The Sorrows

A Grand Retelling of 'The Three Sorrows'

Ulster Cycle (Volume 3)

Randy Lee Eickhoff

Forge Books

The Sorrows
The Fate of the Children of Tuirenn
Rachad a haithle searc no laoch don chill.1
The Defense of the Sons of Cuireann
 
A sin, was it a sin? We are warriors too. We did what all warriors do. We met in battle at Brugh na Boinne, And a warrior we slew.
 
Now far and wide we have gone for you To pick foreign apples from where they grew, To steal the skin of a Grecian pig To heal your wounds and your strength renew.
 
We have met a king and the spear he threw, The chariot of Dubhar and his whole retinue Fail-miz and eazal and the spit Of Finchory and its bubbling stew.
 
We have stood on cnoc na mochaen and shouted our "ballyhoo." It has taken us years to do what you've asked us to But sore and broken we have returned And kneel before you, good Prince Lugh.
 
We beg mercy for breaking an old taboo. If God will not forgive us who will? Will you? Quickly now, lay upon us The healing skin in the mountain dew.
 
We are soldiers only, and soldiers true. We have made every deadly rendezvous. All we ask is what is our due. Yet you turn your royal cheek in the morning.
 
--Micheál O'Ciardha
i.
AH, BUT WHAT A STORY it is to tell, this one of the Tuirenn children! There is much to it, but one cannot simply begin at the beginning of such a tale. No, it is far too complex a thing to do that and cheapen the story by leaping into it like a dancer playing among the dappled shadows of the willows along the Boyne River. No, no. That won't do at all. Instead, we shall have to begin a little before that story and peek into the dregs of another story first in order to see how this one connects with the next and the next with the one after that and--
But one can play word games only too long. Enough. Here, then, is the tale at the proper beginning.
Oh, but the Battle of Mag Tuired--the first one--was magnificient! The Tuatha Dé Danann2 sent many of the Fir Bolg to their deaths in that one! Blood washed the ground and a great stench rose up from the battlefield for days after. Crows and ravens feasted well, I tell you! For four days, the battle raged back-and-forth over that plain until at last the Tuatha rallied behind the great warrior Nuada3 and pushed the Fir Bolg back into the rocky recesses of the northwest, where the great king and magician Conn ruled. Perhaps the Tuatha would have ended it for all time then, for the battle-rage was full uponthem, but Conn did not want his country wasted by war and performed great magic, laying a thick field of snow over the entire province in one day. Slowed by having to slog through the great drifts, the Tuatha pulled back and away from the battle, leaving the Fir Bolg in that province they called Conn-snechta.4
But the Tuatha had grown weary of battle by then and their great king, Nuada, had nearly been killed in a duel with the Fir Bolg champion Sreng,5 a great hairy monster who wielded a huge, two-handed sword that split Nuada's shield in twain and sliced Nuada's arm from his shoulder. He might have even killed Nuada had not the great Tuatha warrior Oghma6 driven Sreng away from the fallen Nuada.
Then did Diancécht7 work his magic by forming for Nuada, a silver hand, and setting it in place against the stump so that from that time on, Nuada was called Nuada Argatlam.8 But since the king of the Tuathas was to have no blemish, he was forced to step aside for another man to rule.
"Aye," one of them said in council when the question of Nuada's replacement came up. "There are many to chose from, but who among them can do what Nuada can. Perhaps we should--"
"Tch. Tch. Tch," another said, wagging his forefinger in objection. "I know what you are up to, you rascal! You would have us step away from the ancient laws and let Nuada rule despite his blemish. Well, I say no! Step once away from a law, you step away from others later, and then you have anarchy! No, no, no! We shall have a new king!"
"I agree," a third chimed in. "But who? And we had better be quick about it. The Fomorians9 have been watching to see how the battle went with the Fir Bolg, and I have a hunch they know how weak we have become."
"And your point?" the first asked, snapping his fingers impatiently. "Get to it before an oak grows from an acorn! You could talk the water to dust!"
"Very well," the former said icily. "I suggest we cast our lot in with the Fomorians. Only temporarily," he hastened to add, raising a hand to stave off argument. "I say let's send an ambassador to Elotha10 and ask to let his son Bres to be our ruler. That would keep the Fomorians from raiding our lands until we can rebuild our strength."
"A Formorian as a king over the Tuatha Dé Danann?" the first said indignantly. "What stuff and nonsense! Better to let Nuada continue, I say, than to bring the wolf into the fold!"
"His mother is Ériu," the former said pointedly. "Who is, I'm certain you recall, a Tuatha Dé Danann. That gives him a foot in both kingdoms, eh?"
"I'm for it," the second speaker said. "Great balls! We'll be at it until the sun turns to cinder if we don't settle this fast. Besides, what harm can be done? If he's no good, we get rid of him"--he snapped his fingers--"like that!"
"A wolf in the fold can kill a lot of sheep before he's driven out," the first said. "But I'm ruled against--I can see that! But don't throw my words to the winds! I still say you're wrong!"
And so ambassadors were sent to Elotha, who listened to the proposal, scarcely able to hide his glee. He willingly gave up his son to be king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, thinking that he had won the battle without dipping a single spearblade in Tuatha blood.
But politics seldom agree with logic. Had Bres been an honorable man, perhaps peace would have existed between the Fomorians and the Tuathas. But Bres had inherited only his mother's beauty, while from his father he inherited the ruthlessness of the Fomorians. He quickly imposed a heavy tax of an ounce of gold upon each man of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, enforcing the tax with soldiers from his father's army. The Tuatha were quickly made slaves, and there was nothing that Nuada could do to help his people.
And then Bres imposed another tax upon kneading bowls, another on querns, and yet another on baking stones. Each year, the Tuatha were to gather on Balor's Hill,11 which would soon be called The Hill of Usneach,1213 and there pay their taxes. Any who refused to pay the taxes would have his nose cut off. Year after year, the unhappy Tuathas gathered at the hill to await the tax gatherers sent by Elotha.
ii.
ONE DAY, THE STEWARD OF Nuada's house, a one-eyed grizzled warrior who had lost an eye the day his master lost his arm, stood on the wall of the Tara house, facing the sun, feeling its warmth soak into his bones. He held a cat in his arms and toyed with its ears, taking comfort in the rumble of its purring against his breast. Idly, he looked across the green plain at the foot of the hill to where a field of grain shone palely gold in the setting light. Two dots appeared in the distance, and he watched as they grew larger into young men, crossing the thick sedge, past clumps of skullcap and monkshood.
"And who might you be?" he called as they paused at the gate. They looked up at him and smiled.
"Well," one said in a musical voice, "I am Miach and this is Omiach. We are the sons of Diancécht."
"The doctor?" the steward asked.
"Yes. As are we. And not bad ones either, if I may say so," Omiach answered.
"We have a few healer's tricks," Miach said cautiously, giving his brother a reproving look.
The steward snorted. "That's as here as now. I can't tell you how many of you young sports come to this here gate bragging on how they have the gift of the hazel wand. But there's the difference between berries and turnips as 'tween them and Diancécht. Sons you may be, but do you have the magic of the old man? There's a difference between taking a splinter out from 'twixt the toes and closing a wound so it don't fester."
"We've been known to heal a bit," Miach said. He elbowed his brother in his ribs as the latter opened his mouth to speak.
"Umph!" Omiach grunted. He rubbed his side. "Now, what would you be doing that for? Eh? And why hide our skills under an whortleberry bush? When you're good, you're good, and there's no two ways about it!"
The steward laughed. "Well, if you're that good, then maybe you could put an eye in this hollow where my own good eye once was? Damn nuisance it is, looking at the world through one window when two were meant to be a man's use."
"Easy," Omiach said, ignoring Miach's vain attempt to hush him. "How about one of that cat's eyes? Would that serve you?"
The steward glared suspiciously at him, but the young man met his stare calmly. "Huh," the steward said. "If you ain't a sassy cockleburr. Very well, let's give you a try."
And no sooner were the words from his mouth than the cat leaped up in his arms, raking its claws down his arm, squawking, "Rrrrowrrrr!" It leaped upon the wall, looked wildly around for a moment, then streaked down from the wall and ran into the barn and hid under a sheaf of straw.
The steward suddenly looked out at the world from two eyes, blinking wonderingly at what suddenly had depth and a strange mixture of color. He raised his fingers and lightly touched the hollow where the lid had once been stitched down against his cheek. He saw his fingers coming toward the hollow and flinched away.
"Damme, if you don't have the whisper of the gods in your ears!" he exclaimed. He looked around wonderingly, enjoying the sudden beauty and strangeness that he had missed for so many years.
"I'm happy for you," Omiach said. He glanced at Miach, who shrugged.
"It's done, and once the milk's spilt, you can't put it back in the pail," Miach said. He looked up at the steward. "Would you be so kind as to tell your master that we wait outside his gate for his permission to enter?"
"Right back," the steward said. He climbed down from the wall and hurried across the yard. Suddenly he stumbled as a sparrow slipped across the edge of his sight and the new eye leaped in its socket, following the sparrow's flight. "Damme, if this won't take some getting used to," he muttered to himself. "But there's a bit of bad to all gifts, I'm thinking."
As he hurried through the hall, he heard a tiny rustle, and again the eye leaped to focus on a mouse scurrying along the wall to disappearin a crack beside a center beam. He closed the eye and stepped into the warm hall where Nuada lounged on his chair, nursing a cup of honeyed ale.
"What is it?" Nuada asked crossly as the steward came close to him. He had been cross since rising with new pains where his silver arm joined the stump, and now it seemed to have spread across his shoulders, making the other ache as well.
"Beg pardon," the steward said, "but two physicians wait outside your gate for permission to enter."
"I'm not in the mood for company," Nuada said sulkily. He buried his nose in his ale cup, drinking deeply. "But don't let it be said that we don't pay attention to the laws of hospitality." Take them to the guest house and make my apologies. Say I'm ill and crave their pardon for my seeming rudeness. I'll greet them properly in the morning. If," he grunted as a stab of pain washed up from his shoulder, "if this cursed arm stops giving me trouble!"
The steward fidgeted for a moment, then said, "I really think it would be best if you saw them now. They ain't your run-of-the-mill quacksalver. Look!" He opened the new eye and stared at Nuada. "How many you know could put the eye of a cat in place of me old eye that's long been jelly dessert for a battle-crow? Eh?"
Nuada stared with sudden interest at the new eye meeting his. "Hmm," he said. "That's truly a gift that one of them has, I'd say. Well, don't just stand there like a stool, bring them in!"
The steward scurried away, limping as a stab of arthritis hit him in a hip. "Drat and mouse turds!" he grumbled, swinging one leg shorter than the other in a truncated gait. "Must be a storm gathering!" He cast an eye over the sky as he ordered the bar slipped from the gate and the doors swung wide.
"My master bids you welcome and to take you to the Great Hall," he said. Something rustled in the grass beside the gatepost. His new eye jerked down and around, seeking the source of the noise. "Damn," he muttered, holding his hand over it. "Becoming a bit of a nuisance, this is. Just takes some getting used to, I suppose."
"Thank you," Miach said politely as he and his brother entered andfollowed the steward to the house. As they entered the Great Hall, they heard a deep groan, then a long sigh, as from someone in great pain.
"There's a warrior here who is injured," Miach said. "That sigh seemed to come from deep within him."
"Hmm. Maybe," Omiach said cautiously. The sigh came again. He cocked his head, listening. "Of course, it could be the sigh of a warrior with a darb-dóel14 working within him."
"You could be right," Miach said seriously. "I believe we have a bit more work to do before we'll be able to rest tonight. Steward!"
The steward turned toward him, staring with one blue eye and one yellow. Miach smiled as the yellow eye turned reflexively toward the wall and a fly buzzing by.
"It takes a little getting used to," he said solicitously. The steward nodded and sighed.
"Making me head swim, it is," he muttered. He pressed the heel of his palm against the yellow eye. "But beggars can't be choosers, and it has its blessings as well. What is it?"
"We heard a groaning and sighing as if someone was in pain when we entered the hall," Miach said. "Tell me: is there a warrior here with some difficulty?"
"Ah," the steward said, nodding. "That would Nuada. Ever since Diancécht gave him that silver arm, he's been bothered with aches and pains. Getting worse, it is, though he won't admit it." Miach and Omiach exchanged glances.
"Well, bring us to him," Omiach said. "Perhaps we can help."
"I dunno," the steward said, scratching his head with a long nail. He hawked and spat, rubbing the spittle away with the toe of his shoe. "Nuada said to bring you to him, but I reckoned to give him a bit more time to get rid of the bogles if that's what's bothering him."
"Oh, I think he'll want to see us," Omiach said breezily. "Lead us to him, then. There's a good lad."
"Lad? Old enough to have been a grin on your mother's lips," the steward muttered. "And you ladding me about, are you? Well, then, on your head it is, then."
He took the two brothers into the king's room where Nuada layback against his couch, rubbing his shoulder softly. His face was white with pain, tiny beads of perspiration dotting his upper lip. The brothers' noses wrinkled at the sour smell of the sickroom. They looked at each other and nodded.
"A darb-doél," they said in unison.
Nuada's eyes opened. He stared through pain-dulled eyes at them. "Ah, excuse my bad manners, please," he said softly. He grimaced and grabbed his shoulder. "I seem to be having difficulties here."
"Your shoulder?" Miacht came forward, and touched Nuada's shoulder gently; Nuada flinched away, growing paler. He grabbed his ale-cup, draining it.
"Hurts, doesn't it?" Omiach said. He looked over at the steward. "Call a few servants, will you?"
"What for?" the steward said suspiciously.
"Well, if it is what we think it is, we will want to kill it when we release it," Miacht said. "A darb-dóel is a tricky devil. Very fast and elusive. You stomp on it, and it's not there."
"A darb-dóel?" the steward said, shaking his head. "What's that?"
"You'll see. You'll see. Now, get a few others in here. With shoes on," he called, as the steward turned away. "We don't want to have to go after the creature more than once."
When the others had gathered around Nuada's chair, Miacht gently took the silver arm in his hand.
"Now, this is going to hurt a bit," he said quietly to Nuada. "But there's nothing for it. Ready?"
Nuada gritted his teeth, nodding. Miacht took the silver arm, then suddenly wrenched it up and out away from Nuada's body, ripping it away. "Ye--ow!" yelled Nuada. A great stench of putrefying flesh rose from the wound. Within it, a large black beetle, the size of an adult cockroach appeared. The darb-dóel hesitated, then bounded away from the stump and scurried through the Great Hall.
"There it goes!" yelled the steward. "Filthy beast!"
He stamped at it with his good foot, but the darb-dóel slipped away, heading for the door. The servants leaped after it, their feet slapping like thunder as they tried to kill it. The darb-dóel swerved and dashed into the cooking room. The steward leaped over it and raced ahead tothe door, grabbing a meat mallet as he raced past the cook's table. He knelt on the floor, and when the darb-dóel came close, smashed it quickly, spattering it over the floor. He rose with satisfaction and handed the meat mallet to one of the servants.
"Here. Clean up the mess, now," he ordered. The servant looked with disgust at the splotch before the threshold and left to get a bucket of water. The steward walked back into the Great Hall, pausing to straighten his tunic, before approaching the dais where Nuada slumped pale-faced on his couch.
"Got the bloody thing," he grunted. Nuada nodded, the color already beginning to return to his cheeks. He glanced at the silver arm in Miach's hands. He shuddered.
"It was good while it lasted," he said. "But I don't think that I want it back."
Miach smiled gently and handed the arm to the steward, who took it gingerly. "Yes, I can understand that. But, all things are possible if you believe in them. Of course, one must be careful with what one wishes to believe as there can be problems unforeseen that come from wishes." He frowned. "More harm has been done in the name of good than you would expect. Good is evanescent. One must remember that."
"As should you," Omiach pointed out. He shook his head. "I know what you're thinking, Miach. There's danger in being a meddler."
Miach smiled again. "Well, shouldn't one always follow one's beliefs?" He turned back to Nuada. "Would you like a real arm in place of that silver thing?"
"Here we go," growled Omiach. Miach ignored him.
"It is possible. Not"--he held up his hand--"completely certain, you understand. But possible."
"Of course," Nuada said.
And that began Miach's search for an arm to match the arm of the former king. But that was no easy task. The arm had to be equally as long and muscular and flexible. But among all the Tuatha, none could be found that would match Nuada's--except that of Modhan the Swineherd. But this simply wouldn't do, you see, for a man of Nuada's stature simply could not carry a swineherd's arm with him into polite company. Besides, what would the swineherd do withoutit? No, no, there was, as Miach had put it, possible, but not certain.
Nuada was crestfallen.
"I warned you," Miach said softly.
"Yes, but warnings like that are seldom heeded as warnings," Nuada sighed. "Children do not think of the possibility of failure, and what are we but grown children?"
"Men," a passing wench muttered to another, "are grown children, perhaps. But who does the washing and cleaning around here, I would ask you? Eh? And then, we're to look sensuous15 for them when they're in their cups! I tell you--"
"Would the bones of the man's own arm be of any help to you?" Omiach asked.
Miach frowned, pursing his lips, musing. "Well, now, 'tisn't a thought I've given to it, but there is that which can be done. If," he emphasized, "we had the true bones."
"We can only try," Omiach said.
A man was dispatched to the battlefield of Mag Tuired. There he discovered where Nuada's arm had been buried and uncovered it. He brought the bones back to Tara, where Miach examined them closely.16 Then, he looked at Omiach and said, "Would you prefer to place the arm or go for the herbs?"
"I'd rather do the arm," Omiach said. "You are much more successful grubbing around the dirt for herbs than I."
And so Miach left to gather the herbs. When he returned, Omiach had the arm placed and Miach made a paste of some of the herbs and bound the arm straight down Nuada's side. He chanted an incantation:
"Joint to joint I join you. To the joints, I join the sinew. After that, we will bend The joint and after that tend To making the flesh that I'll bid To grow under which all will be hid."
After three days had passed, the arm had joined once again at the shoulder. Then Miach bent the arm at the elbow, covered itagain with herbs, and bound it for three more days across Nuada's stomach. After those three days were up, he made a paste out of charred bulrushes and cattails and covered the arm and wrapped it for three more days.
On the tenth day, he took off the bandage. A great shout went up over the land, for Nuada's arm once again hung from his shoulder and he could again be king. Word quickly spread and reached the ear of Diancécht, who left immediately for Tara to see for himself. When he entered Nuada's hall, Nuada rose from his couch and flexed the arm, saying, "You have a marvelous son there, Diancécht! I daresay that in time his fame will surpass your own."
Diancécht grew red with rage, and when Miach entered the room, he drew his sword and slashed his son across the head, slicing the flesh.
"Father! Why did you do that?" Miacht asked, healing himself immediately. Again, Diancécht slashed at Miacht, cutting his son to the bone. And again, Miacht healed himself.
"Father! Why did you do that?" he asked again. But Diancécht did not answer and swung his sword a third time at Miach, cutting through the skull to the brain. But again, Miacht healed himself. Enraged, Diancécht trepanned his son. When Miacht's brain fell out upon the floor, Miacht fell dead.
Diancécht took his son's body and buried it secretly in a glade deep in the forest. Three hundred sixty-five herbs grew up from his grave, one for each part of the body. His sister, Airmed,17 who had skills as great as her father, gathered the herbs, carefully sorting them upon her cloak. But when Diancécht learned what she was doing, he went to the clearing, grabbed her cloak, and shook the herbs into the air, mixing them. Airmed was unable to sort them again, and Man lost his chance at immortality.
Seven years had passed, however, since Bres had taken the throne from which Nuada had once ruled; and during that time, Bres had grown very strong, and the Fomorians ruled them ruthlessly.
When the Tuatha went to Bres and told him that they no longer wanted him as their king, Bres laughed at them and laid even heaviertaxes upon them, having grown too strong for Nuada to do anything to upset his rule.
One day, Cairpré, the chief poet of the Tuatha, came to the court, expecting to be greatly honored as all poets were, but Bres laughed when he heard that Cairpré had entered his house and ordered the poet to be placed in a small, dingy room without fire, bed, or chair for the table upon which tiny cakes without seeds, burnt from the oven, were left for him to eat. When Cairpré rose the next morning to take his leave, he delivered the first magical satire ever spoken in Ireland against his host, saying:
"I received no meat upon the plate Given to me. No milk from a cow, Either. So, now I pronounce the fate Of Bres who has the honor of a sow: May he likewise receive the honor That he cheerfully has given to another!"
Upon hearing the poet's words, red splotches broke out upon Bres's face, which caused the Tuatha to heave a sigh of relief since no one who had a blemish could be their king. Bres was forced to leave and Nuada stepped upon the throne. But Bres's strength was so great that Nuada could do nothing to ease the heavy taxes that had been placed upon his people.
iii.
ONE DAY AS NUADA SAT in a feast, a stranger dressed as a prince came to the door of his house and demanded of the gatekeepers, Gamal and Camall, that his presence be announced to the king. Gamal looked at Camall and winked, then turned to the young man, saying:
"Aye, that we'll be certain to do. But tell us, youth, what reason does the king have for seeing you?"
"Tell him that I am Lugh, the grandson of Diancécht by Cian, my father, and Balor's grandson by Ethniu, my mother," the youth replied.
"Uh-huh," grunted Camall. "But that tells us little, as Balor has many grandsons from dallying his tallywhacker in so many honey-wells. So, young one, tell us what it is that you do. This is the master's feast, and one must be a master to gain entrance."
"Then, tell your king that I am a carpenter."
Gamal spat. "That may be well and good, but we already got the best of them: Luchtainé's his name. Doubt you see many that can mortise joints like him."
"I'm also a very good smith," Lugh said again.
"Got one of them, too," Camall said. "No one turns iron like Goibniu."
"And I am a champion among warriors," Lugh said.
"Uh-huh," Gamal said doubtfully. "Well, we have the king's own brother, Oghama in there. One of them's enough."
"And I am a harper," Lugh continued.
"Can you play as well as Abcan?"
"I'm as good with my wits as I am my strength," Lugh said.
"So is Bresal," Gamal said.
"I have many stories to tell."
"We already got a poet," Camall yawned.
"I am no stranger to magic."
"And we got a lot of sorcerers and Druids," Gamal said.
"I am a healer."
"We got the best: Diancécht."
"I bear cups."
"Got nine of them. That's more than enough."
"I work well in bronze."
"Well, if you could best Credné, then you might be worth the coal for the forge. But I doubt it," Camall said.
Lugh smiled. "But," he asked gently, "do you have one man who can do all these things? Take this to your king, and if he has, I will shake Tara's dust from my heels."
"Best go and see about it," Gamal said to Camall. He eyed Lughcarefully. "'Tis a good brag and if he's half as good with his hands as he is his words, he might be of use to the king."
Camall sighed and trudged away from the gate, making his way into the banquet hall. There, he approached Nuada and told him about the boastful youth at the gate.
"We got a young one, dressed like a prince, who claims to be an ioldánac,"18 he said. He shrugged. "Thought it best to let you know. Might be a bit of amusement in it for you."
Nuada laughed. "Well, then, let the young man in! And bring the fidchell19 board and our best players. If he beats them, why, then, bring him to us!"
Camall sighed and went off to do Nuada's bidding. But Lugh beat all of the players, inventing a move that came to be known as "Lugh's Enclosure" as he did. When he saw this, Carnal brought the youth into the banquet hall. There was a seat vacant beside Nuada that was known as the "Sage's Seat," and Lugh went straight to the seat and took it. Eyebrows rose at his brashness as the four great leaders of the Tuatha--Dagda, the chief Druid; Diancécht, the physician; Oghma, the champion; and Goibniu, the smith--all exchanged glances.
