The Feast: A Dramatic Retelling of Ireland's Epic Taleby Randy Lee Eickhoff
The Feast is a modern translation of Fled Bricrend, one of Ireland's most thrilling and humorous legends. Three men, each striving to be named Champion of Conchobor's realm, enter into a battle of wits and words in an effort to enjoy the privileges accorded to the national champion. As the heroic competition unfolds, visits to and from the otherworld/i>/i>… See more details below
The Feast is a modern translation of Fled Bricrend, one of Ireland's most thrilling and humorous legends. Three men, each striving to be named Champion of Conchobor's realm, enter into a battle of wits and words in an effort to enjoy the privileges accorded to the national champion. As the heroic competition unfolds, visits to and from the otherworld threaten to unmask the true nature of the gathering. and at the center remains Bricriu, god of mischief and creator of the most delicious and devilish banquet the world has ever seen.
"A seamless blend of scholarship and storytelling."Kirkus Reviews
"A wonderous romp which will delight."Irish American Magazine
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By Randy Lee Eickhoff
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1999 Randy Lee Eickhoff
All rights reserved.
THE HOUSE OF BRICRIU
POISON-TONGUED BRICRIU LOOKED sourly around his spacious house, Dún Rubraige. Although he had built it in roughly the fashion of the Red Branch at Emain Macha — exceeding it in richness, however — he took little comfort from it. And now his stomach felt even more sour than usual, for the time had come for him to hold a feast for the king of the Red Branch, Conchobor Mac Nessa, and his knights to celebrate the finishing of his house.
Behind him, workmen stood respectfully, waiting as a wagon team hauled the last beam up the slope to the house to affix it within the mead-hall. Seven men stood by to receive the beam and raise it and anchor it firmly to the frame under the supervision of thirty artificers, who gnawed fingernails and worried hangnails, hoping that their plans would allow the beam to fit properly and not need wedges to snug it into place. Bricriu's tongue-lashings made the hardiest of them fearful, for they knew well his satirist's tongue could make them live forever in ignominy.
At last the team drew level with the door frame and the appointed seven grunted and strained, lifting the mammoth beam of oak from the wagon. Carefully, they rotated it so that the Ogham carvings faced the sun, then carefully seated it in the footings dug for it. Two stepped forward with hand rules and plumbs to check its trueness, then stepped back with satisfied nods as a workman carefully levered it firmly into place.
"Good!" exclaimed one artificer, then looked half-fearfully at his master to see if he shared his opinion. Bricriu stepped forward and eyed the beam critically, then slowly nodded in grudging consent.
"Yes, it appears to be settling satisfactorily. Yes," he said in a voice as thin as blood. The men winced from its nasal sharpness. "But we'll see. We'll see."
He stepped into the house, modeled on the plan of Tech Midch#&0250;arta, the mead-hall of Tara, and slowly walked through it, considering the columns and facades and carved decorations and pediments. Three fountains sparkled at one end, and great swathes of saffron and blue tumbled down from the high walls, billowing gently in the light breeze. A soft swath of emerald-green grass led down from the back of the hall to a garden with arrangements of flowers and bushes artfully planted to form a maze through which a man might chase a serving wench and bed her. Swans swam lazily at the pond in the center of the garden, along with several ducks.
No expense had been spared. The best marble and granite that quarries could provide had been purchased. Several hundred pilasters had been provided, each requiring a team of men to erect. The seven main oaken pillars and seven frontings glowed softly from hand-rubbings of oil, the carvings and lintel-work showing in deep bas-relief the tales of the Red Branch. Between the columns were long, shady colonnades. Each wall of the nine apartments had been covered with bronze thirty feet high and overlaid with gold and gold leaf.
He paused, looking sourly at where a royal couch had been erected especially for Conchobor, high above the whole house in the forepart. Around the couch, carbuncles and rubies and emeralds and carmelite and tiger's eyes had been cunningly set in white and red gold and silver so that they gleamed with the radiance of the day from either sun or fire, changing night to day at all times, unless a curtain of heavy brocade was drawn around them. Twelve couches, one for each of the twelve tribes of Ulster, had been carefully arranged so that Conchobor had only to turn his head to gaze at any.
