THE RED STAG BROKE COVER UNEXPECTEDLY. FINN AND his hounds were taken by surprise. The two dogs froze, waiting for his command. He had one glimpse into huge liquid eyes, pleading eyes; then the stag bounded away down the mountain, belling a warning.
Light from the westering sun burnished the deer's russet coat. North beyond Galway Bay, thick, pale clouds sagged with the weight of approaching winter. Sleet hissed on the wind.
Hot with life, the stag flickered like flame across a cold grey landscape.
“Red deer, red deer,” Finn murmured, immobilized by beauty. A poem rose in him like spring water.
Shouts exploded behind him.
“Stag, a big one!”
“Kill it! Kill it!”
Men boiled past Finn, waving their spears and howling their hunger. His instincts briefly merged with theirs. His fingers tightened on the shaft of his spear, his muscles contracted for heft and hurl.
But the poem stopped him. The poem, growing in him.
“Hold where you are!” he cried. The two young hounds, Bran and Sceolaun, whined, but stood.
The men found it harder to obey. Momentum had already carried them past him. They were hunters and a stag was running. But they were also warriors of the
and he was the new leader of their particular
He called himself Finn Mac Cool.
Planting their spears on the slope to brace themselves, the
watched with regret as the deer leaped from one limestone outcropping
to another. When it disappeared from sight. their eyes turned toward Finn.
“You let a fine fat stag get away,” accused Conan Maol, Conan the Hairless. “And us starving.”
Dark, slender Cailte added, “I could have run him down and eaten the entire animal myself.”
“You could have done.” Finn said amiably. “But then he'd be gone, all that grace and beauty destroyed. And you'd just be hungry again tomorrow. A creature that splendid can serve a better purpose surely than swelling your belly.”
His men exchanged glances. They were beginning to recognize a certain cadence when it crept into the speech off their newly appointed
Fionn son of Cuhal was a dedicated hunter. But when the impulse to poetry seized him, everything else must wait. His band had already learned that much about him.
With a last wistful glance after the lost deer, they formed a circle around their leader, crossed their legs, and sat. The ground was cold. They ignored discomfort.
Finn remained standing. His eyes were tinned northward. The jagged peaks of the Twelve Bens were dimly visible across the bay, disappearing, into lowering clouds, but Finn was not looking at the mountains anyway,
In his mind, he was watching the red stag run.
His expression grew dreamy and faraway. His hair was as pale as winter sunlight, his eyes as clean as water. But when he was ready to speak, his voice would be deep and sure.
Bran and Sceolaun sniffed out the bed in the bracken where the deer had lain. Some of the animal's warmth lingered in the flattened ferns. Circling three times, the hounds remade the bed to suit themselves and curled up together. Sceolaun rested her muzzle on her crossed forepaws, but her companion's head was propped across her back so Bran could keep watchful eyes on Finn.
The cry of wild geese rang through the sky. Looking up, Finn saw black wings carving lines in silver space.
He nodded. The poem was complete. He recited,
Here's my tale.
Stag cries, winter snarls, summer dies.
High and cold the wind.
Low and dull the sun, and brief its run.
Strong surge the seas.
In red-brown bracken, shapes lie hidden.
Geese sing, fleeing, south, ice on wings
That's my tale.
When Finn stopped speaking, Donn said, “Brrr! That's made me colder than I was already.”
The poet smiled, flattered.
“âWinter snarls,'” quoted Fergus. “A particularly nice hit, that.” His mouth worked, savouring the words.
“It's a grand poem entirely,” Cailte affirmed, “but it won't fill our bellies. Words are no substitute for a haunch of venison or a fine silver salmon with the smell of the sea on him.”
“I'd give my good eye for some badger meat dripping grease,” sighed the husky voice of Goll Mac Morna.
Lugaid suggested hopefully, “We could still bring down that stag, the hounds could track him.”
“Leave him be!” Finn ordered sharply, unwilling to have the source of his inspiration slain. “We'll find something else, we always do.” He brandished his spear and whistled. Bran and Sceolaun jumped up and ran to him. wriggling with the exuberance of half-grown hounds. The hunt resumed.
Except for Goll Mac Morna, all of them were young and exuberant, brimming with barely controlled energy. They had unblunted features and blue-white eyeballs and had only recently begun growing warriors' mustaches. They were brash and merry and thought themselves immortal.
Searching the slopes of Black Head, the fÃan poked spears into every crevice and hollow, seeking to flush out small game hares or red squirrels, or even the half-mouthful of a pigmy shrew. They laughed and swore and shoved each other; they traded insults until the crisp air crackled.
Gael challenged his friend, “If you can put one foot in front of the other, I'll race you to the bottom!”
“Done!” cried Madan Bent-Neck, who owed his permanently cocked head carriage to a slight deformity. He wore the round shield slung across his back higher than his companions did, to conceal the unevenness of his shoulders.
Physical beauty was not required of a
only strength and courage mattered in battle.
The two bounded away in exaggerated leaps. Goll said disapprovingly, “Those young fools will kill themselves, running headlong on that footing.”
Finn flashed a merry grin. “Then that's two less we'll have to find game for. Think of the effort saved!”
Goll chuckled. One of his eyes twinkled. The other was milky, bisected by a slashing scar that puckered cheek and brow. “It's Conan who'll be the most grateful, he's the laziest.”
But in spite of Goll's prediction, Cael and Madan reached the bottom without mishap. They turned and trotted back up at a more leisurely pace, watching their footing. By the time they rejoined their companions halfway up Black Head, they were breathing hard, however.
