Owain’s Red Branch

By Jennifer Arnold

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There was once a great king over the Tuatha De Danann. They named him Dagan after Ireland’s strongest king because no other ruler came close to the power of Dagan’s will. Dagan did not poses magic but the Tuatha De Danann had magic in abundance. Prowess in battle and cunning were Dagan’s tools and no one could wield them as shrewdly as he. Dagan lamented his lack of magic so he searched high and low for other ways to prove his skill.

The Gailag still roamed the hills and luscious forest lands in the high country but Dagan had trained warriors to help drive the vandals out. The warriors came to accost the Gailag’s settlers by destroying the farms and fields of any who were not Tuatha De Danann. Even the most innocent settler recognized Dagan’s standard and knew where to place the blame.

Dagan sought to make peace with the settlers and to gain favor with the land by giving away the farms he and his men had earned. The taken land was given to grieving settlers like a gift. Three mighty rivers separated several plots of land. The river provided fresh water and the current brought in minerals to make the land good for farming. Many warriors asked the King Dagan for these plots of land but he denied them. None of the best lands were given until Mac Owain came asking a favor.

Mac Owain was the youngest son of Mirid, a wealthy Gailag farmer and Ninid, a seer of the Tuatha De Danann. The Gailag farmer could not interest Dagan no matter how wealthy he grew but Mac Owain’s mother was another matter. Every ruler wanted the favor of a seer and helping the son seemed like a sure way to win over the mother. Ninid the Seer could tell Dagan the outcome of any battle before war was declared. He could know the mind of his enemies before actions were decided. A seer could be a powerful took if it was placed in the right hand. Dagan could be that hand if Ninid would only share the things she knew.

So Mac Owain was granted land when he came to ask. Dagan gave Owain the best land the Tuatha De Danann had to offer and slit up the plots that the mighty rivers separated.

Mac Owain was grateful for the land so he planted three fruit trees near the confluence of the rivers. The rivers gave those trees extra nourishment so their fruit was the juiciest and sweetest. They produced fruit year round. Owain was able to make a fortune on the sale of the fruit.

The Tuatha De Danann warriors under Dagan mocked Dagan’s decision to give away the land. Dagan got tired of the talk so he sent a swineherd to trample the trees and to eat the fruit before it could be harvested.

Ninid, Owain’s mother, saw that this was to happen. She saw that Dagan meant to use her son for his own ends. So she went to her son and told him to place pikes with fruit on them along the river. The scent of the fruit drove the swine to the river where they drowned in the water.

Owain had a great feast of pork and roasted pig for three nights. Each night Owain and his neighbors ate well and drunk honeyed mead until they fell asleep at their places but on the third night Dagan came to Owain’s feast.

“There is trouble being stirred up between you and me,” Dagan told Owain. “The warriors and settlers of this land believe that your skill and power are greater than mine.”

“No one with eyes to see would say such things! Only a fool would believe rumors like those.”

“I am glad to hear you say so. Put these rumors to rest by telling me three truths that your mother’s visions have shown her.”

Owain shrugged his shoulders. “My mother’s secrets are not mine to tell. She only tells me of the hawks that fly over the north fields. They will keep vermin away so that the crops will prosper. She tells me that the pigs will grow fat if they are allowed to roam near the western forests where wild mushrooms grow. I know no secret that will make any army great.”

Ninid stood up from her son’s table then. “I will give you this prophesy for free because of the kindness and generosity you have shown my son. You will see two hawks. One will fly over the fields at Dun Chruachan and the other will roost at the mouth of the river Sharron. These too hawks will fight for a rabbit above the tombs of Craig No Dunn. One hawk will die and fall from the sky. Walk into the tomb the dead hawk lands on and you will find a treasure. A weapon like no other. Use this weapon against the army of the Gailag and they will be no more. No warrior will be able to say that such a king is not the greatest in skill and power!”