Bricriu hawked and spat on the ground, reflecting on the cost of building a feasting-hall where he knew the Ulstermen would not allow him to sit for fear that his bitter tongue would incite them to fighting. And so it would, he reflected with satisfaction, for he had long been excluded from other feasts held by the knights of the Red Branch. This time, he thought with satisfaction, things would be different.
He turned and looked at a tower and balcony that had been erected on the same level as Conchobor's couch and was as high as those that would be occupied by valorous heroes. Its decorations were equally as magnificent as those of Conchobor's couch, but more important, windows, the first of glass in all of Ireland, had been placed around his couch so that he and his wife could watch the celebrations below them, the castle courtyard and Great Hall, without rising from their couch. He nodded in satisfaction. Yes, this would be most advantageous for him.
Reluctantly he left the hall and walked slowly to where the workmen and artificers waited. They watched as he paused in front of them, his mouth pursed tightly in distaste, his black eyes hard and suspicious above his nose, smashed and tilted to the side, a wart hanging from one nostril like a drop of snot. A purple boil dotted the middle of his forehead; it would grow to the size of a man's fist if he kept his thoughts to himself. His black hair, streaked with gray, hung in dank ringlets to the collar of his foodspotted tunic. His head stood on a scrawny neck, tendons like strings with a large Adam's apple bobbing between them. He glanced over at the washroom to the left of the hall, where seven oaken tubs had been erected for bathing (a chuckle escaped him as he thought of how the twelve heroes would argue to go first), then to the right, where a long, narrow stable stretched away from his tower like a middle finger extended from the palm. He nodded slowly.
"All right," he said. He motioned, and four slaves carried a cask of beer to his side. "You may drink in celebration of a job well done."
"Better to drink pig-piss," someone grumbled.
Bricriu's eyes flashed as he looked over them. "What's that? Who said that?"
The men remained silent, most looking away, pretending indifference. Bricriu's eyes crawled over them like slugs, but no one met his eyes. The Poison-Tongued One had well earned his reputation. Once he had composed a story about a man who was so bitter and vile that his name had passed with him into oblivion after he hanged himself from the rafters of his mead-hall. No one knew the man or remembered the slight he had given Bricriu, but they knew the story and that was enough.
"The wind," one said at last. "Must've been the wind. You left the doors open."
Bricriu sharpened his gaze at him. The man paled and looked away, walking to the cask of beer and fumbling for a cup. A slave pulled the plug and thin beer waggled out in a tiny stream, hissing as it hit the bottom of the cup.
"Yes," Bricriu said. "That was it." He turned and walked away stiffly, his head canted to one side as if listening to the secrets of the earth. The workmen watched his stiff gait until he disappeared around the corner, then they heaved a sigh of relief.
"You fool," one said, turning to a burly man with clay matting his beard. "You nearly brought him down on all of us. Keep a civil tongue behind your lip when he's around."
"He's right, though," said the one with the beer. He spat a mouthful of beer onto the ground and poured the rest after it. "As weak as a spider's crawl. Sour, too," he added as an afterthought. He glanced hopefully at the slave, who smiled and shook his head.
"None more," the slave said. "Master keeps the good stuff in the storeroom for himself. Never drinks it, though."
"What? Why keep it?"
The slave shrugged. "Same reason why he keeps concubines and cows. It's the owning that's important. Not the drinking."
"Unhuman, that's what it is," another muttered, shaking his head at the cups offered. "Pour it on the shit pile by the stable. It'll mix well there."
"Tell you what," the first muttered, pulling at his beard with gnarled fingers. "I'll be glad to get away from here, that's speaking the truth. Get down to Muirtheimhne on the plains. What about you?"
"I'm off to Laighin. Man down there wants four more outbuildings with souterains running to them. I figure the whole project will be good for the season. Be a welcome shift from here, I say," he said, glancing darkly around. He shivered and leaned closer to his friend. "Last night, I swore I heard a banhsídhe moan."
