An Old Celtic of Love and Death – Part 7

A Ewe between Two Rams

Smoke lay heavy in the night air as the burning thatch on the Craobh Ruadh spread down from the rafters, the flames licking hungrily at the seasoned, dry wooden walls of the old building. Eoghean had stamped away to bury his clansmen and to drown his anger in the vat of Ol nguala leaving Conor to curse at the flight of the brothers with his woman.

“You have to help me here, Cathbad,” Conor pleaded. “Who better than yourself to remember the prophecy when it was you, yourself, that made it? Help me now before this goes any further. Lookit, haven’t I already lost a fine son? What more do you want me to lose?” he went on, the sullen rage he felt at Crúscraid’s impotent attack and Conall Cernach’s desertion welling up inside him.

“I tried to warn you with that prophecy but you refused to listen, Conor. You were a fool then and you are a fool now, bringing doom on all of us,” Cathbad thundered, his staff thumping the stone flagged floor of the great hall.

“Offer them terms of peace, yes, … peace and friendship, I swear it,” Conor insisted. “Tell them that they need not fear us but swear fealty to us and all will be forgotten, for who would refuse the services of the mighty lords of Uísliu.” Conor cursed deeply inside himself and continued to press the draoidh for a solution to make the brothers put down their arms.

***

Cathbad guessed all three had been wounded to some degree in their frantic flight and would be unable to travel far. There was only one place in the vicinity where they might feel safe, he guessed, the most likely place such a group would flee to. And yet, there was just a chance that the prophecy could still be averted if he could find the brothers and talk to them. He did not fear for his safety at their hands for he was a draoidh and although no one went willingly into the dark woods at night for fear of the little men and the Sídhe that roamed the woodlands, Cathbad encountered nothing except a large white owl which swooped silently down from the trees on his left as he approached the standing stones on the crest of the low hill to the south of Eamhain Macha.

The stones, the height of a tall man, formed a crude circle fifteen paces across. One of the stones had fallen and Cathbad caught the glimmer of a small fire inside the circle from where he stood.

There was a sliver of a moon, now, cold and high and the night was bitterly cold and Naoise, fearing they would perish without a fire, had built one carefully in the lee of the fallen stone in a small dip in the ground.

“You need not fear me,” Cathbad said softly as he stepped out from behind one of the taller stones and watched the girl jerk her head up from where she had been lying, curled up beside the small fire.

“Cathbad? Is that you?” Naoise stood up from where he had been sitting on a small rock beside the woman, his sword extended.

“I come with a message from the king,” the draoidh said solemnly, stretching out his arms so that his robe clung to him, outlining his spare figure. “An offer of peace with terms of friendship. Wrongs have been done on both sides but enough blood has been spilt. This madness must stop now for the sake of the kingdom. Lay down your arms now and swear fealty again to Conor. This time he means it, I am sure,” the draoidh continued, seeing the hunger and the need on the tired faces of the men. Deirdre was pale and, except for the crust of dried blood on her arm from a jagged cut, she seemed unhurt. “Don’t listen to him,” she begged. “Don’t you see? It is another trap. Conor will never stop, I’m telling you.”

The draoidh moved over to where the girl crouched and gently examined the gash on her arm before opening a small vial and smearing honey on the wound and binding it tightly with a scrap of linen he took from within his robe.

“Beauty can stir feelings of hate as well as desire in some men’s breasts,” Cathbad continued, staring into the girl’s frightened eyes, “But Conor now seeks peace with you if you will only swear fealty to him and to the kingdom. “ It’s the only way,” he went on and leaning forward, from his closed fist, he threw a handful of herbs and aromatic twigs on the fire around which they all sat. There was silence then as the colour of the fire changed and sparkled brightly before a thick and pungent smoke filled the air around them. Cathbad waited a few moments before slipping easily to his feet, and watched as talk around the fire died out and the woman remained silent.

***

“You fool,” Cathbad hissed, “don’t you see what you have done? You told me that you needed their strength to repel Medb of Connachta’s schemes and that there would be peace between you and them if they would only lay down their arms and swear allegiance to you.”

