4000 years ago…
Nuada turned and looked back out to sea. Three hundred sailing ships lay burning in the bay, their blackened hulls sinking into oblivion below the surface. A column of leaping flame and thick choking smoke rose skyward, announcing their arrival, before the wind caught it and swept it inland towards the mountains in great billowing clouds. His men followed where it went, bringing their families, weapons and possessions.
The message to anyone watching is clear. The Tuatha de Denann are here to stay.
Even Fomorian magic had not prevented them from landing, although they had to sail around the island nine times before they spotted a weakness. Then, the Denann had used their own magic to blast their way through. Nuada was not concerned with the Fomori, for the two races shared a history.
They are just a bunch of undisciplined pirates and shaman living on the western isles. They squabble amongst themselves and form and switch alliances at the drop of a hat, depending on which way the wind is blowing. No, it is the Fir Bolg we must either win over or defeat.
This island, which the Fir Bolg called Inis Ealga, was big enough and bountiful enough for them all to live peaceably side by side. Eochaidh, the Fir Bolg High King had established order and peace from chaos. Nuada doubted he was about to welcome them with open arms. Moreover, he was a well-loved and highly respected man amongst all the lesser local clans, who were bound to support him in battle.
Nuada was a good and fair man himself, and bitterly regretted the conflict which would inevitably come. He gritted his teeth.
My people need a home, and this is the place they have chosen.
Turning his back on his burning ships, he squared his shoulders and marched on.
The acrid smell of smoke in the wind swirled around him as he walked, filling his lungs and stinging his eyes. Up ahead of him somewhere, his wife Macha walked with their four sons. He smiled fondly, remembering how the boys had flourished on their long voyage, how they had bravely found their sea legs, throwing themselves into the arts of mastering a ship, and how they had all practiced their battle skills on deck together.
The lads are becoming mighty warriors, although somewhat too eager for battle.
All four had enlisted in the Fianna, an elite band of young men who had formed themselves into a formidable fighting group. They were arrogant, buoyed up by the spirit of their adventure and their own prowess, although some, his own sons included, were yet unproven. The looming battle would soon address that. Macha herself was fearless with her sword, as strong and ruthless as any man, some said more so.
We will have need of every warrior we have, man or woman, no matter how old, or young, experienced or not.
The Denann had sent advance parties months ago to explore this land, and they had returned with tales of wide open spaces suitable for cultivation, jagged mountain ranges and dense forests teeming with boar and deer, plentiful lakes and rivers, and a mild climate.
We will not lack for meat, fish, fowl or grain.
Nuada smiled with satisfaction.
Most importantly, they had identified a place they called Sliabh an Iarainn, the Iron Mountain. Here they could mine the metal so prized for weaponry and tools, the very stuff which gave them such an advantage over everyone who still worked only soft bronze or brittle stone.
Nuada’s reverie was broken by the weight of a friendly arm being thrown across his shoulders. He looked up into the grinning face of his brother. No-one called him by name anymore. He was simply known as the Dagda. It meant ‘the Good God’, as he was multi- skilled, with many talents.
“We made it, brother! We are finally here. Welcome to your new kingdom,” said the Dagda, giving him a shake.
Nuada laughed. “It’s not my kingdom yet,” he replied. “This is just the beginning.”
“Oh, Nuada, you are cautious as an old woman,” scoffed the Dagda.
“And you, brother, are still as impetuous as ever. Never count your chickens…”
“… before they hatch, yeah yeah! But look at this place. See this river? See those mountains? They are ours. What a great place this is. We should celebrate.”
“And we will, but there will be battles and building first, brother.”
The Dagda groaned. “Give me fighting any day. I’ll show those Fir Bolg a thing or two!” He head-locked Nuada and ruffled his hair before bounding away.
Watching from sheltering trees, the small, dark native people wondered at this strange new race of God-like people. The Denann were tall and slim in stature, with broad trunks and shoulders, and muscular limbs. Most were fair haired like Nuada, or red haired like the Dagda. Now, their pale skin was tanned and their hair unkempt from their long months at sea. Their eyes, the colour of summer skies, seemed all the more piercing for the sun’s treatment.
It was a tough journey, as Nuada knew it would be. The going was slow, for although the women of the Denann were as mighty as the men, there were also many children with the clan, and livestock too. Nuada consulted with his trusty elite, and decided to split the Tuatha into smaller groups. Progress would then be easier to manage. He placed plenty of fighting men and women in each group, along with one of his best men as leader.
They encountered the occasional ambush, but these were no more than amateur skirmishes, led by local tribes or bandits chancing their luck. These people had no mind for serious battle, quickly melting into the countryside when they encountered the strange weapons and fierce might of the Denann.
No doubt running straight to Eochaidh with their tales.
They could easily have run them down and killed them all, but Nuada wanted as little killing as possible. These people were to be their neighbours. He wanted the Denann to be respected, not feared. Besides, there was no hiding the arrival of so many people, and had they not already announced their intentions with the burning of their ships?
No, let the stories circulate. Any potential enemy might think twice before attacking.
And still they saw no sign of the Fir Bolg, although Nuada was certain they would be watching.
Why do they not hurry to attack?
They followed the river along the valley between the hunched mountain ranges of Sheefrey and Partry which cradled it, traversing the Curlew Hills to Lough Key. Here they skirted south of Lough Allen, finally making camp under the shadow of the Iron Mountain on the Lough’s eastern shore. The next morning, Nuada addressed his people.
“Today we will climb the noble Iron Mountain,” he said. “We will see if it will indeed yield its secrets to us. If so, we will leave a working party to establish our mine, an ore processing and smelting works, and a settlement for the miners, the smiths and their families.”
A great cheer met his words. They all knew how vital this mountain was to the success of their campaign.
