Downfall of the High House of Nechtan

– Downfall of the High House of Nechtan –

By John C. Wright

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For never in all memory as to thee,
To mortal man so sure and straight the way
Of everlasting honor open lay,
For thine the power and will, if right I see,
To lift our empire to its old proud state.
Let this thy glory be!

— Petrarch (1304–1374)

Table of Contents so far

  • 1. The Enemy of Nechtan
  • 2. Rede of the Third Sister
  • 3. The Crown of the Free
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    1. The Enemy of Nechtan

    On the day of its downfall, in the season of spring, in the season when wrens sang sweetly in the thorn bushes beneath the great outer wall, the gate of the High House of the Sons of Nechtan lay riven asunder.

    Cu Culann, enemy of Nechtan, with feathers in his war-cap, and round shield before him, bearing two spears and his bright sword, alone, save for the slave who served as his charioteer, had come. The chariot of Cu Culann sat in the inner court, before the doors of the great house itself, for the snorting war horses of that champion had pulled it up the stairs. Dangling from the chariot rim, knotted by the hair, fresh blood flowing from their necks, swayed the heads of six of the seven sons of Nechtan.

    The head of Curoi, sixth son of Nechtan, still lived, and his eyes rolled and his lips writhed, staring in anguish and wrath toward the door, as if to demand his last brother to come forth and revenge him.

    Ardan, seventh and last son of Nechtan, stood watching at the crack of the closed and barred main doors, while, without, the champion Cu Culann, covered over with blood, and wounded with six great wounds, shook his war-spear, and clashed it against the doors, and called out in a loud voice for Ardan to come, calling him coward and craven, and names no honorable man could have spoken against him, and live.

    Ardan saw the eyes of Curoi grow glassy and still.

    The slaves of his family, now his alone, stood cowering near the tall fire-place at the far end of the great hall, twenty men garbed in brown smocks, with iron collars hammered around their throats. The slaves were silent, eyes wide.

    Ardan’s three sisters stood with him near the doors. Fiona, as fierce as a falcon, had helped him on with his armor, and stood with one slim white hand against his back, as if to thrust him out into the fray. Deirdre was pale and weeping. Elva stood toying with the threads of his distaff, face distant, as if she could not hear the terrible voice raging outside, or the blows on the shuddering door.

    “This morning I had six brethren,” said Ardan, “There places by the board are still set; the echoes of their voices laughter still ring in my ear. Now there are none to ask what to do…”

    Fiona said, “Look back toward the gate; and see where Fioll fell. By his posture and poise, although dead, he shows you his reed; his counsel is war. Go forth, coward! The honor of our House commands! Or would you have our name spoken of only in sneers?”

    Ardan looked back along the trail of blood leading up to his door, shivering, sickened.

    In the shadow of the shattered gates, lay the headless body of Fioll, eldest son of Nechtan, his bright armour smeared with blood, his gem-studded blade half drawn from its sheath.

    The headless body of Forgil, second son of Nechtan, lay beyond the gates, his war-spear shattered beneath him, and blood soaking into the grass of the outer court.

    In the lesser gate between the outer and inner court of the High House, lay the wreckage of the chariot of Thorgil, third son of Nechtan, wheels hubbed with hammered gold all bent and awry, pole cracked, steeds gone. His corpse lay trampled and scattered across the grass, arms and legs tossed one way and another. His head was not there.

    Down the steps leading up to the inner court, the blood of Thorin, fourth son of Nechtan, flowed like a stream, rippling over each step as if over a waterfall. His sorcerer’s staff lay splintered beneath him; his druids robes were soaked from the spray which flowed from the stump of his neck.

    Headless and upright, at the head of the stairs, the thick, well-muscled body of Conor, the fifth son, was pinned to the planks of the inner court wall by a hunting-spear which had driven his corset of metal in two. Dead, he had not abandoned his post.

    The body of Curoi, sixth son of Nechtan, had been thrown into the branches of the two trees which framed the doors to the main house, long bow still clutched in lifeless hands, arrows scattered, and blood flowed from his severed neck down into the leafs, and spattered the great doors. Of all the sons, he alone had his wounds in his back, for he had been cut down while fleeing.

    Cu Culann hammered on the door again, screaming like a lion. “Villain, come out! Fool and coward, more woman than man! Too long has your family sinned against Ulster, and housed and fed our slaves whom you aid to escape over the border. Are you lovers of slaves? You have the hearts of slaves, I deem, who will not come forth to face me, your justice, your judgement, your punisher!”

