(The Highlands Of Cruithentuath, Circa 600AD)
They had strayed far from their tuath following the spoor of a wily old boar. One of the hunters wore an evil-looking leather patch where his right eye used to be. His name was Balor, although some people called him Doom And Gloom because he expected the worst and was seldom disappointed. Then there was Cailen who had just one arm left to him if you chose not to count the stump of the other. The lack of arm made little difference to the look of him for he was a deeply unattractive man. Lastly there was Dubhlach, sometimes known as The Dafty; he had all his body parts, more or less, but it was said that he had been dropped on his head when he was a baby, which went some way to explaining why he was the way that he was. Saving these minor flaws, they were pretty much in the prime of their luckless, impoverished lives.
That cunning, grey-bristled boar, he led them though thorny briar and prickly bracken till they were scratched and torn to ribbons. Just as the night shroud fell steadily around them Cailen spotted a faint trail of smoke smudged against the evening sky. They followed it to a cottage nestled in a clearing surrounded by dense forest pines. It was a circular homestead made from mud-daubed wickerwork and crowned with a thatch roof overgrown with stray clumps of weeds.
A stockade made from iron-tipped wooden stakes enclosed the entire clearing and there was a gate guarded by three snarling hounds. A dazzling brightness spilled out of the house. Two women stood at the door, silhouetted against the interior golden light.A voice rang out, an old woman’s voice, cracked and harsh, calling out to the dogs. They instantly ceased barking and cowered away.
“For the love of Brighida,” Balor said, “we are in need of a night’s shelter.”
“All well and good,” the old hag replied, “but what do you offer in exchange for the shelter?”
“Our deepest thanks,” said Balor, “and the blessings of the Goddess Of The Hearth for taking in the strangers at your door.”
The two women conversed in low voices. Finally the old woman stepped forward. “This house is awfy small, not near big enough to be putting up three hulking brutes like yourselves. But we can maybe offer you the byre for the night, if you don’t mind sleeping with the cows. As for payment, you could do us a little service with churning the milk, perhaps.”
The younger woman remained at the doorstep of the house, the oil lamp in her hand illuminating a fine-looking face and fiery red hair. The lamplight seemed to caress her body, a figure so curvaceous that some might have called her fulsome whilst others might have considered her fat. The old crone came down the gate to let them in but they hardly noticed her. All their eyes were straining to drink in the sight of the woman standing like a shining goddess at the door, waiting to welcome them.
As they self-consciously shuffled past the red-haired beauty Balor was struck by the colour of her eyes; green they were, like the paleness of seawater on a summer day. Although the room was not nearly as small as the old woman had claimed it was cluttered with all the various tools of the dairy trade. A large churn made from oak sat in one corner. Against one of the walls lay a line of flat, shallow wooden dishes each filled to the brim with setting milk. Upon a small table they could see ladles, butter scoops and wooden skimmers all neatly placed in a row, like the ceremonial knives laid out by the Druids before the blood shedding of a bull or ram at Samhain time.
“I am the widow Rhona,” the young woman said, “and this is my grandmother, Banabha.”
Balor tried to reply but found that he had lost the knack of intelligible speech and had to make do with a throat-clearing grunt. Cailen seemed to be struggling too; his mouth gaped unappealingly and little drools of saliva glistened in the candlelight. Even Dubhlach, who barely noticed women as a general rule, appeared impressed. Indeed, it would have been hard not to take a shine to this widow-woman, what with her red locks rippling down to a bosom so munificent it appeared to be striving to burst out of the bodice and share its bounteous treasures with the company.
They sat around the hearth-fire on the green rushes carpeting the floor, for there were only two stools in the house. Balor’s eye followed the widow Rhona as she bustled around preparing refreshments for them. Occasionally the grandmother obstructed his view and at such moments he had to stop himself from wincing. She had a craggy face scarred by ancient boils and furrowed with deep crease lines; her nose was a great bulbous hook of a thing and somewhere along the way she had misplaced not a few of her front teeth; her body appeared heavy-set, most likely bloated by an over-indulgence in her dairy foods. Balor thought it was like dark clouds blown by an ill wind across the face of a glorious sun to see the two women together like this.
