The Third String.
Tales from a Dagda Bard
The Third String.
Tales from a Dagda Bard
The thunder rolled itself across the sky, growling its stormy wrath into the darkness over Eireann. The storms had come, chasing each other on to the island with great gusting gales, seething sheets of rain and a darkening of the sun’s brightness. It seemed Winter was loath to release its hold on the green lands.
I lay in my bed, stricken by illness with no respite from the pains but for what broken sleep I could snatch between fits of coughing. Lack of sleep can do much to the mind and so it was with mine, as that night I heard not the thunder of storm fronts, but that of a great many hooves, galloping their way across the sky. I chuckled to myself, tickled by the idea of night riders tearing up the clouds in their wild gallop. Fanciful images appeared in my mind’s eye as malady meshed with memory.
Fine folk hollering into the storm as they raced about in their sport and hunt. The rolling trundling rumbling of coach wheels as the black steed pulled its black shape towards me. The tall cowled figure astride a broad white stallion.
The heavy weight of my exhaustion tugged upon my eyelids dragging me down towards sleep. Surely it would be only sleep, for though the illness was upon me, my death must still be a long time in coming for me. This was the thought that carried me to the house of Donn.
The horses had come to a stop and though our gallop had sped us far and fast not a one of them was lathered or even short on breath. I gave my russet coloured mare a scratch behind her ears and a gentle pat of appreciation to her neck as I slipped from her saddle. My companions had already dismounted and moved towards the doors of the great hall, each laughing and sharing in the comradery of our jaunt. I waved them on when they beckoned me, not as yet prepared to enter the hall. I took the walk around the side to the stables, leading my horse though it, nor the rest, needed to be shown the way to their comforts. Slipping into the stall I removed the bridle, saddle and blanket from my mare and taking up a brush began to groom her with gratitude.
As is the way of things with me, the mind quite often finds its peace to think when engaged in some manual task. This time was no different to the rest. As the brush moved along, smoothing and straightening the hair, my thoughts became smooth and straight. This was my horse, but not my horse. It belonged to the lord of the hall and was one among many in his fine stable. I looked up from my work and though there were many fine steeds in the stable, there was but one that I recognised. It was a broad stallion, fine and sturdy at some eighteen hands with not a hair upon it which was not the purest white. There are many tales of such fine steeds that exist within the realms of the Otherworld. From the fae ridden beasts of Tír na nÓg, the richly arrayed mounts of Manannán Mac Lír, to the steeds of Midir in Brí Léith. To my mind this stable was none of those and so it was that I realised I had come to Tech Duinn, the house of death.
There comes a moment with any journey where a person must face a choice. Turn back to and return whence you came, or carry on forward into the unknown, for though the road may be clear who knows what awaits us beyond the moment of choice. As real as this is in our world, so too is it in the Other.
I stepped from the stall, giving my mount a fond farewell pat, and moved towards the great doors of Tech Duinn. I felt a tense trepidation as I pressed my hands against the carved wooden portal but with a steadying breath I pressed on into…
The lobby was dominated by the reception desk with but a few chairs set off to the side. It was bright and airy with a vast range of blooming plants adding a pleasant aroma to the area. “Hello again. It’s been quite some time. Oh!, I don’t have a reservation set aside for you. Did you book in advance?”
I looked up at the well dressed receptionist where they sat behind the check in sign. My brain searched rapidly for some recognition of their features but try as I might, I couldn’t place them.
“I’m sorry, I don’t seem to recall meeting you before.”
My gaze swept around the spacious hotel entrance with its modern furnishings, quite at odds with the experience of the stables and the carved wooden door. I was just about to turn back when the receptionist called out to me again.
“Oh I wouldn’t worry about that. It happens to even one of the regulars like you. It can take some time to adjust to being here and leave the worries of your journey behind.”
They began flicking through a large binder, briskly moving back through the pages.
“Hmm, it seems you haven’t stayed more than a short layover with us in quite some time. I can prepare a stopping off section for you if you’re heading out again soon, or we have an open suite if you would like to stay longer this time?”
Their eyes came up to meet mine and I lost my sense of self in their ageless gaze. Something began to stir in the recesses of my mind. Not a memory as it was nothing that my life had experienced. More like the echo of a memory, some subtle and instinctual sense.
“Em, I’m not quite sure. I haven’t brought any luggage and I wasn’t really expecting… well this.”
