From the Ulster Cycle, retold by Chris Lewando
The slave boy lifted and pulled the stout oaken handle, longer than himself, his lean body reaching and folding with every stroke. As the leather sack of the great bellows sucked and blew, the iron in the birch charcoal fire gradually flowered to red. Echet’s foster-son, before leaving for Emain Macha, had melded the iron with bone ash, working the metal, and now it was ready for the master-smith’s own hand. Echet had taken him as apprentice two winters gone. At thirty-eight winters he, himself, was no longer a young man; his years were growing heavy, his time passing more quickly than he would have ever thought possible.
When the iron’s tip began to glow with a hint of yellow, Echet reached into the fire with the tongs, pulled the lump of metal out, and clanged it down onto the anvil. The slave stilled his labours, watching keenly as his master began to beat the iron rhythmically, massive biceps stretching and contracting with every stroke. Sparks flew as he muttered the old incantations which would make the iron strong. Lugh, father of all gods, bless this blade. Bang! Ruagh, hag of blood, bless this blade. Bang!
Behind the forge, Echet’s house was wide, cosy, its double walls of willow weave lined with wool, sound against wind and rain. But the forge was draughty and in winter icy blasts cut right through a man. It was taller than the house, roofed in slats of oak instead of rush so the flying sparks did not set the whole homestead alight. He was proud of his house and his forge, set within the boundaries of his own strong oak walls, and why not? Wasn’t he descended from Goibhniu himself, whose home was in Aolbhach? Wasn’t his craft a gift from the gods, inherited from his fathers before him? For that he praised them every day, replenishing his goodwill, his gratefulness that he had been chosen to be not just any smith, but the greatest of all smiths that ever lived. He was Echet the dirty, named for the charcoal-smoke which caked his every pore.
When the day was at its height Echet laid his work aside and went to the doorway to breathe deeply. The slave-boy fell onto a pile of sacks and was asleep almost immediately. Beyond the darkness of his forge, the summer day was mild but not hot, the best kind of day for working at the fire, so for now he was content – all but for one thing.
In the shadows his own son, who should have followed in his footsteps, watched.
Echet’s youngest daughter, the only one still at his bidding, brought a platter of food: bread, and cheese and wheaten beer.
‘Where’s your mother?’ he asked through a mouthful of sweet, hard bread.
‘She’s away to the bog to turn the skins that are curing.’
‘On her own?’ His brows drew close. They were not far from Emain Macha, but the wild men of the hills knew respect for neither the King nor a man’s property.
‘She took four fighting slaves.’
He grunted. She should have warriors, not slaves, but the warriors were at Emain Macha doing their King’s bidding, honing their skills against the winter skirmishes which always rose when food grew scarce. Still, the acid bog was close, and he guessed even the wild men knew this was his woman, so would not risk the wrath of his gods. A small smile twitched his lips. He felt sorry for the man who thought he could take Gail without her permission, anyway. As a warrior she had no female equal in the whole of Ulster. His daughter, too, solid as a woman could be at thirteen summers, could handle a sword with the same grace she now employed to lift the platter onto the bench.
He sensed movement. The slave boy, on the cusp of manhood, wasn’t asleep, after all. His sly gaze was fixed on Branna, but the boy could go begging for any ideas in that direction. Echet’s daughter would have her choice of the lords of the land, her with as good a dowry as any prince and her lineage from the gods themselves. It was surely time he found her a husband.
If only his son –
He glanced into the corner where Amergain crouched like a warty toad, his sunken, vacant eyes looking at everything and nothing. All the boy did was eat. He was as burdened in the belly as a cow in calf, with thick grey skin and trails of snot running down his face into his mouth. And not a word out of him since the day of his birth. What had he done to deserve this son?
Branna went over to her brother, used to the smell of him. He hadn’t washed since growing too big for the women to lift and dunk as they once had. And even then you could have heard his screams from here to Emain Macha, a days’ ride over the hill. Echet had been tempted before now to set alight to that infested thatch on his son’s head, just to hear the lice crackle, and see if the ungainly lump made it to the water butt before his fat turned him into a torch.
‘Here, Amergain, eat,’ Branna said, crouching.
As if he would not, Echet thought, sourly.
