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The Warrior’s Tale
Author: Nathaniel Slattery
Posted: Month of the Holy Family, 6th Day, Year of Our Lord 2023

This is an excerpt from a book I have written that is finished and undergone one round of edits. I am currently getting a cover made, and then will likely release it in advance copies for critique. It is called Saodfàil and is a story set in St. Patrick’s Ireland before its conversion. It follows seven characters as they make a pilgrimage to see the High Druid, and is made up in most part of their telling their stories around the fire at night during each day of the journey. This is the second tale, which is called The Sword of Destiny.

I am not a child of destiny. I shall tell you of my birth, so you have no doubt of this.

My mother was a princess of Alba. She was a woman of destiny, betrothed to a king. She was known for her sorcerous powers, though she told me she had none always.

When a flock of strange birds appeared on a warm day in winter, the greatest huntsman, Kellan Mac Inley, called upon her to join him in the hunt. A bird was to be captured for the king as a wedding present. It was thought that the birds may be as from the tales, princesses of the Otherworld, daughters of the \textit{Tuatha de Annan}, and perhaps they could reveal secrets.

The huntsman and my mother traveled far in search of the birds, into the mountain reaches. What birds fly to colder places in winter, I do not know.

Alba is a cold, hard land, full of mountains. War is often had on the lower peoples, be they Roman or Saxon or Briton or Pict or Scot. Alba is a place of war.

When the cold returned, the huntsman retreated with my mother into an old cabin. There, they were hosted by the god \textit{Lugh Lahmfada}, or Lugh of the Bright Face, who is sometimes called Leprechaun.

My mother awoke with child. It was the god’s child, and he was a child of destiny, to be called Sentata. The huntsman was never seen again.

When my mother returned without a bird and with child, the king accepted that it was a god’s child. The kingdom, however, did not, and my mother was shamed everywhere.

She went to a witch, who gave her certain herbs, and the child was lost. She came to my father virgin-whole, as the sons of Alba reckon it, and on the wedding night I was conceived.

So, I was born a prince. But destiny would not have me. The gossip continued, and all Alba believed I was a son of the huntsman, and the king eventually succumbed to the belief himself.

I had seen nine winters when I learned it. I spoke to my father one day in his home which sat atop the hill of Duncadd within the \textit{Moing Mhor}, which is the great moorland, and is treacherous and boggy. This is where we lived. It was a strong place.

I spoke to my father, saying to him, “When I have the throne, I wish to have already slain nine men with my sword.”

He told me, “That is quite a boast. What makes you believe you shall have my throne?”

“I am your only son,” I said.

“My son would never boast as you have. You are the son of the Leprechaun or the huntsman Kellan Mac Inley.”

This bothered me much, for I was young and weak. I straightaway took my little bodkin, which I called a sword, and I ran from my father’s presence and out into the bogs.

I had walked those bogs for nine years, but not much farther than the road. My determination drove me deep into weeds and rustles and thick vines such as looked like they hid solid ground but just as not concealed a drop down into waters. It was my experience that kept me alive. I encountered no animals but many bugs.

At the center of the bog, I wept.

I was a weak boy. The sound of my weeping drew an old hag who lived in the bog. The first thing she said to me was that a son of Alba does not weep. If I liked to weep I ought to travel to Inisfàil where the men spin poems and talk as women do, about unseen things for which a man has no time. But if I would stop weeping, she would show me the way out.

I held my bodkin close because I did not trust a swamp hag. But she turned and I followed her. The place she took me was not the road or the fort, my home. It was a wide loch, with an island at the center which I could just see.

She told me, this swamp hag, “See what shame your tears bring, son of Alba. You have filled up this loch. Now, swim to the center of it, and see what you find.”

This I did. I plunged into the water and swam fiercely, as fierce as I could, for halfway to the island I began to sense a great danger. This was a monster something like a shark, which inhabited the waters. Rather than face it, because I was afraid, I swam all the harder until I reached the islands. Once my hand struck the shore, though I was still in the waters of my own tears, or such the swamp hag told me, like smoke the monster receded.

On the island was only one thing. It was a log that had been carved into the shape of a fearsome hound, a beastly thing that looked like nothing and no dog that had walked the lands. In the hound’s head, straight down, a sword was imbedded.

