No cloud showed a face in the darkening sky. The old fisherman looked up as he gathered the nets from his leather curragh at the seashore. The western horizon glowed red-gold and he knew from experience there would be no rain tomorrow.
He ventured a silent prayer to the Goddess Danu that she would see fit to gift him with a storm. Not a full-fledged tempest, just a squall with water on its fingertips to wash the land clean and entice the fish closer to shore.
He turned his attention to the handful of sea creatures he'd dragged from their watery home. His nimble fingers sorted the catch and he counted under his breath as each one fell into his basket.
The fisherman had tucked them all away for the journey back to his family when a strange scent wafted in on the faint breeze. It was not salt, nor the briny rotting seaweed that had washed up on the shore. This was something familiar yet out of place.
In the same instant he felt a soft thudding on the sand beneath his toes and he glanced over his shoulder at the rocks above. But there was no sign of anyone so he turned back to his nets.
But a sailor's instincts are impeccable. And this old man had been going to sea longer than anyone he knew. A nagging urgency tugged at his attention and he looked up again. Almost immediately he spotted a group of strangers running barefoot along the beach toward him. Their clothes were strange, their faces fierce and they all carried long silver swords.
"Gaedhals!" the fisherman gasped.
Without a thought for his own safety the old man drew a leaf-shaped bronze knife from his belt and stood up straight, waiting for the strangers to come on him. There was no doubt in his mind from their jeering laughter and yelping cries that they meant to take his precious catch.
A warrior with long golden hair flowing freely behind him sprinted out ahead of the others. He called out that he'd settle with the fisherman and his comrades could just sit back and watch.
But this old fisherman had not always farmed the sea. He'd been a warrior in his youth before he took to boats and nets. And he was a proud Fir-Bolg determined not to submit to some boastful foreigner.
The stranger ran directly at him but the fisherman dodged aside, tripped him up and slashed his knife across the warrior's face. The man cried out in agony, dropped his sword and crawled around in the sand until he found the sea water. Then he sat washing his wound while his comrades came running over.
The fisherman counted a dozen well-armed Gaedhals and knew he didn't stand a chance against them. He began to regret his hasty attack.
The warriors laughed heartily at the old man's misfortune as they swiftly surrounded him, but only one among them dared to come within reach of his knife. This Gaedhal was broadly built but no more than thirty summers old. His long brown hair was carefully combed so it looked perfectly clean, an unusual style for a warrior.
"Throw down your weapon," he commanded. "We're going to feast on your fish tonight and there's nothing you can do about it. So you might as well stand away and save yourself a beating."
The golden-haired warrior who'd led the pack recovered himself at these words and stood up, picking up his blade in a rage. With blood streaming down his face he charged through the circle of his comrades, pushing them out of the way.
"Stay where you are, Conan," the warrior with the brushed hair bellowed. "I don't want it said my brother wasted his foolish life for a boatload of fishes."
"Half a boatload," the old man corrected him defiantly.
The warrior caught the fisherman's eye and couldn't help feeling some degree of admiration for the old man. "Half a boatload," he smiled.
"He's right," a woman pleaded, grasping Conan by the shoulder. "Listen to your elder brother."
"Shut up, Mughain," Conan shouted, blind with rage. "There'll be a bitter brew in the mead barrel before I'm bested by a bloody boatman."
But he'd no sooner bellowed these few words than the old man lunged at him with his long knife and slashed the warrior's hand. Conan dropped his sword and screamed an unintelligible phrase. Before anyone could intervene he had knocked the fisherman down with the back of his good hand. Then he brutally kicked the defenseless old man in the face and began laying into him with both fists.
By the time Mughain and the others had dragged him away the fisherman was curled up senseless in the sand.
The warrior with the finely kept hair grabbed his brother by the tunic and dragged him to the water, where he unceremoniously dumped him into the sea.
"Cool off!" he ordered. Then he turned to Mughain. "See to the fish. My belly's empty."
The warriors dispersed to sit on the beach and wait as the woman sorted through the basket. Just as she stood up to report there was barely half a boatful of edible seafood she was knocked off balance and sent sprawling face first in the sand.
The next thing she heard was her war-leader's voice.