"Well, now," Oghma said quietly to the others, "let's see about this young rooster."
He rose and went to a huge stone that four teams of oxen had brought in. He spat on his hands, bent, and lifted it, then hurled it through the thick wall of the fort.
"Always with the theatrics," Nuada sighed. "Now we'll have to have it brought back in again. I really wish you would find something else to amuse yourself with."
Lugh smiled and rose, and walked through the hole in the wall where he picked up the stone and tossed it negligently back through the hole in the wall where it landed in the exact same place from which Oghma had plucked it. Oghma shook his head as he retook his seat. "Boy has a set of shoulders on him under that tunic, I'm thinking," he said.
Then Lugh took a harp off the wall and smiled gently at the court as he plucked the strings. Golden notes rang softly through the room as Lugh played the "Sleeping Lullaby," and Nuada and his court fell fastasleep. They awoke the next day at the same hour, bewildered. Then Lugh played the "Song of Sorrow," and Nuada and his court wept buckets of tears.
"'Tis a fine hand you have with the strings," Nuada blubbered.
Lugh smiled and his fingers danced faster and faster across the strings, playing tune after tune, and the Tuatha laughed and began dancing wildly as music rose and soared around the room. At last he stopped, and Nuada smiled and stepped down from the throne.
"A better man you are than any here," he declared. "You must be the king of the Tuatha, not I."
And so Lugh reigned for thirteen days among the Tuatha Dé Danaan. Then he took Nuada aside along with his advisors and spoke with them about doing battle with the Fomorians. Then, he disappeared, promising to return when the Tuatha needed him the most.
Nuada and his advisors went back to the halls of Tara, and again Nuada took the throne. But nothing was done about the heavy taxes laid upon the Tuatha and for three years, they languished under the Fomorian rule while memory of the magical youth slowly disappeared.
iv.
NOW, ONE DAY WHEN THE time rolled around for the new collection of taxes, Nuada and the rest of the Tuatha Dé Danaan assembled at the Hill of Usneach, waiting for the Fomorian tax collectors the duties imposed upon them by Bres. A cold wind blew that day, stinging the eyes of the Tuatha as they stared across the plain, waiting.
"'Tis an evil day," remarked Aengus, staring across the plain. His nose began to run, and he wiped it absently with the back of his hand, then heeled the tears from his eyes, drying his hands upon his scarlet cloak. He turned to face Nuada. "What I don't understand is why we put up with them. You're whole again."
Nuada moved his new arm uneasily, feeling it leap to his command. He felt the temptation to once again place his sword, the great sword brought by the Tuatha from Findias in Greece that no one couldescape and whose injury no one could heal. He shook his head. "We left Bres on the throne too long," he said at last. "He has grown very strong over the past seven years while we have not prepared ourselves for battle."
"Speak for yourself," growled Lir. He fingered his sword, then hawked and spat. The wind drew his spittle and splattered the face of Ogham, who frowned angrily at Lir, but the great warrior ignored him. "As for me, I'd give anything to cross swords with that Bres. Why, I'd--"
"--cause all of us a great deal of harm," Aengus finished for him. Lir glared at him. "No, Lir, we must be a bit tactful on this. Nuada is right; we must bide our time until we can down them. Remember the last battle with the Fir Bolg? The Fomorians will be worse."
"Better the dust than the bended knee, you ask me," Lir said. Forgetting the wind blowing from the east, he turned and spat and swore when his spittle blew back upon him. He wiped his paw across his tunic, then frowned and stared hard at a small cloud of dust coming toward them across the plain.
"Now, who's this, you suppose?" he asked.
Nuada and Aengus turned, looking where he pointed. A stately band of warriors rode toward them upon white horses, with a young man leading them. Bright sunlight seemed to gleam from his figure, his forehead. They blinked as the brightness burned their eyes, then tried to make out his features with quick flicks of their eyes.
"I don't know about this," Aengus said doubtfully. "What more can happen to us?"
"Ah, shut your gob," Lir said. Aengus gave him an indignant look, but Lir ignored him. "From the looks of this group, they know which end of the sword to use. I say we make ready." He glanced over his shoulder at the Fomorians still riding toward them in their groups of nines. "We could be caught between two stones like grain in a gristmill."
"Hold your sword," Nuada said quietly, placing his hand on Lir's arm to keep him from drawing his weapon. "Diplomacy, my friend. Let us see what they want before we do anything."
Lir hawked, then remembered the wind, and swallowed. Heglared at Nuada. "It's the fine words of people like you that got us in this mess in the first place. Bres as king. Phaw! A cold blade's what we should have given him instead of the crown!"
"And who else should we have placed upon the throne," Aengus asked. "You?"
"And what would be wrong with that?" Lir asked, glowering at the fair-faced youth whose beauty caused all women to sigh and conspire to meet with him in the dark.
"Enough," Nuada commanded quietly as the riders came up the hill to them. "Greetings!" he called. He blinked at the brightness burning from the forehead of the leader. "I bid you good day! I am Nuada of the Tuatha Dé Danaan."
The leader reined in and lowered his head, removing his helmet that had a precious stone set behind it and two more in front. For the first time, they saw fully his comely countenance as bright and glorious as the setting sun. He looked over the people, still sitting or squatting on their haunches. He frowned; then a small smile crept over his face and many a maiden there felt her heart flutter in her breast and her breath come in shallow gasps.
"I am Lugh Lamfada20 from the Tir Tairnmigiri.21 These"--he turned to indicate the warriors behind him--"are my foster-brothers, the sons of Manannán Mac Lir.22 Sgoith Glegeal and Rabach Slaitin, Gleigal Garb, Goithne Gormsuileach, Sine Sinderg, Domnall Donruad, and Aed, the son of Eathall." His mare moved restlessly beneath him, shuffling her feet daintly. He smiled and smoothed her brightly flowing mane. "And this is Enbarr," he added. He laughed, and the notes of his laughter tinkled over the crowd like a bell tone rung from clear glass. The others stared admiringly at the beautiful horse, recalling the legend of the mare of Manannán who was as fast as the naked cold wind of spring and so swift that she could run equally over land and water and so quick that no rider upon her back was ever harmed in battle.
"We know her," Lir said gruffly. He nodded at the breastplate and mail Lugh wore. "And I see your foster-father gave you the loan of his armor as well."
Lugh laughed again and touched the sword hanging from his leftside. "And his sword, Fregartach, 'The Answerer,' from whose wound no one recovers. I would draw it, but all who gaze upon it become so frightened that they become as weak as a woman in the arms of a deadly disease or childbirth." He grinned at Lir. "Even you, Grandfather," he said teasingly.
Lir flushed, his face growing dark with suppressed anger. He fingered the hilt of his sword. "For an acorn, I'd teach you a bit of respect," he said.
Lugh held up his hands. "Is this a greeting or an invitation to battle?" he said. He shook his head, laughing merrily. Then, he noticed the Formorians drawing nearer to the bottom of the hill. "But I see you are expecting other company."
Nuada glanced over his shoulder at the Fomorians. The others stood as the tax gatherers rode up the hill toward them. Nine times nine groups of them, they were, each as dirty as the other, greasy hair hanging in half-ringlets beneath their helmets, the smell of rotting flesh following them. Nuada recognized four of the riders, the cruelest and fiercest of the Fomorians: Eine, Eithfaith, Coron, and Compar, who inspired such fear in the Tuatha that none dared punish their children or foster-children without begging their permission first.
Lugh frowned at the honor paid the Fomorians. "Now, what are these rógaires who bring you to your feet when you stayed seated when we came, eh? From the looks of them, they could stand a good wash and currying."
"Sh," Nuada said nervously. "Don't anger them. If anyone--even the smallest child--a month-old babe, even--had stayed on the ground when they came up, that would have given them the excuse they want for killing us. Especially, those four in front. Why, they would rather drink blood than honeyed-beer."
Lugh glared at them for a moment, then said, "Why for a hickory nut or acorn, I'm half-minded to put them down myself."
"I'm telling you--" Nuada began nervously, but Lugh spoke loudly over him.
"Why, these rascals should be killed themselves. I'm half-minded to do it now."
"We would meet our own deaths and destruction would follow across our fair land if you did," Nuada said.
"At least, we'd be men," Lir muttered darkly.
Lugh shook his head and gathered his reins. He looked down at the group and said, "You have been under the thumb of the Fomorians long enough, I'm thinking." A bright smile flashed across his comely face. He clamped the helmet on his head, controlling the dancing Enbarr with his knees. "I say let's see how thin their blood runs!"
"Lugh!" Nuada said sharply, but Lugh only laughed again and took Enbarr down the hill in a gallop toward the group. Manannán's sons followed, loosening their weapons in their sheaths. Lugh slid to a stop, brazenly barring the path up the hill from the Fomorians. Eine frowned at this behavior.
"What's this, puppy?" he asked. He bared his long yellow teeth. "You're a handsome one, I'll give you that. Not very smart, though, to stand in the way of your betters."
"Oh?" Lugh asked carelessly. "And who might they be?"
"Let me take his head," Compar growled. He pulled his sword, the blade well-blooded. "A little chop-chop, and we'll be done with this mosquito."
Coron gave Lugh a careful look, then shook his head. "Don't look like there's much sting to him. Swat him and be done with it, I say!"
Compar nudged his lathered horse forward, but never saw Lugh's hand move as Fregartach leaped from its scabbard and sliced cleanly through Compar's neck. Compar's eyes twitched. "An accident!" he mumbled. "Blind, mindless accident!" Then his head toppled from his shoulders and rolled across the dusty grass.
The others stared dumbly at Compar's head rolling like an agate among the hooves of their horses, then Enbarr reared, lashing out with her hooves and striking Eithfaith's horse between the eyes, stoning him dead instantly.
"What the--waa!?" Eithfaith exclaimed as he found himself thrown sideways. "Trickery!" he howled. "Watch yourselves!" A blinding flash exploded in his eyes. He blinked. Felt a tug at his neck. Then looked stupidly up at his body, staggering and falling. "Arm yourselves!" he roared, but the words came out in a squeak.
Then Lugh's battle-cry roared over the plain and his foster-brothers fell upon the Fomorians from the flanks. Fregartach leaped and danced in the bright sunlight, deadly rays like rainbows flying from its edge as Lugh boldly carved his way through the troop, slaughtering and disfiguring all who stood in his way.
"Mercy!" howled one, but Lugh ignored his plea as he dealt red slaughter to all until only nine of the nine times nine remained standing in a tiny, bewildered knot, staring in dismay at the carnage around them.
"Sanctuary!" Eine exclaimed, tossing his sword aside. He held his bare hands up beseechingly. Lugh frowned at the grimed wrinkles in the hairy knuckles then relented.
"All right," he said. He reached down and ripped a section from Eine's tunic, grimaced at its filth, then wiped the blood from Fregartach's blade. He sheathed it and said, "I suppose it's only good form to spare some of you. Besides," he added thoughtfully, "I want you to take word of this slaughter back to your king and tell him and the rest of the foreigners that they are no longer welcome in the land of the Tuatha Dé Danaan. Better he should kill you as the messengers than my own men."
He turned Enbarr and rode up the hill as the Fomorians whipped their horses away from the red slaughter, galloping back to the coast, where their long ships waited to take them and the taxes they had gathered back to Balor of the Evil Eye.
"By the great balls, but that was something!" Lir exclaimed as Lugh rode up to them. He slapped Lugh's knee. "It's no knitting boy you are, I can see! That's as fine a blade dancing as I've ever seen!"
"Now you've done it for certain," Aengus sighed mournfully, watching the Fomorians disappear in the distance. "We're in it for sure, now! Balor will not take this lightly."
Lugh smiled at him. "We can only hope that he doesn't."
"Hope? Hope?" Nuada shook his head. "There's little hope for us, I'm thinking."
"Isn't it better to live like men, then die and be done with it, instead of starving and wasting away little by little?" Lugh demanded. Heshook his head. "Why men prefer to live on their knees instead of their feet is beyond me."
Lir slapped Nuada on the shoulder, staggering him. "The boy speaks truth! I say we make ready!"
"Yes, of course," Nuada said, rubbing his shoulder. "We have little choice in the matter, now. That's all been decided for us."
And then memory of the youth who had come to the halls of Tara three years before returned and he smiled.
"But," he said, "I believe the time has come for us to make plans."
And so they returned to the halls of Tara and went into council, planning for the battle they knew was coming.
v.
BALOR FROWNED AS HE LISTENED to the tale Eine told, his hands dancing nervously in the air as he described the rack and ruin Lugh had carved through their ranks.
"Monstrous!" Eine finished, beads of perspiration dotting his forehead. "Monstrous, I say. Gave no warning that he was going to be carving on our hides. Uncivilized, you ask me!" He snarkled, hawked, and spat to the side, wiping his nose with a dirty forefinger. "And there was poor Eithfaith, head rolling among the hooves of our horses like a rock being kicked this way and that, still yelling. A sight I won't forget for a long time, I tell you that!"
Balor sucked the end of his long mustache into his mouth, chewing. He glared at the others. "Well?" he demanded. "Anyone know who this upstart is?"
The others stirred uneasily, looking away from the angry Balor, hoping that he wouldn't part his hair in the back and release the beams and dyes of venom from his evil eye that could fry men's courage and drop them dead in their tracks.23
"Your grandson," said Cathleann the Crooked-Toothed, his wife. His good eye clicked toward her like agate stones in a cold stream.
"What's this?" he asked suspiciously, his brow lowering like a dark thundercloud. "What's this you say?"
"Oh, stuff and nonsense!" she said exasperatedly. "He's Lugh It-Dana, 24 the son of Ethniu, our daughter, the grandson known as Lugh the Long-Armed. The one of the prophecy."
A hard look settled over Balor's face. His cheeks grew dark with anger. A strange grinding noise seemed to come from his direction, and it took a moment before all there realized he was grinding his teeth in fury. They stirred uneasily, moving slowly toward the door, for all knew Balor's fury and what might happen when reason left him like leaves leaving the branches of oak trees in autumn.
"Yes," she said grimly. "That one. The one who's coming will end our power over the Tuatha. And stop grinding your teeth. It's most unseemly."
"Quiet, woman!" he growled. "There's enough of your yammering! I know that it cannot be our grandson. It must be somebody else. All right, enough of your sniveling!" he said to the others, raising his voice. "All of you leave except for the council. We'll give weight to the words we have heard and decide what to do."
"How do you know--" Cathleann began, but fell silent as Balor glared at her.
"Women," Balor growled. He leaned back in his chair, tugging his fingers through his gnarled beard, glowering into the center of the room. Now, how could it be the one of the prophecy? Did I not have him killed? Did I not send Ethniu's son out onto the cold gray sea?
And indeed he had after Cian, a Tuatha nobleman, disguised himself and made his way to the crystal tower on Tory Island where Balor had imprisoned his daughter after hearing a prophecy from a rogue Druid who warned the king of the Fomorians that his grandson would slay him in a last great battle, and there Cian had made love to the lonely Ethniu. After the child was born, Balor had given the baby boy to one of his minor rulers by the sea and ordered the infant to be drowned. But because Balor did not say why he wanted such a terrible thing done, the retainer hesitated and looked at the glowing face of the gurgling babe and his heart went out to the infant. As he stood beside the shore of the cold gray sea, torn between his duty and his desire, word came tohim that his wife had given birth to a stillborn child. With that, the retainer wrapped the child in his cloak and smuggled the baby into his house and to his wife's side, taking the dead child away and giving it to the sea in place of Balor's grandson. When it came time for the fostering of the child, Manannán Mac Lir, the god of the waves, took the child for his own and raised it carefully in the old ways.
But all of this Balor did not know as he waited for the council to settle: Eab, the grandson of Nét,25 Senchab, the grandson of Net; Sotal Salmor, Luath Leborcham, Tinne Mor of Triscadal, Loisginn Lomgluineach, Luath Lineach, Lobais the Druid, Liathlabar, the son of Lobais; the nine wise poets and prophets of the Fomorians; the twelve white-mouthed sons of Balor; and Cathleann.
"Well," he asked when the great oaken door had been swung shut, leaving them alone. "Well?"
"Well, yourself," Cathleann said grouchily. "First you tell people to hold their lip, then you want them to banter about like fishwives. Make up your mind, husband!"
Balor sighed and dug his knuckles furiously into his temples. "Woman, if you have something to be adding that will help us here, say so! Otherwise, stop your gob!"
"A mouth at rest offers nothing," she said stoutly, then fell silent, folding her arms across her heavy breasts, glaring defiantly back at him.
"We'll get nowhere at this," Senchab said. "Remember that a wedge from an oak tree splits itself."
"Enough homilies," Balor said. He glanced around the table. "Well? There's an upstart standing tall in Ireland, now, defying us. Will no one rid us of this man?"
The council members exchanged quick looks with each other, holding caution on their tongues, for none knew more than the other about the man who had sent the nine tax collectors packing with their tails between their legs like tick-filled dogs. That he was a man to be reckoned with was obvious: The heads of Compar and Eithfaith had been solidly attached to their broad shoulders, and many a man had tried to separate them before, only to be cleaved from gob to stopper by the warriors themselves. 'Twas a mighty man, indeed, who could send those two kicking their way through the dark to the land of Donn.26
"Not one man?" Balor asked again, his words cutting through their thoughts like a pruning knife. "Is there not a one of you who drinks real beer and not watered wine?"
"Enough," growled Balor's son Bres, whose authority had been flouted by the Tuatha and Lugh. "Give me seven brigades of brave men and I'll bring Lugh's head to the green of Berva in Lochlann."27
"That makes sense," Eab said. The others looked at him. "Well, he's the one who lost his place in Ireland. Only right that he should take it back." He looked at Bres. "And it would be good for your name that you do so. After all"--he shrugged--"what else does a man have? A sword is only temporal. But victories, ah, yes, victories leave a man immortal."
Bres nodded and, drawing himself up straight, said, "Then it is settled. Make ready the warships and the barks and let them be filled with food and stores."
The council closed quickly before he could change his mind and Luath Leborcham scuttled down to the docks to give orders to have the best warships and deeply prowed barks hauled up and their sides freshly caulked with pitch. Luath Lineach hurried to the warehouses and ordered the supplies to be taken down to the docks while Sotal Salmor ordered the smiths to grind fresh edges upon the blades of all warriors. Then they went throughout Lochlann, bringing the warriors from their hearts and homes.
At last, all was made ready, and the ships were filled with frankincense 28 and myrrh.29 Bres made his way down to the docks with Balor. There, he clapped Bres upon the shoulder and cried loudly so that all could hear: "Go now, then! Go to Ireland and lop the head of Lugh Il-Dana from his shoulders and bring it back to Berva. And for good measure, tie that island to the sterns of your ships with stout cables and yank it from those green waters and drag it north of bitter-cold Lochlann. None of the Tuatha Dé Danaan will follow it there. And if they do," he added grimly, "'tis cold enough to freeze a bear's balls. Their magic won't work in that wasteland!"
The warriors gave a mighty shout and pushed away from the port, raising their sails. A sudden wind from the south caught the red and blackand yellow sails and sped them away from the untilled land and out upon the blue-gray sea that flowed over the formidable abyss, upon the ridge-backed flood, over the high, cold-venomed mountains of the fathomless ocean. Straight did the pilots set their courses, never varying until they rounded the Skellig Rocks and made hard for the harbor at Es Dara.30
There the warriors stormed from their ships, laying waste to the land of Connacht, burning fields and villages, slaying men who tried to stand against them, raping women where they found them.
vi.
NOW THE KING OF CONNACHT at the time was Bodb Dearg, the son of The Dagda.31 Who quickly sent word to Tara32 where Nuada was entertaining Lugh after the Long Arm had slain a pocket of Fomorians who had remained behind as spies at Es Dara, while the others fled back to Balor's court. The red spearpoints of dawn struck the palace when the news reached them. Immediately Lugh prepared Enbarr of the Flowing Mane to ride over Ireland and draw the Tuatha together to drive the Fomorians from the land.
When Lugh reentered the palace, he went to Nuada and said, "Well, friend, I will ride to Connacht and gather the men as I go. We will hold the Fomorians there until you can bring your army up to support us. Together, we'll rid this land of those rogues once and for all."33
"Ah, yes, that," Nuada said. He refused to meet Lugh's eye and pretended to admire the curving hip of a serving wench as she hip-slinked her way past, casting a saucy glance over her shoulder. Lugh frowned.
"Explain, what you mean by that," he said, toying with the pommel of Manannán's sword hanging by his side.
"Well, what's happening is happening in Connacht, not here in Tara," Nuada said. He sipped from his cup of spiced wine. "Yes, that is very good," he said. He glanced at Lugh, who looked at him in disbelief. "Oh, I mean no harm to Bodb Derg and his people," he saidquickly. "But really, I don't think the affairs of Connacht should become the affairs of Tara."
Lugh shook his head. "They could become the affairs of Tara if Bodb Derg cannot hold the Fomorians at Connacht. The country is like a loaf of bread. As a slice is taken off, the rest becomes easier to handle."
"Ha, ha. Yes, very humorous." Nuada laughed politely. "But nevertheless, I don't think we should dive into that briar patch just now. Why, it was only a few weeks ago that we managed to drive the Fomorians out of our own country."
"I drove the Fomorians out of your country while you sat sniveling with others on top of Usneach's Hill, fawning over the filth that came to tax you," Lugh said hotly. "I gave you help. Now you must return the favor by going to the aid of Bodb Dearg."
"I won't give it," Nuada said. "I will not lift a hand against someone who hasn't done anything against me. There is no deed there that calls for me to avenge it. Now, there's an end to it. I don't want to talk about it any more."
"It isn't talking that will be done with the flapping lips of politicians if the Fomorians get past the Connacht borders," growled Lugh. "But I'll leave you to your sweetmeats and wine and"--he glanced at the serving wench batting her long eyelashes at Nuada from the end of the room--"a saucy wench's hips. You'll fit that saddle better than a warhorse."
"Now, there's no reason to be insulting," Nuada complained, but Lugh ignored him and, turning on his heel, walked angrily from the room. He leaped onto his horse and galloped westward.
The sun had risen nearly to merdian height when he saw three men loping toward him. He reined in Enbarr and waited on the crest of a hill until they neared and he recognized his father Cian34 and his two uncles Cu and Ceithen. Then his face broke into a wide grin, and he rode down the hill to greet them.
"Greetings, Father!" Lugh called as he neared the others. He drew in Enbarr who danced and shuffled her feet, snorting impatiently. Automatically, he ran his hand down under the flowing mane, soothing her.
"Good morning, Lugh!" called his father. They drew up besideLugh. "And what brings you out on this fine morning before the dew is gone from the long grass?"
"Bad news." Lugh shook his head. "The Fomorians have landed in Connacht. Even as we speak, they lay waste to the country. 'Tis said they burn what they cannot use, scorching the land, and that grass doesn't grow where the hooves of their horses strike. I ride to give them a taste of my sword, but I don't know for how long I can hold them there."
"Well," said Cu, brightening. "Sure, and we'll ride with you for a bit of carving on Fomorians hide. Each of us is easily the worth of a hundred Fomorians. Eh, what say you, Ceithen?"
"Only a hundred? I suppose that's enough for a woman's arm, but a man will take another hundred for himself," Ceithen said.