This sword you now see on my back. I am no poet. I hide nothing. I was told by the hag, who hid behind the hound, that this sword was the one for my tears. I think her more poetic than you people of Inisfàil, the Isle of Destiny, who stay up long after nightfall weeping and crafting your old wives’ tales, trying to give some reason for your own lives, because you must always have some destiny or you would not go on, I think, drowning in the guilt and grief with which the gods have cursed you for stealing their isle.

The hag told me that if I took the sword, I must never again refuse a challenge or ignore an insult. This because the destiny of the sword was to one day slay or be wielded by the greatest man to walk the lands.

So I took the sword. I straightaway fell into a deep sleep, and when I awoke, I was in the bog again.

I returned to my father’s house and made amends. The sword, which was very heavy, made an impression on my father. He told me that I was surely a son of the god, but I have already shown you that I am not, but he wished me to take his throne if I would have it.

When I had seen fifteen winters, I left my father’s house, as he had had another son by my mother, and all the kingdom was saying that he should be king as he was the rightful heir, and I was destined to be a hero, but I have told you that I am no child of destiny. Regardless, with my father’s blessing, I struck out and swore never to return, since this is the way of Alba.

I came to a place in the west amongst the islands where the Lord Craighin dwelt. Here, I arrived in the dark of night, following the only light which I saw, which was the great fire of the Lord Craighin. I did not know that he was having a fete and that all the lords and ladies were there but my father, who wished to stay and attend his wife, my mother, after the birth of my brother.

Now it was the custom of the Lord Craighin in those days to release a beastly hound into the big outer court as guard at night. This hound I found, for as I came towards the light, it leapt at me from the shadows. It was my luck, and not destiny, that I was carrying the sword in my hands, for I could not easily climb the steps to the Lord’s outer court with it across my back, long as it is.

The hound impaled itself upon my sword. I did not move but for a stumble. I would not weep, as I had the sword, but it is a difficult thing to watch death come to a beast as well as to a man. The hound’s eyes were before me, its mouth agape at my face, and I saw it die. For a long time, I did not move.

I was found like this by the Lord Craighin himself, who had noticed that his hound no longer barked, and he in turn called all the other princes of Alba to see me.

I was much ashamed at the death of the hound. I offered to guard the Lord’s home until a whelp was raised to his replacement, and this is how I came to be called the Hound. 

A year it took for a new hound to be raised. At the end of a year, I was taken in to court. This did not suit me, but all Alba called for it, and so I was treated again as a prince.

I have never cared for women. They weaken the knees of the greatest warriors, and one need hear few stories to know that they are the cause of many undoings and evil things. For this reason, too, I detest court and castle but for war, because without war, it is a place of women.

And I am right. The Lord Craighin had a noble visiting, and he brought with him a princess of the Angles, and this woman took a liking to me.

One day when I sat to supper, she brought me my food, as was her habit. As was mine, I did not look at her. But she had grown bold. She reached for a lock of my hair, and sensing danger, I grabbed her hand to halt her. I broke two of her fingers.

She screamed, and doctors and princes came, and her noble of the Angles. I fled until I struck in stride my host, the Lord Craighin.

“What is the matter, hound of mine?” he said.

“I have hurt that woman, the loose one of the south.”

“But why?”

“I did not intend it. She groped for my hair, and I broke her fingers.”

“I see. Surely, you did not have to flee from her?”

“No, my Lord, but those princes, they shall challenge me for her sake, and I shall kill them all.”

“Surely you can explain and refuse the challenge?”

“Do you not know that I must refuse no challenge while I carry this Sword of Destiny?”

“I did not. This is a sad day. Where will you go?”

“I do not know.”

“Then, hound of mine, let me advise you. Travel to Inisfàil. The men there are soft, warm, and good-natured. You will never be challenged there.”

I did as he told me. I was young, still, but I traveled the waters and came to a place near Tara north of here, of the rivers and sea. I had begun to give thought to what the hag had told me, that the sword’s destiny was to slay or be wielded by the greatest man to walk the lands. Then I wished to be challenged, since it seems to me that by this way it will come to the greatest man, since I will have to slay all who challenge me. I repented of my flight from the Lord Craighin and my way of thinking, and I had now a new way.

By this way, I searched out the greatest warrior of these lands. His name you know, for he is the Lord Laighin, destined to be king of here. He dwells south by the sea on an isle called the Shadowy Isle, and there I journeyed.

