The Third String.
Tales from a Dagda Bard
The Third String.
Tales from a Dagda Bard
The warband was tired and drained from their fruitless efforts. Long they had stayed away from settlements and security, roving the wilds as was their chieftain's orders. A series of raids all along the border was what he had demanded and it was what they had delivered, but all for little or no gain. Reprisal, revenge, justice. These were the words used to give reason to this endeavour. As they did onto us, so shall we do onto them tenfold. At least those were the Chieftain's words as they set out on this trek.
Con, champion of his nine, knew that they were at the end of their supplies and the forecast rewards in food and treasures had not appeared despite their efforts. Every one of them was battered and bruised and only by their skills had they not left any of their number slain upon neighbouring lands. Even now, he knew they were being pursued. Warriors from the neighbouring chief's territory had met them at every turn and were their equal in battle as much as in guile. If not for the sudden storm they would surely have been brought to battle once more and Con was none too sure how that could have played out in their favour. Con felt that the Gods must surely have a grudge against him.
The heavy rains kicked up a mist from the land and left them all but blind beyond the few feet about them, so it was with some surprise that they came upon the building. It sat long and low where their path met another and even through the cold and heavy rain, Con could see the light of the fires within and hear the sound of merry making. Still Con was a dutiful champion and remembered his Chieftain's advice to avoid settlements.
“We should pass on by. There is no telling where we stand given this storm. No way to be sure whose people this is.”
“That’s madness Con. We are beyond our last meal and if we don’t find safe warm rest then this storm will be the ending of us, never mind what enemies might still be about.”
The voice was Deirdre’s, ever the sensible counsel.
“What if it’s a foe? What if we walk in there only to be taken captive? There is not much battle strength left to even you Deirdre. Fergal ordered me to steer us away from settlements and I gave my word to that. I can’t lead our people into bondage. What would you have me do?”
Deirdre took a quiet moment to think, as was her manner. The rain hammered down on them as the dark of the night’s fast approach began to add its chill to the waters falling from the sky.
“Ask for Hospitality.”
Deirdre’s words seemed like such a small thing, but the import of them gave more than just an answer to a tough problem. They gave Hope.
Con, took a moment to weigh the possibilities. The rules around hospitality were ancient before even his people came to Eriu’s isle. It was said that any who came seeking hospitality where to find at the very least a night of safe rest and a meal to fill them.
It was a practice little held to these days as, more and more, people kept to themselves wary of outsiders and strangers. Yet even Fergal, Chieftain of Con’s tribe, could not go against this ancient practice of community, no matter how he may grumble and begrudge it.
“Alright, we seek hospitality, but I warn each of you that you represent Fergal’s folk and let not one of us dishonour that trust nor break with our own.”
With that Con pulled his hood down, showing his face to the rain and lead them out of the hills and down to the doorway.
The building was longer than it was wide, but its back was set deep into a small rise in the land so that its broad log walls were screened by the earth. The thatching on the roof was part covered by the top sod of the mound, making it seems as if the entire place had sprouted from the land. As the wet and weary warriors approached the doorway, they saw that the wood of the walls fit so close together that the only escape for the light and the sounds within was the door itself. Wide enough for a broad man, it was barred with a massive door of solid looking wood timbers. The light from within crept out around its corners, bringing with it the scents or roasting meat, and fresh bread. Con felt his band press close behind him, almost pulled in by the those sensations and the muffled sounds coming from beyond the portal.
Con raised his hand and knocked, wincing as the impact of the hardwood sent spikes of pain up his icy cold knuckles. From beyond the door there came a shuffling sound and then the mighty portal shuddered as bolts where thrown and some strong force set it in motion. The spill of golden light, heat, and scents of hots food hit the warband like a physical blow. Con knew that his warriors stomachs must growl as much as his own. Still it was with some pride that he noted them remain solidly stood about him, awaiting his lead, though not one could help a slight lean in towards the warmth.
“Eh? What’s this now? Who is it that comes calling on a fierce poor night like this? Speak up and be quick about it, the heats escaping.”
Con looked down at the door keeper, a stooped elderly man. All scraggly hair and beard, big rough hands upon the doors edge, broad shoulders leaning against it so as to block the passage. His voice was soft and gravelly, but carried well despite the storm all about.
“I am Con, son of Dearbhla, champion of Fergal’s tuatha and these are my nine. You have my humblest apologies for the disturbance we offer, but we would like to request hospitality of you.”
The stooped door keeper’s gaze fell heavy upon Con before moving around to take the measure of each of his followers.
“That’s no small request and from the manner of your asking I presume you know its import. Answer me this, and true before your request is met. Does each of you here agree to be bound by their honour to uphold the expectations of a guest?”
“I speak for the nine and as representative of Fergal, chieftain of lands here about, that we will uphold the expectation of guests whilst in your home.”