"A wager!" Cu cried happily. He clapped his hands together, the sound like thunder. Their horses danced uneasily. "A fingerlength of white gold for every warrior over the other's count!"
"Hate to make a pauper out of my own brother, but beggars get the pelf they seek," he said. He looked at Lugh. "So, let's ride to the sound of swords against shields! Each of us will easily keep a hundred or so of the Fomorians off your back."
Lugh laughed, the notes of his laughter putting the songs of the birds on the meadow to shame. "And I accept! But first, each of you must ride throughout Ireland where the Tuatha gather in their Sidhes and bid them to join me at Mag Mor over the mountain of Keshcorran. There, we will find the Fomorians and there we shall drive them from the land."
"Rather go with you now and carve a bit of their dirty hides," growled Cu, fingering his sword. Lugh laughed and shook his head.
"No, there'll be more than enough to go around and enough blood to bathe your blade. Now, go! Time's wasting!"
"Perhaps it would be better if you brought Nuada from Tara," Cian suggested, putting out his hand to stay Enbarr. Lugh's face clouded.
"Nuada would rather stay behind and play the king rather than be the king," he said.
Cian shook his head. "Perhaps you should try again," he said."Even the wisest king often needs pause to consider. He may have changed his mind."
Lugh hesitated, then shrugged. "It will make little difference, but we'll see." He nudged Enbarr with his heels and the great horse shook himself and turned and galloped back toward Tara. Cu and Ceithen watched him ride away, sunlight breaking radiantly off him, and shook their heads.
"'Tis a fine lad you sired there, Cian," Ceithen said. "I'm surprised you got him with only one night of romping."
Cian laughed and gathered the reins of his horse. "Well, there's loving as a man gives a woman and loving that a lad wishes for," he chided. "You and Cu head south. I'm for Muirthemne."35 The others watched as he galloped off toward the north.
Cu sighed and turned to Ceithen. "Well, brother, there's a hard day and night of riding ahead of us if we are to do our nephew's bidding."
"Aye," Ceithen said, grinning. "And let's get to it before that bloodthirsty youth robs us of the battlefield."
They touched their heels to their horses and galloped away to the south.
Meanwhile, Cian had reached the Plain of Muirthemne and reined in as he saw the three sons of Tuirenn riding toward him. He bit his lip, pondering what to do, for a great hatred existed between the sons of Cainte and the sons of Tuirenn. When they met, fighting broke out. Now, Cian was no coward, but he quickly realized that he was no match for the three sons by himself. He glanced around and saw a herd of pigs rooting for acorns beneath an oak tree nearby.
"Well," he said to himself. "If Cu and Ceithen were with me, we'd have a brave fight of it all. But alone, well, there is little I could do. Ah, well. Discretion is the better part at this time." He pulled a hazel wand from his cloak and dismounted. He muttered a magic spell and touched himself with the wand, changing instantly into the shape of a pig. He fell down upon all fours and quickly ran in the middle of the pigs and joined them in rooting for the acorn mast.
The riders reined in, Iuchar and Iucharba looking curiously attheir brother, Brian, tall, bronzed from the sun, his blond hair bleached almost white, his blue-gray eyes flashing curiously, watchfully.
"Well?" Iuchar asked impatiently. "What is it? What do you see?" He turned and stared out over the land, searching for riders or walkers, but all he saw was a herd of pigs rooting for acorns beneath an oak tree at the edge of a forest.
"I thought I saw a rider," Iucharba, his twin, said from beside him. They were both dark-haired and black-eyed, so dark that many did not think they were brothers with Brian. But a closer look would see the similarity in them in the planes of their faces: high foreheads, hard chins, and shoulders broad enough to bear the weight of an oxen yoke.
"Is that what you are looking for?" Iuchar said.
Brian nodded, his eyes still scanning. "Yes, it is. But now, I don't see him anywhere. Why do you suppose that is?"
Iuchar shrugged. "Maybe it was an illusion."
"Or a wizard. Or an enemy with magic," Brain said dryly. "You really should be more watchful riding in the open country when war is upon the land. This is damned careless of you." His eyes fell upon the pigs rooting. "But," he added thoughtfully, "I think I know what has happened here. The rider must have been a Druid who changed himself into one of those pigs. And whoever he is, you can bet your walnuts that he's no friend of ours."
"Mere speculation," Iuchar grumbled. "Maybe he just didn't want to have any truck with us, eh? Did you think of that?"
"Yes," Iucharba echoed. "Did you think of that? Always seeing weasels when cats are around. You've got a suspicious mind."
"And a good thing, too. Otherwise, we would have been in a tanner's pool many times if things had been left up to the two of you."
Iuchar shook his head, gesturing toward the pigs. "Words, words, words. A lot of good they do us now. Those pigs belong to one of the Tuatha. Even if we killed all of them, there's no certainty that we would get the right one. He could shape-shift into something else while we slaughtering the others. Logic, brother. Logic," he added loftily, for he was very proud of his schooling.
"Logic, is it?" Brian said dryly, pulling a wand out from under hiscloak. "'Tis a sad state when you play pithy word games and cannot tell a Druidical beast from a natural beast. If you had attended to other learning instead of concentrating on pretty songs and phrasing, you might know that."
"What are you going to do?" Iuchar asked nervously, trying to edge away from Brian.
"Root out the right pig," Brian said, and quickly struck both of his brothers with his wand, changing each into a fast-hunting hound.
They fell from their horses, rolling in the heather. Iuchar was first up and sat immediately upon his haunches, scratching vigorously behind his ear with his hind foot.
"Ah well," sighed Iucharba, shaking himself. "He's at playing games again."
"Get the pig!" Brian commanded.
And the two hounds bayed and ran after the pigs, scattering them hither and thither, sniffing at their heels, until finally the Druidical pig slipped out the back of the herd and scrambled toward the protection of the forest. But Brian had been watching this and when the pig separated itself, he cast his long spear at it, striking the pig in the chest.
"AHHH!!" cried the pig and fell to the ground. "'Tis an evil thing you have done to stick me with your spear! More so since you know me!"
Brian laughed grimly as he rode up beside the pig. He leaned over, striking the hounds with his wand, changing them back once again into his brothers.
"Ow!" Ichubar said, glaring at Brian. He rubbed his head. "You were a bit hard with that blow!" But Brian ignored him.
"And what kind of a pig would speak the language of men?" he asked.
"One who is a human," the pig said in anguish. "I am Cian, the son of Cainte.36 Give me quarter!"
"Of course," Iuchar said, shaking himself and settling again into his human form.
"Indeed," Iucharba said. "And sorry we are for the ill that has befallen you."
"In a pig's arse," Brian said firmly. He glared at his brothers."There's no quarter I'll be giving to you. I swear this by the gods of the air."37
"'Tis a hard man, you are," the pig said painfully. It coughed and a great gout of blood gushed from its mouth. "Well, then, if that be the way of things, at least do me the decency of letting me die in my own form. I was in it far longer than in this disguise."
"A man should die as a man, a pig as a pig," Brian said.
"I take that as a yes," the pig said. The air shimmered for a moment over the pig, and Cian emerged from the pig form and lay gasping on the green.
"Now, then, since you wouldn't give quarter to the pig, I ask for quarter for the man you see before you now," Cian gasped. Blood pulsed gently from a huge gash in his chest.
"Not by your chinny hair," Brian growled.
Cian laughed painfully. "That is the mark of a hard man. But, 'tis the last laugh that I'll be having upon you now! You should have killed me as a pig! It would have been far cheaper for you! You would have had the fine only for a pig to be paid. But killing a noble person such as myself will bring the greatest of all blood-fines to be paid by rogues such as yourselves! Aye! Listen closely to me, now! You will not keep the secret of my death to yourselves and get away with it! The very weapons you use will sing my death to my son and to him will you be forced to pay the greatest éric38 that will ever be granted to a man's family!"
"Now this," Iuchar said uneasily, "is a different matter. Be listening closely to him, Brian! There's many a slip made between a man's head and his sword arm!"
"Talking swords?" Brian laughed. "Then we won't kill him with our arms. Let the earth do it!"
"The earth?" Iucharba asked, puzzled.
In answer, Brian picked up a huge stone in both hands and heaved it upon Cian with all his strength. Iuchar and Iucharba grabbed stones, and soon Cian's body was a bloody, crushed mass, unrecognizable from the man who had lain before them, wounded, asking that quarter be granted to him.
"There," Brian panted grimly. "That should be enough to keep him quiet."
"We can't leave him here for the wolves," Iuchar said. Brian paused on his way to his horse to look at his brother. Iuchar raised his chin. "You know as well as I that there are those Druids among the Tuatha who can speak with the animals of the forest. We have to keep him from the wolves who might consider him to be a tasty dish and brag about it to their brothers. Word gets around, you know. Birds sing, wolves howl, even the trees--"
"Enough." Brian raised a blood-spattered hand and pinched the bridge of his nose and dug his knuckles into his temples to stop their pounding. "Let's bury him, then."
"And deeply," growled Iucharba. "Don't want nothing digging him up and scattering his bones around." They set to, digging a hole down to a man's height.
"There," Iuchar said, pausing and panting from the effort of throwing dirt up out of the hole. He looked around in satisfaction, then craned his head, staring up at his brothers waiting patiently at the edge. "I wonder if this ain't deep enough to bury a cow, let alone a man. Here"--he held up his hand--"be giving us a hand up. This is deep enough to be knocking on the door of the hall of Cernunnos39 himself, and I'm fairly short."
They hauled him up from the grave and, without ceremony, dumped Cian's body in and pushed the dirt in. Then, stomping the last of the dirt down hard, Brian said, "Now, then, let's be off. There's a battle to be fought and won."
They walked to their horses and mounted. Suddenly the earth heaved and their horses reared and bucked so that the brothers were hard-pressed to be kept from tumbling ass-over-heels over the heads of their nervous steeds.
"Here, now! What's this? Whoa, damn you!" Iucharba yelled. He pulled hard on the halter, yanking the head of his horse up. The mount stood trembling, walleyed with fear as the earth beneath its hooves grumbled and rumbled.
"I don't like this," Iuchar began, but then his words caught hard in this throat as Cian's body was thrust up from its grave.
"Magic!" howled Iucharba, yanking his horse's head to gallop away. "Black magic!"
But Brian reached out and seized the reins from his brother's hands. "Stop that!" he said crossly. "It's only an accident. The heaving of the earth. We'll bury him again."
And so they did. And again the earth belched forth Cian's body. And again. And again. And again. And again. But the seventh time, Brian heaped a cairn of stones over the grave, and this time, the earth kept his body within its mouldy grip. A great sigh seemed to rise from the ground around them, raising the hackles upon their necks.
"I don't know," Iuchar said, gazing fearfully around him. "'Tisn't right that his body don't stay in the earth. I say we get away from this witchy place while we can."
Brian laughed and leaped lightly upon his horse. He turned its head to the west. "Then, let's be riding to battle before all the glory is taken from it!" he said. He clapped his heels to his horse's ribs and galloped away from the grave with his brothers in hot pursuit, each secretly goading his horse to greater and greater speed.
Behind them, a cold black shadow settled over the stone-marked grave and a deep chill fell over the land. Slowly, the leaves turned brown and russet and fell from the limbs and branches. And from the wind soughing through the branches came the words of Cian:
"My blood lies darkly upon the ground. My son will search until he has found Where you have killed Cian, the Hero, And buried his body beneath this barrow. Do not think that you escaped your fate For he will follow and upon that date When he finds your dark secret, you Will find your doom. You will do Terrible deeds to remove the stain From your name. Here, I will remain Until my son searches for me. And then, he will find you three."
vii.
MEANWHILE, LUGH REINED ENBARR IN at Nuada's gate and leaped down. He strode determinedly through the gate into the Great Hall where Nuada sat, musing over what had transpired earlier between himself and Lugh.
"Nuada!" Lugh called as he entered the hall.
"Ah, there you are!" Nuada said. He scrubbed his hands furiously over his face for a moment, then sighed and leaned back in his chair. "I have given some thought to what you said before and have concluded that you are right. All the Tuatha need to be in this battle, or else we shall be fighting another and another. It is time," he said grimly, "for us to put an end to the Fomorian threat once and for all."
Lugh paused, uncertain for a long moment, then grinned and walked forward, stretching out his hand. Nuada rose and took it solemnly. Tired lines hooked deeply through his cheeks and under his eyes, but his grip was firm and strength shone from his eyes.
"We don't have much time," he said. "If I know the Fomorians, and I do, they are hacking their way across Connacht as we speak."
"Then," Lugh said, "let us begin. Call your people together."
And Nuada called forth the magician, the cupbearers, the Druid and craftsmen, the poet and physicians of the Tuatha Dé Danann together--all those with special skills. Lugh questioned each one closely, asking what each would contribute to the Tuatha to help them in their struggle against the Fomorians.
The magician said that he would topple the mountains of Ireland and have them roll on the ground to crush the Fomorian army. Yet, these same mountains would shelter the Tuatha during the battle.
The cupbearers promised to bring a great thirst upon the Fomorian army, but then drain the rivers and lakes so that there would be no water for the Fomorians to drink. Yet, water would be provided for the Tuatha even if the war should last seven years.
The Druid said he would send a shower of fire to fall on the heads of the Fomorians and make them fearful and rob them of their strength. Yet, each breath the Tuatha drew would make them stronger.
Goibniu, the clever smith, would make swords and spears that would never miss their mark.
Credné, the clever worker in brass, would provide rivets and sockets for the spears and swords and magical rims for shields that would never allow a harmful blow to land to those who carried them.
"And what," Lugh asked Cairpré, the poet who had cursed Bres, "will you contribute to our struggle?"
"I will use weapons that are invisible," Cairpré replied. "I will attack the mind by composing satirical poems at daybreak and sing them before battle to cause the Fomorians great shame. Then they will lose their desire for battle."
Last of all, Lugh spoke to Diancécht, the great physician and asked him what he would bring to the battle.
"My daughter Airmed and I will bring the wounded back from the battlefield each day and bathe them in our magic well, where they will be cured of all hurts unless they have suffered mortal wounds. There is no magic that can bring them back from Donn's Hall. In the morning, they will be even more eager for battle and fight more fiercely than ever."
At that moment, the Mórrígan appeared in the shape of a crow and promised that she would be there in the hour of their greatest need to lead them to victory.
"But you must ready yourselves now," she said. "For even as I speak, I see Balor's army streaming off their ships at Scetne. Some have already begun their march over Ireland toward Tara."
Lugh encouraged all to ready themselves for battle, but Nuada had determined that Lugh was so vital to the success of the Tuatha that he commanded Lugh be kept behind the lines with nine champions to make certain that he didn't join the battle.
As the two armies marched across the Plain of Mag Tuired, Bres rose, yawned, and stretched, then stared wonderingly into the west. Mystified at what he saw, he called his Druid to him, saying, "There isa wonder placed upon this day. Look!" He pointed at the bright light moving steadily across the Great Plain of the Assembly. "It appears the sun has decided to give us an omen by rising in the west."
The Druid shook his head grimly. "Better it would be for your army if that were so," he said. Bres looked at him curiously.
"Then how would you explain what we are seeing?"
The Druid laughed, but there was no mirth in his laughter. "Ah, would-be prophet! Nature does not alter herself to play to the whims of man! That light is from the face and the arms of Lugh, the man who slew your taxmen." He dug a long finger into his ear and screwed it vigorously. "Ah, me! Expect the worst, now. You have dilly-dallied long enough to allow Lugh to rally the Tuatha! Now, there will be a heavy penalty extracted. I dreamed last night of acorns falling from the oak," he said solemnly.
"And what is that to mean?" Bres asked.
"Time will tell," the Druid said, smiling secretively and placing a finger alongside his nose. "For now, I think Lugh plans a parley." He nodded at the approaching figure who rode quietly up the hill upon dancing Enbarr. He reined in and saluted them respectfully, then sat easily, waiting for them to speak.40
"Well?" Bres demanded. He glanced up the hill to where Balor camped in the center of a ring of warriors. No one stirred around the cookfires, yet. He glanced back at Lugh. "Now, why do you salute us with such niceties of manners when you know full well what we want here?"
Lugh smiled gently and shook his head. "I greet you in the old way for I'm partly you, partly Tuatha. I belong in both camps. My mother was the daughter of Balor of the Mighty Blows. Yes," he added as Bres raised his eyebrows in disbelief, "my mother was Ethlenn." He glanced around at the great herd of cows that the Formorians had gathered as they moved across the rich land, scorching it as they rode. "Now, I asked you peaceably to please return all the milch cows to their rightful owners, the men of Connacht, and leave in peace."
Bres stared openmouthed at Lugh, then laughed. "Hee-awk! Hee-awk! Hee-awk! Why, you puny rascal! Do you think that your wee armycan stand against our might?" He turned contemptuously and spat. Enbarr danced away daintly from the Formorian's streaming spittle.
"I ask again--" Lugh began, but Bres cut him off short.
"Ah, little cricket! You're done with your chirping! Off with you, now, before we splatter you upon the hillside!"
The Druid shook his head at this and turned away silently from the meeting. A crow flew cawing high overhead. His eyes narrowed. He fingered his oaken staff, well-polished from much handling.
"This, then, is your last word?" Lugh asked quietly.
"And your last warning," growled Bres.
Lugh turned Enbarr silently and rode away.
"Now, can you figure that upstart--" Bres said, turning toward the Druid. He paused, looking around, puzzled. The Druid had disappeared. He glanced up half-fearfully, but saw only the crow circling slowly over the Great Plain.
"Apples and acorns!" he exclaimed. "What do you suppose got into him?"
He yawned and scratched himself through his tunic as he turned reluctantly toward the camp of Balor, certain that he had better tell Balor about the meeting before he heard about it from someone else. And there were many who would be scurrying to earn favor by being the first to say something against him. There are always those who build another's misfortune into their fortune, even if they have to bend a word or two here and there.
That night, Lugh cast a spell over the Fomorian army so the soldiers saw only shadows and not the milch cows moving slowly down the hill, back toward ravaged Connacht and their own home fields. But the dry cows stayed behind, munching the grass, forcing the Fomorians to care for them, slowing their march across the land until the entire Tuatha army could assemble.
For three days and nights, Lugh stayed close to the army, harrying them with his tiny minor spells, sending a flood down a river to keep them from crossing, a host of mites into the blankets of the army, keeping the men scratching and turning restlessly instead of sleeping soundly, making their fires burn hotter than planned so their meatbecame scorched and their bread twice-baked and burnt to iron-hard crust.
Then Bodb Dearg moved up on Lugh's flank with twenty-nine hundred men. On that day, Lugh began to dress for the battle. First, he donned Manannán's mail and breastplate. Then he placed Cannbarr, his helmet, upon his head where it caught the sun's rays and glittered with a bright rainbow of colors that danced bedazzling in the still air. He placed his blue-black, cleverly engraved shield,41 the color of the ocean's depths, its edge rimmed in bright red the color of lung's blood, over his back and hung his great sword upon his muscular thigh. Then he hefted his two great spears, the shafts hewed from the trunk of an ash, the points dipped in adder's blood, testing their balance. Satisfied, he studied the army at his back as the kings and chiefs rode among their men. Spearpoints bristled like a blackthorn hedge. Their shields touched rim like a fence.
Lugh nodded in satisfaction, then took a deep breath and sounded his battle-cry that curdled the blood of the Fomorians with its gruesome challenge, and charged their ranks. But the Fomorians rallied quickly and drove the Tuatha back brutally, slaughtering them left and right, leaving the wounded groaning upon the field so that Diancécht and his men were kept busy.
First, a bristling cloud of spears flew across the field from army to army. Then the warriors drew their gold-hilted swords from their sky-blue sheaths and clashed together, shield upon shield, sword upon sword. Sparks soared skyward from metal clashing against metal in forests of flame. Blood flowed upon the ground like a red river, so deep that it choked all grass. Even today, only stones grow upon that plain.
But Nuada's army could not overcome the many men that the Fomorians threw at them. Slowly, the Tuatha were driven back, then rallied and drove the Fomorians back. Day after day the battle raged, and night after night the wounded were brought to Diancécht who bathed them in his magical well. But the battle seesawed back and forth without either side gaining the upper hand long enough to bring victory.
Finally, Balor, with Bres and Cathleann (his wife) at his side, went to lead the Fomorian horde in one great assault. At this moment, Lughcould bear watching no longer. He broke free from his guards and raced to the front of the line to lead the Tuatha against the Fomorians. Nuada, The Dagda, and the other champions raced after him while the Mórrígan soared overhead to watch the battle. Lugh glanced up and, noticing her, cried, "Now! Now, you must fight to the death! If we lose this battle, we shall all be slaves forever!"
The two armies came together with much shouting and clanging of spears and swords. There was no time for the physicians to heal wounds, no time for smiths to repair weapons. The screams of the wounded and roaring of the warriors rolled over the plain that quickly became soaked and slippery with blood. Still, the armies fought on, each trying grimly to drive the other back. The river carried away the dead, friends and enemies.
Cathleann of the Crooked Teeth hurled her spear at The Dagda, causing a terrible wound that forced him from the field. But Nuada rallied the army and led them in another charge. Suddenly he came face-to-face with Balor and raised his shield immediately, but he was too late. Balor swung his mighty sword and killed Nuada with one blow.
When they saw their king fall, the Tuatha lost heart and great despair rose within their ranks. At that moment, the Mórrígan appeared above them and let out a terrible scream that drove a shaft of fear into the hearts of the Fomorians. They hesitated. Lugh rushed forward to stand over Nuada, taunting Balor.
"Oh, One-eye! Where is your mighty strength? Come, fight with me, filthy one! Or are you One-balled as well as One-eyed?"
Furious, Balor cried to his attendants. "Lift up my eyelid so I might see this upstart!" he roared.
Immediately, a great hush fell over the battlefield, for all there knew the power of his hidden eye. Ten Fomorian champions raced forward and seized the ring to raise the heavy lid of the Evil Eye. Those nearest fell to the ground, hoping that the venomous gaze would not fall upon them. As the lid opened slowly, Lugh placed a stone in his sling and threw it at Balor. The stone pierced his eye, driving it backward and out of his head. It landed in the middle of the Fomorian army, where twenty-seven fell from its venomous rays until life seeped from it.
Lugh raced forward and cut off Balor's head, holding it high in the air. The Tuatha gave a great shout and fell upon the Fomorians, slaughtering them. The Fomorians turned and raced back to the sea and their ships. They boarded them and raised the sails quickly sailing away from Ireland, never to return.
Bres was captured and brought before Lugh, who had assumed Nuada's throne. "Quarter!" he begged as he was thrown at Lugh's feet. "Let me live and I will bring the Fomorians to side with you in the great Battle of Mag Tuired, which is coming soon. I promise by the sun and the moon, the sea and the land, to never draw a blade against you again if you should let me live."
The Tuatha called for him to be killed, but Lugh refused, demanding Bres's secrets of husbandry and farming in exchange for his life. Bres agreed and taught the Tuatha how to plow and sow and harvest the fields before he left Ireland for good.