Cailte said scornfully, “Neither of you knows how to run.” He pulled his wolf-fur cloak out from under his shield and tossed it aside, revealing a body as thin as a sapling, clad in a leather kilt and a deerskin tunic. “Mind you, this is what running is,” he said. He raced off down the mountain, his shield bouncing against his shoulder blades.
In a voice like thick cream, Fergus Honey-Tongue remarked, “Cailte Mac Ronan is faster than thought.”
“He makes Cael and Madan look like old women,” said Conan.
Madan bristled. “It's not fair to compare us to him. Cailte won the running championship at the last Tailltenn Fair.”
“So he did,” Finn agreed. “Therefore he should be the standard you set for yourselves. Go and catch him, you two.”
Cael's jaw sagged. “You aren't serious.”
“I am serious. And since I would never ask you to do anything I wouldn't do myself â¦” Without pausing to take off his cloak, Finn turned and ran down the mountain after Cailte. Bran and Sceolaun frisked along beside him, barking excitedly.
With a whoop, Blamec set off after them. Cael and Madan felt compelled to follow. The entire band joined in, slipping and slithering down the north face of Black Head, waving their arms and their spears for balance, cursing and colliding and shouting with laughter.
Reaching the bottom well ahead of the others, Cailte sat down on a slab of stone and dug into the leather bag slung from a thong around his neck. He was just taking a bite of hoarded food when Finn joined him.
“Want some of this?” Cailte offered.
“What is it? Och, honey fungus. I'll wait for meat. You'd eat anything though, wouldn't you? Move over.”
Cailte obligingly slid over to make room for Finn. “I'd eat anything if I was hungry. And I'm always hungry.”
As the others arrived, Finn called out their names. “Blamec. Lugaid the Serious. Donn. Conan the Hairless. Cael. Fergus Honey-Tongue. Madan.” There was a long pause while they all waited. Then, “And here at last is Goll Mac Morna.”
Goll was gasping for breath and sweating profusely. He had an appalling stitch in his side. He stopped before he got to Finn and bent over with his hands braced on his knees. “I had to bring up the rear,” he panted. A fit of coughing ensued. When it had passed, he added, “Someone had to guard the young ones' backsides.”
Sceolaun ran to him and began trying to lick his face. He elbowed her away but she came right back. Her tongue slopped noisily across Goll's mouth. He made a strangled sound of disgust. “Finn, call off this wretched bitch!”
Finn whistled. At once Sceolaun left her victim and trotted to her master, mouth agape as if laughing.
Goll followed, clutching his side. “When I was the age of these young ones,” he said raspingly, “I was as fleet as any of them.”
Finn smiled. “It's not your age that hampers you, Goll. It's your girth. You grow thicker and thicker, like an oak tree.”
“And like an oak tree, I'm hard to cut down,” Goll growled.
Finn's smile held. “Everyone knows that Goll Mac Morna is unkillable.”
Seen together, the two might have been taken for father and son. Both were tall and fair. But while Finn was lean and taut, Goll was bulky, thick through chest and shoulder, short of neck and broad of thigh. Compared to Finn, he looked clumsy and past his prime.
Yet he had his pride. His voice had been permanently hoarsened during long service as RÃgfÃ©nnid FÃanna, chief of all the FÃanna, commander of the army of Tara long before Finn joined them.
Now, however, he marched with Finn's band and followed Finn's orders. That alone should have made them enemies, though there was another, darker reason for enmity between them. Finn never referred to it, but Goll could not forget that he was one of the men who had killed Finn's father.
Any other man in Erin would have devoted himself to finding his father's killers and exacting a terrible vengeance. But Finn Mac Cool did not seem interested in revenge. He treated Goll as he treated everyone else.
The situation made Goll acutely uncomfortable. He was a professional warrior, accepting a demeaning assignment with the obedience born of long discipline. Finn's apparent friendliness should have made it easier.
But it could never be easy.
Cailte drawled, “I notice none of you bothered to bring my cloak down for me.”
“We thought you'd want to run back up the mountain and get it yourself,” Finn teased.
“I will of course, no bother on me! And I assume you'll accompany me as a courtesy?”
Gael snorted with laughter, but Finn replied without batting an eye, “I will of course.” He was on his feet and running, with his hounds beside
him, before Cailte realized what was happening. The thin man had to sprint madly to catch up.
They raced up the mountain together. Cailte inclined his lean torso parallel to the slope. Watching from the corner of his eye, Finn copied his technique and matched him stride for stride. They ran faster than Gael and Madan ever could.
The earlier running had been for fun. This was different. Both men recognized that a serious challenge had been offered and accepted.
They competed on a treacherous slope studded with slabs of limestone and fern-concealed potholes. One misstep could break a man's leg.
Black Head was the northernmost point of the region known as the Burren, an eerie moonscape land where plants and flowers thrived that grew nowhere else in Erin. Wind and weather had sculpted stone into thousands of time-fissured faces, until the Burren became not a place, but a Presence. Using the wind off the sea for a voice, grassy uplands hummed songs of a Stone Age past.
Time circled and spiralled and had no shape. Stone tombs erected millennia earlier were monuments to forgotten chieftains who still haunted the corkscrew hills. Natural terraces of striated limestone shifted colour from grey to violet to rose in the pellucid light of an Atlantean sky.
Nothing changed and nothing stayed the same not in the Burren.
Two young men raced up the headland in a ringing silence broken only by the sound of their harsh breathing and a curlew's cry.