    Inside, Deirdre caught Ardan by the shoulder. “Brother, save yourself! Honor and dishonor alike mean nothing to the dead! Cut away the roof-thatch with your sword, climb away and flee! In you lives the last of the name of our fathers!”

    Fiona said, “Poets will mock that name, if he flees. Curoi fled; only Ardan now remains to unstain our honor.”

    Deirdre said, “When there are no sons of Nechtan, we will have no name! No man yet ever has died of dishonor!”

    Ardan said, “Each of my brother was finer and better a warrior than I. What shall I do, the youngest, when all their might has failed? Ah! Even now I still think to turn and look at Thorin, to ask his advice, or expect mighty Conor to tug my corset buckles to see them tight…”

    Fiona said, “Behold Cu Culann! He is wounded; his corset was pierced by the spear of by Forgil; the sword of Thorgil clove his shield in twain; the curse of Thorin shattered his sword; the arrow-head of Curoi’s dart is lodged in his eye; blood from his face tangles his beard; his hunting spear is cast away. Your hunting spear and your war spear still are ready in your unwearied hand; your sword is unnotched; your strength unspent. Go forth now, and accomplish what our brethren gave out their heart’s blood to do. It is the final blow which fells the oak.”

    Cu Culann now took up the coronet which had been on Fioll’s head, a crown of gold showing lordship over all the Nechtan lands and fields, and now he cast it at in at the slit window to one side of the door with words of great scorn, saying, “Ardan! I know you cower within. Come out and claim your crown. You are now the overlord of all the Nechtan lands; a land of craven slaves, ruled now by a small-hearted, unmanly, worthless weakling. Come out! Or do you shiver, puking, behind the skirts of women?”

    The coronet flew in threw the window and fell ringing to the flagstones, bent and dented. It rolled and came to rest in the dust.

    Ardan said to his third sister, “Elva, I have not heard your counsel in this.”

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    2. Rede of the Third Sister

    Ardan said to his third sister, “Elva, I have not heard your counsel in this.”

    Elva looked up. “You must do what has not been done of old.”

    “And what ever could that be? What mortal men can do, what fairy magic or druid charms can compass, my brethren attempted before they died,” Ardan said. “Fioll was protected by powerful charms and woven spells; Fiona had blessed him so that the edge of the sword could not harm him, and so that the point of a spear should do him no hurt: yet look you, Cu Culann slew brave Fioll with a slingstone ere ever he drew his sword, and the sling bullet drove in through his war-cap and broke the bones of his skull, and pierced into his brain, and slew him so swiftly so that he fell without a sound.”

    Elva said: “Each daughter of Nechtan was given a blessing to bestow, a gift to give in return for the good turns Nechtan did the Fairy people in times past. My sisters have spent their blessings, Fiona to give Fioll great powers in war, and Deirdre to give Thorin the druids’ gift and wisdom in the secret arts the fairies teach. Yet mine still remains. I say again you must do that which has not been done before.”

    “What then? Should I fly at Cu Culann in great and swift wrath, hoping to overcome him by sudden fury and surprise? Forgil attempted this, and was slain with the sword when he ventured too close to the champion of Dun Dealgan.”

    “Wrath and courage can be, to warriors, either foes or friends. Rely not wholly on them,” Elva replied.

    “Should I stand away, cautiously, and seek bargain and sue for peace, as Thorgil did? He spoke many meek and clever words of negotiation, point and counter point, yet Cu Culann shouted at him in frothing black wrath. Thorgil did not venture forth till he was ready, armed at all points, and mounted in his chariot; and when they fought, Thorgil never lost his temper, never flew to rage, but fought as calmly and coolly as a man might play at chess, each stroke and parry of the sword calculated and deliberate. Yet he was trampled by the mad steeds of Cu Culann.”

    “Caution and diplomacy can be a soldier’s finest ally; but they too, cannot be trusted never to fail,” Elva replied.

    “Thorin knew the fairy magic he was taught when he walked a moonless night below Heathers’ Howe, and the blessing of Deirdre allowed him go beneath the ground and return again alive. His druid staff hummed and throbbed with spells, and he shattered Houndfang, Cu Culann’s great sword, with a secret word. Yet Cu Culann has fairy blood on his mother’s side two generations back, and they say his father is Lugh Long Arm, who lives in a golden palace in the center of the sun. No spoken curse, no chanted rune, runs stronger than Cu Culann’s fairy blood. He grasped my brother round the waist and squeezed both words and wisdom out of him, and broke his rune-staff with his foot.”