The receptionist smiled a smile full of compassionate understanding and waved me over to the check in register.
“Oh not to worry, you won’t need anything the suite doesn’t cover. Let’s check you in for a long stay and if you change your mind we can sort things out then. How does that sound?”
I found myself nodding along to each statement as it all seemed to make the most logical sense, and after all I was tired from the journey to get here not to mention the riding. It would be good to just stop and rest for a good long stretch. I began to reach out for the pen they were offering me. All I would need to do is sign my name and that would be that. I felt the pen in my hand, seemingly heavier than its size should indicate. Just sign my name, simple as that. The pen hung in the space above page, my eyes locked to the blank space awaiting my mark. My name. That thing which defines me as who I am. That collection of sounds that identify me as me. In that moment I felt that it was something I was not ready to give up.
“Ahem. Is there a problem here?”
The voice rolled over me as comforting as an old overcoat, as warm as a soft duvet, and as firm as a good handshake. The spell of the blank space was broken as my eyes were pulled up by the familiarity of that sound.
“Oh no Donn, there is no issue. This guest had no prior reservation, but looking at the previous records of visitation I was just going to sign him in for a suite. There have been more quick turnarounds than not recently but I felt a long stay might suit on this occasion. Have I erred?”
The receptionist was addressing someone I knew very well, though I had rarely seen him in such formal attire. My big broad friend stood behind the counter wearing a dark navy blazer over a white shirt. The splash of colour from his red tie really brought out the auburn tones in his manicured beard. Under his arm he was carrying a large ledger.
“Hmm, let me take care of this one. He can be a bit of a handful at times. Would you mind popping up to the top suite? She needs some correspondence sent out with some urgency and I would like them handled with some delicacy if that's ok with you?”
“Of course Donn, I will see to it straight away. Good to see you again sir. I do hope you enjoy your rest no matter the length of its duration.”
With a smile and a wave the receptionist moved away across the lobby and into a waiting elevator. I looked back into a pair of dark eyes and was struck by their serious intent.
“Might be best you hand that pen over to me, there’s a good lad. We don’t want any incidental records here now do we?”
I looked down at my hand. It still held the pen, the weight of which had been moving the nib closer to the paper this whole time. I closed my eyes so as not to get caught on the blank space which was expecting my name and with an effort of will, pulled the pen back from the guest register. When I finally released the pen it landed with a dull thud upon the counter top before being rapidly snatched up and pocketed by the Dagda.
“There now. Nothing signed so no need to fret.”
As I watched he reached over to the register and tore out the page I had been about to sign. This too disappeared into his blazer pocket. With the deed done he stepped around the reception desk, tucking that large ledger back under his arm.
“Best you come walking with me before anything else happens here lad. I have a couple of errands I just can’t delay right now but if you can keep up we can get things out of the way and look after your situation then.”
My God began to stride away across the foyer, his loafers making no sound upon the carpeted flooring. I found myself rushing my stride just to keep pace. The airy clean lines of the foyer gave way to a rustic wood panelling decor as we moved from the reception into what I could only assume was a dining hall. All about there were tables and chairs of all descriptions and styles, from the classic european round and square pedestal tables to a sturdy and less embellished nordic, the low legged aisian style and even a section of cushions and dining mats of some middle eastern designs. Many of these seating arrangements were occupied. The space was warm and comfortable, filled with rich aromas of a wide variety of foods and the hubbub of conversation. We bustled on through with my senses picking up only a fraction of the experience as I rushed to keep pace with my companion. Soon a pair of swinging saloon style doors took us from the dining area to the kitchen. Here the Dagda came to such an abrupt halt that I all but barrelled into him, straining myself to keep my balance.
“Oi! Seig, Segdae? I need you to put on an extra plate for room 504. My boy has brought company again and I won’t see them go hungry. Also the roast for the mead hall has to be moved up to 5 hours from now and make sure you bring the veg and sides this time. Don’t let them talk you out of it. That lot wouldn't know good soul food if it slapped them in the face. Also have someone run up a pot of tea to Herself and stick a few biscuits on a plate. She didn’t order it but I won’t have Her working without something warming close to hand. Got that? Good!”