But by the time she rolled over the blond warrior had struck the fisherman in the side of the head with his sword. Such was the force of the blow that Mughain's face was spattered with the old man's blood. She had to turn away, struggling to keep down what little she had in her stomach.
She was so shocked she didn't hear the other warriors jump on Conan to disarm him. Nor did she hear the stream of abuse his brother heaped on him for the cowardly act. And she didn't notice the last strained breath of the Fir-Bolg fisherman.
It wasn't until she felt the gentle touch of a hand on her shoulder that she became aware she was lying face down in the sand with her hands over her head.
"He's mad," the war-leader told her. "My brother's lost all his senses."
Mughain rolled over to look at him and he wiped the sand, tears and blood from her cheeks as she hugged him close.
"He can't help himself, Goll," she whimpered. "Don't punish him."
The war-leader growled under his breath so that only she could hear. "I can't let this sort of thing go on unchecked."
Mughain got to her knees and held his hands in hers, silently begging his forbearance. Goll calmly pushed her away and stood up. He looked across at his brother being restrained by four of the strongest warriors in his band.
Then he gave his orders. "Burn the boat and the body."
"What about the fish?" someone asked bitterly.
"A brave man gave his life in defense of that catch," the war-leader stated. "We'll honor his memory with a feast."
In the silent depths of the Aillwee caves, on the north coast of the Burren, Brocan, King of the Fir-Bolg of that country, lowered his torch. Then, just to experience the comforting sound of a voice in this dark world, he spoke a few quiet words to himself.
"Very well, Brocan, you've come a thousand paces now."
The rolling confident tones immediately eased his apprehension. The mysterious winding passages of this bottomless cave seemed to resent the sound of Fir-Bolg speech, but Brocan didn't care.
"I am lord of this place now," he asserted, challenging the cold spirits of the cave. "I'll show my warriors there's nothing to fear down here. I'll prove to the chieftains that our people can live securely here and one day call these caves home."
The Fir-Bolg king lifted his rush light high above his head again, then moved on. But before he had passed another thirty paces two things happened. First he felt fine sand beneath his feet where before there had only been rock. Then he realized he had run out of the tiny white pebbles he dropped to mark his passage. The path he'd laid down was his only hope of finding his way back to the cave entrance through this confusing maze.
Brocan held the rush light as still as he possibly could and peered ahead into the darkness. Before him stretched a vast cavern with a high roof. The floor was covered in the finest white sand he'd ever seen. Far off in the distance he thought he heard the gentle lapping of waves upon a shore, but he believed his ears must be playing tricks on him.
Tempted to set out across the sand, the king took a few short steps. But commonsense prevailed. He had no idea how far it was to the water, if indeed that was what he could hear. He had no more pebbles and could so easily become lost.
Disappointed, Brocan retreated into the passage which led back to the surface. When he felt hard stone under his feet again he propped the rush light into a crack in a monstrous boulder embedded in the cave wall. Then he settled down beside the massive rock to rest.
The king stretched his legs out and gently massaged his right thigh. The air was cold and damp and he felt a twinge of pain from an old battle wound. The irritation soon passed and Brocan began rummaging through his pouch for something to eat.
When he found a honey oatcake he hummed with delight. Then he unhooked the leather bottle from his belt and removed the stopper. In moments he was enjoying an underground feast and feeling much refreshed.
His mind drifted to the problems of the world above and the dilemma his daughter posed for him. A messenger had come from Eber Finn that very morning with the offer of a close alliance between his southern Gaedhals and the Fir-Bolg of the Burren. To that end the King of the South had invited Brocan and all his court to a feast at Dun Gur to celebrate the midsummer.
Brocan had sent the messenger back to his king with an expression of interest but no firm answer for the moment. He had to have time to think about the offer. And to ask himself why Eber would want to bring their peoples closer together.
"He's planning a war," Brocan hissed, slapping his hand against his thigh for not having understood that from the outset. There could be no other reason for a war-leader to seek alliance.
This meant Brocan would have to make a speedy decision as to which side to take. It was obvious Eber was not arming his people against the Danaans for they no longer posed a threat to anyone. Cecht and his folk had withdrawn behind the veil of the Otherworld and rarely left the safety of their retreat. The only other enemy King Eber could have in mind was the Gaedhals of the north, ruled by Éremon, Eber's brother.
