The Third String.
Tales from a Dagda Bard
The Third String.
Tales from a Dagda Bard
The High King sat in council. The long days talk and deliberations had born little fruit. The King had sent message to call all the Chieftains and Champions to speak on the changes brought forth upon the isle of Eireann.
All had come and all had been heard, except for one whose absence did not go unnoticed.
The Dagda had not arrived, and the King grew steadily more irate.
As the sun's set turned the sky to red, the doors opened to admit a broad muscled figure. The Dagda shuffled into the space, covered in sweat, muck and road dust, his great club dragging a furrow in the earth. To see this Champion of the Danann arrive in this manner incensed the High King and drove him to chastise the Dagda.
What time and state is this to arrive in our presence?
You were summoned to this council and your duty to your High King comes first, before whatever lax appetite fueled debauchment you pursue!
The Dagda, stopping in his place at council, slumped to the rush mat upon the earth and thought back to the last 7 days.
The dawn's light had just warmed the earth and unlocked the grassy scent as the Dagda stepped out of his Rath.
The message had arrived last night summoning council in seven days. The Fire had sang of the land's need, so rested and refreshed the Dagda put his feet upon the path and set out.
As the track wore onward he came upon a large field and found a man standing forlorn in its centre.
The farmer looked up to see a broad stranger approach, his wide frame, carrying some girth, covered by a clean léine. The stranger carried a massive club raised casually upon one shoulder.
The ploughshare broke and the field is more rock than not.
If I can't plant today the grain will go to rot and my family will starve.
The farmer's plea was pained and the Dagda was moved by his woe.
The Dagda looked to see the part furrow the farmer had been working on and the large rock upon which the plough's blade had snapped. With one large hand he pulled the rock from the earth and tossed it to the other side of the field.
Planting his club into the soil, he began to pull the furrow along, his large hands in a vice like grip upon the club wood, his shoulders locked to strain against the earth. What rocks he found were cast aside.
As the noonday sun beat down upon his sweat streaked body the Dagda finished his last pull and the field was furrowed, its rich brown soil bereft of rock. The farmer stood agape to see the feat and went to speak as the stranger approached.
The broad man held up a well-calloused hand and with a quick heft he had the grain sack up on his shoulder. The Dagda strode the field casting the grain in the tilled earth, with his wide feet kicking the soil to cover. As the day came to an end, and the grain sack to its empty, the Dagda returned to the farmer.
The man was humbled by the work and offered his home and hospitality with but one request.
What is your name that I may speak of your deed?
The Dagda heaved a deep breath and pushing his sweat soaked hair from his eyes, he replied.
I am but your neighbour and all I ask is that you offer your grain to those neighbours in need.
With that the Dagda picked up his club and moved off into the night.
As the next day began the Dagda came upon a woman struggling up the road with a large water urn pressed against her body.
As yet unseen, his eye traveled from her fair shoulders to her wide hips, yet as the woman began to lose balance the Dagda moved to action - steadying the urn, and by that the woman, with a broad strong hand.
Their eyes met for the first time and he saw the strong pride there. With a nod he stepped back as she righted her burden.
A long walk to the river everyday builds muscle and character.
The woman's voice was firm and resolute and for that the Dagda did not offer to take her burden, for she accepted it readily as hers. Looking deep into her eyes he could see the concerns against which she had set her resolve.
Mayhaps we can see to some quicker solution for you.
Following the woman to her home he walked about the land that was hers with a fork of hazel held in his broad hands. When the hazel told him the spot the Dagda began to dig.
Down and down he went, shifting the earth up and away. Deeper and deeper as the hazel had told him until the fading light above was just a small dot to the eye and he stood waist deep in water.
The last task of the day was to stone the wall so the earth would not seep in and steal away the day's accomplishments. As the light faded the Dagda looked upon the completed well. The woman approached and offered him some bread and cheese which he gladly accepted.
Hauling water up from there every day will build strength, and being closer to hearth and family can build more rounded character.
