Queen Medb looked up at the closed gates. The captain of her guard, Mac Roth smiled at her, a smile of encouragement. The auspices were good. The merchant had been wrong. For once, hiring horses and crossing the island had been problem free and it was barely past mid-afternoon when they reined in outside Caer Leb on the east coast of Ynys Môn, Druid Island.
Why do they always keep the gates closed? she wondered as Mac Roth called for entry. They have nothing worth stealing and no young women to plough. Mayhap, it is just pretension?
‘Who are you?’ the guard asked, with barely suppressed boredom.
‘We sent ahead, forewarning the council of my Lady’s arrival,’ Mac Roth gazed up at the gatehouse.
‘As did half a dozen others, this morning. Which one of the needy are you?’
Medb considered ordering Mac to teach the guard some manners, before saying with a sigh, ‘I am Medb, Queen of Connacht.’
‘Ah, yes. The Elders are expecting you. The council honour you, Lady. They ordered all other petitioners to wait. You may go straight to the feast hall.’
As she rode through the open gate, Medb looked down on the guard. He was ageing, wearing a leather vest, bare arms crisscrossed with a latticework of old battle scars. Her intended reprimand died on her lips. A veteran, he had gained a right to surliness, she allowed. Anger abating, she rode on to the feast hall.
‘You will wait here,’ she told Mac Roth as she dismounted outside the hall.
‘I cannot allow it, Lady?’
‘I need no protection. They are elders, more used to dealing out words than sword strokes.’ And you cannot allow or disallow anything, she did not say, but frowned, nonetheless.
The captain of her guard looked sceptical. ‘The Druidess Dornoll trains warriors in the martial arts, so, I fear she knows as much about dealing out death as she does about words.’
‘You will wait here. I am not engaging in a debate.’
‘Very well, My Lady,’ Mac Roth bowed. Medb could see he was not happy to let her go alone. She did not care. She felt certain the druids would not see any harm come to her. Not here in the confines of their power, where magnanimity was more probable.
‘Welcome, Medb,’ Dornoll said with a nod.
Gazing at the head of the table as she walked up the aisle of the hall, the queen smiled. She was glad the power of the council lay with the druidesses. Dornoll was in the prime seat, confirmed in her position as leader. Biróg, the head sorceress, was sitting to her immediate right. So, the women are holding court, Medb smiled, glad. Merlin, the resident druid of Ynys Môn, was opposite Biróg, and Mug, adviser to Mesgegra, king of Leinster, was furthest from Dornoll. The young druid, Taidle Ulad, was absent. As the druid of Tara, Medb supposed he was out searching for a new high king.
‘How may the council help you this time?’ Dornoll asked with a smile.
Medb looked at the druidess and wondered whether there was any sarcasm in the question. All she could see in the limited light was a genuine smile and a welcoming expression. Things had moved on since the last time she was here. She realised the council were now wary of Mac Nessa. Nervous, even. The Hound’s bloody slaughter had them fidgeting on the edge of their vantage point.
‘I have come before you once more to request the council stand opposed to Mac Nessa’s election during the next Assembly of Kings.’
‘Yes, we thought that might be the reason, which is why Cathbadh is not here,’ Biróg laughed.
‘I see. And why did you think that, might I ask?’
‘You are not as closed to us as you might wish. Your petitions are of a theme, shall we say.’
The druids around the table smiled and nodded, making Medb feel foolish. Dornoll frowned as she asked, ‘Do you have a suitable alternative?’
‘There are many worthy, surely?’
‘We have not been able to find a replacement yet, Medb. Taidle is out scouring the Five Kingdoms and has been for many months.’
Dornoll sucked in a breath, before continuing, ‘There is still a threat from the east. Since crushing the Gauls these Romans have twice invaded Alba. A full invasion and suppression of the Britons will soon follow. After them, who do you think will be next?’ Dornoll looked around the table. The druids were each staring away, lost in their own thoughts. ‘The Five Kingdoms will be next. Eire needs to be strong, united, to face the threat. Eire needs a high king. Without alternatives, Eire needs King Conor.’
‘There must be someone else. We cannot have Five Kingdoms full of chieftains and warriors without one suitable candidate for high king.’ One who is not known as The Deceiver and capable of atrocity, Medb thought, unwilling to voice it for a second time.
‘Perhaps there are some. However, time is running short. The assembly is next spring. It takes a lot of effort to train a new high king. Conor Mac Nessa is already trained.’
