4000 years ago…
Lugh hammered loudly on the palace gates, his men gathered about him. They had been travelling many days, and darkness would soon be falling. They had no intention of spending yet another night sleeping on the hard ground with just their cloaks to warm them.
” Be off with you! ” someone shouted down to them from the top of the palisade wall. ” The gates to the King’s palace are closed for the night! We are accepting no visitors this night. “
Lugh’s companions muttered angrily amongst themselves, and shifted restlessly. Lugh motioned for them to stay calm.
” We are warriors come from afar to join Nuada’s army. We wish to join him in battle against the Fomori. What kind of hospitality is this? ” he called.
” Go away! ” The voice shouted rudely. ” The King is at table with his council. My orders are to let none in. Come again tomorrow. “
” We will not! ” declared Lugh hotly. ” We have travelled many days to lend Nuada our skills and arms. Is this the way you would treat us? Does the army of Nuada have no need of men brave and true? “
There was a short pause, then came the reply, ” We already have many soldiers, and many men of skill. What special talent do you have that would make your presence so desirable to King Nuada? “
Lugh’s men were all for battering down the gate, and it was all Lugh could do to restrain them. They shot murderous glances at him, and Lugh didn’t fancy the gatekeeper’s chances when they finally gained entry. He determined that no jobsworth was going to get the better of him.
” I am a mighty warrior, and more than that, a proven champion in single combat! ” Lugh announced proudly, and his followers cheered approvingly.
” As I said, we have warriors a-plenty, and our champion is Ogma. “
” Well, then, I am trained as a smith, and have skills in working all manner of metals, be it iron for the sword, or silver for the brooch, or gold for the torc. ” Lugh’s friends smiled at this, and thumped him on the back, sure they would now be ushered through, for was not the skill of forging a sword more prized than any other, save the wielding of it?
” Goibhniu is our smith, and he is master above all other smiths. Credne is our brazier, and none can match him for working bronze and gold. Moreover, they have many talented underlings toiling in their forge, so you see, we do not lack for metalworkers. ” The gatekeeper was sounding increasingly irritated.
” Hold hard there, doorkeeper, for there is more! I have mastered the arts of building, and carpentry. Who do you have to match me? ” Lugh answered with a grin; he was enjoying the game immensely, which was more than could be said for his opponent. Or his friends.
” Luchtaine is our carpenter and also our wheelwright. He oversees the building of our halls, and of our chariots. What say you to that? “
” I say he must be very skilled indeed! But what of his powers of sorcery? “
The reply was weary. ” I cannot comment on Luchtaine’s mastery of magic, but I have no need to do so, for Nuada has many magicians, and chief among them is Mathgen. And Druantia is Queen of the Druids, so as you see, all his magical and spiritual needs are already met. “
” Ho! I am not through with you yet! Have I told you of my wondrous ability for healing the sick and injured? ” asked Lugh.
” No, you have not! Yet where have you been, if you have not already heard of the miraculous exploits of the King’s physician Dian Cecht, and his equally talented sons and daughter, who follow in his footsteps? “
” Then answer me this, my friend! I sing more sweetly than the birds in the trees, and play the harp as if I played on the very heartstrings of my listeners. Also, my words as a poet would bring a tear to your eye with their purity, and as a historian my knowledge would humble even the knowledgeable! Do you have any to rival me? “
” Naturally, we do! ” came the haughty retort. ” Many of our ladies sing just as sweetly, and the name of our Master Harper is Cas Corach. In addition, Nuada plays the harp well himself. Ogma is unbeaten in the realm of music and the cleverness of language. Beat that, if you can! “
Lugh finally bowed his head, as if beaten. ” It would seem that the Denann are not wanting in skilled men and women. But I am not known as Samildanach for nothing! I am the Master of all Arts. Now tell me, who do you have at court who is not just a warrior, but a proven champion, a smith of all metals, a builder, a carpenter, a sorcerer, a healer, a singer, a harper, a poet and a historian? Who is there, one single person, who can do all of these things? “
Lugh’s men erupted at these words, cheering and clashing their spears against their shields, as if heading for war. There was a long pause, before a somewhat more subdued voice said, ” I must admit, I know of not one person who can perform all those functions which you say you can. “
” So! Will you let us in? ” Lugh’s companions demanded impatiently.
” How do I know you are telling the truth? ” asked the gatekeeper suspiciously.
” Let us in, and I will demonstrate each and every skill to King Nuada himself, and all his court, if he so wishes. “
Lugh and his men heard bolts being withdrawn on the other side of the mighty gates, and then they swung slowly and heavily open. Quick as a flash, Lugh’s men were through, and the unfortunate gatekeeper found himself surrounded, with any number of blades pressing at his throat. Lugh shouldered them aside, laughing.
” I wouldn’t do your job for all the gold in Tara! ” he said. ” Be wary, Gamal Gatekeeper, be looking often over your shoulder! See my men are cold, hungry, thirsty and tired, and you have kept them too long from the King’s hospitality, which makes them very angry! Now, take us to Nuada!”
