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.”