‘I see. But it was his champion who murdered the women of Tara during the winter solstice.’ And Conor raped her on the banks of the Boyne during an earlier assembly, she did not say. The druids were already aware of her claims and repeating them would appear weak.
‘Yes, that was a tragic incident, all those women…’ Dornoll trailed off, shaking her head.
‘Yes. Tragic.’ Medb could not keep the sarcasm out of her tone.
Dornoll looked up and stared into Medb’s eyes, not breaking contact as she said, ‘It was the warrior who killed them. Conor had nothing to do with it.’
‘You know this how?’
‘Cathbadh was present when The Hound presented the ultimatum to the warriors in the feast hall.’
‘He stood in the feast hall and admitted what he had done. He told the warriors it had been an execution. The king had nothing to do with the execution of the women.’
‘They killed the queen, tore her apart because of some jealousy over a beauty competition. The Hound executed them.’
Medb nodded. She had been aware of events because it had been her ploy to suggest the competition. She had expected some scandal. She thought the queen’s affair with The Hound would become known. She had not expected the women of Tara to tear Dervla into pieces, nor The Hound to brain them with his Gods forsaken hammer.
‘The Hound rampaged through the settlement and crushed everything with teats wearing a dress. He was indiscriminate. He did not care if the women had been involved in the death of Dervla. Can we really have a high king whose champion is a born killer?’
‘Ah, Medb. Warriors are born killers. It is the nature of what they do. Could you afford to have a champion who is not a born killer, would be more apt as a question?’
‘What about his indiscriminate killing? It was a rage killing, not an execution.’
‘Cathbadh says the boy was like ice, showing no emotion at all.’
‘And you believe what Cathbadh says?’
‘Why would we not? He is a senior member of this council.’
‘Yet, you do not trust him to be here during this meeting.’
‘It is not that we do not trust him, Medb. We just wanted to spare you the discomfort of his presence. We know your feelings about Cathbadh and his allegiance to Ulster.’
‘That is well,’ said a deep voice from the rear of the hall. ‘Because if I thought this council would hold meetings and exclude me for any other reason, the consequences would be dire.’
Medb turned and looked at the darker shadow from whence the hated voice had boomed. She shuddered, despite herself. Boarding the ship in Indber Colptha, she had known her chances of not meeting Cathbadh had been slim in the extreme. That did not make the sound of his voice any easier to hear.
Cathbadh liked to work in the sacred glade and watch the sun as it set. Finicky, he liked to mix his own herbs, as he was doing on this warm evening. It was not that he did not trust the sorceress Biróg to mix them. She was skilled in herb lore, as her position demanded. It was because he had more faith in himself than anyone else. Herbs; killing; counselling; no matter, better trusted to no one. For Cathbadh, it had ever been the case.
The words, ‘There is a petition being heard,’ startled him out of his contemplation. They were followed by a sneering toned question, ‘Without you, Cathbadh. Does it not upset you?’
Withdrawing his hands into the sleeves of his robes, where he felt the hard iron of his bodkin, the druid looked over his shoulder. There was a man leaning against a standing stone, face hidden in shadow. His sneer not visible, but there, nonetheless.
‘And you are?’ Cathbadh asked with a frown.
‘No one of import. Just a lowly retainer.’
‘Petition from who?’
‘I arrived from Eire with the lofty Queen of Connacht. Her husband is not here, so I can only assume it is she who petitions.’
‘Again?’ The man shrugged and waited. ‘Why was I not informed?’ Cathbadh almost shouted. The stranger stood up from his leaning and walked into the light.
‘If I knew that, Lord, then I would be the druid and you would be theretainer,’ the man smiled, taking the edge off his insolence.
‘How long has she been here?’
‘She entered the hall at the turn of the hour.’
‘What in the name of the Morrigan took you, man?’
‘I have been searching for you. Although my sight is good, I am not able to see the future nor beyond the limits of my eyes. I was forced to find you by natural means, and it took time.’
‘I thank you for your information. You still did not tell me your name.’
Not answering, the man bowed and retreated into the shadows. Within seconds, it was as if he had not been there. Despite the tricky footing and lengthening shadows, Cathbadh heard nothing of his retreat. How does he do it? the druid wondered, as he made his way to the feast hall.