“Goibniu, my smith, you are the master here. Bring with you Credne, my brazier, and Luchtaine, my carpenter. You are not known as the Three Gods of Art for nothing. Your knowledge will be needed. Dagda, you will come too, for we will need your wisdom and the blessings of the gods. Dian Cecht, my trusted physician, I would not dare go without you, for I would surely never hear the last of it. Ogma, to you and young Bres, I charge the guarding of our people whilst we are on the mountain. Make ready! We will be away in one hour.”
As the men hurried to make their preparations for the trip up the mountain, Nuada walked down to the water’s edge, hand in hand with his wife Macha. They stood with the waves lapping at their toes, surveying the calm blue vista before them.
“Why does this place feel like home so soon?” he wondered aloud. “I feel like I belong here, not the invader I actually am.”
Macha smiled, hugging his arm. “It is the home of our ancestors. Nemed brought our people here the first time. He thought it a good place to be. But the Denann have been gone from this land too long. Now it is the right time to take it back. We could have a good life here.”
Nuada looked back at the mountain. “There are many trees here, for feeding furnaces. That is good. The forest will make good hunting. The lake offers much potential. Its shores are level and well fed by streams to make good cultivation and pasturing. That is good too for the ironworks. I only wonder about defence. We are very close here to the Fir Bolg. And close enough to suffer Fomori raiding parties.”
Macha shrugged. “That’s simple,” she said. “Make use of the lake. Build crannogs. Even an old man or a child could defend a crannog whilst the men are at work on the mountain.”
Nuada looked out across the lake, seeing in his mind’s eye a cluster of platforms built over the water. With only one narrow bridge of entry, and provided they were built out of the reach of arrow or spear, they were very defensible.
“Wife, you are amazing!” He scooped her up in a bear hug, while she struggled, laughing, to fend him off.
“You must speak to Luchtaine and Dagda about this, but now I must go. I will take the boys with me. Take some men and walk the land while we are gone, see what you think.”
Nuada set her down, kissed her goodbye, shouted for his sons and his exploration team, and strode off towards the mountain.
They were gone three days. They surveyed the land from the summit, discussed defensibility. They searched for signs of the metal they needed in the rocks and form of the land. They identified possible sites for locating the mine itself, how they would best dig the mines and excavate the ores, and whether the ore should be processed on the mountain, or carried down and worked at the settlement. Then the Dagda led them in ceremony and ritual.
The air vibrated with the crash and shudder of falling trees, the grating of saws through wood, the chopping of axes and the hollow thudding of hammers as the Denann threw themselves into the task of crannog production. As quickly as the trees were felled and dragged down to the lake-side, the land was claimed for pasture and farming. Teams of hunters had gone out into the countryside looking for food to supply the all-day kitchens, and the miners and smiths were already at work on the mountain.
“I see father and Goibniu are up to their old tricks again,”said Airmid, smiling at her brother as they checked and repacked their medical supplies. Some way off, Dian Cecht and the master smith were locked in heated debate over some minor technicality regarding Goibniu’s leadership.
“Uh…some things never change,” Miach was unperturbed.“Anyone would think Goibniu was King around here, not Nuada.”
“As far as the mine and the forge are concerned, Goibniu is king. This new settlement will undoubtedly fall under his rule, and father is not too happy about it.”
“Even father can’t deny the smith has done an amazing job. To be able to get a mine dug, forge up and running, and organise the carpenters to produce enough crannogs for three hundred families, is no mean feat.”
“True enough, but Luchtaine and his team must take credit for the crannogs. I know the dwellings are basic, but there will be time enough to fortify them in the years ahead. I rather like the idea of living over water.”
Miach hefted his pack and tested its weight. “Personally, I have had more than my fill of life on the water from our months at sea. It’s dry land all the way for me from now on.”
The two siblings were momentarily distracted from their preparations, as the argument they were party to reached a crescendo, and both men stalked off in opposite directions.
Miach turned back to his pack with a snort. “At least it didn’t come to blows. Father really needs to learn to control that temper of his, or it will get the better of him one day.”
“Oh don’t say that!” cried Airmid worriedly. “He may be easily roused, but he is still the greatest physician the Denann have ever known.”
Miach smiled at her fondly. “That does not excuse him. You are too forgiving. Besides, he can’t compete with your knowledge of herb-lore, little sister.”
Airmid blushed. “Or your surgical skills.”
Miach picked up her pack, and helped her settle it on her back, before shouldering his own. One’s medical supplies and implements were far too precious to trust to anyone else to carry.
“Come,” he said. “See the rest of the clan are assembling? It is time to move on.”
Airmid sighed, her eyes taking in every detail of the crannogs blooming like wood and wicker lilies on the lake, the gold of their thatched roofs, the makeshift workshops scattered busily all around her, the raw dark earth of the newly set up field systems where women and children were already planting grain. The peace of Lough Allen had been shattered forever by the impact of their arrival, but the sense of purpose and contentment of those who were making it their home was infectious.
“I’m sick of all this traveling,” she complained. “I was just getting to like it here. I hope the Red Hills will be just as pleasant.”
The blast of a horn ripped through the air, announcing the tribe’s imminent departure.
“We’ll never find out if you don’t get a move on,” her brother teased her, grabbing her hand and pulling her through the gathering crowds.
The Denann were edgy and nervous over the next few days, as they made their way slowly and laboriously towards the Red Hills of Breffni, expecting ambush or attack at any time. When they got there, Nuada ordered the immediate clearing of trees. Whilst some began digging ditches and throwing up ramparts, others set up a temporary camp. After a week, the basic structure was in place.
“This is no work for a Denann Prince,” complained Bres to his half-brother, as they laboured at the ditch. The Dagda straightened up and wiped the sweat from his brow.
“Digging a ditch may not bring you glory, brother, but it is honest work which you do for the good of your people.”
“But I am a warrior. I should be respected as such,” Bres grumbled, eying Nuada darkly as he wandered the site, lending his muscle and encouragement wherever it was needed.
