The Second Fostering

No weeping was heard from the Fir Bolg queen as Cian rode away with his little son behind him, but singing. She sang in the dialect of her people and the boy sand the song back to her, a wild, heart-trembling tune that caught in the ear and made the tongue long to join in. Both voices, high and fine, sounded across the wide plain and even through the woods they passed into, until the travelers stopped for the evening.

At Goibhniu’s forge, the lad was eager and never made complaint for having to learn to raise the fire before shaping metal. He sang to the wood and the flames and made a steady, strong fire as good as Goibhniu himself, and whether making the fire or forging a blade, the sparks never burned him.

When Goibhniu taught him the charms for the hammer and for the metal’s shaping, he set them to tunes, singing them in soft drones like bees as he worked, beating the shapes to the rhythm of the singing, rather than singing to the hammer’s calling.

He did the same with the charms Luchta taught him to see the shapes within the wood, to know where knots would lie and how to work them into the strength of a shape instead of its weakness. Credne’s brazing was also set to song, as he taught the way of shaping the soft metals into coils and curves, how to set the pins that held spear head to haft, how to read the strength of the softer metals and how to blend them for their purpose.

And so it was when Airmed and Miach, his aunt and uncle, came to teach him healing. Airmed would teach him the lists of plants and their ailments, and the lad would recite them back to her in his sweet voice giving them tone and rhythm not in the words. He sang the charms for setting bones and restful sleep for the ill and for drowning out pain as his hands moved gently over the ill bodies of animals and men.

It was his aunt, Etan, who rejoiced in him, for he would learn any lay she gave him on the first hearing, rhythm for rhythm and point for point, and when she questioned him on the meaning, thinking he simply leaned the sound and not the sense, his exposition startled her, for he had heard not only the surface of the story but often the words set sidewise and the judgment of the rhythm on the story’s meaning. He seemed to devour every story she could give him and taught her a few of the Fir Bolg tales. She called him a well of stories, for they seemed to sink into him and fall his depths. It was Etan who was most sorry when Manannán sent for him, for she feared his harper’s fingers would break in the learning of the sword.

The lad went to Emhain Ablach with the mastery of his kinsmens’ arts: smithing. brazing, carpentry, poetry, and healing. From Tailtiu he had learned harping and sorcery. Manannán would add to his store of spells and teach him the arts of war and water.

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The Naming of Lug and the Winning of the Cow

Tailtiu stroked the boy’s wheat-gold hair that had never come from his De Danann father, for Cian was dark as his own father. Her Lughaid was a mix of his parents, as all children are, and he would carry something of her with him when he left in the spring.
“Bírog has always been clever, but this was one of her best games. When I went to her to ask how to help you thrive, she knew it was the lack of a name that kept you from growing as you should. And she had been pondering how Cian might win back the cow he had lost for his uncle. The two ideas came together in one bright plan, though I will tell you I was not best pleased with her at the idea of sending you off with your father to Torey Island…”

Cian came to Balor’s court in the guise of a gardener and said he had heard that Balor was fond of apples. This was true—Balor hungered after apples as many hunger after meat, but the winds of Torey Island were hard on any tree, harder still on a tree to bear fruit, and his poor, small, twisted trees grew very little and their fruit was hard and sour. Cian said that he knew a charm that would make the trees grow and the fruit red and sweet, if Balor would meet his price.
Balor was eager for the fruit, so asked the price.

“My choice of your milk cows and all her equipment,” Cian said, as Bírog had taught him.

Balor’s eyes narrowed, for he had lost the wondrous cow once and knew she had only returned to him because he had not lost the halter. He saw what this stranger was after, but he wanted the apples and determined he would find a way to trick the gardener out of the cow, if his charm worked. So Balor agreed.

Cian worked every day with the small, stunted trees, singing the charm Bírog had taught him, which she had learned from Manannán’s mother. And as the summer crept close, the trees burst into bloom, covering the yard with a snow of blossoms so sweet that no one who passed through could help but smile. As the summer warmed, the trees grew green with strong leaves and new branches, all covered with small green apples that seemed to grow larger by the day. And every day, Cian carried on his back the small boy who made no sound, grew no larger, but followed everything with is colorless bright eyes.

Finally, the height of summer was upon them and the apples were red with sweetness, the branches so heavy Cian had propped them up with forked sticks to keep them from breaking. Balor and his court came to see the first apples harvested, for they had never seen such apples, or seen their little trees so hale. For once, Cian took the boy from his back and set him on the ground, putting in his place the basket for apples, and he climbed up, into the first tree. They watched as he plucked the apples carefully, taking only those that were riped and flawless, for he would not have Balor say the apples he had grown were imperfect.

