The Third String.
Tales from a Dagda Bard
The Third String.
Tales from a Dagda Bard
Fools the lot of them. He was smarter than all and therefore most worthy.
The bard looked around at the gathered band of warriors where they began to make their camp for the evening. Every person had a purpose, moving to fetch firewood, or water. Clearing rocks or stamping down grass. Laying out bedrolls or coverings.
Aithirne sneered at them all from his seat. Dull folk engaged in menial tasks. Not exactly worthy material for poetic inspiration. Well maybe it was for some others who did not possess his skill in word craft. Let the lesser bards speak on lesser subjects. Where others had taken to training with the draoi to learn the power of words, he had been born with the gift and from his earliest memories it had always served him well for whatever wants he may have.
When still a babe carried in his mothers belly he had wanted a sup of ale for it’s scent had put a grá upon his mother’s senses. When the misery alesman had refused to serve her Aithirne would not be denied his want and that was the first time the words had come. They had filled him fit to swelling and as the words left him they burst the alesman’s stores asunder sending his rich flavourful ferment all across the floor. Aithirne punished the man for denying him his wants. His mother had gone to her knees and scooped as many palmfuls as she could get into her until the infant was appeased and at rest again. Athirne smiled to himself at the memory, taking his joy in the ruin his words had brought upon the man.
Looking about the camp he watched as the cooking began in earnest. The slaughtered pig was placed on the spit and as the roasting flesh began to crisp and its juices drip Aithirne’s mouth began to water. It wouldn’t be long now but already his belly was growling at him for the hunger that was upon it. He could wait though. The food would not be long coming to him.
The bard remembered a time when the hunger upon him had been so great as to leave him weakened and there were no folk about from which to take his meal. It was a day he would not forget for it was a day that the extent of his power had been revealed to him. Travels around Ulster had taken him far from folk. Some said it was on account of his annoying manner but what did they know of the greater deeds of words? He had been almost the day without food and so had tried to gather fish from the river. He had seen this done once before by menial people and as he was far and above them in intellect surely it would be no chore for him to fish the river. Oh, but the river was a miserly thing stingy in its bounty and it refused him its fish. In a rage the words came upon him and with bellowed voice he laid them out upon the river. The waters began to thrash and churn with an anger that startled the young bard. All in a rush it leapt from its banks and ran all out across the land. Aithirne had fled before it to higher ground and it was there that he saw the extent to which the river was changed by his power. The flood of the waters spread wide and far. The bard watched as it wrecked fences, farm and fowl. Even cattle and folk were caught in its rush and the bard laughed to himself to see them flounder and flap. Eventually people came to him upon the high ground, wet and bedraggled, weighed down with their woes. As their stories were told to him his quick mind came upon a plan.
“Ah sure tis a terrible thing to have such a river unleashed upon you. No doubt the work of some evil malcontent. I heard a tale of such once before.”
The folk in all of their dullardry were much moved to hear him speak so wisely upon the topic of their plight and they did plead with him to tell them the tale that they might set things to right.
“It’s not hard to tell for it’s a tale well known so it is. By ill words and deed has the anger of the river been raised. Someone here abouts has placed a cursing upon its flow. Some sorcerer has set it against you. Tell me have any of you offered a stranger poor hospitality? Denied a wanderer the warmth of a fire, a full belly and their fill of mead?”
The folk turned one to the other seeking the one who had caused the offence and as the frustration rose so to did the voices until all was a clamour of accusation. All the while Aithirne watched attentively learning the names and stories of these folk so as best to choose his next step. Finally as matters came close to conflict the bard rose and with raised hands placed a hush upon the gathering.
“Let there be a whisht upon you. Maybe one among you is responsible, or maybe they have been swept off by the rage of the waters. What was started with words will not be stopped but by words. Let not your fists turn upon each other.”
Aithirne knew the folk by now and had seen the sharpness of some among the dull, still it took more than a moment for his words to get through to them. He worked hard to hide his smile behind a thoughtful frown as the folk pleaded with him to do something.
“Tis no small matter you ask and no small danger you put upon me of the asking.”
The bard maintained his thoughtful expression until the offers started to arrive. Food, lodgings, drink and more were offered him if he were to but save them from the wrath of the river. When finally the folk had offered all they had and the pleading had gone from pleasant to annoying Aithirne agreed to act. Followed by the bedraggled folk, for what great deeds do not require an audience, he made his way to the waters swell and there upon its edge he called out the river;
“O river, fine river, bountiful are you.
O river, great river, calm and beautiful are you.
