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