Read an Excerpt
Lughnasa. High summer. It would be harvest season soon. Deirdre stood by the rail and surveyed the scene. It should have been a cheerful day, but it brought only anguish to her. For the father she loved and the one-eyed man were going to sell her. And there was nothing she could do. She did not see Conall at first.
The custom at the races was that the men rode naked. The tradition was ancient. Centuries ago, the Romans had remarked on how the Celtic warriors despised the protection of breastplates and liked to strip naked for battle. A tattooed warrior, his muscles bulging, his hair raised in great spikes, and his face distorted in war frenzy was a frightening sight, even to trained Roman legionaries. Sometimes these fierce Celtic warriors in their chariots would choose to wear a short cloak that streamed behind them; and in some parts of the Roman Empire, the Celtic horsemen would wear breeches. But here on the western island, the tradition of nakedness had been carried into the ceremonial races, and young Conall was wearing nothing but a small protective loincloth.
The great festival of Lughnasa was held at Carmun once every three years. The site of Carmun was eerie. In a land of wild forest and bog, it was an open grassy space that stretched, green and empty, halfway to the horizon. Lying some distance west of the point where, if you were following it upstream, the Liffey's course began to retreat eastwards on the way to its source in the Wicklow Mountains, the place was absolutely flat, except for some mounds in which ancestral chiefs were buried. The festival lasted a week. There were areas reserved for food and livestock markets, and another where fine clothes were sold; but the most important quarter was where a large racetrack was laid out on the bare turf.
The track was a magnificent sight. People were encamped all around, in tents or temporary huts, whole clans together. Men and women both were dressed in their brilliant cloaks of scarlet, blue, or green. The men wore the splendid gold torcs--like thick amulets--round their necks; the women sported all kinds of ornament and bracelet. Some men were tattooed, some had long flowing hair and moustaches, others had their hair caked with clay and raised into terrifying warlike spikes. Here and there stood a splendid war chariot. The horses were in pens. There were campfires where the bards would tell tales. A group of jugglers and acrobats was just arriving. Throughout the camp, the sound of a harp, a bone whistle, or a bagpipe could be heard in the summer air, and the scent of roasting meat and honey cakes seemed to mingle in the light smoke that drifted across the scene. And on a ceremonial mound by the racetrack, presiding over the whole proceedings, was the King of Leinster.
There were four parts of the island. To the north lay the territories of the ancient tribes of Ulaid, the province of warriors. To the west lay a lovely province of magical lakes and wild coasts--the land of the druids, they called it. To the south, the province of Muma, renowned for its music. It was there, according to legend, that the Sons of Mil had first met the goddess Eriu. And fourthly, in the east lay the rich pastures and fields of the tribes of Lagin. The provinces had been recognised since time out of mind, and as Ulster, Connacht, Munster, and Leinster they would remain the geographical divisions of the island for all times to come.
But life was never static on the island. In recent generations there had been important changes among the ancient tribes. In the northern half of the island--Leth Cuinn, the half of the head, as they liked to call it--powerful clans had arisen to assert their dominance over the southern half, Leth Moga. And a new central province known as Mide, or Meath, had also come into being, so that now people spoke of the island's five parts rather than four.
Over all the great clan chiefs in each of the five parts, the most powerful usually ruled as a king, and sometimes the greatest of these would proclaim himself High King and demand that others recognise him and pay him tribute.
Finbarr looked at his friend and shook his head. It was midafternoon and Conall was about to race.
"You could at least smile," Finbarr remarked. "You're such a sad fellow, Conall."
"I'm sorry," the other replied. "I don't mean to be."
That was the trouble with being too highly born, Finbarr considered. The gods paid too much attention to you. It was ever thus in the Celtic world. Ravens would fly over the house to announce the death of a clan chief, swans would desert the lake. A king's bad judgement could affect the weather. And if you were a prince, the druids made prophesies about you from before the day you were born; and after that, there was no escape.
