Strike me, ye winds of a frightful
Bend, all ye boughs till your limbs touch the Earth.
Rain in great torrents, blind my
I fear not the rage of the storm.
Thunder, ye waves of the sea on the
Crack, ye hard stones and fall into
Bolts of fierce lightning, strike
where ye will,
I stand on the edge of the cliff.
Howl on, ye wolves of the forest
Rend the night’s calm with your
Shriek, ye great owl, and hunt as
I stride through the deep woods
Touch me, sweet dawn with your
Call to me, larks and ye sea-hunting
Zephyr of morning, caress my fair
I rejoice to be part of it all.
Liadan Conmaicne Laigain
On the shores of Lough Ennell, toward early evening on
the winter solstice, in the old calendar year 2954 A.D., the Twenty Clans
gathered, not all of the people to be sure, but the leaders and elders and
scholars and the ordinary folk who farmed and fished and made things with their
skilled hands. As the sun set over the lake, a solemn song was sung while
twenty great stones were set in a circle, one for each clan. This circle of
stones was ever after venerated as marking the time and place of our joining together,
to live as we wished to live, speaking the ancient tongue of the Celts, and
forsaking forever after the machines which had brought mankind low and torn the
beautiful earth asunder. On that day near a thousand years ago at Lough Ennell,
we became the Province of the Twenty Clans.
Osraige, Historian of the Province
Province Year 999
Fair at Wicklow was by no means the largest in the Province, yet no other fair
east or west surpassed the joy of its music, the riot of its colors, the
variety of its foods and ales, and the artistry of its crafts. Today the fair
had been blessed with a balmy early autumn day of gentle sun and cool breeze
from the sea.
from as far as Ballycanew to the south and Athy to the west, in creaking,
thick-axled farm wagons drawn by snorting teams, bearing fathers and mothers
and infants on the buckboard and the older children crowded in amid tubs of
grain, strings of cured sausages, wheels of aged cheese, crocks overtopped with
fresh butter, kegs of strong ale, boxes of potatoes and tomatoes and carrots,
cartons of herbs for curing and herbs for cooking, and every other item large
and small that might be bartered or sold for Province coin.
wagons or on horseback came the vendors of fine metalwork, jewelry, pottery,
glassware, clothing for every purpose, shoes, caps, hats, tools, cookware, wood
carvings, paintings, wall coverings, carpets, weapons, and armor. Musicians,
drama troupes, storytellers, mystics, bards and singers had been working the
rolling fields since dawn, their cups and baskets filling fast with coin. The
innocent laughter of children mingled with shouts of greeting, the banter of
bartering, guffaws at a joke, the sweet lilt of a fine soprano lifted in song.
Clans scattered over the land gathered to exchange the news of births and
deaths and weddings and seamy tales of family intrigue, jealousy and secret
Laigain, son of Domnall and Liadan, strolled among the booths and tables,
smiling and greeting friends. Among the men at the fair he stood neither tall
nor short and was perhaps slenderer at the waist than most. Chestnut hair evenly
blended his father’s black and his mother’s blond, but the gray-green color of
his eyes drifted back a generation to his grandfather Uinseann. His hands bore
the heavy calluses of ten years’ army service. A long scar from left ear to jaw
hardened fine-drawn features that suggested melancholy.
That he was
a soldier was obvious to those who passed him. Though he wore no armor and
carried no weapons, a captain’s cape the color of polished copper billowed in
the breeze, and on his shoulders glinted the crossed silver swords of a senior
captain in the Line of Blades. Rowdy bands of younger soldiers quieted at his
approach, and he was not allowed to pay for any morsel of food or cup of stout.
