The warrior school run by the heroine Scáthach was on the Isle of Skye, but I can’t resist showing these pictures of the waterfall at Glencar Lough, in the northwest of Ireland. The pool makes me think of the events in this chapter.
As you know, I’m always enchanted by moss and green hidden places…
This chapter contains adult content
22. Words of Scáthach
It was not long before Sétanta was called to lead Scáthach’s men in fending off some cattle raiders. Scáthach’s lands extended well beyond her isle, the Perilous Glen, and the Plain of Bad Luck. She was the queen of a goodly realm, and possessed many a fine herd. The Hound of Culann became her champion and earned glory in the eyes of her warriors, regularly triumphing in defensive actions and raids against hostile neighbors. One day, when Sétanta returned with the heads of five bandits, and all her men safe, she said to him, “Let us walk.”
They walked the circuit of the island, and came again to the place near the beach, overhung with greenery, where the spring water made its way to the sea. Scáthach unbuckled her sword belt, and laid it on the grass. She loosened her black hair, and let it flow in the breeze. She unlaced her leather jerkin, and pulled off the fine wool tunic she wore beneath. She had no need to bind her breasts, for they were small, and still firm.
Sétanta stood, watching her intently, not moving a muscle.
Then she took her ivory-handled scían and its harness from her thigh, and removed her leggings, leaving all her garments in a pile beside the stream. She waded into the water. A little further up the stream was a small deep pool, and she slipped all the way in, not looking back.
Soon she felt the water move as he slid into the pool behind her and grasped her by the waist, his two hands nearly fitting around it. “Shadow Woman,” he said, pressing himself against her, hard and ready. His flesh was hot, so hot that the water in the pool grew warm. She grasped an old tree root that projected into the pool, and he thrust himself into her with the rhythm of a smith hammering out an iron sword. The rhythm continued, like a war-song, and she felt her spirit drifting far away, then circling back again to meet his.
By the time they both peaked, the pool was beginning to steam. They climbed out and lay naked in the sun among the vetch blossoms and the cool cress of the stream, now kissing and caressing one another, now talking of the school and the dún. Scáthach combed out her hair as they spoke.
“My cousin Aoife is queen in the lands to the west,” she told him. “Clog’s network of watchers tells me that she prepares to attack us.”
“She? Another like you?”
“Like me, yes,” said Scáthach, troubled. “She is not as powerful as I was at her age. But she is a great warrior. We must not err by underestimating her, woman though she be.”
“You and I have never matched our strength, Shadow Woman,” he said playfully.
“True. I am ageing. Perhaps I could no longer put you in your place, young pup. Why, you’re still barely off the teat.”
“Let’s wrestle.” They rose and faced each other, still naked, each adopting a defensive stance, circling slowly as the sun fell lower in the sky. They closed and gripped each other’s shoulders, kicking and feinting and dodging with their legs. Finally she made one of his knees touch the ground, but he won the next fall, forcing her down onto both knees. She began to pant with excitement, and his naked weapon again grew as hot and hard as iron from the forge. They closed a third time, but she was distracted by her desire, and soon he kicked her legs from under her. She fell easily onto her back into the grass, and he threw himself after, joining their sweat-slick bodies in an ecstasy of release.
After they had refreshed themselves again in the stream, they dressed and started the long walk back to the dún.
“We will fight Aoife together, Scáthach,” pronounced Sétanta. “You and I.”
The next day she found a chance to speak to Sétanta in private. “Your prophecy is coming. I feel it growing heavy within me, like a babe. Stay close. When it comes, I will speak as though with the mouth of another. As I am speaking the words, I understand them, but immediately afterward I forget. You will not hear them a second time.”
Sétanta nodded. “Where is Aoife?”
“Still two day’s journey to the west.”
At dinner she felt the words rising slowly, as though from her womb. Although the prophecy was not yet ripe, the urge to speak grew stronger, even as she fell into a relaxed and dreamlike state. Still she resisted, and remained in her seat as the meal wore on, though she ate almost nothing. Finally she caught Clog’s eye. He hurried over, bells all ajingle, and assisted her from the room. Most of the warriors were engaged in an argument over the relative merits of broad-blade and narrow spearheads for various types of targets, but Sétanta followed them, helping Clog to lay her on a couch in a private room behind the great hall.