    “Magic aids battle but cannot make it; each knight must pray before he goes to war, yet prayer alone falls short,” she said.

    “Conor relied on honor to save him, for he put his weapons by, and challenged Cu Culann to wrestle him, trusting to the strength of his arms, and to his enemy’s sworn word; but Cu Culann then broke the oath, stood well away, and impaled him on a thrown spear.”

    “Honor is the wall separating honest combat from heedless slaughter. Honor is a the ally on which each strong lord rests his hope when comes the day that he is weak; torturing no prisoners, violating no truces, feigning no surrenders. Without honor, wars could never end; yet honor is not enough itself to end a war.”

    “Curoi trusted in his bow of horn, a coward’s weapon, and, when that did not avail him, on the quick flight of his heels. He was stabbed in the back with the war spear of Cu Culann, his corpse treated with scorn and thrown into a tree.”

    “There are no coward’s weapons; the only weapon which a man should scorn is one which does no hurt to foes,” Elva said.

    “What is your blessing which you have not yet spent?”

    “That no man who fights in defense of this house should ever want for weapons in a time of need.”

    “And why have you kept this blessing unsaid?”

    “No brother of mine, nor you yourself, lack for any weapon, but all were armed with shield and lance and javelin, fit for throwing and stabbing, and wore stern swords at your sides,” Elva replied.

    Deirdre fell to her knees, weeping with fear and weakness. “Save us, Ardan! Give back all the slaves we have stolen from Ulster, and vow what vows Cu Culann requires!”

    Fiona drew herself up, eyes flashing, “Death comes to all men, short or long, and men have no say on their fate. But how he comports himself to die, befitting a coward, befitting a hero, that is his own making. In truth, that is all a man has for his making…”

    Ardan said to Deirdre and Fiona, “My sisters, be silent. I have heard your words, and you say no more than that I should do as Fioll did, and die with sword in hand, or do as Curoi did, and die with spear in back. I reject both deaths; if I must die, let me discover my own way of it.”

    The door shook in its frame, struck by Cu Culann. Another blow bent the rowan bar in its staples; a third blow cracked the bar.

    “Elva, as youngest sister to youngest son, tell me true and fair, what is this new and untried thing you counsel me to do, this thing never done of old?”

    “I know not,” she said, “I know only all are old ways lead to death.”

    Ardan cast his eye about the room. He called upon Naisi, the eldest of the slaves who cowered at the rear of the hall. The slaves were dark-haired Pictish men from the hills, worn with toil, wearing no more than collars and smocks. “Naisi, what do you say in this? Speak, there is little time!” called Ardan.

    Naisi shook his head, “Sir, I am but a thrall, and must do as my betters direct. My rede would be the rede of a coward; only cowards endure to live as thralls.”

    Ardan, in several great strides, crossed the room, and bade Naisi put his head to the stones before the fireplace. Naisi was frightened, but obeyed. Ardan took up the hammer he found by the fireside, and struck the iron collar from Naisi’s neck.

    “Rise. You are now a free man,” said Ardan, “Stand on your feet and tell me the rede of a free man.”

    Naisi rose up, and he seemed younger and stronger than when he had knelt, for now his back was straight, and there was a fire burning in in his eye.

    “If I am a free man…”

    “You are!”

    “Then my reed is mine to give or keep as I wish. I say only this: I shall be no man’s thrall again, not yours, not his. Should I fight for you? Fight to put your collar once again around my neck?”

    Ardan went over to where the coronet of Nechtan lay in the dust and he shattered the soft gold ring with his hammer.

    3. The Crown of the Free

    Ardan went over to where the coronet of Nechtan lay in the dust and he shattered the soft gold ring with his hammer.

    Now he took up the fragments in a great handful and brought it back to the slaves.

    “Here is the Lordship of Nechtan,” he said, opening his hand and showing them the pieces of gold ring, “You all are free men from this day onward; together we shall all have the lordship of Nechtan’s High House. I give you each a twentieth part of the house, of the lands and appurtenances, rights and rents. Will you take them? He shall be lord whom your free vote elects. Now: will you fight for the protection, not of what is mine, but what is now yours and ours?”

    There was not a man of the twenty who did not crowd forward to take a piece of the shattered crown.