After a half
hour of pleasured wandering, Conor found himself gazing up at the tall, ornate
clock that marked the fairgrounds’ center and melodiously chimed the time on
the hour. Its scrolled hands now read three minutes past noon, the time when he
had agreed to meet Mairin. He looked about but could not see far along the
visitor-choked aisles. Wicklow being a port of call for the Province Squadron,
there were plenty of sailors in view, young women roving about with the swaying
gait of those used to the pitching deck of a ship, attired in pale green woolen
tunics drawn tight at the waist by white sash-belts, round white tams fitted
over short-cut hair and set at a jaunty slant, shiny brass pins of service time
and rank that glinted in the brilliant sunshine. Here and there he spotted an
ensign or lieutenant clad in forest green tunic and black sash, tri-corner
black hat squarely set, shoulders bearing silver medallions of rank and
stitched with the name of the ship. Each sighting raised his hope that it was
Mairin; none were. Not that her being late was unusual, in fact it was what he
expected. Today he wanted all the time he could have with her. Her ship waited
for her in Wicklow Harbor.
voice behind him. It was not someone he wished to see at the moment.
said, turning. “Good to see you, sister.”
Laigain, older than Conor by four years, was no amalgam of her parents: she was
their father Domnall in lanky female form. Shiny black hair flecked with gray,
penetrating dark brown eyes, angular face, and a certain arch of her back and
high cast of her chin all bespoke of their long-since-fallen father. Where
Domnall always seemed ready to laugh, his eldest daughter’s face rather gave
the expectation of a command that was to be obeyed. It was this stern face that
she wore now, reinforced by her Commodore’s uniform, alike in color and style
to the other officers but festooned with polished gold captain’s anchors on
each shoulder and ornate gold Celtic crosses pinned on each side of her chest,
the sign of her supreme rank in the Squadron. Seeing her, sailors and officers
alike drifted away from the great clock.
She managed a wan smile and touched him on the
arm. “She’s on her way, Conor.”
he said, edging his arm away. “Let’s walk and let your sailors have their fun.”
Aideen though the throngs of fairgoers to the north end of the grounds, taking
some pleasure in the thought that she would resent following him. When they
passed the last booth of cabinet makers, the meadow gave way to a thin stand of
trees. A shallow, rocky stream, well-filled and gurgling with the waters of a
damp, cool summer, wound its way through the wood. Conor took them into the
woods far enough so they could not be overheard. He rested his back upon the
gnarled trunk of a giant oak.
a few paces from him, spread her boots to shoulder-width and clasped her hands
behind her back, a pose he assumed she adopted on the quarterdeck of her
flagship. Her face was cool and unreadable as ever.
come on me by accident, Aideen.”
suppose I didn’t. I didn’t have you followed if that’s what you’re implying. I
hazarded a guess that you would see Captain Fotharta here today and checked the
most logical meeting place.”
her arrival, no doubt.” He gave her a look of pure frustration. “Can’t you call
her by her name? We’re not on a ship here.”
you like. Her name and rank are not the issue. Mairin has said nothing to me
directly, though our mother seems to think you have marriage plans.”
no secret of my hope for that. I haven’t proposed to her, if that’s what you’re
it is. And you know my views on that, I’ve told you more than once.”
straightened up and met her cold stare with one of his own. “And I’ve told you
what I think of your views.”
me repeat my objections. First, there is bad blood between our two families and
this will only serve to increase it. Second, at the moment and for the
foreseeable future I need my senior captain at sea, not home nursing babies.
And three, the marriage will never work because you don’t know Mairin as I do.
Like me, she’ll never be content puttering around an idyllic cottage. Is that
on to an angry face, while his heart cringed at his sister’s unfeeling
clear enough. Just let me correct one thing. You and Mairin are nothing alike.