“I’m the fool, am I?” Conor snarled. “You think I would let my honour, my laws, my very rules be flouted by upstarts like those bastards. I treated them with honour and grace until they wounded a loyal retainer of my guest. Blood calls for blood, you know that but my hands are clean.” He laughed cruelly, switching mood suddenly. “My good friends from the far Dá Mumhainn will be more than happy to exact vengeance for me, seeing as that bastard brood destroyed many of their clansmen,” he nodded his head in the direction of the doors.

“Come,” he declared, walking outside the hall to where dawn was approaching and a thin streak of grey edged the blackness of the night. The three young men and the girl were kneeling, their arms securely tied behind their backs, on the pounded earth beside the white path. Conor’s force had surprised the somnolent group who had put up little resistance when they had burst out of the darkness and they had been led back, yoked at the neck and with their arms tied behind their backs, to the inner circle inside Eamhain Macha where Conor waited, gloatingly, for them. Beside him stood the black bearded giant, the king of Fermagh, Eoghean Mac Murthacht who glowered at the captives. The faint grey light blended into a pale salmon pink along the horizon as the sun hovered behind the trees to the east.

“With your permission, my lord, these outlaws have wounded my own nephew, slaughtered my unarmed men, insulted my house and honour and only blood can wipe clean the measure between us.”

Conor paused and looked at the object of his envy, hate and fear. Any king, he reminded himself, would be loath to take back such traitorous, oath-breaking bastards as these black-hearted warriors for soon enough, he knew, they could turn their schemes on him and his kingship. He motioned with his head and a retainer pulled the woman away from the three kneeling men.

“It is I, your grateful ally, that should beg favours of you, my noble lord,” Conor said, gravely nodding his head, exulting within as Eoghean Mac Murthacht drew his sword and stepped forward towards Naoise.

Eoghean paused a moment, as if feeling the weight of sword in his hand, before his shoulder muscles bunched as he rose the heavy blade to chop down towards Naoise’s exposed neck when Illand, lying unnoticed on the path beside Naoise, his life blood trickling away from the gaping holes in his back and belly, gathered his draining strength and surged to his feet in front of the kneeling Naoise. The sword hissed down, cutting deep into the corner of the youth’s neck and shoulder. Eoghean cursed and used his booted foot to push Illand off the blade before swinging it again and burying it deeply in the other side of his neck, almost severing the head. He jerked the sword free and prepared to strike anew at Naoise when Ainle called out, squinting up at Eoghean. “Hold your hand there, and a request, if it pleases you. Kill me first, I implore you for I am the youngest of my brothers and would not wish to see those whom I love more than life itself, be killed.”

“Listen not to him,” Ardan cried. “I would not have it so. Being the youngest, Ainle should live yet the longest of us three. Kill me first, I beg you.”

“Do neither such thing,” Naoise called out “for here at my side I had the sword that Manannan, the son of Lir, once gave to our clan and for a while I carried it as befitted the leader of our clan and the stroke of it cleaves cleanly through all; so strike the three of us together, and we will all die together at the one time as we have lived all our lives together.”

Mac Murthacht looked around for the sword and called out for it but the sword no longer hung by Naoise’s side. A bondsman came running out from the hall nearby where the sons of Uísliu’s arms had been heaped inside the door.

“A fine blade,” he said admiringly, throwing aside the tooled leather scabbard and extending the blade towards the captives. He sighted along the dull sheen of the dark iron blade, the thin groove along the top inside of the blade for the blood to run, making it easier to pull the weapon out of the clinging flesh.

“Lay down your heads, then lads and let it be known that I, Eoghean Mac Murthacht, king of the Fermagh, do so treat the traitorous scum of my proud ally, the king of the Ulaidh.” And he slashed down hard and expertly so that the three heads of the young men bounced together on the hard ground as the blood spouted and pooled around them and one bound body twitched a last time.