Dagan was glad to hear this news, curtain was he that Ninid could not have made up so many specific places and occurrences. He drank deeply of the honeyed mead and retired early.

Owain and Ninid were alone when he turned to her and demanded, “Why have you turned on my father’s people? Dagan has shown me favor but what is one life over thousands? Warrior like Dagan slaughtered farmers and children to get this land. None of them earned it and none of them deserve to have more!”

“Stop your complaining and listen! I told Dagan what he wanted to hear. Now it is up to you to keep something terrible from happening.”

“How can I stop it? I am only a farmer.”

“You are not only anything. You are the son of a magician and a seer and magic of two lands runs through your veins.”

“What must I do?”

“Look for a white ox with the mark of the cross on its head. Take the milk of this ox and bath in it until the milk becomes purple. Use the dye from this milk on the silken manes of three different war horses. Send these horses as a gift to Eochaid Feidlech of Tara.”

“My father’s people have warred with Tara for many generations.”

“Then it is time to make Tara an ally. Eochaid lost Fathach to Dagan after the Battle of Corann. Offer to fight Dagan with him and Eochaid will welcome you.”

Owain had given Dagan his oath of fealty when the land was given to him. His skin itched at the thought of abandoning his sacred oath but he could not sit by while innocents died either.

“You must make a decision, my love,” Ninid told her son, “but remember that no matter what decision you make the choice must be yours. You must stand by it!”

Owain planned to go to Tara and give Eochaid the horses. He hoped to build a bridge to peace so that the Gailags could have some kind of sanctuary when Dagan’s men came. The first night Owain spent in Eochaid’s hall made him reconsider his plan.

“Great welcome from me to you, Owain. You will be my guest at Tara and my daughter Clothra will be your wife.”

The beauty of Clothra was legendary even in the far kingdoms of the Tuatha De Danann. Her skin was the pale pink of peaches. Her hair was darker than any winter night. Owain longed to measure her curling eyelashes against his thumb but Eochaid moved to him before Owain could take two steps.

“My daughter will travel with you to Ros na Rig, your new manor where you will wed.”

“I never expected three horses to buy me a wife no matter how lovely the manes.” Owain knew that Eochaid would never give away a daughter without expecting something in return. The only obstacle to the path was in finding what payment Eochaid expected.

“My men tell me that you are a seer. I need magic to help me avenge the deaths that the Tuatha De Danann have brought.”

“I will be forsworn if I fight against Dagan and his Tuatha De Danann warriors.”

“A man should take his oaths seriously. Will you give an oath to me if I give you my daughter’s hand?”

“What oath?”

“A small thing really. Agree to speak for me at the gathering of tribes. I have it on good authority that the three chiefs will call for a vote in naming a war general. Stand for me and call out my name and I will give you my daughter’s hand in marriage.”

“Does it matter who I stand for? By yarrow and rue! Why would the three chieftains stand with me?”

“It is well-known that your mother is a gifted seer. Many in Gailag and Danann alike believe that you have inherited your mother’s gifts.”

Breath caught in Owain’s throat. The fight must be dire indeed if a fine chief like Eochaid need to rely on deception. “I do not have my mother’s skills.”

“The truth is no matter. My chieftains will believe that you have the same gift. They will follow where you lead.”

“I cannot deceive men I will fight beside.”

“You will not need to say anything. Leave the words to me. I only need you to stand beside me.”

Owain needed time. “I only came to give you three horses.”

“Take however much time you need. Stay in the manor with Clothra until you make your decision. My daughter and I both trust your word of honor.”

“A chaperone could be found from among your court,” Owain said, knowing that the response was expected and proper. “My mother told me tales of Loch, son of Eochaid Yellow-Heel. A man of his renown would make an appropriate guardian.”

Eochaid laughed. “I forgot what it was to be young, to have travel huger gnawing at the belly and honor blinding one eye. You will learn to ignore both in time. I will have Loch come and meet with you in time but I’m afraid that he is away on an errand for me.”