If you were, I would hardly be interested in her at all.”
stating honest facts that I wish you would face.”
suppose any human emotions might creep into your analysis?”
have that luxury.”
cold as winter’s ice,” he said, shaking his head in dismay. “Aideen, I’ve
sacrificed a lot for the Province. I am not going to sacrifice bringing
children into the world. What you can’t seem to understand is that fighting for
the survival of our people has no meaning unless there is someone to come after
us.” He reached down and pulled up a clump of grass and earth, then let it
tumble through his fingers. “This is just dirt. Our father did not lay down his
life to protect dirt.”
darkened with rage. “Don’t presume to tell me what our father fought for. Keep
in mind that without that dirt, brother, your children would have nowhere to
defended our right to that dirt as long and hard as you have.”
In spite of
the cool breeze, sweat trickled down his sides and stung its way into a wound
on his right hip where an enemy lance had sliced under his cuirass. He stalked
past Aideen to the brook, pulled a small white towel from his belt pouch and dipped
it into the stream. He slipped it under his shirt and blotted the wound. The
fresh, cool water eased the sting of the sweat. When he brought the towel out
it was stained pink, so he rinsed it in the stream and wrung it out.
have told me you were wounded, Conor,” Aideen said with less rancor.
would concern you.” He pulled up his shirt to expose the full length of the
wound. “An inch or two deeper and you’d have no worries about losing your
senior captain to marriage and children. I’m on duty again tonight, so who
your own brand of cruelty, brother,” she said, turning away.
his shirt. “You bring out the worst in me.”
asking that much, Conor. Marry if you must, just no children, not now. Mairin
stays at sea.”
know. Until we and Kernow get the upper hand again.”
possible, yes. How can I tell you that?”
agrees with your opinion?”
our situation and how much she’s needed.”
refuse me if I ask her. Which I intend to do.”
pulled off her hat and snapped it against her leg in frustration.
let me put it to you this way. I command twenty warships and two dozen more
service craft, give or take. Kernow’s Admiralty is pressing me constantly to
accept more ships and crew them because every year there are more raiders, they
have bigger ships, and they attack more often. Every warship needs a captain
who can lead and inspire junior officers, command the respect of eighty
sailors, take the ship to sea and bring it back safely, not to mention engaging
and destroying enemy ships. Anything less in a captain and every sailor and
officer aboard is put at terrible risk. Captains of that quality do not
automatically spring from ensigns and lieutenants like apples on a tree, Conor.
I have on the roster twenty-eight captains capable of commanding a warship.
Four are not in the best of health and would like to retire, two are new and
inexperienced, and two others are laid up with injuries. And of all
twenty-eight on the list, Mairin is the best I have. Whether she and I like
each other is utterly beside the point. Taking her from the Squadron now would
be very damaging. I mean it.”
about to go on, but he broke in.
Aideen. I know the numbers. The army is no better off and you know it. By your
logic every able-bodied citizen would serve from eighteen to forty and we’d be
the last generation of the Twenty Clans.”
“We might be
Faces in the
crowd a hundred feet away turned to see what the argument was about. She
lowered her voice. “You have no idea the kind of pressure I am under. No idea
of what our real situation is. You live in a dream world, brother.”
trying to hold in what he felt.
“Let me tell
you about my dream world,” he said, standing so close to her that his
sweat-soaked shirt brushed against her spotless uniform. “Three nights ago,
when I got this,” he touched his wounded side, “we fought for forty long
minutes with midland raiders who broke through the Rampart near Ballynamult.
When it was over, it seemed like everyone was walking back to the field
hospital alone or with help. Then I saw a surgeon bending over someone near the
gate. I knelt down and I found a young Blade, blood pouring from a huge wound
in his neck. The surgeon whispered in my ear that he would not live. When I saw
him, this boy was alive and awake and staring up at me with terror in his eyes.
I cradled his head in my hands and leaned over his face and told him it was all
right, as his lifeblood poured out on the earth around my knees. It was not
long before his eyes closed and he died, his blood leaking through my fingers
and my mouth breathing in his last breath. That’s my dream world, Commodore.
