Book Excerpt

 

“Ladies and gentlemen, it is my great honor to welcome you to the house of Felimy on behalf of myself, my beautiful wife with child, and all of the people in our clan on this glorious evening of Samhain. I ask that you do not gorge yourself on this first course because my wife and Lavarcham assure me that what is yet to come will most certainly satisfy more than simple hunger or thirst. King Conor, Queen Nessa, and Lord Cathbad, I thank you once again for granting me the privilege of hosting the Feast of Samhain for you and your royal guests. King Conor, please grace us with your royal blessing of the meal on this special night,” Felimy finished with a flourish of his hands and a bow toward the king.

Conor nodded and winked at Felimy, paused with a thoughtful and commanding smile, and then slowly rose from his throne with his arms extended as if to embrace the whole of the assembly with his reassuring gaze. “Countrymen, ladies, and lords—it is my pleasure to welcome you once again to this most important of celebrations when we enjoy the fruits of our annual labor and of mercifulness of the gods of nature!” Conor boomed with a surprisingly forceful voice. This technique had been ingrained into him by his mother when Conor was only a small child, rigorously developing his natural ability for commanding orations, which she knew was a required skill for a king. “I am sure that we can expect great things this evening from Lord Felimy and his lovely wife,” he said, waving his jeweled hand toward Aoni as she beamed a smile and curtsied as low she could. “I wouldn’t be surprised if even Lord Cathbad has something up his sleeve for our entertainment tonight,” he continued, turning toward Cathbad to his right where the druid was looking dark and forbidding in the lower right throne. “And as always, tonight’s feast will officially begin the moment when the sun retires over distant hills . . .”—slowly turning all the way around to his left and pointing through the large window opening behind him in the west side of the hall where a golden red light was already spilling through the opening—“and when my dear mother, Queen Nessa, lights the king’s lantern,” Conor finished, bowing toward his mother in the lower left throne as she nodded with a tight-lipped smile. The king’s lantern was a large bronze oil lamp hanging in the center of the room above the throne. It was designed by Cathbad himself, with intricate glass, semiprecious jewels and mirrors so as to caste the strongest light in the Great Hall downward onto the center platform where the three thrones stood, an additional emphasis of the king’s presence. From this lamp, all of the torches in the Great Hall were to be lit, beginning with the torches next to the highest-ranking lords and continuing on down in importance until finally, the torches at the front gate were lit for any late-arriving guests.

As they waited quietly in reverence for the sacred moment to arrive, the sun finally began slipping below the distant horizon. Without saying a word and looking intensively around the room in the dying light to make sure that no one was foolish enough not to pay the proper attention to her, the queen rose up as the fading light turned into a deep red glow, pulled some strange small contraption from her sparkling, glowing robe, and turned a wooden dial; suddenly, a small flame burst forth from the end of the device. Two servants began lowering the king’s lantern, which was suspended on bronze chains, and the queen raised her flame to the lantern. The lamp ignited with a poof and a white-hot blaze, another magic trick prepared by Cathbad for effect. The queen then curtsied toward her son and took her place at her throne. Soon, all of the torches were ablaze, and the Great Hall took on a warm glow as the servants were busy refreshing drinks and starting to bring out the second course.

As the second meal got under way, Aoni directed the musicians to begin playing traditional tunes. Then as the musicians were winding down their third tune, five lovely young maidens gathered in front of the thrones to sing traditional songs while the assembly ate, drank, and began to get into the spirit of the evening. Finally, as the second meal was coming to an end, Aoni herself joined the five maidens in the center of the room and began to sing solo with a clear, unwavering voice that immediately caused the room to hush in rapt attention. Aoni’s voice was known throughout the kingdom, and it was a rare treat that few would dare interrupt. Aoni sang a ballad of longing, love, and then great tragedy. The song left not a single dry eye in the Great Hall, except for the queen, who was rumored to be incapable of tears. Then as quickly as she had brought the audience to tears, she got the whole assembly clapping with one of her spirited songs while the maidens sang in harmony. Then the dancers joined them in the central stage. Once she was finished, the room rose to their feet in applause as Lord Felimy joined his wife in the center.

“There will be more of this fine music later this evening, my friends. But with your permission, we will clear the tables and bring out the main course in preparation for tonight’s story, a tale that I assure you will remember for many generations to come!” Felimy boomed with his loud baritone voice as the assembly clapped their approval. Felimy looked at the king, and Conor winked at him as if to say, “Well, my friend, you had better deliver with an introduction like that!”

Felimy motioned to the four musicians in the back of the hall to begin a very low droning sound on their reed instruments. Then turning back toward the king, he bowed and started slowly walking around the room, looking at the audience as he began, “Our ancient ancestors, the Gaedhils, descended from the race of Japhet from far-off Migdonia, the land of the gods, over two millennia ago. That first conqueror, Parthalon, came with three great druids—Fios, Eolus, and Fochmore—that brought power, knowledge, and magic to this verdant land.” Felimy continued as the droners went up one note, “They conquered the land and its people, but this great land was not to stay conquered for long. Erin’s land is like a magnificent jewel or perhaps like a wild and beautiful woman. The countryside has inspired . . . and flamed the lust of conquerors across the centuries with her natural beauty. For Erin is a woman . . . curvaceous, fragrant, and full of the promise of new birth. She is deep and mysterious, yet wild and untamed . . . a joy to those who behold her with admiration . . . and challenge to those of great power.” Felimy bowed again to the king, who was smiling broadly at Felimy, obviously approving of his metaphor for the land and the reference to his power.

