The cold, grey sea surged up, sucking the pebbles away from under Deirdre’s feet where she stood on the empty, stony strand. The three ships sat low in the water as she watched the brothers’ bondsmen and retainers load their bales and weapons.
“We’ll be safe over there,” Naoise murmured pulling her close, his warm red lips nuzzling the soft skin of her neck. “That mad ould’ bastard won’t be able to reach us there in Dál Riata,” he promised.
Deirdre shuddered and pulled Naoise closer, her arms around his waist, allowing him to lift her over the gunwale of the small ship and guide her to a place in the sheltered stern where he pulled a deerskin hide around her. The woven cords, running up the heavy sail and to the steering oar beside her, creaked as the ship responded to the offshore swell under the bite of a cold northeast wind.
Long days and even longer nights had passed since she had met him, half pulling the ears off him before they kissed but already blood had been spilt as the brothers led their bondsmen and Deirdre away into the wild north of the kingdom, pursued by the jealousy of an outraged king.
One night of snatched passion had been followed by days and nights of flight, discovery by clans sworn to the king, challenges and skirmishes and Deirdre knew that there could be no respite while they remained within the kingdom of the Ulaidh.
The coast was now in sight, a grey green slash to the east and as the light grew, she could see the mouth of the loch, its sheer banks narrowing, bringing with it the smell of rich, dark soil. Stark forests, untouched yet by the rising sun, formed impenetrable barriers on either side of the loch but as they continued eastwards, the loch widened until Deirdre could barely see the other shore and then the keel of the swan-bellied boat grated harshly on the jumbled pebbles of a small crescent beach.
They had sailed north from the strand at Dún Sobairce with Conor’s men at their heels and threaded their way through the barren islets of Dál Riata before turning towards the direction of the rising sun and entering the dark waters of the sea loch. Deirdre stood up, stretching her cramped legs and braced herself on the mast and looked around. A long rocky, heavily forested, inlet stretched behind them as far as the open sea. In the half light of a nacreous dawn, nothing stirred and no bird or animal called, the only sound being dark loch water lapping the pebbled shore while a cold breeze soughed through the tall trees crowding the shoreline, encircling the small crescent beach where the three boats had pulled up on, but in the growing light Deirdre could see the bulk of the highlands rising up from where they swept down to the shore.
“It’s all right my love,” Naoise said, “We are safe now and here we will make our home – but not in this desolate spot, though, I promise”
Deirdre turned towards him and snuggled closer, feeling the heat of his body through the linen tunic he wore. Naoise put his arm around her and pulled her closer still, tugging her cloak around them both. Gently, he slipped his fingers under her chin, lifting her face up towards him, his heart overflowing with the love he felt for her.
“I know, my lord, and I am full content with the ground and the stars and the trees, the mountains and the sea, the glens and the forests as long as you are by my side.” Deirdre shook back her long golden hair and smiled up at Naoise, “I will always feel safe with you, my lord, and with such proud warriors as your brothers, Ardan and Ainle, to whom I now owe my life and my allegiance.”
“Right then so,” Ardan suggested, clapping his hands together briskly, “let’s stop here for the day and rest. We can light a fire and I’m sure there are good fish in this loch, even if the waters are so dark. Once we have something to eat and dry clothes, we’ll all feel better. Here, catch, Ainle.”
Ardan began to throw bales of goods from the swan-bellied ship that had breasted the waves so swiftly from the kingdom of the Ulaidh to this desolate shore in Dál Riata where Ainle now stood.
“Well, big brother,” Ardan turned the fish, skewered on a stripped green twig, over the low burning wood fire, squinting as the smoke blew in his eyes, “We can’t complain about the fishing here, and I‘m sure the hunting is good in the mountain yonder, but what do we do now?”
“Do?” laughed Ainle, “ I think you just mentioned it – fishing and hunting – what more could a man want in life. Here we are lords of all we see and by the strength of my sword arm, I mean to make it mine.”
“This land must belong to someone, some chieftain, someone we must meet and pay our respects to,” Naoise mused, flicking back the heavy lock of dark hair that Deirdre loved so much. “We have to greet this chieftain and offer our services in return for his protection”.
“I fear that the prophecy made at my birth might yet haunt me here,” Deirdre said apprehensively. “Even here, heroes will contend for me and already I have pulled you, the fairest of the Craobh Ruadh, into exile here in this desolate spot.”
“Truly, you have done so,” Ainle grinned, “so that, we, the three sons of Uísliu, may defend you and gain honour and renown, my lady, thereby merely receiving some of the glory reflected from one so beautiful as you.
“He’s right of course, Deedee,” Naoise murmured, pulling Deirdre closer to him, “but would you ever listen to the honey mouth on him!”