That’s the real situation I face every day.”
and pressed his hand against the tree. He fought back tears of rage and anguish
because he knew Aideen would see them as mere weakness.
nothing for a long moment. He took a deep breath and faced her.
simply don’t see things the same way,” she said, donning her hat. “We never
have. Next time you see Mairin, ask her how she feels about quitting. Now, or
two or four years from now. You’ll see I’m right.”
and strode away.
When she had
blended into the crowd, he sank to his knees on the stream bank and splashed
cold water over his face. His thoughts turned to Domnall, whom Aideen so much
resembled in appearance and so little in spirit. She remembered only his
ability to lead, to decide, to act, and not his endless capacity to love and
laugh and maybe, in private moments, to cry. They remembered a different
father. And what of Liadan, their mother? So different from Domnall, cool and
contained at times yet filled with great reserves of love for her children and
for her people. Much as he wanted to, he could not bring her into this
argument. Liadan had enough worries pressing down on her and she had long since
grown weary of the struggles between her two older children.
back for the clock, and when the crowd momentarily thinned he spotted Mairin. So beautiful, he thought: lean muscular
body, deeply-tanned skin, auburn hair trimmed close, a face that fused the
legendary beauty of her mother Etain and the strength of her now-dissipated
father Gorman. She was talking and laughing with another uniformed officer, a
lieutenant by her insignia. Mairin was in uniform too, her gold anchors
sparkling as a ray of sun caught them.
Much as he
hated to admit it, Aideen was partly right, there was a side of the woman he
loved that his imagination could hardly conjure. A few times he had gone aboard
her ship and seen her transform from a warm and introspective woman with an
easy laugh to a woman who commanded respect and admiration from those around
her, whose stern roving eye missed nothing awry. Even her voice changed, the
soft alto replaced by an edgy insistence, nothing so cold as Aideen yet still
the voice of authority. Each time, he left the ship wondering who it was he
said goodbye to.
seen him yet. Should I walk away now and
concede defeat? Is that what she truly wants me to do and can’t bring herself
to tell me? Am I setting myself up for heartbreak?
burst from the puppet-show booth behind him, drawing Mairin’s attention. She
smiled and waved and now it was too late to walk away. He approached her,
halted a few strides away.
my leave,” Mairin’s companion said. “You have company.”
Sinea,” said Mairin. “Conor, let me present my first officer, Lieutenant Sinea
you look ...” he began.
Sinea broke in. She let him struggle for a moment. “Ballyhale Fort, seven years
his memory. A lonesome place, Ballyhale ... and there had been a blizzard that
year, stranding the garrison for over a month on short rations. His eyes
widened as the memory of her finally surfaced.
the card shark!”
“I was.” She
extended her hand and Conor took it. “I left the Bows that spring for the
Squadron,” she explained to Mairin. “Conor was a regular in the card game. His
problem was that he had too honest a face.”
true,” he admitted. “But you cleaned out everyone!”
I remember your honest face like it was yesterday but your name, not a whit.
Captain Fotharta has told me all about you and I never made the connection.”
remember the faces you took hard-earned coins from,” he said with mock dismay.
“Names don’t matter in a card game.”
“I’ll give you a chance at revenge this
winter. Now I’ll take my leave so you two can enjoy the fair. Captain, see you
on the ship.”
Mairin and disappeared into the milling crowd. Conor linked his arm with
Mairin’s and they strolled down the aisle of food vendors.
Sinea like then?” Mairin asked him.
Overconfident, maybe. Very smart and ...”
He saw she
was teasing him. “She remembers faces, I remember—”
his shoulder with an open hand. “You’d better not finish that sentence! You’ve
never seen her on the Caillech? I
guess not. She’s been my first for over a year.”
spoken highly of her. You said she’s due for promotion.”
