The Returning Dead
Pulling up his hood, Genonn wrapped his arms around his chest. Despite it approaching midsummer, a sudden cold veiled the evening in a rising mist and damp. He wondered if the battle had angered the Three Sisters, before realising it was a sentiment more in line with how Fergus would have thought.
Shivering, he shook his head.
‘This is not cold,’ hissed at the mist and lengthening shadows. Fergus would be cold, even if not feeling it, covered in sod and a cairn, raised in payment for his stupidity. The warrior of the very sharp sword and very blunt wit, Genonn thought, as he crouched and tried to light the fire, striking iron against flint, vigorously, cursing the stubbornness of the kindling as it refused to offer even the smallest tendril of hope.
‘Tuatha take this damp.’
He threw flint and iron into the loam and frowned at the shadows. He could see nothing. Darkness had shrouded the eaves quicker than he would have thought possible. The limited light in the glade would not last much longer. Realising he needed the fire lit while he could still see, he started to grub about, looking for the iron and flint.
‘Not good at that are you?’ caused him to start and look up, into the cloak of shadows, hiding the speaker, and causing his pulse to throb. Genonn’s forestry had never been his strength, but still he cursed himself as a fool for not hearing the approach. He could die in this glade and no one would know. I doubt he would care, a thought which flared before he suppressed it.
‘Who is there?’ he asked, while grasping the hilt at his waist. It was scant comfort. An iron ball would kill him, without him seeing the slinger.
There was a lengthy pause, during which he thought he could hear whispering, but was not sure. Finally, the detached voice said, ‘It’s me, Lee Flaith, so it is. Me da used to be high king of this spoor hole of an island.’
Used to be high king of Ériu? Genonn shook his head. ‘You cannot be. Lee has been dead these past seven, or is it eight, years. He died with the king at Glencree, killed by the pirate and his reavers.’
‘Dead? No, not dead. Although sometimes I wish I were, the way the hag’s treated me.’
‘I won’t be called hag,’ another voice. Older. Scratchy. Explaining the whispers, if only partially. ‘And I fed you proper, so I did, so shut your hole before I give you a dig with me crann bagair.’
‘Aye, Niamh, the hag who took me after the battle. Tied me to her belt and beat me with said cudgel for years. Taught me manners, so she did. Not sure I’ll have a use for them, but they’re on me like a cloak.’
Genonn could still not see anything of the speaker. He thought back to the blond youth who had been high king of Ireland when the British pirate, Ingcél invaded, turning the settlements red and orange with blood and flame.
‘Come and see if you have more luck lighting the fire,’ he said, keen to put eyes on the one claiming to be son of High King Conaire. ‘I have bread and cheese enough to share.’
‘The hag would be better,’ the boy said as he walked into the quickly darkening glade. ‘Better with a fire than I will ever be, so she is. Or you, come to that.’
Genonn relaxed. The youth was tall, gangly, no threat. ‘A fire is a fire, regardless who lights it,’ Genonn smiled.
‘Watch who you call hag, bodalán. I won’t tell you again,’ threatened the old lady who followed the boy. She was waving a heavy stick for emphasis. Genonn could see, Lee, or whoever he was, would feel a rap with it for days.
The gloominess hid any detail of the speakers; other than one was a young male and the other an old woman, cowled and hooded, protection from the cold, he supposed. Genonn stood, stamped his feet, and rubbed his upper arms. He could no longer see his breath steaming. ‘A fire would be most welcome. As I said, I can offer you hospitality. There is bread and cheese in my bag. As soon as the fire is lit, you can help yourselves.’
‘Don’t fret, old man. Hag’ll have a fire going in no time. Ow,’ the last because true to her threat, the woman had hit him. ‘Ow. Why the second rap, old woman?’
‘To be sure, so it is,’ said, as she began bustling around the glade, gathering the drier wood, taking kindling from a sack on her back, which Genonn had taken to be a hump.
‘Nothing easier than lighting a fire,’ cackled as she set about striking her flint. Genonn sighed when a few tendrils of hope curled up from the kindling. ‘Nothing easier,’ repeated while leaning in to blow the embers into flames.
When the fire gave enough light, Genonn looked at the youth. He could not believe what his eyes were telling him. A young Macc Cecht had returned from the dead.
‘So, tell me why I should believe you are son of Conaire.’
‘Can you not see the reincarnation sitting opposite?’ Niamh cackled. ‘You won’t sit there and tell me he ain’t the spit.’
‘Lee Flaith’s father was High King Conaire, not Macc Cecht.’
‘Aye. And Macc Cecht was the high king’s da, so he was.’ Genonn tried to see the truth of the woman’s words in her face, but her cowl and the shadows thrown by the fire revealed nothing. She was either hiding something, or nature was hiding it for her.
‘What are you saying? Macc Cecht was the king’s champion, not his father.’
‘I was the son of Conaire,’ the boy interrupted. ‘I was at the battle of the hostel. When it was all but over, Macc Cecht took me out through a culvert.’