When he had filled the basket, Cian climbed down the tree, but as he was about to step down from the last fork, a sudden wind blew up, shaking the tree and he lost his footing, dropping basket and apples together. The watchers gasped, several of them running forward to catch the apples—but were astonished into stillness as the small, weak-looking boy gathered them all up, his little hands moving so quickly that not a single fruit was bruised.

Balor, moving from anticipation to anger to joy, laughed loud enough to shake fruit from the branches. “Look at that little long-armed one! He must love apples as much as I do!”

And this was how the boy was named, for Balor was his grandfather, and a child must have a name from their mother’s family if they are to thrive. He became the little (Lug) long-armed (lamhada) from that day forward, and though he never grew large, he grew strong and quick, his limbs long and his eyes grew even brighter, catching the color of the sky and its seasons.

“So that is how you won your name, Lughaid,” Tailtiu said.

He frowned. “I do not remember riding on my father’s back, or visiting my grandfather’s court. I would remember a terrible monster with a single eye, wouldn’t I?”

Tailtiu shook her head. “Balor is no monster, and he has two eyes, but one is kept covered because of an accident he had as a youth. He was curious about what the druids did in their secret place and spied on them when they were brewing a powerful potion. The potion’s steam went in his eye and made his gaze a poison so that anything he looks upon is burned to dust. No one wants to burn away everything they look upon, so he covers the eye—unless he looks upon an enemy, and then he uncovers it. Otherwise, he looks like any of the Fomoire, and they look as we do, for we are all cousins.”

The boy frowned, nodded, and looked at Tailtiu. “But what of the cow? Did my father bring it home this time?”

“Yes, he did, though Balor did his best to stop him. Here is how it happened…

Balor tasted the apples and could not deny they were the best he had ever eaten, so he told Cian he would bring all his milk cows out in the morning so that he could choose the best. He had his herdsmen brush the cows and shine their horns and make them all as beautiful as possible—except for the wondrous cow, who’s coat he smeared with ash to make it dull, and who’s eyes he made water with dust. Then the cows were brought before Cian.

Now Bírog had expected Balor would try some trick to keep the cow, so she had reminded Cian to look only for the cow with the mark of a cauldron on her right hip, and to choose that cow no matter what others he was shown. So Cian made a show of looking over the cows and praising them all to Balor, but in the ending he chose the ashy, water-eyed cow with the cauldron on its hip.

Balor tried to dissuade him, of course, saying this was the worst of the cows, not the best, and Cian deserved better for his good work with the apples. Cian said it was only a charm he had learned from his old aunt, and this cow was the one he wanted. Balor finally gave in and said he might take the cow and wished him well on his journey.

But Cian remembered the importance of the halter—he had seen the cow race across the waves to the island with his own eyes—and asked for it. Balor offered him many halters, each one set with gold and gems and braided of fine leather. But Cian refused them all, saying they were too grand for the cow he had chosen, he simply wanted the halter that belonged with the cow. Bírog, of course, had told him how to know it: it was braided of three colors of leather, pale, dark, and blood red; and buckled with plain bronze with the mark of Credne Cerd’s work.

Finally, Balor told Cian he could not give him the halter of the ashy cow because it was not his to give—it belonged to his daughter Ethliu, and they would have to ask her if she would part with it. Cian agreed it was only fair to ask her, if it were hers—but his heart leapt at the thought of seeing again the maiden who had won and kept his love.

Balor went to his daughter and told her she must throw the halter to the one she loved the best—and he was sure she loved him better than she could a gardener she had never met. So he and Cian stood below her window as the sun rose the next morning and Ethliu looked down on them. Of course, she knew who she loved the best, and it was no longer her father who had kept her locked away so many years and taken away her little son to drown. She saw the gardener and knew him, for she had seen him in her dreams for two years. She took the halter in her hands and threw it—and Cian caught it, almost as sure as their son.

Balor cried out and stumbled, for the loss of the cow was nothing compared to the loss of his daughter’s love. He would have turned on Cian then, but he knew the duty of a host and would not harm a guest, but sent him away that very morning, warning him never to come within his sight if he would live.

“And it was then that Balor began arguing to increase the tithes on the Tuath Déa, and then the hand of the Fomoire became hard on us all, and then that Bres turned his face away from his mother’s people and turned their gifts to bitter burdens,” Tailtiu said.
“Balor keeps his daughter in the tower still?” he asked.

“Yes.” Tailtiu sighed. “She and her women are still captive there, and will be until Balor is gone. He will not forgive her for giving her heart, though he forgave her for the son he tried to drown.”

