Her Mother`s Savage Daughter

A tale of courage and sacrifice in ancient Ireland

- November 2022 Popular Vote Pick

Brenna’s long dark hair flew in the wind as she ran through the tall grass, away from the fortress town of Cullan. She hurried toward the ruins of her mother’s people, toward the place of the Tuatha De Dannan, that place that had once been the city of the people of the goddess Danu. She had been there so many times in her 15 years, exploring that place where no others from Cullan dared to tread, but today she was desperate. There must be something, there under the fallen walls of Dannan, some piece of ancient magic, some spell carved in the crumbling stone. There had to be… There must be a way to kill a dragon.

She had walked away from her father’s forge calmly, quietly, not showing the panic in her heart to her father or Setanta. They likely wouldn’t have noticed anyway, they were far too involved in their work, crafting that blasted axe.

“Wurm!” she called out, as she reached the edge of the ruin, “Wurm, I know you’re here! I don’t have time for games.”

“Games,” a voice replied, “why else would you come to play with old Wurm, child of Danu?”

A pale thin figure slid from atop a fallen column like a snake. Wurm smiled his nefarious grin as Brenna approached. He wondered, like he always did, if today would be the day.

“I need to know…” Brenna began, “if you know, you must tell me. I know that you know why I’m here, I know you’ve seen it.”

Wurm just shook his head and continued to smile at her, squinting his pale blue eyes while running his fingers through his messy platinum hair.

“You have me at a disadvantage, child,” he said, “I have been asleep for at least two moons now, perhaps more.” He sniffed the air, trying to gauge the season.

“It’s…” Brenna began, “there’s a…”

“Dragon!” Wurm’s eyes flashed. “I can smell it,” he purred. “Four men are killed, yes… four fools, I hear it now.”

Wurm had magic. He had taught Brenna many of his tricks over the years, from bringing the thick dead vines about his refuge back to life, to making the ancient metal orb float above the ruins like the moon. All those things were mere parlor tricks, simple glamour, not the true magic of Brenna’s mother’s people. Wurm’s only true magic was his ear.

“You wish to kill it, before it takes from you,” Wurm said to the girl. “Wurm hears the song of fate, and it says that ancient dragon will take from you one who you love.”

That was Brenna’s fear. Since her mother died, she had cared for almost no one. Most people of Cullan looked on her with suspicion, this wild child of her strange mother, who ran barefoot through the field with her ragged gown and messy hair. She was tolerated by the more proper folk, since she was the daughter of the Chieftain-smith of Cullan. Wild Brenna only loved two people, her father, and her “hound”.

“If there is a way to kill that thing,” Brenna said, her voice shaking, “you must tell me. Lie to me, and I will banish you from here.”

She sighed, and looked at the outcast faerie. He knew what she would say next, and his face changed to reflect his false sympathy. She had not yet spoken, but he already knew. She would finally offer him the thing he craved most.

“Help me kill it, before my father goes to face it…” Brenna trembled, “and you may have what you have always wanted from me.” She dropped her dress to the ground, just to show him she was serious.

Wurm’s eyes lit up, and his face changed to that of a young man, to the face of her love, her hound, Setanta.

Setanta was no dog, but “hound” was the name he had been given by those mean people of the town. The boy’s father died before his birth, and as he grew, his mother sent him to live with the Chieftain-smith of Cullan, his father’s most trusted friend. He had come to live with Brenna and her father when she was still very young. Setanta was a little over a year older than Brenna, and she thought he was the greatest thing she’d ever seen.

Setanta tried his best to learn the craft of Brenna’s father, but he was so small and thin, he could scarcely lift a hammer. And so it was that the boy earned his nickname, “the hound of Cullan”, as people suggested he must live only on table scraps, scrawny as he was.

Brenna loved him even more, since Setanta also wanted nothing to do with the mean girls of the town. She had even talked to her father about Setanta, and he just smiled, and told her that when the time came, the two would have his blessing. Her father would have to prod Setanta a bit, since he still thought of Brenna as the little girl with a crush, and had not yet come to appreciate the woman she was becoming. Unlike Setanta, Wurm appreciated her a little too much, and had for years.

Brenna wanted to cry, as Wurm smiled at her with Setanta’s face. Wurm knew she always dreamed her first time would be with Setanta, and he was toying with her. It was all he could do, as the song of fate had already told him that he would never taste Brenna’s supple flesh. He knew of no way to kill a dragon.

