The Feast of Lughnasa
Artaius tapped his foot to the music and watched the young men and women stepping high and twirling to the lively jig played on pipes and harps. The percussion of skin drums reverberated against his chest. He belched loudly and moved his hand to his stomach to sooth the mild irritation of hunger.
Bruchar leaned over to his ear. “Something to eat would ease our stomachs. How long must we wait for the Ard Ri to appear? What hospitality is this? It’s the middle of the night and no meal is served.”
“It is Lughnasa; rituals must be followed,” Artaius, answered. “The feast cannot start until the Ard Ri arrives and is re-born to lead the tribe another year.”
The feasting hall was jammed with the elite retinue and family bound to the Ard Ri. Smoke from hearth fires hung in the air adding a tangy accent to the aromas of roasting pig and bubbling stews. Bruchar inhaled hungrily, squirmed on the bench, and stood up.
“Where are you going?” asked Artaius.
“To find something to eat”
“By the light of Lugh, you cannot.”
“Watch your tongue, unruly cur. I am your chief.”
“My chief, be patient. We are honored guests and sit in the place of highest honor; closer to the Ard Ri than his favored clients, even closer than his blood family. In honor of our alliance, we must show respect and wait.”
Bruchar sat down and expelled a breath of boredom. He slapped Artaius across the back and laid a monstrous paw across his shoulder. “You are too young to be so wise.”
“Young?” Artaius smiled and shook his head. “Have you noticed the gray in my mustache?”
Bruchar reached over and grabbed one of the braids dangling below Artaius’ chin, held it up, and said, “Silver tipped like a mature bear. You still have a few good years. The most dangerous bears are mature, still strong, but wise to the hunter’s tricks. Look at me.” Bruchar grabbed a lock of his own hair. “My head has turned gray as ash; yet, I can run down a pig faster than any whelp at this great feast.”
Artaius noted Bruchar’s wild mane, flowing over his shaggy bearskin cloak. Pungent smells of musk and sweat surrounded it. He smiled to himself at how ironic it was that he and not Bruchar was the chosen one, Artaius the Bear, the right hand of Camulos; Bruchar had the countenance of a bear.
A young woman approached with a pitcher of beer. Bruchar eagerly extended his cup. He pulled her close, foisting his attentions on her. She smiled tactfully and tried to pull away.
“Let me go. I have many to serve.”
“A fair lass like you should be looking for a husband of high station,” Bruchar said, and pulled her closer.
“I am wed; now let me go!”
“Ach,” Bruchar answered, “are all the young beautiful lassies taken? A kiss then, to make an old man feel young.”
She looked to Artaius in desperation.
“He means no harm,” he answered. “Would such a small favor be such a great price for your freedom?”
She leaned close to the grizzled chieftain, closed her eyes, and wrinkled her nose. Her lips moved to Bruchar’s cheek. He groped her breast and beer splashed as she jerked away, losing her footing, and falling to the floor.
Artaius jumped to his feet and extended a hand to woman on the floor before him.
“Let me help you,” he said.
Ignoring him, she stood up by herself, brushing dust and beer from her skirts.
“You might have helped when I needed it.”
She stood tall, slender as a willow, and tossed her long blond hair behind broad shoulders with a haughty jerk of the head.
Artaius studied her fine features and pale blue eyes. “Are you Germani?” he asked.
“You will have to ask my mother. Now let me go so I can finish and join my husband.”
Artaius persisted. “At least, give me your name. When I tell the story, you will get proper credit for soaking Bruchar, High Chieftain of the Brigantes, with beer. Truly, he meant no harm. You must understand. Bruchar is lonely. He has but six wives.”
She smirked, shook her head, and answered, “I am Lughin, daughter of Dubglas and wife of Osbert, Clan Coel.”
Artaius caught her pale eyes within his own and pronounced her name slowly, “Loo-een.” Named for a god, a bit pretentious, is it not?”
Lughin shrugged. “It is what my father called me. I was born during Lughnasa. She beamed. “I am the light in his life.”
Artaius could not help returning a smile. He noticed the faint yellow remnant of a bruise on her cheek and another mark near her wrist. “And this Osbert, your husband, what could he have done to win the heart of the fairest flower in Lugdunum?”