Then the Mórrígan proclaimed peace, saying:
"Peace will reign in this land, I Say, from the earth up to the blue sky And back down again. Let the bees Bring forth from their hives the honey For the mead and let everyone Enjoy happiness. It is done."42
viii.
AS SOON AS THE BATTLE ended, the Tuatha withdrew to the home of Bodb Dearg for a feast, but Lugh, who had missed Cian, his father, went among his army, searching for him. He found two of his friends sitting quietly beneath an oak tree, sharing a wineskin.
"Have you seen my father?" he asked.
They shook their heads. "No, perhaps he joined the battle late and was caught in that ambush by the bend of the river," one answered. "He might have been slain there.
"I searched the dead there and did not see him," Lugh answered. "I asked for him with Diancécht, but he had not taken him to the well for wounds, either. I fear, however, that he is dead. A darkness lies over my spirit that wouldn't be there otherwise."
"Would you care for some wine?" the other asked politely. Lugh shook his head.
"No, neither food nor drink shall pass my lips until I find his body and discover how he has met his death. I fear," he said, dark lights brooding deeply in his eyes, "that it was an ignoble death at the hands of one of our enemies."
The others exchanged glances and shrugged. They tossed the wineskin aside, belched, and rose. "We'll go with you," they said quietly. "A man shouldn't have to bear that search alone."
Lugh clasped their hands gratefully, then set off, retracing his steps to the hill where he had last seen his father. Once there, he brooded for a long moment, then said, "Well, I think that we should follow the direction in which he rode. There's not much else to do, but we might get lucky and find someone along the way who has seen him."
They rode down the hill and soon came to the place where Cian had taken the form and shape of the pig when he recognized the children of Tuirenn. Lugh dismounted and squatted upon his haunches, brooding, feeling a deeper darkness move upon his spirit. His companions noticed the change in him and waited watchfully, their eyes flickering around the edges of the forest in case a roving band of Fomorians waited to leap out upon them from ambush. It was then that Lugh felt the whisper of the earth in his mind.
"Lugh."
It seemed more a sigh of the wind than words, but Lugh felt his blood quicken within him. He raised his head, listening.
"Lugh."
He cocked his head, and a thought leaped from him like lightning: Speak!
"Great danger awaited your father here. He saw the children of Tuirenn--Brian, Iuchar, and lucharba--approaching and took care to disguise himself as a pig. But they slew him after he changed back into his own form."
Tears leaped to Lugh's eyes. He rose and turned to face his friends. They looked away from him, embarrassed to let him see that they had seen his sadness before he could tell them what had happened.
"Here, my friends," he said. "Somewhere near here, my father lies buried. The earth speaks out against his bloodletting. It was a foul death, I fear. Help me search."
They dismounted and spread out, each going in a different direction. Then, when Lugh approached a pile of stones, he felt a strange prickling sensation upon his skin. He cupped his hands and called the others to him. When they came up, he pointed wordlessly to the pile of stones.
The others fell to, throwing the stones away until they came to the grave. Then they dug, and soon came to the body and lifted it from the earth. But he had been so battered that Lugh could only recognize him by the golden torque around his neck.
"Murderous death!" Lugh exclaimed bitterly. "See what the sons of Tuirenn have done to my father? A pig should not have died this death, let alone a man!"
And he kissed his father's lips three times, promising between each kiss: "Your death has taken away words and music from my ears, beauty from my eyes, the pulse of my heart! By the gods, I wish I was here when this happened to have fought with you against them!" He struck his breast three times. "This is a terrible thing when brother kills brother and Tuatha kills Tuatha. This evil shall not be lost to memory."
And then he spoke a lament:
"At evening, Cian met his terrible fate. And now my body feels this pain late After the deed was done. The tearing Of this hero's flesh, the burying Of his body in earth, the road eastward That he rode for me, the dirt westward, All shall lock the land in evil until This is avenged. Cian's filthy death By Tuirenn's sons through stealthHas overpowered my will. Blackness Covers my face, my spirit. Blackness Covers my senses. This dirty deed Will split the Tuatha until the seed Of revenge is satisfied. No longer Will the Tuatha be aided by me. Longer Will the children of Tuirenn wait Until I have decided upon their fate."
Gently, reverently, he washed his father's body and placed him back into the earth. Over this, he again raised a barrow of stone and capped the barrow with a tombstone upon which he carved his father's name in ogham. Then, he held great funeral games43 and after these had finished, Lugh said:
"This hill shall now be called Cian's Mound44 Though Cian himself is no longer sound Enough to care what is called after him. The deed that was committed here dims. The Tuatha Dé Danann glory. Fratricide Does not lead to glory by shame. Besides, This was an ignoble death by Tuirenn's sons. And now, I shall speak the truth. Their grandsons And their great-grandsons shall all pay For this deed. This I promise, this I say! The three sons of Cainte--brave company!--And Tuirenn Begrenn's sons shall see The depth of my revenge. My heart aches Within my breast, for this death breaks The Tuatha brotherhood. Cian lives not. The sons of Delbaeth, however, shall not Grieve alone! Tuirenn's children will see How great my vengeance shall be! It begins here in the shadow of this tomb That drapes the entire world in gloom!"
Then Lugh turned to his people who had waited patiently and said, "Go, now, back to the king of Ireland's place and wait for me there. I shall come shortly. Do not speak of this to anyone until I return."45
They returned to Tara, but said nothing of where they had been and the others, after questioning them and getting evasions instead of answers, forgot that they had been missing and turned their attention again to the feast of celebration.
Not long after this, Lugh came and made his way silently into the Great Hall where he took his seat, appearing calm and composed to those who knew the angry Lugh who had stood over his father's grave, speaking of black revenge. They shuffled uneasily, as they watched him, but he ate and drank as if nothing had happened while he looked around the hall until he saw the sons of Tuirenn playing in the games. None were as fast as they; none could stand up to their strength in arms; and from the hungry looks the maidens threw in their directions, it was easy to tell that few there were as handsome. The poet-singers sang songs of their bravery in battle and no one came close to their great deeds except Lugh himself, who still sat quietly, waiting until the games had finished and a lull fell over the festivities. Then, he asked that the chain of silence46 be shaken. Golden notes tinkled in the air and all sat back, looking at Lugh who stood and spoke, saying, "Are you all listening to me now?"
"We are!"
"Speak!"
"Good," Lugh answered. He took a deep breath to calm himself, then said, "I have a question for you to consider: What vengeance should be taken on one among you who kills the father of another?"
A sudden rush of talk sped around the room. Bodb Dearg leaned forward, frowning as he said, "Is it your father, Cian, then, Lugh, who has been slain?"
"'Tis," Lugh said. His lips thinned into a straight line, his eyes hardened, and all glanced away from the death that showed there. "And I see in this very hall, the killers who eat meat and drink wine and honeyed beer as if they have not slain him in as dark a deed that hasever been done. All murder is foul, but fouler still is the murder of one's own."
Bodb Dearg shook his head, leaning back upon his couch. He waved away a preferred goblet of wine. "Many days would pass before my father's killer would die. I would cut off one of his hands or arms or feet or legs each day until he begged for death from my own hands," he said grimly.
The others shouted their agreement with Bodb Dearg's words. Lugh's eyes never left the sons of Tuirenn who led the shouting, each asserting that he would do the same as the king to the slayer of their father. Lugh waited until quiet again reigned in the Great Hall, then said, "I notice that the murderers here have also agreed with your words, my king. But I will not let their own judgment be their deaths, for they have been drinking and there is much to be said for drink addling one's thoughts and loosening tongues that would better have been kept quiet. But since they have passed judgment, and by this agree that they deserve to be punished, I claim the right--as you all are my witnesses--to lay an éric upon them for the death of my father. If they refuse, well, I won't bloody this hall with their deaths, but I will wait for them in the courtyard with my blade and settle the account of Cian there."
Puzzled looks were exchanged as each one there tried to ferret out the murderers, then Bodb Dearg spoke, saying "'Tis a fair reckoning you have asked for, Lugh. If I were the one who had done this, I would agree to an éric of your choosing as that owed by me."
The others shouted their agreement, but by now, the sons of Tuirenn recognized themselves in Lugh's words and whispered quietly among themselves.
"It's us he's talking about," Brian said, tugging at an earlock.
"Then," said Iuchar, "the best thing for us is to fess up and take the blame. Let us take his accounting before we lose face among all here."
"I don't know," Brian answered, frowning. "Suppose he's only playing with us and is waiting until we confess and then refuses to let us pay an éric? If we admit we are the ones he wants in front of everyone here, then we have thrown ourselves into his hands. He can do with us what he wants."
"He can do that anyway," Iucharba said, watching Lugh carefully. He wiped his greasy fingers on his tunic and spat a piece of gristle onto the floor. "I say let's salvage what honor we can by admitting to it rather than have it thrown in our faces like a slap to a gullyboy's face." He looked at Brian. "You're the eldest. You do our talking for us."
"If you don't, I will," Iuchar said as Brian hesitated.
Brian shrugged. "All right, I'll do it," he said, and stood, standing tall. He faced Lugh across the room as a wave of shock rolled over the others at the feast when they saw what he was doing.
"It is us you are seeking, Lugh," he said. A wry smile twisted his lips. "But I think you knew that before you spoke. All right. We are the ones you think," he emphasized, "rode against your father. That may be or it may be not. But, if it's a compensation you are looking for, we shall give it to you, as if we were indeed the ones who had killed your father."
Iuchar struck Brian on his thigh, saying, "Damn it, don't play twisting words with him! Tell him the truth, man! It'll be all the worse for us if you deny the truth and we're found out!"
Brian pushed away from him and stood, legs slightly spread, his strong hands cupped near his thighs. "Well?" he challenged. "What is it you wish?"
Lugh studied him, a faint line of contempt appearing between his brows. "Well, then, so that's the way it is to be, is it? Very well. I'll give you my demands. And if you think it is too great for such strong warriors as yourselves, then"--his lips curled derisively--"well, we shall reduce part of it so it won't be too much for fine warriors such as yourselves."
Brian's face flushed hotly as snickers rose around him from the others. He drew himself up as Iuchar and Iucharba leaped to their feet, eyes flashing angrily. "Let's hear it, then," Brian said.
"Sure of yourselves, are you? Well, then," Lugh said. "First, gather three apples. Then, bring a skin of a pig, a spear, two horses, a chariot, seven pigs, a wee puppy, a cooking-spit, all after you shout three times from a hill. Now, are you thinking that might be too much from three warriors such as yourselves who fight one man? That is the compensation I demand. But, if you think it is too much, why, I'll be happy totake some of it back," he said carelessly. "I really wouldn't want you to overtax yourselves. Fine warriors such as yourselves."
Laughter greeted his last words, and the brothers spun angrily on their heels to stare at the bold eyes staring contemptuously at them.
"Done," Brian said. "And a hundredfold of that upon it, if you wish. But," he added, as Iuchar whispered quickly in his ear, "it's wondering I am if there isn't something else behind such a small compensation as this. What murderous design have you in reserve for us after we do this?"
"Oh, nothing," Lugh said innocently, spreading his hands. "I have delivered my asking, and that's all. By the guarantee of the Tuatha and the trees and the land and the sea and the sky, that is all that I wish."
"Very well. We accept," Brian said boldly. "'Tis a pity, though. It doesn't seem as if that is much of a challenge to provide."
"Good," Lugh said, clapping his hands. The smile disappeared from his face. "But, 'tis often people of your ways give promises then back away from them like a weasel out of a henhouse, slinking away in the soft of the night. I'll be asking your pledges to all here against that."
"Well and good, if our word isn't enough," Iuchar said hotly.
"It isn't," Lugh answered coolly. "And what word would you accept from three warriors who attack and kill one old man alone in the middle of nowhere without a friend to guard his back? It would not be the first time that you and your brothers had gone back on the promise of a fine."
Brian placed his hands on the forearms of his brothers, restraining them from leaping across the room at Lugh for this insult. "All right, then we pledge ourselves to the compensation that has been given unto us this day in the Hall of Micorta47 and that we shall not rest until the account is paid in full. To this we pledge our name, our homeland, and our lives as surety. Provided"--he fixed Lugh with an angry eye--"that you do not increase your claims." The brothers growled their agreement. Brian gave Lugh a hard look. "Now, is that good enough for you?"
"Depends upon how great your honor is. To me, it's nothing, but"--he held up his hand to keep the brothers at bay--"enough men here have heard your word given and taken. So." He grinned at them,but there was death in his smile and a shudder seemed to shake convulsively through the room. "You'll be wanting to know the details?"
"We would," Brian answered.
"Then hear them," Lugh said harshly. "The three apples I wish are three from the Garden of the Hesperides to the east of the world.48 I will take no other apples other than these which are the most rare and beautiful apples in the world. They are the color of burnished gold, the size of the head of a month-old child, and taste of honey. They heal all bloody wounds and malignant disease when eaten, yet each bite is never seen in them, and they can be eaten forever. One may throw them at a target, and they will return to his hand. The owners guard them well, for a story is told of three young warriors who will come from the western world to steal them. Brave as you are, or think you are, I doubt if any of you is strong enough to bring them back."
He paused a moment and looked around him. The faces of everyone in the room were grim for all knew now the clever trap that Lugh had set. He continued, "Next, the pig's skin must come from the skin of the pig owned by Tuis, a king in Greece. When the pig lived, every stream she stepped in turned to wine for nine days. All the sick and wounded who touched her hide were cured at once, even if only the barest breath remained in their bodies. Now, it seems that the king's Druids told him that such virtue the pig had lay in her skin, so the king had her killed and skinned, and now keeps the skin for himself against his own mortal day. I don't think you will wrest it easily from him. Now, would you be knowing what spear it is that I want?"
"Let's hear it," Brian said, white-faced. His brothers stood silent beside him. The room was quiet as the others looked with something approaching pity upon them.
"The spear is the one that belongs to Pisear, the king of Persia. It is called Aredbair.49 It has never lost a battle, and its head must be kept always in a cauldron of water to keep it from melting itself by its fiery heat and the entire city where it is kept. It will be no easy matter to take it away from the king, for whoever possesses it can never be defeated. Now, would you be knowing about the horses and chariot?"
"We would," Brian said.
"They belong to Dobhar, the king of Sicily. They do not know thedifference between sea and land and there are no others as fast or as strong as they. The chariot is the strongest and most beautiful in all the world. Would you be guessing the seven pigs I want?"
"We wouldn't," Brian answered.
"Well, they would be those who belong to Asal, king of the Golden Pillars. They are killed every night for a grand feast, but when the light of morning strikes the land"--he snapped his fingers--"there they are, alive again. Their flesh cures any who eats it.
"Now, the puppy I want belongs to the king of Iruad.50 Her name is Failinis, and not even the sun shines as splendidly as does her fine coat. All the wild beasts who see her fall dead instantly.
"The cooking-spit belongs to the women of Inis Findcuire, the sunken island. They are three times fifty who live there, each the better of any three warriors who come to their island.51 One must defeat them in battle before they will surrender the spit."
He looked at them contemptuously. "If you should survive all that, then the last for you, which seems the easiest, is to give three shouts upon Cnoc Midcain in the north of Lochlann.52 That may seem simple enough for you, but the hill is guarded well by Midkena and his sons, who are under a gesa to keep people from shouting upon it. They taught my father how to use arms and warfare and loved him very much." A catch seemed to hang words in his throat for a minute, but he cleared it and continued. "Even if I were willing to forgive you for his death, 'tis sure I am that they are not. Even if you should be so lucky as to escape with the first of the éric, you will not come away from that hill without his death being avenged by them. This, then, is the compensation I demand."
A great silence fell upon the sons of Tuirenn, as they walked slowly from the Hall of Micorta. The warriors around them watched them go, and each felt within his own heart the black despair that filled the hearts of the children of Tuirenn as they left to their fate.
ix.
ASTONISHMENT AND DESPAIR SETTLED ON the children of Tuirenn as they left the Great Hall and stood outside in the gloaming. Iucharba ran his fingers desperately through his hair and looked at Iuchar and Brian. "Well, what do we do now? That Lugh was a clever fellow to taunt and tease us into this trouble." His lips trembled for a moment. Then anger came to him, and he turned and spat hard against the side of the building. "So that for you." He turned back to Brian and Iuchar. "Well?" he demanded. His neck swelled like an adder's and he glared at Brian. "'Tis your fine words and ideas have gotten us this far. So, what's your reckoning now? Eh?" His eyes burned darker, fuliginous.
"We must be objective about this," Brian started, but Iuchar interrupted him.
"'Tis enough of your fine words and philosophical games," he said. "I'm a feeling creature, and I feel that you have just committed us to an impossible task. Tasks," he corrected himself. "Even if we succeed, we'll still have the stigma of our actions upon us. We'll be squatters--mere tinkers in society--for the rest of our lives." His face became gloomy. He farted. The smell of onions filled the air. Brian and Iucharba backed away from him hastily.
"The law--" Brian began.
"--gives justice, but it doesn't control people's thoughts," Iuchar finished for him. "Order has become chaos. Mindless, meaningless."
"We have the tasks," Iucharba reminded him.
"Ah yes, the tasks. And when we have completed them, what remains of order?" Iuchar fulminated. "Anarchy!"
"I suggest we go to see Father," Brian said firmly. "We need a clearer head than any here now to see what has to be done."
Iuchar shook his head sorrowfully. "Father! Ah, me! I don't think I can take another lecture right now." He hunched his shoulders andglowered from beneath bushy brows, drawing his lips in tightly as if he had just bitten bitter lemons. He lowered his voice harshly, imitating: "The trouble with you young whippersnappers today is you have no sense of responsibility! None! Your life is all action, but the wee bit of difficulty comes your way, you deny your responsibility for the actions that you have done. Rascals! Whelps! You should have spent more time with the Druids than the armorer and brewer and tickling your fancies with the dancing girls in the inns and hostels around the country! But, that's youth today!"
"It won't be like that," Brian said soothingly.
But Iuchar shook his head. "Mark my words," he said darkly.
And together, they left gloomily, making their way back to their horses for the long ride back to their father's house.
x.
TUIRENN GLOWERED AT HIS CHILDREN standing in front of him. "Responsibility!" he roared. Iuchar exchanged a glance with Brian; both shrugged. Tuirenn failed to notice. "How many times have I told you? Think!" (Think! mouthed the three automatically.) "Well, not for a moment am I going to take the blame for your actions this time! No, by Donn's great balls! You've made your bed, plowed your fields, now reap the whirlwind!"
"Mixed metaphors," mumbled Brian. His father glared at him.
"What's that?" he asked suspiciously.
"Oh, nothing. Just ... words," Brian finished hastily, lamely.
"Men live by words!" Tuirenn roared again. "How many times have I to tell you that? Open your yaw and let your tongue flap, and you'll find yourself neck-deep in horse shit! They're not to be tossed like baubles to girls at the harvest dances! Or singing those nonsensical songs!" He stuck his fingers in his belt, rolled his shaggy head back on his shoulders, and bellowed:
"There's some take delight in walking And others take delight in talking. But I take delight In the wee gloaming light And in the maids I'm stalking!"
He shook his shaggy head. "'Tis fine to sow those wild oats, but how many times have I told you that you must reap the harvest as well? And now, now, this éric you let be posed upon you--" He paused, drawing deep breaths to calm himself. The anger suddenly went out of his eyes, and the flesh of his face sagged into bags and wrinkles. "Lads, lads, what am I going to do with you now?"
Brian exchanged quick glances at his brothers, then cleared his throat. "Well, Father, that's what brought us to you. The benefit of your years, your wisdom, your--"
"Doom!" his father interjected. Brian fell silent. They exchanged looks again and heaved silent sighs, waiting resignedly. "Doom! Bad tidings! 'Tis death and destruction that will be visited upon you in seeking to pay that fine!"
"Damned unfair," muttered Iucharba.
"Unfair? Unfair?" bellowed Tuirenn. His eyes bulged; his face grew fiery red. "Unfair, is it? 'Tis just, that's what it is! Oh, that Lugh is a smart one, he is! Even if he allowed it to happen that you could work out the compensation with others, not all the men in the world could pay that fine! At least," he said, pausing, a thought flickering like dawn light to him, "unless you have the help of Lugh himself or Manannán mac Lir. Hmm." He fell silent, his eyes wandering as he looked into his thoughts. His sons held their breath, waiting, hoping. Then Tuirenn shook his head. "Improbable," he sighed. He raised a horny palm and rubbed it across his heavy cheeks, knuckling his tired eyes. "But, possible. Depends on how much Lugh wants you dead and how much he wants the fine. Which is more important to him? He might--might, mind you--give you a bit of help. But you must play it right when you go to him. First, ask him for the lending of Enbarr, Manannán's mare. He won't give her, but that doesn't matter--we know he won't give her. But then that he's refused you the one gift,he'll have to grant you another--it's forbidden to deny the second request--the one you really want: Manannán's boat, the Scuabtinne.53 The horse is prettier, but the boat is more practical."
He shook his head and raised his hands, palm out, in despair. "'Tis the best I can do for you, lads!" Tears glinted in his eyes as he embraced each son. "Go and good luck!"
xi.
LUGH STARED SUSPICIOUSLY AT THEM. "Enbarr, you want, is it?" He grinned suddenly. "The answer, then, is no. Enbarr is only a loan to me. I won't give away the gift of a loan."
"I see," Brian said. He pretended to think. Then he sighed and shook his head despairingly. "This is a fine place of briars and brambles that we are in! Of course," he continued in an injured tone, "I really don't blame you for it. 'Tis a time of our own making! But, as things are, we have as much chance of finishing the task you've given us as we have of bringing words back out of air!"
"The deed is yours; you must live with it," Lugh said. "But you are leading up to something else. What is it? Stop running around the bush like a weasel and come out with it!"
"Well, we can't have the horse, but 'tisn't right that you refuse us a second request," Brian said. Lugh's face hardened, his eyes narrowed. "So, give us a loan of Manannán's curragh."
Lugh nodded slowly. "Ah! Now, we come to the gist of your wants. 'Twasn't Enbarr you wanted in the first place. Well, played, Brian! But remember: Wine is very pleasant to drink, but the price is often hard. You shall have Scuabtinne. But nothing else from me. Do not come back and play more ducks and drakes with me!"
"Fair enough," Brian said. "And where will we be finding this Wave-Sweeper?"
"At Brugh na Boinne,54" Lugh answered. "Mind you: It's only a loan."
When they returned to their father to tell him about their success, they discovered that Ethne was with their father, having heard aboutLugh's demands on her brothers. Her eyes filled with tears as they came into the room.
