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The little boy sat on the crown of a rocky hill, his thin arms hugging his scabby knees. He tilted his head back and gazed up into the immense vault of the sky, feeling wonderfully alone.
To the youngest child of a large and brawling family, privacy is a rare thing. Brian always seemed to be walking in someone else’s shadow. He had sought this hill because, at the moment, no one else claimed it, and he held his occupancy uncontested.
In a tentative voice he addressed the darkening gray sky. “I am the king,” he said, tasting the words. He heard no argument, so he repeated it. Louder. Standing up. “I am the king of all the kings!” he cried, throwing wide his arms to embrace as much as possible of his domain.
• • •
The tireless wind swept across the green land. It came driving inland from the sea, herding a flock of rain clouds before it and releasing them at last above the wooded hills and granite mountains.
Even before the rain fell the air was saturated, heavy and rich with a wetness like the moist breath of babies. Ferns in their dark hollows burned with an emerald flame; the curving flanks of the mountains glistened, polished; the air smelled of life and death and growing things.
Under the cairns and dolmens, within the ruined ring forts and passage graves, deep in the mossy, haunted earth, ghosts stirred. Giants and heroes and cowards slept their thousand year death in the ancient soil and were aware in their powdered bones of the coming of another spring.
• • •
Brigid came to find him, of course. Even the littlest boy had tasks to perform, and Brian was assigned to guard the flock of tame geese that nibbled grass along the banks of the Shannon. Cennedi had no small daughters to be goose-girls.
“Aha, here you are!” Brigid crowed as he came up over the breast of the hill. “Never where you’re supposed to be, are you? Your mother’s geese could be in a wolf’s belly by now for all the good you’ve been to them.” She reached out to pinch his shoulder and give him a shaking, but Brian backed away. He was not about to accept punishment from a girl who was merely the daughter of his father’s herdsman.
“The geese are all right,” he told her confidently, trying to shade his boyish treble so that she would recognize it as a kingly voice. “I can protect them; I can protect all this!” He gestured expansively to indicate his kingdom.
But Brigid was a hard-working girl with chores of her own, resentful at being summoned from them to fetch an errant child, and she had no interest in a little boy’s pretend world. She stood before him with her hands on her hips, her tangled chestnut hair whipped about her face by the rising wind. “And how would you be knowing they’re all right, when you probably haven’t laid eyes on them all afternoon? You come with me right now, and we’ll try to get them back to Boruma before this storm blows them away.”
She extended a red-knuckled hand to him and, after a brief hesitation, he took it. The two of them started down the hill as the first drops of rain splattered about them. Brigid checked her stride and looked at the little boy.
“And did you come out with no warm clothes? What have you done with your bratt?”
Brian stared blankly up into her stern face, then looked around him. A few yards distant, crumpled and forgotten, lay his bratt, the heavy cloak that was a necessity in the damp climate. Until Brigid mentioned it he had been unaware of the cold, but suddenly the red wool looked inviting.
He retrieved it quickly and handed it to her to pin around him with the silver brooch that was his only personal wealth. The wind, which seemed to have been waiting until the child was snugly wrapped, responded with a rising howl that sent Brian and Brigid plunging headlong down the slope together, anxious to get the geese to their pen and themselves under a roof.
They trotted hand in hand through the rain until they caught up with the scattered flock, grazing in the marshy grass at the river’s edge. Brigid, twice Brian’s age and size, moved after them with the dogged persistence of one who knows a task will get done somehow. Brian darted about like quicksilver, second-guessing the nimble geese, turning and maneuvering them with a skill beyond his years.
To Brigid his antics were annoying; she was afraid he would scatter the birds and delay them both in the increasingly chill rain. But Brian was not herding geese; in the well-lit inner landscape of his mind he was a general, marshaling his troops, wheeling and driving them with the expertise of a battlefield veteran. His imagination quickly reduced Brigid to the role of second in command, so that he was angered when she guided the geese according to some plan of her own.
“Not that way!” he shouted to her. “Take them up the path through the trees!” Open country was not safe, his army could be spotted too easily by enemy scouts!
“And lose half of them in the woods before we get them home?” Brigid countered indignantly. “Your mother would have my hide for the pot! Do come along, Brian, and quit playing around; the both of us will be soaked before we get these stupid birds penned!”
