They call me madman of the trees, king gone astray, witless one, mimic of birds,
folly's friend, the wild mad king.
Sweeney? I am not Sweeney. Sweeney was a tall strong man who raised his
voice and his arms against anyone who slighted him.
He was a king, that tall man. A king by birth and battle. I knew him in his
youth. A frenzied man, that Sweeney, like every man who knows the
secret of war.
I learned that secret from him, in my youth. Lean forward: let me tell you. Let
me murmur to you what I cannot speak into the night's wide listening ear.
Let me tell you of the way, in slant evening light, wine shines like fresh blood.
The way, in mead-tinged candlelight, the gold hair of a woman glints like
the clash of weapons.
The way everything grows wild and fierce and vivid, the night before battle. The
blood pricking. The loins surging. The breath intoxicating. The stars
And then the dawn of battle, when nothing is more beautiful than the enemy,
shining with sweat, wanton with weapons. Everything gleaming silver,
swords, helmets, shields, small sharp daggers, gleaming.
Dazzled with the enemy, Sweeney would stand on the hillside, every line of
every warrior's face carved into his memory. Sweeney would know them
in that instant. Know their hardness. Feel them give way to his greater
Legs pounding, arms flailing, lungs bursting. Red. Red. Screams like wild
frenzied birds. Red. Sweeney drinking blood from hacked limbs. Red
I knew that Sweeney, in my youth. Before Mag Rath. Before that battle, when the
sound of death filled his ears. I wonder where he went, that Sweeney.
The tall strong king. After Mag Rath.
Sweeney was a leader of men. I am a madman of the hills. Sweeney slept in the
bed of a queen. I sleep in treetops, surrounded by grackles and crows.
Battle sounds inside the body. Heavy pounding of metal on metal, sword on
sword, shield against shield. The driving drums, the piercing pipes.
Screams of the dying.
At Mag Rath, that bitter clangorous music inside me like blood. No difference
between me and the air I sliced with my sword, between me and the men I
sliced with my sword. I became the stormy music of war.
I was on a small hill in the center of the storm. Men fell around me like rain. I
heard something like thunder. I looked up.
Five heads flew out of the sky at me. Faces twisted in anger and death. Mouths
open in the small circle of death. Blood streaming from their severed
necks, streaming like clouds at sunset.
They came from all directions, screaming my name. Each mouth, open in that
circle of death, screamed Sweeney, Sweeney. On that hillock in the midst
of the meadow, they circled my head.
A king, one screamed. A northern king, screamed the next. The third said, not a
king but a madman. The fourth said, let us torment the mad king. And
the fifth, let us chase him into the sea, let us torment him until he drowns
to escape our words, let us drown him.
Mad? I was not mad. I was Sweeney the king. A king knows how to deal with
enemies. I lifted my sword.
They flew at me, biting. One bit my knee, another the nape of my neck. I struck
and struck. They were swifter than swords.
There was nothing else to do: I rose into the air. The battle shrank beneath me. I
saw men knotted together, in life and in death. I saw the carrion crows
gather, drawn by the warm smell of blood. I saw, on the side of the
meadow, a woman leading away a white cow.
But I had not escaped. I flew to a high crag, but the heads flew with me. The
crash of a head against my thigh. Against my shoulder. Against my own
head. Blood streamed from them like water. I was red and wet with
They screamed Sweeney, Sweeney. You saw the light die in our eyes. Let us
have that moment with you, again. The light dying. Light. Dying. Light.
I did not know them. I had killed so many. All had names once, and histories. I
did not know them. How could they know me?
I rose again, higher. They said I would drown myself in the sea. No. I wrapped
myself in clouds. I hid there, brilliant and white and cold. No one
guessed, looking up from Mag Rath, that the king was there, high in the
clouds, singing his battle song like a new fledged bird.
Light softens to gold. Violet streaks the west. Night is gathering like mist,
calling to itself all hooded ghosts and phantoms on dark wings.
There was a time I heard screams in the dusky sky and walked on, never lifting
my eyes. There was a time I saw dark forms gather in skeleton trees and
walked on, thinking them only birds come home to roost.
I slept then, and dreamed. Dreamed of falling and falling, dreamed of dark
wolfish dogs, dreamed of narrow passes over high blue hills. I awoke in
those pale dawns and walked the world of men, daylit and kingly.
I no longer sleep. Sleep is for those who are not yet awake. I know the truth of
this world now, its dark forces searching for carrion. I will not lie down,
neck open to the sky, and let the birds of dreams peck out my eyes.
I watch as they gather, spiraling down in the dying light. I listen as they gather,
shrieking tales of dying warriors whose intestines they have eaten.
I know a roost by its reek of war. As those ghosts descend, I climb. They alight
around me, screaming. I scream out my own tales of dying warriors. The
sound is like the din of battle.
Ghosts cannot find those who hide among them. Slowly the gray phantoms
grow silent. Darkness blankets me. I too grow silent. Naked legs
wrapped around the tree's hard trunk, I stand watch through the long
Snow is falling again. In my cloak of feathers, I shiver as ice rimes my face.
From my forked tree I watch the great stag pass. I have seen him push his horns
against those of other stags, seen him push antlered heads to the ground.
How splendid I would be, riding between his antlers, answering to Fer
Benn, king of the horned ones.
