|Image provided by wikipedia commons.|
The Men of Aiobheann by Jessica Marcarelli, 949 words
When the morning mists creep into the valleys and the leaves on the mighty Turlough trees turn to burnished gold and the chill winds bring the first scent of ice, then the men of Aiobheann go to war. In the years of winter, their women and children wait for word of the brave warriors; in the spring, those who have survived the generational battles proudly return to make larger families and plant their fields. Many are the songs sung of those who return but many more are sung in remembrance of those who are mourned.
The year that Caomhìn’s father marched to war, he did not return. Yet Caomhìn, who counted only seven years as his own, did not weep, for the cycle would begin again when he, too, reached his second autumn, and the men returned to war.
On the first morning that frost hardened the soft earth, little Caomhìn woke to his father’s urgent voice. “Wake, a bhuachaill, my boy. Wake to send your father to his glory.”
Caomhìn blinked sleep-heavy eyes. Darkness had not yet been banished by the dawn. His father bent over him and his mother stood in the door to the sleeping room. She held a single ensconced candle that sent flickering shadows over their forms.
“Mamaì?” Caomhìn said. His lower lip trembled as fear of the unknown gripped his young heart.
“Sh, a ghrà.” His mother patted her lips with a finger. “The earth sleeps this morning. Do not awake her to wrath before the March.”
The little boy nodded then looked to his father. He wet his lips with his tongue to form the ritual words he had been taught. “Let us march, Athair, my father.”
His father smiled and straightened. With a quick turn, he marched out of the room. His mother beckoned to her son. Caomhìn tumbled from the goosedown bed. He shivered in the cool air as he pulled on a leather tunic and leggings, boots wrapped in wolf fur, and the wolfskin cloak crafted by his father in the last months of summer.
Outside the house, the last stars sparkled above the low clouds that churned in the east, blocking the first view of dawn’s pale light. The hills lay silent but sounds of stirring came from the other timber dwellings gathered together in the low glen. A chill breeze rustled the the tree branches overhead and stirred eddies of fallen Turlough leaves across the ground packed firmly from many feet. Caomhìn wondered if they, too, were eager for the Autumn March.
Other candles like his mother’s began to appear as the sky lightened and the stars winked out. His mother and father began to walk and Caomhìn trotted along beside, doing his best to look dignified beside his father’s long strides. His father was dressed in hardened leather and a larger wolfskin cloak akin to his son’s, thrown over his shoulder. With every step, his rust-colored braids tapped the silver war chief’s torc that encircled his thick neck. At his hip rested a scabbard covered in leather, out of which protruded the hilt of the family sword. Bronze fittings gleamed above and below the weathered wooden grip. Countless ancestors before had carried this sword and, one day, Caomhìn, too, would buckle it to his side. Caomhìn glanced behind. A hundred warriors and their families followed on quiet footsteps.
Too soon, they came to the lake by which the settlement had been built. Its dark waters barely rippled in the light breeze. Slaves obtained from past wars held the warband’s horses still for the sending ceremony.
Caomhìn felt fear again touch his heart. He turned to his father. “Let me come, too, Athair. I will make Crìost proud.”
His father smiled and cupped his son’s fair head with his hand. “The Creator-God could find no better warrior, my brave boy. But it is not yet your time. I must go this autumn so that you may carry our name proudly in the next.”
His father let him go and turned to the gathering. All the people went silent. The women blew out the flames of their candles and set them on the ground. Then each raised the chalice she held in the opposite hand. Murmured prayers to good health and fortune, bravery and courage traveled around the gathering. They whispered lest the earth goddess hear and her rage halt the March of the warband. Though the Creator-God had long since taken precedence over their people, the old gods still reigned strong in both hearts and minds.
After the prayer, Caomhìn’s mother led the wives in offering the cups to their husbands. The men drank deep of the heather beer within, saving only the last sip for the eldest sons. The beer was bitter to Caomhìn’s tongue but it warmed his stomach. He held the wooden chalice as all the people turned to the lake. With a shout of triumph, the men unsheathed their swords and raised them to the pale sky.
“Caithréim!” they shouted as one, a thunderous cry of victory that echoed across the lake. Then they sheathed their swords and left their families.
Caomhìn’s father did not look back as he mounted his horse and tugged on the reins. As one, the men kicked their horses into motion and galloped away to the south. The Autumn March had begun. Caomhìn looked to his mother. A single tear crossed her cheek as pink and orange shafts of light flared over the eastern clouds.
Caomhìn gripped the cup in his hands and did not cry, for it was autumn, and the men of Aoibheann had left for war.
Copyright 2013 by Jessica Marcarelli. All rights reserved.