An Old Celtic Take of Love & Death – Part 5

The Exiles Return

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED

 

An old Celtic Tale of Love 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.”