Cathbadh entered the hall and stood at the back to allow his eyes to adjust to the light. The council were in deep discussion with the annoying queen of Connacht. Cathbadh knew Conor should have punished the woman when she ran away, all those years before. If the king had done as Cathbadh advised, much of the sorrow of the Five Kingdoms would have been avoided. He crossed his arms and listened to Medb’s words.
‘And you trust what Cathbadh says?’
Cathbadh smiled and allowed Dornoll to respond before speaking from the shadows, ‘That is well, because if I thought this council would hold meetings and exclude me for any other reason, the consequences would be dire.’ The druid felt a jolt of satisfaction as the shock registered on all present in the hall. He loved that the council as well as laymen feared him.
‘What I failed to catch from the little I heard, is what the petition is about,’ Cathbadh said as he approached the table. Medb dropped her eyes.
‘Medb is once more against Conor. I thought you would have been able to intuit that, Cathbadh,’ Dornoll said with a tilt of her head and a knowing twinkle in her eyes.
‘Against the king of Ulster how?’ Cathbadh did not rise to the bait of her play.
‘She wants the council to oppose his election as high king.’
‘She is probably right,’ Cathbadh said, causing Medb to look up, sharply.
‘Probably right?’ Dornoll asked with a frown.
‘I am no longer sure the son of Nessa is capable of ruling the Five Kingdoms.’
‘I see. And why the sudden change of allegiance?’ Medb asked.
‘Allegiance? I have not changed allegiance. I am still the druid of Ulster. It is Conor whom I doubt. I was already beginning to question his sanity, but when he appointed The Hound as Captain of the Red Branch warriors, the day after the boy massacred the women of Tara, I knew for sure. He is not fit to rule a midden trench.’
Medb was not alone when she audibly drew in a breath, increasing Cathbadh’s feeling of satisfaction. He could see, each of the druids around the table was surprised by the words. For him to say the king of Ulster was unfit to rule a trench of night soil came as a shock.
‘We do, however, have an issue,’ Cathbadh continued, feeling a surge of excitement at the start of the game. But am I making the right choice? he wondered, before dismissing it. He would not permit indecision. Not in others; not in himself.
‘And that is?’ Dornoll asked.
‘The other kings of Eire support his claim.’
‘I see. By the other kings, you mean Leinster and Munster, Mesgegra and Dáire mac Dedad?’ Medb scoffed.
‘There are many kings in Eire. Those are but two. Not all the others support Ulster.’
‘But they owe their allegiance to one or other of those who do. Am I right?’ Medb nodded. ‘So, they do not count. To successfully oppose Conor’s claim. The kings of Leinster and Munster need to be in alignment with Connacht, which I fear, Lady, will never happen.’
‘But if I could make it happen?’
‘Then I think this council would back whatever course of action you adopted.’ And Gods make it the right decision.
Conall saw Fergus talking to a stranger atop the gatehouse. Although he was watching his friend, he was not seeing him.
The Romans are coming. The thought screamed at him as he turned back to the young Connacht recruits. The Red Branch would crush this untried band of settlement farmers, never mind a fearsome war machine, he thought, shaking his head.
‘You. Do you not know what thrust means, you sow’s arse? Put your back into it.’ The recruit looked up, startled, and then looked around, as if to confirm she was the one not putting her back into it.
‘Yes you, blondie. If you cannot stick it into a straw warrior with nothing but worsted in the way, what hope one clad in mail, batting at you with a longsword?’
‘You are too harsh, Conall,’ Cormac said with a chuckle.
‘Harsh? Aye, I suppose. The king has charged me with training this sorry lot for war.’ Conall cast his eyes over Connacht’s youth, waving their blunt swords about in the space behind the palisade of Crúachain.
‘Better a harsh tongue than their guts on the field, feed for the ravens,’ Conall said with a frown.
‘I agree these youths are unfit for battle. But battle against who? Do you really believe the rumours of war with these southerners? These so-called Romans?’
Conall looked at Cormac over his shoulder. He could see the guile in The Deceiver’s son. Cormac was fishing for information. Was he fishing for his father, a spy of the Ulaid? Conall still did not understand why Cormac had come. Fergus had run and Conall had run after him. But Cormac? There was no logic to it.
‘Setanta saw them in Gaul. He said they were fearsome to behold and unstoppable. If that is true, why would they not come?’
‘What is here for them, Conall? Rain? Oats and mutton? Mead? The odd cow? One or two nice maidens to plough?’
