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BELOW THE HILL of Usna, the plain spread out like a multicolored mantle in every shade of green and gold. Ponds formed in hollows, and brooks meandered happily between fields serenaded by lark and wren and linnet.
Such a land should have been prosperous. Sometimes it was. Sometimes it was not.
Conn of the Hundred Battles stood on his hill and glared at his land. Unfair, he thought, that something so lovely should be so barren. Yet for the past two summers his cattle had not fattened sufficiently on all that green grass. Plowmen had broken the earth and sown their crops as they had done for generations, but the grain when it grew was spindly and gave a poor harvest. Sometimes it did not sprout at all.
Bakehouses stood unused much of the time for lack of grain to grind into meal. The women who should have been busy at the stone ovens were occupying their time by criticizing their menfolk. The menfolk passed the criticism along to their leader, that being one of the reasons for having a leader.
Conn of the Hundred Battles was growing tired of having everyone complain to him.
He had sent for his chief druid, Coran, and asked the priest to read the signs for him. Coran was tall and lean, with a mane of streaky gray hair that flared out from his skull even when there was no wind. From the eyes down he had the face of a fox, sharp-nosed, narrow of jaw, but his eyes were so mild the vulpine effect was quite negated. Looking at Coran you could never mistake him for anything but a druid.
Conn of the Hundred Battles matched his own name. Seen at a distance, in silhouette, he appeared square. Shoulders and chest were so broad, powerful torso built so closeto the ground on wide-planted legs, that it was almost impossible to knock the man down. But when he swung a sword damage was always done. Conn had once been ruddy, but now all the redness remaining to him was in his face. His hair had gone gray like Coran's, resembling the snow-frosted pelt of an aging fox. Great bushy eyebrows guarded the high bridge of his nose, and the eyes beneath those brows were never still.
Conn had not only been in a hundred battles, he had won a hundred battles. He held this land for his tribe through his own fearsome reputation. But he might not hold it much longer if something was not done about the diminished prosperity of his people, for they were perfectly capable of choosing a new king if their current one failed them.
"Coran, what is wrong with the land?" Conn had asked the druid.
"She is tired," came the answer. Coran had thrown the sticks of prophecy into the air many times, carefully observing the patterns they made as they fell. He had gone out into the meadows and chewed thoughtfully on various grasses, reading the message sent up from the earth. He had lain flat on the ground and pressed his nose into the dirt so he could smell its health. All led to one inescapable conclusion. "The earth is a woman and she gets tired. Your men have plowed her too many times. Your cattle are so numerous they have all but cleared her of grass and she has worn herself out trying to replenish it, only to be stripped again."
Conn scowled. "Then you must do something! Perform a fertility ritual--something."
"We did that last season," Coran reminded him. "And this season is worse."
"Your magic is failing you," Conn growled. "Are you too old, druid? Usually your kind gets better with age, but if the fault is in you, I will find another druid with more power."
"I am not failing," Coran informed his chieftain haughtily, drawing himself up to his full height so he could look down his nose at the warrior. "I can do everything I always could. A fortnight ago I made sour milk turn back to sweet. I erected an unseen barrier around Fionn's house to keep his daughters in and their suitors out, until the girls get a little older. Or a little less provocative. One is much more likely to happen than the other," the druid added, remembering the plump and giggling assortment of man-hungry girls in Fionn's house.
"If you can't improve the harvest and enrich the pastures, then I don't see what good you are to me," Conn warned.
"Priests can't do everything! If we could, there would be no need for you, would there?"
Conn grinned and slapped his thigh. "Truth from the mouth of the druid. Indeed, I am needed. If you cannot solve the problem with rituals and spells, then it falls into the category of things I know how to fix. I am a warlord, son of generations of warlords. If our land fails us, I simply attack someone with richer territory and take his."
"So it has always been," Coran agreed. "But you have already taken all the land as far as we can see. If you cross your borders into new territory, you will have to move the entire tribe a considerable distance, which means new houses to build, a new fort for yourself, a general upheaval for everyone. We've been here a long time, Conn--for generations. People have sunk their roots deep into the earth..."
"... the unproductive earth," Conn grumbled.
"Deep into the earth and they will not be happy about moving. You will be blamed for their discomfort."