A roar of thunder sounded and the noise rolled over Eamhain Macha for a count of three as Conor looked up from the blood-splattered Mac Murthacht to the darkening eastern sky where thick clouds blotted out the sun. Lightning flickered within ripe, plum-coloured clouds.

Deirdre shrugged away the restraining hand of a tall man with a ragged fringe of hair, his drooping eye, bloodshot and fearful gaping at the scene around them and rose to her feet, crying pitifully, whipping her long fair hair from side to side as she violently swung her head backwards and forwards. Throwing herself forward, she fell across the headless torso of Naoise and tenderly kissed his chest three times before allowing herself to be pulled up like one who had lost her wits.

“Come now to my house, my queen,” Conor said, stepping forward and cutting the thongs that bound her hands behind her back. “There is no need to be fearful, or to feel hatred or jealousy or sadness for together we will make a new future for the Ulaidh and the kingship.”

Seeing Deirdre glance bewilderedly at Eoghean and himself, Conor smirked and winked at the blood-streaked ruffian beside him.

“Come now, Deirdre, you have the cute look of a ewe caught between two rams. I am a fair man and I’ll give you a choice – a night with my good self or a year with my friend here,” and he nodded towards Eoghean standing over Naoise’s headless body before pulling her close to him, his arms encircling her slim figure.

Deirdre raised her arms around Conor’s middle and her small hand touched the bone handled knife he had used to cut her bonds and she seized it quickly, pushing Conor away and holding the knife to her throat.

“May your bones grow hair and rot, Conor Mac Nessa, false king of Eamhain Macha and treacherous dog that you are, for that is no choice at all. Know this, false king Conor, for you have brought destruction on yourself and on your clan for no one in the Ulaidh will profit from your actions this day. Gone from this world are the sons of Uísliu and with them the spirit of nobility, the courage of the truly brave, for they dared all for a woman’s love and know that I gave it freely to them that set me free from the bonds of your rapacious desires.” Deirdre thrust the dagger up under the soft part of her throat and remained proudly standing for a moment before her legs gave way and she slid gracefully to the ground, her blood mingling with the pool surrounding the sons of Uísliu.

The End

 

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

Treachery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And?” Buinne prompted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued

 

An Old Celtic Take of Love & Death – Part 5

The Exiles Return

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED

 

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 1 – The Elopement

An early seasonal snow covered the rutted and trampled ground inside the ráth, delaying preparations for the féis Phelim the harper was arranging for the king of the Ulaidh, Conor Mac Nessa. Samhain, a time for sacrifices and remembrance of the spirits of the dead, the season when livestock were killed in time for the coming, darker, part of the year with cattle brought in from the summer pastures, had just passed. As at Bealtaine, special bonfires had been lit, the acrid smoke of which the draoidhs deemed protective and cleansing for both man and beast, and the seasonal rituals involving them had just been completed. The leaves from the ash had long fallen and the bare branches of the oak and the alder and hazel were stark against the dark sky.

Fifteen long, cold winters had passed since that last fateful féis when Cathbad had made the dread prophecy. Phelim spat into the snow at the memory and cursed the gods for the needless expense and worry the whole affair had put him to, both then and now. The gallery to the new hall had been completed just in time for Conor’s visit, Phelim reckoned, as the northeast wind blew a sudden cold flurry of snow into his face. Trimmed oak trunks formed the outer walls of the rectangular hall, massive oaken beams inside supporting a high ridge roof allowing space for a small musician’s gallery under the gable. The gods alone knew the problems the last visit had caused and it would be foolish to hope for anything better this time around, Phelim reminded himself. The ould bollix was here to claim his prize he knew, and in doing so, would take away the love of his life, his own precious Deirdre.

Pushing open the heavy wooden doors to his hall, Phelim swept aside the heavy leather curtain hanging inside and straightened up wearily. He was a tall man, burly and strongly built with a ragged fringe of hair but a heavy weariness had descended upon him when he had learned that Conor’s visit was imminent and he had been unable to shake the feeling of doom that had followed him since then. He had everything and he knew it, but he also knew he had everything to lose which he pretended not to know and which he tried to conceal from Elva his wife, but could not hide from himself.