Ardan led the way up from the shore, following the scat and the faint tracks of deer and boar, the air heavy and cold with no trace of wood smoke. The valleys here were sheer and the forested slopes thick with undergrowth. It had rained earlier, soaking into their cloaks and chilling them to the bone as they climbed up towards the towering mountains. All around them was impenetrable silence, made all the more eerie by the drifts of mists that seemed to float everywhere. Tall trees and thick undergrowth blocked their view and stooping sometimes under the heavy wet boughs, the group continued to climb upwards.
Long before they broke out from under cover they could smell the village. The rancid smell of animal fat and the raw stink of the cesspool mingled with the stench of unwashed bodies living close beside their animals. The summit of the hilltop was surrounded by a ramped earthen wall, while an outer ring of roughly hewn logs, sharpened and fire-hardened faced outwards at an angle, their bases embedded solidly in the ground. Several thatch and wattle hovels clustered near the one gate which led into the mound and that was overlooked by walled platforms. Shaggy, armed men peered down the hillside.
Outside the outer mound and descending down the cleared slopes of the hill towards the encroaching forest, scattered huts nudged small plots of fenced land. Crops of oats and barley were well tended in small pastures and long horned cattle swung their heavy heads and gazed dully at their surroundings.
Peering from well within the sheltering tree line, the brothers considered their position.
“It looks both prosperous and well-defended,” Ardan ventured. “So what do?”
“All the better,” broke in Ainle excitedly, “if we circle around the back, we may well be able to take them by surprise. Then we…”
“Little brother, hold,” Naoise put out his hand and grasped Ainle’s arm. “We are not here for spoils of war or raiding, we need to seek sanctuary and establish where we are and what service we can provide. I want more for Deirdre than living in the wilds and being hunted down like a fugitive.”
“He’s right,” Ardan agreed. “Don’t worry, brother, there will be many opportunities to fight and to show your prowess of which we all know you possess.”
Standing up straight, Naoise stepped forth from the undergrowth and called out, brandishing his linden shield and long ash spear in one hand while thrusting his heavy iron sword skywards.
“Hear me, gatekeeper, before you stand the three sons of Uísliu, of the kingdom of the Ulaidh, warriors unbeaten and valourous in the strife of battle, hardened in war and conflict, victorious in all encounters, who come in friendship and with greetings”.
Brass trumpets blared from within the mound and Naoise and his brothers could see a flurry of activity on the gate platforms with men shouting up and down to each other. Shortly afterwards, the heavy wooden gate leading into the mound was dragged open and a troop of men, surrounding their chieftain, appeared to meet the slowly advancing exiles.
Short, stocky with a broad chest covered with a thick pelt of greying hair, Marog, his belly thrust forward, farted contemptuously and examined the newcomers curiously, noting their iron weapons and fine clothes.
“Greetings, men of Ulaidh from Marog, chieftain of Dún Broch. Long has it been since such fine warriors from overseas have visited us. Welcome to the home of Marog, the Strong but your purpose here is unclear.” Marog squinted suspiciously at them. “Is it shelter and protection you are after here or do you mean to harry us with those fine weapons we see you hold so stoutly?”
Coarse laughter erupted from the throng of stunted men crowding curiously behind their squat chieftain.
Ainle’s hand tightened on the hilt of his long blade and he made to step forward challengingly but Naoise stopped him with a small gesture.
“Aye, my lord,” Naoise advanced half a pace and stopped, bowing courteously. “You have but some truth in what you say and in exchange for sanctuary within your stronghold, we place our weapons and our strong arms at your service.”
Marog paused, his small eyes fixed on the slim hooded figure behind the broad shoulders of the young men in front of him. A woman it would be, he thought to himself, and demure too, by the look of her.
“Come then, sons of Uísliu, for even here, in the highlands, have we heard of your illustrious names and the honour with which they are carried. Come, let us drink to our alliance for we have many foemen who would eagerly seek our kine and kith and kin.”
Stamping triumphantly on the muddy ground at his feet, Marog led the brothers, leering the while at Deirdre, into his rudely fortified palisade.
Naoise examined the layout of the ground in front of the village of mean huts, encircled by a rude rampart of thrown up earth surmounted by wooden stakes. Perhaps a score of huts huddled round a slightly larger wooden building ornamented with a sweep of oxen horn over the gable end. Behind the village the rough ground sloped away into tough gorse and heather while to the right of the village some oxen and sheep were penned. To the left, the ground fell away towards the loch, fed by a small stream which flowed under a corner of the crude ramparts.