The woman accepted the words with a grateful nod and asked:
Please tell me your name that I may say who has accomplished this deed.
Standing soaked in mud, water and sweat, the Dagda replied:
I am but your neighbour and all I ask is that you offer water from your well to any who have the thirst upon them.
With that he fetched up his club and set off into the night.
As the third day dawned the Dagda strode along a track run rough by cattle passage. He found the herder straining to heft a rock and haul it in place on what appeared to be a scree pile strewn all about. The Dagda stopped and waited, knowing the rock was too much of a match for the herder.
The herder called politely upon seeing the broad shouldered man observing him.
Ho there, your help please? I fear this rock out matches my strength and would be grateful of your aid.
The Dagda moved to the rock and with a smile for the herder's polite acknowledgment he hoisted it under one arm and dropped it on line with the rest.
What plan is this you toil against?
The Dagda's question drew a heavy sigh from the herder.
The cattle here about are fierce and strong, to their credit. Alas I cannot keep them penned between stone that will not stand.
My chieftain has set for me this impossible task so that he may hold me to account for any ill fortune that befalls the cattle.
The herder slumped to the ground in a depressed and dejected state, the sadness heavy upon him.
Please, I would ask humbly for your aid at least on this day restoring the walls. I can ask no more for I will be forever repairing these bricks.
Looking upon the man the Dagda weighed his heart. Seeing the cloud that covered the man's joy he nodded.
Go you now and fetch the herd. Come back upon this place with all the beasts by the end of the day and we shall see what can be done for this.
The man looked up and with the first glimmer of hope to him he stood and moved away as requested. With a flex of his broad shoulders the Dagda relieved their strain and swung out his arms to loosen the muscles. As he set his body to work, his mind began to hum tunefully.
As the sun began to fall the herder returned, steering the cattle, careful of their temper and struggling to keep them moving. He came upon the place he had left the stranger and saw the wall complete and taller than ever before. Driving the cattle through the gap the herder looked about for the broad man and was surprised to note a large deep ditch dug all about the inside edge of the wall.
As he followed the ditch with his eyes he saw the stranger arise from it some ways across the field.
Dirty with earth the strange man strolled over to the cattle and the herder's ears caught up to a low rumbling tune the stranger was singing.
The cattle stood transfixed to the figure as he casually strode into their midst, big thick fingers caressing their hide and horns. As he moved towards the herder the man's voice became more distinct, as did the tune and the words. The cattle turned to follow as the stranger approached.
The Dagda finished the song to the little hoofs as his eyes met the herder's.
With a nod to the man he clapped his big hands and the cattle bounced away across the field to explore, each staying well clear of the ditch.
Stand your watch upon the gap and make there a gate of strong branches.
The song is now yours and the cattle will calm to your voice should they become to riled.
Leave them their freedom though, but for in serious need.
The herder stood agape as indeed the song did echo about his mind and its tune came easy to his lips.
Please good sir I ask that you tell me your name so that your deed can be known to all and this song be properly credited to you.
The Dagda smiled. Hope had flared strong in the herder's heart.
I am but your neighbour and all I ask is that you offer this song freely to all who toil as you do.
Oh, and keep that ditch clean and deep.
With that the Dagda grasped his club, and swinging it merrily on his arm, walked away into the night.
The morning of the fourth day found the Dagda washing his face in a lake when his ear caught the sound of people struggling through the brush. Standing tall he swung his club up to his shoulder and waited.
The brush parted and a beleaguered bunch of figures fumbled their way into the clearing only to freeze upon catching sight of the broad shouldered warrior, hard and glowering, standing feet planted wide, and with a massive club held lazily over his shoulders.The Dagda's eyes surveyed them quickly, his mind assessing each, weighing and measuring.
It became very apparent that these folk were fleeing from conflict rather than looking for it. The Dagda lowered his club and squatted down in the dirt.
Come, join me and tell your tale. I fear it's one of woe and would reassure you that you shall have no harm from me and whatever aid I can offer.