‘The champion died at the battle, ambushed on the rise at the back of the vale,’ Genonn said. While running like a coward, he did not add. ‘Where were you when he died?’
‘He took me deep into the forest. We found Niamh in a clearing sitting beside a fire just like this one. She took me so Macc Cecht could return to the battle and defend my father, the king.’
‘Aye. Knew who he was, too. Although the warrior was upset to hear it when I told him, so he was,’ the old woman cackled. ‘Almost hit me when I called him granddad. Not sure if he was conscious of aging or angry about my knowledge.’
‘How is it you know Macc Cecht was the king’s father?’ Genonn asked, forehead creased.
‘No faith, you youngsters,’ Niamh said, turning his frown to a smile. No one had referred to him as a youngster for many a year. ‘I’m old, it’s true. Sometimes think me back is trying to become me front, but these old eyes were ever strong. The one looked like a slightly distorted image of the other, as though reflected in a curved copper bowl. Any fool could have seen the parentage. Besides, I knew Meas Búachalla and she told me who she’d been humping.’
Genonn took out a hunk of bread and chewed on it thoughtfully. If Lee had returned from the dead, it could resolve many problems. The Five Kingdoms needed a high king. Hard times were pressing on the borders. The Southern Hosts had subjugated the Gauls and invaded Alba twice. “The Romans are coming!” Cathbadh’s oft spoken prophecy. Only time stood as a defence against the coming invasion. Conor Mac Nessa was no longer a practical candidate: not after the two armies watched him run from battle.
‘What brings you to my fire, Niamh?’ he asked.
‘This is my fire, Druid. Left in your own care, you’d be freezing your magairlí off, cursing not paying attention to woodcraft when training on Ynys Môn.’
‘That is a point fairly given,’ he nodded, frowning at the reference to the druids. He wanted no part of them. Not since Ráth Droma.
‘You might make a good justice of the people, but you’re a useless woodsman, so y’are.’
‘You know me, Niamh?’
‘Course I know you, Genonn. I was bringing the brat to Dun Dealgan. Heard your da was there for the funeral of Mac Roi. Thought to bring this one back to where he belongs. Saw you on the road, so we did. Decided to stop by and say hello.’
‘Cathbadh is no longer there. He has gone south to consult with the defeated kings. Why are you searching for him?’
‘All in the Five Kingdoms knows him to be power behind Elder Council. Only way to get him,’ nodding at the boy, ‘on his throne is talking to the power.’
‘The power of the council? He could be. I am yet to decide. However, I do think you are right. The Elders need to see the boy and decide what to do. You must take him to Caer Leb.’
‘Sailing? Across the sea?’ Niamh shuddered.
‘Yes. By sea from Lúr Cinn Trá to Druid Island. I am yet to hear of any who can walk on water,’ he smiled, shaking his head. ‘Even when it is calm, which is seldom.’
‘I’m not for no sailing,’ Niamh said, shuddering.
‘It is not so bad, Niamh. Fair wind behind, and it will be over before you know.’
It is not the sailing you need worry about, but what awaits in Caer Leb, he thought.
‘Aye, but when there’s an unfair wind, y’end up trying to breathe water and rueing the day you sailed.’
‘What do you think, Lee?’ Genonn asked. The boy shrugged and stared at the fire. ‘Really, it is not so bad. But you do not need to decide now, you can sleep and decide tomorrow.’
‘Sounds sensible,’ Niamh nodded. ‘I’ll turn in now. Need me bed soon after sunset, these days. Boy, keep the fire backed. I hate the cold in me bones. Takes weeks to get it out after it’s seeped in.’
‘Of course, y’old cailleach. When was the last time I let you grow cold? Ow. What was that for?’
‘You think cailleach’s better than hag, do you? I’ll put manners on you eventually, bodalán.’
Lying in the glade looking at the stars through the canopy, he could hear the boy pottering and the woman muttering to herself. The warmth of the fire and the scent of resinous woodsmoke, were making him drowsy. It was not long after sunset, but it had been a long day, or rather a long several days.
‘More wood on that fire, boy,’ the hag hissed, as Genonn closed his eyes and pretended to sleep.
‘More wood, more wood. Do you never stop with your demands, hag? Ow.’ Genonn wished they would settle.
He needed to think.
Cathbadh leaving the funeral in such haste, refusing to take part in the feast, being his arrogant self, had hurt, although Genonn thought he hid it well. His father gave some excuse about needing to consult the kings, Mesgegra and Mac Dedad. Fedelm had gone with Cathbadh, which caused a lump to rise in Genonn’s throat. He had wanted her to stay during the feast. He wanted to talk to her about her experiences as a seeress. It was purely curiosity. She was beautiful, but he had no time for distraction.
For now, all thoughts were on his father.
