Sometime in the late 4th century or early 5th century, according to lore, Gaels from Ireland sailed across the Irish Sea to what is now western Scotland. They came from a kingdom in what is now the Antrim region of northeastern Ireland that was then called Dál Riata, and so their lands in western Scotland had the same name.
It was a rugged land they came to, rocky islands and coastline. Why they did so is a matter of speculation. It may have been to expand their lands, establish trade routes, or just a sense of restless adventure. Since there is no written record, we cannot know for sure.
Whatever the reason, these Irish settlers, known as Scotti by the ancient Romans, eventually gave their name to Scotland. Their Gaelic language became the tongue of the Scottish Highlanders, those kilted warriors that inspired awe and story in later centuries. The Dál Riatans are the ancestors of the Scotland of legend and romance.
With them, these travelers brought their myths and legends. The filidh, those who memorized all the classic tales of their ancestors and created poems about the deeds of their heroes, were honored and respected. It was because of them and their abilities that we have today the great stories of the Irish. These oft tragic tales spoke of heroic and noble deeds.
And what of this tale that follows here? It is the tale of a father, Fergus, an aging warrior who was a taoiseach, the chief of his small clann. It is the tale of Ciarán, his eldest son who lusted for power. It is the tale of Cathal, the warrior second son, and Aislinn, his only love. It is the tale of Connaire, the impetuous youngest brother, who learned the pain of a hero’s life in finding the woman to be at his side. It is the tale of a journey across land and sea, as well as through this life. It is a tale of the three legs of the cauldron of society: Truth, Honor and Duty.
I. FROM EIREANN TO ALBA
With no moon penetrating the storm clouds, Ronan steered the currach across the sea by instinct alone, heading to where he felt the sun would rise. The rowers determinedly plied their oars to keep the craft steadily moving toward their goal, the land of Alba. Cathal, the man they had all followed on this journey across the sea, came to him, doubt in his voice.
“With no stars, how do you know we are on the right course?”
“I just know,” Ronan said with more confidence than he felt. “But I think the storm is lifting on the horizon and the moon will give us some light to see our guides to the isle on the way to my mother’s people.”
“The rocks of Lugh and the Three Fairies? I do not understand how rocks could look like anything but rocks.”
“Your problem is that you only know the poetry of words.
“No, I know the poetry of battle.”
“If that is poetry.” Ronan snorted in derision. “The sea is a poem from the lips of the god, Manannán mac Lir. The sea is my favorite of the Three Realms.” Ronan looked out over the dark, pitching waves. “The sea, too, is a battle, a battle against the power of the gods, not mere men.”
Cathal grunted. “I’d rather fight a handcount of trained warriors any day, but on dry land.”
Ronan knew that Cathal had no love for the sea. If anything, it was one of his few fears. Yet, he encouraged the others, showing a belief that they would succeed, even if he had serious doubts. That was a man worthy of being taoiseach, the chief of their small clann.
The sail on the single mast of the currach was furled to keep it from being shredded in the violent winds. Six children had surrounded it, huddled together on the narrow plank deck that ran along the ribs of its hull. Woolen blankets were wrapped around them to keep them warm.
The oldest was a girl who had seen but seven Samhains, the Celtic new year festivals. The youngest was a boy who had not yet seen two. Using the bundled goods around them as a protective fence, they futilely tried to escape the storm’s fury. Not one, however, cried from the terror they all must have felt. The oldest clasped the youngest to her drenched chest, her down-turned mouth quivering. Cathal knew that it was not merely from the cold that she shook. He knelt beside her and brushed her wet hair from her face.
“You are a courageous lass, Eavan,” he said, shouting to be heard above the howling wind. “Your strength comforts the others. You have the makings of a warrior. When we settle in the new land, would you like me to start training you?”
The young girl only nodded, but her eyes lost some of their fear and a slight smile touched her lips. The quivering lessened. Cathal smiled back and rested his battle-calloused hand on the top of her head.