O river, sweet river, the folk about you mourn.
O river, gentle river, be at peace once more.”
As Aithirne’s words were placed upon the river its anger was soothed to have the insult cleaned away and appeased it did return to its bank and continued on its flow. The people stood amazed at the grand feat this bard had performed and so Aithirne’s renown grew and so to were all of his hungers appeased.
The bard watched the pig as its roast neared completion and did recall the fine house that he had and the wealth he had won with his talents for it is only right that the best of everything be presented upon he who is the best at everything. Were he in his own house then the cranes of Brí Léith would have secured the full of the feast for him alone. Yet all was not lost to one of great talent such as he. Just as the roast was removed from the fire Aithirne rose and called out for all to cease and attend him. As ever his words commanded attention and he felt the thrill of every eye upon him.
“Éist liom. Listen to me. For all this time I have sat and thought, watched and tried to remember. The tales of old speak of many places where the Other lies close to the now. They speak of such places with wary words and worry. For to trespass without offering could lay a doom upon a man.”
The bard allowed a moment’s pause and then shook himself in a shudder as if a discomfort were upon him. To his pleasure he saw many in the troupe glance about nervously. When he continued he introduced a note of fear to his tone, fear that would carry to the ears and hearts of the group.
“This is such a place for upon these land the Aos Sidhe did keep a home. Here they would bring folk, trap them with their music and their feasting until all of time had past and their bodies became as dust.”
Aithirne knew the next part would sell it for everyone knew that bards could walk the ways beyond, or at least that is what the fools had been lead to believe. With a swift twist of his head he began to stare blankly about himself, turning his head this way and that.
“There! Do you hear it? The music. Soft so it is. Upon the breath of the wind through the trees is it carried. Con, do you hear it? Dearbhala do you hear it? They are coming.”
The bard began to sway back and forward as if caught to a melody, all the while keeping his gaze distant, watching from the corners of his eyes to see the reactions he caused. The troupe were all a stir now, looking about fearfully, some reaching for weapons. Eventually one of them approached him and called out. Aithirne pretended not to have heard him, seeming lost to a music only he could hear. The leader of the troupe placed the question upon him again. What was to be done to prevent the doom from falling upon them?
“Whu? Who speaks? Oh, Diarmuid, it's you. Can you not hear the beautiful melody? What? Doom? What do you mean?”
The bard allowed the fear to grow in Diarmuid and waited for him to plead for his protection. With a shake and a shudder he stopped moving and let out a gasp, stumbling forward so Diarmuid must catch him.
“They are coming and they hunger. There is not much time to save us all. Quick now. The best mead and that roast as well. Bring it to me. If I am lucky I may be able to lead them off from you. The offering of fine roast and drink might appease them so that they forget our transgression. Quick now, I will lead them into the woods. Let no person follow me before first light tomorrow. If I am lucky you will find me sleeping, if not you will find me dead. Now hurry!”
The folk moved in all of a scramble as Aithirne once again pretended some distant vision had his eye and music his ear. As hands pressed the mead skin and the roast into his arms he turned and began a stumbling sway off into the woods.
As soon as he was sure they could no longer see him he let out a chuckle and his sway became a swagger. Fools one and all. The bard moved carefully deeper into the woods, seeking a place where he would not be overlooked, a place where no paths lead so that he might enjoy his feast without interruption. Soon the hunger upon him grew too great as the heat of the roast and smell of its drippings took hold of his senses. Stepping from a brush he passed from the trees in to a small opening in the woods. The sky was bright overhead as he stepped down the small bank onto the soft green of the grass. The ring of broad trees blocked the place from any breeze so the warmth of the day was trapped here. Smiling at his fortune as well as his own ability Aithirne moved to the softest grass at the centre of the opening and settled down to his comfort. Placing the mead skin beside him he unwrapped the pig allowing the scent of it to fill is nostrils. Enough to have shared a morsel amongst each of the troupe, it was a feast set to challenge the appetite for one man. The bard took out his knife and carved his first thick slice from the haunch raising it to his lips.
Just as the meat was about to touch his mouth he froze. A faint noise came to him upon the wind. It was at odds to the sounds of the wild wood, but somehow a compliment to them. It was singing. Aithirne began to hurriedly wrap the pig and was reaching for the mead skin when the brush in front of him parted and into the clearing slouched a dishevelled looking man. The bard froze as did the stranger, his song dying away on his lips. The man was broad and slope shouldered his matted hair hanging so lank and long that Aithirne couldn’t be sure where the hair stopped and the beard started. He leaned heavily upon a long wood staff and his back was bowed by the weight of a bulging pack. It was the man who spoke first.