Rhona poured them each a cup of sour milk from an earthenware jug whilst they ogled the great pale orbs looming over her bodice. The milk could have been gushing forth from her breasts, so full and philanthropic they seemed, those marvelous glands. Balor wiped the sweat from his face. He was feeling the heat, most of it radiating from his feverish imagination.
Rhona noticed the dried bloodstains on Balor’s tunic.
“Ach, it’s nothing at all,” he said. “Just a few wee briar scratches from chasing a boar all the long day. I’ve had worse.”
“I have some bad cuts, myself,” Cailen said. He pulled back the tunic sleeve on his one good arm. She rose and went to Cailen. He shot a triumphant leer at Balor from around her skirts.
“The thorns have bitten deep,” Rhona said. She reached over and lightly traced a finger down the length of Cailen’s arm. Cailen ceased to breathe from the excitement. Balor wondered whether the fool might ever breathe again.
“And I know just what you need for it, too,” she said with a lazy purr to her voice. “After supper I could dress your cuts, if you like.”
She bestowed a glance upon him with her languid eyes and that was about that. He looked more than ready to paw the ground and maybe whinny some mating cry before launching himself upon the good widow in a rutting frenzy. Only Dubhlach appeared capable of resisting Rhona’s considerable charms, which was only to be expected given the man had been dropped on his head when a baby. “You are a little out of the way hereabouts,” he said, “surely you would be better off moving into a larger settlement with other folk around you?”
The smile slipped from Rhona’s face
“We like to keep to ourselves,” she said. “We see plenty of the settlements when we travel the roads selling our white-meats. Happy enough they are to buy from us, but there is always a lot of envy too. Our goods are far better than any, and so there is gossip.”
The grandmother said, “There are jealous folk in the nearby settlements. They would be making our lives a misery if they could. They envy us, you see, for the richness of our produce.”
“Jealous neighbors are an ill thing to have around you,” Dubhlach said. “That is why, maybe, you have those three hounds from hell prowling about inside your fence of sharpened stakes.”
The old woman nodded. “Aye, most folk are harmless enough; they buy from us and moan behind our backs. But there are always the odd one or two who won’t let it be at that. They are quick to blame us if their cows sicken or their butter doesn’t take. They accuse us of bewitching the udders, making them draw blood and pus instead of milk and other such nonsense.”
“Let’s serve up supper,” Rhona of the shining green eyes said. “You’ve walked far today and have the look of famished men.”
And so they ate. A banquet of milk dishes conjured up from bowls, buckets and barrels. Rhona filled their cups with ropey milk, the cream skimmed off cow’s milk left to set for three days. Next, she handed Balor a bowl of fluffy clotted curds. Their fingers touched when he took the bowl. A bright white tingle, like a tiny fork of lightning, passed between them. It filled his head and his heart and his belly with warmth as if he had drunk many ale tankards.
After this she filled their cups with whey, the pale green liquid left in the bowl after producing curds. They finished with wheels of hard cheese, the creamy white smoothness resembling the color of Rhona’s shoulders and breasts, or so Balor thought anyway. The lamplight wavered, discharging wisps of smoke to curl up into the haze clinging around the bog-pine rafters. Rhona seemed disinclined to talk much about the past. Of her late husband she said little except that he had not been a vigorous man.
“He toiled away by day and by night helping Grandma with the churning,” Rhona said, “and then he just seemed to wither away.”
Cailen clenched his hand and flexed his one sturdy arm. “Here is another that is ready for to help you with the churning, mistress Rhona. And I will not be withering away, I can vouch for that.”
Rhona smiled. “Ah, but it is hard work, the churning on this farm. Not many have the strength for it.”
Cailen looked her full in the face. “Mistress, you maybe noticed I have only the one hand left to me?”
“I noticed,” Rhona said.
“Nonetheless,” Cailen went on, “I swear by the two hands of my father and by the four hands of my grandfathers and by this one left hand of my own that I will churn for you by light of day and dream of night. There now, how does that strike you, my shiny-eyed mistress?”