Actually, Brian was right. The path through the trees was shorter and more direct, and once the geese were headed home, their awakening memory of grain was sufficient to keep them going in the right direction. But Brigid had never seen them taken by any course but across the meadow, so that was the way they must go. Flapping her sodden skirt at them, clucking and shooing, she drove them before her as Brian watched in frustration.
“She thinks I don’t know anything,” he fumed to himself, wiping a lock of dripping red hair from his freckled forehead. “Nobody ever listens to me.” He kicked at a small stone that lay invitingly near his foot, then turned to gaze once more at his chosen line of march; he shrugged his shoulders and set off in the wake of Brigid and the flock. “Next time,” he promised himself under his breath, “I’ll bring them my own way.”
The thatched roofs of home glowed golden through the rain. Set in a magnificent grove of oak and pine, Boruma had been built by the princes of the Dal Cais on the ruins of an old ring fort, or dun, utilizing its earthen wall and deep ditch as the perimeter of their personal compound. In keeping with his status as tribal king, Cennedi’s round timber-and-wattle dwelling was the largest of the buildings. It occupied a central position opposite the gate, surrounded by the homes of his noble kinsmen and domestic buildings and pens for stock. Beyond the wall were the farming lands of the Dal Cais and the cottages of the plowmen. Boruma was—almost—a town, and as large a concentration of people as one could find outside the monasteries and the port cities built by the Norsemen from the distant shores of the place they called Lochlann.
The geese broke into a waddling run as they drew near the gate of the compound. All winter Brian’s mother had fattened them in a brush-and-timber pen, feeding them on sprouted grain and bread soaked in barley water. That memory called strongly to them now.
“You feed those birds better than you feed me,” Cennedi liked to complain to his wife; but she always had the same smiling answer: “You will get it all eventually, and bad grain and stale bread are much improved by being converted into fat gooseflesh.”
“Practical,” Cennedi sighed to himself, “she’s so practical.” Left to his own devices, the chieftain of the tribe was inclined to daydreaming and grandiose visions. It was his wife who saw that nothing was wasted, that food was stored in the souterrains each autumn, and that mattresses were replaced and weapons sharpened in the spring.
Today she was busy in the miller’s shed, grinding flour in the communal stone quern. A handsome woman who had not outgrown her beauty, Bebinn looked at the World through calm gray eyes, set in large sockets beneath arching brows. She lifted one feathery brow even higher as the commotion outside announced the arrival of Brian, Brigid, and the geese.
Pouring through the gate, the geese headed straight for their feeding pen, just in time to encounter Cennedi’s brace of shaggy wolfhounds returning from some adventure of their own. Forgetting their usual discipline, the dogs flung themselves joyously into the flock, yapping and snapping in mock attack and setting off a cacophony of squawks that brought faces peering from doorways throughout the compound.
Within a matter of moments all was chaos. Bebinn remained at the quern, an amused smile curving her lips. She expected, with justification, that the commotion would become a war and she would be called upon to pacify it.
Soon enough her husband came storming into the miller’s hut, waving his fists and complaining bitterly about the amount of peace a man could expect in his own household.
“Your son is out there now, woman, running the feathers off the geese and exciting my hounds so much they’ll be no good for hunting for a fortnight! Can’t you control that child?”
“I am controlling him,” Bebinn responded evenly, not lifting her eyes from her work. “I gave him the job of minding the fowl, to teach him discipline and responsibility.”
“Discipline! Responsibility! I tell you, he’s out there playing with them, like a wolf harrying lambs! Is that how you want your geese tended?” A massive man with graying hair that had once been the same bright copper as Brian’s, Cennedi had a tendency to turn crimson in the face when he was excited. The more he blustered and waved his hands, the calmer his wife became.
“He will always have to make mistakes and suffer for them, if he is to learn,” she replied. “If some of the geese are damaged we will cook and eat them, and he shall watch us do it while he goes hungry. And he will learn. But there is nothing to be gained if you go out there yelling and adding to the upset.”
“It might not do him any good,” Cennedi retorted, “but it will give me a mighty amount of comfort!” He boiled out of the hut, intent on catching his smallest son and rendering him incapable of further mischief.
Bebinn released the handle of the quern and wiped her hands on her skirt. She peered out through the slanting rain, watching as her husband flung himself into the melee. Her eyes were warm with the tolerance of a woman who has borne and raised a dozen sons.
She pulled her shawl over her silver-threaded dark hair and walked briskly across the compound to her house. At the door she turned to look again at the seething mass, to which a new element of confusion had been added as the other Dal Cais menfolk returned from field and pasture. Men were picking their way among flapping geese and darting dogs, and the earth was churned into a sticky sea of mud.