Conn put his two fists on his hips and shook his head as a bull does when a bee keeps stinging it. "You are not giving me any answers I can accept, druid."
Coran shrugged. "For some things there are no easy answers."
"What will happen, then? At least you can tell me that much. You can still prophesy, can't you?"
"I can. And I tell you your cattle will grow thinner until some starve and die, and they will not have calves in the spring until there are no more of them than the grass can support again."
"And what of the fields, the grain?"
Gazing into a future only he could see, Coran said softly, "The earth is a goddess with power beyond ours. She will rest herself whether you will it or not."
Conn had fought and won a hundred battles, but now he felt himself caught in a trap no sword could hew open. If something was not done, he would lose the leadership of his tribe.
Sleepless and bad-tempered, he had been pacing the precincts of his stronghold for days, gazing out at the land and muttering. His wives--and he was a powerful warlord capable of clothing and feeding four wives--took to avoiding him. The senior wife, who had in her time given permission for him to marry the second wife in order to have someone to share her work, found the best way to avoid Conn was to go to bed and stay there.
The second wife had given permission for a third wife, so fortunately she did not have to wait on her senior but could pass the chore down the line. In time it reached the fourth and newest wife, a pretty black-haired girl who looked all around but could see no one lower in the hierarchy than herself. So she carried pots and basins and ewers; she fluffed feather beds and patiently endured the invalid's complaints; and she cursed a land which had grown so poor its ruler could not afford a fifth wife.
Conn's children were no happier. The atmosphere in the fort depressed them. They took to spending more and more of their time outside their father's big round house with its thatched roof, and outside the sturdy timber palisade that protected it. They played the games that children play with balls and sticks, they ran footraces, they amused themselves in a hundred ways, and they left the real worrying to the adults. But they were all aware of something hanging over them.
So on this bright morning as Conn of the Hundred Battles stood on his hilltop and glared at his fields, he was alone, avoided like a man who has developed a loathsome disease.
Conn spun around. His oldest son was coming up the hill with a smile on his face. Even a man in a very bad mood would have smiled in automatic response to that radiant expression, for the son of Hundred Battles was splendid to behold.
Connla, as the youth was called, was tall and lean and limber. Fiery Hair was his nickname, and well deserved, for his hair flamed in sunlight or shadow. Above cloud-gray eyes his eyebrows slanted like red-gold wings, and the perfect symmetry of his face was as yet unscarred by sword or spear.
He resembles me when I was a boy, the old chieftain thought for a moment, then remembered in honesty that he had never been beautiful. Conn was strong, but Connla had the elegance that strength can produce when mated with grace.
"Don't come up on me like that when I have a weapon in my hand, lad," the father called out. "I could have thrown this spear right through you."
Connla laughed. "You always have a weapon in your hand. If I waited until you did not, I would be in my tomb of old age."
They stood together on the hilltop. Their clothing was similar, for they both wore knee-length tunics and had cloaks fastened about their shoulders with heavy gold brooches. But Conn, as a chieftain, also wore a massive golden gorget around his neck, and his arms clanked with rings of precious metal--gold and silver and bronze. He liked to wear his wealth. It was safer on his person than anywhere else.
Young Connla had simpler tastes. His nobility entitled him to wear almost as much ornamentation as his father, but his only vanity was the care he lavished on his shining hair. He liked to feel light and free. The linen of his tunic was of sheerer weight than that of his father's, and instead of a cloak lined with wolf fur, Connla wore an unlined cloak that billowed slightly in the breeze. He glowed with youth and health. Even the whites of his eyes had the improbable blue-white luster that connotes perfect condition.
The land spread out before him was unfortunately not as healthy.
Conn of the Hundred Battles turned away from his perfect son and resumed his morose survey of his territory.
"What a grand day this is," exclaimed Connla, throwing his arms wide. "It makes me glad to be alive."
His father rolled an eye toward him. "That shows how little you know."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean you don't understand the true situation. It's easy enough to be happy when there's always meat on the spit and bread in the ovens, and someone else sees to it. But where do you think that bounty comes from? From me, that's where. I provide it. Or rather, the land provides it for me, and I distribute it to my people. That's what chieftains do...
"... except that the land is about to quit providing."
The young man stared at his father. "How can that be?"