Gamal led them into the great hall, where they were presented to Nuada. The hall itself was larger than anything Lugh and his men had ever seen before. Huge fires were lit at each end of the room, and many tables and benches laid out between them, where men and women sat feasting and drinking. The King himself occupied a table beside one of the fires, with his wife Macha at his side, and his sons and closest friends and advisors all gathered about him. Entertainers wandered amongst the crowd, telling stories and jokes, performing tricks or feats of agility or strength. The strains of music drifted from one corner, where a group of musicians played. Servants scurried back and forth, fetching more meat or drink. Children played freely, the King’s dogs joining in their rough and tumble. Skins and rugs covered the earth floor, and beautiful, finely worked wall hangings decorated the wooden walls. Hundreds of candles lit up all the action. Lugh guessed it was a fulltime job for someone just to run around replacing them all as they burned low, for there were so many. The air was filled with the scent of wood smoke and cooking food, and their ears bombarded by the sound of all those guests chatting and laughing.
The king lounged in his intricately carved throne, and stared at Lugh expectantly. He saw a tall, well muscled young man of cunning and intellect standing proud and erect before him. His hair, somewhere between red and blonde, curled about his head and shoulders like a golden halo in the firelight. The rough hands and old burns on his forearms spoke of years of toil at the forge, and the workshop, yet the scars he bore about his person indicated a man of the sword. A sensitivity around the mouth and eyes belied a tendency towards the artistic, and the pouch of herbs at his belt was the give-away sign of a healer. This was clearly no ordinary young man. The King felt himself drawn to this stranger in friendship, but what he liked most about him was the way the boy’s eyes met his own fearlessly and appraisingly. There was softness there, but also a hard edge in equal measures. If I am any judge of the character of a man, then this one is meant for greatness, Nuada thought.
” I hear men call you the Samildanach. ” he remarked.
” It is true. I am skilled in all the arts. ” replied Lugh, but without the manner of one who brags.
” I do not doubt it. But I think my people would enjoy the spectacle of a demonstration, if you would be willing. “
” As you wish, my Lord. What is it you would have me do? “
At that moment, a large bear of a man stepped forward from the shadows, from where he had been watching this exchange. ” I think it only fair, Nuada, that as your current champion, I choose a task for the Samildanach. “
” Ogma. ” Nuada acknowledged him. ” Go ahead. “
Ogma grinned wolfishly, looking the slight young man up and down. ” Outside this hall lies a boulder. Its size and weight is such, that it takes a team of eighty oxen to move it. I will cast it out from the Hill of Tara. If you can match my strength and skill by tossing it back, I will abdicate my place as king’s champion to you. “
Lugh nodded his agreement. Quite a crowd had gathered to watch this feat. Ogma looked certain of victory, and led the way out of the hall to the site of the stone. Using his great brute strength, he wrapped his arms around the rock and began to lift. Calling upon his magic powers he raised the stone and threw it mightily over the palisade to the other side of the outer ditch, where it landed with such a thud, the ground shook, and the vibrations could be felt for miles around.
The people of the Denann cheered for their champion, but undaunted, Lugh calmly and quietly went after the stone, and easily threw it back. Folk ran screaming to get out of the way as the huge missile made for its target and embedded itself deeply in the earth from which it had been torn.
Lugh walked up to Ogma, who was bitterly trying to control his anger and disappointment.
” I have fulfilled your challenge. Now give me your champion’s badge. ” So Ogma relinquished his position as King’s champion to the Samildanach, as agreed.
The King said, ” It is well done. but now I have a fancy for some music. Samildanach, play me your harp! “
Without a word, Lugh took down his small harp, and drew from it such keen and beautiful melodies, that all were moved by the mood of it, be it laughter, or tears. Afterwards, Cas Corach himself declared Lugh no less than a master harper.
” I am impressed by all that I have seen, young man, but entertain me once more, I beg you, and join me in a game of Fidcheall. ” said the King. Fidcheall was a board game involving an equal number of playing pieces, one set against the other, on a wooden board divided into squares, seven by seven across. Three hours later, Nuada found himself unexpectedly defeated. He looked at Lugh secretly through narrowed eyes, and wondered if he could be the man to lead his army to victory against the Fomori.
” Who are you? ” he asked.
” I was fostered at the court of Queen Tailltiu, formerly of the Fir Bolg.” said Lugh. ” My foster mother insisted I be trained in all the arts, the better to prepare me for my future life. She saw great things ahead of me, and loved me like her own son. When I came of age she told me my father is Cian, son of Dian Cecht, your master physician, and my birth mother is Eithne, daughter of Balor. Then I learned of the encroachment of the Fomori, and how you prepare for battle against them. So I came here to take up my birth right, and offer you my services. “
There was much rejoicing among the Denann at this, for one of their own was now returned to them. Cian came forward to embrace his long-lost son, as did Dian Cecht, his grandfather. The King observed this and thought, he is of noble birth, and qualified more than most to be my battle champion.
The next day he called a council with the Dagda and Ogma. All day they argued the matter forwards and backwards, and upside down and inside out. Then they called Dian Cecht and Goibhniu into the argument, and went at it again all through the night, until finally they were in agreement.
Lugh was welcomed into the Tuatha de Denann and consequently made Ollamh Eirean, Chief Bard of Literature and History, thus taking on a position which carried equal status with the High King himself.