“He is tall and strong and fearless beyond words.”
“And is he kind?” Artaius asked.
Lughin’s eyes widened but her brows narrowed.
“He is kind and treats me gently.”
She turned and rushed away into the haze and the crowd.
Drums pounded and people rushed to clear a path through the center of the crowd. Druids dressed in deerskins, with antlers fixed on their heads opened the large oak doors at the far end of the hall. Artaius closed his eyes, relishing the gush of cool air as the doors opened.
The ancient druid, Mogh, led the procession through the doors, hunched over, grasping his twisted oak staff for balance. After a few steps, he paused, to catch his breath. Two druid brothers moved forward to his side, ready to render aid. Mogh resumed his journey, down the aisle towards the high chair of the Ard Ri. A procession of hooded druids followed, clad in plaid robes, woven of many colors.
Artaius watched closely as the wizened magus approached. His dark eyes were lost in shadows cast by bushy brows and the swags of flesh beneath them. A long mustache and wispy beard dangled below his chin, woven with bright colored ribbons and beads. Silky white hair framed his face and flowed over his shoulders, touching the floor. He did not raise his head as he approached Artaius or Bruchar, but they stood up and bowed reverently before, Mogh, Grand Maighstor of Celtica and Albion.
At the end of the procession, six Druid brothers bore the Ard Ri, Cingetorix, reclining on a large oval shield. They held him high, on their shoulders.
Bruchar nudged Artaius. “At last, Cingetorix arrives. We will dine shortly.”
Cingetorix posed like a fallen warrior, on his back with his arms folded across his chest. His whitewashed face and blackened his eyes, nose, and mouth gave him a skull-like appearance. Nestled under his arm, a bronze helmet gleamed. The bearers lowered the shield and Cingetorix on the floor before Mogh, who was chanting an invocation to Lugh, the great father. He stepped forward and the crowd hushed waiting for him to speak.
“Another year has past.” His voice was as gnarled as his oaken staff. “Our harvest has been plentiful and our tribe has prospered. It is time for our elders to pass judgment on Cingetorix, Ard Ri of Ambarri. A druid retrieved the gleaming helmet from Cingetorix’s side and handed it to Grand Maighstor, Mogh.
Mogh spoke, “Council, cast your lots in the helmet of Cingetorix, a white token for his rebirth or black token for his death.”
The council emerged from the crowd, elder men of distinction, displaying their status with silver torques gracing their necks and lavish plaid sagus capes about their shoulders.
Each stone rang loudly as each man passed by Mogh and dropped his token into the helm. Seven times the hollow ring echoed through the great hall. Mogh moved the helmet close to his chest when they finished, reached in, and counted the tokens with his claw-like fingers. He handed the helmet back to an attendant, slammed his staff on the floor three times, and proclaimed, “Seven white stones are cast. Cingetorix rules another year and a day!”
The crowd cheered and Mogh passed his staff over the prone body before him. Cingetorix came to life, sitting up slowly and then rising to his feet. His tribesmen roared approval. Mogh’s shaky hand offered Cingetorix a potion. The Ard Ri grabbed the beverage and drained the cup avidly, pouring much of the contents down his chest. He handed the mug back to Mogh, bowed to the Grand Maighstor, and faced his people.
“I am Cingetorix, Ard Ri of the Ambarri, born again and ordained to lead the tribe, by the Light of Lugh, for a year and a day.”
Mogh stepped forward, raised his staff, and prayed. He spoke with deep gravel-laced tones.
“Blessed be Lugh, your guiding hand
For bright sun that warms our land
For green forests filled with game
For ripe harvests o’er golden plain
For salmon swimming in river’s roar
For black iron from heated forge
Guide us gently with your light
Blessed Lugh, renew our life”
Cingetorix stepped forward, bowed before Mogh, and addressed the crowd.
“Tomorrow, at first light, Mogh will sacrifice our finest bull to honor the Great Father. Then we shall drink and feast on the meat until there is no more.”
The tribesmen stomped their feet and cheered, musicians pounded drums, and sounded pipes with approval.
