I have written before about the cultural value of the severed head for the Celts. According to the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, the Celts embalmed the heads of their most distinguished enemies in cedar oil and displayed them proudly to strangers; nor would they sell these heads, even for their weight in gold. In Celtic-influenced legends, heroes and saints carry their own severed heads about. The Green Knight picks up his own head after Sir Gawain strikes it off, and the Connemara saint Feichin carried his head to the holy well on Omey Island, where it was miraculously re-attached.
19. Black Dog
A week after Sétanta’s arrival, Clog brought her news that the whitecaps below her bridge had mysteriously subsided, and that the sea was gentle, almost mirrorlike in its calm. “A tiny person crossed the water in a currach no larger than a shield,” he said. “Shall this person gain admittance?”
“Yes.” Though the visitor might be small in stature, Scáthach knew better than to judge by appearances. Only someone possessed of magic as strong as her own could calm the whitecaps separating her isle from the motherland. The visitor approached her through the great hall of the dún, making slow progress on short legs. Dark and ill-shapen, with cropped hair, she (for it was a woman) was dressed in a forest green robe with no ornaments. She raised her face to Scáthach’s and said politely, “Blessings on you, queen.”
“And on you, woman of the oak.”
“I am not bandrui,” corrected the tiny personage. “I am Cepp. I serve Sétanta, and I have followed him here.”
“Warriors in my school have no servants.”
“Nevertheless, I have come.” They stared at each other, the tall Scáthach and the diminutive stranger. Scáthach was the first to drop her gaze. “This Hound of Culann had better be worth the trouble he brings,” she grumbled.
“I am a healer,” replied Cepp. “I will earn my keep.” Hearing this, Scáthach was satisfied. The scholars in training gave and received many wounds, while her own armsmen regularly skirmished with intruders and hostile neighbors. No druid or healer served her dún, and Uathach was worse than useless with wounded men, so she had been accustomed to shoulder the burden herself.
Sétanta, in turn, did not disappoint. His raw force, his hero-power, required only technical training to reach an acme of fitness and skill unseen in her school for many a year. The dragonfly feat, the feats of sword edge and shield edge, the cat feat, the tossing of the wheel, the claw feat: he excelled at them all. The only other student who approached the prowess of this Ulsterman was Ferdiad mac Dámon of Connacht, and the two quickly became fast friends.
Scáthach spoke with Cochar about arranging the marriage with Uathach, and he agreed, though he asked her to waive the bride price. “Uathach will give me no sons,” he explained. He had slept with her daughter enough times to know. Clog informed her that Uathach continued to visit Sétanta as well as Ferdiad, a fact unknown to Cochar. The wedding was planned for a date in Fall, a few weeks before Samhain, when all the students of the year would leave for home.
One day she set them the rope feat. They went to the apple grove and stretched a heavy rope from one tree to the next, about eight feet from the ground. The warriors had to fight each other on the rope with blunt spears, staves, and wooden swords in turn, both with their shields and without. In each bout, whoever fell first was the loser. Ferdiad proved very nimble. He dealt Sétanta a punishing blow with the stave which nearly knocked him from the rope, and crowed, “Sétanta mac Súaltam, you are as light on your feet as the Brown Bull of Cuailnge!” This was a massive, heavy beast, the most famous stud animal in Ulster.
“In the rut he crushes his foe; he mounts cows by the hundred,” chanted Sétanta. “That’s good enough for me. But you, my friend, you are as dainty and light on your feet as the Gaillimh king’s white mare.” The assembled warriors guffawed at this, for the king of Gaillimh in Connacht still celebrated his investiture by coupling with a mare before her sacrifice.
Ferdiad took the jibe in good humor. “The mare is swifter than the bull,” he retorted, and struck so quickly that they saw only a blur before Sétanta’s legs flew out from under him and he fell heavily to the ground. He laughingly saluted his antagonist, and wandered further into the apple grove to rest his bones for a while. Ferdiad, meanwhile, took on Cochar Cruifne, who said he was out of practice with the rope feat.
After another half-hour’s worth of bouts, they heard a shrill screech, and rushed into the apple grove to investigate. Under the tree of Scáthach’s bond they found Uathach and the Hound of Culann naked together. Uathach was still shrieking; the third finger of her right hand was dislocated. “This black dog attacked me!” she spat.
“Only as the hound serves the bitch,” pointed out Sétanta. “She sidled up as I was sleeping, and thought to tease me.”
“Uathach, go into the house and find Cepp,” said Scáthach tiredly. “Show her your finger. Go now,” she snapped, for Cochar was swelling with anger and puffing himself up like a great toad. She wished Uathach to be safely out of the way before the two men came to blows.
“You dishonor me, Sétanta mac Súaltam,” said Cochar stiffly, once Uathach was gone. “Take up your arms.”
“Cochar, don’t be a fool,” cried Ferdiad. “Uathach is no maiden; you know that. We’ve all had her. Why, only three days ago she showed me the deep-throat feat.” Everyone roared at this, including Sétanta, who nearly bent double with laughter. Scáthach ground her teeth. It was time, and past time, that Uathach left her dún.
To his credit, Cochar ignored Ferdiad, and stared stonily at Sétanta until he, shrugging, picked up his weapon and shield, not bothering to clothe himself. The onlookers formed a circle, and the pair began to fight. At first, Scáthach saw, he simply held off Cochar, hoping that he would tire, or be satisfied with a good bout. But Cochar used every feat, every trick he knew, and put all his might behind every thrust. Finally the Hound grew impatient, and his many-colored irises began to burn, and the hero-light began to gleam visibly from his brow. Cochar made a false step, hesitated, and Sétanta whirled about with a speed she had never yet seen him display. Cochar’s head went flying and lodged itself in the crook of an apple tree branch, whence it stared at the gathering with a surprised expression. His body slumped heavily to the ground, blood spurting from the neck.
Ferdiad stepped forward to retrieve the head, but Scáthach said, “No. Cochar was my armsman. Let him remain here to guard my grove. We’ll burn the rest of him as befits a hero, and scatter the ashes from the bridge. This was ill-done, warrior,” she said, turning to Sétanta. “You have deprived me of my champion and war-leader.”
“As long as I remain here, I shall undertake his duties,” answered the Hound formally.
“Including the plowing of Uathach?” asked Lochmor jokingly. Nobody laughed this time.
“I’ll have no more to do with her,” said the Hound grimly.
A loud keening arose from the outskirts of the circle. Uathach was standing there, her finger in a splint, her eyes fixed on the glazed orbs of Cochar. She fell to her knees, and they left her there to mourn.
Copyright 2017 by Linnet Moss
Notes: Cepp denies being bandrui (a female druid or as I render it, “a woman of the oak”). But as we learned in the first chapter, she endured ten years of druidic training under the supervision of Cathbad, until her mysterious pregnancy.
The ancient Celts fashioned craft for inland and seagoing navigation from wood or wicker frames and animal skins. These currachs are still used in Ireland and Scotland, while the coracle is used in Wales. The currach in which Cepp crosses to the Isle of Skye is more like a coracle, very small and made for one person.