1. In the Feast Hall
The boy stood halfway up the green hillside, glaring down on all he saw. His stiff body was as thin as a hazel sapling and his hair, combed straight back and fanning across his shoulders, was so bright it could have been dyed with saffron. His large contemptuous eyes echoed the sky’s blue, but were wet with stinging tears of resentment. His cheeks burned bright red where his foster-father had slapped and then backhanded him. A rusty taste of blood tainted his saliva. He looked for all the world like an enraged young god: like Lugh of the Long Arm, the Sun, crisping the Fomoiri with his anger.
Rough stone steps under his worn sandals led up to a round feast hall whose thatched roof was visible just beyond the crest of the hill. Below, the stones divided the hillside, their discontinuous line extending past a dozen rickety round huts down to the valley where the objects of his hatred—his foster-father and brother—waded waist-deep in sheep.
At sixteen, Senchan was just a year shy of acknowledged manhood—of release from the bond of fosterage—and he had no idea who he was or what he was meant to be. His training had been left to chance, his growth to undernourishment, his brain to rot. His whole life it seemed had been robbed from him.
When he was a year old, his blood-father had fobbed Senchan off on Selden Ranoura, the ill-tempered man whose handprints had tattooed Senchan’s face on this and so many other occasions that the sting never quite stopped. His blood-father was a minor king in a world where minor kings were as plentiful as pimples, as distinguished as acorns. Life had changed on the island since the time when kingship mattered; the past lay buried beneath the steady and importunate tread of Christian soles; they who came to Ireland last of all invaders, neighboring ages after all island cultures had been assimilated.
Gods and kingships alike were eradicated; goddesses were forged into saints, given new faces, new attributes. Still, some few aspects of the old society hung on tenaciously and forced the new order to adapt.
One such ancient custom was fosterage. It took two forms: that of affection and that of payment. In Senchan’s case love never for a moment entered the bargain. In return for accepting the burden of his tutelage, Selden received four head of runny-eyed cattle given to explosive, toxic farting. Not much in the way of payment for fifteen years of tutelage. Selden had long ago ceased to exercise his responsibilities. He found instead that he preferred to train Senchan as a whipping boy.
With just one more long year to go, Senchan was determined to grit his teeth and withstand his torments silently, proudly. Few alternatives presented themselves. The old saying went that there were three ways to terminate a fosterage prematurely: Death, Crime, and Marriage. Senchan had no intention of dying. A criminal act he held beneath his dignity as the son of a king, however thin the royal blood running in his veins. And thus far he had yet to find anyone to wed. Selden’s daughters had more bristles on their numerous chins than all the boars in Meath. Till Senchan earned the rights of a man he must abide; then he would repay Selden for all the ignominies shoveled upon him, for the bruises and the welts. Until then, his silence must continue. But the anger, the rage rising like a sun inside him, needed a safe means of release. And so, periodically, he sneaked off to vent his anger in the empty feast hall—where, in fact, he was forbidden to go until the ceremonies of maturity took place…which added a certain sweetness to the act.
In the center of the feast hall stood an octagonal arrangement of copper and brass screens that reached nearly to the ceiling. Their hammered surfaces revealed triskeles the width of a hand, spirals and trumpets, and faces—some hideous, others impassive. Old gods, stripped of their worth. Of them all, Senchan knew the identity of just one—an antlered character squatting cross-legged on the panel facing the doorway. This was Ruad Rofessa, also called the Dagda, which meant “the good god,” although the Dagda had come to symbolize all forces satanic to the builders of monasteries. These screens were remnants of a pagan past, their value stamped out. Now they simply surrounded the central hearth to act as a chimney for peat smoke. Today, as Senchan stole inside, they had forsworn even this duty. The interior of the feast hall was clouded with smoke as thick as stirabout. Shields hung on the walls glimmered dimly like the eyes of nocturnal monsters.