Polished boles of oak, making a wide passage the length of the hall, led to the central hearth, beside which sat an erect figure. Screens of woven wattle strips, the spaces between packed with clay, dried and whitewashed with lime, jutted out from the sides of the hall to some of the pillars where retainers had hung heavy war shields and polished weapons. Wide beams spanned the high thatched roof, allowing space for the gallery where musicians would play to accompany the story telling in praise of Conor when he made his appearance.

“Ah, by the hand of Lugh, there’s yourself,” he greeted the heavily robed figure sitting by the fire at the end of the hall. Breoga, the trader, was sitting cross-legged, a tall amphora of wine leaning on the bench beside him.

“Peace be on you, friend,” Despite his age of more than three score, the trader rose sinuously to his feet, touching his clasped hands to his chest in his native gesture of greeting. Phelim squinted through the smoke from the turf fire and kicked a brindled cur out of his way before sitting down on a bench opposite Breoga.

“Well now,” Phelim said, clapping his hands together and leaning forward, to peer into his visitor’s drinking horn to see if it was full, “I see your cup is full, may it always be so. There’s no harm, I suppose, in me having a cup or two before your man arrives.”

“In my land,” Breoga cautioned solemnly, “we say one cup for health, two for pleasure and love, three for sleep, four for uproar and drunken revel, five for black eyes and violence, and more for madness.”

“If that is the case,” Phelim commented sourly, “It was more then madness, let me tell you that much, the last time the king was here but go on, tell me this, what brings you to these parts of the Ulaidh now? Is it you wanting to witness my very own sorrow?”

Breoga leaned back against the pillar so that the cowl of his hood fell back slightly, showing lined skin the colour of old leather and his hooked nose above his grizzled white beard.

“Ah, my friend, sorrow you say, when the King of the Ulaidh, the great Conor Mac Nessa, battle hardened and always victorious, giver of rings and cups, is come tonight for the hand of your daughter. Sure, isn’t there joy in such a union, unless,” Breoga paused slyly, pouring more of the Gaulish wine into Phelim’s drinking horn “you fear the old prophecy.”

“Arragh, don’t talk to me of prophecies, you were not here that night, fifteen winters ago. How can a king be denied, for all the prophecies in the world,” Phelim leaned over and hawked noisily into the fire.

“Tell me the tale again, my old friend, for in so doing, it may ease your mind.”

Phelim shifted the drinking horn on the board in front of him and looked into the glowing sods of turf. He shivered with the memory and, lifting his carven horn, he downed the contents in a gulp, the amber coloured wine tricking into his grey beard.

Filling Phelim’s drinking horn again, Breoga lifted his own to encourage Phelim.

“Sure it was just like it is now, so it was,” Phelim began, his hand resting on the shoulder of the dog sitting beside him. “The first snow of the season had just fallen, delaying arrangements for the Samhain feast being arranged for the king. Many winters have passed since then but every moment of that night is etched in my mind,” Phelim paused and passed a hand over his face as if to push away the memories emerging from the mists of time.

“The king, a handsome and striking figure of a man he was then, was here, of course, along with all his court, Fergus Mac Rioch, Conall Cernach, Bricriu and that evil, twisted man, Cathbad the seer”

“And Sétanta, was he not also there, being such a favourite, I hear, of the King?” Breoga inquired.

“By the hand of Lugh, if he had been here, things might well have gone differently,” Phelim conceded, taking another long draught of the wine. “However at that time the Hound, for that is what he was called then, was busy at Culainn’s forge but– you know that story of how the boy, Sétanta, came by that name of Cú Culainn?”

Breoga scratched his sparse beard and nodded slowly “The Hound of the Forge, Culainn’s hound, isn’t that it? I heard the story from Scél, the gatekeeper as I was leaving Eamhain Macha. Long have I sought to get a litter of those hound pups but they are more valuable than hen’s teeth, it seems? But go on, what happened next and why do you call Cathbad the Wise evil and twisted?”

