There is a time , thought Lugh as he sat with his back against the belly of an enormous pine tree. When the sun moves it lazy way to the other side of the sky and night is not far away. In this time shadows will form around the boles of trees and the green moss turns dark where it clings to the branches. In this time many things are possible, he thought. Charms grow warm in your pocket, ivy curls around the bend of a branch and listens for the sound of rain. This is such a time , he thought to himself, as he sat on the soft grass. He felt it like a tremble in the sandy loam beneath his fingers. In the air a lazy breeze drifted in over the green canopy from the sea and settled all around coming from nowhere and everywhere at once. The season had become unpredictable like life itself. The day was in a state of constant change moving from summer to autumn and back again within the space of a few hours. In the moments of change the four seasons mingled and passed each other – one stepping forward and one stepping back. Like the dance in the temple wood when the priests would don the masks made of spring bark and stare with wild eyes through the eyeholes- jumping and leaping like sand ticks.
Lugh sighed loudly, he regretted not accepting the invitation to camp for the night with the other elders. Heartsick and irritable, the old anger had arisen in him once again and he did not trust himself to keep his temper amongst men who were like boars in a pen constantly butting heads. He had rejected the offer from Dysart to accompany him on the journey home with a shake of the head. Such was the communication between men. He had sat round the fire with the others but drifted off into a reverie which turned sour when he smelled the sea air coming in on a sudden breeze. He had been barely able to speak with the effort of keeping his temper and Dysart, who had know Lugh all his life, simply turned away. It was some small comfort to him that he did not need to explain himself and his old friend knew not to ask.
Reaching to his side Lugh felt the bronze axe wrapped in fox hide. A poor cover for such a precious thing. The cold bronze slid beneath his fingers. It was indeed a fine thing he thought. He would hold it high at the next meeting of the elders and prove his worth as a man of the new age. A poor drama but enough to make him chieftain. Maybe he would find himself a new wife. Lugh felt the sourness in his mouth and spat a gob onto the rock of memory.
Standing now, he walked over a carpet of needles thrown out by the great forest. The way was tough. Small twigs , gnarled fingers that twisted around his feet , gave way to large branches spotted with lichen. He resisted the temptation to pull the axe out of hiding and have at the larger of the branches. It would have made little difference and he chided himself for the thought. Soon enough, night came on with the rain. Heavy drops pummeled his back and shoulders ,sliding down his neck and soaking his chest. He did not care for the rain but kept on anyway, walking on and into the gloaming. It would stop eventually, or so he thought, but the rain was as stubborn as he was. Up ahead on the trail he recognised the hill of Achnabreck. At the foot of the hill was a cave set back beneath a sheer cliff. He could shelter there and even make camp for the night. The morning would bring the sun and another days travelling. Rest was what he needed now.
As he turned and made his way up the path to the cave he heard voices and stopped. A low , guttural voice was chiding someone. A mans voice and not a pleasant one. There was a reply then a short scream and then sobbing. He reached into his pack and drew the dirk from its hide scabbard. The blade was a tooth of black flint. An evil looking weapon whose appearance made up for its fragility. Flint was a poor mans weapon but he did not draw the axe – at least not yet. He stayed to the side of the path using the branches as cover and looked over the lip at the top of the rise to the cave mouth. A low fire burned, spitting and giving out more smoke than heat. There was a small boar spitted , lying by the fire. Its side dusty and stuck with grit and sand. “A poor fire and a dirty meal makes for a poor man” , thought Lugh. Then a girl , barefooted came out of the cave and heaped more wood on.
“That’s a bit better stupid ”..Came an unkind voice from inside. “Blow on it you galoot and build it properly”…
The girl stooped , facing away from Lugh. He could hear the sound of her breath and the wheeze of a chest cold beneath it. Her bony frame was clear beneath the ragged dress. The soles of her feet cut and re-cut from walking on unforgiving ground. Lugh slid the dirk back into its scabbard and stepped out where he could be seen.
“Well met , traveller. Would there be room for one more in that dry cave? If I stand in this rain too much longer I will be washed away.”
At the sound of his voice the girl had run into the cave. Silence. Then the man stepped forward. He was bare chested with a rash of black hair over half his head. Where the other half should be his was skin was scarred and pucked and churned around in whorls. Piercing Blue eyes watched him from a face with full lips and a smile that had no charm behind it. “Well met indeed”. The eyes got the measure of Lugh and lingered for a moment over the hide scabbard at his side. There was a long silence as the two men stood. Then the stranger said, “come away in then” and turned his back on Lugh. “We’ve a boar to roast and I would like to hear the news, if there is any, from the great forest and its people.” His voice was as soft as a lie. His back to Lugh, when he spoke, was regarded as an insult when hospitality was offered. It’s unlikely the scarred man did not know this but Lugh had little choice. The rain came on even harder now and he could barely see the mouth of the cave for the curtain of water than careened off the lush green leaves of the trees crowding all around him. He felt the pull of the situation and stepped forward. Insult or no insult.