The Dagda’s words came warm as ever but brusque and to the point. It was his ‘no nonsense’ tone. One I had become quite accustomed to. As soon as the last syllable had left his lips he was off moving again. I hurried to keep up with him, still somewhat lost in the strangeness of it all. I got the impression of a vast kitchen space, all stainless steel countertops, sinks, ovens and hobs. Everywhere there was a bustle of activity with folk moving efficiently from task to task. Except for in the very centre where two young men worked. They stood over an open fire, each of them grasping the opposite ends of a single spit upon which they were slowly turning a number of roasting pigs. The smells of the meat reached out to me and I felt my mouth water and my stomach growl with its need for but the smallest taste. My eyes became locked to the slowly turning meat and my steps began to slow and change direction towards the spit. The hunger upon me grew with each step I took closer to the fire until it became a pain in me, an aching need which demanded to be satisfied. The hunger filled my mind so that I lost all thought other than the need to feed, that was until a new pain erupted across my shoulder.
The sudden crushing pressure caused me to wince and in that moment my gaze left the roasting spit. I felt myself turned about by a force which I could never resist until I was looking into the face of my friend. The Dagda’s hand was clamped firmly on my shoulder, his thick fingers locking me to his grip.
“Thought I told you to keep up? This kitchen only serves guests of the house, besides, you’re not even hungry.”
There it was again, that same serious intent in his gaze. I felt the focus of it upon me and right down through me. I could never deny that gaze. It registered in my mind in the brief moment of connection before his big hand turned me about in front of him and gently, yet irresistibly moved me out of the back door of the kitchen.
“Come on now, more to do and not a lot of time to do it in.”
The doors led through into a service corridor of some kind, yet even here there were embellishments. The walls were painted with a serviceable colour, the kinds often produced in vast quantity for industrial uses, those muted grey and blue tones which are easily applied over concrete, yet here and there along our journey there were portraits hanging, each of them showing a different person. The subject of each painting was unique in almost every way. They were all human presenting but of a vast array of ages, ethnicities, genders, and atires spanning almost all of the ages of human existence. Something tugged at my awareness as we moved past the images, some echoe of recognition, but it slipped away before I could grasp it. What did move me to comment was the realisation that the skills used in each image was the same. The sweep of the brush strokes, the styles of composition and selections of shading and illumination.
“Were these all painted by the same person?”
The Dagda looked up from the large ledger he had been skimming through, pausing in his annotations.
“Hmm? Oh, them? Yeh they were all painted by the one artist. Some say that he is good at everything but I still think he could improve on the compositions somewhat.”
My brain picked up on his words but the smile in his tone indicated that I was missing something. I recalled the lore of names and remembered the ‘Ildánach’ or one who is skilled in many arts.
“So these were painted by Lugh?”
The Dagda chuckled and his pace slowed somewhat as we approached the next illustration.
“Close, but no. That one is a lot better with a brush than this painter. The artist just wanted to capture something of each of these folk before they moved on.”
We came to a stop before the next portrait. It showed a woman of advanced years dressed in what I could only assume was a victorian style gown. She was gazing out of the canvas with a warm smile upon her round features. The detail in the artistry was such that I would have thought it a photograph is not for the faint brush strokes here and there.
“Well whoever the artist is, they are very good at what they do. They really captured the essence of this person. I feel like I know her just by seeing this. Maybe you can pass along my compliments?”
I looked up to see the Dagda looking not at the image but at me. He had a half smile about him and the knowing twinkle in his eye.
“No need to pass them along, lad. Your compliment is very much appreciated.”
I looked back at the portrait and then back to my friend.
“Wow, You’re really good. Can I ask who she is?”
The Dagda gave the painting a fond look then gestured for us to carry on walking.
“That was Ellie. She was a real kidder. Had one of the bawdiest sense of humours of her time. Of course it wasn’t much appreciated in the ‘well to do’ circles she moved in but it made working with her all the more entertaining.”
“What happened to her?”
“Same as what happens to most folk who come here. She had the choice to take another journey or to retire.”
“So she was like me then? Someone you had a working connection to?”
The Dagda gave me one of his warm smiles and an affectionate pat on the shoulder.
“You could say she was a lot like you, yes. New let’s get on about these errands.”
Another set of doors parted to our passage and we entered a room that was all heat and noise. Everywhere about there was metal and fire. The room appeared to be some form of furnace space with large burners transferring their heat via lengths of metal tubing which ran along every wall and across the ceiling. My companion moved through the space with the same assurity step as he had everywhere else.
“Over here Donn.”