"My druid tells me the earth's gotten tired. The earth does that, he says, when she's overworked. She's going to rest now, and there is nothing he nor I nor anyone else can do about it. Our cattle will starve for lack of grass, our ovens will stand empty for lack of grain."
"How long before the earth is rested and becomes fertile again?"
"I wish I knew," Conn told his son.
"And in the meantime ...?"
"In the meantime, unless I can think of some solution, we are going to have to get used to being poor."
Connla of the Fiery Hair had never been poor. There had always been fat meat roasting on the spit and plenty of fabric to make all the clothing he needed. He had seen the poor, of course, for in every land and time there are those who are too feckless to provide for themselves, no matter how many opportunities are offered. When the territory of old Hundred Battles groaned with rich harvest and all one had to do to eat an apple was kick a tree, there were still men who kicked the wrong tree, or did not feel like kicking any tree. And such men invariably had lean, whining wives and children whose eyes were too big for their skulls.
Connla had seen such people, but never expected to join their ranks. "Do you mean we shall be hungry?"
His father sighed. "It could happen. But I will not let it happen; I will do something."
For the first time in his life Connla heard doubt in his father's voice, so he was not as reassured as he should have been.
The old chieftain made a valiant effort. Summoning together his stoutest warriors he raided nearby tribes and brought home their cattle to replenish his failing herds, and for a while there was still fat meat on the spit. Then came a day when there were no cattle to be taken within a day's march, and Conn's neighbors became so savagely defensive it was hardly worth raiding them, since more men died than the tribe could spare. A tribe that means to support itself by raiding must have plenty of strong, healthy warriors.
And strong, healthy warriors have to have enough food to eat. In the spring it became obvious that the crops would be even worse than the year before. As if suffering under a curse, the land shrank in on itself and refused to yield.
"Is that it?" Conn demanded of his druid. "Are we cursed?"
"I think not, aside from the curse we have brought on ourselves by demanding too much for too long."
"You keep saying that, but it doesn't help anything!" Conn raged at him.
Hundred Battles stalked around his fortress, looking for something to kick. A lean hound slunk around the corner of a building, ears flattened against its skull. Every rib showed. At sight of Conn, the dog growled, for it had a bone it was not about to surrender to anyone.
The old chieftain lashed out with a savage foot and the hound yelped in pain.
At once, Connla Fiery Hair ran up, his eyes accusing. "Why did you kick my dog? He wasn't hurting you!"
"Oh, is that your dog? Then I suppose you are the one who gave him a perfectly good bone, eh? I tell you, no more bones to no more dogs. Any bones we have must be boiled until they fall apart in the pot and every drop of the soup drunk by people. Dogs will have to fend for themselves. Don't you dare let me catch you throwing the smallest uneaten scrap to that miserable animal." He stalked away, muttering indignantly under his breath.
The young man stared after his father. "But--but you always liked dogs," he said to the wind, since the old man was already out of earshot.
His hound crept up to him and pressed against his knee, trembling. He patted the silky head and played idly with its soft ears. "When did you start cowering?" he asked the animal. "You never used to do that." The dog whined.
Once poverty had made a breach in the walls it came in at the gallop. Traders arrived in summer, as was their custom, but the people of Conn of the Hundred Battles had very little to trade, and were not able to get in return the goods they were accustomed to having. They looked with envious eyes at the piles of linen and furs, the beautifully carved little wooden boxes of salt, the jars of spices. When they offered what little they had been able to produce, the traders sneered. "We can do better across the river," the traders said, packing up their goods and moving on.
By this time, Conn's senior wife had been a year in her bed and showed no signs of getting up. Unlike the rest of the tribe, she was getting fat--from long inactivity and because as senior wife she was entitled to the best of whatever food there was.
She called her firstborn son to her bedside. Smiling at the beautiful young man, she said, "Connla, your father is failing. We all see it. Someday you will have to take his place. When that time comes I know you will be able to accomplish what he has not and will restore prosperity to the tribe. I want you to remember me then, and see that I have a nice house of my own and..."
"I am not ready to be a chieftain!" Connla protested.
"Of course not, of course not, you are still young." she said hastily. "And the old man has a few seasons left in him. I just want you to be prepared for the inevitable, that's all. Think about it. Observe your father and decide what you will do differently."
