Sgathach's Warrior School
When dawn was about to break the clash of swords could be heard and the loud exclamation of one man could also be picked out through the din…
By David White
Legend tells of a warrior Queen on Skye who over 2000 years ago trained warriors revered the world over. Thought to be daughter of the King of Scythia: the ruler of a vast empire which extended across swathes of modern Eastern Europe and Asia, Sgathach was from a mighty lineage. Her strength in battle though could be matched by none in her father’s court, nor any in all her conquests across Europe. Through a tale, much of which is lost to time, Sgathach became a Queen in her own right and while her dominion was markedly smaller than that of her father’s, her role was far greater. After her death, she became heralded as a Celtic goddess responsible for guiding the dead to Tir a nog, the Celtic afterlife. But the tale I shall tell is not of her godly status or her lengthy journey, but is instead of the warrior school she ran and in particular one especially talented participant.
The sun began to rise in the East, as it did each and every day and Sgathach had no worries that it would not set in the west and that she would be there to witness it, for never in all her years had death come close to besting her. She stood tall upon the main embankment to her fortress and cast her gaze out to sea, a brisk wind danced along the nape of her neck flicking the odd hair out of place. Stuck fast, like a statue, she remained as though no force of nature could induce her to waver even for a moment. She could hear the faint clanging of swords striking far behind her, lower within the fortress and smiled. Her warriors were hard at work as expected, for while she trained them as best she could, it was only their own dedication that would make them truly great. She took a breath and thought through how each of her warriors had come to her. All had had to face the challenge of breaching her defences, as an audience was never granted but had to be fought for. Each had their own method; some of the larger brutes sought to rely on their strength alone, rarely did that succeed. Most others opted for finding weakness in her defences or more subtle tactics, for while she knew the importance of swordsmanship, she also knew the importance of strategy and deception.
“Mother, training has begun for the day; all have completed their initial drills and are awaiting your further instructions.” Shouted a young woman from down below. Her hair carefully braided and her stance almost matching that of her mother’s, she appeared a formidable adversary as well as a great beauty- a dangerous combination.
“Very well, assemble them in front of my roundhouse. Today we shall train in unarmed combat.” She replied without even glancing towards her daughter. Sharply she turned and walked down the embankment.
Training commenced in fullness upon the arrival of Sgathach, all were in awe of her despite many having been with her for many years. Her presence, legends tell, when doing what she did best was nothing short of wonderous. She fights as though in an intricate yet elegant dance, smooth lines, swift movements, sharp turns and still she remained composed, a drip of sweat never left her brow. Upon completing the class Sgathach summoned her daughter.
“I sense a newcomer approaching.” Stated Sgathach bluntly.
“I shall leave with the warriors at once to oppose them” responded her daughter, who like her mother had a preference for concise communication.
“No, we shall remain at ease, perhaps place a couple of warriors on the embankment to test him but nothing more. I am curious.” Sgathach, having made her will known, then retreated to her roundhouse where she sat and waited.
The day drew on and the sun set and still the newcomer had not arrived, yet Sgathach sat and waited, for she knew one was on their way. When dawn was about to break the clash of swords could be heard and the loud exclamation of one man could also be picked out through the din.
“How dare you confront me in such a way. I am the Hero of Ulster, Cuthullin, and I have come to challenge your leader and no other.” Roared the man having now made himself and his purpose known.
Sgathach stepped out from the dark and raised a hand. All fighting stopped.
“Queen.” Said Sgathach
“What?” responded the now dishevelled warrior, even more perplexed by the sudden appearance of this formidable looking women.
“I am their Queen, not their leader.” Replied Sgathach.
“Of course, Your Majesty, I beg your forgiveness” responded Cuthullin now regaining his composure. “I have come to challenge you.”
“So I have heard. Unfortunately to challenge myself you must first defeat my warriors.”
“Very well” Cuthullin said curtly. “I shall return at first light to commence duelling.”
The morn came, Sgathach had had but a couple hours of sleep but was unwavered by it, indeed she appeared fully rested and equally as strong as she appeared each and every day. She had selected her battle armour and her prize sword to preside over the duelling as while she was unmoved by the titles and claims of Cuthullin, she had heard whispers of his skill with a blade and a smart queen is ready.