Owain could only accept Eochaid’s generosity. He traveled with Clothra to Ros na Rig and stayed there to think before giving an answer.

Owain did not know it but King Dagan of the Tuatha De Danann sent men to watch all that Mac Owain did. They were not always close enough to hear what Mac Owain and Eochaid were saying but the events that transpired before them were troubling enough. The three spies told Dagan all that they had seen and he came to the same conclusion that they had.

“Mac Owain has betrayed me! This is how he repays me after all that I have done for him!”

“You must show him that you have the power,” Briad, Dagan’s Fae wife sang to him in Siren song.

These were the words that Dagan wanted to hear. “How? What can I do to bring him down?”

“I will help you, my love. I am not a seer but I have a drop or two of magic. Every drop belongs to you to use as you will. Owain mocked your swine and your occupation with his display. I will help you repay him for that.” Her voice was as sweet and thick as honey. Dagan could only drink her in. He was a great king in need of a great queen. Briad had proven that she could be that queen. She was his equal in every way. What she lacked in battle prowess was made up for in magic.

“What can I do?”

“Bring me a boar. I will feed on its blood and ingest its power into myself. It will allow me to become something more… something that will bring Owain to his knees. The bards will come to us and give us any spell they want. My grandmother taught me that spell. She used it to force a man to her beck and call.”

“Bring me a bard who can tell the future. Bring me a seer who can see even more clearly than Owain or Ninid.”

“I can’t always control what kind of bard the boar trance will bring but I’ll call the strongest bard available,” Briad promised in her honeyed voice.

A night later, Dagan brought Briad her boar. A gleaming knife appeared in Briad’s hand. The moonlight glinted off the sharp edge and made an arch as it sliced through the poor animal’s throat. Blood fountained from its battered neck and into a dented cup. Dagan could not take his eyes off of the sparkling blood as Briad brought that cup to her lips. Briad closed her eyes as the blood made its way down her throat.

Gold flashed in her irises as they opened again.

Dagan felt the accompanying surge of power and let a smile come to his lips. His foe, Owain would taste defeat soon enough.

“My father will be calling for you soon,” Clothra warned Owain. “He will expect an answer this time.”

Owain could only agree. “Eochaid will not let me leave without an answer this time. By yarrow and Rue!

“My father is an honorable man. He would not hold you against your will. He would tell you if you were a prisoner. The chieftains will not follow just any one.”

“I doubt anyone will follow me. Your father only guesses at their loyalty to my heritage. I fear that he will be sorely surprised. He should send messengers to Ireland instead.”

“How would that help?”

“Your family has relatives in the court. Fergus of Cathbad was your mother’s cousin and Ulsterman the Huntsman married your cousin’s son. Eochaid does not need me.”

“You need my father if you plan on fighting King Dagan.”

“I never planned on making a war on Dagan or his Tuatha De Danann. Dagan is making war on my father’s people and I cannot stand by silently.”

“Who are your father’s people?”

“The Gailag. Dagan conquered the army by making war on farmers. No warrior with honor could watch the suffering of innocents. The Gailag gave the land to Dagan to stop the raids.”

“I can see how the hate would spread with the raids.”

“Raids became the least of the issues after Dagan’s army pulled back. Gailag farmers began fighting on their own. By yarrow and Rue! They fought with desperation but years of training have the advantage. The Gailag were still losing but Dagan knew these skirmishes made his Tuatha De Danann look weak. Mere human Gailag had the gall to fight them! Giving away the land he had won helped bandage wounded pride.”

“It sounds like your people already defeated Dagan. You have your land. Tara means everything to us!”

“The Gailag did not feel that way. Dagan added insult to injury by giving them what was already theirs. The little battles did not stop. War has only been avoided through my mother’s talent. She has been warning me that it won’t last. Dagan came to me and asked me to help him rouse the Tuatha De Danann to battle. I cannot wait any longer… I do need your father but I do not know how far I can afford to offend Dagan. My people are still on his land.”