"Well, Father," Brian said, clasping his hands together. "It went as you said. Lugh wouldn't give us Enbarr, but we have Scuabtinne. Now, I expect we should be getting on with the quest. It's showing to be a long enough chore without putting more days on the end of it."
"That is as it must be," Tuirenn said, tears springing to his eyes. He embraced each of his sons, giving his blessing to them. "You will be facing much danger, but Lugh has a need for much of what he has demanded. But I can see no value for him for the cooking-spit and the three shouts on the hill. Malicious assignment, those. Do not expect much help from him on those."
"I don't expect any further help from him at all," Brian said. "He was as hard as oak about that."
"As it should be," Ethne said. "You've hoed the ground, now reap the crops."
Iuchar smiled bleakly at her. "Surely there are other metaphors you can use. That one is becoming extremely tiresome."
She gave him a sharp look, then smiled sadly and shook her head. "I use metaphors, so I don't have to explain myself to you, Iuchar.
"You've done a dark deed, My brothers, with the seed Of hatred you planted when you killed Lugh's father as a man. You stilled A tongue that might have brought Peace to a people who have sought Peace for so long. Now you must Pay the blood-fine before you are dust."
And her brothers answered:
"Enough, dear sister! Your cries Of doom and gloom now tries Our patience. This will become a tale For poets forever once we set sail.What more can a warrior ask But glorious words about his task?"
And Ethne answered:
"Then search, my brothers, for immortality Across the land and the sea. You will soon see That cruel Ildánach decree is not a game To be played. You will never be the same For having played along with this quest Of his. Death does not bring out one's best. Others have been where you are now And preferred Achilles's sword to his plow. But even lofty Achilles was wont to say That he preferred life to death any day After he had foolishly selected his way When the gods granted him a say In his fate. I fear I will never see You alive again. Only my salty Tears will splatter your tombs Once you have met your doom."
"And that," Brian said quietly, "is where you are wrong. We can only live by the myths that are imposed upon us like actors in a play. The play may be bad, but we must still play our part in it."
"You are as clever as a buckle," she said sharply. "Be careful that you don't become as intransigent as a mountain."
And the brothers left, thinking quietly about her black words that cast a shadow over the quest and the glory that they thought they would win.
xii.
WHEN THEY CAME TO BRUGH na Boinne, Iucharba looked disdainfully at the small boat, a shell dancing lightly on the lightly lapping waves licking the shore. He shook his head.
"Is this a boat or an eggshell?" he asked. He glanced at the size of his brothers and laughed. "Why, 'tisn't enough to hold one of us let alone three and our weapons. You've made a bad bargain with your words," he said to Brian. "It's a poor man who seals a deal without looking at the property first."
"I don't know," Iuchar said dubiously, frowning at the boat. "There must be something more to this than meets the eye."
"And why do you say that?" Iucharba demanded angrily. "Maybe this is all that it is. Maybe in this whole world this is all there is. Why must there always be something more than what there is?"
"Because it is Manannán's," Brian said, breaking into the conversation. "He is more than we are. Things that he has are more than the things we have." He shrugged. "Logic."
"Logic?" luchar's eyebrows closed in a deep frown.
"Philosophical objectivity," Brian answered. His eyes burned darker. "What we see as witchcraft may be witchcraft, but it could also be only the workings of our minds. But the boat is there, and that is all that is important now. We must attempt to use it as we wish to use it and then--and only then, mind you!--will we determine its usefulness to us. Before we use it, we can only speculate on its purpose. By using it, we perform an act of unity and completion."
Iuchar shrugged his massive shoulders and gathered his weapons. "Whatever," he said. "You still begin the journey with a first step. We spend enough time munching words." Cautiously, he stepped into the boat and sat. It wobbled for a moment, then relaxed, the sides easing away from him to give him room.
"Magic!" Brian crowed. He slapped Iucharba across the shoulders,and stepped into the boat, his bulk causing the craft to sway wildly back-and-forth on a wave before it settled and stretched to accommodate him.
"Uh-huh," grunted Iucharba, looking suspiciously at the boat. "It still seems too small for all of us. And who's to say that it won't decide that it has had enough of us when we're in the middle of the sea? That isn't a pond we'll be crossing, you know. None of us can walk on water if it decides to become what it was when we first saw it."
"Will you get in and stop being the doomsayer?" Brian demanded.
Iucharba took a deep breath and placed a foot in the curragh and waited, holding his breath suspiciously. The craft bobbed on the waves, waiting. He shook his head and suddenly stepped in, squatting on his heels and crouching, holding hard to the gunnals as he waited for the craft to stop its pitching and yawing.
"There, you see?" Brian said, smiling. Iucharba grunted, looking around suspiciously as the craft expanded to hold him and the others comfortably.
"Now it begins," Iuchar said. "What should we do first?"
"I say we follow the order given," Brian answered. "Let's not tempt fate by abandoning the natural order given to us by Lugh. The apples were requested first. I say we seek them first."
Iucharba shrugged. "Apples or puppies. Doesn't matter to me."
"All right by me," Iuchar echoed.
Brian looked around at the curragh bobbing patiently on the waves. He cleared his throat, saying:
"Scuabtinne, mighty Wave-Sweeper, Voyager to distant lands, keeper Of wave secrets, we ask that you Take us to the Hesperides Garden. Do Not tarry along the way, we humbly Ask, and fly quickly across the sea."
Scarce were the words out of his mouth than the small craft seemed to gather itself and rise up onto the waves. Without delay, itflew across the deep sea-chasms, soaring up the gray-green waves and sliding down the other glassy sides as quickly as the clear, cold March wind. Its course was direct, flying into the wind, tearing the eyes of the brothers as they strained fearfully to see what lay ahead, not tarrying until it entered the harbor. Then it slowed and slipped gracefully next to the land of the fabled garden.
xiii.
BRIAN ROSE CAUTIOUSLY AND STEPPED ashore. The ground seemed to lurch and sway under his feet. He bent forward at the waist, waiting until the dizziness passed, then called to his brothers, "Come! Let us sit and make our plans until we gather our land-legs under us!"
Iuchar and Iucharba, both looking a bit green around the gills, stepped from the curragh. Iuchar sank to his knees while Iucharba turned, leaned upon the gunwale of the curragh, and vomited.
"Ah, me!" he sighed. "'Tis not something I'll be willing to do again!"
"You'll have to," Brian said grimly. "Best you be getting used to it."
"I didn't say I wouldn't," Iucharba declared. "I said I wasn't willing. I know necessity as well as you, so shut your gob!"
Brian grinned. He drew a deep breath, tasting the salt and dampness deep in his lungs. His nose twitched, and he turned into the land breeze. What was that? Apples? A happiness leaped up within him, and he clutched the hilt of his sword, slipping it experimentally in and out of its scabbard.
"Smell that, lads?" he said. They looked at him questioningly. He nodded inland. "The apples? Ah, 'tis a rich orchard indeed, I'm thinking."
Cautiously, Iuchar and Iucharba took deep breaths, then again greedily.
"Ripe for picking," Iucharba said. He bent and took a handful of seawater and rinsed his mouth, spitting onto the fine white sand at hisfeet. A strange singing swept through him. He felt invigorated and marveled at the sudden change within him. He glanced at Iuchar who nodded.
"Yes, I feel it, too," Iuchar said.
Brian grinned deeper, feeling himself growing closer to his brothers than ever before. "Well, lads, what do you think our strategy should be? Remember that we have many more deeds to do before Lugh will be satisfied. I think we should be prudent."
"I'm good for a dozen or two," Iucharba growled happily. He drew his sword and swung it high overhead.
Brian grimaced and frowned. "You call that prudent? Dash in like a Fomorian, swinging and stabbing and slashing?"
"Why not?" Iuchar slapped his sword by his side. "And since when did you become a cautious rabbit?"
"Since I realized what men will be saying after we are finished with all this," Brian said. "We must be careful that our deeds reflect greatly upon us, not only in valor, but wisely as well. We want the future men to say, 'Those sons of Tuirenn were brave men, champions.' Not: 'Those scoundrels don't deserve anything more than what they got. Senseless, rash youths! Their deaths came from their own folly!'"
"No man will say that to me face," Iucharba said, growling and frowning as he fingered the edge of his sword.
Brian closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. "Ah, me!" he sighed. "That's just what I meant. Do you think that you will live forever to be giving everyone the lie back in their teeth? Your flesh is only temporal, lads! Soon it will be dust, but the earth will still be here! And so will those whose sons will be born long after the flesh has rotted from our bones! So, I say we take care how we act! Remember that at times discretion is needed!"
"Is this more of your philosophical ruminating?" Iuchar asked suspiciously.
"No. Pragmatism," Brian said firmly.
Iucharba groaned. "Philosophy! Pragmatism! Phooey! Give me a few heads to crack!"
"Soon, soon," Brian said soothingly. He brushed his fine blond hair back off his high forehead with a sweep of his hand. "Let us use ourbrains instead of brawn here, I say. Let us take the shape of swift falcons. Then, we should be able to approach the garden quietly, for I'm certain that birds are as common here as strangers are rare."
"Makes sense," Iuchar said grudgingly. "Swoop in and out with the apples clutched in our talons, eh?"
"Yes," Brian said, but wagged his finger cautiously. "Take care, though. There will undoubtedly be guards there with long, sharp lances. Maybe even arrows and darts, and sling-stones. They will certainly throw at us. Be active, cunning. Swoop in and out, pretending to gather the apples, but dash back before you come into range. Make the guards waste their throws. Then, when they are empty-handed, we'll swoop in and gather an apple each."
"Or two," Iucharba said, flexing the mighty muscles in his arms. Huge knots bulged.
"Don't be greedy!" Brian said sharply. "One apple will be enough. Remember: We still have to be away before the alarm is answered. The more you carry, the slower you will fly. Speed, my brothers! Speed!"
They nodded at his sage counsel, and Brian took his hazel wand from his cloak and struck his brothers lightly upon the forehead (if truth be known, he knocked Iucharba a little harder than Iuchar in an attempt to drum wisdom into his thick forehead) and then himself. Instantly, they turned into three beautiful falcons with high, proud heads and strong, curving talons.
Brian lifted up and away from the ground first, but his brothers, clumsy at first with the awkward lifting of their wings, came quickly at his heels. They flew to the garden and began to descend in long, swooping gyres.
"Blast and blazes!" a guard yelled. "Scavengers! Have at them, men! Shoo! Get away!" He launched a spear at Brian, but the son of Tuirenn easily dodged the missile and banked sharply to avoid an arrow shot from another's bow.
Iuchar and Iucharba whistled shrilly and swung down from their widening gyres, flickering tantalizingly in and out of the guards' range as a shower of spears and shafts flew toward them.
"Dirty buggers!" howled one guard, trying to sight on Iuchar. He didn't see Iucharba swinging by from behind. Suddenly a warm splat!spattered against his forehead and splashed into his eyes. The guard cursed and dropped his bow, digging knuckles deeply into his burning eyes to wipe limy stool away.
Within moments, the eager guards had thrown their light weapons and stood empty-handed, staring as the two younger brothers stooped down into the trees, grabbing a golden apple each before climbing rapidly out of range. Forgetting his warning to his brothers, Brian grabbed one with his talons and another with his beak before rising rapidly high into the air and drawing a bead back to where Scuabtinne waited by the beach.
"Awk! The alarm! You bastards!" howled the head guardsman, shaking a heavy fist at the sky. "Bring those back! The alarm! The alarm, you whoremothers! Sound the alarm, you rascally yeaforsooth knaves, you foulmouthed, calumnious whoresons!"
News spread quickly through the city about how three swift falcons had slipped through the shower of spears thrown by the guardsmen and made away with the precious apples of the king.
"What?" cried the king angrily. A large purple vein began to pulse like a thick worm in the middle of his forehead. His face grew dark like liver. "Bring the headsman! I want the heads of all those guards on pikes by evening! Where are my daughters? Playing lickerish games with goatish guardsmen, I'll bet! Daughters!" he roared angrily.
Hearing their father, the daughters (who had indeed been playing pandering pareunia with willing partners) slipped away, leaving groaning paramours in the cool shadows of grape arbors, and slipped quickly into the throne room, where their father waited, tiny bubbles of angry foam forming at the corners of his mouth.
"Where have you been, you ... you ... never mind!" he snapped. "Three hawks--I suspect Druids--have stolen our apples! Get them back!"
Now, these daughters were cunning cunnies gifted with magic. Swiftly, they changed themselves into three sharp-taloned ospreys. They rose swiftly into the air and soon overtook the apple-laden brothers. Rising high, banking into the wind, the daughters unleashed shafts of brimstone burning lightning at them. One bolt charred Iuchar's tail-feathers.
"Awk!" he squawked, nearly dropping the apple he clutched. "Me arse is on fire!"
Another bolt passed between Iucharba's legs, nearly womanizing him with its blast of heat. "EEEeeeYOW!" he howled. "Help! Help!"
"Down!" shrilled Brian, diving toward the sea. His brothers came hard on his tail, clinging desperately to their spoils. When they came close to the sea, Brian shuffled the apple into one talon and slipped the hazel wand from beneath a wing and whacked himself and his two brothers, turning them into two swans. They slipped into the waves, hiding among the whitecaps of Fand's flowing hair.55
"Ahhh!" sighed Iuchar, wiggling his seat in the cooling water.
"Yesss," Iucharba echoed, splashing happily.
Brian watched as the ospreys searched vainly for them, then gave up and swept up high, angling back inland.
"Back to the curragh!" Brian ordered.
"A minute more," Iuchar said. "That's all I ask."
"And have them come back as sea-demons?" Brian asked, for he had recognized the three ospreys as magic, illusions only. "We escaped their lightning bolts, but what other magic will they have?"
"A point," grumbled Iucharba, turning reluctantly towards shore where Scuabtinne floated daintily upon the waves.
"Yes, I suppose," Iuchar said, sighing.
They swam back to the waiting curragh. Brian immediately changed them back into men and stowed the apples away carefully. Then he took his place in the stern and spoke softly to Scuabtinne. The curragh raised itself and flowed swiftly out to sea and away from the Garden of the Hesperides.
xiv.
AFTER RESTING FOR A DAY at Tír Na mBeo56 the brothers sailed to Greece to seek the skin of the pig. When they entered Scuabtinne, Brian chanted softly:
"O vessel of Mannanán, mighty Wave-Sweeper We ask you to take us to Greece and the keeper Of the magic pigskin. Do not dawdle along the way But take us to that far land without delay."
"Here we go again," Iucharba muttered, already turning white as he seized the gunwales when Scuabtinne gathered itself and hurtled forward, skimming along the green-gray waves.
"We'll be there in no time!" shouted Brian gleefully.
"Uh-huh," grunted Iuchar, unconvinced. He swallowed heavily against his rising gorge. "What--what do you think we should do this time?"
Brian frowned, sitting comfortably in the stern. Unlike many who could work magic, he did not suffer badly from water travel. "I don't know. Perhaps as hounds?"
"Nonsense," gulped Iucharba as the curragh skimmed down a deep wave then back up the other side. "Last time, when we tried to be birds, we nearly met with disaster. I say we go as men this time. That way, we at least can die as men and not a roasting pigeon in someone's gullet!"
"I agree," Iuchar said gamely. "Let us go as bold champions and make our demands. When he refuses, we'll simply carry it off. You have the magic in that stick of yours. You can dust up a cloud or fog or something to hide us while we slip away after seizing the pigskin."
"Hm," Brian said, furrowing his brow and gently tapping his lips with the tips of his fingers. "Much to be said about that, but that is magic again. And who's to say that the good king doesn't have anotheraround who can whistle up a wind to blow the fog away? Then where would we be? Hacking and slicing our way out. We're certain to be outnumbered. Probably killed, if it came to that."
"Better than drowning in this blasted water!" moaned Iucharba, clinging so hard to the sides of Scuabtinne that his knuckles showed whitely.
"You say that now, but it's better to be a plowman among the living than a hero among the dead," Brian said.
"You don't know that," Iuchar accused. "You just made it up."
"I know!" Brian said. He sat forward excitedly, the sudden change in his weight making Scuabtinne wobbled alarmingly from side-to-side.
"I knew it," moaned Iucharba. "He's going to turn turtle us. No hero's death for us! We'll drown here as ignominously as a fat purse-stringed merchant!"
"Oh be quiet," Brian said, annoyed. "You sound like a fishwife damning the storm that keeps her husband from the kelp beds! Now, here's what we'll do: We'll go to the court as famous poets. Poets from grand Erin, learned poets," he corrected. "Bards are greatly admired by the nobles of Greece."
Iuchar and Iucharba exchanged glances, then sighed. "And just when," Iuchar said slowly, "did you become an expert upon Greece? Eh? Or, is this more of that you heard from the singers in our own land?"
Brian gave him a hard, disdainful look. "And better off we'd be if the two of you might have spent more time with the seanchaís57 than with striapachs."58
"Maybe so," Iuchar said. "But there's no use of playing the king after the battle's fought. None of us has a song or poem upon our lips, and our tongues are not wily with words. If we go in as poets, sure as heather is on the hills and the gloaming in the west, we'll be asked to give the court a sampling of our work."
"We'll ford that stream when we come to it," Brian said firmly. "In the meantime, turn your backs to the other and let's rebraid our hair."
Resigned, Iucharba turned to Iuchar, who backed himself to Brian, who backed himself to Iucharba and, with warriors' fingers, they plaited poet-knots in each other's hair.
Soon Scuabtinne nestled into shore, and the three brothers stepped out, making their way to the palace gates. When the guards asked what they wanted, Brian smiled, gestured simply with his hand, and said, "Visitors who would pay their respects to your king."
The guard eyed them narrowly and said, "We get a lot of visitors here, and some who mean mischief and some who look for handouts. So which are you?"
"Mere poets from Erin," Brian said modestly. He indicated his brothers and himself. "Singers of fate and adventure, of heroes and tragedy, we are poets of the highest order, well-versed in divination and philosophical maunderings and--"
"Do you ken the stories dear to a soldier's heart?" the guardsman interrupted. "Battles and wars and"--here he winked vulgarly--"a tale about a saucy tart or two?"
"My brothers," Brian said, casting a disdainful eye upon Iucar and Iucharba, "specialize in the latter. Although I fear they aren't for the delicate ear or polite company such as those lingering in the king's court."
"We can split a tun over good saucy stories without bothering his worship about it all," the guardsman said. He leaned down, hollering at the gatekeeper. "Open those doors for poets with a fine sense of order."
Slowly, the ponderous doors slid open and Brian and his brothers entered, shuffling confidently, but with a poet's step. The guardsman came down to greet them, saying, "I sent a messenger with word to the king. If you will wait a moment, we'll have word directly what to do with you."
The words were barely passed his lips when the young messenger scurried up to him, saying, "The king waits eagerly for them."
"Does he, now?" the guardsman said. "And what were his words? Precisely now," he warned. "None of that pantywaisted paraphrasing. That may be good for the jesters and the courtiers--though truth be known, you can't tell one from the other if you're listening to their jabber--a soldier gets the meat with the bone."
The young messenger closed his eyes, composing his thoughts, then said, "'Bring them to me. If they're from Erin, they've come a goodly distance to find a decent and generous master who is worthy oftheir faith. I'm just the one for them. We could use new tales around here. The old ones are wearing a bit thin.' He looked sternly at the singers sitting in the shadows who pretended not to hear him." 'It seems that most of the new ones these days are turning out thin satires and whining whimsies in the name of art. No mystery to them. Paltry playings with words, words, words. Bring them here so they can see that our court is as grand as any they have found in their travels.'" He opened his eyes, nodding. The gatekeeper looked at him suspiciously.
"Seems to me there's a bit of yourself there playing the critic. But no mind. There's truth to the words." He nodded at Brian and his brothers. "Off with you, then. Mustn't keep the king awaiting. He gets a little cranky when he's stayed on fishhooks."
The sons of Tuirenn nodded politely and fell in behind the young messenger who brought them--still disguised as poets of the seventh order--before the king. They were greeted gladly by the king, who ordered food and wine be laid out for them. They fell to drinking and eating merrily, exchanging pleasantries with the others in the court. Iuchar muttered to Brian that he had never seen a household so numerous and so friendly. The women eyed the brothers boldly, the serving wenches leaning low over the brothers' table to show their breasts, black eyes smoldering as they considered the brothers' frames.
"'Tis a shame we're here to rob him blind," Iuchar said softly. "He seems like a good sort, friendly to guests and travelers."
"Aye," Iucharba said, grinning at the big-breasted woman standing over him. He winked boldly at her. A high flush came to her cheeks. She licked her lips saucily. "And there seems to be a great promise here as well."
"Perhaps," Brian said, taking a bite of honeyed meat. He smacked his lips. "I'll say this for him: he keeps a fine table. But"--he rolled his eyes significantly--"remember that the rules of hospitality would not let him do otherwise."59
"Always the cautious one," grumbled Iucharba, staring frankly and appreciatively at a young black-haired woman who blushed prettily at his open gaze.
"And well for you, I am," Brian retorted. "Enough. We're supposedto be guests here. Shh. I think the king's bards are going to entertain us."
"Yes, but then we will have to respond," Iuchar said urgently. "And Elada60 hasn't touched me with his wand. It's up to you."
"We'll see what happens when it happens," Brian said. "Now, be quiet before we appear to be rude."
They listened unhappily as the king's poets sang their lays and poetry for those at the feast. And when they had finished, they took their seats, gazing expectantly at Brian and his brothers.
"I knew it," moaned Iucharba. "I just knew it! Now, we're in for it!" He reached beneath his cloak, fingering his sword, loosening it in its sheath. But Brian put his hand upon his shoulder, staying him, as he rose to face the king.
"Your singers appear well-versed and gifted," he said.
The bards exchanged self-satisfied smirks that hung limply on their faces like smoke as the king said impatiently, "Yes, yes. Though I have heard them so many times that I could very well sing them myself. Not much originality anymore! The new copy the old, change characters here and there, and call it new!"
Brian leaned over, shielding his words with his hands as he spoke to his brothers. "Now's the time. We have to make a poem for the king. The old ones won't do, I'm afraid."
Iucharba shrugged. "Makes no difference to me. I can't remember the old ones. Not," he added acidly, "that that would make much difference. I sing like pigs grunting."
"Well, I can remember 'The Lass from Tara,'" Iuchar said, but fell silent as Brian glared at him.
"We can't be singing those here," Brian growled.
"The proprieties must be observed," Iucharba said. "You do it."
"Me?"
"What was all that you were yammering about back at the curragh with the striapachs and all?" Iucharba said. Iuchar nodded agreement. "We ain't got a poem to recite for a king. You want us to fight like warriors should, why, then we're for you. But to make a poem for these ears ..." He let his voice trail away as he shook his head. Brian gavehim a look of disgust and rose, gathering his cloak around him as he faced the king.
"My lord," he began. "Our poems are most unworthy of such an august body--"
"Here's an out if I ever heard one," a poet said loudly. The others snickered, then fell quiet, looking at the offender in accusation as the king stared in their direction.
"But," Brian said, "in so much as there is the shadow of Aengus upon us, I will attempt to grace you with a modest verse or two."
"Such a trifling that one would sing only to oysters and cockleshells," muttered one of the bards. The others stuffed cloaks into their mouths to hide their mirth.
Brian took a breath, and sang:
"In honor of your grace and fame O Tuis, we will play a poet's game. Like a great oak among bushes you stand As king among kings to lead any band.
 