    Deirdre and Fiona cried out in wrath and confusion. “You have destroyed our house and lordship!” But Ardan did not answer them.

    The great doors shuddered in their frame again; the cracked bar groaned.

    Ardan said, “Give each your piece to whom you would have as your leader.”

    To his disappointment and surprise, the greater number of men handed their fragments of the crown to Naisi. But Ardan knelt and handed the few crown fragments which had been given him into Naisi’s grasp. “You now are lord of this company.”

    Naisi said, “Not lord, but leader, first of equals.”

    “Tell us your orders, leader.”

    The door shuddered again.

    “I appoint you my captain in this war; you alone of all of us have fought before.”

    Ardan rose. “Elva! Bestow our blessing now! Here are men ready to defend the House, yet in dire need of arms.”

    She raised her hand and pointed at the door. “Each of the brethren carry two spears, and a shining sword. Forgil’s war spear is broken, but Cu Culann’s hunting spear lay unharmed where he has cast it.”

    “When the doors open, rush outside, and gather up what fallen weapons you well might. You,” he pointed toward several of the men, “Run toward the outer gate and hold it against Cu Culann’s escape. You,” again he pointed, “Close on the champion from behind; you from his left; you from his right. I ask for those step forward who would face him to his face, knowing you well might die.”

    Each of them stepped forward. Ardan pointed at two he thought the fiercest and bravest, and gave them his bright sword and hunting spear. He told that man to stand behind him and cast the spear across his shoulder at Cu Culann. The swordsman he gave his great round shield, and ordered him to stand to the side of the door where Cu Culann was blinded in one eye. The other he told to stand ready. The women were put out of harm’s way, and stood in the shadows beside the hearth.

    Now, at his command, the great doors were flung wide, and Cu Culann, roaring hugely, came into the Hall of Nechtan, brandishing his fearsome spear. The hero’s aspect was horrifying to behold: his bloody locks dripped gore, his teeth ground, his lips frothed, his one round eye started and flashed.

    Into the Hall of Nechtan went the hero Cu Culann, and the noise of the battle startled the ravens who had gathered to peck at the dead sons, and they flew up into the air, shrieking and complaining.

    The free men swept out from the hall and seized up the fallen weapons from the fray. Now half of them ran to the outer gate, and stood ready to block the exit; the other half rushed back toward the hall, where many screams and calls rang out.

    Now Cu Culann fled out from the hall, and ten men with ten spears came after him, like a pack of hounds who would pull down a bull. Three of the men at the gate cast their hunting spears; two of which rebounded from his armor, the third of which pierced the upper part of his sword arm. Now the hero gave a great leap like and salmon leaping and cleared the inner wall; but the men manning the outer gate rushed forward to stab him before he could regain his feet.

    Even kneeling, with his war-spear in his left hand, Cu Culann slew two men with one blow; and he called on the slave driving his chariot to come to his aid. The chariot of Cu Culann came clattering down the stairs, and scattered the men harassing the great hero. By now, the men set to guard the gate had come forward, and the path of escape was open.

    Cu Culann climbed to the chariot, but, by then, Ardan appeared at the inner gate with the long bow of his brother Curoi in his hands. He climbed to the top of the wreckage of his brother’s chariot. Ardan called out in a great voice for the charioteer to surrender, saying that he would be made a free man.

    Without a pause, the charioteer whipped his horses forward and thrust his shoulder against his wounded master, so that Cu Culann fell to the dirt as the chariot started away.

    Groaning the great hero, rose to his knees. He called out, “Coward I called you and coward you are, if you slay a fallen and unarmed man, and that with a long bow. I ask only that you allow me rise to my feet, that I might not die on my knees.”

    But Naisi, coming down the stairs, called out, “Slay him on the instant, and grant his charioteer a free and equal part of our domain, if he will.”

    Cu Culann said, “Kill me you may, but I have not died your inferior. My strength and prowess is greater than any of the House of Nechtan.”

    Ardan said, “But not greater than all.” And he shot the hero with arrows till he was dead, and left the body for the crows to feast upon.

    After, when Loeg the charioteer who late had served Cu Culann rose from having the collar struck from his neck, he said, “Fortunate is this day, that the House of Nechtan has victory.”

    Ardan shook his head. “That house is no more. This is called the Freehold now, the House that knows no lord.”

    “A House without a lord? Who has ever heard of such a thing? How long shall it last?”

    “While men are unwilling to live as thralls, this house shall never fall.”

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