While the boar spat and sizzled over the fire Lugh watched the girl. He kept the man, Tynan, in the corner of his sight but the girl caught his attention.
“She’s for sale if you’ve a mind to buy her. She’s not much to look at. I’ll give you that. She’s been Tynans’ slave for these 6 past years but now…well now I’m sick of her silence and it will soon be her time to become a woman. Such girls are precious. Yes? You could be her first? I’m sure you wont be her last.” At this the man tipped his head back in an exaggerated laugh, lolled his head to the side , facing the girl and stared at her then at Lugh. “You have means to pay Tynan I’ll wager.”
Lugh did not say anything. The girls head hung low as she moved around the fire and she stared at the ground. Her lank , dark hair hid her features. His gaze moved to the boar whose skin had blackened and burst around the joints.
“ A man of few words…” said Tynan.” Well, it will be a long night if you sit in silence too. The two of you make a fine pair. The slave and the mute…” Tynan laughed.
Lugh smiled and said “If you want words then lets each of us tell a tale. I see from your scars that you are a man of action. Maybe even a great hero. You must have many a fine tale to tell”
“….. Yes, I remember the tradition” said Tynan. “A tale for a tale… I have travelled from South to North and back again. I know. I know how things are done in many places not just this shithole. I am the serpent swallowing itself with its search for knowledge. Not some mud grubber scrabbling in the dirt for barley grains. What are you? A farmer? Or maybe you are like the boar in the woods, bellowing a challenge? Who can say and who cares. Since the boar is mine and you are eating it I suggest that you start and I will follow…”
Lugh looked across at the man, Tynan. He sat on a rock , blocking the door with his body. Behind him the gloaming had turned to night and the darkness seemed to steal around his features. His two eyes glittered in the firelight. “Aye, alright.” said Lugh. ” I’ll tell you a tale. It is a sad one , in places, but it has a happy ending of sorts”.
“In these lands farmers grow their crops of barley and oats and out of these little seeds grow the means of life and of love. Men grow strong, marry , and the women have children whose tiny bleats tear at the heart so that some men cannot bear it and must stand out in the air praying to the gods that their children survive the first years. In this land there was one such man. A farmer who lived not far from here. He had the good fortune to be born into what passes as a noble line. ”
“Ha! A noble line of bog flies …” Tynan spat into the fire.
Lugh stared at Tynan for a moment then continued. “His fathers father had founded the community they lived in and, using his keen eyes,had picked the land that crops love the most. What gods there were must have heard his prayers for all 3 of his children grew like little saplings. Strong enough to bend when the fever came round the settlement and added many to the barrow. Two boys and a girl he had. The youngest , the girl, was strong enough to survive falling into the sea and being fished out. The strongest of them all. Though her brothers who were like little wolves would probably not agree.
Just as life is like the tide that washes over the shore – now leaving welks and crabs for the women to harvest, now pulling and sucking at a mans feet and drawing his gaze and then his body down. So it is that love and hate flow around the lifes of all people and who knows which day will bring feast and which day will bring disaster. For there was one in the settlement whose hands could never catch game or make the barley grow and who lived on the charity of his brothers and sisters. He took a wife but she was always sickly and as time passed each began to blame the other for their ill-fortune so that nothing good came from their union and they bickered long into the night. This man blamed everyone but himself for his weakness and those who were blessed the most became the focus of his hatred. He watched the farmer and wished him ill but the more he hated him the more the farmer flourished. As for the farmer- what man can see the adder hiding in the grass spears that grow along the frown of the beach? He feels the sand between his toes and forgets the danger. So when the man he thought his friend called on him and said ‘I am going boar hunting will you help me?’ he thought nothing of it. The farmer said yes, he would come but first he would say good bye to his wife and children. ‘No Need’ said his friend. ‘We will only be gone for a day. You have been away from them before. What kind of man are you that you need your wife’s permission to help a friend?’
At this the farmer started. His whole being told him to stay but he was unhappy with being challenged and was determined to prove his friend wrong. So it is that pride provides the path to disaster. He fetched his cloak, his flint and his spear and set off. All the ways along that road his friend was silent and spoke little although the farmer tried his best to engage him in banter. In those days the farmer was a great talker. He was like a cup constantly spilling over. His friend said little in return. He seemed to have much on his mind. As they walked further and further into the forest the farmer felt a panic in his breast. ‘Why are we here?’ asked the farmer. ‘What was the purpose of drawing me out to this place’? It was then the farmer saw the dull look in his friends eyes and realised that he had been blind.
