The three Celts squatted in the undergrowth. Before them was a wide clearing in the forest, in which an impressive timber house had been constructed. The man crouching in the centre of the group gestured to the others and the three crept on noiseless feet away from the clearing. The man in the centre was the tallest of the three, with blonde hair and grey eyes aflame with the lust for conquest. The smallest of the three had long red hair and an easy smile. The third had silvery blonde hair, piercing blue eyes and was deft of movement. The tallest spoke first.
‘You two will be pleased to hear I have a plan.’ The red haired man rolled his eyes in an exaggerated manner.
‘We’ll charm our way in to the house, Cermait can distract her with his clever words and Cailte, you will drag the cauldron away while I fight a heroic delaying action against whatever supernatural beastie guards the cauldron.’
The red haired man laughed shortly. ‘I’m sure I could distract the girl, but what about the other two?’
Cailte snorted. ‘That’s the supernatural beastie CuChulainn was talking about.’
CuChulainn shrugged, ‘We’ll wait till they go out. They go out don’t they?’
‘You’re the most disorganized Hero I’ve ever met,’ remarked Cailte, ‘this was your idea and you haven’t done any advance planning at all.’
‘CuChulainn is more a man of action,’ replied Cermait, ‘and anyway, we’re not being terribly heroic are we? The Tale of How CuChulainn stole a cauldron from a Young Woman.’
CuChulainn stood frowning, his arms folded.
‘When you two are quite finished…’
CuChulainn shook his head. ‘For a start, it’s a magic cauldron, and shouldn’t you be composing a poem and you sharpening my weapons and cleaning my effects?’
Cailte solemnly handed over the weapon harness, each blade honed to razor sharpness. ‘Ready when you are.’
CuChulainn stared at Cermait. The red haired man shrugged, ‘You have to do something before I can write about it.’
‘Remind me to give you a thrashing at the end of the day.’
Keeping low to the ground, the three returned to their vantage point overlooking the wooden house. After a couple of hours, in which the sun rose through the trees, dappling the clearing with pools of light, the trio were rewarded by the sight of a matronly figure in long dress and travelling cloak leave the house. She walked off into the forest in the general direction of the nearest town. The three men silently passed a water skin between them and continued to wait.
By late morning, the heat had become stifling and the midges were enthusiastically gorging themselves on the men’s exposed flesh. Just as CuChulainn was beginning to reconsider the wisdom of this particular adventure, the door to the house opened once more to reveal an ancient woman clad in a shapeless black dress and leaning heavily on a warped walking stick. She glanced about sharply, as if she had heard something, and then set off at a credible speed deeper into the forest.
‘We need an introduction,’ said CuChulainn in a low voice, ’something believable.’
‘What about Novice Druids?’
‘We don’t have any robes,’ said Cailte. Cermait grinned triumphantly, ‘I’ve got three Novice robes in my bag.’
When they returned to the clearing, the three men saw that a young, dark haired woman had left the cottage and was tending to a wilting garden. A large raven was perched on a nearby branch. It eyed the robed men beadily. As they entered the clearing, the young woman paused in her efforts and regarded their approach with a neutral expression.
‘Druids, is it?’ she inquired once they were closer. Out of the side of his eye, CuChulainn saw Cermait give a slight nod.
‘That’s right my girl, we’re Druids.’ The woman raised an eyebrow slightly.
‘You’ll be wanting fed and watered, I suppose?’
‘You’re very hos-’ began Cermait,
‘Then in accordance with the old tradition, you won’t object to helping me with my garden.’ The three men exchanged quick glances.
‘I suppose not,’ said CuChulainn.
‘Excellent,’ she said, her sudden smile lighting up her face, ‘I need this area thoroughly weeded out, this plot needs to be turned over and I need water from the well behind the house for later on.’
The men fell to work, and, after a time marvelled that the woman maintained the garden alone. Every time Cailte seemed close to turning over all of the designated plot, he would glance again and see he still had at least a third still to do. His arms began to ache from his exertions. CuChulainn was having a similar experience with the weeding. The small plants seemed to disappear before the hoe, only to pop up to the side or behind him. The small of his back, began to burn from having to use a hoe designed for the young woman. It was Cermait’s task to fill a large water butt with buckets from the well. This seemed an endless task; he had it a bit less than half full and couldn’t seem to get it any deeper.
From the branch, the raven scrutinised the working men.
Towards the end of the afternoon, the young woman considered their collective efforts.
‘Not bad, but not great. It’ll do. Now if you,’ she said, indicating Cermait, ‘wouldn’t mind getting a final bucket of water, we’ll go inside.’
Cermait picked up the wooden pail and walked round the house towards the stone well. As he approached the well, he had a prickling sensation on the back of his neck. Something was amiss. A successful warrior, he had developed something of a sixth sense for danger. He was aware that all the background noise of the forest has ceased. From beneath his robes he drew a sharp broad bladed sword.
‘Afternoon, dearie,’ said a voice from directly behind him. He spun round, to discover the matronly woman with a woven basket in one hand. Cermait noted a strong family resemblance between the young woman and this one. On instinct, Cermait thrust with his sword. There was a flicker and the form of the woman was replaced by a female form, coloured and knotted like tree roots. She had long, wild black hair, black eyes and long, sharp claws. With preternatural strength, the figure caught Cermait’s sword arm and gave it a sharp wrench, dislocating it. As Cermait opened his mouth to cry out, the figure’s other hand closed around his throat and crushed it effortlessly.
The young woman went first through the door, followed by Cailte. As soon as he stepped through the portal, the door slammed shut, separating Cailte from CuChulainn on the outside. Cailte could hear pounding on the door, but he focused his attention on the woman in front of him.
‘What’re you doing?’
The woman smiled, ‘Dealing with thieves,’
Cailte shrugged, ‘Fair enough,’ he said and drew his sword. The woman made a small movement with her forefinger and Cailte’s sword spun from his hand. From the elbow to the hand had gone numb, as if from an impact.
‘My name is Nemhain, remember that, and in none of your future lives ever have the temerity to raise a weapon against me.’
It hit Cailte like a wave. He was overcome with an incredible surge of panic and unreasoning fear. All he knew was that he must escape the slowly approaching woman. With a whimper, he fumbled with the door, registering only at the last minute, CuChulainn’s instructions to stand clear. The door splintered, and then crashed open and CuChulainn dragged the gibbering form of Cailte from the house. CuChulainn watched the slowly approaching Nemhain and felt the first waves of fear. He grabbed Cailte and forced him to make eye contact.
‘Run! Tell them CuChulainn is fighting forest demons. Now go!’ CuChulainn half threw Cailte towards the part of the clearing they had been hiding in. As the terrified man staggered towards the clearing, the raven detached itself from it’s perch and glided silently towards Cailte. As it passed him, it slashed him cheek to jaw with a talon and flew off. Cailte fled into the woods. Satisfied his friend was at least partially safe, he drew the Gae-Bolg and turned to face Nemhain. Beside her were the matronly woman and the very old one.
The Ancient woman spoke,
‘CuChulainn? We have a bargain to offer you…’