass horns deepened and the cacophony of noise seemed to reach a new crescendo as the Pictish warriors, small and sinewy, massed in front of their village. Roaring their defiance, brandishing their weapons, the Picts capered and cavorted, taunting Naoise and his companions.

The cold air was bitter with the smell of urine and lime which the clansmen had rubbed into their hair to stiffen and tease it out into fantastic shapes, underlined with the peaty smell of smoke from the squalid village. A rumbling sound announced the arrival of the Pictish chieftain on a small wicker chariot, pulled by two wiry horses. As the chariot rolled between the massed ranks of men, the rider, a sturdy brute in a wolfskin cloak, his bald head pale in contrast to his thick and matted red beard which did little to hide his pitted and poxed skin, thrust a javelin skywards and bawled out a challenge to single combat.

Naoise half drew his sword and the rasp of the heavy iron blade against the brass lip of the sheath made Ainle glance towards his brother. “Give me the honour, brother, this time.”

Naoise smiled briefly before shaking his head. Ainle, while strong and fleet, was a full three summers younger than Naoise and lacked the experience to go up against a hardened veteran the Pictish chieftain appeared to be. Stepping forward from the ranks, Naoise flung both arms out to the side, exposing his defenceless body to the enemy.

“Listen and fear, tremble all of you before the might of Naoise, son of Uísliu, giver of rings and cups, descended from the kings of the Ulaidh, noble in blood and in heart, fierce in battle, undefeated in strife.” Clashing his heavy iron sword against the raised boss on his shield, he brandished the weapons skyward.

The Pict, eyes fierce beneath a low brow, hopped from the chariot platform and made a series of short rushing steps towards Naoise before pausing and spitting a thick jet of mucous on the ground between them. Armed with a short stabbing spear and a round leather shield, he circled round Naoise cautiously, eying the tall dark haired man armed with the long iron sword and bright torc of gold around his neck. Naoise stood rock still, his gaze fixed on the small dark eyes of the man in front of him. Shuffling every closer, lunging with the stabbing spear, and then stepping back unnecessarily, the Pict edged crab-like around the still form. Naoise waited, judging the time when the Pict would feel close enough to reach him with a spear thrust, and waited for the flicker of the man’s hard eyes which, he knew, would signal the death rush.

Batting the sudden thrust towards his groin away with his shield, Naoise swung the shield up and round to the left, pushing the central bronze boss hard into the man’s face, hearing the crunch of his nose. Staggering back under the impact, the Pictish chieftain’s shield hung wide and Naoise sliced his sword across the man’s torso, opening a thick weal of red blood across the matted hair. An astonished look crossed the chieftain face and he stopped short, looking down at the blood welling from the deep slice. Naoise stepped back out of immediate range of the short stabbing spear, now pointed aimlessly at the wet ground, and spun lightly on his heel. His blade, a whirling rush the clan chieftain was relatively unaware of, struck hard on the angle between head and shoulder and opened the man down to the far side of his chest.

Wrenching the blade free with a twist of his wrist, Naoise sprang past the slumped body and urged his line of men to sweep down on the remaining warriors. Already the timbre of the noise had changed from the frantic braying of the horns to the panicked cries of the leaderless Picts. Dodging under the wildly swung sword of one stocky warrior, Naoise plunged his sword into his belly and then used his booted foot to push the screaming man off his blade before slashing it across the neck of a man fighting with his younger brother, Ardan. Grinning his thanks, Ardan plunged on, his shield crashing against shields while his sword hammered heads and ribs, slipping beneath shields to rip up through unprotected thighs and soft bellies, into what was fast becoming a melee. Out of the corner of his eye, Naoise saw his little brother rush forward confidently, thrusting his sword over a clansman’s round shield and stepping back, parrying his attack so the blades clashed harshly in the damp air. Ainle parried quickly again and riposted fast before swinging his sword at the man’s bare legs and when the man dropped his own sword to block the stroke, he kicked the short bronze blade aside and lunged forward, thrusting his sword into the man’s unprotected neck. Moments later, the dispirited Picts broke and ran under the disciplined approach of Naoise, his brothers and their band of warriors.

