I see it in my mind as though it were yesterday. It seems strange, but now I can see the flapping of The Morrigan’s wings, everything that had become misty through time, I see with clarity. Although my eyes are dulled by pain, my mind is sharp as a boar spear. Yes, yes, your impatience is obvious in your fidgeting. I will tell all, but it will be in my own time. You can wait for my death but not for my story? But then you are waiting, aren’t you? You fear her too much to leave, and you fear me too much to act, I warrant.
So, to my tale.
It was late afternoon when I first met the warrior. The sun was falling slowly from the sky, approaching the eaves of the forest in the mountains where my father had chosen to hide us. It had been a normal day. Chores completed, I was hurling with Diarmuid and the others. Da was chopping wood and Ma was cooking, as she always seemed to be. Cooking or washing our clothes in the Dargle, anyway. I remember smelling the smoke of the cook fire and beginning to salivate over thoughts of fresh venison and oats, tiring of the game. I was just wondering if always winning could be as tiresome as never winning, and thought to ask Diarmuid, when he stopped and looked over my shoulder at the rise.
‘He looks like he has just fought a hard battle,’ he said with a nod.
I scoffed and shook my head. ‘You think I will fall for that, Diarmuid? I am not as thick as you think. You want the sliotar, you will have to take it by force.’
‘No, really, Seti. He has a bandage on his head and on his arm. His horse is skittish too. I swear on The Morrigan. He is a warrior.’
‘And what in the name of The Morrigan would a warrior be doing in this Gods’ forsaken dung heap? They have better things to do…’ and then a horse neighed, so I looked.
The man sitting at the top of the rise had the look of one in need of rest. The bandages were as Diarmuid had said, and blood-stained. He was one who had seen hard battles, I supposed. I had never seen a warrior before, hiding in the mountains because of the fears of my father, I had never seen anything of interest, let alone a warrior or a princess, a king or a queen. Those things, until that day, had been the stuff of my dreams and my father’s drunken stories.
‘Now, there is a warrior if ever I saw one,’ I said, with a knowledgeable nod.
‘What was I telling you. A warrior here in the Wicklow Mountains. Never thought I would see it happen. Blooded too.’
‘You think the rumours of invasion are true?’ I asked of no one. Travellers had been in the forest, running from reavers, they said. Da said they were just looking for a free meal and to ignore them. But seeing the warrior sitting at the top of the rise, I had my doubts.
My prayers that he would continue to the settlement were answered when the man kicked his horse into motion, and they started down the path. I stood my hurley between my feet and leant on it to watch him come. He seemed in no hurry the gait of his horse easy. My chest heaved with excitement. It was as though my life’s meaning was riding down the slope. I had thought I would spend my days tilling the hard ground, trying to make enough to live on, back bent by the labour, gut distended because of the mead necessary to forget the hardness of life, a wife and children on whom to beat out my frustrations.
As he neared, I could see he was no longer young. His hair was greying at the temples, below the dirty bandage. His bare forearms showed the scars of many sword strokes.
‘Are you straight from battle, warrior?’ I asked, as he reined in beside us. He frowned down. The sun was behind me, and I knew he could see little.
I was about to repeat my question when Diarmuid shouted, ‘Look Lámthapad,’ pointing at the red and black shield, where it was hanging over the horse’s rump. ‘It is the shield of the Ulster champion. Are you he, Conall Cernach, the captain of the Red Branch?’
‘Is it true? Have you just ridden from battle?’ I repeated.
‘Enough,’ the warrior’s voice carried power and we stopped, holding our collective breaths. ‘Who is chieftain of this settlement?’
‘My father,’ I said.
‘Which is your homestead, boy?’
‘It is there. The second one. You can see my father chopping wood,’ I pointed my hurley for emphasis.
The warrior said nothing more. He turned his horse in the direction of our small roundhouse and said, ‘Ride on, Dornoll.’ The horse obeyed with the same easiness she had shown walking down the slope. We abandoned our game and followed them, seeming to reach a silent agreement to go and listen. Whatever the warrior wanted it was bound to be of more interest than a tired game of hurling.
‘Well met, farmer,’ I heard the warrior say as he reined in his mount.
My father did not respond immediately but straightened his back as much as it would go and leant on his axe, one hand shielding his eyes from the setting sun.
‘And who might you be, stranger?’ he asked, in a tone that was in no way welcoming. ‘Or more to the point, what are you doing in my glen? There is nothing here for the high and the mighty.’
‘I am lost. Seeking my way to Tara.’