Cingetorix stood before his people with his painted face and gleaming mail shirt while a druid placed a golden band on his head. His wife, Esme, rose from her chair, bowed deeply, and threw her arms around him, kissing him passionately, disregarding the pitch and white wash smearing her face.
Bruchar nudged Artaius. “Would they really kill him, if the elders voted against him?”
Artaius, answered, “If crops fail, or he if he was weak in battle, the Ard Ri would be sacrificed to Lugh.”
Bruchar grunted and nodded of approval.
Cingetorix turned to Artaius and Bruchar. Artaius stood, bowed, and flexed on his knee deeply, but Bruchar stood rigidly and only nodded his head in respect. Cingetorix accepted the attempt at courtesy and extended his hand to Bruchar.
Bruchar clasped Cingetorix’s hand with both of his. “Brigantes pledge loyalty and allegiance to the Ambarri for a year and a day.”
Esme handed them each a cup of strong mead. They drained the liquor and extended their cups for refills.
Cingetorix turned to the crowd raising his cup and stood motionless until he had the hall’s attention. “Tonight, we are honored with the chieftain of our faithful allies, the Brigantes and his most revered war chief, Artaius the Bear, the chosen one of Camulos, slayer of Ualu, scourge of the Teutoni, and protector of the Brigante.”
Artaius looked to Bruchar. After an approving nod, he stepped forward, unsheathed his sword, and extended it high above his head. Silence ensued as the Ambarri tribesmen perceived the soft aura glowing around the blade in the dim light.
“People of Lugdunum,” Artaius spoke, “I pledge this sword, forged by my father’s hand, to protect the Ambarri as it does the Brigante. It is a sword forged from heaven’s fiery gift, and earthly iron. As these elements were hammered together to form one strong blade, Ambarri and Brigante will be joined in friendship and trade.”
Artaius sheathed his sword. Cingetorix came forward, wrapped his arms around Artaius, and kissed him on both cheeks.
“Fill your mugs,” he roared. “We drink to our brothers, the Brigante.”
“Our friends and allies, the Brigante,” the crowd repeated.
After finishing the toast, Artaius returned to his seat next to Cingetorix. Pipes and drums resumed. Tribesmen began to congregate around the hearth in anticipation feast.
When everyone seemed in the proper place, Cingetorix stood once more.
“Let the feast begin by honoring the foremost warrior, with the first cut of meat.”
Artaius did not answer or rise. Silence encompassed the hall. Heads turned and fixed on him. Cingetorix turned to the warrior. Artaius felt Bruchar’s sharp elbow in his side.
“Artaius, the tribe waits for you to take the first portion.”
Artaius exhaled with dismay. “Can they not start without me?”
“You are the preeminent warrior, of both the Ambarri and Brigante. They honor you with the privilege. Now you must show respect. By the Light of Lugh, will we ever eat?”
Artaius rested his cup on the bench, stood slowly, and headed toward the large pig roasting on the spit. The crowd separated when he approached, forming an aisle to the hearth. The savory aroma of the roasting pig reawakened his appetite.
“Perhaps being first in line is not such a bad thing after all,” he called over his shoulder to Bruchar.
“We will suffer through it together,” Bruchar, answered.
When his attention returned to the hearth, a dark figure, framed in firelight, blocked his path. Artaius looked up into squinty eyes, glaring angrily down on him. Firelight rimmed the ominous dark face and caused the man’s wispy red hair to glow like roasting embers.
The dark menace challenged, “Why should Artaius, who is not Ambarri, be honored with the choicest cut of meat?”
Artaius stepped back. Cingetorix froze in his chair. The hall was static and the silence seemed eternal.
Artaius sucked in a deep breath. “You are right. I am unworthy and do not deserve the honor. Tonight, in honor of Lugh and the people of Lugdunum, I bequeath the honor to bravest Ambarri warrior, who must be standing before me. Son, take the choicest cut and call your family to share it.”
The man’s biceps bulged under his linen shirt that stretched tightly over his massive chest and hung loosely over his trim waist. He turned and smiled smugly to his cronies, a group of drunken youths, laughing and encouraging their brash companion. Artaius knew he must look inferior to the behemoth towering over him.