Balor could see that for once Cailen had stumbled upon the right words. It was as if he had found a key and turned it in the lock. Rhona’s shiny eyes were talking to Cailen and to Cailen alone. I am yours, they were saying, I am yours, you one-armed, silver-tongued rogue.
When they had eaten their fill they went over to the byre where they were to spend the night in the straw alongside four lugubrious-looking cows.
“I’ll be seeing you in the morning, then,” Cailen said.
“And where is it that you think you are going?” Balor asked.
Cailen paused at the door, shaking his head slowly. “It is a bad sign for your manhood, Balor, that you should be asking such a question. The heifers grow big where there are no bulls and Rhona is your proof. You ask me where I’m going? There’s a widow woman in that house who knows her milks right enough. But anyone can see she’s crying out for the milk of human kindness that only a man can give.”
“Great Gods, man,” Balor said, “why would she be wanting anything from the likes of you?”
Cailen smiled. Not a pretty sight with his yellowed fangs and raw-boned face. But there was a kind of ugly charm to him that could be considered quite manly. In bad light. After several stiff drinks. If you were pure desperate for the company.
“Did you not see how she was looking at me?” he said. “Maybe if you weren’t one-eyed you would have noticed how those lovely green orbs were speaking to me. Ach, you could easy see there’s something between me and Rhona, just waiting for the spark to light up.”
“I won’t argue with that,” Balor said. “She is like a heap of bog-fir splinters. Any man could light that fire. No bother at all.”
“Here,” Cailen said indignantly, “don’t you go talking like that about the good widow. The man who disrespects her will answer to me.”
“And why should you care?” Dubhlach asked.
Cailen smiled a little shyly:
“Well now, we’ll just see. But don’t be surprised if I decide to stay on here. Maybe settle down. I could lend a hand with the churning.”
He winked at them and left.
Balor pointed at the door. “There he goes, a fool of a man thinking with the thing dangling between his legs.”
Dubhlach nodded. “Ach, I wouldn’t say but that you are right; and there’s nothing new under the sun about that. When it comes to the houghmagandie, every man’s brain can be found in his ballocks. And yet what the devil is it but a lot of squirming and pushing, the same as any beast in the field?”
“That’s one way of looking at it,” Balor said. “Others prefer to see it as something more than that.”
“Aye, they would,” said Dubhlach, stretching out on a makeshift pallet of straw. “It is something high and mighty, they would say, all wrapped up with the tenderness of sweethearts; and so the bards sing of it and the lads and the lassies moon over it. But when all is said and done – it’s just whopping it in, is it not?”
Balor pictured Cailen getting his leg over the widow and he had to agree with Dubhlach’s conclusion. The vision of Cailen thrusting away for all he was worth seemed hardly the stuff of bards and sentimental ballads. Nevertheless, when he lay down on the straw to sleep, he took a moment to think about the pleasure opening up to Cailen right about then. Soft and moist and velvety, she would be, like clouds of clotted milk curds.
It felt to Balor as if he had scarcely fallen asleep when he was abruptly shaken awake. It was Cailen.
“Eh man, is it morning?” Balor said, rubbing a hand through his hair and staring bleary-eyed around him.
“No,” said Cailen, “it’s the middle of the night yet. But you must wake up, both of you. For it is a pure desperate situation.”
“Have you finished your business with the widow already?” Dubhlach asked in between yawns.
Cailen leaned back against the wall of the byre as if he needed the support. Balor thought he looked a good ten years older than the last time they had set eyes on him.
“What happened to you in there, man?” Balor asked softly.
Cailen emitted a sound that might have been a stifled sob. “It was awful, just awful. You’ve never seen the like in all your years.”
Balor raised a hand. “Stop you, and start from the beginning, man.”
Cailen nodded and took a deep gulp of air. “Ach, I couldn’t see a thing, it was pitch black in there; and then Rhona crooned my name, leading me to her pallet. I made out that I wanted her to put a salve on my cuts like she offered before. But it turned out I didn’t need any excuses at all, at all.”
