What do you know of my father, Padraig? What do you know of Fionn Mac Cumhail?
"He was the leader of the Fenian warriors of ancient Eire. And he could not have been your father. Use your reason old man! Fionn Mac Cumhail has been dead for two hundred years." ,
"He was the leader of the Fianna, yes, but not at the start. His beginnings were none so glorious. He was born in the dead of winter, Padraig, born in the snow, with his mother hard on the run from the clans of Goll Mac Morna. Shall I tell you the tale?"
I closed my eyes, pressed my fingertips against the closed lids. Red and purple lights exploded behind the lids. I felt a huge sigh well up from me. Osian laughed.
"You sigh like a Fenian, Padraig."
"May that be the only thing I do like a Fenian. Tell your tale. It seems I am compelled to listen. But do not make it overlong."
"Over long." Osian paused and looked again in wonder at his gnarled, ancient hands. He smiled crookedly and I felt my heart wrench in pity. I shook my head to chase such weakness away. One should never pity these barbarians; they take advantage of such weakness. Osian began.
"My grandmother's name was Muirne, Padraig. She was young and beautiful with hair like the copper leaves of autumn. She was the daughter of a druidess, the wife of the great chief Cumhail Mac Trenmor. But none of that helped her in the winter of the clan wars ... .
From her place on the pine boughs Muirne watched silently as the last stragglers of her people made their way into the forests. They moved in all directions, even back toward the oncoming army, creating many trails to confuse the warriors of Mac Morna, to lead them away from the boy child she had just birthed. Against her breasts, deep beneath the warm folds of her cloak the boy child was suckling. The woman lifted the folds and peered down at him, at the tiny hand curled leaflike against her breast and at the sweet puckered lips.
Around her the snow was still scattered with blood. So much blood. Muirne opened her palms to see if any flakes were filtering between the dense boughs, if the birthsigns would be covered by the time the armies of Goll Mac Morna arrived.
The captain of her husband's guard saw the gesture. He came with pine boughs, began to sweep over the blood to cover the traces. She gestured to him to stop. He knelt beside her, took her hand gently in his. His face mirrored the sorrow on her own.
"Let me stay,"he whispered urgently. "It is what Cumhail would have wished. Or permit me to carry you."
"Nay," she hissed at him, her eyes still fixed on the suckling babe. "Cumhail would wish for his son to live, for his brother to live. You forget, Crimnall Mac Trenmor, that they will look for you as well." She patted his hand absently "My husband would wish for clan na Bascna to rise again."
"Mac Morna will kill you, Muirne!"
"As long as Mac Morna wonders if my child lives, as long as he thinks that someone will come to me with news of my child, he will not harm me. He will let me go free, in the hope that I will lead him to the child. Now tell me of my other son, of Tulcha. Has he escaped to Alba?"
"He has, Muirne."
The woman nodded, rested her head wearily back against the trunk of the tree.
"Ask Bodhmall to come to me."
The old druidess came across the snow unbidden. Her gray hair twisted and lifted in the wind. She knelt beside Muirne, fixed her with her water-green stare.
"Give him to me now, lady Goll Mac Morna comes." She held out her arms.
Gently, Muirne lifted the child from her breast. She watched dry-eyed as Bodhmall wrapped the infant in the blanket of clan plaid and handed him to the wet nurse to continue suckling. For a moment Muirne turned away, her copper hair spilling over her shoulder. She caught her hand in the spill of it, twisted it tight around her palm. She did not weep.
"You will take the warrior woman Liath with you. My son must learn the skills of warriors and druids."
"This is wise." Bodhmall stood.
"Bodhmall. Let me hold him just once more."
"You increase your pain, Muirne."
"It is my pain. I will carry it as I carry the pain of my husband's death at the hands of Goll Mac Morna. As I carry the pain of my firstborn son exiled to Alba."
"The pain of your lost babe will be worse," Bodhmall said, but she took the infant from the wet nurse and handed him into Muirne's arms. Muirne seemed to drink him in. She caressed the tufts of his hair, golden, even in the moonlit, snowy clearing. For a moment, the infant's eyes snapped open and fixed on his mother. They were huge, luminous orbs, blue and green, some combination of water and light and forest that Muirne had not seen in her other son. She started back at their intensity. The boy regarded her silently. He seemed aware of the moment.
"Demna," the woman said, glancing up at Bodhmall. "Call him Demna."
Bodhmall nodded, reached for the child. Quickly Muirne drew him to her. She pressed her nose against his neck and shoulder, smelled the sweet, out of the body smell of him. She touched a kiss against the downy cheek, against the curve of the little ear, rested her lips against the golden curls.
"I will not think of you as Demna," she whispered to the child, soft and close. "In my heart, you will be Fionn. Fionn, child of light."
Bodhmall stood, sniffed the air like a hound at hunt. "There is no more time, Muirne. Goll Mac Morna and his men are coming."
She took the child then, signalled to Liath, the warrior woman, to the wet nurse. The little group vanished swiftly and silently into the forest.
Still Muirne did not weep. She leaned against the pine boughs, watched as the flurries of snow sifted through the branches above her, covered the last traces of the birth.
Until Goll Mac Morna and his men entered the clearing, until Muirne saw their terrified faces and their hands making the signs against the evil, she did not realize that the high keening wails she heard were not those of a wolf. Even then she could not stop them, crying against the winter stars that she should be a mother without her child.
"Did she live then? Or did they kill her?" The old man had simply stopped talking. He looked at me squarely, smiled a crooked smile.
"I thought that you had no wish to hear my foolish tales."
I felt the hot blood of shame rush up into my face. I remembered this well--this Hibernian way of catching up the unsuspecting speaker, of pouncing like a smiling verbal cat upon the slightest word. But I had made my mind up long ago, when I was young and still a slave among them, that none so lowly as a Hibernian would ever best me. I stood and gathered the folds of my robe around me. Breogan was still scribbling; he did not look up from his paper.
"True enough," I answered him. "I do not wish to hear them; I can surely say that I do not believe them."
Osian said nothing; I grudged him the truth.
"However, you tell your story well. But I have found the telling of tales--especially untruthful ones--to be a skill of your people."
Osian took no offense at the barb; instead he nodded his head. I felt once again surprised by the lack of veracity these people could exhibit--and so blithely! The old man simply went on.
"I was the storyteller, Padraig, the poet. Telling tales was what I did. And my father loved them."
"What father you had may have indeed loved your stories, old man. But your father was not Fionn." I moved to the door. "Finish your scribbling Breogan and bring the tales to the refectory."
Breogan nodded and I moved to the door, but not before Osian could call out the last word.
"Padraig!" he said. "She lived."