As the clouds lifted, the full moon shone on four rocks, Lugh and the Three Fairies. Pulling hard on the steering oar, Ronan maneuvered safely past them to the shore. When the boat’s greased-hide hull hit the beach, Ronan pulled back on his oar, digging it into the sand. He wiped the salt water from his face and his trim, black beard with the back of his hand. Two rowers from the front of the boat leapt into the chilling sea and waded to shore, pulling the vessel forward onto the beach before the angry waves could suck it back into the sea. He sighed in relief. They had survived. While some may have thought they would not, they had made it to a safe shore. Maeve, a dark haired woman with flashing green eyes who was sitting on a rowing bench close to him, managed to give him a smile through the heavy rain and he smiled back.
Manannán’s Curse had stricken about half of the two handcounts of rowers, including some of the strongest, sending them to the sides of the boat as they emptied their stomachs during the voyage and they were still not recovered. Ronan chuckled. Perhaps that was Manannán’s way of forcing an offering from the proud.
Cathal helped the auburn-haired Aislinn towards the front of the boat, calling to one of the men ashore to help her. Shrugging off Cathal’s hand, she dropped over the side of the craft, landing in a sprawl. Quickly she rolled onto her hands and knees and rose shakily to her feet. With as much of an air of dignity as her weakened state would allow, Aislinn plodded up the beach and rested a moment on one of the bundles lying there. Cathal knelt beside her.
Aislinn angrily shook her head. “I should be working, not sitting here like a helpless babe.”
“Rest, Aislinn. This sickness that you suffer will soon pass. It does not shame you.”
“The other women are not sitting here with me.” She swept her hand around to indicate eight women, one of whom was beginning to show the signs of pregnancy, who were helping to unload the boat. “I alone of the women do nothing while others work. It is not the way of our people. Besides, I’m a warrior and stronger then they.”
“And is it our way for the strongest men to lie in weakness while the women work?” Cathal asked, grinning as he pointed at a groaning, black bearded giant and a brown haired, trim-bearded man, not much smaller, who had stumbled ashore and were sitting on the sand. “Gruagach and Cairbre have always thought themselves far stronger than any woman. This sickness of the sea has laid them low as well. Perhaps that’s the way of the sea: only those proud of their might are stricken.”
“That is . . . .” She grabbed his arm. “Oh, Cathal, help me to the sea. I don’t think I can make it.”
Cathal helped her stagger to the water and she retchingly tried to empty an already empty stomach into the sea. Coughing and gagging, Aislinn finally spat out a few drops of bile. Exhausted, she dropped to her knees on the damp sand. After a few moments, she shook Cathal away and crept to the pile of bundles.
Ronan stayed on the boat, tossing the remaining cargo to those on the shore. Maeve worked alongside of him, laughing when they bumped each other while they worked.
Suddenly a gust of wind hit the lightened craft, turning it and breaking it loose from its tenuous landing. It happened so quickly, so unexpectedly, that almost no one reacted. No one except Cathal.
Lunging, he grabbed the side of the currach as it slipped back into the sea. Unstoppable by even one as powerful as he, the boat dragged him with it as it headed toward the waiting rocks less than a hundred feet from the shore. Those on the beach stood in stunned horror. Ronan and Maeve watched helplessly as their small craft was impaled by a protruding rock, holing its side.
The impact sent Maeve stumbling across the deck and over the side. Ronan leapt after her, grabbing her cloak as she fell into the water. The force of her weight and the tipping of the boat threw him into the sea with her, but he was able to grab the gunnel as he fell. The boat skewed around, almost pinning Ronan against the rock. His arm was numb from the wrenching it had suffered when he grabbed the gunnel.
The waves crashed over him and tried to pull either the boat from one hand’s grip or Maeve from the other hand, but he clung to the wood frame and to the young woman tenaciously. With great effort he was able to pull her to him and, when a lull between waves allowed, slipped his arm around her waist to hold her more securely. At that moment, he saw Cathal working his way towards him, holding onto the side of the currach. When the warrior got close enough, Ronan called to him.
“Take her, Cathal! Try to swim to shore with her!”
When Cathal got next to Ronan, he looked at Maeve. “Let her go, Ronan. I will try to get you ashore.”
“What?” Ronan’s eyes blazed “Save Maeve!”
“It is too late, Ronan. Let her go and I will try to get us to shore.”
Ronan had been concentrating on keeping Maeve’s head above water. He looked at her and saw her green eyes staring sightlessly ahead. Her black hair floated around her face, half covering a bloody red gash. In the battering sea, her head had struck the rock.