“She was willing?”
“Willing?” Cailen said with a dark and bitter laugh. “I wouldn’t say willing. Ravenous for it, more like. She dragged me under her blanket without a word. Like a fox takes a hen. You’ve never seen such a swollen appetite for houghmagandie. Just awful.”
“The good god preserve us,” Balor intoned.
“Holy hole in sacred Brighida,” Dubhlach blasphemed.
Balor gave Dubhlach a swipe across the ear without looking at him and said, “Go on, Cailen.”
Cailen groaned and tried to cover his face with his one hand.
“It was…it felt like I didn’t go into her but that she went into me. She handled me like I was a child’s raggedy doll. And then…”
he shuddered, “…the churning began.”
“The churning? churning, did you say?” Balor said, hoarsely. “Don’t spare us the details. Unburden yourself, man. Tell us everything. All the details, mind.”
“Just so,” Dubhlach said, nodding vigorously. “Don’t leave out a thing. Get it off your chest, man.”
“Aye, I will,” Cailen said. “Now where was I?”
“The churning,” Balor and Dubhlach breathlessly said as one.
“Ach aye,” Cailen resumed. “She put me into her and tossed and stirred and whipped and shook me all about. There was a good deal of jiggling too. Whatever came into her head that pleased herself. Never in all my long days of making the beast with two backs have I been used like that by a creature of the female species.”
“And tell me now,” Balor asked with just a hint of a tremor in his voice, “did she have any clothes on at all, at all, while this was going on?”
Cailen shot him a suspicious look. “And why would you be asking that? What in the world would that have to do with anything?”
“Ach, nothing, nothing at all,” Balor said lamely. “I was just after wondering, is all.”
“Well?” Dubhlach prompted, “Did she or didn’t she?”
Cailen glared at the pair of them. “Well, if you must know, and I’m seeing by the tongues hanging out of your heads that you must, she was as naked as the day she came into the world. Well, from what I could tell by the feel of her, anyhow. Massive thighs, a belly like an overstuffed, feathery pillow and great jugs for boobies with nipples the size of door handles. There, is that enough detail for you?”
They nodded dumbly.
“But see me? I couldn’t care less what it was she looked like,” Cailen said. “ She had my one arm pinned against my body the whole time. I was pure helpless to stop her using me like one of her kitchen tools. The muscles on that woman are unbelievable.”
“Of course,” Dubhlach nodded, sagely. “That would be from all the daily wielding of churn staffs and ladles and the like.”
“Aye, well, she wielded me like a staff tonight, right enough. My organ feels like it’s been mixing in the churner half the night, it’s rubbed that raw. And the worst of it is, she wouldn’t stop after she milked the seed. No. That wasn’t enough for her. She made me do it…twice.”
Balor looked aghast. “Twice? No. Never. Surely not?”
Cailen’s head bobbed up and down at agitated speed. “Aye. Twice. Two times. One time after the other.”
Balor placed a hand on Cailen’s trembling shoulder. “Man, man. You must be near destroyed by the churning.”
“Dear God,” Dubhlach cried, “What was she thinking? To torture a body like that?”
“The good god preserve us,” Balor said, looking piously upwards, “and keep us safe from women of monstrous appetites, one of those who isn’t satisfied with just the one churning but goes against nature by expecting it…”
Balor was so overcome that Dubhlach had to finish it for him – “…twice. Ach, it doesn’t bear thinking about. Where’s the humanity?”
The three of them nodded sadly.
Balor asked, “And how did you get away from her?”
“I told her I had to take a piss,” Cailen said. “And even then she was awfy loath to let me out of her sight.”
Balor nodded towards the house. “So she’s still in there, waiting for you?”
“Aye, she is. And it is a long time she’ll be waiting too. If I never see her again it will be too soon. The libidinous trollop. She should see a Druid about that. It just isn’t natural.”
“Cailen, my gallant friend,” Balor began, aware that he was about to touch on a delicate subject, “you know of course that you must go back in there? That you have to finish what you’ve begun with the widow Rhona?”