The air rang with imaginative profanity.
Bebinn ran her fingers in an unconscious, loving gesture over the elaborately carved doorposts of her home, the gleaming wood polished by her frequent caress. “Come and eat, Cennedi!” she cried between the gusts of wind, her deep voice booming out from her full bosom. “Come and eat, or I shall use it to fatten the hogs in the forest!”
Faces turned toward her, activity lessened for a moment. Satisfied, she went indoors, and soon the cessation of noise from outside assured her the geese had been penned at last. Brian came trudging home, covered with mud, and was followed almost immediately by the vast troop of his brothers, returning from the hilly pasturage where they tended the cattle, the “walking gold” of the Dal Cais.
They came in one by one and two by two, tall young men and stripling boys, peeling off their wet bratts and shaking water everywhere as they hung the dripping cloaks close to the fire to dry. They lined up at the hearth, where Bebinn bent over her cauldron, so that each might kiss his mother after his own fashion. Lachtna and Niall and Echtigern. Donncuan, who was to replace Brigid’s father one day as chief herdsman. Dermott and Muiredach and Conn the Quarrelsome. Benin and Marcan and Anluan, with his perpetual cough.
Sitting on his little three-legged stool by the fire, reveling in the smells of his mother’s cooking, Brian watched the doorway eagerly until Mahon’s broad shoulders filled it. He knew that sometime during the evening he could expect a tongue-lashing from his father; but that would be all right, he could bear it, if he could look up and see Mahon’s slight smile and subtle wink.
His other brothers did not notice him sitting there in smallness. Even Anluan, nearest him in age, only paid him the attention of sticking out his tongue as he shoved past to salute Bebinn.
Cennedi would not come in to his own hearth and dinner until the men of Boruma were home and the day’s business ended. Bebinn believed in discipline and self-restraint for her sons, but she did not expect the imposible; as soon as Mahon arrived she began handing out the crusty loaves of bread, and ladling thick chunks of meat from the pot.
Every edible that came to her hand was simmering in that pot: beef and fowl, with grain and herbs and mushrooms from the woods beyond the compound. Niall had even devised a little tray that his mother could put beneath roasting meat, so that the drippings could be caught and saved for her fragrant stews.
The meal was not a quiet one. Each boy customarily strove to outdo the others in his ability to talk with his mouth full.
“There will be too many cows of breeding age this spring; the red bull can never cover them all.”
“Nonsense! You’re just saying that because you want to try that gangly brown calf of yours on some of the cows. But he’s no good for breeding; you’ve spoiled him rotten and ruined his temper.”
“I have not! I raised him myself because he was orphaned, but I never spoiled him. He’s the best young bull we’ve ever had, and he’ll be given the entire herd someday. Just ask Mahon, if you don’t believe me!”
The two boys—neither of whom had any say over the policies of breeding—turned to Mahon as the final arbiter of their dispute. Mahon helped himself to a steaming gobbet of meat, chewed it reflectively, winked down the table at Brian, and began wiping out his bowl with his bread.
“It seems to me,” he said at last, “that there is something to be said for both bulls. We must observe Liam and our father closely and see what they decide. Perhaps they will use the red one on the majority of the herd, and try the brown on those cows who need more vigor in their calves. But we’ll wait and see, and I’m certain we’ll all learn something.”
The air grew thick with the smell of food, and smoke, and damp clothes drying on warm young bodies. One of the tribeswomen arrived to help Bebinn just as Cennedi himself appeared at last in the doorway, followed by a stooped gray-beard wearing a silk-lined bratt.
“Welcome, Fiacaid!” Bebinn hailed the oldster in the nightly ritual. “Will you do us the honor of sharing our evening meal?”
The old man bowed his acceptance and took the seat of honor at Cennedi’s right hand, the place that was his from long custom. He was old, and frail, the nobly sculptured bones of his face hidden behind a network of lines like the creases in parchment, yellow and dead. Only his bright eyes were alive, glittering wetly beneath his tangled brows. The years of his maturity had been given in service to the Dal Cais as their seanchai, their historian and storyteller, and on a night such as this he often congratulated himself for having a talent that earned him a place at the table and a dry bed.
Bebinn selected the choicest contents of the pot for his bowl, and poured his mead herself, rather than entrust it to the serving woman.