She’d brought him his favourite foods: boiled curds of milk, salt from the sea, blackberries and ears of corn flavoured with wild garlic and roasted on the firestones. She had scattered empty nutshells on the platter for him to play with. She was as good a daughter as a man could hope for, really. He’d be sad to see her go, and what would he do with Amergain, then?
He sighed. If his son had been thrust into the world with any sense, it had surely been stolen by the shee. He should be wielding a sword by now, but he couldn’t even manage a knife; he thrust food whole into his mouth, as much as would fit. In another household he might have been sent to the hills to test his fate, but he had the blood of gods in him, too, so what was a man to do?
When Echet had eaten his fill he thrust the plate aside. The slave boy leapt up with alacrity and licked the platter so close to the wood Branna would scarcely have to clean it.
Echet was engrossed in his work when darkness blotted out the sun. He turned to see Athirne’s servant, Greth, staring at Amergain, sardonic amusement ripe on his face. One day, Echet thought, the god’s will give you payment in kind. ‘Greth. What shifty wind brings you here?’
‘Echet Salach,’ Greth said, bowing, giving him his earned name with a derisory smirk, then indicated with a twitch of his head. ‘Your son is nearly to manhood, so.’
‘You excrement of a flea. No-one save Athirne will miss you if I shove your scrawny arse in my fire. Speak your piece and be gone from me.’
Echet took an aggressive step forward, flexing his hands. Athirne’s man was quick enough to leap back. He had no rights as a freeman and if Echet killed him here and now for his insults, the penalty of providing Athirne with another servant would surely be worth the cost.
‘Athirne wants a new axe made,’ Greth said.
‘I can sharpen the other. Bring it to me.’
‘It was brought to him in a dream that he needs one for the head of his enemy, not for firewood, so it needs to be made strong.’
‘Do I not always make my iron strong?’ Echet’s voice was deceptively mild.
‘N–No offence, blacksmith. He wants it charmed so the blade doesn’t turn against him.’
Echet considered this news: Athirne on a blood mission? He couldn’t imagine the slender poet wielding an axe in anger, so what portent was this? Still, a commission was a commission. ‘Did he name his price?’
‘He has two heifer calves being fostered by his slaves. One of them will be yours when it reaches fullness for the bull.’
He nodded. That was payment indeed. Gail would be pleased. ‘Tell Athirne I’ll consult with the gods for the time of moon to make his axe well.’
From a safe distance, Greth gave the barest mockery of a salute. ‘My regards to your comely daughter and may your son continue to grow.’
‘The gods would forgive me for cutting out your tongue, man’s maid that you are. Athirne might even pay me the other calf. Crawl back to your labours, worm, before I’m tempted.’
There was movement from the darkness, followed by a gravelly whisper.
‘Does Greth eat curds?’
Echet turned in astonishment, to see his lump of a son staring towards him, dribble hanging from the corners of his mouth. Had he imagined the words? But no, Amergain spoke again. ‘Does Greth eat curds?’
This time Greth heard and his face went purple with rage. ‘Have you been teaching the boy to speak insults?’
‘Only to those who deserve it,’ the smith said, amused, for it was a fact that only women and children ate curds – and maybe a man’s maid.
‘So, he’s discovered his wits, now? Then perhaps it’s time he learned his duty with a sword instead of his mouth.’
Despite the tone, Echet knew that would be right and proper. Were the boy capable, he’d forge him a sword if it took a week of nights. Amergain was now trying to pull himself up onto feet twisted inward from lack of use. Burying his distaste, he went and braced his hand under his son’s shoulders, until Amergain stood taller.
‘The gods are with me today,’ Echet murmured.
‘Does Greth eat curds?’ Amergain asked again, in a voice coarse with disuse. Then, after clearing his throat, from his mouth a river of words came flooding:
Does Greth suck the blood
of berries, blue and black, a flood
sweet melting on his teeth?
Does Greth crunch the nut
of pine, sweet roasted, but
Does Greth taste the meat
thrown to the dogs at his master’s feet
when blooded sword finds sheath?
Does Greth drench the wine
of bees with wild garlic scent, divine
as nectar at the leaf?
Does Greth crunch the crab
of apple with sloe, its flesh
as bitter as his breath?