“Respect must be earned, and you have done precious little to earn any so far. Look you; even the children run and fetch, clear the rubble, collect firewood, bring us food and water, all without complaint.”
“Well, it is their duty to serve their elders, but I should be free to practice my fighting skills with the Fianna.”
Bres threw down his shovel in disgust, and beckoned to a small boy carrying a water pitcher. A shadow loomed over him as he drank, and he looked up into the face of Nuada.
“Problem, Bres?” asked Nuada dryly. Bres opened his mouth to reply, but the Dagda hastily intervened.
“Oh, you know Bres, he is always on the lookout for fighting and glory.”
Nuada tilted his head and considered the impatient young man. “Very well, Bres. Here is your chance to prove yourself. I charge you to accompany the Dagda to his meeting with the Fir Bolg. A successful negotiation with a peaceful outcome will bring much glory and riches to those responsible. If the worst should happen, there will certainly be fighting a-plenty, and all the glory you could possibly desire.”
Rather than look pleased at this honour, Bres glowered at his King.
“As my Lord wishes,” he replied in surly tones, and received an elbow in the ribs from the Dagda.
“When do you want us to leave?” asked the Dagda.
“The site is more or less secure. Now is as good a time as any.”
“Then consider it done, sire.”
The envoy had journeyed well into the heart of Bolg territory before it was intercepted. Eochaidh’s men were formidable in full battle dress. They were led by a burly-shouldered giant of a man.
“He looks none too friendly,” muttered Bres to his brother.
“Take your hand off your sword, Bres,” said the Dagda sharply. “We are here to parley. Battle is not always the best option.”
“Lopping off that brutish head to start my collection would be no bad thing, I think,” retorted Bres impatiently.
The Fir Bolg quickly surrounded the Denann, spear points held at the ready.
“I am Sreng mac Sengalin, Battle Chief for my Lord and Master, the Great King Eochaidh of the Mighty Fir Bolg! State your business, strangers!” roared the giant.
“I am the Dagda, Chief Druid to King Nuada of the Tuatha de Denann. He has sent us with a message for your king,” replied the Dagda calmly, while Bres fidgeted and scowled by his side.
“I speak for Eochaidh. Say your message.”
“We speak only with the King, not his minion!” yelled Bres angrily.
There was furious shouting from the band of Fir Bolg. They surged forward, the points of their long lances now pressing at Denann throats.
Sreng laughed nastily. “Tell me why I should not kill this foolish young pup now?”
The Dagda glared at his brother warningly. “It is the hot-headedness of youth talking; emotions are running high. Pay him no heed. I speak for my King, just as you do for yours.”
Angered by the Dagda’s sharp words, Bres scowled with humiliation.
Sreng stared at the Dagda appraisingly, then motioned for his men to lower their spears. Together, they walked a little way from their warriors that they might talk more privately.
“We, the Denann, have heard much of your great island, how it is sparsely populated, how bountiful it is. We have heard also of the mighty Fir Bolg, and how you have transformed this land from a place of chaos and constant power struggle among petty kings, to a peaceful noble land, united by your King Eochaidh. Now we need a place to call home, and our ancestor Nemed is calling us back here. We think there is room enough for all. We think we could share this land and add to the work you have already started. As a sign of our good will, we think a gift is in order, and bring you this small token of our esteem,” said the Dagda, waving his hand towards his men.
Ten of the finest Denann cattle were led forwards, followed by a chariot pulled by two white mares, loaded with various tools and implements crafted of precious iron. It was indeed a grand offering, and Sreng looked it over greedily, but to his obvious disappointment, found no weapons amongst it.
“Our cattle are the finest in all the land. Our smiths are greatly renowned for their skill in forging weapons of iron,” continued the Dagda. “A peaceful alliance could be mutually beneficial.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We will sit and take refreshment, and discuss this further,” replied Sreng.
Food and drink were brought for the two men, while their companions waited.
They eyed each other’s weapons. Dagda had four spears; one long heavy fighting spear with a great iron point, and three shorter, lighter ones for throwing. Sreng had two spears, both with bronze tips. Dagda’s sword was iron, Sreng’s was bronze. Sreng was wearing leather armour, reinforced with wood and metal bosses, and a four cornered helmet. Dagda wore none. Each noted the others strong build and many battle scars, but whereas the Dagda was lean and powerful, Sreng was broad and stocky. They talked pleasantly but, while lips smiled, eyes were wary.
Finally, Dagda gave his offer.
“King Nuada would have you know that the Denann are here to stay. This is our rightful home, the place Nemed brought our forefathers before the Fir Bolg existed. We therefore offer three choices; we will share land with you equally, as would be fair to both our clans. Or you may leave. Or you may fight us to keep it. But be warned; you have seen the like of our warriors and our weaponry. Do not make your decision lightly.”
Sreng did not even bother to consider, but leapt to his feet with a great roar.
“Your race gave up their right to this land when they left these shores all those years ago. We took a land that was abandoned and devastated, and made it into what you see and covet today. Tell your King this; we will fight, for we mean to keep what is already ours!”
Battle was met on the plain of Moytura in the heart of the Bolg territory. It was the first day of summer, the festival of Beltaine, but there would be no celebrating this year.
Nuada had acted quickly following Sreng’s rejection of his offer. He had amassed his army on the slopes of Moytura’s highest point. On the eve of the battle, he called a meeting with his battle chiefs whilst the warriors rested and readied their weapons for war.
“Here we are protected from the rear by this hill,” he explained. “We can easily keep our camp safe beyond reach of the enemy. Behind the hill lies the steep sided valley of Lough Arrow from which there is no approach, unless the Fir Bolg suddenly sprout wings and fly at us.”
A guffaw of laughter ripped through the small gathering as this ridiculous image took hold. Nuada knew how crucial it was to keep their spirits high pending battle.