Slowly and warily the people gathered forward and formed a circle with the strange warrior, who now seemed small and amiable. The tale was indeed one of woe and also horror, pain and loss. The words came haltingly at first until the people saw the real concern on the warrior's face. Then the words came all in a rush, every voice speaking at once, layering and clarifying, describing and detailing the destruction that had fallen upon them and left them without home and fleeing from remorseless raiders.
The Dagda let it all wash over him, his mind seeing the images they described, his focus filling in every detail, and his heart taking in every woe. As the people ended their collective tale he heaved a sigh and stood, broad shoulders stooped and heart heavy. His eyes roamed the group and rested on each for a moment of connection and a nod of shared feeling.
Rest here my friends. Stay and be secure. I will find you a place safe from these raiders.
The oldest of the people spoke then to claim that no such place existed on the land that could be safe. The Dagda found a smile for him and winked at the slyness of his own idea.
Indeed old one, you speak truth for the troubles you have seen. Trust me but a day and we will see what can be done.
With that he strode down to the lake shore, his eyes scanning its width, and depth. With a nod to himself the Dagda stripped off his soiled léine. He stood with goose flesh rising on his naked skin as the fair breeze caressed his slabbed muscled form. With a few deep breaths he strode forward into the lake and then dove beneath its surface. The people waited for what must have been longer than a breath could be held, and just as they began to fear for the warrior, a child cried out and pointed.
Far out in the centre of the lake, the water lifted and a shape arose. Wet and slimed with muck the boulder settled on something below the water and then the warrior appeared. Climbing up he stood upon the boulder, stamping his feet upon the rock. With a heave of air into its lungs the figure disappeared below the waters again.
The people watched throughout the day, their astonishment growing.
Time and again boulders rose from the deep and joined the first until the warrior had formed a rocky island far out on the lake. As the day wore to a close more smaller rocks were placed, linking the island to the earth at the shore where the people waited. As the last lights left the day, the Dagda stood again before them, water glistening in rivulets as it rolled down his flesh to the ground, his lungs inhaling vast quantities of air. When at last his breath returned to him the Dagda smiled again at the old one.
When no safe place exists on land, we shall make one ourselves upon the water. This place is yours and with but a small bridge two men may defend against many.
Go now and make a new home of this place. Go.
His smile took the sting from the words, the pain and fear from their hearts, and allowed the buried hope to warm them. The old one stopped beside the Dagda and looked knowingly up to his bluff wide face and broad smile.
I see the woes of my people have left them. I hope they have not found a new home in your heart. Tell me stranger your name, that I can speak of the safety you have given us.
The Dagda met the man's eyes and allowed for but a moment the old one to see behind the smile.
I am but your neighbour and all I ask is that you remember those who have woes of their own when they come looking for safety and hospitality.
Dragging his léine on over his wet skin, he scooped up the end of his club and dragged it off into the night.
The fifth day started with the smell the Dagda had been expecting. Smoke lay thick upon the air and what's more, his sharp senses picked up the scent of blood and death beneath its pall. With a heavy heart the Dagda moved in the direction of the scent, mind already at work on the story of the previous day. Making no attempt to hide his presence, he was soon aware of figures moving as stealthily as they could, out to either side of him.
Carrying on his steady pace he allowed his senses to catalogue their information. They moved with some skill and purpose, from the snatches of coloured clothing and snippets of noise he marked them as warriors, from the sensation the Dagda felt between his shoulder blades he understood their intent. Word no doubt had run ahead of him and it wasn't before long that his path was blocked by a band of some 30 warriors.
Stepping to the fore of his warriors their chieftain flexed out his broad shoulders, axes held loosely in both hands. Taller than the Dagda, but not as broad, he set a fine figure in his war garb.