“The Gailag farmers have stood against the Tuatha De Danann’s magic far longer than anyone else has been able to. My father’s people have had to make peace with them in the past. Tributes have been payed to them. The Tuatha De Danann were bound by their word. They kept every promise they made but Dagan broke them all when he came to power. The tributes were taken but raids and wars did not stop. The Tuatha De Danann are less than they once were because of him. They could be reasoned with before Dagan came but now they say one thing and do another. They lie and deceive! There is only one thing we can do to keep peace: drive the Tuatha De Danann back to their island across the sea!”

Clothra shook with both anger and hope as she spoke and Owain wanted to join her but caution held him back. “They slew everyone in Tuired, even the women and children. The warriors fell in battle and that seemed right. Those warriors would have killed the Tuatha if they were not killed first. Dagan had slew the warriors and taken the head of the Meg and that should have been the finish but the war went on. Men with battle lust as strong as that don’t just fall into the sea because people like you and me wish it.”

“My father is not relying on wishes to save us. The chieftains will send armies if they agree to his plan. They will send armies if they see you stand with Eochaid.”

“They will only stand to fight because they think that the victory has been seen. The truth is that no army can defeat the Tuatha De Danann!”

“The Aos Sidhe have a chance. The Hill country does not breed gentle folk. Only the strongest can survive such a place.”

Owain’s eyes widened. “The Aos Sidhe are fierce but they never leave their Hills. How did Eochaid convince them to come to Gailag’s aid at Tara?”

“The Aos Sidhe can recognize a common enemy. They know who the Tuatha De Danann will come after when the Gailag are defeated.”

“Is it true that the Tuatha De Danann and the Aos Sidhe were once one people? That they both came from across the sea to tame this wild land? Is it true that warrior’s blood runs in their veins as thick as mettle runs through a forge?”

“All that is true,” Clothra confirmed. “The Tuatha De Danann and the Aos Sidhe both lived in a harsh land across the sea. Magic killed the land they called home so they left to find a new land. The tribes came to Ireland and made their home through war. Their blood puddled on the land and made a connection with the Earth and its magic. The Aos Sidhe wanted to stay in the Hills where their blood was spilt. The Aos Sidhe had lost many and wanted to make a home while there was still a home to be made. The Tuatha De Danann were strong in number and the call of battle sang to them. They did not want to settle. So the Tuatha De Danann and the Aos Sidhe separated and became two people. The Aos Sidhe made a home in the Hills and only fought when attacked. The Tuatha De Danann made war and are only now finding a home.”

“Why now?” Owain mused. “Why our home?”

“The Tuatha De Danann gave up their gods when they left their home. They would have lost their magic if they did not make a deal with the Crow. She is the goddess of war. She promised to give them magic if they would give her fresh blood.”

“The Crow will take away the Tuatha De Danann’s magic if they stop giving her battle,” Owain realized. “How have the Aos Sidhe avoided this fate? They must have made the same deal when they left the old country.”

“The Aos Sidhe made a new deal with the soil of Ireland. The forests have power here. The trees and the Earth made a connection with the Aos Sidhe because they had lost so many. Their power comes from nature. Your mother’s power comes from the same place.”

“My mother is Tuatha De Danann.”

“By birth, yes, but not in practice. She follows the path of the Aos Sidhe. My grandmother says that Ninid followed the Tuatha De Danann and lent them her strength in magic for many years. She left after seeing the carnage at the Battle of Itha.”

“That battle happened more than fifty years ago. Your grandmother must be thinking of someone else.”

“The Tuatha De Danann are long-lived and so are the Aos Sidhe. Ninid fled to the Hills when she left her people and the Aos Sidhe found her and taught her their ways.”

“Why doesn’t your father pay a tribute to the Aos Sidhe to win their favor? They are great warriors and may be able to defeat the Tuatha De Danann. They have magic and skill.”