“Will he tell a tale tonight?” the woman asked eagerly, almost treading on Bebinn’s heels.
“How can I tell? The physician lives with your family, does he not? And does he set a broken bone every night, or brew a potion at each meal? It is the business of the tribe to care for the members of the filidh, the artists and physicians, the poets and harpers and students of the law, and in return for that they share their talents with us when they are needed. It is not my place to tell the seanchai that one of his stories is wanted tonight, Maire. Nor is it yours.”
The woman snapped her lips shut and returned to her chores, but she frequently rolled her eyes toward Fiacaid, alert to the possibilities of his magic. If he began to talk she would abandon her tasks and run to the other cottages with the news, that all who could crowd into Cennedi’s house might come and listen to the legends of their people.
So it happened this night. The old man finally pushed his bowl away and wiped at his stained beard with a square of linen. He tilted his head back to gaze at the underside of the thatch, listening to the rain on the thick straw. He smiled.
“It is a fine night,” he announced in a deep and musical voice.
A little sigh of pleasure went up into the smoky air. Bowls were pushed back, hands folded.
“A fine night,” Cennedi echoed, taking up the thread of tradition.
“It’s a fine night,” many voices repeated.
“Rain is good for the memory,” intoned Fiacaid. “When there is rain on the roof and meat in the belly, it is time to look over our shoulders and remember.”
“We will remember,” chanted his audience. The seanchai had educated all of Cennedi’s tribe; they knew the litany by heart. Since the days of Saint Patrick and before, even to the misty dawn of their race, the chieftains of the island’s numerous tribes had vied with one another to possess the most gifted and knowledgeable seanchaithe. Fiacaid was a great prize, as Cennedi often reminded his family when he felt their whispering and under-the-table pranks jeoparized their ability to learn from the story-teller’s words.
“As you all remember,” Fiacaid began, “our last discussion was about the invasions of Ireland in ancient times. Long before history was written down, this land was settled by the descendants of Nemed. They were attacked by the Fomorians, a race of sea pirates from Africa. These Fomorians were great warriors and conquered the land, but some of the Nemedians escaped. Of these, some made their way to distant Greece.
“There they were enslaved by the Greeks and called Firbolgs, a term given them because they were made to carry leathern bags filled with earth to enrich the rocky Greek hillsides. After a long bondage some of them fled from Greece and made their way back to Ireland, armed with Greek weapons and knowledge of warfare.
“They overran the Fomorians, defeating them by stealth and treachery, fighting in hidden places, and always attacking by night. The victorious Firbolgs partitioned the land into those five sections we know today as Ulster, Leinster, Munster, Connacht, and Meath.
“But the Firbolgs were a dark and contentious people, never at peace with themselves, loving argument and discord.” The seanchai’s voice dropped to a lower tone to indicate the sinister nature of his subjects, and Niall kicked Conn under the table and hissed at him, “You’re a Firbolg!”
“I am not!” Conn cried, punching his brother in the arm. There was a general shushing and scowling, but Fiacaid merely smiled.
“No, boyo, you are not a Firbolg. It is true that many of their blood are still in our land, stirring up trouble; every gossip and liar, every sneak and thief and hater of music may well be a descendant of the Firbolgs. But the sons of Cennedi are of another tribe, and we will learn of them in good time.”
“What happened to the Firbolgs?” Echtigern wanted to know.
“Yes, well. The Firbolgs were a doomed race, as the night is doomed by the coming of the day. Although they built many forts and thought themselves supreme, their time was growing short. From a distant place—some say the islands to the north—came the next of the invaders, a bright and magical people known as the Tuatha de Danann, the people of the goddess Dana. They were highly skilled in the arts of Druidry, and could call the wind by whistling for it, or make barren cattle conceive.”
Fiacaid leaned forward, and all his listeners leaned toward him in response. “From their city of Falias they brought the Stone of Fal, which shrieks aloud when the lawful Ard Ri is named king of all kings at Tara.” His audience exchanged glances and knowledgeable nods.
“From Gorias they brought with them the Spear of Lugh, which insures victory in battle. Out of the city of Findias came the Sword of Nuada, the most deadly and irresistible of weapons; it belonged to the king of the Tuatha de Danann and never left his hand, even sharing his bed at night.
“And with them from the city of Murias they brought Dagda’s Cauldron; no one who ate from it was ever left unsatisfied.”