Tracking the story from the people, the Dagda noted the leather kilt about his waist, held tight in place with the broad belt. Ragged clumps of matted hair ringed his waist as grisly trophies. Above the thin waist the warrior's muscled torso was bare but for the growth of chest hair and the tattooed markings of lines and whorls and dots, weaving a pattern of mayhem distracting to the eye. About the figure's thick neck was a gold torc set with gems, and above that torc was the shaved head, sallow skinned, dead eyed face of a remorseless killer.
The head taker, the people had named him, that and butcher, murderer, and madman. The Dagda finished his threat assessment and to his regret saw no madness in the killer's eyes. A madman can be managed, disabused of their ways, educated or saved.
This head-taker would be none of those things. This the Dagda knew, but with a heavy sigh he settled his feet and prepared to try anyway.
Look lads, a lone lost lamb wandering in the wrong woods.
The voice of headtaker was nasal and sharp. The mockery of course, more for his men's sake than his own pleasure.
It seems we are fortunate for the fun had just ran out of this place with nothing left to pillage, burn, or kill. And here you are, some fresh sport as if hand delivered by the gods themselves.
The troupe of warriors were much pleased by their chieftain's words, and cheered him and pressed closer. Even those skulking few who had tailed him came forward to ring around the Dagda, cutting off any idea of flight. Not that he had such ideas. His purpose was set. There was work to do. The Dagda raised his voice for all to hear every word.
I come for those you have harmed. I come for the woes you have created.
I come for the souls of the dead.
And I come to reap a vengeance on all who choose to stand against me.
Take this, your one chance.
Take this gift I offer and leave now to regret your actions and no longer do any harm.
With the words stated the Dagda waited.
His calm declaration had stolen the bluster from the gathering. His confident stance and steady gaze had caused all to question their mortality... all that is but one.
Headtaker was the first to react, and with predictable malice.
Gut this whoreson and drag his carcass around for the wolves. He is one and we are many.
And with that he hurled the nearest man forward into the area around the Dagda.
As if the first movement had shattered a spell the host descended - moving, cutting, stabbing.
The Dagda's club rose more rapidly than any eye could follow and the first man in range found it connect to his chin, snapping his head back and crushing his vertebrae. He was dead before he hit the ground but the club had already moved on as the Dagda moved about in the target rich environment. All the while the headtaker remained on the edge, watching and manoeuvring, feeding his men to the stocky warrior with the large club.
The day wore on and the numbers dwindled. Many blows were landed on the Dagda's body. Many blades sliced his skin, but for all the wounds his flesh endured, his Will was set and implacable. As the sun began its move towards the red of dusk, the Dagda found his true target at last.
Like a sly animal headtaker had used his men as chaff to try wear down the enemy, hoping a crippling blow would allow him his sport. Never had he seen such destruction, never had he seen such prowess. The warrior never seemed to move, yet always seemed to present the best defence to every angle of assault.
The arc of that club was death for any who fell within its reach and the power those shoulders placed within each swing had seen more than two or three fall to each move.
The time came for headtaker to act, to enter the fray and seal this warrior's fate and claim his mane for his belt....yet for some reason his feet refused to move forward.
Some feral, primal sense in the back of his mind screamed danger at him, howled and clawed at the edges of his reason, freezing him in place.
He fought a valiant battle within his own mind, until those dark eyes fell upon him like chips of obsidian, and the cold of a grave's deep chill penetrated his muscles.
With a remote clang that never even registered in whatever remained of the headtaker's senses, the paired axes hit the ground.
With eyes locking his prey in place, the Dagda ended the 30th warrior's life with a blind backhanded swing, the club's deaths-head crushing his skull. Covered in the Dagda's red he strode slowly towards the headtaker.
His eyes bored straight through the chieftain's mind, reading all of his deeds and weighing his heart. The judgment had been made the moment they had first met. This inevitability is what left the warrior defenceless. Dropping his club the Dagda took the warrior's head in his big hands, reaching either side in a firm grip.
With nought but a whisper the headtaker spoke:
What is your name? Who are you to control such power so readily?