We ask little for our song, but the bard Must be paid and so I ask a little reward: Namely that an Imnocta-fessa61 be given For our words that may be short-shriven.
 
"As to this game we pretend to play While guests in your land we stay, Let us play the riddling-game And tease your bards to play the same!
 
"Two neighbors meet upon a raging sea One a bard unrequited--a dreadful foe he--While the other meets an O to an O. Which, would you say, is the deadlier foe?
 
"Now, if your bards, with all their art, Can play the ass to my common cart,Then let them speak or else hold their din As I collect my payment: a simple pigskin!"
"Well done!" Iucharba said loudly.
The king's poets looked at each other. "Well," one sniffed. "That isn't bad, although I think he strained the meter a bit, and the rhyme is only a modest one at that."
"Enough playing with syntax," Tuis said, glaring at them. "Well? Which of you has it? The answer, I mean?"
"Your Majesty," began one. "This is not a simple task that is set before us. One must be careful to measure each nuance, the exact connotation, if you will, not only of rhyme, but of meter as well. One suggests one thing, the other another. That is to say--"
"--that you have no idea what you are talking about," Tuis finished. He frowned darkly at them, then turned to Brian, smiling uncertainly. "A fine poem, by my reckoning. But I must confess that I cannot make sense of it. Although," he added hastily, "it is pleasing upon the ear."
Brian smiled tolerantly. "If I may be so bold--"
"Yes, yes," Tuis said eagerly. "By all means. Elucidate."
"As the oak rules over the other trees of the forest, so do you stand, firm and resolute, a king among other kings, renowned for your generosity. My words, however, cannot do justice to you. As words are only air, they cannot compare--"
"Ah, another rhyme," muttered a bard.
"--to your glory and are worthy of only a pigskin for their composition. Now, as for the O, why that simply refers to 'ear,' which you will lend to my song--unless you refuse. Then we shall be fighting ear-toear for the pigskin."
The others fell silent as Brian's words dropped among them, holding their breath as they watched to see what Tuis would do with Brian's demand of his magic pigskin. The king's face had tightened at Brian's words. Now he nodded thoughtfully and said, "Well, enough. I really would have given your poem the praise it deserved if you had not made an issue of my pigskin." He wagged his finger admonishingly at Brian. "That was not very wise or gracious of you, man of verse. Even ifall the poets and scholars of Erin and all the nobles and chiefs of the whirling world should request it of me, I would not give it up." He held up his hand, staying the babble that threatened to come from the poets who, despite their animosity toward Brian, recognized that a poet must be paid his due. "But I recognize the tradition that must be upheld between a singer and his patron. To that end, I will give you enough red gold to fill that same pigskin three times over if it were made into a bag as the price of your poem. Although," he added warningly, "I would not compose another quite in that same, ah, style."
Brian bowed and smiled at the king. "It is a goodly ransom that you offer in place of the pigskin, Tuis. And, given the reputation of the pigskin, only a fair one, I would say."
"Then, you accept?" Tuis asked, smiling, secretly relieved, for he knew that an angry poet could tatter a person's reputation with a few well-chosen words.
"Oh, yes, of course," Brian said. "In fact, you are being more than generous. It is, after all, when one considers it carefully, only a pigskin. But, I am--how shall I put it--"
"He knows well how to put it," grumpily grunted one of the king's bards. "A plague on false modesty."
Again, Brian smiled engagingly (and the ladies present felt their hearts lurch and their loins grow weak at that) and said, "I hope Your Majesty won't take this badly, but"--he indicated the poets and bards in the shadows--"if your servants are no better mannered than your poets, I should like to watch the measuring. That may seem to be illmannered--for which I apologize--but for a man who hasn't an ounce of white gold, that much red gold is more than mere imagination can suggest."
Tuis looked admiringly at him. "If only my ambassadors could speak so prettily politically. No offense is taken, man of verse."
He turned and ordered that Brian and his brothers be taken to the treasure room, where the pigskin was to be held by a servant while another measured it full three times with red gold.
"Please be good enough to measure the first two for each of my brothers. The last will be for me," Brian said.
The servants shrugged and brought the pigskin out. Brian looked at it. "Is that it? The magical pigskin that has become so famous?"
"It is," one of the servants said. But they were his last words, for with one quick move, Brian snatched the pigskin with one hand while his other flashed from beneath his cloak, holding his sword. With one clean sweep, he cleaved the servant from crown to groin, halving him neatly. Blood spouted like a fountain, washing the room redly as the servant fell twice to the floor. The second servant dashed from the room, yelling shrilly, "Help! Oh, help! Murder! Murder!"
Quickly, Brian wrapped the skin around himself as his brothers drew their weapons, stepping from the treasure room to stand shoulder to shoulder in the hall. In this array, they met the guardsmen running with drawn weapons.
Iuchar raised his battle-cry, decapitating the first while beside him, Iucharba roared an echo, hacking his way through the guardsmen until the floor washed red with blood. Together, they pushed the guardsmen back into the throne room. By this time, Tuis had managed to arm himself, and when the brothers came out, he stood waiting for them.
"So," he said grimly. "This is the true poet, eh? A singer of blades?"
"I regret the deception," Brian said, advancing toward him with his drawn blade dripping gore. "But, we have a great need for this pigskin. There is an éric upon us that must be satisfied."
"'Tis a pity that it won't," Tuis said. He lashed out suddenly, his sword slipping beneath Brian's guard, slicing his arm open to the bone.
Brian gasped, then his blade danced in and out as Tuis and he fought back-and-forth across the throne room. So fierce was their battle that all others stopped to watch the duel. Brian's sword sliced through the breast of Tuis, severing his nipple, while Tuis returned the stroke to Brian's collarbone, nearly cleaving his shoulder, but the pigskin quickly healed him. Furious, Brian stormed like a winter torrent upon Tuis, forcing the king to use all his wiles to defend himself. Then, he seemed to gather strength and like a raging wind among oak branches, he battered Brian back across the room, knicking him first here on the cheek, then there upon the thigh, as Brian fought gamelyto keep the blade away from his breast and neck, for the weakness in the pigskin was that a man's head needed to stay firmly attached to his shoulders. And then his mighty battle-cry leaped from his lips like the screech of an eagle, the cry of a hawk, and Brian swooped forward, darting like a bird of prey as he slipped beneath the guard of Tuis and spitted him from shoulder to ham. Tuis's sword clattered to the floor as the king swayed, trying to push his intestines back inside. Then he fell forward, dead.
At that, Iuchar and Iucharba roared again their battle-cries and fell upon the guardsmen, slaughtering all until the throne room was awash in blood and limbs. Then, they rested, panting, their arms and breasts sliced to ribbons.
"Ah," Iucharba grinned painfully. "Now, that's better than trying to bandy words, if you ask me."
"Nobody did," Brian said. He heaved a great sigh, looking ruefully at each of them. "But now we have hurts that must be healed."
And so they remained for three days and three nights, healing themselves with the pigskin and the apples, rebuilding their strength. At night, their beds were visited by the most beautiful of the kingdom's ladies, who romped wildly in the brothers' beds, nearly finishing in pleasure where the swords of the nobles had failed in battle.
xv.
ON THE FOURTH DAY, BRIAN rose, stretching, gazing fondly at the naked woman sleeping soundly beside him, her dark nipples rising like ripe olives from the brown mountains of her breasts, her wide hips, the thick black bush, the strong thighs that had threatened to crush the breath from his lungs in the night. He felt himself move, then reluctantly turned and sat up, stepping from the bed. He seized a pitcher of water and poured it over him, gasping from the cold of the morning's breath upon the water.
He dressed quickly, then slipped from his bedchamber and madehis way to each of his brothers, gathering them to him. Together, they crept from the palace and made their way to where Scuabtinne bobbed patiently upon the waves, waiting for them.
"Where to now?" Iucharba asked. He rubbed his neck, where teeth marks showed, and grinned. "I hope somewhere where the women are as anxious as these."
"Well, we have a good start," Iuchar said. "We have the apples and the pigskin. Things could be worse." He grinned at his brother. "And you haven't come out too worse the wear for it all."
"Persia," Brian said firmly. "We must stay to the natural order of things."
Iuchar sighed. "Always the order. 'Twill be the death of you yet."
"We owe a death for the life," Brian said, stepping into the curragh.
Within minutes, they had left the deep blue streams of Greece far behind, skimming over the wine-dark sea toward Persia, their pulses quickening with the thoughts of the exotic and the adventure ahead.
xvi.
AS MANANNAN'S CRAFT NEARED THE rocky Persian shore, Iuchar stirred himself, sighed, and looked at Brian. "I think I could stay here," he said, looking around contentedly at the crashing seas and the squawking birds wheeling high overhead. "'Tis a great peace here, I'm thinking."
"Looks are deceiving," Brian said. "Remember how Cian disguised himself as a pig?"
"I remember how you got us into this mess," Iuchar said, anger flashing hotly for a moment. "It would have been fine enough to leave him rooting in that acorn mast. But, you had to be playing that game with him. What good has the blood-feud done for us, now? Eh?"
"Easy," Iucharba said, placing a restraining hand upon Iuchar'sthick forearm. His brother flung it off, glaring at him. "We're all in this together, now. That's our strength. Together. Separately, we don't have a chance of completing this éric."
"We don't have a chance anyway," Iuchar said darkly, turning to stare at the waiting headland. Scuabtinne waited patiently, measuring the waves as they rose and moved toward the land. Then, Scuabtinne caught a wave, slipping down the face, turning to avoid the jagged rocks, sliding deftly between two others, to coast to idle water in a small cove sheltered by thick-limbed tamarind trees.
"Don't think about that," Iucharba said, punching his brother gently upon the shoulder. "There's not much use and need in thinking about the obvious."
"We must walk the road given us," Brian said soberly. "And make the best of a servant's supper." He shrugged. "Who remembers the cowherd and who remembers the warrior?"
"But," Iuchar said unhappily, "which one is happier? And what do we care after we're dead and gone?"
"Enough!" Brian said. "How should we approach this task?"
Iucharba shrugged and spread his hands. His eyes met Brian's. "And how else but what we are? We cannot be kings."
"No," Brian said. "We cannot be kings. But I think we should try again our ruse as poets. It worked before," he added sharply as Iuchar rose up to argue.
Iuchar started to argue, then shrugged his shoulders and glanced at his brother. Iucharba spat over the side of the curragh and shook his head resignedly.
"Why interfere with success?" he said. "'Tisn't easy to be what you're not, but sometimes one can fool the others into thinking that what they are looking at is grain and not chaff."
So once again they put the poet-knots in their hair and made their way to the palace of Pisear, king of Persia, passing through the outer gate to the inner one where Brian raised his fist and banged on it.
"Knock, knock, knock! Who's there?" cried the gatekeeper.
"Three poets from Erin," Brian announced. "We come with a poem for the king."
"Poets, eh?" said the gatekeeper, drawing the bolts and throwingthe gate wide. "'Tis a warrior's fist that banged at the gate, not a poet's." He peered out and, noticing the poet-knots in their hair, threw the gate wide. "Methinks you've chosen the wrong profession, sar. With an arm like that, you could carve a name for yourself on the battlefield."
"Thank you," Brian said politely, stepping in through the gate. "And if you would be so kind as to take us to the king--Pisear, isn't it?--we'll be giving him a bit of entertaining."
"Yes, that's his name," the gatekeeper said, staring with rheumy eyes at the three standing before them. "They certainly make poets differently in Erin than we do here in Persia. Ain't a one of them got an ax-handle's width to his shoulders in our king's court."
"The king?" Brian repeated, smiling gently.
Startled the gatekeeper rattled his keys and gestured for them to follow him as he turned and hobbled on arthritic legs up the stairs. "Bunch of limp-wristed queens looking for a king, if you get my meaning." He paused to stare back, winking lewdly. "Or a knight." He cackled at his own ribaldry as he led them to the throne room, where Pisear rose to greet them.
"Ah, grand, grand!" he said, clapping his hands when told they were poets from far beyond the ninth wave. "We shall have a feast and a fest! And to the winner, a grand prize for him to claim."
"If that pleases Your Majesty," Brian said. He glanced at the young princess, Pisear's daughter, sitting beside her father, her young breasts pressing like ripe pomegranates against her dress, her lips smiling seductively at Brian, eyes wide in open invitation. Brian grinned at her, and her pink tongue darted out to lick her full lower lip.
"Yes, yes," Pisear said, ignoring the teasing of his daughter. "That would please me greatly. Greatly."
The king's poets sniffed and drew their fine dress around them, taking great pains that the shoulders draped well. Then, one-by-one, they stood and sang their lays, their songs, their fine poems until the last harp note slipped away into silence and they all looked expectantly at the brothers.
"Now, my brothers, arise and sing softly for the good king," Brianwhispered to his brothers. They looked at him with surprise.
"We've been through this before, remember?" Iuchar whispered back. "'Tisn't the sound of grackles cackling that he wants to hear, but one whose voice is sweet and pure. Like that catamite simpering over there against the pillar," he added, nodding at a youth with rosy cheeks who looked back at him with great admiration shining from his black, limpid eyes.
"Don't ask us for that which we can't do," Iucharba said. He poked his brother in the ribs with a hard forefinger, stiff as a blacksmith's poker. Iuchar looked back at him. "I think you're getting strange ideas," Iucharba said. He glanced at Brian. "It's up to you again, brother. But, if you wish it, why, I'll crack a few heads for you and split a couple from whistle to woozle if you like."
"That would be a strange poetry-to hear blades singing in this room, I'm thinking," Brian whispered back, then rose and said loudly. "As it is, Your Majesty, I have a poem for the ears of a king. If it be your pleasure, I'll give it song."
The king nodded and leaned forward on his throne, rapt attention shining from his face as Brian positioned himself carefully. Then he raised his voice in his fine tenor, singing:
"May the great King Pisear ever reign Across Persia's great mountains and plain. And may his great spear continue to break The backs of his enemies for his country's sake.
 