Bebinn’s eyes brightened at the mention of such a cooking pot. Just the thing for the mother of twelve sons, she said to herself wistfully. Is there a chance, I wonder, that the thing still exists?
“Did they fight with the Sword and the Spear?” asked Dermott, leaning forward so eagerly that he spilled Donncuan’s unfinished cup of mead and was smartly cuffed on the ear for it.
“Ah, yes,” Fiacaid assured him. “People who think they have superior weapons always find reasons to test them.” Once Fiacaid had enjoyed the thrill of battle with all the gusto of the would-be warrior relegated to watch from the sidelines—members of the filidh being exempt from fighting by reason of their superior and valuable education. But now the chill of winter lingered in his bones through the summertime as well, and the glories of warfare had turned to ashes in the memory of a man who had seen too many friends die.
Yet as he looked down the table and saw the eager faces turned to his, the old intoxication came as a faint echo in his thinning blood. The heady wine of storytelling, the addiction to the shape and color of words, the desire to pass on his own enthusiasms—it was sweet to yield and feel himself grow young again, telling the tale as it was told to him in his childhood.
“Oh, they were a beautiful people, the people of Dana!” He raised his head so that his old eyes seemed to look beyond the crowded room, into a past clearer to his vision than the present. “Their king was Nuada, the perfect and fearless, who towered above the lowly Firbolg as the oak above the alder.”
Brian looked across at Mahon and felt in his heart that King Nuada must have looked very much like that. Fair of hair and broad of brow, Mahon was even taller than his father, a handsome young giant indeed. To Brian, he was the image of a hero-king.
“The Tuatha de Danann met the Firbolgs in battle on the Plain of Moytura. They came with a blowing of horns, and a shining mist all around them like dust from the stars, and the grass bent down beneath their feet in homage. The battle lasted four days and four nights, and the brilliance of the Tuatha de Danann stayed the darkness so that the Firbolgs could not attack by stealth, as was their custom. They had to stand and fight, face to face, and by the fourth sunrise even the birds and insects had fled the place, so terrible was the fighting.
“Then it was that the two kings, Nuada the Perfect and Eochai of the Firbolgs, met in single combat to put an end to the slaughter. The Light against the Darkness.”
Brian saw Mahon standing tall and proud, his invincible sword in his hand, slashing at the evil king who crouched and slavered at his feet.
“While time stopped and the very land held its breath, the two champions fought in that place. They fought in skill and in silence, with only the hissing of their breath about them, and at last Nuada gained the advantage and killed Eochai!” Fiacaid’s voice rose, filling the room with triumph. “The Tuatha de Danann were victorious, and the time of the Dark People was over!”
The inheld excitement of the listeners poured out in a great sigh of pleasure.
“But wait!” An anxious expression crossed the old man’s face, and he held up his hand to show that his audience must not rejoice too soon. “During that final contest Nuada, great warrior though he was, suffered a fearful wound.”
Brian’s eyes darted to Mahon again, and the little boy was reassured to see his brother sitting whole and well.
“Nuada’s hand was cut from his wrist by the dying blow of the Firbolg king. Thus he became imperfect, ineligible to rule under the laws of his people. He was forced to abdicate, and tragic days followed for the People of Light.”
Fiacaid’s skill was not limited to the extent of his knowledge or the richness of his voice; he also knew when to stop. “The rest of the history of the Tuatha de Danann must wait for another time,” he announced firmly. “My eyes are burning with want of sleep; I will go to my bed now and refresh myself.”
“No! Please…just a little more!”
Fiacaid shook his head. “Not tonight. But soon I shall tell you of Nuada and the Silver Hand, of Second Moytura, of the destruction of the monster Balor of the Baleful Eye, and”—his voice trailed away, leaving an aching emptiness in the room—“and many other things,” he finished brightly. “But that will be another day. I bid you all God’s peace this night.”
He wrapped his bratt around him with a dramatic flourish and left the table. The others reluctantly shook off his spell and busied themselves with their own pursuits. Only Brian sat, quiet and dazzled, still seeing wonders.
• • •
Cennedi also lingered on his stool at the head of the table, enjoying the moment and watching his family. Bebinn looked up and saw him there, an inward smile just touching his lips; she poured fresh goblets of the Danish brew they both liked and carried them to the table, slipping into place beside him as easily as a foot in a well-worn sandal.
He did not turn to look at her, merely reached out and put his broad hand on the abundant roundness of her thigh. The flesh was not as firm now as it had been in the days when she ran in the hills with him like a wild thing, but it was infinitely more dear, its growing flaccidity a reminder that life was short and each hour must be savored while it lasted.