In a flash Brocan realized the habitual rivalry between the two leaders was more than brotherly sport. And it was quite likely that Éremon was planning his own excursion into the south. By all reports his warriors would easily outnumber Eber's on the battlefield.
Now Brocan was becoming concerned. If he chose to join with Eber he would likely be siding with the weaker brother. But if he chose Éremon, the northern king might prove to be a tyrant.
"Better the foeman you know than the enemy you don't," he whispered, making up his mind to support Eber and respond with all haste to his offer of alliance.
Yet Brocan sighed heavily at the prospect of another war. His whole life had been nothing but one fight after another. Some he had managed to win easily; others had resulted in devastating casualties for friend and foe alike.
His heart was full of sadness for all the deaths he had caused, all in the name of protecting his people. He rebuked himself for having thought that battles could ever solve any dispute. So many times he could have chosen to sit down and talk with his enemies and yet he had always decided to fight.
However, he'd been war-leader and king over his kinfolk for too long to let his own sentiment mask the truth of this situation. Alliance was the only option. It would probably lead to war but that would come anyway if the Gaedhals were set on bickering among themselves. There was nothing he could do to stave it off. And his people were few, too few to stand alone.
Brocan spoke to the cold stone wall opposite him.
"The only question is what price I'll put on the lives of my people."
Then his heart jumped as it occurred to him he was faced with a unique opportunity. The Gaedhals knew the secret of smelting iron. Their weapons, ploughs and cooking utensils were fashioned from the black metal, far superior to Fir-Bolg bronze.
That would be the price of his people's loyalty. He'd demand the mystery of iron be revealed to the craftspeople of the Fir-Bolg.
But Brocan knew Eber would demand something of equal value in return to bind the treaty. He dismissed the idea of offering cattle or horses. Livestock would not be enough. Gold and grain were likewise of little consequence in this kind of situation. Only kinship would ensure both parties kept their agreement sacred. A bond of blood would forever tie the southern Gaedhals to the Fir-Bolg and ensure King Eber didn't turn on his allies once the victory was complete.
Brocan rubbed the thick stubble at his chin as he searched for a solution. Then in a flash of inspiration the answer came to him. Eber Finn had no wife. If among the Fir-Bolg a woman of sufficient status and suitable intelligence could be found, a royal marriage might be possible. Such a bond was the only way to secure the future of his folk.
However, no eligible females came to mind. He resolved to consider the whole matter later and to ask Dalan the Brehon judge his advice. So, with a feeling that he had gone some way to solving one of the many problems pressing upon his kingship, he made a move to rise and return to the mouth of the caves.
As he was getting to his knees he noticed something strange on the floor against the opposite wall. It was so unexpected a sight in this forsaken place that at first he didn't recognize it for what it was.
Three large flat stones lay one upon the other hard against the rock face. Brocan had noticed rocks strewn haphazardly about the passageways throughout the caves, but this neat arrangement was unusual.
Then the meaning of the arrangement hit him and his heart began to race with excitement. These stones formed a crude stairway. They must have been deliberately placed here. He struggled to his feet, his torch raised high again.
And then he saw why someone had positioned these rocks just so. High across the wall vibrant pictures of bears, boar and hunters bearing spears stretched out before his disbelieving eyes. The paintings were in brilliant hues of red and yellow, with outlines and subtle shadings in black. And all around these lifelike studies were crafted dazzling decorations so that spirals, wavy lines and dotted circles framed the scene.
Suddenly Brocan ran back to stare intensely at the white expanse of sand. When he could not make out any footprints other than his own he began to breathe more easily, but still a shudder quivered down his spine.
Ever since he was a boy he'd heard tales of the Sen Erainn, the mysterious folk who were cousins of the Fir-Bolg but who'd disavowed war for a peaceful existence in the quiet places -- the forests, valleys and caves. They were reputedly very protective of their secret homes, and some stories portrayed them as extremely hostile toward any outsider who trespassed on their ground.