Once she was settled, Clog discreetly withdrew, and Sétanta held her hand as she labored to bring forth the words. Suddenly her mouth began to move, though she was unaware of willing it so.
I salute you, bright Hero,
Sad Forge-Hound of Ulster.
No man’s tongue can tell
The coming glory of your days.
Hear now the White-horned Bull
Roar at the Brown of Cuailnge.
You will slay a hundred men
Grieve a hundred widows
By a single blow of your sword.
You will slay one you love
In a sea of blood and pain.
Proud-whirling man in arms,
Your house shall rear no son.
Never will you grow old,
Hero, but die on your feet.
She lay quiet for a while, conscious of nothing other than the firm pressure of his hand on hers. As she spoke, the hand had hurt her, she remembered, but it was gentler now. Of her words she recalled nothing. “What did I say, warrior? Did the words carry meaning?”
“Yes, Scáthach.” There were tears in his eyes. “Scáthach, do all your prophecies come true?”
“I don’t know. I can’t remember them, and most who receive the words choose not to repeat them.”
“You said I would kill someone I love. You said my house would rear no son.”
“These things are on the knees of the gods, son of Lugh.”
He nodded and stretched himself on the couch, taking her into his arms, his tears moistening her face. “Your geis is fulfilled now. Sleep, O queen.”
The next day Uathach came to her. They had spoken only rarely since the rites for Cochar, and Uathach had kept herself out of sight, though on the rare occasions Scáthach saw her, she was alarmed by the hateful look in her daughter’s eyes. Very few of the warriors, it seemed, would have her now. Several had bound themselves with geasa not to go near her. Scáthach had offered to settle her in a small dún of her own across the bridge and beyond the Plain of Bad Luck, but Uathach temporized, saying she wished to fight Aoife alongside the other warriors of the dún. The students, who had no quarrel with Aoife, would remain within; Scáthach had no doubt that Aoife would allow them to leave unharmed, should she be victorious. No, she thought. The Hound and I will demand a rich ransom to return her in one piece, or better yet, take her head and let them ransom the rest of her.
“Mother,” said Uathach, “mix me a sleeping draught.”
“Why didn’t you ask Cepp?” said Scáthach. Cepp had quickly made herself indispensable, tending to the ills of the men, and even healing the horses and hunting dogs in the dún.
“I did. She said I don’t need it, but she is wrong. Mother, I lie awake every night seeing Cochar. After you all left the grove that day, his head spoke to me. He said I must be reconciled with you and Culann’s Hound, yet all night his eyes burn into me. I haven’t slept well for weeks, and it’s getting worse.”
“All right,” said Scáthach. “I’ll make the draught for you after we issue arms this afternoon. Today is our last full day before Aoife arrives.”
“Make it as strong as you can,” said Uathach. “And not so bitter as you always do. I don’t want to be able to taste it.”
That night was the eve of battle. The Hound would muster the men at dawn. Ferdiad had volunteered to help defend Scáthach’s lands, for the love of his friend Sétanta. She was confident now. With the three of them together on the battlefield, even Aoife would be hard pressed. In the wee hours, Uathach came to bless her before she went to bed, and she returned the blessing. “I shall go to bless Sétanta too,” said Uathach. “That way he will know that I harbor no anger towards him.”
It was Scáthach’s habit before retiring to drink a cup of mead, and now she poured from the jug in her room and tossed it back, thirsty from the day’s activities. They hadn’t feasted that night, but had eaten hastily and drunk little. In a few hours, the action would commence in earnest.
She reclined on the bed and began combing out her hair, but very soon she felt an overpowering surge of drowsiness. She tried to rise, and then to roll over so that she could use her fingers to gag herself and vomit. It was no use; her limbs were already leaden. Uathach my child, she thought before she passed out. What have you done?
Copyright 2017 by Linnet Moss
Notes: The Words of Scáthach is one of the oldest Irish sagas, a very archaic piece of poetry. You can read another English translation of it here. My version is condensed and simplified to fit the verbal style of this tale. It encapsulates the key episodes of Cúchulainn’s story: his glorious feats in the Cattle Raid of Cooley, his lost son Connla, and the fact that he would die young. We don’t know much about how ancient Irish prophecy operated, but there were both male and female prophets. I described Scáthach’s process using the metaphor of childbirth. Later in the tale, when Tabitha rediscovers memories of her childhood, she has a similar experience.