It is ringed about by many dangers. There is the woodland, where fiercesome beasts dwell, and they maul and kill or test every warrior who seeks out the Lord Laighin. By this means, he is sure that all who find him are the strongest and the fiercest.

However, there is also the bogs which border the woodland and hold the river Duneld. This was the way I took. It is thought in these lands that the sicknesses and maladies which come from the cold bogs should kill any man and, if not that, then the serpents. But I say that I saw no serpent, and in Alba it is known that a man of mountain thickness can withstand malady as a shield withstands a sword, but he must only rest. So I did this, traveling slowly.

I came to the great bridge which leads to the Shadowy Isle. It is a high and dangerous bridge, straddling two cliffs which lie far above the wild, rocky cauldron of waters. Above this bridge is the castle, and from there the Lord could see me cross, he and his gatekeeper.

The bravery which a man must have to cross that bridge is thought to be the final test of his warrior’s heart. Thus, when I crossed, I was welcomed in as brother. It was much remarked that I had no spot of blood on me from the beasts of the woodland. I told all who I could that I had traveled by way of the bogs, but they did not believe me.

I came under the tutelage of the Lord’s gatekeeper. From him I learned all my art, for until then I was not a skilled warrior, but only a lucky one. He was a grandson of the Lord Laighin, known only as Ui Laighin. He and I were friends.

A year passed. It was heard that in far Gaul, the men were fierce and clever and worthy challengers, their women beautiful and their lands rich. Thus, it was decided that we should go to them, challenge them, and take what women we widowed for our wives and their orphans into our homes as servants and sons, as is the just way of war between men everywhere. It is the same as with the sword. Let the strongest man hold it, and let the best protector of women and children receive them into his house.

So, we sailed to the coast of Gaul. As we came near, we saw that they had gathered to face us upon the beach. We rejoiced. Here were brave men and not cowards. 

But you know what artifice was used against us. We came to the Rock of Drowning, unknown to us and indeed unknown to me almost until I heard this foreigner speak its name. Indeed, the rock had a curious power. I was in a boat with Ui Laighin, and we were pulled by a current to the rock, and we struck it, and he fell into the water.

We were separated then. I saw Ui Laighin clinging to the rock, and I saw a great shark coming for him, and I cast my javelin at it. It struck true, but the shark continued to approach Ui Laighin.

I plunged into the waters and swam with all my might until I was upon the shark’s back. It dove beneath the waters, but I plunged my sword through it and held onto it.

Then it was that I knew the power and nature of the rock, for under the waters I saw a gateway, and we swam through this gateway, and I emerged into the land of the Fomorii.

Green grass greeted me. The shark’s carcass was beside me, and all about me were the wreckages of many ships. As I rose to my feet, a woman most beautiful hailed me below a sky of pale blue.

She said, “I am Muirgen, a daughter of the Ocean God. I am here to welcome you home, Setanta, son of Lugh Lahmfada.”

I shook my head at her and turned from her. I have said to you what women are to me: trouble and death, and I see no reason to change this opinion. I went instead to retrieve my sword from the shark’s carcass. I did not look at her again.

I told her that I was not the son of Lugh Lahmfada, and I told her of my birth as I have told you.

“Do you think I do not know this, Setanta? But what is it to the gods if the thing in the womb is destroyed? You were chosen to replace it, a natural son of your father, a prince, and Lugh Lahmfada will accept you as his foster son. I shall be your wife. But I know that you are chaste and untouched by woman. Can you deny now a wife such as I, the best and most beautiful, daughter of a god, princess of the Fomorii?”

I did not look at her. I looked instead at the wreckages around me. “Why are these so many?” I asked.

She gestured to the wondrous city behind her, and I saw from the corner of my eye. “They are our wealth,” she said. “We take from them all that we desire.”

So by thievery the old gods persist. They have been reduced to such by you of this land who stole their riches from them and their homes as well.

But for me, I refused to live such a way. Muirgen put me under a great sleep, telling me that by my choice I had resigned myself to the unhappy fate that I would one day be destroyed by the mightiest man of the lands. I responded before the sleep took me, that this was a more honest fate than the one which was for her and her ilk.

I awoke upon the beach of Gaul. Many of the men desired still to make war upon the men of Gaul, but I kept my voice silent until I heard the word of my friend. Ui Laighin, great warrior of Inisfàil, had been taken to a monastery to recover from his wounds and shipwreck sickness. This foreigner, our companion, has described this to you. Ui Laighin came to our camp later with many others which the sons of Gaul returned to us.