Conall: slim, dark, aquiline, handsome--a perfect prince. And a prince he was. Conall, son of Morna. His father had been a matchless warrior. Hadn't he been buried standing up, in a hero's mound, facing towards the enemies of his tribe? It was the finest compliment you could pay to a dead man in the Celtic world.
In the family of Conall's father, it was unlucky for any man to wear red. But that was only the beginning of Conall's troubles. He had been born three months after his father's death. That alone made him special. His mother was the sister of the High King, who became his foster father. That meant the whole island would be watching him. And then the druids had had their say. The first had shown the baby a selection of twigs from various trees and the infant had stretched out a tiny hand towards the hazel. "He will be a poet, a man of learning," the druid declared. A second had made a darker prediction. "He will cause the death of a fine warrior." But so long as this was in battle, the family took it as a good omen. It was the third druid, however, who pronounced the three geissi which were to follow Conall all his life.
The geissi--the prohibitions. When a prince or a great warrior lived under geissi he had better be careful. The geissi were terrible, because they always came to pass. But since, like so many priestly pronouncements, they sounded like a riddle, you couldn't always be certain what they meant. They were like traps. Finbarr was glad no one had bothered to lay any geissi on him. The geissi on Conall, as everyone at the High King's court knew, were as follows:
Conall shall not die until:
First: He has laid his own clothes in the earth.
Second: He has crossed the sea at sunrise.
Third: He has come to Tara through a black mist.
The first made no sense; the second he must take care never to do. The third seemed impossible. There were often mists at the High King's royal seat at Tara, but there had never been a black one.
Conall was a careful fellow. He respected family tradition. Finbarr had never seen him wear anything red. Indeed Conall even avoided touching anything of that colour. "So it seems to me," Finbarr had once told him, "that if you can just stay away from the sea, you'll live forever."
They had been friends since the day, in childhood, when a hunting party that included young Conall had stopped at Finbarr's family's modest farm to rest. The two boys had met and played, and before long had a wrestling match and then played the game with stick and ball which the islanders call hurling, while the men looked on. A little while later Conall had asked if he might seek out his new acquaintance again; within a month they were fast friends. And when, soon afterwards, Conall had asked if Finbarr might join the royal household and train to become a warrior, this had been granted. Finbarr's family had been overjoyed at such an opportunity for him. The friendship of the two boys had never wavered. If Conall loved Finbarr's good nature and high spirits, Finbarr admired the young aristocrat's quiet, deeper thoughtfulness.
Not that Conall was always reserved. Though not the brawniest of the young champions, he was probably the finest athlete. He could run like a deer. Only Finbarr could keep up with him when they raced their light, two-wheeled war chariots. When Conall threw a spear, it seemed to fly like a bird, and with deadly accuracy. He could whirl his shield round so fast that you could scarcely see it. And when he struck with his favourite shining sword, it was said that others may give harder blows, but take care--Conall's blade is always swifter. The two boys were also musical. Finbarr liked to sing, Conall to play the harp, which he did well; and as boys they would sometimes entertain the company at the High King's feasts. These were happy times when, good-humouredly, the High King would pay them as though they were hired musicians. The warriors all liked and respected Conall. Those who remembered Morna agreed: the son had the makings of a similar leader.
And yet--this was the strange thing to Finbarr--it was as if Conall wasn't really interested.
Conall had been only six the first time he disappeared; and his mother had already been searching all afternoon when, just before sundown, he appeared with an old druid who quietly told her, "The boy's been with me."
"I found him in the woods," Conall had explained, as if his absence was the most natural thing in the world.
"What did you do with the druid all day?" his mother asked after the old man had left.
"Oh, we talked."
"What about?" his astonished mother asked.
"Everything," he said happily.