Senchan always found this place eerie, but never more so than today. Often he had thought someone sat beside him in the dimness listening to his muttered curses, his promises of evisceration and castration for both fathers, all brothers. He long ago rescinded all ties to this family. His few friends understood his intolerable situation, but they could only pity him. A mother might have soothed his blistered soul, but Selden’s wife had died long before Senchan arrived, and the old bastard’s squalid whore sided with Selden in everything.
“I hate you all,” he hissed defiantly and plunged deeper into the dimness. The sound of it echoed around the empty hall as if the walls had sighed. “My spit should burn you. I could dig out your eyes with my fingers.” He went down on his knees and gouged the ground. “He has no worth. He measures his value in words tied to his tongue, so he can use them and reel them in again. Nothing but deceits and boasts. Why does he hate me? What choice did I have in where I went? He blames me! Oh, God, I hate him. His daughters I’ll make shave their hairy chins in the foamy blood bubbling on his lips, while I watch him die and laugh! For all the times, I’ll—I’ll…” Senchan’s fists pounded dents into the dirt. He pounded and pounded until his rage was spent, then lay there, a swollen-eyed rag totem in a linen tunic. Ultimately he knew he would perform none of these things, which knowledge served only to amplify his useless fury. Not that he was a coward, but he was likewise no fool, regardless of what Selden called him. To slay Selden would bring the entire settlement out after his blood. Unfortunately, among all the other skills neglected in his teaching was the handling of weapons, and how long could he last when he cannot even fend off a blow? One hour? Two? He cried to the earth. He was trapped within traps within traps.
There came a soft scraping sound.
Forgetting his misery, acting by instinct, Senchan rolled across the floor and dove beneath a congeries of furs. He wriggled in amongst itchy leather that smelled of vintage sweat. His head emerged just enough to peer out. He sniffed, dabbed dirty fingers under his eyes, inadvertent makeup. If they saw or heard what he said, he was doomed in any case—a violator as surely as if he had raped his own estranged mother. Selden would beat him to a cripple for being in here. But the feast hall looked empty. Possibly brighter than when he entered—could the smoke have thickened? He started to suggest to himself that it was just imagination that had made the sound, when the room grew brighter still.
Like a birch tree stuffed through the chimney hole, a shaft of pure white light shot down into the area enclosed by the screens. Heart pounding, his mouth tasting like bloody brine, Senchan tried to account for it, but knew that no errant beam of light could do that. The scraping sound began again. The ground beneath him shuddered.
The screens were parting.
Where they divided, brilliant light burst forth in a knife-edged line across the floor and up the pile of furs. Senchan’s blue eyes sparkled with divine radiance What was happening? He could not guess; it was like some scoffed-at tale of fairies and will-o’-the-wisps unfolding before him. He burrowed back further into the furs. Just one eye remained exposed, a single sapphire in a fuzzy niche.
What that one eye beheld left him in no doubt that the last beating he’d suffered had rattled his brains.
Inside the parted screens, on top of the smoldering bricks of peat, squatted an enormous black cauldron. Rings as big around as his wrists hung from its lip, and triskeles and figures much like those on the screens decorated its bulbous sides. It was the immensity of this vat that had pushed apart the screens. The thing seemed to have grown up out of the fire, to have swelled into being all at once. Were that all, he could almost have accepted it. But perched on the rim, as if someone lay inside the vat luxuriating in a hot bath, were two bare feet, soles wet and as pink as baby flesh. And the toes wriggled.
The feet slid down, out of sight, splashed. A lifetime of moments passed. Then a head began to rise up where the feet had been, the light grown so bright that the color was bleached from hair and skin—it was a face of chiseled chalk, a face of rigid bone, of death. Its wide eyes did not scan the room, oh no. They stared straight into the heap of furs, right at him. The nose was bent, maybe scarred across the bridge. The beard-ringed mouth when it appeared was grinning. A finger popped up beside it, crooked and invited him to come on out, no good hiding from this apparition. The spectre also had a voice, one full of life, lust and humor. The voice said, “Senchan, Senchan—I spy Senchan,” a man sing-songing a child’s decree.
The furs trembled and shook.