“Sure the feast had well started with your man at the high board and all around him his followers and retainers, your man Bricriu, moaning about not getting the hero’s cut of meat while I mollified the king, though my mind was not well on it for my wife, Elva, was due to give birth at any time.”

Phelim paused again, remembering the fateful night torn apart by a dreadful scream. As Elva’s waters broke, the carousing warriors in the main hall were silenced by that terrible shriek. Men lurched to their feet, knives and swords rasped out of bronze-bound sheaths and the warriors looked warily around them. It was then, in that sudden silence that Cathbad, placing his hands on the belly of my trembling woman, made the prophecy. “It was the child who screamed, not the woman,” he said. “She screamed,” he claimed, “out of the horror of her own future. The child will be a girl of unsurpassed beauty and every man will fight to make her his own. Deirdre of the Sorrows, she will be called and her beauty will bring down the kingdom of the Ulaidh and lay Eamhain Macha to the fire and sword.”

“Bricriu, the bitter tongued, well named,” Phelim continued, “was the first of the warriors to regain his composure. Brandishing his sword, he roared out to kill the newborn child there and then and thus evade the outcome of Cathbad’s fearful prophecy. More and more men stood up, roaring their assent or dissent with Bricriu. In the hubbub and flickering rush-lights in the hall, no one noticed the actual birth of my child into Elva’s hand until Conor stood up and wrenched the child away from the exhausted and terrified mother, raising the still bloodied infant aloft, displaying to all her sex.

Roaring out for silence, Conor stood alone as one by one the men drifted back to their places, silenced by the sight of the man and infant that Conor then vowed to keep under his protection, aloof from the world of men.”

Breoga nodded his head in understanding, the cowl of his hood falling forward again as he imagined that scene.

“How then, Conor had boasted,” Phelim went on, “shall she stir men’s hearts, how then shall the Ulaidh fall and Eamhain Macha burn, for she will be his queen and how would a queen destroy her own home.”   Phelim pushed the hound out of his way before leaning over and hawking noisily into the fire. He looked up at Breoga, sitting motionless, his face shadowed, “The gods favour the king and, through his bounty and goodness, they have favoured me as well.” He paused and looked slowly around the hall as if seeing it for the first time before continuing, “but I would give everything that you see here to have what I most treasure safe by me tonight.”

“Well, my friend,” Breoga said, “tonight is the night when your lord comes to fetch his queen, may the gods grant favour to all in need of it.

***

“I’m telling you, no!” Cathbad insisted. “You were there yourself, man, you saw and heard it all for yourself.” Impatiently, he rose to his feet and paced the length of the hut, his staff clunking on the flagstones as he strode up and down. Conor and his troop of nobles had just arrived at the ráth and the men were drinking in the hut Phelim had provided for them while he attended to last minute preparations for the feast later that night in the new hall.

“Arragh, heard what, saw what?” Conor snorted “Sure weren’t you the one doin’ the telling then and here you are now, at it again, gabbling away out of you. Go on with yourself now, I’m telling you, I’m having that young one tonight. Lugh alone knows I’ve been patient and waited long enough.”

“Lookit here to me now, Conor, blood, death, destruction and division among the Ulaidh, is that what you are after wanting?” Cathbad demanded.

“I told you then that she should have been left out in the snow that very night to avert the tragedy that Cathbad here says is clearly staring you – us all – in the face,” Bricriu added.

“D’yis not remember that night, Conor?” Fergus chimed in. “Hadn’t Phelim prepared the feast, sure wasn’t the ould eejit all ready to show off his stories again and then that scream broke the night – it put cold daggers of ice through every man’s blood that heard it then.”

“Every woman screams during childbirth,” Conor commented sourly.

“But this wasn’t the woman, I’m telling you.” Cathbad pointed out. “It was the child herself inside the womb screaming out in horror at her own future.”

“Herself?” Conor laughed harshly. “And how did you know it was going to be a girl? A lucky guess, I’d say. Sure, it had to be one or the other.”