It seemed that no one did. The dragon had appeared barely a month prior, circling low over the nearby hills. Brave men went out to kill it, even though it hadn’t bothered any sheep or cattle, only taking a deer or two from the woods. Those brave men never returned. And now, it seemed, her father would go to the same fate.

Brenna blamed herself. She had given her father the very metal that was folded into that damned axe, metal she had brought back over many years of scavenging the ruins of Dannan with the lecherous Wurm. She and Setanta had designed the axe, as she wondered what mad warrior might take the thing out to meet the beast. When she realized that her father planned to do the deed himself, her heart dropped. She panicked, and ran to the ruins, hoping to trade her virginity for a way to save her father from certain death.

“Do not…” she said to Wurm, a single tear on her cheek, “do not take his face. It won’t matter, my eyes will be shut, but do not…”

Wurm moved close to her, and took her into his arms. She expected him to touch her in the ways he had always tried, but instead, he hugged her tightly, and calmed her tears.

“The song of fate is clear,” he said with a sigh, “we will both go unsatisfied, dear Brenna. The song says that the dragon has come to meet its maker, to give itself back to creation. And it will, soon. But it also says that you will lose one you love when it does. It cannot be changed.”

As corrupt as the ancient faerie was, he still felt sad for her. He loved the girl, in his own twisted way. He released her, and helped her recover her clothes. Sympathetic or not, he took the opportunity to run his hand across her smooth skin. Brenna was too sad to protest. She knew that Wurm could not lie, not about fate. He feared losing his gift, a gift no other fae had. He could not hear the whole tune, but fate would often let him hear a little of the next verse. He did hear the chorus, always. The end is the beginning, it said.

Wurm didn’t tell her that not only would he never have her, but he would never see her again, that soon, he and all his kind would sleep, and never trouble the kingdoms of Erin again. Under his arrogance, he admitted to himself that she was far too special for him anyway. There would be another like her, even stronger, but corrupt and misshapen, one much more suited to the Silver Wurm, if he ever woke…

Brenna sat in the empty ruin, as Wurm slowly vanished from sight. As the light faded, she made her way back to her father’s forge. She whispered her mother’s ancient prayer on the wind as she walked slowly through the tall grass. She would lose her father. She could not talk him out of it, as he had already declared he would do the deed. She could not steal his glory in such a way, even though she knew that he would relent if she truly begged him. She may not lose him if she did, but he would have to live as a coward for the rest of his days.

The Chieftain was gone when Brenna returned, likely to the tavern. One last night of drinking and celebrating before going out to face fire-breathing death. She quietly entered the forge, spying the finished axe resting on the table, almost glowing in the firelight. The axe wasn’t the only thing sitting there in the dark forge.

“He’s…” Setanta spoke, “your father’s gone to the tavern.” Brenna could hear the sadness in his voice.

She wasn’t the only one who had come to realize what would happen when her father went to face the dragon. Setanta looked at her, and both of them began to weep. She ran to him and embraced him tightly.

“He said…” Setanta spoke again, smiling a little, “he said, I should find you a suitable husband, if he doesn’t return… I nodded, and he slapped me on the head. He meant you should marry me…”

They both shared a little laugh. Setanta did love her; she had always been so kind to him. Of course he would marry her, he almost felt responsible, after helping to craft that axe. The Chieftain even decided it should have two blades, made out of his love for the two of them. Setanta had suggested they forge the ring Brenna had brought from the Dannan ruins into the pommel, a place to attach a rope or chain.

Brenna broke from his embrace, and walked over to gaze on the thing. This axe would take her father from her, as surely as that dragon would. Her tears fell on the metal, and it rung gently as they fell, leaving shimmering trails down the blades as they rolled across them. She began to shake with anger and fear. Neither of them could ask the Chieftain to resign from his quest. Win or lose, the deed would heap great glory on him, and on his house. They could not take it from him.

Setanta pulled her away from the table, and took her in his arms. He kissed her deeply, the way she had always hoped that he would someday. He led her from the forge, into the house, pulling her all the way back to his bed. It was the only thing he could think to do for her. He drew her close, and held her in his embrace. He would not take her, not on this sad evening. Brenna cried herself to sleep in his arms, her only consolation, that she would have her sweet hound for the rest of her life.