“The Aos Sidhe will not fight the Tuatha De Danann. They are family and family should never make war on family. Connachta and her tribes have promised to aid Tara if my father can get the chieftains behind him. The armies of the Clans, Tara, Gailag, and Connachta can come together and defeat Dagan.”

Owain had still more questions to ponder but Eochaid called on him then.

“The Sun smile on you, Mac Owain. Will you be my son-in-law and stand by me before the chieftains?”

“Is it true, Eochaid, that the Connachta will aid you if the chieftains stand with you?”

“I see that my daughter has told you much. It is true that Connachta’s tribes will stand with me when the chieftains do.”

“Do you trust the Connachta’s word on this?”

“Yes. She has long been a friend to my people and has proven worthy of trust on many occasions.”

“Then why do you need me? Tell your chieftains that Connachta and her tribes will fight with you.” Politics and feuds had never been Owain’s stronger suite but he understood the basics. All this talking back and forth made him restless for the real fight.

“None of this was possible until you brought me those horses.”

“They are fine animals but I fail to see how they could change Connachta’s mind. My mother bade me to wash them in milk. They are softer than the wings of the butterfly after such careful minding. They are not built for war.”

“Your steeds are the fastest in all six kingdoms. You washed them in ox milk while a seer sang longevity and speed over them. These horses are ready to travel. Such horses are the only option for me. The meeting place is at Donn Cualinge and its three days from Tara on a strong horse. Your Fae horses will get us there in a single day.”

“My mother called them Kelpie. She said that they would be even faster near the water.”

“I only need the time it takes the sun to cross the sky. Your kelpie will serve me well but will you serve me as well? Will you marry my daughter and stand with me before the chieftains?”

“Aye, my Lord Eochaid. I will stand with you before the chieftains.” Owain declared, showing him proper respect.

“Formality like those titles has no place among family! Call me by my name. You are a son now and not merely a tenant.”

“Should the Lady not have a say in this? I would stand with you simply to stop Dagan and his Tuatha De Danann from harming my people. Your daughter is beautiful and kind so it would please me greatly to wed her but I would not use her so.”

“A good husband you will make! A good man must think of his wife first in all things. What say you, Clothra?”

“I am a dutiful daughter and I will marry any man my father chooses. I will find my own happiness if I cannot find it in my husband. This has been the way of wives and daughters for as long as time remembers. But I would not need to find happiness in a union with Owain because being with him makes me happy.”

Eochaid smiled down at his daughter. “I am glad of it and I bless any union that brings my daughter such happiness.”

The two were joined in marriage that very day and Owain brought her back to Ros na Rig, the manor that they were to share. Owain wanted nothing more than to hold her and feel her body against his but he could not stay. Time was short and the meeting with the chieftains could not wait.

“My father has always been a fine judge of horseflesh. May your horse be as swift as he says and bring you back to me all the more quickly?”

“I will ride as swiftly as I am able. By yarrow and Rue! Your father might have trouble keeping up!”

Owain turned to mount but Clothra gripped his arm to stop him. “My father is a good man but he is also bull-headed. Do not let him pressure you into anything. He likes getting his own way.”

“All men do.”

“He forgets to look for the forests because he is distracted by the trees. Do not let him lead you astray. Do what you can to lead him to the correct path on the horse and through the meeting with the chieftains.”

Owain bowed his head to kiss her cheek. “A good husband does all that his wife asks. I aim to be a good husband so I will do all that you say.”

Clothra kissed him in return and returned to Rosna Rig to watch him leave.

About Jennifer Arnold

Jennifer Arnold has been lost in legends for a few years now. She started writing articles and short stories for magazines in 2010. Her first novel, Monster Within, was published in 2013 with I-Proclaim. The second novel, Demons and Dragons, was published in 2016 with Amazon Publishing. A small publishing house picked up my third novel Paths to Kingdoms in 2018. Kellan Publishing has just published Three Towers this year. Jennifer is currently taking a break from novels and working on short stories.

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