***

Naoise slid the stone down the length of his oiled blade, concentrating on bringing the edge back to its keenness. Deirdre knelt behind him, her gentle hands kneading the aching muscles of his back and shoulders. Ainle was eagerly reviewing his part in the skirmish with Ardan, turning the spitted haunch of venison over the low fire in the centre of the hut Marog had provided for them. The warriors had returned to Marog’s village, tired but jubilant, driving the captured cattle in front of them, leading the defeated clansmen, yoked at the neck with braided rawhide thongs, and carrying the few spoils the Picts settlement had yielded, some small, pitted cauldrons, animal skins and a sack of rock salt. Marog had accepted the spoils gruffly, eyes darting at the hooded figure of Deirdre at Naoise’s side before dismissing the brothers with an abrupt wave of his paw.

“I don’t like the way Marog and those men look at me,” Deirdre said, sitting back and pulling the hood of her cloak closer around her face as if her words had reminded her of Marog’s interest in her.

“My poor love, you will have to give men leave to look upon you for that is the lot of pretty women the world over. Men have eyes for a good reason and that is to feast them on such a beauty as you are. Ask any man and there is no one who would turn their eyes away from such beauty even for fear of being blinded.”

“Now who is the one with the honeyed tongue?” Ainle jeered.

“No, what I mean is the way Marog’s men look at me – and all of us – it is not just lust but there is something else, I fear, greed, avarice, perhaps yet even more.” Deirdre complained.

“Do not overly worry your pretty head, my love, tomorrow we will talk to Marog, and we tell him it is our custom to have quarters outside these walls.”

***

“Sshh, Naoise, wake up, can you not hear that?” Deirdre whispered, caressing her lover awake. The darkness within the hut was absolute but Naoise could hear the rustle of men moving stealthily outside. Ardan and Ainle, already alerted by Deirdre’s whisper, were already reaching for their weapons when the first firebrand landed on the thatch roof, quickly setting it ablaze.

“This way, quick!” Ardan called, and with furious slashes of his broad sword, he hacked a gap in the wattle and daub wall opposite the low porch of the hut.

‘Watch out!” Ainle warned, as another burning brand landed on the earthen floor through the exposed gap in the roof, now burning fiercely, showing Deirdre’s drawn face pale in the ruddy glow of the flames.

Ardan scrambled out thought the gap he had made, his long shield held protectively above his head, his long sword in his right hand. A spear jabbing down from above was swept aside by his sword while his sharp-rimed shield swung hard against the unprotected legs of his attacker, toppling him, screaming to the ground. Ainle, right behind him, stabbed down with a short dagger, finding the man’s throat, pinning him to the ground. Naoise ducked and pulled Deirdre behind him, protected by his oval shield while Ainle slashed wildly round him, and Ardan barged his bloody shield into the face of a new attacker, the heavy bronze boss crushing the man’s eye before he swung the shield horizontally, the sharpened rim hewing into his neck, arterial blood hissing into the flames of the hut, now burning fiercely, as he ducked the frenzied swing of a bronze sword. Naoise had just time to parry a savage blow and as his attacker turned sideways to avoid the downswing of his sword, he kicked the side of the man’s knee, felling him to the ground where Ainle effortlessly finished him off.

Forming a rough circle with Deirdre in the middle, the three brothers charged the disorganized rabble with Marog urging his men on with guttural calls. Ainle in the van, feinted at the leading attacker and as his opponent raised his shield and sword protectively, Ainle kicked him in the bollix and ran, panting, past to meet the next. Slashing, stabbing forward, their shields both defensive and offensive weapons, the brothers stamped their way through the thin line of attackers and away into the darkness outside the glare of the burning hut, collapsing into its own ashes now. Naoise, in the rear, spun on his heel blocking with his long shield as Marog, his squat face distorted with rage at the loss the woman he lusted after above all things, jabbed his spear forward at her protector. The gaze of her crystal blue eyes and the windblown softness of her fine gold hair had maddened him and his attempts to separate the woman from the three men had all failed, despite putting them in the van of every battle. Infuriated too, at the failure of his night assault, he lunged forward with his short spear, twisting away from Naoise’s sword swing which would have bitten deep into the shorter man’s shoulder. Naoise swung the flat of his shield into Marog’s ribs, and as the chieftain stumbled back, he thrust his sword deep into his unprotected belly.

To Be Continued.