“Alba” was an ancient Celtic name for Scotland, historically also used for the largest of the Atlantic Isles, including what would eventually become England, Scotland and Wales. It was the home of Aoife, a warrior queen and rival to Scáthach. The story of Aoife’s single combat with Cúchulainn is told in the Irish saga Tochmarc Emire.
The Greeks also had a tale of battle between their greatest hero, Achilles, and a warrior woman, the Amazon queen Penthesilea. Achilles dealt her a mortal wound, but fell in love with her as she died, and mourned over her body.
24. Woman of Alba
As her warriors moved forward into Scáthach’s lands, Aoife knew the feeling of calm that always came to her before a battle. It took her back to her earliest memories of training with her father. Pain and Fear, he told her, were brothers born of the same mother. “Without pain, you would quickly die,” said Ardgeim. “Once, my man Conall received a sword wound to his spine. He lost the ability to feel any sensation in his legs. For months, we cared for him, dragging him on a pallet or wheeling him in a cart. One day, I noticed a foul smell and drew back his blanket. A sore on his leg was festering, and he didn’t even realize it. He died soon after that.”
Fear, she learned, was a good thing too, a necessary thing. Men who felt no fear made grave mistakes, forgetting to fight defensively in the false belief that they were invulnerable. But like pain, fear must be mastered or it reduced a warrior to hapless cowardice, dishonor, and defeat. Though she was lean and well-muscled, Aoife was smaller than most warriors of Alba. Her father had taught her to rely on speed and wits as much as strength. As her confidence grew and she brought down men half-again her size, she learned to control her fear, but never to stifle it completely in the ríastrad, the battle madness. She experienced this rarely, though it was common enough in male warriors.
Scáthach was a powerful queen and a formidable opponent on the field of battle. It was said that she had a foster-son, a champion from Éire who had already proved his mettle many times, in spite of his youth. They said he was the son of Lugh himself and bore Lugh’s invincible spear. They said that the ríastrad transformed him in combat, that he became a twisted, bloodthirsty monster. They called him the Hound. She shook her head, spurring on her horse and glancing back to check on the progress of her war chariot, with her faithful Aibhlinn at the reins. These were tales for children. Scáthach’s man would fall before her and her Companions, just as other warriors of Alba had fallen.
It was growing dark. They made camp, and before dawn she was informed that Scáthach’s men were massing in the plain below. She gave the necessary orders, and prepared herself for battle. Aibhlinn braided Aoife’s long red hair and wound it tightly about her head, then brought her the gilt cuirass that she always wore. It was a strange but useful object, a bronze shell which fit her chest in front and back, meeting at the shoulders and along each flank, where it was secured with laces. It mimicked the musculature of a man’s chest, and provided good protection for her breasts, which she bound tightly before being strapped into the armor.
The cuirass had been forged in the far-off land of the Danaoi, a warlike people of great renown. Among them was a Man of Woe, fated to achieve glorious deeds, yet die young. The bards sang of his prowess in battle, just as a few were beginning even now to sing of the Hound. They said that the Man of Woe had fought a warrior queen on the plain outside of Troy Town, and defeated her, plunging his sword into her breast. Yet even as she knelt dying at his feet, their eyes met and he fell in love with her. Soon enough he was dead himself, at the hands of a coward who shot him from afar with an arrow. Aoife thought this a sorry tale, and had asked the bard who sang it whether he knew any songs in which a woman warrior bested a man. But the bard had merely said in an ingratiating tone, “Nay, yet a generous requital for a bard’s song will bring you my praise, O Queen.”
The Danaoi were, it seemed, a race of small men. The cuirass had fit none of her father’s Companions, and so it had come to her as if by right. Under it she wore a white wool tunic, and her feet were shod in high deerskin boots which laced up to her knees; about her neck was her queenly gold torc. Over it all, a red cloak was fastened with her favorite gold ring-and-pin brooch; this cloak she would remove before engaging the enemy. A wood and hide shield with bronze bosses, a quiver of light javelins, a sword and her trusty scían, strapped to her thigh, completed her panoply.
They rode forward as soon as the light was sufficient, she leading the Companions in her chariot. She soon found good work for her javelins, and wasted none as her men charged the enemy. When her supply was exhausted, she leapt from the chariot and plunged with her sword into the thick of battle, surrounded by most of the Companions; the others would remain behind to guard her chariot and driver. A shower of javelins and sling stones met them as they moved forward, but they used their shields expertly and emerged unscathed.
Immediately she came face to face with a dark-haired warrior woman, smaller than herself, but fierce. The woman was young, and had the look of Scáthach, whom Aoife had not yet spotted on the field. She must be the daughter. Aoife thought it a shame to kill a kinswoman and tried to sweep past Uathach, but the younger woman let out a chilling shriek, attacking bravely yet clumsily. Did your mother teach you nothing? thought Aoife. Uathach tried a version of the sword-and-scían trick, but Aoife easily knocked the dagger from her hand. Now she could see battle-madness in the other’s eyes, and something else: despair. Suddenly, Uathach launched herself forward with stunning force, and was instantly impaled on Aoife’s sword. Uathach smiled wanly, and embraced Aoife, pulling their torsos closer and forcing the sword out through her own back. “My blessing,” she whispered, blood already beginning to bubble from her lips.