“Finish be damned,” Cailen said. “It’ll be the finish of me if I creep back under the blanket with that insatiable woman. And what is there to be finishing in any case? Has she not poked me into her twice in the one night? Is that not one time more than any woman has the right to expect? It just isn’t natural, I’m saying.”
Balor gazed upon him sternly. “Get a hold on yourself, Cailen. It is a tricky situation we are in. They might set the dogs on us. Or maybe worse. There’s something about that old grandmother crone, Banabha… something witchy that makes my skin crawl. ”
“Aye,” said Dubhlach, “and don’t forget the stockade of sharpened stakes and the gate that is guarded by the dogs. It may be they are intended to keep folk in when it is needed as well as keeping folk out.”
Cailen shook his head vehemently. “I don’t care. I’m not going back in there. It will be the death of me. One of you will have to take my place. It’s dark in there; she’ll never notice the difference.”
“Really?” Dubhlach said, “and you think she won’t notice that the man coming back to her bed has sprouted an extra arm since she last saw him?”
“Forget the extra arm,” Cailen said. “Whoever goes back into that house of never-ending houghmagandie, it will be an extra willie he’ll be needing.”
No one spoke. It was irrefutable logic. Finally Balor said, “What about the grandma Banabha? Where was she during all this?”
Cailen waved his hand dismissively. “She didn’t make a sound. The old hag slept through it all. She’s not the problem.”
“But she might be, “ Balor said, “ if she wakes in the morning and finds that you’ve upset her granddaughter. I wouldn’t like to cross her if she really is a witch, as her neighbors seem to think. Surely you can go back and let the widow have just one more churn? She’s a fine-looking lass, that Rhona, after all.”
Cailen looked Balor straight in the eye. “There is nothing you could say to make me go back in there. Nothing at all. You’ll have to do the churning yourself. I’ve done my bit.”
“Me, is it? Ach, I’d love to,” said Balor, looking faintly alarmed nonetheless. “I’m fair champing at the bit; is it not me that is itching to have a go? But of course I can’t.”
Dubhlach looked worried. “You can’t? Why can’t you?”
“Why do you think, Dubhlach, you great coof? Have you forgotten that I am married? And not just to any old wife but to Sequana who can throw a spear further than any of us can and has been known to drop a rat with a carving knife at ten paces. Do you have any idea what Sequana would do to me if she smelt the faintest whiff of unfaithfulness?”
“Aye, well, it would be something painful,” Dubhlach allowed, “If I had to guess I would say severing your bollocks. She said something along those lines when she caught that tavern wench on your knee, did she not?”
“Aye, she did. That amongst other unpleasant things.”
“ A passionate wife, you have there, Balor. And uncommonly good with spear and knife, as you say. I wouldn’t ever want to cross the good woman.”
“So you see my point then,” Balor said.
“I suppose I do, aye.”
“Which means, god help us, it’s up to you, Dubhlach. Just you get in there, man, and churn up a frenzy.”
Dubhlach looked horrified. “Me? Churning? Impossible. It’s out of the question.”
“And why would that be?” Balor wanted to know. “Are you not a man? In a manner of speaking. Using the word loosely. So then, are you not itching to commence with the churning?”
Dubhlach grimaced. “Actually, no. The truth is, you see…I’ve never been awfy keen on it.”
Balor sighed and shook his head. “Here we go. All right then, which bit, exactly, are you not keen on?”
“The bit where you have to actually do it,” Dubhlach said. “I don’t mind thinking about it. The idea of it. But when it comes to the actual houghmagandie…the beast with two backs…churning. Whatever you want to call it. I find I’m just not as interested in doing it as I should be. I’m not much of a man for the lassies. I’m used to being on my own, you see. I’ve been a goatherd for most of my life, remember.”
“Bleeding ballocks,” Cailen interjected here, “ What the feck is he trying to saying?”
“I don’t think I want to know,” said Balor. “Look Dubhlach, you’re going in there and you’re going to churn up a storm with Rhona. No excuses. You don’t have to like it, just do it.”