So Connla began following his father around and watching him. He did not learn much, for Hundred Battles was not doing very much. He visited farmers and exhorted them to plant more crops, but they laughed at him as they pointed to their depleted soil. "Why should we put more seed into the earth just to watch it die?" they demanded to know. So Conn went to his herders and urged them to find richer pasturage for the cattle, but they merely shrugged. "We've taken them into every field and meadow, but still they grow thin. We could go across the river, where the grass is still good, but the tribe who holds that land is larger than ours and would slaughter us all."
Watching, Connla could not decide what answer his father should make to them.
The faces of the people began to lose color, to grow pale and thin. Even the old chieftain had to put a new notch in his belt, because one day when he stood up the weight of his sword dragged the belt off his hips. An air of gloom hung over the Hill of Usna like a storm cloud, and everyone waited for the storm to break.
It did, with a vengeance.
One morning just after dawn an army came marching across the river and attacked the stronghold of Conn of the Hundred Battles. It had become common knowledge throughout the region that Conn's warriors were underfed and their weapons needed replacing, so his neighbors came gladly to rob him while he was in a weakened condition. They took his seed bulls and his best chariot horses and the once-plump, still provocative daughters of Fionn the Smith, and they left Conn's warriors beaten and bloody.
He had won a hundred battles but now he had lost one. The old chieftain was furious. Fighting side by side with his warriors throughout the day, he had slain his share of the raiders but had not been able to stem their tide. As darkness fell, he sat morosely atop his hill and surveyed the horizon. The word would be quickly passed, he knew: Conn can be beaten.
He heard a sound behind him. At once his hand went to his sword hilt.
"It's me, Father, Connla."
"Oh. Well, come and sit down. Take a good look at this land while it is still ours, for one day we may be driven away from here and have to go live in a bog someplace." The old man sighed. His hair was no longer the color of a snow-frosted fox pelt, but had gone totally white. He looked at his youthful son and wondered if he had ever felt that young, that strong and comfortable in his body.
A cold wind blew and the joints of Hundred Battles ached in protest.
"Tomorrow," he said slowly, without enthusiasm, "we will have to count our losses and repair our weapons, because soon we must fight again. Every man of us must be armed and ready, Connla. That includes you. You have practiced with sword and shield and I know how quick you are. You will make a good warrior."
But Connla had seen the ruin of the battlefield. He had gone with the others to help carry in the dead, and had seen the puddles of blood soaking into the earth and heard men screaming in pain. When he was a little boy and his father the greatest of heroes, he had thought battle synonymous with glory. Now he knew different. Battle was the prelude to horror.
"I have no desire to be a warrior, Father," he said. It was the bravest act of his young life.
The old chieftain leaped to his feet with blazing eyes. He was so shocked, so angry, that for a moment he was incoherent. "What are you saying! I cannot believe a son of mine would ever utter such words! You have gone mad, you are ill, lie down where you are and I will call a physician to heal you..."
"I am not mad, nor ill, Father," Connla interrupted. His voice was deep and overrode his father's rantings. "I will gladly serve the tribe in any other way I can, but I have no desire to leave my guts spread out all over the earth for nothing." He put it as bluntly as he could to make his father listen.
Conn stared at him. He could not believe this glorious youth, the finest of his offspring, could be reluctant to take up arms. They came of warrior stock for a hundred generations! "You are only talking like this because you are dispirited," Conn finally managed to say. "I know things have been very bad here for a while, but they will get better, you'll see. The druid assures me the earth eventually rests herself enough to become productive again, and when that happens and everyone has enough food in their bellies, we will be stronger than any other tribe. This is just a temporary setback, boy."
Hundred Battles put his arm around his son's shoulders and gave him a rough hug. "This is just a mood you're in, eh? Eh? It will pass." He squeezed again. "Come now, we'll go into the hall and look in the bottoms of all the wine jars. We'll find some dregs we can drink, and put some twigs on the fire, and be ourselves again, eh?"
Connla let himself be cajoled into the hall, and he sat quietly there while his father regaled him with old war stories and optimistic plans for the future. But mostly he just stared into the fire and wondered what the future really held.
Posted November 20, 2011
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Posted May 27, 2011
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