A cool west wind rustles the grass. Dense woodland, the trees bare and grey, grows along the valley floor, disguising the Br ad River as it secretly drains water from tree-covered earth. This woodland runs all the way down the valley where it joins the great forest around Lough Neagh and up the valley where it shelters a small rath of round thatched huts, enclosed by a circular earthen dyke.
Confusion Around The Log Fire
"It is mid-week. I must bring the flock down to Conchubhar to be checked."
Wind blows across the hillside and raindrops dance on the rocks as Patrick and T ir carefully guide the flock down the mountain through the opening in the dyke, and into the rath. Patrick leaves the flock with T ir and goes to find Conchubhar.
"It is Midweek Conchubhar and I have brought your sheep."
"I will be with you directly."
Patrick decides to return to the flock and wait for Conchubhar to arrive. There are five huts in the hamlet, each one belonging to a different family. Each hut is circular with a honey coloured thatched roof that extends out well beyond the mud walls. The earthen dyke embraces all five huts and provides a safe haven where animals are kept. Patrick senses the intimacy offered by the enclosure. The views of woods and hills with which he is so familiar are absent, except for Slieve Miss which Patrick can see rising majestically above the surrounding dyke to the south.
"Shall we count the sheep, Pat. One, two three, ......... forty one, forty two. Yes they are all there, as usual. Have you had any trouble with them?"
"I lost one last week. For some reason she decided to wander off on her own, but T ir and I eventually found her bleating behind a rock. She was a little anxious and was glad to see us. She had come to no harm so we took her back to the flock."
"When you pen the sheep at night Pat, could you sleep with the door of your hut slightly ajar? That way you will be able to hear if the sheep are being troubled by wolves," asks Conchubhar.
"That's no problem, I'll gladly do that." "I've had a good look at the sheep and they seem in excellent condition," Patrick replies.
"Have you had any lame ones?" asks Conchubhar.
"None were lame last week. I've memorised the parts of the mountain where the sheep find it difficult to clamber over the rocks and I keep them away from those areas. That way they are less likely to damage their legs."
Conchubhar is delighted the care Patrick takes with his flock.
"That's excellent Pat. I'm pleased with your progress since you took over the flock. There's no-one at home so would you like to come in for some sheep's milk before heading up the mountain?"
Patrick agrees and enters Conchubhar's home for the first time. The inside of the hut has the heavy smell of wood smoke. Patrick notices why. A log fire is burning in the centre of the large single room. The acrid smoke fills the room making it difficult to see clearly. The wood-smoke is blinding Conchubhar making his eyes water slightly.
"Please be seated, Pat."
Patrick and Conchubhar sit on the floor by the fire and drink some warm sheep's milk. Patrick finds this very welcome after many cold days out on the mountain.
"You know Pat, you're not like the other slaves I've had helping me. You seem to care more about your work. This is good – very good. I've never had a slave who cared about his work as you do. Are you from an educated family?" asks Conchubhar.
"Did you like poetry?" asks Conchubhar curiously.
"My parents used to recite poetry to me when I was a child."
"I'd like to recite one of my poems Pat, I think you might appreciate it."
Conchubhar draws a deep breath, composes himself and begins to recite a long poem. Patrick is entranced.
The poem tells the story of a place where everything begins and ends, a secret Vanishing Lake, deep in the forest that, the myth says, will disappear the day a youth becomes a king on its shores.
"It's a lovely poem," Patrick comments. "Has anyone ever seen this lake."
"I've searched for it with other men from the rath, but we've never found it," replies Conchubhar. "Nobody is sure if it really exists."
Conchubhar can feel himself drawn to trust Patrick and he decides to take a risk.
"Pat, have you ever met King Miliucc, the ruler of D l Riaghada?"
"I think he was the man who bought me. I only saw him briefly."
"King Miliucc is a brutal man Pat. He owns all the slaves in this area. We have to pay him tithes each year and it's impossible to keep up these payments. If we don't pay we are publicly flogged and our children taken into slavery. Sometimes I lie awake at night wondering how I am going to meet this year's payments."
Patrick listens sympathetically.
Conchubhar continues, "Whether there is a lake where kings are crowned is irrelevant Pat, because I intend to become king by force of arms. I lead a secret band of warriors and I am inviting you to join us and fight against King Miliucc."
Patrick is shocked and surprised.
"If you join with us then when I take over the kingdom, I will free you from slavery, give you gold and your own fiefdom."
Patrick thinks deeply, "No Conchubhar," he replies with conviction.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes but your secret is safe with me."
At this comment Conchubhar flies into a temper.
"You're a fool Pat. You're only a slave. Look at what I am offering you to fight for me."
"That may be Conchubhar, but I still won't do it," replies Patrick strongly.
"Then return to the mountain where you belong," and with pointed finger Conchubhar directs Patrick to the door.
Patrick knows he must escape from slavery if he is to find and fulfil his mission, but he also knows that Conchubhar's offer does not rest comfortably in his heart. He returns to his sheep and to the mountain, trusting that by continuing to listen to his calling someday his mission will become clear.
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