“Just pretend you’re with one of your goats,” Cailen suggested.
Dubhlach looked affronted, “What the devil do you mean by that? I’ll not have you bringing my goats into this, Cailen,”
“For god’s sake, let’s forget about the goats,” Balor said, “goats have nothing to do with this; goats are not the problem here. Now just you two concentrate on the matter at hand. You will go over there, Dubhlach, and copulate like you’ve never copulated before, which by the sound of it is not going to be too much of a stretch of the imagination for you. And that’s all there is to it.”
Dubhlach swallowed hard, bit his lip and left the byre.
Balor and Cailen waited by the byre door for a good hour or so but all was quiet in the cottage so they went back to the straw and fell asleep. Balor awoke some time later to the sound of ragged panting. It was Dubhlach. His eyes were glazed and bulging out of his head but aside from that he seemed in fair shape given the circumstances.
“You were in there forever, man,” Balor said, giving him an approving pat on the back. “A solid session of the houghmagandie, that one. So then, how many times would it have been?”
He had to repeat the question and lightly slap Dubhlach around the face before he revived sufficiently to reply.
“Times? I can’t say for sure. It all sort of ran together in one continuous churn. I just thought about something else and let her get on with it. I think it was three times. Aye, that would be about right; around three times. It’s all a painful blur.”
“What?” Cailen said, “I don’t believe it. You couldn’t poke it in once to save your life, let alone three times.”
Dubhlach shrugged. “Whatever you say yourself, Cailen. I’m telling you I whopped it in three times and nearly killed myself into the bargain.”
“And did she notice it wasn’t Cailen who came back, what with your extra arm and all?” Balor asked.
“Didn’t seem to bother her. I couldn’t see a thing. She just dragged me onto her and then…and then…”
“The churning,” Cailen said hoarsely.
“Aye,” Dubhlach said. “I’m red raw from it.”
“So she let you leave?” Balor said.
“Aye, but I had to promise to send you in to finish.”
“What? Who? Me?”
“Aye, you, Balor, you. For who else could it be? We are running out of willies and we must finish, else what was it all for?”
“Finish? Finish what?”
“Why, the churning, of course. You ken fine well yourself we have no choice, Balor. The woman is insatiable. I’m destroyed from the churning. I wouldn’t be surprised at all at all if my wee member were to fall off right here and now. Aye, just drop to the ground and lie there like a skinned snake.”
“I think you mean worm,” Balor said. “I’ve seen the size of it.”
“She was slowing down towards the end,” Dubhlach went on, oblivious, “I think a couple more times should just about do the trick. Best of luck to you, Balor. Remember to pace yourself and you’ll do all right.”
“No, no, I can’t do it.” Balor said.
“What? Not you too?” Cailen said, “Not the goats, is it?”
“Don’t you like doing it either?” Dubhlach enquired with sympathy.
“Of course, I like it,” Balor said, angrily. “I’m a regular at it, so I am. I can’t get enough of it. There’s nothing I’d rather do…except…well, maybe eating…”
“…and drinking …” Cailen said.
“…and sleeping…” Balor added.
“…and a bit of slaughtering in a nice, juicy clan feud…” Cailen said.
“All right,” said Dubhlach, “so apart from all of that, there’s nothing you’d rather do than a spot of churning, so why can’t you go over there and get on with it?”
“Because I made a vow, a marriage vow. I must stay true. To Sequana.”
“What, because you’re afraid of her?”
“No. Because I care for her. And, yes, all right, I may be a little wary of her.”
Dubhlach said. “I can’t blame you for that, I wouldn’t want to cross Sequana what with that spear-throwing arm of hers. But we’ve done our bit, Cailen and me, and there’s no other choice. It’s up to you now.”
Balor opened his mouth to argue back but nothing convincing came to mind. He knew there would be no way out of this. He had that sick, sinking feeling, as if he’d just drawn the burnt fragment of barley bannock that marked him out for the ritual sacrifice under the Druid’s knife. Like it or not, his time had come; it was his turn to be The Dedicated One.