“Furthermore, the river winding through marshland yonder protects us from the right. We have the advantage of higher ground, therefore the Fir Bolg must attack from directly in front, or our left side. The open plain affords them no protection.”
“We are well positioned and well prepared, brother,” the Dagda assured him. “Our army has been training for months before we even set sail for these shores. We are fit, hardy and eager to protect our right to this land, have no fear.”
Nuada laughed. “Fear? I am a Denann. I do not know fear.”
A holler of approval met his words.
Ever the pragmatist, Dian Cecht broke in. “Come then, oh Fearless One, should we not talk strategy? One which will bring your poor old physician as few broken bodies to fix as possible?”
“My plan is simple. The Dagda will lead an attack of cavalry on the western flank of the enemy. The Fir Bolg will undoubtedly rush to their aid, opening a gap in their centre ranks. We then unleash our secret weapon, the Fianna. They are young and wild and keen for battle. As the enemy turn back to defend themselves, I will lead a charge of war chariots.”
Even to his own ears, it sounded childishly simple.
“It may not be the most sophisticated battle strategy, but we will make it work,” said Macha fiercely.
Standing bold in the back of his chariot, Nuada’s gaze swept proudly over his army. Even in war they were flamboyant. Some had stripped to their trousers, the better to display their strength and battle scars. Their hair was limed, pulled back and tied at the nape to keep it out of their eyes. Their shields had been brightly painted with insolent messages to their enemies, or images of their gods to bring them luck. The horses snorted and whinnied, alarmed and excited by all the commotion. Somewhere in the crowd, a war band of female warriors began keening and chanting, their light voices rising like silver bird song above the harsh roars of the men.
His men were psyching themselves for the coming battle. They were stamping their feet and rhythmically clashing their swords or spears against their shields. Thousands of booming voices joined in singing fearful battle songs. There were musicians blowing Dords, horns which rose up like elephant trunks above the heads of the warriors. Their discordant notes wailed like ghosts through the air. Others beat wildly on drums. Druids and bards moved amongst the horde, exhorting the men to great deeds.
Nuada smiled as he saw Bres step forward from the ranks of the Fianna to show off his remarkable skills with sword and spear, to the appreciative roars of his comrades. Bres had formed the Fianna from the band of restless young men cooped up on board ship during their long voyage. Nuada had encouraged their initiative, relieved to have the young men occupied, thinking it a harmless pastime. Bres’s leadership had proved somewhat tyrannical, however, as he moulded his followers into a wild, aggressive and unruly war-band.
Nuada’s smile tightened as he heard Bres hurl insults at the enemy, and then faded completely as he heard the threats turn to invitations of single combat, followed by taunts and ridicule when none accepted.
It will do morale no good for this reckless young man to receive an enemy spear before the battle has even begun.
Fortunately, the Dagda stepped in with a reprimand at that point, just as the ranks were beginning to show their restlessness. They were impatient for battle to begin.
A light breeze swept Nuada’s face, bringing with it the soft touch of rain. The first day of summer had not dawned bright and clear, as Nuada had hoped.
At least we won’t have to squint against the sun, but the rain will make the going heavy underfoot, not good for the horses and chariots. Perhaps it will soon pass.
His eyes returned to the long black line of the enemy on the horizon. The Denann were clearly outnumbered, but they had better weapons, horses and chariots. He was not downhearted.
All these months of preparation, the long sea voyage, the overland journey, the new settlements. It all comes down to this moment. Today, our future will be decided.
He tapped his charioteer on the shoulder. The man nodded, shook the reins, and they rode down the hill. His men were waiting for him. It was time for him to speak.
People fell back on either side as he approached, allowing him through. He smiled, making eye contact, calling those he recognised by name, and offering encouragement to all as he passed by.
The Dagda was cracking jokes and regaling the troops with stories of heroic Denann exploits, including a fair few of his own considerable achievements.
“Shouldn’t you be sacrificing an animal or something, instead of bragging?” asked Nuada ruefully.
“All the offerings and prayers have been made, brother,” the Dagda assured him quietly.
“Of course, I don’t doubt you. It’s just that you seem so… jovial.”
The Dagda rubbed his great hands together briskly and grinned. “I love a good battle.”
“And you a holy man and a scholar.”
“Just now my rightful place is here, shoulder to shoulder with my kinsfolk. Come now, brother. It is time to address them.”
Nuada jumped down from his chariot, light as a cat, and turned to face his army. They instantly stilled to hear him. In the silence, a baby could be heard crying faintly from their camp further up the slope. Many of the warriors’ families had ventured down the hill to hear Nuada speak and watch how the conflict fared. Nuada felt dizzy from the weight of all those eyes trained unwaveringly upon him. They trusted him implicitly. It was his duty to deliver them success and a safe new home in which to make their lives. Rows of faces stared at him expectantly, waiting for his words, depending on his wit and cunning. Among them, he saw Macha, and she smiled at him encouragingly.
“People of the Denann, hear me!” he called. “We have been through much together. We have come far. We have got to know one another well. We are not just clansmen. We are more than that. We are family. The enemy challenges our right to be here. But our forefathers were here long before the Fir Bolg who cower yonder, watching us fearfully from across the plain. Our claim to this land is therefore greater than theirs. We are here to take back what is already ours. We have only one chance. Make it count. Fight like you never have before. Guard your brother on the right and your sister on the left. Today is a special day. Not only is it Beltaine, the first day of summer. It is the first day of the rest of our lives, for today we win back our homeland.”
He paused. The Denann were cheering so loudly he could hardly hear himself think. He drew his sword and held it aloft so all could see it. The sun chose that moment to break through the clouds and lit up the blade so fiercely that it blazed like lightning. All eyes were dazzled. An awed hush fell.