The boy held the charm he had made and traced the veins of the oak leaf. “It is a yew I will need, not an oak, a yew red as blood and swift as lightning. That will be the long arm I will show to Balor. Gobhniu will show me how to make it.”

Tailtiu felt the cold of winter touch her heart. “It is already made, my Lughaid, and came from the islands of the north with your father’s people. They have held it, waiting for the hand that can hold it, and there are already those who speak of you.”

The boy nodded. “I will be a smith, still, for who can wield well a weapon they do not understand? And I will be a champion, and a warrior, so that I may free us all from Balor’s angry heart.”

Tailtiu Begins

Tailtiu watched the boy as he ran over the green grass, hair blowing behind him, bright eyes sparkling in the sunlight, laughter trailing him like a banner of joy. The boy was hers, though she had not born him, a gift from the son of Dian Cécht who said only that the boy’s mother could not raise him. Not really a gift—he was an offering of peace to the queen of a defeated people, fostered to her for raising, to win her people’s loyalty back to their northern cousins. But however he had come, he was hers.

Those bright eyes saw her standing in the shade of the apples and he ran to her, clasping his strong little arms around her legs. She stroked his hair, warm with the early summer sun, and smiled. He might be a child of the Tuath Déa’s bright fire, but he was her boy.
“What did you find in the woods, Mama?” he asked, tugging at the cloth covering her basket. He always wanted to know everything.

“I found what I looked for, of course,” she replied, as she always did, and he laughed as she sat on the green turf and lifted the cloth, he tucking himself against her side to see what she would reveal. “What do you see?”

“Three grey stones, a bunch of green feather-leaves, and four twigs—from oaks!” he cried, triumphant at identifying the tree.

“Three grey stones from the strand and you see the holes in them? If you listen to them, you will hear the voices of the spirits of earth and sky.” She held one up to her ear and he quickly mimicked her, his eyes widening as he heard the spirits singing in the apple above them. He didn’t really need the stone, but it helped to focus a busy headed child. She would wait until he was older to take him to the high peak to hear the spirits there. He was not ready, yet, for harsher voices, not her golden child. But he would be, one day.

“The feather-leaves are yarrow, clearsight. An ointment of yarrow on the eyes can help mortals to see the spirits the stones let them hear—and a bouquet of yarrow at a wedding will set the couple in love for seven years at least.”

“Did you have yarrow at your wedding?”

Tailtiu’s eyes turned to the horizon. There had been yarrow at her first wedding, both in her hands and in a bag she had embroidered and hung over their sleeping place. But that husband was gone, killed in the war with the Tuath Déa. There had always been land enough to share, he had not needed to die, but…

Thin arms wrapped around her, startling her out of memory.

“Don’t be sad, Mama. I’ll protect you. I’ll bring you yarrow as often as you like—just show me where it grows!”

She stroked his hair with one hand, pinching a piece of yarrow between her fingers and rubbing it to make the scent come. “Yes, you will always bring me yarrow and blackberries, won’t you? You will make a great festival for me, my Lughaid, when I am gone. You will not forget me, when my sorrow lays me down to rest.”

“I would never forget you,” he whispered, holding her as tightly as he could. “But you will never be gone.”

Tailtiu looked down at the golden head under her arm and smiled. “Not for good, not forever, but even I must rest sometimes, little warrior. I have cleared five plains and wed two husbands, but you will marry someday and I will rest then, knowing you will not forget me.”

He cuddled against her side, still holding her tight. “Tell me the story of how I came here. Tell me where I come from.”

She paused. He had asked and asked. Dian Cécht’s son had not told her the story, but she spoke to the spirits of land and water and sky, she knew who the boy was, and where he came from. She knew whose child she was raising, and even without the yarrow, she knew the destiny that weighed on him. Was it time for him to know?

“Well, we will make a beginning of it, anyway. It is not a simple thing, telling where you came from, my heart.”

He looked up, eyes bright but a little wary. “You will tell me? You know?”

Tailtiu nodded. “I have heard the story from the wind—you must remember, the wind will always tell you the truth, if you ask politely—and had it confirmed by the one who brought you to me first.”

“Who?”

“The story begins, I suppose, with Bírog, the druid woman…”

Lineage of Lugh

I am the son of many mothers
Ethliu bore me
Bírog carried me
Taltiu raised me
Fand saw me armed

I am the son of many fathers
Cían begot me
Eochu raised me
Goibhniu trained me
Oirbsen armed me

I am the husband of many wives
Buí brought me land
Nás brought me people
Echtach brought me plenty
Englic brought me skill

When much has been given, much can be given,
And I am rich with gifts.
Come to me with your needs
And if you are willing to do your work
I will gladly do mine.