Two hours later Balor left Rhona’s house in a state of elation he had not felt in many years. The darkness had at first been unnerving, with Rhona lurking like a predator in the gloom. But then they had melted together the way a hand might perfectly fit a glove. The climax came quickly and powerfully for both of them. Afterwards they lay in each other’s arms under fur rugs, their warm breath commingling. Rhona seemed sated. All the poor wee lass had wanted, Balor reasoned, was a caring man who knew how to say the sort of things a woman longs to hear; things like “shall I stop now?” and “Have you had enough yet?” That sort of thing. Rhona soon fell into a deep sleep punctuated by her gentle snores and endearing flatulence. Balor slipped away, thinking with satisfaction that it had been a job well done.
“What? Back already?” Cailen said when Balor returned to the barn. “You’ve hardly been in there at all, at all. That’s not fair. Why should you be the one to get away with it?”
Balor patted his shoulder with just a hint of smugness. “I expect it was because I know how to please a woman. No need for second and third tries. You just have to get it right the first time around. Don’t be so hard on yourself, Cailen. Look at it this way: it’s a talent. Some of us are born to churn in and others must just get by as best they can.”
“Ach, rubbish, you got off lightly, thanks to me,” Cailen sniffed. “Most of the hard work was done before you got in there. See me? I’m a champion of the churning, so I am. Did I not leave her begging for more?”
Dubhlach nodded. “Aye, she was begging all right, Cailen, but it wasn’t for more; not from the likes of you, anyway. The way she tore into me you could tell she was glad to be rid of you. Three times, Cailen. One more than you and, I suspect, thrice Balor’s effort. And at considerable personal cost, too. She’s ruined me for life, so she has. I shall never churn again in this world.”
“Ach, that’s just as well,” Baor said, “for I doubt you’ll ever again find someone who is willing, unless maybe you meet a soul mate amongst your goat herd.”
The next morning Grandma Banabha led them down to the gate with her three growling hounds of hell shadowing them all the way.
“And are you sure you wouldn’t like to stay for just one more night?” she said.
“Aye, well, it’s a tempting enough offer, there’s no doubt,” Balor said. “But, we must be getting back home for we are doubtless missed already and there will be a searching party. Now then, about the payment for the food and shelter…”
“You paid for that last night,” the old hag said.
“Aye,” said Balor, “I suppose we did. Speaking of which, would you give our fond farewells to the lovely Rhona? Tell her please that last night was… unforgettable, so it was. Is that not right, lads?”
Dubhlach and Cailen nodded warily.
“So you enjoyed yourselves then, did you?” Banabha asked.
“That we did,” Balor said.
“Glad I am to hear it,” the old bag said.
“Aye,” Balor said, “a night to remember, so it was. We would tell Rhona ourselves but she doesn’t seem to be around.”
The old woman shrugged. “Aye, well, she never stays here after dark. She has her own home nearby.”
Here, there was a moment of strained silence.
“Home?” Balor said, “But I thought this…”
“ Ach, the house is too small for the pair of us and in any case she says that my snoring and farting would keep anybody up all the long night. So she has a cozy wee cottage in the woods behind my own home where she lived with the weakling husband before he died.”
They left without another word. When the homestead was well out of sight, Cailen said, “That’s me destroyed, then. I will never again be able to do it in the dark without thinking…without thinking of…”
Balor raised a hand. “Enough. Not a word more. Let us just pretend it never happened. Although doubtless we will wake up screaming with the memory for years to come.”
They walked on for the next hour or so in silence, the three of them preferring to retreat into their hooded cloaks, deep in thought.
Finally Dubhlach said, “It is just as I told you. Ach it doesn’t much matter who we are, be it prince or peasant, comely or plain, it is all just fumbling and squirming and grunting away under the covers. For the life of me I cant see what the fuss is all about. Eh man, in truth, is it not all just a wee bit…foolish?”
The other two said nothing in reply. Balor had to admit to himself that, for someone who had been dropped on his head when a baby and then went on to spend his formative years amongst the goats, Dubhlach The Dafty occasionally came out with something resembling common sense.