This story grabbed hold of me many years ago when I was backpacking through the Scottish Highlands. I was staying in a hostel on the Isle of Skye and the story was painted on the wall of the bathroom. I heard the story again standing amongst the mountains and at the foot of the river that are integral to the story. It is said that if you dunk your face in the river you will be eternally young and beautiful. I believe dunking my face in that river is the reason people often think I’m about a decade younger than I actually am! I am always drawn to stories with a female heroin and it is seriously bad ass that the most fearsome warrior in Scottish mythology was a woman. Without further ado here is part one of the story:
Scáthach was brushing her daughter’s long hair, patiently working out the burs and elflocks that the child seemed to attract. Her daughter held the same fierce independent will and the same wild joy at galloping about through the mountains that were their home as she did. The child surely held some of her father inside her as well, there was a softness, a kindness what some might venture to call a weakness inside of her that worried Scáthach. Her daughter was the only person in the world that Scáthach would one day entrust her shields to and she worried if the child would be up to the task. The girl was twelve now and growing restless in their isolated existence. She longed for others to play with and Scáthach would catch her making dolls out of bits of grass and twine and whispering her secrets to them. Her daughter let out a yelp as Scáthach pulled sharply on a particularly stubborn knot, the yelp found an answering call and Scáthach froze. Her daughter turned to her, her eyes wide, her mouth curving upwards in a smile. The two of them did not speak a word as they listened to hear if the call would sound again. Scáthach was soon rewarded by a great booming voice echoing through her valleys and hills.
“Scáthach!” the voice commanded as though she was a dog to be brought to heel. Did he not know who he called? Did he think that she was a maiden to come running to do his bidding?
“Scáthach! I hear you are the greatest warrior in all of Elba come and meet your match!” at this Scáthach let out a booming laugh of her own. It was just another stupid man come to prove his mettle against her. They had come every so often when she was younger. Hearing of her power and prowess in battle they had come to put her in her place, to prove that no woman could be the greatest warrior in all of Elba. Many had paid for their hubris with their life, the ones she had allowed to live had further spread the stories of her greatness and her power. None had dared to cross her in many a year. She flexed her fingers and felt the stiffness that had come with age. Carefully she stood from her stool and stretched her body. If he would not go away she would have to send him away and for that she would need to ready herself.
“Scáthach! I am the greatest warrior in all of Erin and I have come to take your title!” the man shouted, this gave Scáthach pause. Her legend had spread across the sea then. She took this as a good omen, she looked down at her young daughter thoughtfully and a wicked smile spread across her face.
“Daughter, go tell that man to leave. I will not fight him, he is not worth my time.” Her daughter’s face split into a grin and she sped down the hillside her giggle dancing on the wind. Scáthach wandered into her armory and slid out of the light shift she had been wearing. Her hands slid over the various vests and leggings that filled the shelves. Settling finally on a thick plated vest that allowed for movement and a pair of soft stockings she began to dress herself. Her daughter reappeared a look of concern replacing the smile,
“Mother, I do not think that you can send him away so easily. He is much stronger than any man who has come here before. I can sense from him that he is like us.” Scáthach only smiled at this, happy to hear that her instincts had not failed her. She had heard it immediately in the timber of his voice. She had not lost her edge in the years of peace. She began to stretch each muscle in her shoulders as she spoke to her daughter again,
“Daughter, go and tell him that I do not have time for boys who want to be men. Tell him to come back when he has proven himself in battle.” With a slight sigh her daughter left the armory. Scáthach wondered how many times this man would allow himself to be insulted in this way, how long it would be before she would have to go down and face him. She hoped that she would at least be able to finish her stretching. She was not as young as she used to be and tearing a muscle simply would not do. Her daughter came back into the room, her look of concern replaced by a frown and genuine fear in her eyes. Scáthach calmly continued to stretch as her daughter spoke,
“Mother! He is so angry that the clouds have begun to darken and I am afraid to go back down to him without you. He says he is Cú Chulainn and that he has been fighting since he was seven years old, that he has killed the three sons of Nechtan Scéne that his battle rage is such that he has boiled barrels of water with it. He says that-” Scáthach held her hand up to silence her daughter,
“Tell him to come back next year when he has killed all the Ulsterman and then maybe I will come down and fight him.” Her daughter let out a great heart rending sigh and Scáthach hardened her mother’s heart against it. If her daughter was to survive when Scáthach was no longer alive she would need to be able to face down more frightening beasts than a mere man. Scáthach pulled her shields down from the wall one by one testing their weight and balance before selecting her favourite one. She had just settled it on her arm when her daughter came running back into the room crying, her eye was swollen and her cheek bright red,
“He hit me mother!” she cried and Scáthach knew she could avoid the fight no longer. She pushed her daughter roughly aside, a smack across the face was but a little injury and if she could not manage it then Scáthach could never have her as her heir. She came down the hillside at a run, her senses taking in everything around her. She knew the direction and strength of the wind, the sturdiness of the ground, the angle of the sun and the temperature of the air. She sniffed out the man before she saw him, big and brawny with a nasty snarl on his face. His eyes lit up at the sight of her and she saw him set himself for her attack. Scáthach’s eyes noted the strength of his pose and she knew that this would not be a battle easily won.