Troubled, Aoife let her fall, then planted a foot on Uathach’s body so she could withdraw her sword. Her men were churning ahead perforce as they engaged the enemy, and she quickened her pace so as to remain in their midst.
On a low hill ahead, she spotted a warrior with a cohort about him similar to her Companions. He had a shield and sword, but no armor. And no spear, that she could see. He was raven-haired, beardless, and not much taller than she; a mere whelp. This is our great opponent, Scáthach’s champion? “Come,” she shouted to her men. “Bring down that small, dark one and the task is done.” She moved relentlessly forward, cutting, stabbing, dodging, parrying, plowing a field of blood.
Now her Companions clashed with the Hound’s men, and began to fall. First Darragh, then Eoghan. She ducked a blow from Eoghan’s killer and kicked his right leg out from under him, then economically sliced through his throat as he fell. Her men were outnumbered. It was time to even the odds, but now the Hound waved his cohort off. Did he plan to fight her and her remaining Companions alone? He is foolhardy and overconfident. She moved forward to meet him, but Niall and her other men surged protectively in front of her. Dimly, she became aware that a ring of watchers surrounded them, though whether they were her people or the Hound’s, she did not know.
Incredulous, she watched as the Hound attacked with blinding speed, dispatching three of her men with the grace of a dancer, in one long, uninterrupted motion. His unbound black hair gleamed on his shoulders and a spectrum of colors shone eerily off it. Once, she had seen such colors in a rock crystal sphere, when a sunbeam transfixed it. His movements appeared effortless. She knew herself to be tiring, yet a sudden rush of fear enlivened her. Niall fell, his guts spilling out onto the dust. A hush fell over the battlefield as she faced the Hound, alone.
They fought silently, and she was tested as she had never been tested before. She could not reach him, and his eyes mocked her. He even smiled. To him, she realized, this was meat and drink. There was nowhere else he would rather be. His sword sliced shallowly into her thigh and she felt blood dripping there, but no pain. Let him make an error. Watch for his weakness. But it seemed he had none, and his speed was preternatural. At last, she managed to land a heavy blow with the flat of her sword to his wrist. Had her control been better, she would have severed his hand. He pulled back slightly then, to give himself time to recover, and she plunged forward to press her advantage.
As they closed once more, he said mockingly, “Your charioteer is dead. Did you know?” Aibhlinn! She hesitated for a fraction of a second, and he dealt her a blow to the chest that would easily have killed her, had she not been wearing the cuirass. As it was, she fell. In the blink of an eye, he stood over her, placing his foot on her neck. Her torc kept it from crushing her windpipe, but she was immobilized in the stiff armor, and unable to twist away.
“Submit,” he demanded, looking down at her. His eyes burned with the battle madness and light shone from his brow.
“No. Kill me now, Dog.” She waited calmly for the blow to fall, but instead of plunging his sword into her throat, he threw himself upon her and brought his face close to hers. They were both panting, and their breath mingled. His eyes were strange; they seemed to be of many colors, shifting and swirling through his spinning irises. I have lost too much blood, she thought.
“Aoife.” He spoke her name like a caress. “The day of doom is upon you. Your men are fleeing for their lives. It is done. Submit to me.”
“Never, Dog.” He was very young, she saw. A whelp, yes, several years younger than she. He hadn’t yet grown into his face, his long convex nose, his sharp cheekbones. In spite of the cuirass, his weight was heavy on her. He was not as large as the tall warriors of Alba, but he was bigger than she. About her she heard his men jeering at the picture they made, lying full length together upon the ground. She could see the ríastrad receding from his eyes second by second, to be replaced by the wild lust that befell men once they had killed and triumphed over their enemies. After a battle, they come back with two spears, her mother had told her. But Aoife was virgin still. As a young girl she had put herself under a geis never to lie with a man, and in return, she believed, Brigid had made her a queen whom men would follow into battle.
As the jeering continued, he rose to his feet. From her vantage point below, she saw him glaring, slowly turning his head about in a half-circle. Wherever he gazed, silence fell like a heavy blanket. He jerked his chin at two men who stood closer than the rest. “My quarters. If she escapes in life or death, I’ll kill you both myself.” They lifted her and each took one of her arms over his shoulder. Looking down, she saw that her tunic and boots were red with blood. They marched her to a wagon and threw her on her face, tying her hands behind her. In this ignominious position she was bumped and jostled all the way to Scáthach’s dún. Mercifully, she soon passed out.
Copyright 2017 by Linnet Moss
Notes: I have changed the story somewhat from Tochmarc Emire, in which Scáthach fears that Cúchulainn will be killed by the formidable Aoife (!). She therefore gives him a sleeping potion designed to knock him out for the duration of the battle, but to her surprise it only affects him for one hour. In my version, the devious Uathach gives the potion to both Scáthach and Cúchulainn, hoping to guarantee her mother’s defeat, but only Scáthach misses the battle.
In Tochmarc Emire, Cúchulainn distracts Aoife by calling out that her horses and chariot (what she most values) have gone over a cliff. In my version, he tells her that her beloved, the female charioteer Aibhlinn, is dead.
Aoife wears an heirloom Greek cuirass as armor, something unusual among Celtic warriors at the time. From a bard, she hears the tale of the “Man of Woe” (Achilles), and his combat with Penthesilea. The “Danaoi” are, of course, the Greeks, and I think it likely that the Irish saga was influenced by both Greek and Roman traditions.