They sat in companionable silence. Bebinn gazed at the room that seemed composed of atoms of her own being: the walls glazed with the patina of thousands of smoky fires, the strong timber posts that supported the thatched roof and were hung with pots and baskets and household articles. She looked at the big central hearth and watched Brian drag his little stool closer to it, that he might sit and stare into the flames as she liked to do at the close of the day. A connecting doorway led from the main room to an additional apartment which Cennedi had been forced to add as his family grew; there were the beds and chests for clothes, and the partitioned corner that was the separate chamber of the chief and his lady. Cennedi’s warm hand on her thigh prompted Bebinn to think of that private corner.
She saw her sons moving about the house, their ruddy flesh glowing against the soft linen of their knee-length tunics. Fine boys, handsome men; soon they would begin marrying and there would be more babies to carry and dandle and fret over. Bebinn’s shoulders slumped. She had dandled a great number of babies already; she hoped for a little rest before the onslaught of the next generation.
His attention drawn by her slight movement, Cennedi squeezed her thigh. “Tired?”
“A little. Thinking about the future makes me tired.”
“The future? Why, the future is full of good things, woman!” Looking at his sons, Cennedi saw beyond hearth and home; he saw his immortality. Twelve equal heirs to his cattle and land, twelve branches of a tree that would carry his blood into the distant future. And more than that. It had become his secret dream to see one of them, his favorite, carry the Dal Cais to glory by becoming the king not only of the tribe, but of all Munster.
“What an honor that would be for the line of Lorcan!” he absentmindedly mused aloud.
“What say?” Bebinn, her thoughts elsewhere, gave him a curious glance.
“I might as well tell you. I have had it in my mind of late that the tribe of the Owenachts is worn past its strength. The Owenacht Callachan is king of all Munster now, but he is tired and weakened from his battles against the Northmen and his imprisonment by Muirchertach mac Neill. He’s begun to make deals with the Northmen instead of making war against them, and it’s time for a stronger tribe to lay claim to Cashel and the kingship of Munster. Callachan no longer bothers to defend north Munster from the Norse and the Leinstermen; Thomond will be ravaged by the kings of other Irish tribes as well as by the foreigners unless we establish ourselves in a position of strength.”
“You are thinking to lay a Dal Cais claim to the kingship of all Munster?” Bebinn asked in horror. “That would bring us nothing but trouble and bloodshed, my dear! We have our cattle, our healthy sons, and the land is sufficient for our needs; why should we risk all that by disputing with the Owenachts for the kingship?”
“You have no understanding of such things!” Cennedi roared, his quick temper flaring like a dry twig on the hearth. “The kingship of Munster has been passed from tribe to tribe down through the centuries, always claimed and held by the strongest. Some day Callachan will die, and the people will repudiate the alliances he has made with the foreigners; they will want a king who abides by the old ways and has no traffic with the Northmen. They will flock to the Dalcassian standard, they will accept the supremacy of our tribe, and we will have great leaders to offer them, such as our splendid Mahon, there. Ah, there would be a worthy claimant to Cashel, an honor to my own famed sire, King Lorcan!”
“Have you told Mahon of this idea of yours?”
Cennedi shook his head. “Not now; everything in its own time. He only knows that he is my choice to succeed me as chieftain of the tribe; I will not tell him the rest, yet, and have his brothers at his throat. That Lachtna is a jealous fellow, and besides, I have not yet gotten the approval of the tribal elders for my plans.”
Bebinn said nothing. Inside her clothes, she moved a tiny space away from her husband. It was wrong to doubt his wisdom, but of all her sons, Bebinn saw herself most in Mahon. He was strong and an excellent warrior, but she knew him to have a gentle heart, a love of comfort and harmony. Was such a man meant to be sacrificed in a dynastic struggle?
Mahon was sitting by the fire, carving new straps for his sandals from a piece of leather. He worked slowly and carefully; Lachtna would have been singing a tune over such a task, Niall would have been intent on creating a new and better version of footgear, but Mahon was patiently duplicating the old straps, his mind absorbed in the process and undistracted by imagination.
Brian edged closer to watch. To him, everything Mahon did was wonderful, and his eyes grew round as he saw the leather curve upward from his brother’s staghandle hipknife.
“Show me how to do that, Mahon!”