The gods only know where heroes go when their geas does blow
its destiny red where men lie dead and crows have fed
as corn is shorn to fallow field
– I ask the word:
Does Greth eat curd?
The smith gave a roar of laughter. ‘By the gods, my son is a bard and prophet in one!
Greth backed from the forge as if the three hags had woken. He ran out of the stronghold, across the willow causeway; he tripped and splashed headlong into the mire, then picked himself up with a curse to run again.
‘Who’s dirty now?’ Echet shouted after him.
Branna, standing in the doorway with elbows akimbo like her mother, grimaced. ‘You’d best watch your back, father. He’d be happy to bury one of your own knives in it if he thought he could get away with it.’
‘Truly, he’s taken upon himself the status of his master, though he doesn’t have the wit for it. Athirne should give him a good whipping, but,’ he sighed, ‘I fear the druid won’t be excited to find Amergain has been quietly learning the craft of the poet while us thinking him god-struck all this while.’
Athirne was at his meditations when he heard the commotion of Greth’s arrival. He turned and his brows drew close as he saw his servant was caked in mud.
‘Have you been brawling, boy?’
‘The smith’s idiot son? What of him? I can’t believe he did this.’
Greth was panting, and had to take a deep breath. ‘The godstruck one, he can speak.’
Athirne was puzzled. ‘After fourteen years of silence? How can he speak? Like a child?’
‘No, Lord, like a poet.’
‘You mean child’s rhymes?’
‘No, Lord, like your verse, satirical. Listen.’
As his servant quoted what he could recall of Amergain’s jibing, Athirne felt something turn in his gut. No! A boy without learning, without speaking for his whole life, and more disgusting than an animal, could speak the language of the poets? Was this a jest?
‘I’m the Chief Poet of all Ulster,’ he reminded Greth, ‘a bard at the druid’s belt. His poetry is not like mine.’
‘Yet could you make verse like that at fourteen, master?’ Greth asked, slyly.
Athirne was too perturbed to respond.
A few days later Athirne went to see for himself this strange awakening of the smith’s son, and returned home even more troubled and not a little annoyed. It was like seeing a babe in arms take up the sword. He would not have believed, had he not heard it with his own ears.
He paced the rush floor, raging. ‘I was asking the boy questions, finding out how this could be, and the little turd answered me in verse! He was laughing at me. How dare he? And not only that, it scanned!’
Greth said, ‘At this rate the King will appoint him High Poet to all Ulster, to be your master.’
Athirne clutched his cloak tightly, as if it would protect him from this amazing possibility. That disgusting creature who smelled worse than a boar, appointed High Poet over himself? It didn’t bear thinking upon. It would ruin him. He shuddered. He would become a laughing stock. Surely it wasn’t possible? But what if it was? He had been shocked at the boy’s proficiency, and that without any kind of training. He had stormed from the blacksmith’s forge in a foul temper, having found himself, for once, stuck without a sarcastic rhyme on his tongue.
He stopped abruptly and stared at Greth in dismay. ‘What am I going to do?’
His servant whispered, ‘Who would criticize you for ridding the community of that grubby little freak of nature?’
‘No! I can’t – ’
‘Then hire a mercenary.’
Athirne realised Greth was still smarting from his own ridicule at the boy’s hand, but the words grew solid in him. That was an idea, but by the time he’d secretly instructed a mercenary, or even one of the wild men, word of Amergain’s emerging talent would have already spread. ‘If you love me, Greth, you’ll rid me of this foul creature.’
Greth recoiled as his suggestion backfired. ‘Me? Master, you can’t ask that of me! If I were discovered I would be begging for death before they finished with me. You’re a druid. Why can’t you do it? You could say the gods told you to.’
‘You dare to suggest I should invoke the gods in a lie?’
Greth withered visibly beneath his glare. Athirne was reminded that Greth was forgetting his station, but his insubordination must be tolerated for a little longer; Amergain was the immediate problem.
Echet had witnessed Athirne’s fury himself, so thick it had stilled his silver tongue. Amergain wasn’t grown enough yet to comprehend that slinging mud at druids could reap its own reward.
‘He’ll not let it rest,’ Branna said, later.
