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 & Death – Part 2

Dál Riata

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

To Be Continued.