Brocan's grandfather had told a tale of a chance meeting with these strange folk. The old man had been but a lad himself when a stranger, a woman, came to Dun Burren seeking shelter from a wild storm. She was as small as any child of nine years though her body was perfectly proportioned and covered in spiral designs pricked into her skin with blue dye. Her complexion had been dark and her eyes like black pools of still water. Brocan's grandfather said she was a Druid who had strayed away from her people. Out of kindness the woman was given a place to sleep by the fire and food to fill her belly.
The next morning when the storm cleared two fierce-looking warriors came and stood at the walls of the fortress waiting until she joined them, leaving without a word of thanks. Brocan's grandfather had called them savages though he never explained why he'd come to that conclusion.
In ancient times the Sen Erainn were kinfolk to Brocan's own people. But a bitter war broke out between the two brothers of King Omor of the Fir-Bolg. To silence their quarrel the king gave one brother sovereignty over the islands of Arainn and to the other he granted kingship over the western coast of Innisfail.
Those folk who went to Arainn called themselves the Sen Erainn. In time their language and customs diverged from their cousins on the mainland. And after many generations they had become a story told to frighten children. Though they had been confined to Arainn the tales told how they returned to inhabit the forests and caves of the Burren. It was said they were waiting for the day when their king would seize the lands of the west for his own people again.
Believing his grandfather's story proof enough that the Sen Erainn had not stayed on the isles of Arainn, Brocan shuddered to think he may have stumbled upon one of their dwelling places. The king stopped breathing to listen more intently to the sounds within the cave. He heard nothing but the thudding of his own heart though he sensed he had no need to fear the Sen Erainn. Nevertheless, he knew it was time to leave.
So Brocan made his way back to the mouth of the cave, glancing over his shoulder every once in a while to make sure he wasn't being followed. The rest of the time his eyes darted between the floor, where his pebbles marked the route, and the ceiling, where he searched for further paintings.
He found no more evidence of the underground artisans so he decided only to mention the paintings to a few trusted advisers. After all, he was trying to encourage a deeper exploration of the caves. He didn't want to give his warriors an excuse not to venture into the depths.
At length King Brocan emerged from the dark cavern to find Fineen the Healer waiting patiently inside the cave mouth. He was seated on a stone with his forest-green breacan cloak wrapped about his shoulders. When he heard the king's footsteps the Druid rose to greet him, bowing his head in reverence.
The king acknowledged Fineen with a sharp nod as he pushed the end of his torch into the ground to extinguish it. Then the two of them walked out together from the chill of the cave into the afternoon sunshine.
"It seems you didn't encounter any dangers in the depths," the healer commented.
"What did you expect? A bear? Or the ghost of a bear? There haven't been any bears in that place since my great-grandsire's time."
"Your warriors seem convinced there is some danger lurking down there."
"If that is so," Brocan stated confidently, "then it stayed well clear of me while I wandered around its home. There's enough room in those chambers to house all the Fir-Bolg folk who were forced to leave their homes in Dun Burren. And there is fresh air further down as well."
"So there must be hidden passages which help ventilate the lower chambers," Fineen enthused. "That's a good sign."
"Did you send for my son?" Brocan asked.
"I sent his twin brother," the healer stated, referring to his student, Sárán.
Brocan grunted gruffly in reply then looked to the sky. It wasn't his intention to appear abrupt or sullen but this was his way when faced with difficult dilemmas. "They'll be back before sunset. We'd better go to the hall and await them. I want young Lom to hear your news. The more experience my son gets in these matters, the better equipped he'll be for kingship in later life."
"Does he wish to be king?" Fineen asked.
"My grandfather was elected king," Brocan snorted. "And my father also. It's in Lom's blood to rule. He'll be a good king to our people one day if I teach him well."
"But surely you will rule for many seasons yet," the healer remarked with surprise.
"I hope so," Fineen said with warmth. After a pause he added, "You know I've just returned from Dun Gur where I've spent time with Máel Máedóc, counselor to King Eber Finn."
"Were you commissioned to carry any message from the king?"
"No," Fineen replied. "But I can tell you what I saw."
Brocan grabbed the healer's sleeve, urging him to continue.
"Eber Finn is amassing an arsenal of weapons. He's building war-carts and has a store of new swords fresh from the forge."
"Who is he intending to fight?" the king pressed.