The young man smiled the easy, brilliant smile that endeared him to all, but did not relinquish his knife to eager little fingers. “When you’re older, Brian. Someday soon.”
“Someday” had no meaning for Brian. There were too few days in his memory to stretch it; he could not conceive of a distant future when he would be granted the rights so casually given to his brothers. Too bored to sit and not tired enough to sleep, he wandered away, searching for something.
Cennedi had gone out, Bebinn and her serving woman were scrubbing the dishes with wood ash and rinsing them in a pot. Some of the older boys had gone to visit other families—families with daughters. Conn and Muiredach were fighting, Marcan had gone to bed to say his prayers, and Anluan had curled up under the table with his father’s hounds and gone to sleep.
Brian took his dry bratt from its peg and wrapped himself in it, for the adjoining chamber was cold. But it contained most of the beds, including Fiacaid’s.
The seanchai had already left the everyday world to go back in dreams to the golden age he preferred. When Brian tugged at his blanket he was annoyed. “What do you want, boyo?” he snapped, knuckling the sagging flesh beneath his eyes. “Is it a fire? Have the Northmen attacked? Has the Day of Judgment been announced? If not, God help you for disturbing an old man!”
Slightly abashed, Brian took a half step backward and stared at the dark shape of the seanchai, as Fiacaid hoisted himself to a sitting position with much wheezing and groaning.
“I just wanted to hear the rest of the story, the one about Nuada,” the child said softly.
“What? What!” roared the seanchai, fully awake now.
“The story! It was so exciting, I wanted to hear the rest of it and find out what happened to King Nuada.”
“Sweet Jesus Christ! You woke me up in the middle of the night for that?”
“It’s not the middle of the night,” Brian argued, feeling more sure of himself now that he had a defensible point. “Everyone else is still awake and busy. But nothing is happening that’s as interesting as your story.”
The old man could not overlook the child’s deliberate flattery, nor could he resist the effect it had upon him. A young mind such as this, eager for the histories, as excited as he had been when he first heard them! Perhaps this would be the gifted one, to be apprenticed to him and someday replace him as the seanchai of the Dal Cais. If that were the case, he must be very careful to train the boy in discipline and respect from the beginning. With an effort, he set aside the temptation to weave a web of magic in the darkness for Brian alone, and adopted a stern, instructional voice.
“Our merciful Father, in His wisdom, made you last and least of your family so that you might learn humility, Brian. It is His special gift to you. Please do not abuse it by making demands out of keeping with your station.”
“I didn’t ask to be last and least!” Brian objected.
“In this life, we do not always get what we ask for.” Fiacaid repeated the timeworn truism by rote.
The seanchai’s mind went blank. Over the decades he had grown accustomed to respect, even to veneration. In his experience, small children did not ask a seanchai impertinent questions, and he found himself with an uncustomary lack of words.
“Why can’t we get what we ask for?” Brian repeated, standing solidly planted with his hands doubled into aggressive little fists on his hips. Everything about him demanded the explanation Fiacaid could not give. The old man fell back on his talent, building words into structures whose weight alone was meant to impress, even if the meaning was obscure.
“Our rewards and punishments are not up to us, young man, but are determined by powers beyond mortal control. We must accept that. The fawn does not tell the stag where to graze, nor does the cub dictate policy to the wolf pack.”
Brian considered that, then returned to the attack. “But telling the story is up to you, isn’t it? You could do it right now if you wanted to. So why not?”
Fiacaid was weary. Blood and bone, he ached for sleep. It no longer seemed worth the effort the duel with the child. “I will not tell you because I am too tired,” he said with a sigh, fearing that the plain words would be inadequate to quiet the boy.
“Oh! All right, then, I’ll wait,” Brian replied equably, and with no further argument he trotted from the chamber, leaving the surprised seanchai to seek a sleep grown strangely elusive.
• • •
As Brian returned to the main room, it exploded in argument over the spring breeding of the virgin heifers. Every male in the house seemed to have an opinion he was willing to defend to the death, and the yelling was lusty and joyous. Only Mahon took no part. He had no real enthusiasm for the disputes that were a favorite family pastime; he listened without comment, idly toying with Cennedi’s old harp.
“Brian, who knew no one wanted his opinion anyway, curled up close to the hearth and stared at the flames. For him alone, the glorious army of the Tuatha de Danann marched in tongues of fire across the glowing coals. Invincible!
Copyright © 1981 by Morgan Llywelyn