‘They have a thirst for gold and glory, Cormac. Gold we have aplenty and fighters enough for glory.’
‘There will be scant glory pig sticking this lot.’
‘Is that not what I have been saying? But never mind these children of Connacht. If it ever comes to it, it will be the Red Branch who face the Romans.’
‘You think they will fare better?’
‘That is better, blondie, if only marginally. Thrust, back, parry. Thrust, back, parry. Good. Better, at least.’ Turning back to Cormac, Conall frowned. ‘They could not do any worse.’
‘I know she craves war, but do you not think it will be closer to home?’ Cormac asked.
Conall had turned back to the gatehouse, where Fergus was once more alone. He knew who Cormac meant by she, it did not need a druid’s intuition to work out. And he knew who Cormac thought she would take the fight to. ‘There is no great affection between your father and the queen, Cormac, but do you honestly think she would be mad enough to pit these children against the Red Branch?’
‘She has other warriors. She has you and Fergus. She has me. Perhaps she thinks we are enough to provide her army with an advantage?’
Conall said nothing, knowing she had Fergus because he was self-exiled and Conall had refused to hunt him down, resulting in a price on his head.
‘Will the battle be against the Ulaid, or against the Romans? It is in the hands of the Gods, and they are notoriously capricious. So, I do not know, Cormac, if she thinks we are enough. I know Ailill does not, hence my training these,’ he waved his frustration at a lack of appropriate adjectives, ‘who want to be warriors. That said, I am not sure Ailill’s worry counts for much in the eyes of the queen. She is not a person easily controlled and the king was never one to force his will on another.’
‘Really, I had not noticed,’ Cormac scoffed, before turning and heading for the hostel.
Aye, Cormac, not only you, but also the rest of the warriors here in Crúachain, Conall thought. Conall supposed he was the foremost worrier, but he was not the only one who thought Ailill had ceded his court to Medb. It did not matter how strong Medb was, as king Ailill should be stronger. Have I tied my horses to the wrong chariot? he wondered, before turning back to the farmhands playing at soldier.
‘More thrust, blondie. Stick him like you mean it.’
Atop the gatehouse, Fergus had his back to Conall’s training. He was gazing across The Field of Sheep, listening to the grunts of the recruits and the bellows of Conall, so deep in thought, he did not hear them.
Although up, the sun was finding the canopy of mist difficult to breach. The yellow tinged shroud with trees and hills poking through intermittently, sent a tremor up the backs of his legs. The sun’s ineffective struggle seemed portentous, an omen of what the queen was driving them towards.
He was leaning against a trunk of the wooden tower with his arms crossed at the wrists. Despite his negative humour, he thought the mystery of the mid-morning shroud glorious. The forest eaves on the edge of the plain were just visible. The green of the receding fields on the hills above the mist murky, dark, in contrast to the pale-yellow shroud. The orb, although not visible, showed as a bright white plate in the yellow. He shivered again. An army of Ulstermen could be within a slingshot of him, and he would not know.
‘Are you out there, Deceiver, shrouded in the mists?’ he wondered aloud.
‘You are having doubts, I see.’
Fergus started and looked over his shoulder. A man’s head was poking through the access hole, a smile splitting it. Fergus had not heard him climbing the ladder, nor opening the hatch.
‘What are you talking about?’ he asked, wondering how any man could be so silent.
The stranger climbed the rest of the way into the tower spanning the entrance to the hillfort and came to stand beside Fergus. With a smile, the stranger leant on the stake next to the one on which Fergus was leaning and looked out over the shroud.
‘I love the smell of the morning mists. Do you?’
‘The smell? Never mind the smell, man, what do you mean, having doubts?’
‘She is edging for a fight and you are torn.’
Fergus did not need to ask who she was. She was the same she on everybody’s mind these last few weeks. She of the blue woad body paint and voracious appetites. She who boasted she had trained in the black arts in Babylon, the capital of evil.
‘And who are you, who know my mind better than I know it myself?’
‘I am just a warrior, like you. That is how I know your mind, Fergus. If you want to put a name on me, you can call me Cathasach.’
‘Cathasach, The Vigilant?’
‘That is me. Ever on the lookout,’ the man laughed. ‘Enough about me. You are torn, Fergus, admit it. Although, it is not necessary for you to speak. I can see it in every sinew of your body. Any more tense, you are liable to snap with a twang.’