‘Over there, the deer track will bring you to Slíghe Chualann,’ da pointed his axe at the other side of the glen. ‘Follow it north and you will come to Tara. Good day to you.’
‘Da, da, look it is the champion of The Ulaid,’ I said, trying to delay the warrior’s parting.
‘I did not say I was the champion of anywhere, boy.’
‘If you are not Conchobar Mac Nessa’s man, why do you have Lámthapad hanging over your horse’s arse?’ da asked.
‘You seem to know a great deal for someone hiding in the Chualann forest,’ the warrior said, looking back at the shield with a frown.
‘I know enough to keep my family safe.’
‘How do you know it is Lámthapad? It might be a fake?’ Da shook his head and smiled. Even I smiled at the futile attempt of the warrior to keep his name to himself.
‘My brother is a blacksmith. I know white gold when I see it. If the shield is false, it is a very costly affectation.’ My father looked over at the darkening forest before turning back and saying, ‘The deer track is yonder. You should be on your way before night keeps you here in the glen,’ where you are not welcome, da’s eyes said, even though his mouth did not have the courage to utter the words.
I expected the warrior to drawer his sword or crush da’s head with the war hammer strapped across his back. Instead, he shook his head, sighed, crossed his wrists over the horn of his saddle and said, ‘I need a favour of you.’
‘What is it you want?’
‘What is it I want, man? As you rightly just said, night is upon us. I was looking for succour until the dawn. I have ridden long and hard with news for Tara.’
My father looked away, deep in thought. It was obvious he did not want to play host to a warrior known for his ability with all weapons, but nor did he want to offend. Like us all, da had heard of Conall Cernach. He probably thought he was standing before a man who would use the hammer resting across his back without thinking. My da surprised me then for the only time in my life. I had not thought it possible a vindictive and cowardly man would have it in him when he said, ‘You can sleep in the ox shed.’
‘The ox shed…’ the warrior started, his hand drifting towards the hilt of his sword.
‘I do not mean offence, lord,’ da interrupted, seeing the rising anger in the warrior. ‘There is not enough room for you to sleep in the roundhouse, my apologies. The shed is warm, not overly fragrant, but warm. You may eat with us, then, I am sorry, you must retire.’
The warrior also surprised me when he said, ‘I thank you for your hospitality,’ before dismounting and rubbing the backs of his legs.
‘Is there somewhere I can water the horse?’
‘The ox shed is under the eaves, there,’ da pointed. ‘There is straw inside and a trough with water at the side. Do not startle the ox, it is a temperamental beast at the best of times. You boys go home. There is nothing to see here.’ Saying which, da returned to his chopping and the warrior walked his horse to the ox shed.
I nodded at Diarmuid as he backed away, before following the aging warrior, keeping my thoughts to myself. I did not want to be sent away. I wanted this man to tell me all about the life of the Five Kingdoms I had missed. I wanted him to tell me why he was carrying wounds. I wanted him to tell me what was in the leather sack slung over his mare’s neck. The sack that looked suspiciously round and seemed to have blood caked to its base.
When he reached the shed, the warrior put his clenched fists into the small of his back and stretched with a groan. His horse skittered as he took off her saddle. I could feel the oppression of the forest that was making her nervous. Wolves were howling. Mists were rising from the forest floor. The night was always a time that was best spent under the thatch of the roundhouse, beside the fire with the aromas of cooking and the safety of deep sunk timbers.
‘You feel it too, Dornoll?’ he asked, patting her neck and feeding her a handful of oats from his saddlebags. She tossed her head and neighed. I watched the warrior duck into the ox shed and reappear with two fistfuls of straw. He began to wipe down the mare’s flanks, lovingly, cooing as he did so.
I could not resist and asked, ‘What is in the sack?’
‘What do you want, boy?’ the warrior asked, without looking away from his work.
‘Nothing,’ I shrugged, unsure what to say.
‘Nothing, he says. Well then, get lost. I do not like children at the best of times, but nosey children annoy me.’
‘I am not a child,’ I said, knowing that compared to the old man grooming his horse, I was hardly a man. When he lifted the back of his hand, as if to give me a swipe, I ran, but only as far as the eaves from where I could see without being seen.
When he had finished wiping down his mare and had hobbled her beside the shed where she could reach the water trough, the warrior returned to our roundhouse and knocked on the upright at the entrance before lifting the oxhide cover.
‘Enter, warrior, be welcome at our table,’ I heard da say from within. Again, his tone did not lend credence to his words. I ran around the side nearest to the deer path and propped myself against the logs next to a small crack, where I knew I could hear without being seen.
‘What is your name?’ the warrior asked.