"I did. I did," he said. "Nigh near made me piss my bed, it did."
"That does it!" a third man exclaimed. "I'm out of here." He bent and shouldered a hod and dumped it into a cart. "You can stay if you want, but when the Sídhe get to roaming around the place at night, the bocánach, the goblins of the air, will be flying soon after, and you can bet your pecker that the fairy folk have given their mark to the place. One need not have the imbas forasnai to know that." He shook his head. "Aye, I could tell that. And isn't it being that only crows we're seeing flying around here? None of the other birds come near the place." He picked up a clod and threw it at one resting on the peak of the roof. The crow called mockingly as it jumped up and settled back down. "You see that? They know. They know." He shook a dirty finger at them. "And if we hang around longer, then we'll be here for the old hags. Samhain's coming, and that's a time for a man to be at his own home or in a friendly house behind a stout rath. Better yet, a cathair."
"I'm with you," his friend said. They looked over at the man who was off to Laighin. "Would there be work for the two of us down there?"
"I've seen you bevel the joints and carve the doodles," he answered. "I'll speak for you."
"Right. And me mate?"
The man eyed the other critically. "Strong back and large hands. He'll do to dig the souterains. I'll speak for him, too."
Their eyes were drawn by a stream of slaves led by Bricriu's ben urnadna, his contract wife for the year, and dressed in stained and tattered clothing, emerging from one of the old buildings, their arms piled high with quilts and blankets, beds and pillows. Others carried roasts of pork and beef, ducks and chickens plucked and gutted, and ale in casks made of finer wood than the one standing in front of the workers.
"Yes," the man said who was afraid of the banhsídhe, "I reckon it's time for us to be off. Collect our wages, will you? We'll gather your tackle and put it in the cart with ours. The old horse ain't much, but she can pull a bit more."
The two left hurriedly for the common hut. The man watched them go, then sighed deeply and squared his shoulders, heading for Bricriu's house. His insides churned with fear.CHAPTER 2
SUNLIGHT SLANTED LATE UPON the ground in front of Conchobor's pavilion where he and his Red Branch knights took their ease in the heat of the afternoon, relaxing back against cushions with huge cups of ale in their meaty fists. Serving wenches bustled back and forth between the couches, keeping each mug filled with the frothy ale made from honey, occasionally shrieking with delight when one of the heroes pulled them down upon the couches for a quick caress.
Conchobor drank deeply from his cup and eyed his wife Mugain, whose body built strong lust in the most celibant of warriors. She felt his eyes upon her and glanced up, then lazily leaned forward, her large breasts rolling over the top of her gown, showing the deep valley between. Conchobor felt his bod swell. His mouth went dry as she rose, winked saucily at him, then walked slowly away, hips switching sensually with promise. He drained his cup and started to rise to follow.
He groaned and fell back against his couch as a messenger rushed in. He glanced at the doorway leading into his private rooms, then frowned.
"Yes, yes. What is it?" he snapped.
The young lad blanched from Conchobor's waspish tone, swallowed, and said, "Bricriu Nrmthenga has arrived."
"Shit," Fergus Mac Róich mumbled from his seat to the right of Conchobor. "That Poison-Tongued One. I knew the day had gone too peacefully!"
Conchobor groaned inwardly and gestured irritably with his cup. A young wench hurried forward to fill it, her cone-shaped breasts pushing hard points against the front of her dress. Conchobor glanced at her, made a mental note, and gestured for her to stand beside his couch, then turned his attention back to the young boy standing in front of him.
"Well?" he demanded. "Has he come through the gate yet?"
"He begs admittance," the boy stammered.
"To spread more of his damn flibbertigibbet!" Fergus said in disgust. "Tell him to go away, Conchobor."
"You do it," Conchobor said.
"You're the king now," Fergus reminded him. He grinned, but his eyes were bright and accusing, reminding Conchobor of how his own mother, Ness, had tricked Fergus into giving up his throne for a year so Conchobor's children would have royalty after their name. Fergus had enjoyed that year, for Ness was wise in the ways of the bed and for once, Fergus, whose bed normally held seven women a night, each exhausted by morning, had found himself well-mated. But during that year, Conchobor gave the heads of the clans all that they could possibly want and when it became time for him to step down, the clan leaders supported him against Fergus, who had to be satisfied with the title of seneschal instead.