Con’s voice was firm in his declaration and each of his nine gave a nod of agreement at his words.
“Let it be as you have said, Con son of Dearbhla, and so hospitality is given. Now come on in and get close to the fire there, sure you’re all drenched through.”
With that the doorkeeper hustled them inside and as the last of them crossed the threshold, he set his broad shoulder to the door and heaved it shut. The nine stood in a long hall, a big fire pit set down its centre full of red heat. Orange flames feasting and dancing along a thick stack of logs. There were a number of other folk about the space resting at their ease on the mats upon the ground paying no mind to the new arrivals. A harper sat to one side plucking and strumming a soft melody as another file kept the beat on a bodhran. Con swept his eyes about the space but could not make out who sat as master here. Knowing the master, could indicate their allegiance and that in turn tell him how far they were from home in Fergal’s territory. So thinking he turned towards the doorkeeper.
“Gatekeeper, I would ask you what tuatha does the master of this place hold to?”
The stooped old man shuffled over to the fire, using his big toughened hands to move some of the logs about so as to best get the heat onto them.
“There is no tuatha within these walls, son of Dearbhla. Now get your nine settled whilst I sort out some supper for you. The barrel is over there.”
With a gesture of his thick arm the man shuffled towards the back of the hall and in behind a curtained doorway.
“Well that seems to have gone well.”
Deirdre shucked off her rain coverings and moved closer so the fire could take the chill from her. In a moment Con joined her as the rest of the nine began to find their ease.
“What was that about ‘no tuatha within the walls’?
Deirdre took her moment as her storm grey eyes shone in the fire light.
“I’m not rightly sure Con. My father was a Brehon and there are things that I recall, but I was not trained in the knowledge. What I know is that your response means that we exist under Fergal’s honour as you rightly said. Yet should there be any troubles it will be on him and you to pay the price.”
She looked up from the fires the light of remembering on her face.
“Oh, and it might be best to keep a moderate watch on Sean, no freeman can expect more that 6 pints and you know how much of a drinker he is.”
Con gave a nod of thanks and stepped over to check in with his nine, and have a word in particular with Sean about moderation.
It was then that there came a loud knock on the door. It shuddered into the room but did not interrupt the harper at her play or the conversations of those within. All except for the nine remained as they had been. Con watched as the old doorkeeper returned and shuffling his way across the hall once again heaved the big door open. The heat of the room diminished a bit as the old warden conversed with whomever was outside. He could not hear the words exchanged but noted the old one give a satisfied nod, and then open the door wide to admit a troupe of people. They came in from the cold and wet, drenched through as his group had been. As the last crossed the threshold the gatekeeper closed the door. Con counted them to the nine that they were.
The new arrivals shuffled in towards the fire’s heat. It was in the movement that Con saw one was being near carried by a companion. They moved with a wincing struggle favouring their left leg for some wound upon it.. As Con saw the warrior settled down and their rain cloak removed, his stomach sank for he knew who had dealt them that wound and who it was had received it. Grian Mac Cairenn, young champion of tuatha Domhnaill, the lord of the lands Fergal had sent them to raid. It was in the last day’s battle that Con had struck that blow which now enfeebled the warrior. Con quickly turned from the new arrivals and looked to his own nine where they had moved apart to take their ease. He could see that they too had recognition of the arrivals but each awaited his word, hands moving slowly to where weapons had been placed.
“Now then, Who has a hunger on them?”
The gravelly voice of the gatekeeper caused Con to start in surprise and turn about in time to see the old man shuffling across the floor towards the fire, a large cauldron swaying heavily in his big hands. With a last mighty heft he placed it upon the forks and set it to the heat. Looking up from the fire the old man’s eyes moved about the room.
“Might be best it takes the heat for a few minutes given the cold upon most of our guests here tonight, eh? Gives us a grand opportunity for a tale or two I think. We have some fine new companions here. Caught out in a terrible storm no less. No way to know more than that unless they have a tale to tell?”
The old man stood stooped and silent. Allowing the question to hang in the air. Even the harp and bodhran had fallen silent. Con could see the faces of his nine all turned to him and began to gather his thoughts. It wasn’t his voice that broke the silence though.
“It’s only right that the gift of your hospitality is met with a tale and so I have one for you. A tale of duty, honour, and skill.”
Con’s eyes were drawn across the fire to see Grain Mac Cairenn raise himself with a wince to his feet. The next words followed as their eyes met.
“A tale of battles and wounding. A tale of revenge and Justice.”
Con could no more look away than he could stop breathing. The other warrior stood heavily on his right leg, favouring the left though not seeking any aid. The set of his jaw told Con of the pain he was in but to his credit, no sound of it escaped into his speech.