‘No. He’ll be after Amergain’s skin, and we won’t always be there to cry witness.’
He went on hammering the new axe blade for Athirne, for the gods had told him it should be made immediately, that blood would redden its blade with the turning of the old moon. He now had a horrible suspicion he knew whose that blood was. Was it the gods’ intention that he should make the weapon to destroy his own son?
‘Fourteen years,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘Fourteen years thinking my son was god-struck, while he was teaching himself the ways of the bard, just to die at the hand of that conceited poet? Athirne won’t stop until he has blooded his axe.’
‘Then let him blood the axe. Let him expose his nature, let the whole kingdom know he’s so afraid of a fourteen-year-old boy that he would murder him for fear he turns out to be the better poet.’
Echet’s shock at Branna’s words echoed in his voice, ‘You’d have me sacrifice Amergain?’
‘Father, you’re the blacksmith. You have the art of the gods in your hands, yet you can be very obtuse.’
‘Obtuse, is it now?’ He scowled. ‘And how’s that, then?’
She bent to her brother who was shoveling food into his mouth, and stopped his hand. ‘Were you listening? Did you understand? Do you want us to help save your life?’
‘If it doesn’t mean I have to learn how to use a sword,’ he said, spitting food all over her.
‘No, it just means you have to get clean.’
Athirne was consumed by the threat of Amergain’s blossoming skill. He sent Greth to watch the forge, still not knowing his own mind. Two days later Greth crept back in a state of excitement, to whisper, ‘Branna’s cleaning Amergain at the stream. I was hiding in the reeds and saw everything. It was a sight to curdle the stomach. I’ve never seen such filth. I wouldn’t even let my sheep feed downstream.’
‘You’re a servant. You don’t have any sheep.’
‘Well, if I did I wouldn’t. They went up in the morning and she kept him in the water until his shaft climbed up inside his body for the chill of it.’
Athirne shuddered. ‘By the gods, has that aberration the wherewithal to make children?’
‘I saw it with my own eyes, though it’s very little.’
‘Are you going to get to the point any time soon?’
‘Well, it’s going to take several days’ scrubbing to get that fat slug even half way clean, the shit is caked onto him like his father’s bone-ash, and the toiling up the hill was hard work for him as he hadn’t much use for walking, before. So he lay down in the sun to dry, wrapped in a cloak and Branna came back later with some slaves to help him back down the hill. He was like some monstrous – ’
Athirne held his hand up. ‘And where was the smith?’
‘He was working on your axe, lord. You’re to collect it tomorrow.’
‘I am? He commands me?’
‘Well, he, ah, suggested you’d like to get the feel of it, make sure it has the right weight.’
‘By the gods; that I would.’
It was mid-day and many women were with their children tending the cattle on Sliab Mis. The round huts were quiet in the dusty afternoon, with just the occasional sound of someone at spinning or weaving. A short way from the village, Athirne found Echet at the forge in his own compound, wiping the white ash-wood handle of his new axe with oil. The band which kept his mane of hair from his face was streaked with sweat.
‘Athirne, you got my message.’
‘I was commanded to attend you here.’
‘You want to listen less to that worm you employ. Here, take a hold of this. Isn’t that the best shaft you’ve ever handled?’
‘No,’ Athirne said. ‘But perhaps the largest.’
A smile gleamed. ‘Ha! By the gods, Athirne, you seem to have rediscovered that wit of yours.’
Athirne hefted the axe in his hand. It was a fine, sturdy handle, and the blade was as pure and bright as the king’s sword. ‘Ye gods, I’ve never seen such craftsmanship,’ he whispered. ‘What power was imbued in this blade, blacksmith?’
‘The blessings of Lugh to light its way, and Fionn to blood its journey.’
‘Excellent, excellent. Fine charms, indeed.’
‘Lastly, I invoked Dagda, the father of all gods, that you may strike your enemy truly, without fear of retaliation.’
Athirne jolted with an infusion of vindication.
Branna arrived at that moment with a platter. ‘Will you stay and eat, Athirne? I forgot Amergain wouldn’t be here. There’s plenty enough to share.’
‘Thank you, girl, but I have work to do.’
‘So you’re well pleased?’ Echet asked, smug pride on his own face.