‘I am Tiubh, and she is my wife, Gránna.’
‘Where is the boy?’
I nearly laughed when I heard da say, ‘He is using the last of the light to finish his game. As he always does before nightfall. No controlling the brat.’
‘He asks a lot of questions.’
‘Yes. The curiosity of youth. Mead?’ There was a pause. I suppose da was pouring the sweet liquid. Perhaps they were both a little nervous in the company of strangers.
‘I heard rumours of an invasion,’ da said, after the awkward silence.
‘It has been quashed the invaders put to the sword. More,’ with a thump of flagon on the tabletop.
‘And the leader of the invasion?’
‘What of the high king?’
‘What of the high king, the bull’s ball sack asks. I can see where the lad gets his curiosity.’
‘I did not mean offence, lord. As a farmer, I need to know I am safe to continue tilling the soil. I need to know if the Peaceful King is alive. I need to know whether I should take my family and hide in the forest.’
‘Are you not already hiding in the forest?’
‘I meant deeper in the forest.’
‘I know, I know,’ followed by another pause. I could see in my mind the warrior holding up a hand, a mixture of impatience and tact. ‘He died at the hands of Ingcél, the leader of the invasion. The Briton executed him after the battle at the hostel in Glencree. Put his head on a cairn and stole all the horses.’
I felt my heart quicken at the news. I had never seen the High King. Hiding in the mountains, we did not feel the effects of his time of peace. But we did listen to the occasional traveller who spoke of his generosity of spirit. He was known as the Peaceful King. To hear that he had died, seemed to be something of an omen to my young mind.
‘There was a battle at Da’s?’ I heard my father ask. He was familiar with the hostel in the valley of Glencree. He and the other men in the settlement would often ride the miles to drink and talk to strangers about what passed in the Five Kingdoms. Those were the times when I would hear my mother whimpering in the night in time with his animal grunting and would invariably get a beating the morning after.
‘Yes, the high king’s entourage were slaughtered defending him.’
‘What of Da Derga?’
‘Dead as far as I know. The hostel is in ruin. The gates nothing but blackened wood. If he lived, I am sure he would have repaired them by now.’
‘So, there will be an assembly to select a new high king?’
‘There will, but I do not expect any quick resolution. Conery’s only heir escaped before the battle at the hostel. No one knows where he is and there are no suitable replacements that I can think of.’
‘What of your king, Conchobar Mac Nessa?’
‘As I said, I can think of no suitable replacements.’
Da hesitated then. I knew he was dying to ask more about the possible replacements. I guessed the warrior was looking at da in the same way as when he had suggested the ox shed as a bedding place, because instead he asked, ‘Do you think an assembly of kings is a good place to make a start in life?’
‘Make a start in life?’
‘Where to begin seeking a fortune?’
‘What are you getting at, farmer?’
‘The winters are hard. My crops are not bountiful. My boy is growing too big to feed…’
‘So, you want me to take him to Tara, where he can make a start in life?’
I slapped the side of my head sure I had not heard correctly. Could da be trying to sell me into the slavery of this warrior? It seemed unlikely, but there was always a glimmer of hope in my young heart.
‘Yes, maybe you could find him a foster family?’
‘You really are a horse’s arse, farmer.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘He is a farmer’s son. Fostering is a privilege of kings, chieftains and warriors. What makes you think I can find someone to foster your boy?’ the warrior’s tone was incredulous. I sat there with my back against the timbers and my eyes screwed shut, willing the two men to say the right thing, the thing I had been longing to hear since the first time da beat me for getting in late from the forest.
‘But things have changed, lord. Since the arrival of High King Conery, the old and dated traditions have been replaced by more modern practices. I thought…’ da tailed off.
‘Ball sack, you did not think.’
‘I am sorry, lord. I only have the boy’s wellbeing in my heart…’
‘The boy’s wellbeing. You are trying my patience, farmer,’ the warrior interrupted.
‘Sorry, lord, I do not mean any offence.’
‘Boar’s arse does not mean offence, apparently. I will sleep on it. Now where is the food I was promised. I must eat and sleep. Tomorrow will be a long day, whatever I decide.’
It was obvious to my young mind that all talk was done. I stood up from my hiding place and walked into the roundhouse. I could feel the warrior staring at me as I leant my camán against the central pillar. There was a suppressed question in the intensity of the look. I remember making my face into a mask before turning to face him. I did not want my chance in life to fail because of any apparent eagerness. The old man did not return my look. Rather he sat staring into his cup of mead. I did not speak either but took the bowl of oats and venison from my ma and went out into the twilight to eat. I too had much to think about before the dawn.