The Dagda paused, hands held firm around the warrior's head, blood running its way down his worn face like crimson tears.
I am your neighbour and the wrath of all whom you have harmed. I am judgment and I am justice for those voices that cry in the night and those souls lost in the mists.
With an ever so slight increase in pressure and a sharp twist, the headtaker's neck snapped and its body fell to the ground, like a puppet whose strings had been severed. Retrieving his club, he sat, and stared long into the night.
The sixth day's dawn arrived and found the Dagda still seated amongst the dead, eyes moving back and forth, mind reading and rereading the actions of the previous day.
At last, heaving a great sigh he rose to his feet and winced. All of his muscles were aflame from the strain of the previous day, his skin stinging where the cuts and slices reopened to bleed afresh. There was work to be done.
Moving into the ruins of the village he found the worst of what he had imagined from the people's tale. Corpses were everywhere among the ruins of the settlement. The whole place had been set to the torch but it was not the fire that had taken so many lives.
The Dagda moved towards the town centre, eyes alert and seeing everything. Bodies of all ages and sex where cast about, some stripped of clothing, all stripped of dignity. The feeling of dread only grew as he passed each body. Looking for one, just one, that may have escaped the violation he now knew had happened.
Arriving at the centre of the settlement he found them. Stacked almost carefully and arranged with purpose, the Dagda's eyes met the faces of all the inhabitants who had not escaped. Their heads arrayed in some form of sickening display of depravity and horror.
The headtaker's sport.
Falling to his knees there in the dirt the Dagda felt his world reel. Pain and exhaustion mixed with woe and rage, threatening to overcome his senses. The whirl of emotion spun about inside his mind and lashed itself against his reason.
She would come if he called.
All it would take would be her name and then to lie down in the dirt and not move. The ruin of all things in such a simple act. Wiping the slate clear of all of this filth and depravity. She would come. If he called.
With her name upon his lips the Dagda felt the dirt beneath his fingers as if for the first time. Opening his tear stained eyes he saw... his thick fingers buried in the earth, the soil soft and warm to the touch.
Danú, Mother, help me.
Exhaling slowly, the Dagda let go of his emotion and allowed his mind to still. There was nothing only breath, and the blackness behind his eyes.
Then he saw them.
The knowing gaze of the old one.
The hopeful eyes of the herder.
The resolute pride of the woman.
The hospitable smile of the farmer.
All the rage fell away. All the pain left him. The weariness of spirit that had weighed more than the weariness of body faded.
The Dagda opened his eyes and saw the spots his tears had made in the soil between his hands. Taking a deep breath, he began to dig with his fingers. It would have to be a pretty big grave to fit them all in, but he would not leave them violated and discarded.
The Dagda set his Will, and moved the earth.
The high king loomed over the assembly from his higher seat. A scowl set upon his face. The Dagda couldn't help note to himself how this little man needed to appear higher up than others.
What gross excess kept you oh Champion?
The King's voice was laden with sarcasm and sneer.
We have much discussion to cover and so all were summoned for dawn this day, yet you saunter in at dusk, in slovenly appearance before this council and your High King.
There are the issues of food, clean water, farm lands, secure dwelling, and raiders to be addressed.
Discussion and debate to agree upon correct action and decrees to write to see it done and you, once great Chieftain, could not even move from your appetites to arrive on time.
What have you to say for your sorry self?!
The Dagda looked about the council, many a fine character was in attendance and they received his respectful nod. He had seen to the care of the deceased and set the land straight in warm blanket above them, then as the seventh day dawned he had set off with all haste to council.
Arriving as the sun set, he was bone weary and drained of all the last vestiges of his patience.
Blow it out your arse you pompous gas bladder. You know nothing of the trials of this land. Your words are just wind.
And as the High King leapt to his feet in uproar, the council exploded in equal parts gasps and laughter, the Dagda finally found his rest in unconsciousness - a fine reward for doing the work.
The Dagda snored.
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An Scéalaí Beag