Copyright Cormac Doyle © 2015

Edited by Peter Rudin-Burgess for The Guild Companion

"He'd seen sheep injure themselves or get stuck in the mud and without a close eye that would be his fate too."


Highlands covered in Fiach Lichen Image © Lorne Gill/SNH, used with permission.

The approach of dawn was heralded only by a shimmering pink tinge to the mist that clung to the heather and gorse that covered the hills around him but Conn had been walking for more than an hour already.

His eyes, always alert, spying the firm peat and fronds of heather between the stretches of damp mud, topped by lush grass. He'd seen sheep injure themselves or get stuck in the mud and without a close eye that would be his fate too.

“The mossy Fiach Lichen will be blooming these next few days. I am too old to go hiking through the Iolar hills and their treacherous mires but my medicine cabinet runs low. So ...” and then he smiled crookedly at Conn, “it falls to you to travel the unmarked ways to the Iolar tarn and retrieve the Fiach Lichen for me.”

Conn had known not to argue. Even the Fiach deer rarely strayed too deep into the Iolar Mountains. There were birds a plenty, including the majestic Iolar Eagles, but beyond that the denizens of the hills blanketed by the sodden bogs were limited to frogs, and a multitude of midges and clegs — flies that would leave wide welts where they would bite.

“Spring is in the air and the clegs and midges are rising well, my master. Perhaps I could beg a vial of the Fleabane I helped you make last week?” Helping the old man decoct, concoct and distill the essences from the tansy, rosemary and penny-royal had taken them several days, but they did have some Fleabane — if he hadn't sold it all already to the more privileged members of the clan.

“There are four vials on the upper shelf, but two are promised to your good sister and I need to keep one until we can prepare some more. Take the last one, and see that it lasts!”

So now he found himself trudging through the mist-clad bogs and hills on the look-out for the rare Fiach Lichen. Last time he had found some, almost to months prior, the cold of winter was only slowly releasing it's grip on these desolate hills and he could not harvest any. But still, he knew where he was going and had taken the risk of leaving before dawn — the sheep trails through the lower reaches were dry and steady; at least for someone who had been walking them for as long as he could toddle after his father.

The tarn he remembered finding the lichen near was several hours away — especially since the mist was only slowly burning off with the rising sun. Up ahead, Conn could see the looming shape of the rocky outcropping he would have to get around. Three hours, if you made your way around it left or right, but Conn and his brothers had been making a sport of scaling this edifice for years. Best wait a few minutes to see if the light improves. Sitting on a bare granite rock protruding from the heather strewn hill, he carefully unslung his backpack and retrieved his water bottle. The running water up here was potable but tasted brackish and made for a foul tasting tea when mixed with dried elder and dandelions.

A mouthful of cheese and bread and he tidied away his snack again, stowing the bag where it would not swing or catch on anything as he climbed.

The ascent was exhilarating, and tiring too. I was probably almost a full hour before Conn had made it to the top of the rocky outcropping and paused to catch his breath. Looking around, the mist had cleared significantly — indeed he had felt the warmth of the sun on his back over the last few minutes. Smiling to himself, he sat down again to catch his breath and enjoy the views down into fjord where his village lay nestled in the narrow strip of land where the mountains swept down to the bay where they gathered oysters and fished in their coracles, sheltered from the worst of the sea's storms by the long deep fjord and the hills around about.

Time enough to watch the clouds drift o'er head when I'm on my way home! So with a sigh he rose again and set out with a steady stride, faster and surer now that the light was good and the mist had lifted. Several hours later, he stopped to reapply the fleabane — the clegs seemed uncommonly interested in sampling this new delicacy in their midst — and had another light meal while he rested.

The distant rhythmic chup, chup, chup told him that a Gerfalcon had taken a heathhen, grouse or coot. But looking around Conn was surprised to see one of the majestic Iolar Eagles circling above. As he watched, the eagle swooped down and raked at the surprised gyrfalcon. The resulting tussle lasted only a few seconds but soon the Iolar eagle was flying away, coot between it's claws, and the gyrfalcon was lying injured in the heather.

It took Conn less than ten minutes to get to where the falcon was lying and in the clear light of day the bird's injuries looked severe. It was trying to stand, but was dragging its wing, and there were too many feathers missing from it's tail for it to fly even if it's wing were not broken. He had helped the old man tend to the injuries of sheep, pet dogs, and even a couple of roosters but he had never worked on a wild falcon before.

“Gorom, ná bogadh tú”, he murmured, his hands gently and skillfully calming the bird. There's not much I can do for him here. And he's young — not much more than a fledgeling! I wonder how he came to be by himself?

Wrapping him carefully he put a few drops of willow oil in the bird's beak and then soothed it to sleep.

“Sruth ina chodladh” he murmured again invoking the sleep charms the old man had taught him when tending to ill children. Surprisingly it appeared to work and the bird became quiet and its panicked breathing slowed and became more regular.

Setting the wing as best he could, Conn swaddled the bird in the cloth that had wrapped his lunch but soon he realized that this diversion could have him returning home in the dark — never a good prospect even for someone as comfortable with these wilds as he.

It was almost two hours walk before he could see the tarn where he had previously found the lichen and indeed it did not take him long to find enough lichens to harvest sufficient for the old man without ruining this patch of lichen against further need.

With the noon-day sun now beating down on his back and some dark clouds moving in from the northwest in the distance Conn only waited long enough to carefully pack away his harvested lichens and to check on his patient sleeping in his backpack before he turned and set out for home. At this rate I should be home for dinner!

It was growing dark as he crested the ridge from where he could overlook the village; the sun was setting behind the hills and the tranquil bay reflected the dusky hues of the patchy clouds above. Now that's a sight for sore eyes. But then his eyes followed the contour of the bay towards the village itself and his heart froze in his chest.

Columns of smoke rose from the smoldering remains but only weakly — the blustery weather dispersed the smoke before it rose above the ridge. There were two lochruthair galleys pulled up on the shore, and another two anchored in the deep water of the fjord.

The terror of knowing that his kin were in danger, dying or taken as chattels gave Conn the push that he needed and almost unbidden his feet started racing down the sheep-track and into the woods.

Some of the villagers will have fled to the woods. Déithe cabhrú linn, we will have our revenge!