“See this sword?” cried Nuada. “Its name is Claiomh Solais, the Sword of Light. It was made for me by Esra in our beloved homeland of Tir na Nog. Never was there a truer blade. None can escape its power. It brings death to every enemy it caresses. This sword and I are one. No enemy can escape me. Every enemy I touch will fall. And now, all the people of the Denann and I are one. No enemy can escape us. Every enemy we touch will fall. Together, we are strong. Together, we are true. Together, we are the Light, bringing this land into a new and powerful era. We are Tuatha de Denann!”
The Denann surged forward, bellowing their approval.
Nuada turned to the Dagda by his side. “Go quickly, brother, we cannot hold them back any longer. Do your work, as we planned it. And the Gods be with you.”
Their eyes locked for a second, then the Dagda gave a curt nod. They embraced briefly, and he leapt upon the back of his horse.
“Riders, to me!” he shouted, and was gone, lost among the brown, grey and white of his galloping horsemen.
Nuada jumped aboard his chariot and headed back up the slope to get a clearer view of the Dagda’s attack. He watched silently as the horses streaked away across the plain towards the enemy line. As the foremost ranks of the Fir Bolg broke away to meet the horsemen, he clapped his charioteer on the shoulder in excitement. A cheer erupted from the rest of the watching Denann. The horses pulling his chariot, already highly strung with the day’s commotion, skittered nervously.
The charioteer grinned. “It is as you predicted, sire.”
Nuada replied without tearing his eyes from the scene unfolding before him. “Indeed! But keep watching…”
At the last minute the horsemen veered away to the left, avoiding the approaching Fir Bolg, and circled about to attack behind the enemy lines on their western flank. The Fir Bolg were clearly taken aback by this unexpected manoeuvre, and milled about in confusion.
“We have them, sire!” shouted the charioteer above the raucous applause which broke out at this turn of events.
The sound of the horses smashing through the enemy lines sent shock waves that could be felt across the plain. The front rows of the Fir Bolg infantry rushed to the aid of their companions, leaving a gaping hole in their ranks.
“Now, Bres!” yelled Nuada anxiously, knowing that the young Prince could not hear him, but willing him on.
Bres has not yet experienced the full weight of war. Is he up to it, or have I demanded too much of him?
Eochaidh sent his warrior Cirb to defend against the Dagda, and reinforcements to close the gap in the forward ranks, but he was too late. Bres was already leading his Fianna right through the middle.
Nuada smiled in grim satisfaction.
My plan is working.
But he couldn’t quite shake off the feeling that everything had been too easy since they had arrived. Could this good luck hold out?
The enemy were in total disarray but fighting valiantly. Nuada and his battle chiefs in their chariots led the rest of the infantry to join the battle. It was evenly matched, for though the Denann were better armed, the Fir Bolg kept pace through sheer numbers. Many fell on both sides.
At dusk, Nuada felt compelled to sound the retreat in order to rest his men, heal the wounded and gather the dead. The Fir Bolg also retreated. He sent a messenger offering a truce, and reiterating the three choices. The Fir Bolg returned a flat no.
The warriors rested, but everyone else had work to do. Goibniu, Luchtaine and Credne worked with their teams through the night, repairing broken weapons and forging new ones. The women and children kept the army well fed and watered. Dian Cecht, with Airmid, Miach and a group of medics, tended to the wounded. Druids made sacrifices and said prayers. Bards sang eulogies to the brave deeds of the day. Some way from the camp, huge pyres were lit and the dead were honoured with cremations.
The next day, the Denann beat the Fir Bolg back to their camp, but still the battle was not won.
On the third day, the Dagda led out his warriors yet again, his heart heavy. He felt light-headed from lack of sleep, and his body was racked with aches and pains from the strenuous exertions of the last few days. Looking around, he could see the stress and exhaustion in the faces of his brave, loyal men.
Today, the fight must finish. We can’t hold out much longer.
Almost immediately, he and Cirb clashed.
“You!” snarled Cirb, as he recognised his opponent. “Are you as brave without your horse beneath you? I think we have a debt to settle.”
“Your race stole this land from my ancestors. The debt is indeed large and well overdue,” replied the Dagda.
Looking into his opponent’s eyes, the Dagda saw a tiny flash of fear. It was the sign he needed. He called on every ounce of determination he could muster and launched a frenzied attack. Cirb could barely defend himself and after a short, fierce flurry, he was killed. For a few seconds the Dagda stood over the dead man’s body, filled with regret.
Three days ago I told Nuada that I loved a good battle, but now I am sick of all this killing. Too many good men have fallen.
Wearily he raised his sword and called out to his fellow Denann that the Fir Bolg battle chief was no more. It was the boost they needed, and they set to with renewed heart and vigour.
All this time, as was the custom of his tribe, Eochaidh had directed his army from a safe position, surrounded by a team of body guards. This comprised the thirteen sons of his friend and ally Fintan the Wise. He was considered too valuable as High King to take part in the fight. Having witnessed the loss of his third in command, however, and fearing how this would demoralise his men, Eochaidh himself launched the next wave of attack.
Meanwhile Sreng, Eochaidh’s battle champion, found himself face to face with Nuada. The two men circled each other warily. They both knew that the outcome of this single combat would have a profound effect on the result of the battle. The men around them stopped fighting to watch. One of them slipped away to inform the King.
Eochaidh’s guards waved the messenger through. Nervously, the man whispered his message to Fintan and departed.
“Well?” snapped Eochaidh irritably.
“Your champion has just encountered Nuada,” replied Fintan, avoiding his King’s stare.
The High King paled. “No,” he breathed. “I can’t lose Sreng, too. Take me to them.”
The bodyguard instantly surrounded their King and forced a route through the melee, seeking a safe vantage point from which Eochaidh could view Sreng’s confrontation.
They got there just in time to witness Nuada launch his attack with a crashing blow to the trunk, effortlessly parried as Sreng danced aside and turned his blade on his opponent.