Now, it is not an easy thing to kill a man. Not with a flint blade. Where his enemy had spent his days lazing in his bed , bickering with his wife , the farmer had been working the land and had grown as strong as a sapling. They say a man can live many life’s , if he has a mind to wander from his home. So it was with the farmer who had been a child of the Red branch and the ways of fighting were not unknown to him. They wrestled across the stony ground beneath a moon, much like the one that is rising above your right shoulder. When the fight was over his enemy lay with his throat cut and the stars looked down on the scene with their cold eyes and said nothing.
It was late and the man fought his way through the darkness, following the sound of the ocean until he stumbled onto the rocks of the shore near his home. In the moonlight he could see a galley pulling away and he could hear the cries of his children.
At this , Lugh stopped. The rain outside had died away and a fresh breeze blew in around Tynan who was staring at him. He did not move. Lughs voice dropped to a whisper but it was as clear and as sharp as ice. “The farmer crossed between the rock pools. Stumbling and falling in his grief. He shouted to his children that he was coming. That he was coming for them but with every step the galley drifted further from the beach. From the darkness that swelled around the boat there was a whistling noise and an arrow struck his head a glancing blow. He was knocked to the ground senseless. When he awoke the galley was gone and he returned home. His house had burned to ashes. Many others too had suffered but they, at least, had dead who could be laid in the great barrow. His house out of all the houses had been dealt this one fate: to be burned to the ground and his wife within it. At first no-one would tell him how she had screamed and screamed his name until the flames consumed her.
Tynan stood up and swayed slightly. Lugh reached down slowly and slid the hide back from the axe. His hand curled around the bone handle. “The man asked all along the coast if any had seen this galley put in for supplies but none had. Some admitted that traders had appeared from out of the forest and had purchased food and fresh water. ‘Slavers’ was the name sometimes used to refer to them although no-one he talked to saw any slaves. The people of the coast were glad when the men slunk back into the forest. One had tried to gamble with the locals and a fight had broken out over the counters of bone used. The knucklebones of a man , gilded in bronze and edged with jet . The people of the coast did not want to gamble using these bones and they did not have any good things to say about the man who had held them.”
Then a voice from the darkness spoke “What did the man look like…” Tynans eyes switched to the girl. Her voice had been barely a whisper. She was crouched now behind the fire. The flames darted up in front of her features. “What did the man look like? ” She said, stronger this time, reaching up and pulling the mane of black hair away from her dirt-streaked face. Tears had left tracks down her cheeks and the dirt smudged around her lips where she had wiped them away with the back of her hand.
“Shut it Rat!” said Tynan, “Shut it or I will skin you and leave whats left for the wolves”.
“The man.” It was Lughs voice that spoke next. “He was scarred across the chest and head”
At this Tynan kicked the dirt into the fire. Darkness rushed up from the earth. Cold air filled Lughs nostrils but he felt it only as an afterthought. Thoughts are like sparks from the fire all in a bunch , flaming bright , swirling together. Now the cold on his cheeks as the fire died, now the cry from the girl and now the blackness he could not see into. Blackness held no fears for Lugh and his hand had come up unconsciously and thrown the axe before he was even aware of the loss of its weight. Now there was only its absence and silence. The fire sputtered and a single branch caught with a pop and gave out a thin flame that could barely push back the blackness of the cave. Tynans body lay beside the fire, his head split from hairline to chin. Soon the thin flame winked out and the darkness was everywhere.
Then Lugh spoke and his voice seemed to come from every corner of the the blackness and to fill the crushing weight of empty space all around them.
“The farmer searched for a long time. He went a little mad in those first months. Screaming in the faces of the people he met but no-one lifted a hand against him for , as we all know, it is bad luck to strike a madman and, yet no-one knew anything. As time passed his heart shrank and what had once been a good man began to return to the baseness that lies within every person.”
A small hand slipped into his in the darkness.
“He lived like this for…a long time. At first he remembered everything and then time filled his heart with sand and he began to forget the faces of his wife , his children. He tried so hard to remember them but they seemed more like a story, a story made up about another man. Then something happened that he never expected. One night , on his way home through the forest he took shelter in a cave and he began to dare that he might remember. He might remember the way his daughter walked , her voice even her face …” Lugh swallowed and could speak no more.
A hand reached over to one of the dying embers and pulled the stick from the remains of the fire. The girl blew gently on the twisted branch and , as she did , the face was suddenly lit up and he saw the same familiar face but now as a young woman. “Hello dad…” She said.
In the morning a thin mist lay over the forest canopy. Birds called one another in greeting and a fox padded silently across the entrance to the cave stopping once to sniff the air. On the beach not far from the cave mouth the waves poured over one another then drew back – trying to pull the dry land into the sea where the fathoms and fathoms of deep blue held their secrets. Allowing only the wind to whisper them.