"'Tis a great weapon, this magical spear, Yew-handled of the finest wood, dear To all who would stand before it. King Itself when compared with others. It brings
 
"Death to all who oppose it. None withstands That blazing spear wielded by Pisear's hand. Mighty armies and heroes quake in fear When Pisear is near with his spear."
When he had finished, he remained standing, staring into Pisear's eyes as the king frowned in puzzlement. Idly, Brian reached into a pouch hanging by his side and removed one of the golden apples, rubbing it absently against his tunic.
"I must confess," sighed Pisear, leaning back in his chair and throwing his hands up. "I do not understand what my spear has to do with your poem. Although," he added hastily, "it is a good poem for all of that. None here would reckon otherwise."
And the other poets nodded in agreement, for although none there could understand the poem, none wanted to be accused of being simple if pressed for a critique.
"It's not that hard," said Brian, son of Tuirenn. "In fact it is very simple. I give you the poem and within the poem itself, name the reward I would have for the poem."
Pisear's mouth dropped open in astonishment at the youth's rashness. Then he laughed and said, "Ah, but that is a foolish request, man of verse! No man who ever requested that spear from me walked away from the spot where you are now standing."
"Your Majesty," one of his nobles interjected quickly. "He is a poet, and there are many of those here. Remember the danger of the satire."
Pisear gestured his advisor away, saying, "But I will give you a greater reward than that spear." His eyes crinkled merrily and he tugged at his carefully curled beard. "I'll give you your life!" He looked around at his nobles who all nodded in satisfaction at the king's decision.
Brian pursed his lips as he tossed the golden apple up and down in his hand for a minute. "Well, a life is a grand gift. That I will admit," he said. "But I already own my life, so it really isn't a gift so much as a threat to be taking it from me."
Pisear shrugged, the humor disappearing from his eyes. "Then have it that way, if you will," he said ominously.
Brian sighed. "And that's your final word on the subject?" He looked over his shoulder at his brothers, eyeing them significantly. They rose and casually slipped their hands beneath their cloaks, graspingthe hilts of their swords. He glanced back at the king. "Well?"
Pisear's face darkened with anger. "Base insolence!" he snapped. "Who do you think you are to speak to me in this way?"
At that, Brian pitched the apple at the king's head. So rapid was his throw and so true to the mark, that Pisear had time to blink only once wonderingly, as the apple blasted his forehead apart, driving his brain out the back of his skull where it splattered against the back of his throne like a squashed spider. Then the apple flew back to Brian's hand.
He dropped it in his pouch, then whirled, drawing his sword from beneath his cloak. Then, roaring his battle-cry that would cause lesser men to piddle their britches, he fell upon the nobles and warriors of the court, hewing and hacking his way through them like a scythe through fall-ripened wheat. His brothers' cries came as a terrifying echo of his own as they stepped to his side, each slashing his blade through flesh and bone, bright blood fountaining in the air and spraying in a fine mist that covered all there.
All too soon, the battle was won, and the brothers leaned against each other, staring at the carnage they had left on the floor behind them.
"Well," Iuchar said, licking at a slice across the back of his hand. "So much for that." He heard a rustle from behind a curtain and stepped quickly to it, pulling it down and away from its rings. Young women, small and full-breasted, stared wonderingly from the brothers to the blood-soaked floor.
"Well, now," Iucharba said, grinning. "It seems as if there's still a use for our swords after all."
For four days, the brothers slept with the women of the court. Brian spent the days and nights with the princess, and so grateful was she with his swordsmanship that she led him to the chamber where the great spear stood upended in a great cauldron of water so that its heat would not scorch the people of the court.
And then it was time for the children of Tuirenn to leave, and Iucharba carefully gathered the cauldron and heavily venomed spear and carried it back to where Scuabtinne waited, dancing patiently on the waves of the wine-dark sea.
xvii.
"SICILY," BRIAN SAID WHEN HIS brothers asked him in what direction they should next travel. "To Dobhar's court to collect the two horses and chariot that Lugh Idlánach has demanded."
Iuchar sighed and scratched his arse before stepping into Scuabtinne's prow and settling himself. "You know," he reflected, "I'm becoming a bit fond of this travel." Scuabtinne lifted itself, wriggling like a puppy in pleasure at Iuchar's words. "Yes, I'm beginning to take to this."
Iucharba sighed and stretched out in the bottom of the curragh. "It's pleasant--after a fashion," he added. Then he rolled his head back, squinting up at Brian, who carefully stored the treasures they had gathered before stepping into Scuabtinne. "Tell me, brother: Are you beginning to feel that Lugh has demanded a bit much for his blood-fine? Seems to me that we have paid enough blood to make half-a-dozen Cians if we only had the wizardry to do so."
Brian shrugged. "It doesn't matter what we think. It only matters what Lugh asked for and we agreed to. Don't blame him for his request. We were quick enough to accept when we thought it little enough to do."
Iuchar sighed and rubbed his nose with the heel of his hand. "Damn him for his golden words. 'Tis a poet's soul he has beneath that good strong arm of his. Who would have thought to find a poet's tongue in a warrior's mouth?"
"Speaking of which," Iucharba said, rolling his great head on his shoulders until it rested comfortably against the side of Scuabtinne. "I think we've played enough of these poet games, Brian. Word's bound to be getting out about three brothers masquerading as what they aren't. We got away with it twice; only fools will try the same trick three times."
"I've been giving some thought to that," Brian said. "Let's take a page from your book, Iucharba."
Iucharba sat up, his brow furrowing in puzzlement. "My book? What's that?"
"Why pretend to be something we aren't?" Brian answered. "Let us go to Dobhar's court as mercenaries from Erin, seeking a good king to pledge our blades to. That way, we'll be among soldiers and warriors--where the horses and chariots are certain to be--instead of poets and players. I think we'd have better luck seeing the lay of the ground from a soldier's eyes than a bard's."
"Ah, a familiar role to play!" Iuchar said, clapping his hands. "I'm for it."
"And me. Or I. Whatever," Iucharba said.
"Then it's done," Brian said. He leaned forward, speaking softly to Scuabtinne. The brave craft leaped forward, skimming the waves, as it set its course toward the sunny shores of Sicily.
Soon it slipped into a narrow cove and ran itself up on a sandy beach, allowing Iuchar to step out without wetting his heels as he had before. He patted the brave craft's gunwales. "Thank you, Scuabtinne," he said. "'Tis a fine job you've been doing for us."
"Come on," Brian said, settling his sword at his waist. "Let's be off to the palace and see what we can find out."
Now, as it happened, Dobhar was holding court on the broad, level green in front of his palace, idily away the time with wine and olives and cheese and oranges when the brothers came upon him.
"What's this we have?" Dobhar said laconically, staring at the brothers whose dress was salt-wrinkled although their arms glittered brightly, dangerously. "Surely these are warriors? Or crow men?"62
Giggles from the scantily clad young women sprawled upon the green floated up into the cobalt-blue air behind his words. Iucharba flushed and fingered the haft of his sword, but Brian laid a cool hand on his elbow, staying him.
"We apologize for our appearance, Your Majesty," he said smoothly. "But we have come a long distance from Erin to offer our blades to your service and are fair famished from the effort."
"Hmm," Dobhar said. "Is then your intention to remain here awhile in my service?"
"Yes," Brian said, smiling disarmingly. "It is that." Not a few of the young women there felt their hearts lurch and bang wildly in their chests at his bright smile.
"I see," Dobhar said thoughtfully. He sipped from a glass of resin wine. "Then I take it that you are handy with those swords hanging by your side and they are not simply there to help you balance?"
"We've been known to carve a duckling or two," Brian said, grinning.
"Ah, a warrior with a sense of humor. Good, good," said Dobhar.
And so it was that the children of Tuirenn entered the service of the king of Sicily in a post of honor, for the king loved a jest with his warriors when the mood was upon him. And it was often after the brothers took their posts. They stayed with him in the palace for a month and a fortnight, slowly discovering the information that they needed. But during that time, they not once saw the steeds or the famed chariot they would pull.
One rainy day, as they sat in their room, pondering the gray mist outside their window, Brian cleared his throat, saying, "I don't think this was such a good idea, my brothers. We are no further along with our éric than we were the day before we came. That is, we haven't learned anything at all about whereabouts of the king's fine horses or his chariot."
"No," Iuchar grinned, "but we have ridden some fine mares in his stable."
"Always the man with the striapachs, eh?" Brian said
"I don't see you pushing any out of your bed, except early in the morning before the lark sings, so she can slip back to her husband's room," Iuchar said pointedly.
"That," Brian said loftily, "is research. Sometimes women always know more than they are willing to tell. Especially in bed. Men have a habit of flapping their lips to impress the women with how good and how important they are. Chances were that they spoke about Dobhar's horses while frolicking in bed with certain ladies."
"And did you find out anything?" Iucharba said. Iuchar grinned and nudged him with his elbow.
"No, but it isn't for lack of searching for the right mare."
"Enough!" Brian said as his brothers snickered. "The fact is we know nothing more than the day we came to this court."
"So, what should we do?" Iucharba said, sighing. He could tell that Brian's restless spirit was upon him, and there would be no more tarrying until they had finished what they came to Sicily to accomplish.
"I say we arm ourselves, put on our traveling clothes, go to the king, and tell him that we are planning on leaving his service and this sunny isle unless he shows us the famous horses," Brian said.
"Oh, that is certain to win us friends, indeed," Iucharba said sourly. "We simply march up to the king and say, 'Give us a glimpse of your horses, or we'll be leaving your place.'" He looked sourly at Brian. "And you expect him to believe that we don't have other ideas in mind at that?"
"Do you have a better idea?" Brian asked.
"No," Iucharba said, "but that doesn't make yours any better. Just the only one."
"And?" Brian asked gently.
Iucharba sighed. "Come on, Iuchar. There's no reasoning with him when he's got a thistle up his arse or next to his bod."
They went forth that day to see the king, finding him at lunch with goat cheese and resin wine, surrounded by poets and players and scantily dressed women. "Ah," he cried, upon seeing the brothers finely dressed. "I see you are off to an adventure." He frowned, worrying a piece of meat out from between his teeth. "But, don't you think you should have asked me first? I'm really fairly informal, except on formal occasions."
"We are sorry, Your Majesty, but my brothers and I must leave your service. Regretfully," he added.
The king's eyebrows flew up. He sat erect, spilling wine over his hand. A steward hastened forward with a cloth to blot it away from the royal hand.
"Leave my service?" he exclaimed. "Why? Have you been mistreated in any way?"
"It is a minor thing, but very important to men such as ourselves,Your Majesty," Brian said smoothly. "You see, we are from Erin, and as such, our martial gifts naturally draw us close to those whom we would serve. We are always the guards and confidants of kings. We have guarded their rarest jewels, been the champions of the virtue of the queens, their gifted arms of victory. We are accustomed to being the repositories of the innermost secrets and desires of those whom we serve. But you have not treated us as such. It may seem a minor thing, but it is a matter of honor with us."
The king's brow furrowed in puzzlement. "But, how have I not treated you in this manner?"
"It has come to our attention that you possess two fine and wondrous horses and a magnificent chariot the likes of which have never seen elsewhere in the world. Such wondrous things surely must be guarded by the best warriors a king has. Yet, you have not posted us to them. Indeed, you haven't even told us about them. We had to learn of their existence elsewhere."
"I see," the king said. He shook his head as a steward tried to hand him another cup filled with wine. "But this is most unseemly of you to leave my employ in this matter. Especially since this is the first time I have heard that you would like to see them. Had I known that, I would have shown them to you on the first day. But if that is all it will take to keep you in my service, why, then, you shall certainly be allowed to see them. I have never had soldiers in this court from Erin who have earned greater confidence from me and my people."
He clapped his hands and called for the master of horses. When the man appeared, the king ordered that the steeds be yoked to the chariot and brought forth so that Brian and his brothers could see them.
They came, and the children of Tuirenn marveled at the horses. As fleet they were as the clear cold wind of early spring that travels equally over land and sea. Brian walked around them slowly, admiring the fine turn of their legs, the sheen of their coats, the magnificent chariot. Suddenly he seized the charioteer, stripped the reins from his hand, and lifted him high overhead, smashing him against a standing rock carved as a tribute to Dobhar. He leaped into the chariot, taking up thereins himself, then cast the great spear of Pisear straight at the astonished king, destroying his heart as the venom point cleaved his breastbone.
Iucharba roared his battle-cry and, with his brother, drew his sword, and fell upon the warriors and host of the court. Together, the three brothers brought red slaughter to the famous court. But they were sorely wounded in this battle, as Dobhar had many champion warriors in his service. They were forced to rest for a week while their wounds healed.
"'Tis great luck we're having," Iucharba said as they finally made their way back to where Scuabtinne waited.
"Don't be tempting fate with your words!" Iuchar said curtly. "'Tis a cautious and wise man who keeps his fortune secret from others. Many a warrior's been laid low with a slip from his lip." He glanced at Brian. "And where will we go from here?" he asked.
xviii.
BRIAN SHOOK HIS HEAD. "AS always," he said. "Disturb the natural order, and we may bring disaster down upon our heads. We shall go to Asal, the king of the Golden Pillars, and ask him for the seven pigs that Lugh Ildánach has demanded from us as a part of the éric that we must pay before we may be again the masters of our own destiny."
Iuchar gave him a strange look. "I think we were too long at Dobhar's court," he said. "You're beginning to talk like a courtier instead of a warrior."
"And a good thing for us, too," Iucharba said. "One of us needs a silver tongue. Otherwise, I doubt if we would have gotten this far on our own."
"Donn's great balls!" Iuchar swore. "Fine words didn't get us our trophies. 'Twas our good strong sword arms that brought us this far."
"Only," Iucharba said firmly, "after Brian's fair speeches and fine poems bought us the time to get close. Do you think we could have hacked our way through an army to get to the palace? No. A bit of subterfuge was needed. Squirrels don't hide all their acorns in their nests."
"Stuff and nonsense," Iuchar scoffed. "I'm not belittling Brian's fine words."
"See then that you don't," growled Iucharba. "I'm as much for fighting as another, but the odds must be shortened."
By this time, they had settled in Scuabtinne, and Brian had given the sturdy craft its directions. When they came close to the harbor of the Golden Pillars, they noticed the shoreline with armed men waiting for the sons of Tuirenn; for while they rested, their fame rushed on ahead of them. Stories varied, but all had heard of their strength with the sword and how they had been forced to leave Erin by the hard words of Lugh and how they were wandering the world, collecting the fine trophies needed to pay the price of their blood-fine.
"What's this?" Iucharba asked, looking at the spears bristling above the heads of the army.
"It looks like word has come about us," Iuchar said resignedly. "Ah, me! Now things will be getting more difficult for us, I'm afraid."
"Shh," Brian said soothingly. "Land us, Scuabtinne," he ordered. Obediently, the craft edged up to the port. The brothers stepped ashore, their weapons close by their hands as they stared at the unfriendly faces around them. Then the ranks parted and Asal, king of the Golden Pillars, came forward to greet them. His face was hostile, his words harsh as he ignored the proprieties.
"So, what has brought you to my land?" he asked bluntly. "Mind you, we have heard how you have slaughtered the other kings of the world. We'll not be having that nonsense here."
"As if you could stop us," Iucharba growled, half-drawing his sword. But Iuchar stayed his hand as Brian stepped forward, light glimmering from his arms, a hero's halo hovering above his fine golden hair.
"We have come for your pigs," he said simply. "We know that word of Lugh's demands upon us has come before us, so you should already know this without asking why we have come. Do you play us for fools by pretending to be ignorant of our travels, our odyssey?"
"Hmm. Boldly and bluntly spoken," Asal said. He placed his hands on his hips, his chin jutting forward ominously. "And just how did you think you would be managing this?"
Brian shrugged. "If possible, we would like to get them with your goodwill. We would thank you greatly for your hospitality and good faith. But"--he shrugged and his eyes glinted dangerously--"if it must be, why, then, we will be forced to fight for them. If we do, many will die--maybe ourselves, but that is fate, and who knows the whimsical turnings of Fate? Perhaps yourself, Your Majesty," he said pointedly.
"Hmm. So you would fight us to get the pigs, eh?"
"Yes," Brian answered.
The king nodded and studied the sons of Tuirenn carefully, then turned and looked at his own preparations. Although his army was a fine one, he could see that the sons of Tuirenn would collect a heavy score before they could be placed under the sod. If, he reminded himself, they could be. Men with their success so far had to be very skilled in the arts of war.
"Well, if it is to be a gift or a triumph, it would seem to be very ignoble of us to fight with you for the sake of a few pigs."
"Very," Brian said cautiously.
The king nodded and waved his councilors close. After much whispering and arguing, the king held up his hands and stepped away from them, studying the brothers. "All right. You may have the pigs," he said.
"That is most gracious of you," Brian said, bowing his head.
"I smell a pig in a poke," Iuchar growled quietly to Brian and Iucharba. "No one gives up a prize like that without a bit of a struggle."
"I agree," Iucharba said. "There's treachery here somewhere. I can smell it."
"Maybe. Maybe not," Brian said. "But we have two choices: Go along with the king and play the game as the rules become known, orstrike out now. Either way, there's going to be a bit of bloodshed, I think. The odds may improve later. We've left a lot of blood in other places. Let us see if we can do this peaceably."
They followed Asal to his palace, where he entertained them with fine food and drink and serving wenches to share their beds at night. When they arose the following day and came to the king's presence, the pigs were already waiting for them with their swinekeeper glowering beside them.
"We thank Your Majesty for your fine gifts," Brian said. "It is the first of our requirements that we have been able to gain without battle. If we have seemed a bit suspicious, it is only because of the battles we have had to fight to get the others before we came to your fine court and generous ways."
"You have pretty words about you," Asal said. He smiled. "But, in reality, they are only pigs--even if there is a bit of magic about them."
And Brian composed a poem for the king, honoring him by saying:
"The prizes we have brought with us here Have been won with blood spilled most dear. You have given us these pigs as we depart. For that, we thank you with all our heart.
 
"Other kings have not been so noble as you. We had to fight with Pisear and to gain the yew- Shafted spear that he held most dear. The steeds And chariot of Dobhar we also took with our deeds.
 
"We should all have fallen in that battle Where champions fell like slaughtered cattle. And we might have died there without the skin Of the great pig that healed us after the battle-din.
 