Eochaidh sucked in his breath, hardly daring to breathe, his face turned to stone.
Come on Sreng, I can’t afford to lose my second in command.
The contest was well matched. Both men struggled to seek advantage over the other. Tremendous blows were given and defended on both sides. Flesh wounds were received, but nothing more. Soon, they began to tire.
Then, unbelievably, it was all over. In a movement so sudden it tricked the eye, Sreng sprang forward under Nuada’s guard and severed the Denann’s sword arm in one sweeping slash to the shoulder. Nuada crumpled to the ground, spraying blood.
There was a shocked silence.
Fintan turned to the King, his eyes burning with exhilaration.
“Congratulations my Lord! Your champion has prevailed. I counted thirty magnificent blows exchanged between them before Sreng got the better of the upstart Leader. This battle is as good as won, my Lord.”
Eochaidh’s stony expression did not change. “Bring me Sreng.”
An exultant roar swelled in the throats of the Fir Bolg army and swept across the battle field till the very ground shook beneath their feet. Those nearest to Sreng hoisted him upon their shoulders and bore him jubilantly back to Eochaidh for congratulation.
“’The wing has been cut from the largest, noblest bird,’”quoted Cesard, the King’s sorcerer. “Just as it happened in your dream, my Lord.”
Eochaidh looked stern. “Yes, but what happens next?”
The Dagda watched as Nuada’s waiting charioteer darted in. With the help of some bystanders, the man pulled the unconscious king onto the chariot, and whisked him away to Dian Cecht. A woman’s voice was screaming,“Someone fetch Macha! Macha needs to know!”
For a moment he just stood there, watching the chariot disappear in a cloud of dust. The turmoil within him was even greater than that without. His instinct was to throw down his weapons and follow the chariot back to camp.
I have lost not only my king, but my friend and brother too.
He looked around at his clansmen. This was something no one had anticipated.
Nuada dead, it just can’t be.
The screaming woman began keening loudly, tearing at her clothing in grief. The Denann were distraught. If he didn’t do something quickly his people would be slaughtered.
He grabbed the arm of Lugaid, Nuada’s young son, shaking him fiercely out of his torpor. He raised his sword as he had seen Nuada do on that first fateful day. Solemnly, Lugaid raised his sword also. Around him, the Denann followed suit.
“For Nuada!” he shouted passionately.
“For Nuada!” echoed the reply.
Desperately he threw himself back into the fray and felt his men taking his lead. All he could hear were their voices, for with every kill they called out, “For Nuada!”
The Fir Bolg were momentarily distracted by Sreng’s victory, but soon returned to the fracas with determination. It wasn’t long before Lugaid’s inexperience and fatigue got the better of him and he was lost to the onslaught.
The Dagda had successfully rallied his men, but so many were dead. The fighting lessened in intensity as exhaustion took hold. The Denann had lost heart, and the Fir Bolg felt success was now a foregone conclusion.
But the fortunes of wars can change in an instant.
Cessarb wiped the gore from his spear on the chest of his last victim, and leant on it whilst he caught his breath. He had been caught up in a small knot of fighting some way from the main thrust of the conflict along with his two brothers. He wiped the sweat from his brow, looking to join the nearest skirmish. He was hot, tired and thirsty, and his eyes were drawn to a small nearby stream. It seemed, however, that someone had already beaten him to it. A small group of men were resting in the shade of some hazel trees on the water’s edge, whilst more stood alert on guard duty.
Bodyguards? Whoever that is must be very important.
“Luam! Luachra! Put your enemies out of their misery and come and join me. We have ourselves a secret mission.”
The two remaining brothers quickly dispatched their opponents and joined Cessarb as he ran upstream. Finding a sheltered spot, they waded unseen to the other bank. Creeping forward on their bellies, they soon discovered a safe vantage point from which to spy on their quarry.
“I know who that is!” declared Luam excitedly. “It’s the enemy High King himself!”
“Keep your voice down, brother,” hissed Cessarb. “Are you sure?”
“He’s right, you know. Those men forming a human barrier between him and the battle site are the sons of Fintan the Wise. The old man is Fintan. The younger one beside the king is probably his favourite son, Slainge. And the other is probably his sorcerer,” said Luachra.
“How do you know so much?”
“A man should know all about his enemies. I did my research.”
“But what are we going to do about this?” wondered Luam.
“There are seventeen of them, and we are only three. We cannot engage them and hope to win.”
“Well we can’t go back for reinforcements. Eochaidh will have re-joined the battle by the time we get back.”
“So what do you suggest? Ambush leaves too much to chance.”
“There is only one option left to us, brothers. Let us do it gladly,” urged Cessarb, and he quickly outlined his plan to his brothers.
This was the opportunity that could win the war for the Denann. But it would mean self-sacrifice. They could not hope to carry out this plan and escape with their lives. Luam and Luachra nodded their agreement.
The three brothers hefted their throwing spears.
Our hearts are pounding so hard, the whole world must surely hear them.
Aloud, Cessarb said, “One shot each is all we have, brothers. Our aim must be true. The distance is great, but not impossible.”
Their arms were shaking, their palms slick with sweat. As one they stood in full view, for there was no way around it. They raised their spears, sighted their target, took aim… and threw. The weapons arced through the sky.
That’s it. We can do no more. There is no second chance. But we will not run. We must be sure. Have the points of our spears found their mark?
A shout went up from the opposite bank. They had been seen. Then everything seemed to happen at once. Eochaidh rose too slowly to his feet in alarm. A spear whistled menacingly through the air. Slainge jumped in front of his father to protect him. He took the first spear. As he fell, the second spear hit the king full in the chest, pinning him to the ground. The third spear fell short. Fintan ran to see if the king was dead. His sons were already splashing through the water with drawn swords. The three brothers stood firm, held their positions, drew their swords and met their deaths bravely.