Fineen shrugged. "He's been telling his folk that the Danaans are still a threat."
Brocan touched the healer on the shoulder and bit his bottom lip. "But we both know that's not very likely."
"Eber knows it too, I think," Fineen confirmed. "Máel Máedóc fears there may be trouble brewing with King Éremon, though Eber Finn has not spoken openly of any falling-out with his brother."
"I knew it!" Brocan hissed, picking up his pace so that Fineen had to struggle to catch him. "These bloody Gaedhals aren't happy unless they're fighting, are they?"
Near the caves of Aillwee the Fir-Bolg had constructed a temporary settlement, housing craftsmen, stone-builders, warriors and displaced Fir-Bolg in an irregular gathering of round wattle-houses and long, rectangular halls.
Fortifications were still being laid out around the cave mouth according to Brocan's instructions. Once complete these defenses would be almost impossible to breach. And if necessary his people would be able to retreat into the depths of the cavern and survive a long siege. The caves in the upper levels were cold and dry, ideal for storing large quantities of food.
The destruction of Dun Burren was a dishonorable act conducted by the Gaedhals under cover of darkness. The disaster had taught Brocan a valuable lesson and he was determined his people would never fall victim to such an attack again. That was why the Aillwee caves were chosen for the new fortress.
At the first house Fergus the veteran was seated on a wooden bench by the door, waiting patiently for his king.
"All went well in the caves?" the warrior asked expectantly as he stood to greet his old friend.
"Of course it did," Brocan snapped, handing the smouldering torch to the veteran. "What did you expect?"
Fergus looked away. He had been as a brother to Brocan since they were both small boys and he could tell when something was troubling the king.
"Now that you have proved there's nothing to fear, the warriors will surely take to exploring deeper into the caves," he assured Brocan.
"They've all become like frightened children," the king spat.
"Some of them recall the fight in the Fomor forest," Fergus reminded him with a shudder.
"Owls," Brocan sighed in exasperation. "We were attacked by flocks of owls. Not demons or bears or Sen Erainn."
"Sen Erainn?" Fineen breathed.
"They're nothing more than an old tale told to children to keep them from straying at night," Brocan dismissed, cursing himself for even mentioning them. "What has become of everyone? Are there no stout hearts left among my kinfolk?"
The veteran saw no point in pressing the matter. "I've had news from Rath Carriaghe," he announced. "I must return home to my own close kindred as soon as possible."
"What's this?" Brocan protested. "You know I can't build the stronghold without your help."
"My mother is ill. She may already have passed on to the Halls of Waiting. I have a duty to visit her if I can before death takes her."
"How long will you be gone?"
"A few days at the most. If I leave around midnight I'll have an easy walk under the stars and will reach the rath by sunrise."
"Hurry back," Brocan ordered. "There is much to be done."
"Have you no words for my mother?"
Brocan blushed, realizing he had been brash and unfeeling toward his old friend in his time of sorrow. "Give her my blessing and tell her my fondest thoughts go with her on her journey."
Fergus nodded. He was accustomed to Brocan's manner. The veteran touched his friend on the sleeve. "What's the matter?"
"I found something strange in the caves," the king blurted.
The healer raised his eyebrows. Brocan had not mentioned anything to him about an unusual discovery.
The king sensed Fineen's interest and turned to include him in the conversation. "I didn't say anything at first because I wanted to wait until Dalan had returned to us," he explained. "He knows more about these things than any Druid alive."
"Dalan will be here in a day or two," Fineen told him. "He has gone to the eastern hills to search for a colleague of mine who may be able to help him in his work."
"We'll talk about this matter then," the king sighed. "I'm sure it can wait until we're all assembled in the one place again."
Brocan took Fergus by the hand. "I'm sorry I was so abrupt with you," he offered. "I have so much on my mind at present. My thoughts go with you. May your journey be safe. May you return to us in good health."
Fergus nodded, accepting the apology.
"Come to my hall and take some food with me before you leave," the king added. "We'll open a new barrel of mead together and you'll take one of my finest bottles with you to your mother's home for the wake."
"Thank you, my lord," Fergus replied with a weary smile, then disappeared inside his hut.
Brocan walked away, his head down. "I've noticed how old he is becoming," he confided to the healer after some moments silence.