“Ah, I see some other traveler has found my secret spot. The trees were a long time growing about the space but it makes for a fine home for one who has no other. You are welcome to the sharing of it.”
With that the big man moved into the space coming down to join Aithirne upon the soft warm grass. The bard didn’t bother to hide his frustration at the arrival hoping his expression would be enough to see the man off. Unfortunately the strangers wit was obviously as dull as the rest of the folk here abouts. With a grunt of effort the man slumped to the ground in a cross legged manner, slipping his pack from his shoulders. Aithirne watched as the stranger rummaged about about his pack at took out a sagging water skin, a twisted chunk of dry bread and wedge of hard cheese.
“It’s not often I have guests here, been more years than I can recall if I’m honest. As ever it has been upon Inis Fail hospitality is not found wanting among her people and those that share are always at home.”
The strange man held forward the bread and the cheese towards the bard and Aithirne realised he was in a bind. No doubt the smell of the roast pig had pulled this vagrant out from the wilds. In giving of his meagre supplies he no doubt expected a share in the meat and the mead. He tightened his gaze upon the stranger his mind moving rapidly to find some solution. At last he smiled having come upon an idea.
“It’s a gracious of you to offer welcome in this place and a share of your meal as well, but surely a meal shared between friends is better that food consumed among strangers. What name is there upon you that I may know you?”
With sweet polite words Aithirne made his play, for in the knowing of a name there is the knowing of the thing. To one of his talents the knowing of a thing, the understanding of its essence, gave him power of the thing. Aithirne smiled at his own cleverness for he intended to place a satire upon the man using the name of him. That would drive him from this place with the marks of shame upon his face and leave Aithirne to his feast. The strange man cocked his head and placed the bread and cheese back down.
“It’s a strange thing to ask but I can see the reason for it. Alas I have no name of worth upon me.”
Aithirne felt his frustration rise but managed to control it, keeping his friendly demeanour about himself.
“Ah but sure there must be a naming of you for how would you be known to the folk here abouts and those that you meet upon the roads?”
The stranger’s brow came up about his broad features as he raised a thick fingered hand to scratch at his head in confusion. A rain of twigs and tree moss fell from him as he scrunched his face up in thought.
“The paths I walk are old, the ways not traveled by many. The folk here bouts are forgetful and so too it seems am I for I have no name of worth upon me.”
The strange man rocked back upon his seat and let out a hearty chuckle much to Aithirne’s annoyance. Obviously the man’s wits were addled so that he had not understanding of the situation he was in. The bard made one last attempt the secure the name and deploy his satire. The bard spoke slowly and deliberately for it was clear to him that the man was an idiot.
“Look friend, for that is no doubt what you are to me, my name is Aithirne and I am a File of great skill. For the gift of your hospitality I would compose a poem of your name so that others may know of your graciousness. What name is it you have upon you?”
The strange man leaned forward his gaze intent upon the bard for what seemed like the first time and Aithirne could see a smile play about the man’s bearded lips.
“A bard indeed? Now that is a wonder to find in these wilds. Long have I walked these ways and many were the conversations I have missed. A poem you say? Such a thing for one as unknown to the world as me. A name I have but old and hard it is to rhyme. I fear it may be beyond you worthy Aithirne.”
The strange man’s gaze never left the bard and though the words were offered with polite tone Aithirne could see naught but insult in them. Who was this stranger to question his skills? His frustrations overcame his control and his reply was sharp and cutting.
“What insult is this you give me? Have you not heard of Aithirne? I am the most renowned File in all of Eireann. There is no craft of words that is beyond me. Speak your name fool and allow my skills educate your dullardly life.”
The strangers never moved more that his smile but his energy took on a cold sharpness that seemed to steal the very warmth from the sun. When he spoke his voice was deep and resonant carrying about the glade in broad rolling tones.
“"Nothing famous is on me, that is Sethor Ethor Othor Sele Dele Dreng Gerce Mec Gerce Ger Gér Dír Dír, is my name."
The recitation finished as the words filled the space and Aithirne’s mind. Old though they were he knew them, knew the layers of meaning, inflection, rhyme and rhythm. He knew them for the insult and the challenge that they were but he knew one thing most of all. They were beyond him. There was no opportunity left for him to exploit. No word play with which he could retaliate. The rosc, for that is what it was, fully encapsulated itself leaving nothing for him to work with. The bard’s anger flared hot upon him, stealing him of his reason. He leapt to his feet, face turned to red, knife brandished in threat against the stranger.