Mairin said as they entered a food vendor’s booth. “Aideen would promote her if
I suggested it. I just hate to lose her ... but I’ll have to. And soon.”
in front of the vendor’s massive cast iron frying pans, filled to the rim with
plump chicken breasts browned to a turn.
not a morsel since breakfast at sunrise and that was cold oatmeal.”
say navy food is better than army food!” he scoffed. “Sir, two sandwiches with
handed over two buns stuffed with hot chicken and oozing with butter-herb
sauce. They carried their repast down the aisle until they reached the edge of
the woods, where benches and tables had been set out for eating and relaxing.
Conor found an open bench and they sat down together. A vendor passed by with a
cart and sold them two bottles of ice-cold stout to wash down the sandwiches.
When they finished, Conor leaned back and laid his arm on the bench behind her.
His other hand rested on his belt pouch. After a moment’s hesitation, he made a
into the pocket. “I have something for you.”
In his hand
he held a three-pointed Celtic Knot, fashioned of leather and decorated in
silver. It was the symbol of proposed union: two points for a man and a woman,
one for their children to come. He took hold of her right wrist and laid the
amulet in the palm of her hand.
love you,” he said, and then the words of sacred ritual, “and I ask you to join
with me in a union of heart, mind and spirit.”
down in amazement at the symbolic ornament. Her trembling hand closed around it
and with her left land she took hold of his.
love you,” she said, “and I will join
with you in a union of heart, mind and spirit.”
his arms around her and whispered in her ear, “I was so afraid.”
moment his eyes settled on the gold anchors adorning her shoulder.
say no?” she whispered back. “You know my heart.”
her to arm’s length. She ran her fingers over the amulet and then tucked it
gently into her own belt-purse.
mean leaving the sea, when we start our family.”
out and brushed errant hair from his forehead. “I know that, love. Two years
more, that would be all right? Retire when I’m thirty?”
he said. He kissed her cheek. “I need some time to build our home!”
wandered over the fairground.
it will be a strange ceremony. My mother and father will not be there.”
be. And there must be cousins and aunts and uncles who would come. You know my
whole family adores you.”
Kellen will be happy about it, certain sure.”
started to pour down her cheeks and a sob escaped. Conor put his arms around
her again. He felt her body trembling against him.
“Are you all
said after drawing a deep breath. “Just a little overwhelmed.”
offered her a leftover napkin from their lunch. She mopped away the tears and
managed a smile.
think I’m sad,” she said. “I’m not, Conor. I love you so much. It’s that, well,
I never thought I’d be part of a real family, have children of my own. It’s a
lot to think about. Not simple and clean like being on my ship.”
understand.” He thought a moment. “Let’s announce our betrothal together, when
you get back. I won’t even tell Kellen tonight.”
at the fort?”
think he’s commanding the Blades there all week.”
hold of his hands and intertwined their fingers.
and leaned close to her face. “He’s a Blade Captain, Mairin, one of the best. I
don’t think he needs watching out for.”
she insisted, her eyes searching his.
will,” he said. “Now, can I kiss you?”
around?” she said, scanning the other benches.
“None that I
her long and tenderly, luxuriating in the softness of her lips pressing against
his, the hard suppleness of her body, the strength of her hands on his
shoulders. After what seemed like a long time, he reluctantly let go and they
both peered about to see if anyone was staring. At the very next bench, two
teen-aged lovers were putting them to shame.
laughed. The kissing youngsters broke their embrace and glared at them,
thinking they were the subject of the old-timers’ mirth.
and drew Conor to his feet.
about two hours,” she said, “and I want us to enjoy every second.”
arms and plunged into the mob.
the two precious hours as ordinary fair-goers, laughing at the joke tellers,
applauding the bands, oohing at the
end of a story-teller’s heroic tale, rewarding jugglers and knife throwers with
coins tossed in a basket, munching on pastries and eating tidbits that did not
go well together, trying their hand at target games, buying each other silly
As the last
chord of a madrigal choir’s concert faded out, the fair’s clock chimed three
times. They strolled arm in arm to the shady corral at the south end of the
park where the horses waited patiently amid bales of hay and tubs of fresh
water. Mairin handed in the chit for her military mount, and moments later a
stablehand led her horse out of the grassy paddock and quickly saddled him.
hands at arms’ length.