She awoke the next morning and dashed from Setanta’s bed, panicked that she would not see her father before he left. She ran out to the forge, to find her father sitting there, almost dumbstruck.

He looked at her, and spoke. They were the kindest and saddest words Brenna had ever heard.

“He’s gone,” her father said, “Setanta… is gone…”

The skinny lad, the “hound of Cullan”, had slipped away while Brenna slept, taking the axe, the Chieftain’s armor, and his horse.

Setanta was saddened by the thought that he may lose the only father he had ever known, and that the people of Cullan would lose their wise and just leader. He could have born that sadness, but he could not bear to see Brenna lose her father, the only thing in this world she loved more than him. The hound had done the only thing a good man could do, and went out to face the dragon himself.

Brenna was torn. She felt almost guilty in her relief that she would not lose her father, even though she would not see Setanta again. She would never be able to repay the debt she owed him.

The people of Cullan would mourn their “hound”. Brenna made sure they all knew what Setanta had done for them. A fine feast was held in his honor, and even a song was sung of his deed, of the slight lad who could barely swing a hammer, but must have had the heart of a dragon.

It was for this reason, the entire population of Cullan stood agape when, the day after the feast, the hound of Cullan came wandering back into the town covered in green blood, a great scar across his chest, the heavy double axe resting on his narrow shoulders.

From that day on, his nickname would take on a new meaning, and “hound of Cullan” or “Cuchulain” as it was said in the Celtic tongue, was a title of honor, and he would be named the protector of Cullan.

His name was not the only thing that would change. His encounter with the dragon had caused a transformation in the once skinny timid boy, as some weird magic began to cause the boy to grow, rapidly, until he had become a giant of a man, a man who could toss around the great axe like a toy. Stranger still, the axe itself had grown larger as well.

Cuchulain and his axe had doubled in size, barely three moons after he met the dragon. Unfortunately, so had his ego. The prissy town girls who once laughed at him now followed him like puppies, and he took the opportunity to use them all as playthings. He practically forgot about sweet Brenna.

Wurm had not lied. Brenna had lost someone she loved dearly, as the old Setanta never returned from that lonely hilltop. She loved him, and missed her hound, but she owed him such a debt, she could not be angry with him. In time, Brenna would marry another, a brave young man who loved her more than life, so much that for a time, she thought he might be her old friend Wurm, weaving his glamour, still trying to get under her skirts.

Setanta, or Cuchulain, as he was called, would grow even more, in size and in fame. He would one day leave Cullan, and fight in many wars in many parts of Erin, becoming so large and ferocious, he would go from being called “hound”, to being known as “Bear”.

Brenna would have two children, and die happily many years later, surrounded by loved ones. The blood of her mother, of the people of the goddess Danu, would continue, as would the great power that she never knew her blood carried.

As she was passing, she began to laugh, almost hysterically. In that moment, she too could hear the song of fate, the very pattern of the universe itself. She saw her brave scrawny hound, his body broken, lying on the hill, covered in the dragon’s blood, and his own. She saw the beast loom over him, a great gash in its neck dripping blood, as it spoke strange words, and breathed a bright amber flame over the boy like a blessing. Then, the dragon simply faded into the trees, like stars at dawn.

There was more, much more. She saw all the way back to the beginning, to the common ancestor they both shared, the stout blonde woman, holding her two sons, the Mother of all humanity, the woman her mother’s tribe called Danu.

She saw Setanta’s path unfold before her, and saw what he would become, his greatest love, and his indescribable deeds yet to come. She saw the part she had played in the song of fate. That is why she laughed, as she crossed over from this world, and was joined with her father once again. She still had that little smile on her face when when they placed her in her crypt, among the ruins of the Tuatha De Dannan.

Setanta, or Cuchulain, or Bear, would live on, but would age no more. He would travel from the Isle of Erin, to the lands of the Brethons, to Gallia, and into the far north, where many a song would be sung about the deeds of the legendary century-old warrior the northmen called Bear (pronounced Bo-vyfe in their tongue).

And one day, when he was at his lowest, drowning in drink and regret for the life he could have known with sweet Brenna, he would meet another legend, one known by many names, but most commonly by the Saxon word… Grendel.