There was a war going on; one more death shouldn’t have mattered…
Brian gestured to the pile of rocks.
‘We’re going to do it this way.’
He picked up the toppermost stone, a wicked, pockmarked arrowhead. As his brothers watched, he tested the weight of it in his hand, feeling its heft – and suddenly, his arm a striking snake, it was flying through the air and hit the old man under his eye.
The onslaught was relentless, a thundering typhoon of unshaped flintstones that were nonetheless as effective as any carved into axeheads or weapons.
The sons of Tuireann commit a brutal and senseless crime…
‘Warriors, I present to you your general, the boy hero, Lugh of the Long Arm!’
And if the applause before had rumbled like stormclouds, then this cheering hail and hearty roar would have cracked the skin of the earth as though it were an egg. The assembly of soldiers screamed and stamped like all the animals and monsters of the world, til their faces were red and white from shouting and their heels ached from trampling. Lugh of the Long Arm stood, and waited for the noise to subside before opening his mouth; and before a wisp of a word had escaped his lips, the tide of cheers rolled and crashed again against him.
He breathed in deeply, and readied himself.
‘O King, and you mighty warriors of Ireland, nobles all,’ he cried, ‘I ask you this: what vengeance would you wreak upon one who had killed your father?’
…and as their punishment, they must travel to the other side of the world, collecting ancient artefacts of great and powerful magic.
The sky was warm and amber-glowing as the family made their way to Tara. The settlement was five miles east of the farm, across heather and grassland, and on the way they ate black bread dipped in vinegar. They savoured all the time together, all the little histories and shared experiences that entrap us in the bond of kinship, every old gag dusted off and polished up to new, every remembrance given a new sheen; by the time they reached Tara they were giddy from love and laughter.
Deep in their hearts, they knew this was the last of days for their family.
The golden apples of the Hesperides…
A neatly manicured lawn, ringed around the fringe by shrubs, with the apple tree rising lonely from a small hillock of grass in the middle. Hidden in its branches, like modest festive lanterns, the magical fruit glowed a certain shade of gold; and bathing in its tinselly glow were the three sleeping princesses, ebony hair cascading over caramel-coloured faces.
The enchanted pigskin of King Tyce…
The king laughed again, this time with a subtext of steel.
‘My boys, my boys! You’re not getting my pigskin, that’s non-negotiable, and you’re a damn fool to ask. But since I like seeing my critic-in-chief get his comeuppance, you boys will have three pigskins’ worth of gold – white gold for the youngest, rose gold for the middle and crown gold for the eldest. Now, you can’t say fairer than that, can you?’
The Blazing Spear of Persia…
The Spear was starting to vibrate, the air around it humming like a storm of hornets. It was making Uchir’s flesh itch and crawl, a somatic ill-reaction to the power in his hands; overcome for a second, he skidded and collapsed on the road.
The other two were getting away from him, not looking back. He tried to stand, but as though it were a nightmare he could feel his legs giving way again and again beneath him. The Spear was trying to drag him back towards the city, to the blood.
He called out, weakly, to his brothers; his feet scudding up clouds of dust, he dragged himself forward an inch at a time.
The chariot of King Tobin…
If Uchir had become an avatar of warfare, Tefah was rage incarnate; somehow he avoided the magical weapon’s blows, blocked them with instinctive, unthinking fury. Perhaps he still possessed some spark of divine protection from the Hesperides. Or maybe it was the faith-shaped hole inside Tefah that guided and defended him: remove the god, and He is defined as much by his absence as he ever was in his inscrutable, mysterious presence.
The other soldiers fell away, and it was just these young men, locked in violent two-step with each other, dancing across the sand.
The seven piglets of Empress Asa…
‘Some days or weeks ago, I was visited by one of your countrymen. He was an extraordinarily fat gentleman – if memory serves, he ate three of my ickle piglets all at once. After dinner, he warned me of your imminent arrival. He told me that you three had left a trail of devastation in your wake, that kings and warriors had fallen in your bloodthirsty, plunderous quest to rob the world of six treasures.’
…and the hunting hound of the North Way.
The dog stopped, her limbs a tangle of burning muscle, and howled into the sky; it was a sound at once bestial and celestial, and it was answered in the distance by a hunting horn – three short blasts that signalled stop.
Every nerve and fibre in her body strained against her training, begging her to go forth with the pursuit. But the dog was steadfast and loyal to her master, and she stood as firm and footed as stone.
Uchir turned around. He saw the hound, immobile, and his breath caught in his throat as he began to doubt his plan.
Clucking his tongue angrily, he skidded down on to the beach and to the Seameander, where his brother and the druid were waiting.
‘It’s not good,’ he called, ‘the bitch is too clever or well-trained.’
‘So what do we do?’ asked his brother.
Uchir stared at their captive, who was angrily licking his lips. ‘We give her a little snack. Cut off his finger.’
Through it all, the sons of Tuireann are haunted by their own demons…
Iobar suddenly leapt across the deck and pinned his older brother beneath him, one knee on his back and the other on his arm. Brian yelped in surprised pain, unable to move; his brother had drawn his dagger and, pulling up Brian by the hair, held it to his neck. He pushed it hard into the skin, drawing blood, and made no noise but a heavy, horrible panting.
The older brother’s free hand scrabbled up to the blade, tried to pull it off, but his fingers slipped on the blood.
He said, very quietly, ‘Iobar, please. I don’t want to die.’
…and the mistakes of the past will cost them so much more than they could ever have imagined.
Brian dared not blink, not in front of Lugh and the High King, because at that moment, that hardening kernel of legend, even the flutter of an eyelid would doom the saga for the rest of time.
Instead, he pouted his lips and shrugged his shoulders, said ‘very well then,’ and turned away to walk into the night.
After a pause, his brothers followed him, and in silence and anticipation the warhost of Ireland watched the sons of Tuireann vanish into the cold and darkness; and as a man, they shivered in fear of the trials yet to come.
As Baile: A Story. Available now.