“But it was a girl, and one so already perfect in form and looks that she is destined to ruin the Ulaidh and burn Eamhain Macha itself. Why do you think she was destined to be called Deirdre of the Sorrows?” The draoidh insisted.

“I’ll give you sorrows across the back of your neck! I’ll see that she doesn’t play with fire,” Conor bellowed. “I’ve warned all away from her so that she has no experience of men or your wiles, Cathbad.”

“Wiles?” Cathbad roared. “Ungrateful whelp, your mother Ness is alive and well in you, Conor, for your coldness and …”

“Tonight,” bellowed Conor, “Tonight, I tell you, after the feast, bring her to me.”

***

Roars of drunken laughter and shouting filled the dimly lit hall as the liege men from Eamhain Macha mingled with Phelim’s household, almost drowning out the music on the gallery where harpers and pipers played. The feast of Samhain was long gone and there were many longer, dark nights before Imbolc would mark renewal, purification and fertility, so the gleemen tumbled and cavorted among the noisy throng. Men surrounded long boards on trestles clamouring for more drink and food. Flagons of Gaulish wine sloshed into wooden drinking mugs as the serving women skirted the grasping hands of the men. Night had fallen and the long hall was crowded with men eager to make the most of this feast before the long nights of the dark part of the year swept in, blanketing the world in cold and whiteness.

Serving women boxed the ears of small boys turning the spits of pork and beef in the massive stone hearths while platters of veal and mutton and the cauldron of strong black ale, the Ol nguala, kept most content.

Deirdre pushed back her long fair hair and peeped cautiously down from behind one of the beams in the gallery for a moment, her gaze flitting across the hall at the men clustered at the high table, – old men, all of them, she thought, – Fergus the Gullible and his cold, aloof wife, Ness, with Conall Cernach while Bricriu of the bitter tongue lolled beside them.

Conor and his half-wit son, Crúscraid the stammerer, sat with her father, Phelim, at the end of the high table. Conor’s lank, stringy hair was already tinged with grey, his eyes dark and hooded, his features drawn, but it was his hands that drew Deirdre’s attention. Old man’s hands, she thought with a shudder. Thin and scrawny, mottled with brown grave spots, they were the talons of a rapacious bird of prey, sharp and grasping.

***

Deirdre crept down from the gallery and returned to her nanny on the porch at the back of the hall. Gloomily, she watched the bondsman expertly sectioning the carcase for the feast later that evening. How could her father afford such extravagance, she wondered briefly. She shivered and pulled her cloak closer around her before turning to her lifelong companion.

“Did you not see his face? So lined and wrinkled and dark? And his hands, old and blotched with grave marks – he is an old man, I tell you!” Deirdre cried

“Sure what do you know of old men, my love?” Levarcham, Deirdre’s childhood nurse, asked. “Isn’t he the king himself and he does you and your father great honour?”

“I know all of that, nanny,” Deirdre cried. “ I have heard the stories all my life and why I should be grateful to the king but … oh, I don’t know, but there must be more to my life than that.”

“You owe your very life to him, you know,” Levarcham sniffed and cuffed her red nose with the sleeve of her soiled tunic. “After Cathbad named you and described your future, many of the lords present wanted you killed there and then to avert any disaster. But Conor stopped them all. He rose up and held you in his arms, he pressed you to his heart and then hoisted you up high for all to see. She lives! He cried out. And she will be mine when she comes of age and the tide of fortune will be controlled.”

“I know all of that, nanny,” Deirdre said again, “I tell you, but have you never felt a desire, a need for just once in your life to express yourself, to be free, away from all these dark forebodings. I want simple, strong things. I want everything to be in sharp contrast for me. I don’t want old stories, prophecies and poems, I have youth and I want life. You know, I dreamt last night of a young man, his form upright and commanding, his hair as dark as that crow there, his skin as soft and pure and white as the snow while the full blush of manly youth shaded his cheeks like the red of the blood there,” Deirdre nodded her head towards a crow pushing its beak into the crimson coloured snow, the steam still rising form the carcase of another calf the bondsman had just finished butchering.