Next comes the wolf, long shadow on snow, gray against the glinting ice. I have
seen her take a lame doe, heard her call the pack to its red meal. How
splendid I would be, riding on her, hands twisted in her rough fur,
answering to Fer Fiach, king of the hunters.
And now that unruly animal whose call stills the forest. A large herd this time,
more raucous than crows. The voice of this beast makes me shiver until
the ice in my feathers tinkles.
I do not want to ride on their brazen backs, for they would not take me to the
mountains of wild Mis or the rocky peak of Callan, but to a plain near a
river that would soon smell of death. They would call me Sweeney and
take me to Mag Rath.
I am a bird now, cold and hungry and thin. I hold myself silent and still.
I know all bird languages. When the owl croons, I look up at the floating moon.
When the geese bray, I look for swelling buds. But I do not know this
creature's harsh tongue. It is empty of the sound of the sea, and the
breaking dawn, and the comfort of clear water.
They gather beneath me, tracing in the snow the shape of a carrion crow. Their
calls grow louder. They point west, north, east. They push each others'
shoulders. Their faces grow red.
The forest is silent. We are all watching. We shiver and wait.
How she changes, my lady queen, how she changes. When she was fat and fair-
faced, I shed my feathered cloak and ran with wolves beneath her
gleaming glance. How we howled then, how we howled and ran.
But she grows lean and stern of late. Tonight she is a somber shadow, darkness
on darkness. We have all grown silent, we dwellers in cold forests. I
crouch against the hard bark and hear the yew breathe.
I remember warm heat and song, stone walls hung with fur, the sweetness of
mead. Huge men draping themselves against pale women. A harper
playing slow airs. Dogs beneath our feet, growling in sleep. Everything
dark with passion and gloom. Everything dark while fire blazed and
candles gleamed on metal.
In this forest, no fire. Only waiting, in cold darkness.
In that time I was a warrior. I fought the darkness. I demanded light, light, light.
I killed for light. I burned a fat slave alive, to illuminate my halls. I
pressed oil from a silkie, to light my bronze lamps.
Such light deepens shadows. I called for more light, more light. And the
shadows grew and deepened.
Beyond this forest are kings like that. I fear them. They would plunder the
forest for fuel. They would take this old yew and leave Sweeney no home.
They would steal my lady queen to bum in their braziers.
Then darkness would eat me. Cold would devour me. I would die naked
beneath a blackthorn, keening for the moon.
The fight has gone out of me. Cold pierces me, hunger pierces me, ceaseless
poverty pierces me. I am the wildman of the snow.
Other men judge me as no man: half-animal, half-naked, furred and clad in
tatters. But I am still Sweeney, still a man even if a mad one.
Look for me in the trackless places, for I will not set foot upon their paths. I stay
on the move, for terror finds the one who rests.
I look towards the proud prow-flooded sea. Safety lies beyond. Here, fear
claims my little strength, the little strength of Sweeney the madman.
Here, wind is my enemy, tearing at me; snow is my enemy, burning me; trees are
my enemy, scratching my bare cold flesh.
My hands are striped with red, my cold hands, cut by bare gray branches. My
feet are cold and bare, my cold feet, their coverings of cloth and flesh torn
off by briars.
My hands shake like an old man's. My mind is confused. I do not know if I am
in the southwest, on the dark looming mountain, or in the far north on a
cairn-crowned peak or on the gray mountains near the narrow sea.
I hear something. It is my voice. I am crying out from the mountain of eagles. I
am crying out from the blue island. From the great gray sea, a moan
comes forth: it is me, a sad mad man.
The night is long and cold. Day will come, no better. I will pull plants from the
side of a well and stuff my mouth with them. I will eat white flowers.
It is sad that I killed and was not killed. My old enemies, have no fear: I am
weak now, weak and mad and naked in the cold night.
Last night I slept in the cleft of an ancient yew that rose from rock to shake
gnarled fists at a low streaming sky.
The other trees on the hill - musclebound beech and dainty elm - were empty
ghosts of winter. Their branches no shelter.
No shelter from cold rain and wind stung with the sea's sharp salt. Only one
gray-tufted yew, cleft by storm, for a madman's bed.
When the sky turned in its bed and tugged at the cover of darkness, I awoke,
thirsty for fresh water.
My feet found rock after rock, a hidden path beneath dank ivy and the slime of
rotting leaves. I moved, a shadow in shadows, toward the sea.
Rock. Rock. Rock. The sky raising itself above me. Rock. Rock. The rock
graying. The forest graying. Rock. The sky graying and pearling and
In a cleft in a high rock hill, water hid itself from light until the red sun rose. As
light shattered on water, I drank the first cold drops of spring.
Beside me, a gorse bush shredded into bloom. At my feet, snowdrops opened
like winter memories.
The water laughed. I knew you then, well-guardian, fiery arrow. I knew you
waited to know me.
I am Sweeney the mad. I was once a king, eager to arms, my sword singing of
the hot blood of young men.
Battle was mead to me then. My sword drank the hot blood of young men.
Mothers wept when I sang my battle song, and I answered with laughter.
Was it you at Mag Rath? Was it you, generous woman of the gray laughing
eyes? Was it you I saw, leading a white cow beside a clear stream?
I remember that stream. I cut a man in half as he stood there. The water ran red.
I remember his eyes. An instant of knowing.
Was it you at Mag Rath? Woman who turns back the tides of war, was it you
drove me mad? And now offers sweet water? Water for mad Sweeney.
Sweet water and rock. Was it you at Mag Rath?