Fergus looked back over the mists and wondered what brought this man into the gatehouse with such claims? ‘Torn by what?’
‘You were once an Ulsterman, and your new queen is set on war with Conor Mac Nessa. When you came here, you did not think you would be returning to Ulster as part of an invading army. So now, you stand in the morning, talking to a mist that can tell you nothing, and wondering whether you are willing to take the road she is offering.’
Fergus nodded and realised the man was right. Despite wanting revenge against King Conor, he did not want to invade his homeland. ‘Maybe, you are right, but even if you are, there is no other way for me.’
‘Is your revenge so important?’
‘The Deceiver killed my friends. Not only did he kill them, he laughed about it and lied to me. He denied Eoghan was following his orders, forgetting Conall was there when he gave them. Conall heard everything.’
‘Did Conor not know Conall would report?’
‘Because he trusts no one and tells no one anything, he thinks the rest of us are the same.’
‘I concede, Fergus, that you might be right, but are you not afraid of angering the Gods?’
‘Angering the Gods?’
‘They do not appreciate traitors, Fergus. For you and Conall and Cormac to war on Ulster will incite their wrath and they are not forgiving. Look at the plagues they visited on us after we made that boy Conaire high king.’
‘And what of honour, do they not respect honour.’
‘To a degree, but not as much as loyalty.’
‘And what of King Conaire? You think the blood and terror connected to his kingship, some sort of revenge of the Gods? You think they sent the invader to put our homes to the flame and our warriors to the sword, because The Assembly voted for Conaire?’
‘He was born of incest. Nothing good ever comes from those born of incest. The Gods hate them almost as much as they hate the disloyal.’
‘Maybe you are right. We will never know, I fear,’ Fergus turned away, unwilling to continue the conversation.
‘We do not want another plague.’
‘No. I suppose not.’
‘Think on what I have said, Fergus. We will talk again soon,’ Cathasach said as he turned to leave.
‘So, how goes the training?’ Fergus asked, not because he wanted an answer, but because he was unsure how best to broach the question on his mind. They were in the hostel eating their evening meal surrounded by the warriors of Connacht.
‘How goes it, he asks. They are young. Boys and girls with no concept of values. We would never have behaved as they do, Fergus. Dornoll would have taken our onions if we had been as boisterous and unmannerly,’ Conall said, with a shake of his blond mane.
‘And Scathach would have roasted them with liver and eaten them as her evening repast, no doubt,’ Fergus laughed.
‘Do not laugh, Fergus. Liver and onions are the staple of all warriors.’ Fergus shook his head at the poor quality of Conall’s joke. Warrior he might be. Comedian, he was not. ‘But, seriously, those women frighten the life out of me still. I have never feared facing any other warrior, but there is something inhuman about those two.’
‘You are just afraid they would best you in a fight.’
‘Best me in a fight? Aye, maybe. That aside my friend, what has you suddenly interested in my woes?’
‘Nothing, Conall. Can I not show curiosity without arousing your suspicions?’
‘No, is the honest answer.’
‘Alright, then. I had a visitor on the gatehouse.’
‘A visitor? Yes, now you mention it, I saw him. Who is he?’
‘Called himself Cathasach. Said he is a warrior.’
‘The Vigilant? I always thought he was a druid.’
‘Do you know anything about him?’
‘Calls himself the justice of the people. Strange concept when you think about it. I mean, the people have no need of justice. They have their chieftain for disputes and the blood debt for any death. I can understand why a king needs a justice, but the people?’
‘Is that all you know about the man?’
‘Aye. Just rumour, really. Druid and justice. Nothing more. What did he say to you, that has you so concerned?’
‘Asked if I was feeling any doubts. No, when I think on it, told me I was feeling doubts.’
‘Doubts about what?’
‘Doubts about being here in Connacht and facing Ulster in the coming war.’ Doubts you are also feeling, although you seem exceptionally good at hiding them, Fergus did not say. He could see his friend staring into his mutton and oats, suddenly very thoughtful.
‘Aye, doubts about war. Strange doubts to have for a warrior, no?’
‘Not when the enemy is Ulster. But what should I do about this Cathasach?’
‘Do? Do nothing. He might be a friend.’
‘Or an enemy.’
‘We watch and see what happens. We do not want to be creating enemies each way we turn, Fergus. We have no lack of enemies.’
Coming August 31st.