“Raiders was the word used. Marauders. Attacking our territory in wanton savagery. Our chieftain heard the cries of his people and sent forth his best nine to see of these villains. Many days and nights did the nine pursue the invading wretches but it was only at the last that the cowards turned to give battle.”
Con found his stare become a glare to hear these words put upon him. His anger began to grow. Grian continued, his gaze never leaving that of Con’s.
“It was a hard fought thing. They had skill to them but more guile than valour and in the thick of it all I, Grian son of Cairenn, brought their leader to battle. I had heard of this warrior and knew him from stories. Con ‘Wolf’s head’. Lap dog of Fergal. Murderer of Bréac.”
The word interrupted the flow of the tale as Con’s anger spilled over into his mouth, seizing control of his tongue.
“You know nothing of me and your words are filled with falsehood Grian Mac Cairenn. True it was by my hand that Bréac fell, but it was by Bréac’s deeds that he was judged and justice given him on blade's edge.”
Con heard the shuffling of his nine and knew without a glance that they had arrayed themselves about him for battle. He never took his gaze from Grian but could see his nine ready about him in response.
“You’re a murderer Con Wolfs head, and I hold it no crime to bring you to justice!”
With those words Grian grabbed for his weapon. The move set things in sudden motion as all eighteen warriors reached for arms. It was then that the fire erupted. Sparks and flames shout out between the arrayed warrior causing singes on those closest to the blaze, and the rest to stagger back from its sudden heat. A great bellow followed, loud enough to reach Con over the hammering of his own heart.
“You dare defy the rule of hospitality in MY house!”
Every eye moved to the source of that thunderous voice and saw the old door keeper. No longer stooped the man stood tall and broad massive arms held out from his sides as he stepped through the gap in the fire pit.Con realised that some massive force had thrown the logs out of the centre of the fire and across the ground between the warriors. The big man moved forward to stand aside of the forces, anger clear upon him as his arms came up to fold across his massive chest.
“If anyone of you moves but a breath closer to conflict then I will hold the oaths of all broken. Not one of you will leave here alive and then Fergal and Domhnaill will be brought to task for the shame their warriors have brought upon them in defying the ancient peace of a hospitable home.”
A thunderous silence descended upon the hall as all stood frozen in that moment. It was wise Deirdre who made the next move. With a thud and clang her axe and shield fell to the floor of the hall. Con saw warriors on both sides follow her example but he was loath to drop his defence with a foe so close to hand. Grian too had yet to release his swords.
“Con Mac Bréac, your father may have been a fool, but your mother raised you better than this. Do not try my patience.”
It was the name that did it. All know that names carry a truth that cannot be denied and this truth shook the weapons from his hands. So too did it take them from Grian’s as shock took his face and loosed his tongue.
The tone of the question turned Con’s head about to see the look of confusion upon the Grian’s face. He had hoped to escape this moment. When he knew whom it was that pursued him he had set all of his will against coming to battle. His eyes fell to the wounding he had placed upon the leg of Grian son of Cairenn. Cairenn son of Bréac.
“You are brother of my father?”
Con had prayed that it would not come to this. Whatever gods had listened, they surely had him marked a fool.
“Brother by half. I am Bréac’s bastard. I slew him in combat for the harms he had done on my mother. His honour price was paid for the deed and the brehons agreed the matter resolved.”
“I, I never knew.”
“I did. That’s why we would not stand a battle against you. That's why the wound I was obliged to place on you was not mortal. I’m your uncle and I would not wish the hurt upon your father for the payment of a second honour price off the back of my blade.”
At this truth told the warriors about the two began to disperse. Uncle and nephew faced each other as the embers between them at last died out. As one, both flinched when each received a massive hand upon their shoulder. The big man’s voice was now soft yet still firm as it rolled out across them.
“Well it is that words have carried the day. As I told you both, there is no tuatha within these walls. There are no battles and no foes under a hospitable roof for those that keep to their oaths. This is a place where there are no sides.”
They both looked up at the big man and it was Con who spoke.
“How was it that you knew of this truth?”
The big man slouched over as he turned to heft the cauldron off the heat. The smells of its contents set the sounds of hunger upon every stomach.
“Eh? Hows that? Like I said to you, this is a place where there are no sides and so there is much said here that could be shared nowhere else.”
The big man paused for a moment, face scrunched up in thought as he set a large ladle into the steaming cauldron. The sounds of the rain hammered down on the thatch as the wind threw itself at the halls sturdy walls.
“Well, maybe that’s not fully true. I suppose there is an inside and an outside, but only a fool would choose to be outside on a night like this and you were never marked a fool, Con son of Dearbhla”
The Dagda’s eyes came up to fix Con with a dark knowing look.
“Though it was was close run thing had you not listened to Deirdre’s wise counsel. Now call up the warriors. It’s time each received their curadmíl”
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