The challenger returned his attention to Artaius. “You bequeath the honor to me? I thank Lugh for small favors, but I need none from you.”
“Son, accept the honor.”
Artaius sensed rage building in the antagonist.
The upstart whipped a dagger from his belt and slashed wildly.
“Honor is won with blood!” he yelled.
Artaius looked down at the streak of red soaking through his rent shirt. The wound was a scratch, but it bleed profusely. He felt the skin on his forehead tighten, and a pulse inside his head.
“Son, please …”
“Is the great Artaius losing his stomach?”
The youth unsheathed his sword. With the dagger in one hand and the sword in the other, he directed both weapons towards Artaius’ chest.
The voice was distant to Artaius. His attention focused on the tightness of his own lips stretching into a wretched sneer and the pressure of his eyes bulging from their sockets. He raised a hand to the throbbing vein on his neck and gave his young antagonist one last look of dismay.
Artaius’ hand caressed the shallow wound across his chest. Glistening bright with crimson, he drew a finger to his lips and sucked away the blood.
“Is it blood you want?” Artaius rasped.
The upstart’s eyes widened and his mouth gaped. He stepped back -- too late.
“Blood you shall have!” Artaius yelled ripping his sword from its scabbard.
Light flashed and the youth’s sword flew across the hall, cleft in two pieces that clinked and clanked on the stone floor.
The second stroke sliced deeply into the youth’s side and the dagger dropped to the floor.
The third stroke slammed down into the soft mop of glowing red curls.
Blood and brains splattered onto Artaius’ face and rained down on the crowd. He raised his arm to strike again.
Bruchar restrained him.
Regaining awareness, Artaius’ eyes fixed on Lughin standing at the edge of the aisle. Splattered with blood, she buried her face in her hands.
Artaius found himself on the bench next to Cingetorix’s chair. The music had resumed, but nobody was dancing. An unsettling ambience of anxious voices and commotion surrounded him.
“He is possessed by a demon!” Cingetorix exclaimed.
“Not possessed,” Bruchar, answered, “It was a fit of temper, a warrior’s trance, nothing more.”
“He did not have to murder the boy,” Cingetorix retorted.
“The ferret attacked without provocation. Any man would have taken him down, including me. He had no choice,” Bruchar said.
“No choice? He disarmed the lad with his first stroke. There was no need for murder.”
Cingetorix fell back into his chair, dragging his fingers through his hair.
“He was a foster son from the Senones tribe and under my protection. The blood of high chieftains was spilled. Even if we pay compensation, his family will never let it go.”
Bruchar raised his hands in disgust. “The fight was fair. If they want revenge, send them up the mountain to fight Brigantes. We will settle any grievance they may wish to press.”
Artaius felt the soft arm of his wife, Alicia, wrap around his neck. She offered him a potion. The warmth of her bosom and familiar scent of lilies was soothing. Maureen, his other wife stood plain and tall, patiently in front of his bench.
“I need drink,” he said. “Fetch me a large mug.”
Maureen headed to the vat of beer across the hall. Gathering his senses, Artaius leaned towards Cingetorix.
“Ard Ri, I am sorry this trouble. I meant not to hurt the lad—too many battles and too many duels—bloodlust comes too quickly.”
“What has happened to you?” Cingetorix’s eyes pierced deeply into Artaius. “Never have I seen rage encompass a man so completely. Where is the boy that I played with as a youth; the timid cousin, who would rather hammer iron than fight or hunt?”
Artaius dragged his hand across his mustache and shook his head slowly. His face hardened. “I am what I am. I have been blessed by Camulos with the warrior’s trance.”
“Of course,” Cingetorix said pulling back nervously. “Osbert cast his own fate. I meant no offense. Accept my apology for the trouble Osbert caused. It is just that it is going to be awkward because he was of such high rank and noble birth. The Coel clan is ruthless and vengeful. I doubt that we will be able to reason with them. They will not rest until your head or mine hangs from a saddle.