***

“One look, I’m telling you, just one look is all I want. I just want to see her before she goes to Conor’s bed.”

“You’re a mad one, Naoise,” Ainle his brother jeered. “You know she is as unobtainable to you as the salmon of knowledge is, so why torment yourself with something you’ve never seen and will certainly never have.”

“I’m telling you, I just want to see if she is as beautiful as they say. One look can’t hurt, now can it? Or is it that you are afraid of old women’s tales and the wrath of a king?” Naoise jeered.

“Come on, boyo, relax, sure isn’t she just another girl in the long run?” Ardan laughed, stretching his long legs in front of him.

The three brothers, the sons of Uísliu, were sitting together in a corner of the outer courtyard, idly drinking and playing at dice, waiting for the feast to mark Conor’s arrival to take up the oath he had made so long ago.

“Easy for you to laugh, boyo, sure weren’t you out all last night chasing young wans,” Naoise smiled, “and you didn’t catch me trying to talk some sense into you, did you now?”

“Deirdre of the Sorrows, Cathbad called her,” mused Ainle. “Must be a reason for that. You’ll be telling me next that you can take away her sorrows,” he teased his older brother.

“By Lugh’s hand, you’re in luck so,” said Ardan, “here she comes, look! Now’s your chance.”

Naoise jumped up and looked across the courtyard. Quickly he stepped back, away from his brothers and slipped behind one of the pillars supporting the inner gallery. Deirdre was more beautiful than Naoise had ever imagined any woman could be, and he and both his brothers were well known to many of the girls in the area, but she – Deirdre – was the most enchanting person Naoise had ever seen. Her long fair hair, the colour of sun-ripened wheat was pulled back from her high forehead with a slender hoop of woven gold and fell in a plait, tied with a strip of ribbon, to the small of her back, while her skin had a translucent hue to it as if it were lit from within. A cloak of fine wool, dyed a deep Parthian red, seemed to float on the air behind her as she walked, while her simple tunic of bleached linen moulded itself to her slender form. Before he could help himself, Naoise blurted out “Aren’t you the fine young heifer, wandering around alone by yourself there?”

Taken unawares, Deirdre swung around, startled, and snapped curtly “Sure, why wouldn’t I be, there are no bulls nearby, are there?”

Aghast at what she had just said, Deidre paused to take in the young man who had accosted her so suddenly and importunely.

Tall and upright, the lean young man looked battle hardened but there was still something that attracted the eye, a handsomeness that defied explanation. A thick lock of black hair fell over his forehead and, as Deirdre looked, he flicked it back with a toss of his head. Dark brown eyes intensified the whiteness of his skin, which was further deepened by the soft blush on his cheeks.

“The way I hear it, you have the greatest bull of all, king Conor himself,” Naoise replied boldly, stepping closer to her.

“Arragh, how can an old bull match a young one like yourself for strength?” Deirdre said from the depths of her heart, remembering Conor’s wrinkled, mottled hands.

“But, but there’s the prophecy… Cathbad the draoidh said that.,” Naoise stammered, his heart hammering in his chest.

“And is it you that is afraid of an old man’s words? Would you reject me for an old man?”

Naoise could feel the blood burning in his cheeks. His tongue felt heavy in his mouth and he shuffled his feet awkwardly.

“No, no, I wouldn’t but there’s the prophecy and the …”

“Come here to me, you,” Deirdre grabbed Naoise’s two ears and pulled them hard, dragging his face down to her level.

“May you have two ears of shame and mockery from this time on if you have the nerve to reject me.”

Get away from me woman, Naoise wanted to cry before Deirdre’s hot breath caressed his face, her blue eyes boring into his, her long nails digging into his ears, his senses dissolving from her sweet perfume and then her lips touched his and seemed to fuse together while the tip of her tongue caressed his lips and slipped inside.

“Too late, we will never leave each other,” Deirdre murmured, cupping his face in her two hands.

***

“By all the gods, Naoise, what in Lugh’s name have you done? Don’t you have a lick of sense in you to realize that …” Ainle broke off, as Deirdre’s gaze fell on him, her beauty silencing his outburst.