Cathal put his hand on the young man’s shoulder. His heart was heavy, but he knew they were now in danger of dying there, too. “You cannot do anything for her. Let her go to the ancestors now. We’ve got to try for the beach. I will help you.”
Like many sailors, Ronan couldn’t swim. He had told Cathal that it would only prolong the inevitable if his craft went down. Cathal, however, was an able swimmer.
“No!” It was both a denial and a refusal by the young man. Releasing his grip from the boat, he dropped into the sea.
Cathal grabbed him as he dropped and pulled him to the surface, but had great difficulty holding him up. Ronan still held Maeve and thrashed to free himself from Cathal’s grip. Letting go of the boat, Cathal swung his fist at Ronan’s jaw. The crashing blow stunned him and he let go of the lifeless Maeve.
Cathal, holding onto Ronan’s tunic at the back of the neck, struggled with his free arm and his legs to make the shore. Already tired from the day’s rowing, an overwhelming fatigue sapped his strength and made each stroke a supreme effort. His wet tunic and woolen trews were weights that tried to pull him under. Never had he known such weariness. He wondered if it would take long to die by drowning. He had heard that it was almost like falling asleep. Perhaps it would not be so bad to just stop, to let the water take him to the ancestors, to rest.
Then he saw her. As he looked toward the shore, Aislinn was wading out, fighting the waves to reach him. Her long, auburn hair streamed behind her and her wet tunic and overskirt were plastered to her body as she struggled against the sea.
Redoubling his efforts, Cathal fought his way toward her. His sodden cloak choked him, pulling him under the cold, salty sea. With his free arm, Cathal wrenched it from around his neck, tearing it from its securing brooch. Without it, the winter nights would be frigid and deadly, but with it he could not save Ronan.
Aislinn called to him, encouraging him to keep swimming, and he did. As he reached her, she and others who had waded out grabbed him and Ronan, pulling them to the beach. As he lay panting in the sand, Aislinn clasped him to her, giving him her warmth, and wrapped her cloak around them.
“You’ve lost your bratt,” she softly said, referring to the warm, woolen cloak. “I’ll have to weave a new one for you. Tonight, you will share mine.”
When he had recovered enough that he might be able to speak, she asked, “What happened to Maeve?”
“Dead.” He gasped the sad tale between ragged breaths. “Her head hit the rock . . . . Ronan almost killed us both. Would not let go of her body.”
“You would have been the same.”
Cathal drew back, still panting from his struggle. “What do you mean? . . . I saw that she was dead . . . . I’d have let her go, if Ronan were trying to save me.”
She brushed his cheek with her hand. “But what if it had not been Maeve? Would you have been sensible enough to let me go?”
Looking up at her in surprise, Cathal started. “You mean . . . .”
“You have not noticed how they looked at each other? How his hand often brushed across her? How they seemed to laugh at whatever one said to the other? Why do you think Maeve was the one who stayed on the boat to help Ronan?”
“No . . . no, I guess I missed that. With all the . . .” Cathal stammered.
Aislinn kissed his cheek. “You were so worried about all of us that you never saw any of us.”
Cathal silently chastised himself for his lack of perception. Pulling himself to his hands and knees, he crawled away from Aislinn to check on Ronan. He was lying face down in the sand, sobbing. The others, seeing that he was still alive and safe, found tasks to keep themselves busy.
Cathal rested his hand on the young man’s shoulder. He could think of nothing to say, but knew Ronan needed some comfort. Aislinn came up to them and sat down, slipping Ronan’s head into her lap as she stroked his hair.
“It’s my fault,” Ronan said in a choked voice. “I should have grabbed her before we hit the rock. I should have made sure the currach was higher up the beach. I should have had someone else help me unload.”
“You are not at fault. It was the end of her turn of the wheel. There was nothing you could do.” Cathal knew it would not be of much comfort as he said it.
Ronan rose on one elbow, screaming. “It is my fault! I killed her!”
Motioning for Cathal to leave, Aislinn stroked Ronan’s head as she gently pressed his head back onto her lap and cooed comforting words to him. Cathal paused, then shook his head at his own shortsightedness. Maeve’s death was a tragedy, a tragedy for which he felt a personal responsibility. She had trusted him with her life in this journey and he had failed. But before he could mourn her, he had to see to the living. With heaviness in his heart, he set about his role as leader, checking on what was lost or damaged.