I heard the voice despite the din. It seemed like the kind of voice that was used to being heard over banging, clanging and fire. We came to a stop before a large furnace, a large metal bellied beast of a thing with flames flickering and dancing behind its grill. The bars of the grill had become worn and broken giving the impression of a vast metal maw of jagged ragged teeth.
“Thought I told you this needed seein’ to sooner rather than later?”
The gruff tone of the voice carried its disapproval without any attempt at moderation. I looked up to see a stocky man, with powerfully built shoulders and arms. His face was covered in ash and soot and bore the signs of his work around the fire. In his scarred and calloused hand he held a beaten and shaped piece of metal.
“I hear you my old friend, there are a lot of priorities which need my attention.”
“Bah! None of which would see this place burn down around you I’d wager.”
“You might just lose that wager. ‘She’ is here to meet with her sisters after all.”
“Yeh, now lets see to that replacement shall we.”
The conversation contained the banter of close friends, despite the surliness of the other man. It was when the Dagda turned to the furnace that the other man saw me.
“Here, you’re early. Didn’t think you’d be about this soon. Still don’t just stand there, give a hand. Grab those crimping pliers over there.”
There was something familiar about the person, but before I could take time to consider what that was I found myself in motion. I moved to the tool box and rooted around through many of the implements until I came up with the requested pliers. As I turned back I saw that both men were now over by the big furnace and with careful actions they had removed the covering grill. My companion had taken off his blazer and rolled his shirt sleeves up above the elbows of his muscled arms and I saw his strain as he lowered the broken grill to the floor. As I looked to the furnace I saw dancing red and golden flames no longer masked by the metal frame. The flickering flowing light moved joyously about, swirling and twirling. Rising up upon itself only to fall back down into its core to begin the dancing again. The heat of it bathed me in its glow and I felt as if I was warmed for the first time in my life. There was no other sensation I longed for more than the embrace of that heat, to feel myself sink within it, allow its searing kiss to burn away all that I was and to free me to join the dance of purest energy within the blazing heart of the fire. I found myself standing right before the furnace mouth, pulled inexorably toward the flames, eyes locked on their beckoning dance, certain that this was the true destination of my journey.
There are many ways to jog a person out of distraction, but none so abruptly impactful as a kick in the arse.
I blinked at the sudden surprising bump to my rump and staggered, trying to regain my balance. In the moment that I moved clear, the flames were blocked by the broad shape of my companion as he and the smith hefted the new grill into place.
“Come on now. You’re here to work not to gawp. Get those hinge pins in place and be sure to give them a good twist so they tighten.”
The gravelly voice set me in motion once again and as my two companions strained to hold the heavy grill in place I slid the hinge pins home, and gave them a firm twist as instructed.
I stepped back from the job and turned to see that same intense gaze in the Dagda’s eyes as he observed me. It was the smith who spoke next.
“Good to have a third set of hands for this job. Made things go a bit smoother than expected I’d say.”
I glanced over to see a warm smile on the metalworker’s face as my companion fixed his shirt sleeves and redonned his blazer.
“Yeh. Surprising how some folk turn up just when you need them to huh?”
I smiled to receive the compliments as I stepped forward to return the crimping pliers.
“Sure what kind of a person would I be if I didn’t try help wherever I could?”
“Rightly said, and we all need a kick in the arse from time to time. Though hopefully not too many from my big footed friend Donn here huh?”
This last was delivered with a wink and a comradely shove to my companion’s arm.
“Ah leave off Goibhniu or his won’t be the only arse getting a kick. Thanks for the repair job. I think it’s past time I take care of the matter of our surprise guest here.”
“Oh? He not staying?”
“No, and do me a favour would you? He was never here ok?”
My God gave that same intense look but this time to Goibhniu.
“Righto, you’re Donn after all. Who am I to naysay you in your own house.”
“Thanks a chara, I will catch up with you later.”
With that we turned about and returned to the service corridor, moving along past the paintings again. Our pace was steady but this time unhurried. I glanced at each painting I passed allowing my eyes to perceive them even as my mind worked on the question. It had been brewing in my mind the entire time but the rapid pace of our errands had left little opportunity for the question to take full form. Now, it seemed, was the time for questions.
“Dagda? It’s a very interesting place you have here. I’m just confused. Why does everyone keep calling you Donn?”
“Really? That’s the question you want to ask? After everything that’s happened here?”
He gave me a sidelong glance as we walked and I felt myself flush with embarrassment.