‘Well pleased, indeed. Truly it was made for the task in hand.’
He bowed his way from the smith’s forge, and left clutching the blade to his chest like a newborn. The smith had just given him permission to kill his enemy and Branna was his witness.
Athirne struck off down the hill, lifting the skirt of his tunic over his arm to keep it from the mud. A short way along, Greth squeezed out of a grove of oak. He indicated a small sheep’s path. In single file they trod silently down towards the water’s edge. They smelled wood smoke and a hint of Amergain before they saw him, though the stench seemed somewhat less overpowering than previously.
There, beside the fire, the boy lay, curled in sleep, his ugly body wrapped in skins to warm him after his dousing. His scrubbed clothes were hanging on the furze-thorn to dry, the remains of his food scattered to the birds. What a smear on the face of the land the boy was.
Athirne stepped carefully, as a druid could, without snapping a single twig. He was pleased to find the boy’s head covered in the weave that had been used to dry him. Using an axe didn’t bother him, but the sight of a split head with all its brains and blood was something best avoided. He was a poet, more used to singing of murder than doing it.
Athirne paused for just a moment, thinking what a sad waste of precious womanhood, for Branna to be so caring toward this dirty lump of flesh. If he could find a girl so mindful of his own needs he would give Greth to the blacksmith, who would surely mend his manners.
He grasped the pristine handle in both hands, swung it behind his back and over his head in a perfect arc, to land precisely on Amergain’s head. Only instead of the satisfying sense of collapse he had been expecting, the sound was a hollow crack. Had the boy no brains in there at all? Grimacing, he pulled the axe free and slid the cloth from Amergain’s flattened head, to discover a cooking bowl in pieces. In fury, he yanked away the skins to find four sacks of grain.
Realising he had been duped, he spun in horror.
There, behind him stood the object of his lust and her father, whose hands rested heavily on his hips. On his back hung his short sword, the handle hovering over his shoulder, and behind him stood several women, heavily armed.
In that instant Athirne looked death in the eye. The axe blade sparkled in the afternoon sun. With a curse he threw it from him. ‘So,’ he said. ‘Would you let the women do your work for you, blacksmith?’
Echet trod down the slope, picked up the axe, and weighed it in his hand. ‘This axe is not yet blooded, druid, and yet it is the turn of the moon. A head for a head, is it not?’
‘No harm was done.’
‘In deed, but not in thought, as these are my witnesses. Should we let the Royal Court decide? You could, of course, invoke the Druid Court. Or you could let me pass quick judgment now, as is my right as a freeman and a father. Which shall it be?’
There was a long pause. Athirne closed his eyes briefly, then dropped to his knees, his open hands resting by his thighs. His dignity was once again that of the Chief Poet of Ulster. At least he would die without having begged for his life; he would die with that much honour. The axe hung loosely in the blacksmith’s hands, but Athirne was not fooled into hope, though he saw something akin to admiration in Echet’s eyes. ‘Do your deed, smith. But – do it quick. And don’t take revenge on Greth. He did my bidding.’
‘If I pass judgment, do you accept that judgment fully?’
‘I will.’ His voice carried conviction. ‘Get it over with, man. You have witness that this is a judgment upon me, so why do you wait?’
A blackbird sang out of the long silence. Athirne thought it the sweetest sound on earth.
‘Then my judgment is thus: you will take my son, Amergain, to be your foster son and apprentice. You will teach him all you know, and if he surpasses you in skill, you will acknowledge him to be the Chief Poet of Ulster.’
Athirne drew breath sharply, and slowly sat back on his heels. This was both reprieve and punishment in one. ‘I will,’ he said finally, acknowledging the fairness of it.
‘Additionally, I demand the price of seven slave women and your own honour price in cattle.’
‘It is the law.’
Echet nodded, satisfied. ‘Now, druid, give me your hand. I’ll take your small finger to blood this axe, and you will wear the wound as your shame,’ his voice softened, ‘and your honour.’
* * *
And so it was that Amergain, son of Echet the dirty, came one day to be the Chief Poet of Ulster and, because his lineage was of the gods, in his poems he foretold of the coming of a great warrior, whose name would be Cuchulainn.