In return for Marog’s hospitality, and true to the offer they had made him, the brothers had been in the van of many fights now with Marog’s enemies in the continual raiding of rival chieftain’s cattle and property. Each time, honour bound, Naoise had gone at Marog’s command, but each time he became ever more conscious of Marog’s covetous eye and his increasing desire to see his hooded woman. Each raid became a concern, not for his own safety or that of his brothers, but for the woman they had to leave behind with a handful of their trusted retainers, and each time he was ever more anxious to return to Deirdre.
Directly in front, the Pict barbarians were assembling in a noisy jostling crowd, pushing and shoving at each other to get into the foremost line of men. Naoise shivered slightly and glanced down the line of men on either side of him. His right hand loosened the sword in the scabbard at his waist while his left hefted the oval shield. “Check your weapons” he called out. In this cold, wet climate, swords and daggers often jammed in their sheathes, delaying a warrior for half a heartbeat and, Naoise knew, half a heartbeat was all it took for an enemy to plunge a sword deep into soft innards.
The braying of the brass horns deepened and the cacophony of noise seemed to reach a new crescendo as the Pictish warriors, small and sinewy, massed in front of their village. Roaring their defiance, brandishing their weapons, the Picts capered and cavorted, taunting Naoise and his companions.
The cold air was bitter with the smell of urine and lime which the clansmen had rubbed into their hair to stiffen and tease it out into fantastic shapes, underlined with the peaty smell of smoke from the squalid village. A rumbling sound announced the arrival of the Pictish chieftain on a small wicker chariot, pulled by two wiry horses. As the chariot rolled between the massed ranks of men, the rider, a sturdy brute in a wolfskin cloak, his bald head pale in contrast to his thick and matted red beard which did little to hide his pitted and poxed skin, thrust a javelin skywards and bawled out a challenge to single combat.
Naoise half drew his sword and the rasp of the heavy iron blade against the brass lip of the sheath made Ainle glance towards his brother. “Give me the honour, brother, this time.”
Naoise smiled briefly before shaking his head. Ainle, while strong and fleet, was a full three summers younger than Naoise and lacked the experience to go up against a hardened veteran the Pictish chieftain appeared to be. Stepping forward from the ranks, Naoise flung both arms out to the side, exposing his defenceless body to the enemy.
“Listen and fear, tremble all of you before the might of Naoise, son of Uísliu, giver of rings and cups, descended from the kings of the Ulaidh, noble in blood and in heart, fierce in battle, undefeated in strife.” Clashing his heavy iron sword against the raised boss on his shield, he brandished the weapons skyward.
The Pict, eyes fierce beneath a low brow, hopped from the chariot platform and made a series of short rushing steps towards Naoise before pausing and spitting a thick jet of mucous on the ground between them. Armed with a short stabbing spear and a round leather shield, he circled round Naoise cautiously, eying the tall dark haired man armed with the long iron sword and bright torc of gold around his neck. Naoise stood rock still, his gaze fixed on the small dark eyes of the man in front of him. Shuffling every closer, lunging with the stabbing spear, and then stepping back unnecessarily, the Pict edged crab-like around the still form. Naoise waited, judging the time when the Pict would feel close enough to reach him with a spear thrust, and waited for the flicker of the man’s hard eyes which, he knew, would signal the death rush.
Batting the sudden thrust towards his groin away with his shield, Naoise swung the shield up and round to the left, pushing the central bronze boss hard into the man’s face, hearing the crunch of his nose. Staggering back under the impact, the Pictish chieftain’s shield hung wide and Naoise sliced his sword across the man’s torso, opening a thick weal of red blood across the matted hair. An astonished look crossed the chieftain face and he stopped short, looking down at the blood welling from the deep slice. Naoise stepped back out of immediate range of the short stabbing spear, now pointed aimlessly at the wet ground, and spun lightly on his heel. His blade, a whirling rush the clan chieftain was relatively unaware of, struck hard on the angle between head and shoulder and opened the man down to the far side of his chest.
Wrenching the blade free with a twist of his wrist, Naoise sprang past the slumped body and urged his line of men to sweep down on the remaining warriors. Already the timbre of the noise had changed from the frantic braying of the horns to the panicked cries of the leaderless Picts. Dodging under the wildly swung sword of one stocky warrior, Naoise plunged his sword into his belly and then used his booted foot to push the screaming man off his blade before slashing it across the neck of a man fighting with his younger brother, Ardan. Grinning his thanks, Ardan plunged on, his shield crashing against shields while his sword hammered heads and ribs, slipping beneath shields to rip up through unprotected thighs and soft bellies, into what was fast becoming a melee. Out of the corner of his eye, Naoise saw his little brother rush forward confidently, thrusting his sword over a clansman’s round shield and stepping back, parrying his attack so the blades clashed harshly in the damp air. Ainle parried quickly again and riposted fast before swinging his sword at the man’s bare legs and when the man dropped his own sword to block the stroke, he kicked the short bronze blade aside and lunged forward, thrusting his sword into the man’s unprotected neck. Moments later, the dispirited Picts broke and ran under the disciplined approach of Naoise, his brothers and their band of warriors.