“Lookit, what’s done is done, we all know that great evil will come from this for none of us can forestall the prophecy made by Cathbad so long ago. But it is not the prophecy I am worried about. It’s what Conor will do when he finds his prize with us. We have got to move now,” Ardan the practical, interposed breaking the sudden silence that surrounded them all so completely, the silence of conspirators.

“Naoise, my beloved, your brother is right – we can’t stay here now for I fear Conor’s wrath when he discovers that I am gone,” Deirdre cried, clinging to Naoise’s arm.

“Conor will not rest until he has destroyed you, brother and as for you, lady, Lugh alone know what he will do with you to slake his anger and his vengeance,” Ainle added.

“You’re right there,” Ardan said. “The feast will start when the sun goes down and it is not far from the horizon now. We have no time to lose. We must collect our arms, our retainers and bondsmen and flee from here – now!”

***

The long trestle table was littered with the remains of ham bones and gristle amid the puddles of spilled drink, men on either side of the boards talking or hammering time with their fists or the hafts of their knives to the beat of the flat goatskin drums. Conor leaned back in the high chair at the top table and gazed up at the candles and oil lamps flickering around the harpers on the gallery above. The music and the heat in the hall throbbed around him and thoughts about the young girl he had not seen now for several seasons flowed pleasantly through his mind. Tonight, he promised himself, she would be his. All those years ago, the scream that night, Cathbad and his prophecies and the vow that he, Conor, had made, all that and more and now there would be an end to it. For tonight she would be his queen and in his bed.

Bricriu belched and leaned forward to pour more of the black brew into Conor’s cup before helping himself. “I’ll say this for your man, the food and drink is nourishing enough, but by the Púca’s bollix, I could do without the ould music up there” he scowled up at the harpers.

“Wwwwould you guh-guh-guh-go on out o’ that, muh-muh man?” Crúscraid said, knocking his mug over in his excitement. “Shu-shu-Sure aren’t we in Phe-Phe-Phelim’s hall and he the kuh-kuh-king’s own buh-buh-buh-bard and storyteller.”

“Speaking of the man himself, where is he?” Fergus glanced around the dimly lit hall. Conor leaned back in his chair, his mind full of Deirdre’s fabled beauty, his bushy eyebrows pulled down over sunken eyes. Below the high table, retainers and warriors of the Craobh Ruadh were scattered along the length of the hall, some still eating while others hoarsely cheered the few men on their feet drunkenly whirling to a wild reel played by a piper in one corner.

“There’s your man now,” Bricriu nudged Fergus, “Look!”

Phelim had just edged around the main door of the hall before approaching and crouching sheepishly behind Conor’s chair. Fergus watched idly as the harper bent forward and whispered something in Conor’s ear.

With a roar, Conor surged to his feet, startling the hound lying under his chair. “Wha? What do yis mean, gone? Gone where ……my bollix! Who? Gone with who.” Conor roared, his face purpling with rage.

“My lord,” Phelim cringed, his voice shaking, “Her nurse, Levarcham, said that she had run off with the sons of Uísliu.”

“Why would she do that?” Conor grabbed Phelim by the front of his tunic and began shaking him.

“It mmmmmight not bbbbbe that she ran off with him, but that he ababababducted her,” Crúscraid said, placatingly.

Bricriu leaned forward, “The lad’s right. All three of them could have done that, right enough.”

Fergus shook his head at Conor and the king let go of Phelim and pushed him away before sitting down and reaching for his cup.

“Kidnapped, wha’? I’ll cut the bollix off the lot of them. The sons of Uísliu, you say, the three of them?

“Where have they gone? Cathbad had just appeared from behind a screen at the rear of the hall and Fergus was surprised to see the intensity on the draoidh’s drawn face.

“They were said to be riding to the north, my lord.” Phelim volunteered.

“Send after them,” the draoidh snapped. “Do it now, before this goes any further.” He whirled on his feet and glared at Conor before stalking away, his staff clicking on the stone floor.

To Be Continued