“Great Nemid from Scythia came with his four sons—Starn, Iarbonel the Prophet, Fergus the Half Red, and Aininn. Then there came the fierce Formorians under the barbarian Conaing, son of Faebhar. The great wars that followed for dominion over Erin’s seductive landscape lead to a final confrontation between the Nemidians and the Formorians, which, ironically enough, was finally brought to an end by the intelligence and strength of a woman—Nemid’s wife, Reilbeo. She used her great powers to banish the Formorians from the land as long as she lived and for many years afterward.” Felimy bowed toward Queen Nessa, who half smiled, approving of his reference to a woman’s power and thinking to herself, Be very careful, you idiot storyteller.

“The Firbolgs conquered our beloved Tara in Northern Ireland, but the famed Tuatha Dé Danann would not have their beautiful land in the hands of people that did not fully appreciate her loveliness and gifts. No, my king, I am not leading up to telling the story of the Great Battle of Magh Tuireadh,” Felimy reassured Conor, who was beginning to move uncomfortably in his throne. “Nor will I tell of the victory of the Milesians, Uar, Eithear, and Amergin over the Tuatha Dé Danann, MacCuill, MacCeht, and MacGreine. My king, I have a much better story to tell, a much closer tale than those of the ancients . . . The story for this evening’s entertainment . . . is the story of the greatest king of all . . . it is the story of you my liege, King Conor Mac Nessa,” he proclaimed dramatically with a bow.

There was a restrained murmur in the audience as Conor grinned to signal his approval. This sounded like fun and would surely keep him enthralled for the evening. “Bring me your best wine,” he commanded. “Now you have my full attention!” he declared, easing some of the tension in the room. This was not a story that any druid would attempt in front of the king and his most powerful allies, but if anyone could pull it off, it would be Lord Felimy. He was not the king’s storyteller these last years for no reason. However, Queen Nessa’s pupils were narrowing to the form of a cat’s stare before the attack. This was dangerous, and she was ready to pounce at the slightest provocation. She did not have her hard-earned position of power by being tolerant. She looked at Cathbad as if to ask, “Did you know about this?” But Cathbad simply shook his head imperceptibly in response and focused his gaze on Felimy.

Felimy continued with his tale, using the musicians to emphasize his voice at critical moments as he told the lavish tale of the king’s recent conquests and victories. The mood in the hall had lighted considerably, and with the fine wine and firelight atmosphere, the lords and ladies were getting into the rhythm of the story. Felimy would include carefully selected lords present in the room in the tale, mostly complimentary or playfully humorous if the tale included an embarrassing event, drawing raucous laughter from the crowd. In between stories, the king insisted that Felimy drink from his cup often throughout the evening, a clear symbol of the king’s favor. The king was truly enjoying this evening, and Felimy was beginning to use his humor a bit more freely, given the frequent consumption of both fine wine and the king’s favor.

“Let me not forget the greatest warrior in our time, Lord Fergus, who is a consistent force of law in our land . . . even relinquishing his throne to our beloved Conor for the greater good and order of the kingdom,” Felimy bowed again as he had done all evening toward the object of his commentary. Lord Fergus was an impressive soldier to the right of Cathbad in the position of greatest honor of the king’s court next to the thrones. It was Cathbad’s turn to narrow his gaze on Felimy. This was not a good topic for tonight’s entertainment, and his look at Felimy said, “Now would be a good time to wrap up this tale of yours, Felimy.” However, Felimy had too much wine and encouragement not to approach this final dark place in his tale. Conor, on the other hand, was enjoying his mother’s and father’s discomfort. For you see, Cathbad was in fact Conor’s biological father, but no one ever spoke of it. There had been a decade of rumors that the king could not have sired such a brilliant young man as Conor. And this comment toward Fergus referred to the fact that the widowed Queen Nessa had seduced Fergus after her first husband had died since Fergus was next in line for kingship. She then married him to retain the throne but then used her power over Fergus to force her illegitimate son, Conor, into a “temporary” kingship that, with time and much effort on her part, became a permanent arrangement. So in fact, Fergus did step down for the “greater good” of the kingdom. Behind closed doors, most would say it was for the greater power of Nessa.

Felimy continued, not heeding the warning gaze. “Lord Fergus is a mountain among men, the greatest soldier of our time. And yet again, the power of a woman prevailed . . .”

This was too much! Queen Nessa was glowing red with anger and shot Cathbad a glance that said, “Stop him, or your head will roll.”