Naoise slid the stone down the length of his oiled blade, concentrating on bringing the edge back to its keenness. Deirdre knelt behind him, her gentle hands kneading the aching muscles of his back and shoulders. Ainle was eagerly reviewing his part in the skirmish with Ardan, turning the spitted haunch of venison over the low fire in the centre of the hut Marog had provided for them. The warriors had returned to Marog’s village, tired but jubilant, driving the captured cattle in front of them, leading the defeated clansmen, yoked at the neck with braided rawhide thongs, and carrying the few spoils the Picts settlement had yielded, some small, pitted cauldrons, animal skins and a sack of rock salt. Marog had accepted the spoils gruffly, eyes darting at the hooded figure of Deirdre at Naoise’s side before dismissing the brothers with an abrupt wave of his paw.
“I don’t like the way Marog and those men look at me,” Deirdre said, sitting back and pulling the hood of her cloak closer around her face as if her words had reminded her of Marog’s interest in her.
“My poor love, you will have to give men leave to look upon you for that is the lot of pretty women the world over. Men have eyes for a good reason and that is to feast them on such a beauty as you are. Ask any man and there is no one who would turn their eyes away from such beauty even for fear of being blinded.”
“Now who is the one with the honeyed tongue?” Ainle jeered.
“No, what I mean is the way Marog’s men look at me – and all of us – it is not just lust but there is something else, I fear, greed, avarice, perhaps yet even more.” Deirdre complained.
“Do not overly worry your pretty head, my love, tomorrow we will talk to Marog, and we tell him it is our custom to have quarters outside these walls.”
“Sshh, Naoise, wake up, can you not hear that?” Deirdre whispered, caressing her lover awake. The darkness within the hut was absolute but Naoise could hear the rustle of men moving stealthily outside. Ardan and Ainle, already alerted by Deirdre’s whisper, were already reaching for their weapons when the first firebrand landed on the thatch roof, quickly setting it ablaze.
“This way, quick!” Ardan called, and with furious slashes of his broad sword, he hacked a gap in the wattle and daub wall opposite the low porch of the hut.
‘Watch out!” Ainle warned, as another burning brand landed on the earthen floor through the exposed gap in the roof, now burning fiercely, showing Deirdre’s drawn face pale in the ruddy glow of the flames.
Ardan scrambled out thought the gap he had made, his long shield held protectively above his head, his long sword in his right hand. A spear jabbing down from above was swept aside by his sword while his sharp-rimed shield swung hard against the unprotected legs of his attacker, toppling him, screaming to the ground. Ainle, right behind him, stabbed down with a short dagger, finding the man’s throat, pinning him to the ground. Naoise ducked and pulled Deirdre behind him, protected by his oval shield while Ainle slashed wildly round him, and Ardan barged his bloody shield into the face of a new attacker, the heavy bronze boss crushing the man’s eye before he swung the shield horizontally, the sharpened rim hewing into his neck, arterial blood hissing into the flames of the hut, now burning fiercely, as he ducked the frenzied swing of a bronze sword. Naoise had just time to parry a savage blow and as his attacker turned sideways to avoid the downswing of his sword, he kicked the side of the man’s knee, felling him to the ground where Ainle effortlessly finished him off.
Forming a rough circle with Deirdre in the middle, the three brothers charged the disorganized rabble with Marog urging his men on with guttural calls. Ainle in the van, feinted at the leading attacker and as his opponent raised his shield and sword protectively, Ainle kicked him in the bollix and ran, panting, past to meet the next. Slashing, stabbing forward, their shields both defensive and offensive weapons, the brothers stamped their way through the thin line of attackers and away into the darkness outside the glare of the burning hut, collapsing into its own ashes now. Naoise, in the rear, spun on his heel blocking with his long shield as Marog, his squat face distorted with rage at the loss the woman he lusted after above all things, jabbed his spear forward at her protector. The gaze of her crystal blue eyes and the windblown softness of her fine gold hair had maddened him and his attempts to separate the woman from the three men had all failed, despite putting them in the van of every battle. Infuriated too, at the failure of his night assault, he lunged forward with his short spear, twisting away from Naoise’s sword swing which would have bitten deep into the shorter man’s shoulder. Naoise swung the flat of his shield into Marog’s ribs, and as the chieftain stumbled back, he thrust his sword deep into his unprotected belly.
To Be Continued.