It had been the same ever since his childhood. He would play games with the other boys, but then he'd disappear. Sometimes he'd take Finbarr with him, and they would wander in the woods or along the streams. Finbarr could imitate bird calls. Conall liked that. And there was hardly a plant on the island that the young prince couldn't name. But even on these walks sometimes Finbarr would sense that, much as his friend loved him, he wished to be alone; and then he would leave him, and Conall would wander away for half a day.
He always insisted to Finbarr that he was happy. Yet when he was deep in thought, his face would take on a look of melancholy; or sometimes when he was playing the harp, the tune would become strangely sad. "Here comes the man whom sorrow makes his friend," Finbarr would say affectionately when Conall returned from his lonely wanderings; but the young prince would only laugh, or punch him playfully and break into a run.
It was hardly surprising that by the time he reached the age of manhood at seventeen, the other young men should refer to Conall, not without awe, as the Druid.
There were three classes of learned men on the island. The humblest were the bards, the storytellers who would entertain the company at a feast; of a higher class entirely were the filidh, guardians of the genealogies, makers of poetry, and even sometimes of prophesy; but above them both, and more fearsome, were the druids.
It was said that long ago, before the Romans had come there, the most learned and skilful druids had lived on the neighbouring island of Britain. In those days, the druids used to sacrifice not only animals but men and women, too. That was long ago, however. The druids were in the western island now, and nobody could remember the last human sacrifice.
The training of a druid could take twenty years. He would often know most of what the bards and filidh knew; but beyond that, he was a priest, with the secret knowledge of the sacred spells and numbers and of how to speak with the gods. The druids performed the sacrifices and ceremonies at midwinter and the other great festivals of the year. The druids directed upon which days to sow the crops and slaughter the animals. Few kings would dare start any enterprise without consulting the druids. Quarrel with them and their words could be so sharp, it was said, that they raised blisters. A druid's curse could last for seventeen generations. Wise advisers, respected judges, learned teachers, feared enemies: the druids were all these things.
But beyond this lay something more mysterious. Some druids, like shamans, could go into trances and enter the otherworld. They could even change their own shape into that of a bird or an animal. Was there something of this mystical quality, Finbarr sometimes wondered, in his friend Conall?
Certainly he had always spent a lot of time with the druids, ever since that childhood encounter. By the time he was twenty, it was said, he knew more than most of the young men training for the priesthood. Such an interest was not thought strange. Many of the druids came from noble families; some of the greatest warriors had studied with druids or filidh in the past. But Conall's degree of interest was unusual, as was his expertise. His memory was phenomenal.
Whatever Conall said, it seemed to Finbarr he was sometimes lonely.
To seal their friendship, some years earlier, the prince had given him a puppy. Finbarr had taken the little fellow everywhere. He called him Cuchulainn, after the hero of legend. Only gradually, as the puppy grew, had Finbarr come to realise the nature of the gift. For Cuchulainn turned out to be a magnificent hunting hound, of the kind for which merchants came to the western island from far across the sea, and for which they would pay with ingots of silver or Roman coins. The hound was probably priceless. It never left his side.
"If ever something happens to me," Conall once told him, "your hound Cuchulainn will be there to remind you of me and of our friendship."
"You'll be my friend as long as I live," Finbarr assured him. "I expect it's I who will die first." And if he couldn't give the prince a present of similar value in return, he could at least, he thought, make sure that his own friendship was as constant and loyal as the hound Cuchulainn was to him.
Conall also had another talent. He could read.
The people of the island were not strangers to the written word. The merchants from Britain and Gaul who came to the ports could often read. The Roman coins they used had Latin letters on them. Finbarr knew several amongst the bards and druids who could read. A few generations ago, the learned men of the island, using vowel and consonant sounds from Latin, had even invented a simple writing of their own for carving memorials in Celtic upon standing posts or stones. But though from time to time one would come upon a standing stone with these strange ogham scratch marks, like notches on a tally stick, down its edge, this early Celtic writing system had never become widely used. Nor, Finbarr knew, was it used for recording the island's sacred heritage.