The duelling began in earnest an hour after sunrise with the newest of the recruits facing Cuthullin and from there on he would face the next most experienced. As Cuthullin drew his blade to begin the first duel he glanced to Sgathach and tilted his head in salute, Sgathach then declared the start of the duel. In but a few brief minutes the first of the warriors had been bested and the next to oppose him was shaken. As was much of the rest of the fortress who had just witnessed skills almost intense as that of their Queen. For while the Queen fought with elegance, bewitching the onlooker with her every move always retaining her composure, this man fought with the ferocity of wolf, his blade like that of a butcher and his brow read as flame yet not a thrust, parry or slash was misplaced.
The day continued and one after another the warriors failed to live up to the Skill of Cuthullin. By the sunset not a single warrior bar her daughter remained standing. Sgathach thought at this point to call an end to the day’s activities.
“Congratulations Cuthullin, you have fought most formidably but now we must break for dinner and recommence at first light where you will face my daughter.”
“As your majesty commands it.” Cuthullin then sheathed his blade and walked towards the gates.
“Cuthullin, you will dine with us, such triumph deserves celebration does it not? We have food a plenty for I trapped more than a dozen rabbits just yesterday.” Sgathach offered.
“Your majesty is most generous” Cuthullin stated and then followed Sgathach towards the feast hall.
The night drew on and Cuthullin despite his first impression spun many brilliant and comical tales that had even Sgathach laughing, a rare break in her composed, almost unhuman image. They spoke of their youth, the battles they fought, the friends the fought alongside, the food they ate-both the best and worst and oh the ale they drank. By the end of the night Sgathach was almost saddened with the thought that on the morrow his unbeaten record would be broken by her.
The sun rose on the second day of duelling and Sgathach’s daughter stepped forward to fight. Her armour glowing in the light, the glint on her sword appearing as though it had been forged from the stars. She was by far the most skilled of the warriors having first picked up a blade at 3. Her form almost as entrancing as her mothers and her swordsmanship second only to her mothers, until now. The duel commenced and though it continued back and forth for over an hour with minor injuries on both sides, Cuthullin once again came out victorious.
“Well it seems you have been granted your challenge Cuthullin. Do you require a break to recuperate?”
“Perhaps a brief hour or two for lunch to regain my strength.” replied Cuthullin.
Sgathach nodded in agreement and once again they went to feast although this time no ale was consumed for both knew what was at stake if they lost. The atmosphere while still warm was more subdued than the previous night and while Sgathach cracked a smile or two, laughter was not forthcoming.
Stepping back out into the open, the opponents faced one another and upon Sgathach’s daughter’s command they began the duel. It was a duel like nothing any had seen before nor would see again. It was as though the gods had descended from the heavens to challenge one another. Despite Cuthullin’s style being the antithesis of Sgathach they matched up in battle as though made for one another, as though two sides of the same coin. The clashing of their blades could be heard across the island and some even reported sounds like lighting from the mainland. It continued all through the day into the night and the next day but neither could gain the upper hand. Sgathach’s one cool demeanour had changed and sweat poured down her face yet she still did not give and neither did he, despite appearing even more exhausted then the Queen.
As the evening drew near on their second evening of duelling Sgathach’s daughter believed enough was enough. It was apparent to all onlookers that the two were evenly matched and that neither would win this duel so she thought to distract them with food, so as to get them to put aside their blades and come together. She prepared all manner of meals from salmon, to boar, to rabbit and more yet they would not budge. Almost resigned to the idea that the two opponents would fight for forever more, one thing slipped into her mind. She remembered one of their discussions in the feast hall after the first night, about food. Both of them loved roast deer stuffed with hazelnuts so the next morn at dawn break she packed her bow and went off to track down a deer. Fortunately for her within a couple of hours she had found a suitable candidate and killed it with a single shot to the heart. With the help of a couple of the warriors she carried it back to camp.
The rest of the day she and the other warriors prepared the deer and built a fire close to the duelling pair so as they could see the treat before them. As the night drew in the deer was getting nicely roasted and would be done soon enough. The smell was dizzying and all around were salivating at the thought of that evening’s dinner. The combatants were still linked in combat, as though enchanted but then upon hearing a voice cry:
“Dinner is ready, we are having roast deer stuffed with hazelnuts!”
They both awoke from the entrancement and glanced towards the now almost fully carved deer and with a glance into each other’s eyes, they dropped their swords and picked up a plate.
It was hence forth known that the best warriors in the world were Sgathach and Cuthullin and that they could be both found in Dún Scáith, a fort on the Isle of Sky. Cuthullin decided to stay and join the woman he now called his Queen, helped train her warriors and all lived well on their island with food aplenty.
Ultimately, as all people shall know, an army marches on its stomach and it appears it leaders do too for with the unifying meal, their hunger both physically and mentally was satisfied.