“I should be
back in two weeks,” she said. “A quick cargo run to Falmouth, then two weeks
guarding the Welsh coast.”
a party when you return, at Laigain House, and we’ll tell everyone then.”
him and turned to mount. He laid a restraining hand on her arm.
thing. Before I found you at the clock ... Aideen found me.”
faded. “What did she have to say?”
I was fooling myself to think you’d give up the sea to marry me and raise
cursed under her breath, then drew the Celtic Knot from her pouch.
never have accepted this from you if I felt that way. I wish she’d mind her own
hold of the hand that held his gift. “She imagines it is her business. I didn’t
want to spoil our afternoon by saying anything earlier. Still I thought you
know,” she said with an angry edge. “She commands me at sea, Conor, and that’s
the end of it.”
the amulet in her pouch and swung easily into the saddle.
best to your mother,” she said, struggling to regain a cheerful smile. “Plan a
good party, love.”
her tongue and rode off towards the port of Wicklow. Conor leaned against the
paddock fence until Treasach spotted him and trotted over. Conor fed him an
apple he had saved.
shouldn’t have told her about Aideen,” he said, stroking the stallion’s long
snout. “It seemed like she deserved to know. So, did I do the right thing in
finished off the apple in two bites and snorted.
how to take that.”
saddled Treasach himself and headed north on the sandy road that ran along the
western shore of Broad Lough. Elation and worry struggled in his mind. Mairin
had accepted, sure that was cause enough for joy? And she denied what Aideen
said about her. Yet, was the denial too quick, too easy, too expected? Did she
say what she did because she believed it, or because it was what he wanted to
worries surfaced as he neared the fort he would command that night. The harvest
was in, the warehouses full, and attacks had broken out all along the Rampart.
Almost always the attacks came under cover of darkness—it would be a long and
tense night at Wicklow Fort. And where was his friend Oran Osraige, who was
supposed to have reported back a week ago? Perhaps there was no cause for worry
yet. Oran was not one to keep to a schedule if he still had scouting work to
do. Still, as the sun sank below the purple-hued Wicklow Mountains and deep
shadows stretched across the silent land, he dearly wished his friend was on
this side of the Rampart.
By a tally of eighteen to two, the Council of Twenty
orders the construction of a rampart of wood posts, at least fifteen feet high,
a foot or more in thickness, sharpened at the top, fronted by a ditch, with a
well-maintained road on the Province side. This barrier will begin in the east
where the River Vartry enters Broad Lough north of Wicklow, and end on the west
side of the port of Dungarvan, swinging inland as far as possible while taking
advantage of natural barriers as mountains and rivers. A large, manned fort
with tower will be built every five miles. Watchtowers will be erected between
the forts no further than two miles apart, terrain permitting. Every resource
of the Province shall be bent to this task. When it is completed, all citizens
of the Province will be urged, but not forced, to move behind this barrier.
Work to commence tomorrow.
Official Minutes, Council of the Twenty Clans
April 7, Province Year 953
October 8, 999, Wicklow Fort. All quiet at 8:00 pm.
Watch complement of 40 Blades, 40 in barracks reserve, Kellen Fotharta, Cpt.,
40 Bows, 40 in barracks, Duann Loigde, Cpt. Mounted scouts report signs that an
attack is imminent. Morale is high, though everyone is on edge.