“What trickery is this? Who are you to so readily use the power of words in such a manner? Speak!”
The stranger man remained seated but the intensity of his gaze never waivered, ensnaring the moment with its cold hard energy. When his voice came it held none of the previous rambling confused tone and Aithirne knew he had been beguiled.
“I have told you who I am, Aithirne Mac Feircheirdne, Aithirne Áilgheasach, Aithirne Amhnach, Aithirne Díbheach.”
The bard staggered back, fear’s cold replacing anger’s heat upon him. Aithirne the annoyingly persistent. Aithirne the savage. Aithirne the miserly. All things he had been called but none by any folk here abouts. Names he had fled from and reviled. Names which he knew he deserved. Names which he knew were true.
The fear stole the confidence from his voice causing him to stammer.
“Wh..What do you want of me?”
“Not hard to say so it is. I want what’s been promised me by your words and deeds. I have come for that which you declared mine. I have come to claim the price I am due for proper balance to be ensured.”
The man’s face took on a smile at this and Aithirne’s blood ran cold in his veins. Now he knew for now he could see the man for what he was. One of them, the Other peoples, the Aos Sidhe. The blade dropped from his weak grip and he fell to his knees then forward on his face covering his head with his arms. Still this did not drown the loud pleas that escaped him.
“Please lord spare me your wrath. Leave me my life. Take me not from this world I beg you. I am but a fool compared to your greatness and not worth your interest. Please, please, please no. Please spare me.”
With his face in the dirt Aithirne heard the strange man move, but dared not raise his gaze.
“What’s been offered has been accepted and therefore cannot be denied me.”
The bard tried to grovel lower fearing for his life all the while until he heard a new sound. The pop of a stopper and then a deep gullet filling gulping. Raising himself slowly he took a peek through his fallen locks and saw the stranger, head tipped back the bag of mead in his hands. He watched as the golden liquid poured forth into the wide mouth of the man, hearing him gulp and glug it down. The bag was not long in reaching its empty as the man poured it forth in one go, drinking it down. As the last drops crossed his lips he at last tipped his head forward and released a glade shakingly loud belch. Aithirne felt his face shift in surprise as he slowly rose to his knees before this big strange man.
“Oh you weren’t wrong wordsmith, that was indeed a fine mead. Now onto the roast.”
The bard watched as the man pulled the roast pig towards himself and began to tear it apart with his thick fingers. As the flesh was pulled from the bones it entered his mouth in large chunks. The man sat chewing all the while. Aithirne could do naught but watch him devour the roast until all that was left was a pile of stripped and cracked bones. Once again as the man finished he tilted his head up and released a thunderous bellow of a belch. The stranger wiped his hands upon his tunic and settled back with a broad grin on his face.
“Now that was a tasty thing indeed and I’m well glad of the offering you have made this day. Now on to the last of our business, Aithirne Mac Feircheirdne.”
Once again the bard felt the fear cold upon him and managed a few stammered words.
“Please don’t harm me lord. What more would you have of me?”
The stranger smiled but never moved from his seat.
“There is a lesson here if you are sharp enough to grasp it and a life’s salvation if you keep it close to you.”
The man gestured to what food remained upon the ground between them. A sagging water skin, a twisted chunk of dry bread and wedge of hard cheese.
“What is due a man should always be in keeping with the value of his labours. For those of whom much is asked, so too is much given. Those that take more than they are due exceed the remit of true balance and in that manner will their doom come fast upon them.”
The bard frowned as he looked to the meagre scraps left upon the grass.
“Heed me well Aithirne and a gracious and long life will be yours. Heed me not and it will end in fire and blood. These are the words I have for you but your story is your own to write.”
The strange man unfolded himself from his cross legged seat and came to stand in one flowing movement, no sign of strain or effort to the action. With an easy motion he swung the large pack up on his back standing straight and tall in the forest glade.
“Never again will you have a warning presented to you bard. Heed my words or not, the consequences you earn will be yours alone.”
With that the figure fetched up their staff and swinging it jauntily upon the end of their arm made their way back to the trees.
“Oh, one last thing, I’ll be taking Midir’s cranes back, and you had best not bother him again, you hear? Slán slán.”
With that the big strange man began to sing and stepped back into the woods. Aithirne lost sight of him, but the sound of that song carried to him upon the breath of the wind through the trees.
So here it was the Dairmuid’s troupe found the bard the next morning, sitting in a warm glade, staring at a twisted chunk of dry bread in one hand and a wedge of hard cheese in the other.
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