"You're the seneschal," Conchobor rebutted.
"That isn't the king," Fergus said stoutly.
"Would you have when you were king before me?" Conchobor asked, annoyed.
"Damn right, I would have," Fergus said. "And with my boot up his arse to hurry him along the way."
"Despite his tongue?" Conchobor said.
Fergus growled and raised his cup, draining it. A short, buxom woman upended a pitcher over the cup, refilling it. When Fergus slapped her backside, she giggled and moved away, big breasts bouncing bawdily.
"My lord?" the young lad asked timorously. "Bricriu?"
Conchobor sighed. His temples began to throb. He collapsed against the back of his couch, yanking hard on his earlocks.
"Show him in," he said. "Might as well beard him in my own den as let him geld me in his."
The young boy nodded and scurried away. Conchobor cast a longing look at the doorway through which Mugain had disappeared, felt a tugging on his bod, then drew a deep breath and held out his cup for the young girl to refill. Absently, he contemplated her young breasts and slim shanks, then turned his attention to the front as Bricriu strolled in, his small paunch, like a pig's bladder filled with air, artfully concealed beneath a four-threaded, saffron-colored cloak stitched at the hem with purple, a color reserved for royalty. Conchobor pretended not to notice.
"Welcome, Bricriu," he said graciously. He indicated a seat below the champion's place at his knee. "And what brings you to Emain Macha? I thought you were busy with your castle, at Dún Rudraige, isn't it?"
Bricriu smiled thinly. Everyone knew about the building of his castle. Some even called it "Bricriu's Folly." He bowed, though, keeping his thoughts to himself, feeling the purple boil on his forehead beginning to grow.
"Of course, my lord," he said smoothly. "But it is finished now, and I have come to invite you and your valiant warriors to its inaugural feast. Come and partake of a banquet never before served. Cooks have been preparing it for three weeks now. Twenty boars and twenty shoats have been slaughtered and roasted slowly with honey basting. Ten steers and fifteen deer turn on spits even as we talk. A hundred fish wrapped in seaweed bake in coals. I have purchased a whole ship's cargo of red wine from Iberia, and twenty tuns of honeyed beer and ale have been made ready. That," he said modestly, "is for the first day of feasting. I have other plans for the next four," he added.
"Ah," Conchobor said awkwardly. "I see. Well." He paused uncomfortably, then breathed deeply through his nose and hastily backed away as a fecal cloud floated silently up from Bricriu. He gestured around the room.
"Of course I will come," he said, blinking rapidly as his eyes watered. "That is, if that pleases the men of Ulster. What say you, Fergus?"
Fergus eyed Bricriu frostily, then shook his head. "You know my geis: if I am asked personally, I must go for I cannot refuse an ale-feast. But I have not been asked, you have, so I say no. If we go, our dead will outnumber the living. Then our enemies will be swift on our throats. You know we're having problems with our southern neighbors." Murmurs of agreement rose from the warriors on their couches in the shadows.
"We are?" Conchobor asked, then hastily amended: "Oh. Yes. Of course. I had forgotten." He grinned sheepishly at Bricriu. "Well. I guess you have your answer. State security and all that, you know. Must remain here. Yes. Must."
Bricriu compressed his lips into a thin line and stared first at Fergus, then at Conchobor. The purple boil on his forehead began to pulse. Slowly, he turned to face the other warriors, but none would meet his eye. He knew well the sobriquets given him in the dark by these warriors: "Poison-Tongued," "Fish-Eye," "Dog's Breath," "Pus-Face."
"I see," he said, turning back to Conchobor. "I don't suppose you'd be willing to change your mind?"
"Oh, I wish I could," Conchobor said expansively, relieved at the excuse Fergus had invented. "But, I must think first of my people."
Excerpted from The Feast by Randy Lee Eickhoff. Copyright © 1999 Randy Lee Eickhoff. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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