"Now, Asal, we thank you for these most happy days And promise that we will always sing your praise For giving up your pigs to us Without a battle, without a fuss!"
"You are quite welcome," Asal said, overwhelmed with Brian's extemporized poetry. "It's most unusual to find a silver tongue in the mouth of such a formidable warrior. Where are you off to next?"
"To Iruad," Brian said firmly. "To collect Failinis, the king's puppy."
"Would you do me a favor, sons of Tuirenn?" Asal asked. "I would travel with you and, perhaps, I might intercede on your behalf. You see, my daughter is the wife of that king." He frowned. "He's not as willing to listen to reason as I am. But perhaps tactful words will keep you from having to bloody your weapons again."
"That would be very good of Your Majesty," Brian said, grateful for the king's generosity.
"Oh, posh," Asal said modestly. "It will give me a chance to visit with my daughter and see how things fare with her."
xix.
SO KING ASAL'S SHIP WAS made ready for him, and the brothers carried their wealth aboard to travel with him. No further adventures claimed their attention as they sailed peacefully over the seas to the borders of Iruad.63 Again the shores were lined with fierce men well-armed with spears and swords as the ship of Asal sailed into the harbor. The warriors shouted crudely at the sons of Tuirenn and Asal, warning them not to come nearer.
"Not very hospitable, are they?" Iuchar grinned, fingering his sword. He laughed with delight at the anticipated fight. "I don't think your fine words are going to win us this one, brother," he teased Brian.
"Let me see if I can reason with the king," Asal said cautiously. "You wait for me here, and I'll see if he's willing to listen to my words."
"We'll wait," Brian said, studying the army assembled before him. "But it looks as if he's already made up his mind."
Asal hurried from the ship and made his way to where his son-in-law waited on a hill overlooking the harbor. When he arrived, he told the king about the adventures of the sons of Tuirenn. The kingstudied him and the brothers, then said, "So what brings them to my country?"
"For your puppy," Asal said.
The king laughed and shook his head. "You shouldn't have meddled in this," he said. "I'll deal with you after we are finished with these upstarts. You really overstepped your boundaries, Asal. You may be my father-in-law, but you should not be taking sides against me."
"Taking sides? Why, you fool, I'm trying to save your life!" Asal gestured toward the ship where the brothers waited. "These are far better champions than any you have in your employ."
"Maybe," the king said smugly. "But the numbers, Asal, the numbers. Do you think that the gods have smiled so favorably upon those champions that they can fight an entire army successfully to gain my puppy? I'll give them the chance to sail away, though. Take that back with you."
"Many another king thought the same as you," Asal said warningly. "And now they lie in the dust."
"Asal, do not tempt my good will. I haven't forgotten that you have taken up sides with them," the king answered.
And Asal went back to where the children of Tuirenn waited and told them what the king had said. Brian grinned and rubbed his nose with the heel of his hand as he turned toward his brothers.
"Well, it looks like we'll get to use the apples and pigskin again, brothers!" he said.
Iuchar drew his sword, shouting gleefully as he charged toward the waiting army, with Brian and Iucharba bringing up the rear. They fought throughout the day, and then Iuchar and Iucharba became separated from Brian, who found himself surrounded. But he wielded the dreadful spear of Pisear, and when its hateful burning point appeared, his enemies fell away from him. Iuchar and Iucharba began to hack and slash their way to him, blood streaming from their swordblades and many wounds, but Brian did not wait. Immediately he surged forward toward the king, striking down swords and spears as he charged recklessly. And then the two warriors came face-to-face.
"Well?" Brian panted, halting before the king. "I'll give you a last chance."
But the king ignored Brian's words and, drawing his sword, fell upon the champion. They fought, bloody, venomously, striking each other with swift and terrible blows, until at last Brian closed upon the king, shattering his sword with a mighty blow that stunned the king. Brian seized the king, lifting him high off the ground, and bound him with strips of supple cowhide. Then he took him to where Asal waited.
"Here," he said, throwing Asal's son-in-law at his feet. "Here is your son-in-law. It would have been easier to kill him three times than to bring him to you once. But for your kindness, your daughter would have been a widow by now!"
He turned, facing the army that threatened to surge forward, saying, "Hold! Your king is now our prisoner. Lay down your weapons."
"Do it," the king said resignedly.
The army stood back and away, watching. Brian turned with satisfaction to the king.
"What is it you want?" the king asked.
"You know what I want," Brian answered.
"I know," the king said. "But I want to hear it from your lips."
And so Brian told him about the éric laid upon the children of Tuirenn and how they needed his puppy to fill a part of the blood-fine. And the king, realizing that it was far better to be friends with warriors like the sons of Tuirenn than enemies, gave up the puppy willingly.
Brian ordered the king to be untied, and after the puppy was turned over to them, the brothers left the shores of Iurad, leaving Asal and his son-in-law poorer, but wiser and friends behind them.
xx.
BY NOW, HOWEVER, THE CHILDREN of Tuirenn were weary with their world travels and with the battles they had to face and wanted to take what trophies they had captured back home to Lugh.But they knew that he would not forgive the rest of the blood-price that had been laid upon them for killing his father.
But Lugh already knew the successes the brothers had had, although they had not gained the cooking-spit or given the three shouts from the Hill of Midkena. He also knew that the odds were gaining on the sons of Tuirenn and that the next battle could be their last. They were, he reflected, earning a great reputation for their honor and ability as warriors, which did not settle well with Lugh, who desperately wanted them dishonored for having killed his father, Cian. He knew as well that the remaining duties of the éric they had to perform were also the most dangerous, and that the Golden Apples and the magic pigskin they had would help heal them of their wounds. So, he sent a Druid's spell after the sons, making them forget the rest of the éric they had to pay. Thinking that they had finished that which had been set before them, the brothers entered Scuabtinne and ordered Manannán's craft to take them home.
When they came ashore at Brugh na Boinne, Lugh left secretly and went to Cathair Crobaing, that became Tara. He closed the gate behind him and dressed himself for battle, donning the smooth Greek armor of Manannán and the enchanted cloak of the daughter of Flidais.64 Then, he took up his arms, waiting patiently for the children of Tuirenn to come to him.
Brian and his brothers went straight to the king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, where they were made welcome for they had become heroes through their exploits. Every one of the Tuatha could recite at least one of the tales of daring that the brothers had performed.
"Have you fulfilled the éric that Lugh placed upon you?" inquired the king after the celebration had abated.
"Yes, we have," Brian replied. "But we have not been able to find Lugh to deliver it to him. We have searched high and low, but he is nowhere to be found."
The king frowned. "That's strange. He was here not long ago." And he ordered the entire assembly to search for Lugh. But Long-Arms was nowhere to be found.
Then a vision came to Brian and he said, "I think I know where heis. He heard of our return and went to Tara to avoid us. I do not think he wants us to finish the quest that he demanded we fulfill before we could receive forgiveness for having killed his father. Perhaps he fears that we shall use these weapons upon him. But that would be dishonorable."
"Hmm," Bodb Dearg said. "That is very strange. It's almost as if he doesn't want you to fulfill the éric. This is most unseemingly."
He immediately sent messengers to Tara, ordering them to find Lugh and return to Brugh na Boinne to receive what he had demanded from the sons of Tuirenn. But Lugh refused to return, ordering the messengers to have the brothers deliver their trophies to the king of Erin.
And so the sons of Tuirenn gave Bodb Dearg the trophies that they had won on their long and arduous journey to fulfill Lugh's blood-fine.
"This is very strange," the king frowned, as Brian delivered the trophies into his hands. "I'm not certain why Lugh would want this done in this fashion, but it is done. Now, let us go to Tara together so the Long-Armed one can release you from your oath."
They traveled to Tara and Lugh came out upon the green to receive them, still wearing his magnificent armor. Bodb Dearg gave him the trophies that the brothers had earned. Lugh received the items silently and ordered them to be taken into Tara.
"And now," Bodb Dearg said, "it is time for you to release them from the éric, for they have fulfilled that which you placed upon them and now there will be no more bad blood between the sons of Tuirenn and the son of Cian."
"Of course," Lugh said. "That is the law. No one who has returned full compensation of the éric is to be harmed, and forgiveness will indeed be granted." He frowned, pretending to look around him. "But where is the great cooking-spit? And when did you give the three shouts from the Hill of Midkena?"
At that moment, he caused the Druid spell to be lifted from the brothers, and a great faintness came upon them as the joy they felt at having fulfilled Lugh's éric left them.
"This is most unseemly," Bodb Dearg said sternly to Lugh. "You have behaved most dishonorably in this matter."
"Have I?" Lugh said. "Perhaps. But nevertheless, the éric has not beenfulfilled; and until it is, I am under no obligation to lift the ban upon them."
"You could forgive the remainder of it," Bodb Dearg said.
"I could," Lugh acknowledged, "but I won't."
A great bitterness filled the children of Tuirenn as they realized the trick that Lugh had placed upon them, and they left and went to the house of their father where they told him of the deception Lugh had played upon them.
"He has behaved badly," Tuirenn said as gloom and grief fell upon him. "But he is within the law. You shall have to fulfill the rest of the éric. I know that you are disappointed, but you must do what has been laid out for you or live in dishonor the rest of your lives."
And so they passed the night, not in the triumphant way that they had planned, but quietly, suddenly aware of the black mantle that had been thrown over them. The next day, they went back down to the shore with their father and sister Ethne. As they put out once again upon the gray-green sea, she spoke a lay:
"I grieve for this, O Brian of my heart As you make ready the boat to depart. Despite all that has befallen you, To your quest you have remained true.
 
"You are like the salmon of the silent Boyne And the salmon of the Liffey. Lugh's toying With you is dishonorable. Still, I cannot detain You and to go with you would be insane.
 
"You are like the horseman of Tuaid's Wave65 For in combat you and my brothers rave Wildly among the foe. If you should return As I hope, Lugh's revenge will burn
 
"To ashes and he will become despised For these tricks that he has contrived. Oh, all should pity the sons of Tuirenn Who once again carry their shield of green.
"The matter of Lugh disturbs my mind For when looking into his heart I cannot find Any intention of forgiving you. I fear That he means to kill my brothers dear.
 
"I pity your journey from Tara and From Tailltiu66 on the pleasant plain. And from great Usneach Hill67 The leaving of which is sadder still."
xxi.
A GREAT FOREBODING CAME UPON the little party as Manannán's craft took the brothers once again out upon the great green sea, where they wandered for a quarter of a year, inquiring of all for the Island of Fincara, but no one knew where the island was.
At last, they found an old man who recited an old legend that proclaimed the island lay at the bottom of the sea68 after it was sunk beneath the waves by a spell. Brian put on his water-dress with a helmet of crystal and made a water-leap, staying for a full fortnight beneath the waves of the salty sea, seeking the island. At last he found it and was amazed to find the court composed of only a troop of women who seemed to be engaged in embroidery and needlework around a large table. In its middle lay a brightly polished cooking-spit.
He spoke not a word, but walked straight to the table, seized the cooking-spit, and started back toward the door. The women paused in their labors, each admiring his handsome form, feeling her heart lurch with desire within her. But when he neared the door, peals of laughter halted him. He turned to them, frowning at their laughter.
"Boldly done, son of Tuirenn!" a magnificent red-haired woman cried. She put aside her sewing and rose, her great breasts bare and bouncing, dark tips like ripe plums beckoning to him. He frowned.
"And how do you know my name?" he asked.
She shrugged, her breasts wobbling seductively. "All here know of your triumphs!" She laughed. "But tell me: Did you think that you would get away with that freely?" His hand stole to grab the hilt of his sword. She laughed again. "Why, puny man! There are a hundred and fifty women here who have been trained in war far better than you. The weakest of us would be more than a match for you and your two brothers if we were not willing to let that cooking-spit go. You take much upon you by trying to leave without payment."
"And what payment would that be?" he asked, gripping his sword tightly, and looking warily around him.
"Why," she said, walking toward him, hips switching like a cat's tail, "'tis certain I am that we can think of something."
And when she came close so that her breasts brushed his chest, he smelled her perfume and felt faint. Then a great desire came upon him as her eye ran raunchily over him. A great heat seemed to rise from her like a lava flow. And he smiled and placed his arm around her.
"Perhaps we can think of something," he said.
Much later, he stumbled from the room, content and tired, the woman's voice calling to him, "For your bold ways and valor and handsome bearing, we will let you have that cooking-spit, for we have many others that will suit our purpose as well."
Brian turned and waved a farewell to her, happy in the different duel he had fought. He made his way back to the curragh, where his brothers waited anxiously, fearing that he had been lost in the depths of the great sea. When they spied his crystal helmet glittering beneath the dark waves, they hauled him aboard. When they saw he had the cooking-spit and was unharmed, a great joy lifted the black burden from their heart.
xxii.
THE THREE BROTHERS THEN COMMANDED the craft to take them to Lochlann, where they moored the boat near the Hill of Midkena, which rose tall and smooth and green over the shore. Theywalked to the hill, gripping their weapons nervously, for they could see no danger. And because could see no danger, they were more fearful than ever.
As they mounted the hill, they saw Midkena, the guardian, walking toward them. They looked around and, seeing no others near them, Brian said, "There seems to be one only. I will deal with him."
Midkena paused as he neared them and, drawing his sword, spoke his challenge, saying, "Well, it's taken you a while, but you have finally managed to make your way here, have you?"
"You know us, then?" Brian asked, walking slowly toward him.
Midkena nodded. "And who doesn't know the children of Tuirenn and how they killed Cian, my friend and student?"
"That was in answer to a long feud," Brian said narrowly, watching him, his eyes flickering around the rest of the country uneasily. He was wary because he thought Midkena should have had others with him.
"Well, now you have another on your hands," Midkena declared, lifting his weapons. "For you shall not leave here until you have answered for his death."
And the two heroes came together like two boars, their weapons clashing with a din that echoed around the countryside. Midkena struck swiftly, but Brian turned his cut with his shield and delivered an answering blow that was equally met by Midkena. They fought back and forth along the hill, blood flowing like water from the many wounds they laid upon each other until, at last, Brian let loose his battle-cry and swung a hard blow that cleaved Midkena through the brainpan and he fell dead at Brian's feet.
Meanwhile, the din of battle had alerted the three sons of Midkena, Corc, Con, and Aod, who donned their armor quickly and rushed headlong to the aid of their father. But they arrived too late to save their father. Enraged, they sped forward, carrying their long spears in hand, joining the three brothers in battle. So fierce and great was the battle that all men in the world, from the Hesperides in the east to the frozen north should have gathered to watch the great champions close in battle for not until much later in the annals of the Red Branch did such a battle occur. No man could have withstood the great blows rained upon each other, no man had a spirit that could have burned as fiercely and brightly as did those spirits, and no manhad the courage of those great champions as they fought grimly against each other.
Then the sons of Midkena took their great spears and lanced the sons of Tuirenn through their bodies, but the sons of Tuirenn drove their own spears deeply into the bodies of the Midkena brothers and Corc, Con, and Aod fell together to the blood-soaked ground, dying.
Brian leaned heavily upon the spear that that been driven through his body, holding his wounds closed. He glanced at Iuchar and Iucharba, kneeling in great pain beside the bodies of the champions they had slain.
"How are you?" he asked.
"Dying, if you must know," Iuchar panted. He smiled feebly at Brian. "But it has been a good run for us, hasn't it?"
"Aye," Iucharba echoed, grinning painfully. "That it has. We have fulfilled that blasted éric at last."
"Not quite," Brian said. "I, too, feel Death coming upon us. Come, let us give the shouts from this hill and be done with it for certain. Can you stand?"
They tried, but were unable, and so Brian stumbled to their sides and, gaining strength from within that he had never before marshaled, he lifted them to their feet and together, they gave three feeble shouts from the hill while their blood sluiced like streams from their bodies.
Then Brian took them with him back to the curragh and commanded the craft to return them to their home. As they sailed, Brian studied the gray water slipping past like lead and, looking forward said, "I can see Benn Etair, Dun Tuirenn, and Tara, the home of the kings. Hold on, my brothers, we are nearly there."
Iuchar groaned, trying to rise, and said, "Alas, if only we could be sound in body and see Benn Etair one more time! But we cannot. Brian, raise our heads so that we might gaze upon Erin one last time. Then, we shall welcome life or death--whichever Fate has for us."
And from them came a lay:
"Brian, take our heads to your breast And give us the moment to rest,You mighty, red-armed son of Tuirenn, That we might see our land of Erin.
 
"Hold our heads upon your shoulder, You mighty champion! None is bolder Than you. Allow us once again to see Where Usneach, Tailltiu, and Tara might be!
 
"Ah, Ath Cliath, and smooth Brugh! I see Fremann and Tlachtga and I also see Mag Breg, and the gentle Plain of Liffey And also Tailltiu's greenery.
 
"Ah, if only we could once again see Dun Tuirinn, the home for me And my brothers. We would welcome Black Death's arms. We are home!
 
"A pity the brave sons of Tuirenn Should fall like this. A bird can Fly through the hole in my side. I think soon all of us will have died.
 
"Now, let Death come and take us, Brother Brian, before he does Take you. Those wounds on your body Cannot be cured by Diancécht's study!
 
"Cursed be Lugh who took the pigskin From us by guile and left us to battle's din And the wounds we cannot heal. We do not think this was a fair deal.
 
"Let us once again see our home Or even Tara's magnificent dome.And then we shall in death's arms lie And give up life and willingly die."
By now, they had reached Benn Etair, still clinging to life. Brian had a cart readied and together, they traveled to their home, where they were greeted by their father, who cried salty tears when he saw the great wounds upon their bodies. Brian took his arm and pressed the cooking-spit into his hands, saying, "Go, Father, to Tara and give this to Lugh. Tell him that we have given the three shouts upon the hill he wanted. Then ask him to give us the pigskin to heal our hurts."
And then he spoke a lay:
"Father, do not tarry! Depart without a fuss Quickly or soon Black Death will be upon us. Travel quickly to Lugh in the south. Crave The pigskin from him if our lives you would save.
 
"We have traveled around the world to the lands To get the trophies he wanted. We fought many bands Of men and suffered greatly for his trophies That we brought home to him from across the seas.
 
"The least he could do, I would say, would be To forgive us now. But I do not think that he Is of like mind. Tell him we have paid his due For killing his father. I fear he wants our lives, too!
 
"Dear Father, be swift and fly quickly to Lugh And for our lives his forgiveness sue. Bring back the pigskin or you will find Death has left only cold bodies behind!"
Tuirenn called for his chariot and swiftest horse and rode fast to Tara, where he delivered the cooking-spit to Lugh.
Lugh took the cooking-spit and turned it over in his hands andshook his head, smiling. "I did not think that your sons could do this, Tuirenn. Tell me truthfully: Did they deliver the three shouts from the Hill of Midkena?"
"That they did," Tuirenn answered. "But they are sorely hurt and need the pigskin to cure their wounds."
"Badly hurt, are they?" Lugh said, smiling, and Tuirenn's heart sank for he could see that Lugh had no intention of giving up the pigskin. Yet, he tried one more time.
"Yes. And soon they will die unless I can return with the pigskin and heal their wounds."
"Then," Lugh said diffidently, "let them die. They did kill my father, Cian, and now let them lie in the dust where he lies."
"This is not seemly," Tuirenn said hotly. "They have paid the éric. There is no reason to let them die."
"My reasons are reasons enough." Lugh laughed. "They gave the pigskin to me. Now, it is mine to do with as I wish. And I do not wish to give it to them."
And so Tuirenn left to return home without the skin. When he told his sons what Lugh had said, Brian raised himself up with a mighty effort and said, "Take me back with you to Lugh. Let me see if I can convince him."
Tuirenn did as his son requested. Lugh knew they were coming and waited for them in Tara's Great Hall. When Brian made his way painfully to Lugh and requested the pigskin to heal his brothers, Lugh laughed at him and said grimly, "Even if you were to give me the earth's weight in gold, I would not give up the pigskin to you."
"This is a foul deed you have done," Brian said.
"As foul as you committed when you murdered my father," Lugh answered.
"We have paid the éric that you demanded. That cleans the slate."
"Perhaps." Lugh shrugged. "The law absolves you. I do not. And, according to the same law, I do not have to give up any of my possessions to you. And the pigskin belongs to me."
"Even if it means our deaths?"
"For the blood you willingly spilled From my father's body and killed I now take my final revenge. Your deed Is finally punished. As is your seed, Tuirenn! I do not have any desire To let your sons sons sire!"
And Brian and his father left sadly to return home. Brian lay down between his two brothers, and the life departed out of all three at the same time. When he saw this, Tuirenn wailed and beat his breast, saying:
"Ah! How my heart does break Over the sight of your deaths! I ache To the core of my spirit, my soul! Yet, I admire you all for your toils!
 
"You have the honor of any king Of Erin, Iuchar and Iucharba. You bring Honor to our name, Brian! No one Can question what you have done!
 
"But now I, Tuirenn, your unhappy sire, Cannot any more this life desire. I will not mourn above your grave But join you. 'Tis Death I crave!"
And with that, Tuirenn lay down beside his sons and willed his soul to depart from him. When Ethne saw what had happened, she demanded mournfully that one grave be made and into that, the father and the children of Tuirenn were lain.
This ends the Tragical Fate of the Children of Tuirenn.
Copyright © 2000 by Randy Lee Eickhoff