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.”

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Prayer to the Third Queen

O Etan who sings the heart of Ogma,
who carried the first Cairpre under her heart,
O poet-daughter of the swift-cutting healer,
Bless us with your sweet tongue,
Bless us with your clear vision,
Bless us with the gift of your presence.
May we, like the poets of old, recall what was once forgotten,
Praise what is beautiful and true,
Speak truth to both evil and good.
A blessing of blessings upon you,
O lady of the red yew,
A blessing of blessings.

Grandmother Yew

Evergreen, the dying yew
is reborn of her own death,
phoenix of the wood. Grandmother of trees,
this needle-ash is sweet and bitter by turn.
She is the shaft of the spear and the spring of the bow–
life or death depending on whose hand holds her.
Her berries, sweet as hazelnuts and as wise, hide
a bitter seed to bind those who take more than she would give.
Are you a bird to eat her poison? Take only what her hand offers, and live.

Heart of Apple

Once, while riding in his chariot over the waves
the king of the sea said to me, “No matter
how you love the oak or dream of the world-
spanning yew, remember it is the apple in your
heart, with its blooms more sweet than roses,
fruit more staying than blackberries, and
sheltering branches enough for any fire.”
And I felt it then, this living being
in my heart, blooming and fruiting and growing
at the core of me. And I knew by the slant
of his eye and the way his hands curved the reins
that this was our kinship—he too had an apple
in his heart. I saw then it was as wild
as any yew, as strong as any oak, for what is wilder
or stronger or older than the sea?

One for the Yew…

One for the Yew whose poison heart
Can heal or swiftly kill
Two for the Oak whose acorned branch
Can catch the lightning still
Three for the Apple, gate of worlds,
Who sings with a voice of gold
Three to ring the silver well
And the flame that never grows cold.