“Well it was the question I felt safest to ask.”
“Fair enough. I go by many names as you well know. Eochaid, The Dagda, Ruadh Rofessa, and many more. These names tend to link to some facet of the work I do for the tribes. In this place I am Donn and this is the house I hold.”
The comforting tone of his instruction was something I was very familiar with and the steady pace of our walk gave me some reassurance of a destination somewhere nearby. Still getting the real question to pass my lips was no easy feat.
“Donn is said to be the good of death and if this is the house of Donn then…. Am I dead?”
The Dagda didn’t slow our pace and his answer came with the same instructional tone.
“Death is part of life as surely as night is part of day. It’s the ever flowing river of existence which moves our energies around time and again along the path of the great cycle. As with every path or route, there are stepping on and stepping off places. This house is just one such place. A place for a person to leave one journey and when they are ready begin another. The house of death is not some dull mortuary beholden to a funereal motif. It’s more like a hostel at a crossroads, a place where paths start, end, meet or diverge.”
We moved on as I considered all I had seen and the insights I have been given. Still, his answer was by no means complete.
“You didn’t answer my question.”
He brought us to a stop in front of a large ornately carved wooden door, one hand upon it ready to push it open.
“Alive or dead, asleep or awake, does it matter to you so much to exist within the bounds of those definitions? What if this really is the Tech Duinn. What if it’s all just a fever dream of your illness exhausted mind. What if you have journeyed here in spirit, riding the sidhe mounts of the night. Would it matter to you if this was where your story was set to end?”
There it was again, that intense energy about him. Not just in his gaze, but in his entire being. As if something important was happening somewhere around me. As if all of this was waiting on a moment of choice. A decision to carry on forward into the unknown, or turn back to and return whence I came. I made my choice.
“If it’s all the same to you, my work is nowhere near finished and I have some folk that I really want to spend a lot more time with.”
The Dagda Donn smiled his warm smile for me and pushed on the door.
“As you wish, a chara.”
The room beyond the portal was immense yet it was no empty sepulcher nor cathedral. It was a library. Everywhere there were bookshelves towering to heights which seemed to defy comprehension, not to mention the laws of physics. Every shelf was packed with volumes of all sizes, bindings and colours. In the marginal spaces between shelves there were lecterns and upon them open books with pages seeming to flip of their own accord. The entire place was filled with a low level susurration, as if thousands of whispered conversations were happening all about the place.
In no more than a few minutes I was completely lost. There seemed to be no logical layout to follow. No categorised or alphabetised signage of any kind. The Dagda wove us through the shelves with an unwavering assurance of his location and destination. Eventually we rounded another oddly angled corner and arrived at a bookshelf. At first there seemed to be nothing to differentiate this one from all of the rest with its wooden framing and row upon row of varied tomes. It was only on the second look that I saw that one book was missing.
“Ah, here it is. Storms must have tossed it off the lectern.”
The Dagda stood upright having recovered a book from the floor. It was a simple looking thing, well built and bound with a dark navy covering. As I watched, my God placed the book back on the lectern.
“What is that?”
“Oh I’m pretty sure you know lad. It’s just one of the many stories that have filled these pages, books and shelves. Like the rest on that shelf there, this one is yours.”
I turned to look at the bookshelf and its variety of coloured books. My hands began to itch with the need to reach out and touch them. To leaf through the pages and see what there is to learn from everything that went before.
“Are you talking about reincarnation?”
“Em, that term is rather specifically linked to a particular dogma. I would say transubstantiation of energies.”
I turned to look at the Dagda just as he opened the navy book. The pages bagan to flip of their own accord and I had the sudden feeling that my time here was coming to an end.
“Wait, can I just have a look? Just a few minutes to flip through?”
The Dagda laughed thunderously.
“You have no idea how many times you have asked that my lad.”
The sounds of his bellowing laughter surrounded me, rolling heavily upon my senses, drowning out all other noise and gusting a heavy breeze across me until…
I awoke shivering as the wind buffeted the bedroom window, casting it back upon its hinges and wide open to the storm. I leapt from the bed and rushed to close it securely, heart hammering in my chest. In our room my partner stirred from her slumber.
“It’s nothing, love, don’t worry. The storm caught the window is all.”
“Did you have a bad dream?”
“I… I don’t remember.”
Outside, the thunder rolled itself across the sky, bellowing its stormy laughter into the darkness over Eireann.
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