The king and his son were dead. With a heavy heart, Fintan carried the news back to Sreng. The news swept like wild fire across the battle field. One king was dead, another wounded or dead.
It was neither a victory nor a defeat.
Day four dawned impossibly bright and clear over the carnage of Moytura. Sreng took a select group of warriors and nobles to meet with the Denann. Already, the Fir Bolg had begun erecting huge stones across the plain in memorial to all their people who had fallen.
Nuada was carried out on a stretcher, very much alive.
“What magic is this?” cried Sreng, fearfully. “Your king should be dead from so mighty a blow.”
“We Denann have strength, magic and medicine you could only dream of,” replied Dian Cecht in proud tones. “Nuada is a Denann King. No mortal weapon will kill him.”
Nuada shifted impatiently on his makeshift bed and grunted with pain. His shoulder was bound up tightly, and he was covered in blood. Thanks to his great physician, he had narrowly escaped death. The agony was almost more than he could bear, and the stench of the poultice Dian Cecht had applied was even worse. Propping himself up on his remaining arm, he spoke to Sreng through gritted teeth.
“Before this sorry battle began, I gave you three choices; they still stand. Leave, share the land, or continue the fight. Speak now.”
Sreng fixed his beady eyes on Nuada and considered.
“There is another way,” he said, locking eyes with the injured king. “I would not risk any more of my men, but we must finish what we started. I challenge you to single combat, Nuada. A fight to the death, with this land as prize for the victor.”
Nuada stared at Sreng, aghast.
Does he really believe such an uneven contest honourable? Is he really willing to risk so much?
Sreng, however, blazed with the fervour of a man who had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
There was a huge outcry from the Denann warriors. Some leapt to their feet, drawing their swords or brandishing their spears. The Fir Bolg retaliated. Suddenly everyone but Nuada was on their feet, shouting and pushing. Sreng was grinning slyly.
One voice, however, cut across all the rest.
“Let me do it, sire. I will be your champion. I killed a hundred and fifty of the enemy over the past three days, with no more than a few scratches to show for it.”
Silence fell as all eyes turned in the direction of these words. Bres had shouldered his way to the front of his Fianna.
Sreng’s slow scornful laughter broke the spell.
“You!” he scoffed. “So we meet again, young pup. I see the battle has done nothing to dampen your ardour, or improve your manners. But I fight only kings, and you are just a boy. One hundred and fifty fallen to you or no, you are no match for me.”
The young man’s cheeks flushed. “I am Eochu Bres, son of King Elatha of the Fomori and the Princess Eriu of the Denann. I am of noble birth, and more than worthy of the likes of you,” he declared with contempt.
“It’s true,” added the Dagda. “He is my half-brother and young he may be, but certainly we lost count after one hundred and fifty men fell to the kiss of his blade.”
“Enough!” snapped Nuada. “Bres, I thank you, but this is between Sreng and me.”
Crushed, Bres thrust his way back through the crowd, searching for a quiet place to nurse his frustration.
“But sire, you are in no fit state for combat,” exclaimed Dian Cecht worriedly.
Nuada ignored him. Speaking to Sreng, he said, “Sreng mac Sengalin, your king Eochaidh was known to be wise and just. Now you take his place. Do you mean to continue on in like manner, a king whom future generations will admire and seek to emulate?”
Vanity pulled a veil over Sreng’s eyes. He puffed out his chest proudly.
“Then I accept your challenge,” replied Nuada, satisfied. Sreng had fallen into his trap. The Denann hardly dared breathe. What was Nuada up to?
Sreng gaped, clearly just as baffled by this turn of events as the Denann.
“But,” continued Nuada, “there must be one condition. In order for this to be a fair duel, you will be required to bind up your sword arm and face me one handed. Are we in agreement?”
Sreng’s face fell.
“Think carefully,” advised Nuada. “By rights, any other man would have bled to death from the wound you gave me. The strength and magic of the Denann is something to be very wary of. In single combat, you will be exposed to the attentions of my sorcerers and druids, who will seek to protect me. I am strong enough to accept you. I have an equal chance of winning. Are you as adept at fighting left handed? The Denann are trained to be ambidextrous. If you lose, your people will be forced to leave this land. But if you agree a truce, you may still share land with us. So, what is it to be?”
Sreng looked like a cornered rabbit. All eyes, the sky blue of the Denann and the dark brown of the Fir Bolg, were fixed anxiously upon him, awaiting his reply. He glared at Nuada.
“I will not fight you, Nuada. I will accept your offer and share land with you.”
There was a sigh from the Fir Bolg, but the Denann leapt to their feet, laughing and shouting their joy.
“So be it!” roared Nuada. “You may choose one province to be home for your people.”
Sreng bristled. “The original offer was to share the land equally.”
Nuada’s expression was hard as stone. “This battle could have been avoided through politics and negotiation. Countless lives have been wasted. You have shown little wisdom, therefore you are not my equal. So choose your province and leave.”
“Then I choose Connacht,” spat Sreng.
“Sreng, you cannot best the Tuatha de Denann. This is our land now. Its new name is Inis Fail. Treachery will not be tolerated. Connacht is yours, and you are subject to me as your King. Retribution for misdemeanour will be severe.”
Sreng bowed his head. He had been defeated not by strength or magic, but by cunning. His only option was to accept Nuada as his High King. The time of the Fir Bolg was over.
The Denann continued in discussion after Sreng and his men had gone. Decisions had to be made, and Nuada wasted no time in speaking his mind.
“My time as King has come to an end. I cannot lead you with such an injury.”
“This is not a death wound for a strong man like you,”replied Dian Cecht hastily, but the rest of the Denann were quiet.
Macha plumped the cushions on her husband’s stretcher, and Nuada lay back upon them with a sigh.
“It’s not the wound I’m thinking of,” he said. “Though living without my sword arm will be hard enough to get used to. My first duty was to lead you safely here.”