Laigain, Fort Captain, First Rank
replaced the logbook on its stand next to the telescope, then took a few steps
to the railing and scanned the countryside from the Ballinalea Watchtower two
miles west to the placid waters of Broad Lough a mile east of the fort. He saw
nothing amiss in the grassy fields or in the waters of the River Vartry which
flowed past the fort. He pushed the telescope aside and turned his poet’s eye
on a blood-red sun sinking beneath the Wicklow Mountains. The last rays
skimming past the peaks caught the top of the Rampart’s posts and for a brief
time gave the illusion that the sharp tips were suspended in midair. Then all
fell into shadow.
mind’s eye he traveled the full hundred and twenty miles along those pillars,
all the way from Broad Lough to the seaport of Dungarvan. South and east of
that wooden wall lay the fertile coastal plains and thriving port cities that
made up the lifeblood of the Province. Ten years in the army had seen him
posted in every one of the Rampart’s twenty-four major forts and forty
watchtowers. He had marched or ridden a hundred times over every mile of the
military road that ran behind the wall, blistered his hands deepening the ditch
on its exposed side, drilled troops in the reserve camps at Ballyduff,
Cameross, and Gorey, and fought five score desperate battles to stave off
attacks or destroy raiders who managed to breach the barrier.
For over four decades, the Rampart had been
the dike holding back the flood waters of chaos. Four thousand men and women
guarded it day and night—more than enough in summer and mid-winter. In autumn
after the harvest, attacks were frequent and bloody and each year more
desperate than the last. Then, the Rampart more resembled a picket fence
expected to stand against a charging bull.
A picket fence: Conor shook his head to clear the
gloomy simile from his mind. The itch and sting from the wound in his side
reminded him that attacks had started earlier this year, and the results
bloodier than last year, and last year was worse than the year before. Was
Aideen right after all? Why plan for a wife and a home and children when the
next fight might find him staring at the sky with lifeless eyes? Why build his
cherished cottage only to see it overrun and his children put to the sword?
conversation of youthful voices reminded him that he was by no means alone on
the tower’s high watch platform. Three sharp-eyed sentries of the night watch
had climbed the staircase and now waited at the far side of the platform for
him to address them first. Two boys and a girl tonight, he noted, the girl
holding the hand of the larger boy.
posts,” he ordered mildly, “and I’ll serve out tea. You can join me one at a
The tall boy
posted himself at the telescope while the other boy took the east side of the
platform and the girl the west. Conor sat down at a corner table and poured out
two cups of hot tea from a flask he had carried up from the fort’s kitchen,
three stories below.
young lady,” he said to the girl.
over to him, brushed back honey-colored hair that tumbled over bright hazel eyes,
and offered a shy smile. Conor handed her a cup which she took gratefully in
hands callused by hard work.
Captain Laigain,” she said in a soft voice.
name is Liadan,” he said, “so I’m very fond of that name. Do you live near the
Glenealy, sir, where we farm. I ride here on a horse with my brother.” She
nodded in the direction of the tall boy at the telescope.
“How old are
tea with you, Liadan, and watch through the telescope for your brother.
straightened, tugged his pale blue homespun shirt down through his belt, and
marched over to Conor with a long, confident stride. He was a fairer version of
his sister: tousled straw-colored hair, bright blue eyes, a solid frame and big
hands that suggested size and power yet to come.
Cumain, sir, senior sentry tonight.”
offered him a filled cup.
“How old are
right if you sit,” Conor said, waving his hand at a chair.
glanced at his sister and the other boy. Satisfied that they were alert and
watching, he settled into the offered chair with a tired sigh.
“Just for a
moment, thank you, sir. T’will be a long night after a heavy day.”
took a long draft of his tea.
tells me your family has a farm.”
“Yes, sir, I
baled hay this whole day. We all have to work, at harvest time.”
I mean seven, now.”
shook his head and looked down.
been a loss, then?”
turned his head in his sister’s direction. Liadan had her eye glued to the
telescope’s eyepiece and was slowly sweeping it back and forth as she’d been
taught. Bradaigh leaned over the table towards Conor.
Driscol,” he whispered. “Last week at Ballynamult. We’re ... having a hard time
with it, Captain. Liadan loved him dearly. So did I.”
dripped onto the table.