The druid had given Fergus his passage rites and then fled. Genonn knew he should not be surprised. Cathbadh would never change. There would always be some hidden motive driving him; some scheme of the Elder Council, or Cathbadh following his own interests. He should expect it. Spying for his father during the cattle raid did not mean Genonn had forgotten Ráth Droma. He had agreed to go to Dun Dealgan because he wanted to show Fergus the proper respect. The warrior’s dying in dubious circumstances, stabbed in the back of the neck while humping the queen, did not matter.
Fergus had been a hero.
During the raid, Genonn had worked with Cathbadh for the good of the Five Kingdoms. Preventing the Witch from gaining control over the throne was something to believe in and strive against. Keeping the peoples suppressed by an outdated hierarchy was not. After Ráth Droma he vowed never to return to Druid Island or take the name Cathbadh. Telling the hag that she needed to take the boy to Caer Leb and believing it to be the right choice, did not mean he had to go with them. Unlike his father, Genonn would never break his vows.
He turned and looked across the fire.
He could see the chest of the youth, rising and falling, the steady breath of one deep asleep. Did he believe him? No. The tale was equal to the nonsense regurgitated around firepits throughout the Five Kingdoms. The idea of Macc Cecht leaving the Heir Apparent with a hag was fantastical at best. That the high king’s bodyguard had taken Lee through the culvert was true, Conall had been there and saw it, branding Macc Cecht a coward as his arse cheeks vanished through the hole. Despite the tales everyone thought Macc had died on the rise on his way out of the hostel, the boy taken and sold into slavery or worse. If this Lee was telling the truth, the high king’s bodyguard died on his way back in. Conall would be pleased to learn his friend had returned to face the reavers.
I must remember to tell him, Genonn’s last thought.
The hiss of invocation pushed his heart into his mouth. ‘He is a fraud!’ he screamed but no sound came. No one heard him. He looked around. The others were mindlessly and soundlessly mouthing the rites, unaware of him. Gulping back his anger, he looked at his grey friend; looked at the vain attempts to fool Donn: left hand resting on chest, golden coire ansic, his favourite, if ineffective ward against evil, draped over dead fingers; right hand gripping his treasured longsword, Caladbolg. It was no death grip holding the sword but carefully concealed copper wire.
The grey face turned, the eyes opened.
‘I died in vain!’ his friend screeched.
‘It is not my fault you were humping the Witch Queen, Caladbolg forgotten by the fire pit. He will let you in. He will,’ not believing the words even as they left his suddenly loosened tongue.
‘Donn let me in. You no more believe that than I do, Genonn.’
It was true. He did not believe it. Fergus would pay the price for allowing his cock free rein. Donn would enjoy a frolic but also put honour and loyalty above everything. Humping the queen during the ceremonial sacrifice had been neither loyal nor honourable, only stupid.
‘I will be left to wander the earth, one of the undead. You must save me, Genonn. It is your fault. Had you prevented the battle, I never would have died.’
‘I could not. Fedelm was tasked…’ but Fergus turned away, and closed his eyes again, he was no longer listening.
‘…join your brethren at Donn’s table,’ the hiss of Cathbadh’s invocations rising as he neared the crescendo. ‘Well, Genonn, was it a worthy rite? Do you think Donn will accept him in the mound?’ Cathbadh asked, rising to his feet.
Genonn could not answer. He opened his mouth, but no words would come. He was staring at Fergus, grey-skinned eyelids now closed. ‘Genonn? Genonn?’
‘Genonn?’ someone was shaking him. He opened his eyes and looked at the blond cased head of Lee. The youth was grinning at him. ‘You said we were to go to Druid Island. I’ve never been at sea. I can’t wait to board a ship.’
‘I said you were to go. I did not say anything about me going with you.’
‘But you must. I’ve no idea how to get there, so I haven’t.’
Genonn frowned. Something about the statement seemed out of place. He was too drowsy to worry about it. He would return to the question when there was less mist behind his eyes. ‘Where is Niamh?’
‘Gone? What do you mean gone?’
‘The hag would not face sailing. Scared rigid of the sea, so she is? Left before the dawn. Told me to stay and become high king. When do we leave?’
‘But she needs to take you to the Elders.’
‘Why can’t you take me?’ the boy asked.
Genonn sat up and looked at him, all youth and exuberance. It was a good question and one for which he did not have an answer. The truth was, even if the hag were still there, he would need to go with them. The boy claimed to be the son of the late high king and the Elders needed to decide on the veracity. He would never have been able to trust Niamh to present the boy correctly. The Sisters had him the minute Lee spoke from the shadows.
‘Come, then,’ he said. ‘If we hurry, we might make the morning tide.’ His only hope, Cathbadh went south. I will go to Caer Leb, present the boy, and then leave. Hopefully, I will be gone before Cathbadh returns.
Genonn suddenly felt a need for strong counsel. Conall gave good advice, despite remonstrations to the contrary. Where is the man when you need him? he wondered, as he packed his bags and frowned at the early morning mist.