He told me that he had seen great power and might of a God of the sons of Gaul. This I did not understand, but he was not going to return with us. He would go back to the school in which he had recovered, and study this God.

I had seen the nature of our gods. I labored to convince our men not to make war upon the men of Gaul. Very many without honor wished to do it, for our warriors were returned to us. They understand nothing.

At length, my opinion won out. We returned to Inisfàil.

It was a shameful thing in the court of the Lord Laighin what had happened, and more than that, what Ui Laighin had done. He had told me that he had died upon the rock and was born again within the school of the new God. This I did not understand, but when pressed for explanation, I repeated it to his grandfather.

“My grandson has died?” the lord asked.

I said nothing.

“Then you shall be him, as you were the hound of Craighin.”

So I was taken into the klann of Laighin. Again, I was a prince. I served as his gatekeeper twenty winters until his death.

There was a single night only where I was challenged as gatekeeper. It was on a summer’s eve, warm and balmy, but suddenly a dark cloud rolled in from the sea.

Cold set in. My fingers cramped upon my sword, which I drew. Across the great bridge a figure approached me. He was a tall man, wearing armor the color of gray silver, which concealed all his features. He held a silver shield the length of his chest and a sword of flashing metal as they carry in the far lands, where metal is plentiful and strong.

It is a fiercesome thing to face a warrior better equipped than you. He told me as he approached, “I am the \textit{Tighearna Dubh},” which is the dark lord, “and I come as one of the gods to challenge you, for you are unfit to wield that sword, the sword of the sons of gods.”

He rushed upon me. Knowing I was to die, I raised my weapon and braced my shoulders as I had learned from Ui Laighin.

Three paces from me, a bright light flashed upon the Tighearna Dubh from behind me. This I felt and knew the distance. I did not turn to face it. A warrior does not turn from his challenger.

The god came short, bracing his shield in a defensive posture. The light shined upon him. In my eye, he and his shield began to boil.

A great voice sounded. “You have no power here. For this one, I have greater intentions.”

Then the Tighearna Dubh fell to his knees in pain. I descended upon him and cut off his head. Still, I did not look behind me, for I was caught by the sight of the god’s evaporating corpse like smoke passing into the sky.

When it had gone, finally I turned. Behind me there was now nothing, and the rest of the night passed in peace.

I was not challenged again. At the death of my lord, I was released from my obligation, for his son took the mantle and did not desire me as gatekeeper. I traveled then. I pondered all the things of my life and especially the sword. For a long life, I had known no challengers but one who a greater power destroyed from before me. I had killed beast and not man. I had gone astray somewhere.

It was no surprise, because I was never a child of destiny. It is clear to me that that child which my mother prevented was the true one which the gods intended, and I am cursed with no love for the gods. Their beauty I was offered and did not desire, their riches I found repugnant, and the glory of their battle I was denied.

“And so I seek this higher power to die upon its sword. It is clear to me that it was the power of the oak-knowers which struck down the Tighearna Dubh, and so now I seek to challenge that power. This is how I come to you. I seek the High Druid to challenge him so that this sword may pass from me and on to its destiny.”

Uilliam’s tale ended as perfunctorily as it had started, and those around the campfire gradually stirred as if from individual dreams. No one said anything for a great long time. Many of them were struck by the knowledge that one amongst them was so mighty and in so unique a position amongst gods and men.

“These were demons,” Acco said suddenly. “My friend, you resisted every temptation as by a miracle, and God Himself desires you.”

Uilliam gave him a level stare. “My friend Ui Laighin said such things to me.” 

“And I know him! He is the very one who taught me your tongue. He used to speak of you as one touched by a special destiny, but even he did not know the half of it.”

Uilliam grimaced. “I have told my story. I am one despised by destiny, in the place of another more fit.”

Acco shook his head. “But don’t you see? It was not the druids, but God Himself Who rescued you from that demon at the gates of Laighin in the Shadowy Isle.”

Uilliam cocked his head in thought. Time passed uncomfortably for those around the fire. The others looked to each other, but they were consumed by knowledge of their own tales as yet untold.

Finally, Uilliam said, “Then I must challenge Him?”

“No!” Acco said, “Offer your sword to Him freely! He is not like these demons that tempt you.”

Uilliam stared at the little dark man. He said, “I must ponder this,” and it was the last thing said that night.

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