Nessa could do this because she had much on him with which she could blackmail Cathbad. It was twenty-five years prior to this night that Cathbad was lustfully ravaging the young and seductive Nessa, who was married to Fachtna the Giant, king of Ulster at that time. If this offense

was not enough, during this treason, his three apprentices were left in the druid’s cave unsupervised. The apprentices, in their boredom waiting for the return of Cathbad, mixed several potions together, causing a poisonous cloud of smoke that quickly paralyzed and then slowly killed them over the next several hours while Cathbad was rolling in the hay with the young Nessa. When Cathbad returned to the cave with Nessa, she laughed at Cathbad as he stood there in shock, speechless, and said, “You fool, I see your powers work miracles with your new recruits. I will help you cover up your horrible deed. But, my dear druid, you will owe me in the future . . . on any day of my choosing . . . and you will do my bidding!”

Cathbad looked back at Felimy and his pregnant wife standing behind him, ignoring her pleading gaze. She had, all of the sudden, felt that something terrible was beginning to happen. She was just about to move toward her husband to interrupt the story when suddenly she screamed out in agony from her first severe contraction. Aoni’s voice was so strong and fine that the scream had begun in the highest range of the human voice trailing down to a stifled moan as she fell to her knees. The effect of this bizarre sound in the hallway was spellbinding. At the same time, an approaching thunderstorm began rumbling in the distance. Cathbad instantly took advantage, rising to his full height and proclaiming in a booming voice with his robed arms outstretched, “It is the child that screamed!” looking down on Felimy, who was holding his wife, as a few of the ladies gathered around them to assist.

“This is an ill omen for this night. I see that the child is a girl.” He fathomed this from earlier conversations with Aoni that evening. “And this child is destined to become a woman of such great beauty!” He continued looking around the room, thinking what he could say that would terminate the entertainment of the evening. He wanted to make the assembly forget about what Felimy was referring to in this evening’s tale. He continued after the long pause, “That she will cause the ruin of Emain Macha.” He finished with his blackest stare around the room as a fl ash of lightning lit up the hall through the dark windows, followed by an ominous crash and rumble of the gathering storm, echoing his prediction.

“No!” cried out many in unison. “What is the meaning of this?” cried out others. Soon, the assembly dissolved into a bedlam of talking and shouting.

“QUIET!” commanded King Conor standing up; and immediately, the room fell into silence, save for the tearful moaning of Aoni in her husband’s arms.

“Lord Cathbad, what exactly is your prophecy?” he asked incredulously of his chief druid, not understanding the reasons behind this outburst and truly wondering if something mystical had just happened.

The dye was caste, and Cathbad had to complete his deceit as Queen Nessa looked upon him with suppressed satisfaction. Nessa thought to herself, Now this is what I call entertainment . . .

Cathbad looked away from Nessa in disgust and stated in a monotone voice, “The name of the child is to be Deirdre, Deirdre of the Sorrows.” Cathbad suddenly had a vision in his mind, a premonition, and he continued slowly, “She will be the most exquisite woman in all of the land, and because of her beauty,” he said, slowly looking down on the terrified Aoni, “she will marry one of the three great sons of our land who will attack the king and cause the demise of the kingdom.” He finished his prophecy and sat back on his throne, not wanting to look at King Conor for shame and trying to understand his own unexpected vision. Cathbad had made the first bit up about causing the ruin of the kingdom for effect, but this sudden vision was disturbing. He had another sudden mental picture of his three recently birthed grandsons—Naisi, Aini, and Ardan—and thought to himself that he should have picked a different number of “sons.” This mindless prophecy was too close for comfort, and he had had enough close encounters with destiny and self-fulfilling prophecies to worry about what this slip of the tongue might bring upon his offspring.

Conor was momentarily stunned, but because he truly was king, his quick mind grasped the situation and proclaimed, “Lord Cathbad has spoken, and no one could ever deny the accuracy of Cathbad.” While the king paused, several lords in the assembly shouted out that if this were true, then the only way to stop the prophecy was to kill the child as soon as it is born. Most of the crowd murmured their immediate agreement out of fear and confusion. Conor was looking down on his friend Felimy, who was begging for mercy, and then smiled as a solution formed in his mind. “Cathbad’s prophecy can indeed not be wrong, but neither can the will of a king! I declare that this child, Deirdre, will not be sacrificed but instead be raised in remote seclusion where on her sixteenth birthday, she will be wed to me. And since the king cannot attack his own kingdom, then the prophecy will be void,” he finished looking down on his tearful pale but grateful hosts.

At that moment, Conor came into his kingship on his own, without the manipulation of his mother and without the tricks of Cathbad. He stood high in the center of the room, all eyes on him, and he felt his power . . . and it was good. He took charge of the hallway, commanding the midwives to take special care of his future royal bride, commanding fresh drinks and food to be brought out. The gathering was eager to be comforted from the pelting rain outside and terrible revelations inside. With the fresh mead and wine, the mood slowly lightened. Conor signaled Lavarcham to take over the night’s agenda of singers, musicians, food, and an abundance of drink so that the feast would end as it should—in satiated slumber . . .

 

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