“And so you did,” Macha soothed. Nuada ignored her.
“My second duty was to deliver victory in battle. In this I failed. The battle was only won thanks to the sharp eyes and enormous courage of our fallen kinsmen Cessarb, Luam and Luachra.”
“Your people would follow you to the end of the world,” said the Dagda. “There is no one they would rather have as King.”
“That’s as maybe,” said Brigid, the Dagda’s daughter. “But the same cannot be said of all the local tribes. They were loyal to Eochaidh. If you wish to own their allegiance, you will need to demonstrate your worthiness and seek their approval, rather than just killing their King and usurping his position. Besides, what use is a King who can’t lead his men in battle? There will likely be much fighting before this land is completely ours. We need a warrior-king.”
“You all know she is right,” insisted Nuada, though it pained him to say it. To Bridget he said, “You have much wisdom for one so young. What do you suggest?”
Brigid took a deep breath. “The beliefs of these clans are ancient. They believe the King is wedded to the land. If he thrives, so does the land. If he sickens, so the land withers. Nuada, they would consider you a bad omen. They would never accept a King who was less than whole.”
“But we are men of science and magic. These customs are primitive, barbaric!” objected Dian Cecht.
“Nevertheless, Brigid is right. Our aim is to establish our dominance as quickly and as peacefully as possible. We must seek a new King and stand him upon the Coronation Stone,” replied the Dagda, although he looked less than happy about it.
Brigid looked at him steadily. “Our people call you ‘Father to All’. They also call you ‘Mighty Red One’ after your prowess in battle. They would follow you as King.”
The Dagda threw his head back and laughed heartily.
“I always thought they called me that because of the colour of my hair, not after the blood spilled by my sword! Daughter, I would not be King. They call me ‘Father to All’ because I am a druid. That is where my duty lies.”
“That is a great pity. There is no-one I would rather have relieved my kingship to.” Nuada’s voice was deep with regret.
The Dagda cleared his throat. “I have a suggestion, but you may not like it.”
All eyes bore down upon him.
“Have courage and speak.” Nuada was feeling tired, and the draught Dian Cecht had given him to take the edge from his pain was wearing off.
That single word hung in the air between them for what seemed like an age. It was not a name anyone was expecting to hear, least of all the young man himself. His eyes darted back and forth between Nuada and the Dagda. All attention was now focused on him. Everyone had an opinion, and they all shouted them at once.
“But he is just a boy!” someone objected.
“He is not even Denann!”
“He has too much of a temper!”
“His father is Fomori!”
“He is a fool-hardy youth!”
“What does he know of kingship?”
Bres swallowed hard, clearly struggling to keep his rage under control. His mother had said his temper was a trait he inherited from his father’s people, who were always quick to anger. For the second time that day, his young clear voice cut above all the others.
“My mother is Eriu, one of your own princesses. I have lived with the Denann all my life. I have been raised as one of you. If my Fomorian blood is such an issue, why were you so willing to accept the Dagda? We share the same father.”
There was an uncomfortable silence, which Brigid was not shy to fill.
“I think your Fomori heritage could work in your favour, Bres. In fact, it would be to the benefit of us all.”
Bres stared at her. “How?”
“Who are we most at risk of attack from now the Fir Bolg are defeated?”
“The Fomori are known for their constant raiding parties. They would take no greater pleasure than harrying us from one end of Inis Fail to the other,” commented the Dagda sourly.
Nuada’s tone was contemptuous.
“The Fomori raids are nothing to us.”
“They may be just raids, but they can be enormously destructive. They can destroy settlements and stores of grain. They have been known to steal whole herds of cattle. They would love to take our women, whom they find most fair.” Macha grimaced.
“We must not underestimate them,” continued Brigid. “We would stand a good chance of making an alliance with them and avoiding trouble all together if Bres was made King, leaving us free to concentrate on making this island our home.”
“You are a clever girl, daughter,” exclaimed the Dagda with a grin. “You take after your father, of course.”
Brigid smiled and rolled her eyes skyward.
“An alliance would need to be sealed with a suitable bride, naturally. A Princess of the Denann would be worthy, and convince the Fomori of our good intentions, wouldn’t you say?” Nuada asked her.
Brigid stared at him, considering his words.
“You mean me.”
She turned and looked appraisingly at Bres. His chin jutted forward obstinately as he met her gaze.
Nuada observed their interactions, and shuddered.
He is such a contrast of Denann and Fomori, with our fair hair and his father’s dark skin and eyes. There is no doubting his valour, but he wears a coldness about him like a shield which protects something malignant and dark deep within. A marriage with Bres will not be an easy one.
Brigid was well loved among the Denann for her knowledge and kindness. Nuada knew that he could use her good qualities and standing to improve Bres’s temperament and popularity. Still, he trembled at the doom he was settling upon her.
She can hardly have expected to marry for love. A princess is often given as a bride to seal alliances, for politics, or protecting and gaining wealth. That he is at least ten years younger is surely of no consequence, for what woman in her right mind wouldn’t want to be Queen to the High King?
“I will have him.” Her reply was cool. Bres’s only response was a brief flicker of relief.
Nuada and Dagda exchanged glances.
“Of course a new king, so young and untried, will need advisors. Bres will have myself and the Dagda guiding his every move,” said Nuada pointedly, effectively dismissing any objections to the boy’s lack of experience. He noticed how Bres scowled with annoyance at this news, rather than look pleased.
Perhaps Bres has other ideas. Perhaps he is not prepared to be anyone’s puppet, despite his tender years.
The vote was taken and result confirmed. One by one, the Denann knelt to the new King, and offered their swords. The coronation and wedding would take place later.
Still no smile cracked the young man’s lips.
Nuada watched him with unease.
An hour ago, you were just a boy. Now, you are walking away as High King in my stead, with the most beautiful Denann woman in the kingdom promised to you as wife. It surely can’t get much better than that.