A man pushed his way through the crowd and bellowed, “Aye, and I will not return a single coin of the bride price. It is not my fault that fool challenged Artaius the Bear.”
“Dubglas, be reasonable,” Cingetorix answered. “Consider we are dealing with Clan Coel.”
“I do not care. It is a matter of honor. I am your client and call on you to protect me.”
“Dubglas?” Artaius repeated the name to himself. “And would you be the father of Lughin.”
“You know my daughter?”
“She served me tonight. That is all.”
The image of the blood-splattered women with her face in her hands filled Artaius’ mind.
Maureen returned with a large mug of beer and handed it to Artaius. He pulled her close and whispered in her ear. “Was I a horrible monster?”
She pressed her lips tightly. It was enough. Artaius understood.
Artaius smiled and gently stroked her pox-scarred cheek with the back of his hand.
He took the mug of beer, drank thirstily, and handed it back to Maureen, indicating he needed another.
“Two mugs this time,” Bruchar chimed.
Mogh approached the Ard Ri’s chair. His deep-set eyes came to life.
“Grand Maighstor Mogh,” Cingetorix asked, “what am I to do? The boy challenged Artaius.”
“Cingetorix,” he said, “be at ease; the fight was fair. I will attest to it.”
The rain stung Artaius’ face, not the gentle spring rain that refreshes, but the icy, penetrating rain that bodes of a long winter. He pulled his hood forward over his face and turned to Bruchar mounted on the horse next to him. Bruchar’s shaggy bearskins were soaked, matted, and shiny; they looked more like sealskins. Bruchar pulled up the bear's head that topped his cloak. Fangs and nostrils framed his face. Their wives were settled and snug in the enclosure of the wooden wagon beside them.
“We cannot leave,” Artaius said. “I keep thinking about Lughin.”
Bruchar retorted, “It was not your fault. Her rabid weasel of a husband got what he deserved. You merely defended yourself.”
“No, I lost control and killed the boy needlessly.
“Camulos blessed you with the warriors trance and you resent it. No good will come of this remorse.”
Footsteps splashed behind them. Lughin approached from across the yard.
“Milord,” she called out, “I must talk to you.”
Artaius jumped down from his horse to meet her. Strands of limp hair streaked across her gentle face, framed tightly by a woolen shawl. Her eyes seemed bright in the soft gray light and she extended her hands. Artaius took them into his own hands and held them firmly. They felt cold.
Artaius spoke,“Lughin, I am so sorr….”
“Say nothing, it was not your fault,” Lughin erupted. “Forgive me. Osbert was rash and abusive. He would beat me over the most trifling things. I could not leave him, because father spent the bride price and we had no way to repay it. When I heard you would be at Lughnasa, I told him many times that he was not man enough and no match for the likes of Artaius the Bear.”
Lughin’s eyes welled with tears. Her arms wrapped around Artaius and cinched up tightly. “I had no choice; punish me if you must.”
Artaius looked into the innocent eyes. The urge to embrace her and kiss her delicate mouth was overwhelming, but he stiffened and pried her arms away from his body and burst out laughing.
“Bruchar,” he called out, “she thinks she put Osbert up to it—goaded him into challenging me.”
“No,” Bruchar called back. “Taranis strike me down. I do not believe it.” Bruchar’s deep roar of laughter resonated above the rain.
“Stop it, stop it!” Lughin screamed. “If I did not do something, he would have tormented me for my entire life.”
Artaius abruptly stopped laughing and he put his hands on her shoulders. Lughin broke down. Tears streamed from her reddened eyes; her lips quivered.
“I never thought you would kill him!” she exclaimed.
Artaius embraced her tightly.
“Men like Osbert need no excuse start a fight. It is sad Lughdunum lost a strong warrior, but it is the way of the world.”
“Artaius felt a spasm of grief quake from within her and tears flowed again.
Artaius released his embrace and remounted his horse.
“Now you must live with it.”
Bruchar clicked his tongue to signal the driver of the wagon start moving.
“I am glad he is dead.” The venomous words softly hissed from her lips. Artaius turned sharply, not sure he heard the words correctly. Lughin walked away, a ghostly shape fading into into the fog and rain.