"That is the way with all mortals," answered Fineen. "Only three winters have passed since the Battle of Sliabh Mis, yet they have been hard times and his body is showing the strain."
The king stopped abruptly and faced Fineen. "You tricked me into taking the Quicken Brew," he stated bitterly.
"I saved your life," the healer replied in consternation. "If I had not administered the brew you would have bled to death by that foreign arrow.
"Now I find I cannot do without a sup of it each Samhain," Brocan signed ruefully. "If I fail to take my annual cup I am laid up with unbearable pain until the brew passes my lips."
"And none can say what might happen if you did not share the brew at all," Fineen shrugged apologetically. "But think on this; if you had died on the field of Sliabh Mis, who would have negotiated a treaty with the Gaedhals? Who would have led your kinfolk here and been able to envision a stronghold in this place?"
Brocan grunted. "My best friend is aging fast. I don't want to see him die. I can't lead my people all alone. I need his help."
"Then speak with him when he returns," Fineen shrugged. "Perhaps he will see the wisdom of taking the Quicken Brew for the good of his people."
"I could try," Brocan told him, "but I doubt old Fergus would consent. His spirit is looking forward to a well-earned rest in the Halls of Waiting. I too was looking forward to the long sleep before I was forced to drink the brew. So I'll find it difficult to convince him to relinquish his soul-rest."
"Your people need your wisdom if they are going to rise to the challenges of the future."
Brocan looked away thoughtfully. When he spoke again there was bitter resentment in his voice. "Long ages before the Danaans and their Quicken Brew, the Fir-Bolg held sovereignty over Innisfail. Since ancient days folk of my bloodline were the guardians of this land and its people. From generation to generation wisdom learned was passed down through the stewardship of our kings and Druids."
He caught Fineen's eye in a wild stare that caused the healer to take a step back in surprise.
"I have earned my respite from the trials of life," Brocan went on, barely keeping his anger in check, "yet I have no chance of claiming any rest. My wife and queen left me for the Danaan king. My children have disappointed me at every turn. I thought to bring an end to war and fighting. I thought to bring peace and security to my kinfolk. But I have failed and I am tired. My spirit has no fire left for kingly duties. Your Danaan potions may cure the body and ensure eternal life, but they cannot heal the maladies of the soul."
Fineen looked down to the ground in silent acknowledgment of the truth. Brocan was calmer now, but the anguish he was suffering was still discernible.
"Fergus is going to farewell his mother," the king went on solemnly. "His only hope of meeting her again is in the Halls of Waiting or in the next life into which his spirit is reborn. How can I ask him to abandon the chance of ever crossing paths with her again?"
Brocan took a deep breath. "Too many of my loved ones passed away without tasting the Quicken Brew. I have no hope of encountering their souls again. That's a bitter grief to me. And I wouldn't wish such a fate on anyone."
"They'll be reborn into the world," Fineen soothed. "You'll meet them and recognize them when they appear in your life. The brew offers other gifts if you would but open your eyes and your mind to them."
Brocan glanced at the healer in frustration. "You haven't heard a word I've said. But one day you'll know what I'm talking about. One day you'll understand why I respect the wishes of my old friend Fergus. He has chosen to retain his mortality. I wish I had that choice."
Then the king put a hand on Fineen's shoulder. "I'll rule my people alone if I must, though there was never a greater burden placed on any king."
Fineen shrugged. "If you are determined to leave Fergus to grow old and die, then I certainly won't be able to convince you otherwise."
"It is well that you and I will live forever," Brocan stated coldly. "Because it will take many seasons for me to understand what prompted you to bring me back from the brink of death. And many more before I find it in my heart to forgive you."
"I saved your life," the healer protested.
"It's my soul I'm concerned about." And without another word Brocan walked off, leaving Fineen to reflect on all his king had said. And so touched was the healer by what he'd heard that it was a long while before he continued on his way.
At last, with a heavy heart, he sought out the poets' house where all Druids lodged whenever they stayed at the Aillwee. Within that hall he knew he'd find a barrel of mead. And he knew the honey brew would ease his troubled thoughts, if only for a while.
Copyright © 2001 by Caiseal Mòr