Last week. A dying boy. Only one soldier had died at Ballynamult, the young
Blade who died in his arms. Oh, sweet
heaven, it was this boy’s brother.
there, Bradaigh. I was there with your brother.”
swiped the tears away and looked up wide-eyed.
When he died?”
clamped his hand on Bradaigh’s rock-hard forearm. “Yes. But this is not the
place or time to tell you about it. It would upset Liadan. And me too, I
Captain.” He gulped his tea and struggled for composure. “Maybe in a few
and see me,” Conor said, “at my home if you like. Any time.”
nodded his thanks, then turned his eyes on Conor’s sword, which lay in its
sheath on the table. “Won’t be long till I take up a sword like that, Captain,
and make someone pay for Driscol.”
the sword out of its sheath and handed it to him. “See how it feels in your
gripped the hilt, got to his feet and stepped away from the table. He made four
quick thrusts and parries.
he said. He slid the sword back into the sheath. “By Driscol.”
a finger on the sheath. “This sword belonged to my father, Domnall. He fought
with it the day he died. When I was about your age, he told me it was forged by
a blacksmith in the remotest mountains of Wales. Said it takes the sharpest
edge and will never shatter in battle. So far he’s been right. I’ve fought with
it a hundred times and not a dent nor chip in the blade.”
stared at the sword a moment more, then said, “best I go back to the scope,
sir. A dangerous time, it is.”
over to his sister and kissed her on the forehead. Liadan whispered in her
brother’s ear and returned to her own post. All the while, the third boy faced
east, hands clasped behind his back, humming to himself.
Conor called him. “Join me for tea?”
turned and approached with a measured step. Tall and slender with roan hair and
delicate features, he sported a blue-and-green tartan cap cocked to one side.
“My name is
Trev Fiachrach, Captain,” he said in an alto voice that seemed on the verge of
cracking. “Your piper for tonight.”
tea for you,” Conor said. He refilled the cup with steaming brew.
nodded his thanks and wrapped the cup in long, sinewy fingers. He held his
meadow-green eyes steady on Conor’s face as he sipped his tea. How strange, Conor thought. I feel as if he’s looking inside me.
“Do you live
near the fort, Trev?”
sir, in Avoca, near Meeting of the Waters. My mother serves at sea in the
Squadron and my father crafts cuirasses like the one you’re wearing at the
“I saw your
instrument,” Conor said. He glanced towards the sentries’ table in the opposite
corner of the platform. “It doesn’t look like standard army-issue pipes.”
“It is not,
sir,” the boy said with obvious pride. “That is a full set of great warpipes
and it’s my own. My father made them special for me. I can play for battle,
sure enough. I also play my own music.”
Captain,” he said. “I’m a composer.”
“If we have
a quiet night, you can play a tune for us?”
sir. My uillean pipes are in the Common Room.”
his gaze on the boy’s tartan cap. “The plaid must mean something to you, Trev.”
is Scottish, sir,” he said. “ ‘Tis the tartan of Clan Carmichael.”
have the Scots with us tonight.”
at the remark, finished his tea, and returned to his post. An unusual boy, Conor pondered. Can’t
be more than thirteen yet he has an unsettling maturity about him.
The sun had
now set, and as twilight descended on the tower, Bradaigh and Trev climbed
short staircases at the tower’s north-facing corners where they fired four
powerful lanterns, each a multi-wicked oil lamp encased in lenses and
reflectors made by Kernow’s Guild of Glass. On this clear, moonless night, the
beacons shed pale white light half a mile. This task done, Bradaigh took up a
signal trumpet and at Conor’s order, blew a single long note towards the
Ballinalea Watchtower. Moments later, a sentry in that tower repeated the
signal to the next tower. In thirty minutes, the signal would be passed a
hundred and twenty miles west and south to Dungarvan, and as each tower
received the signal, sentries fired the lanterns. The horns signaled the formal
start of the night watch, and reminded soldiers in more isolated parts of the
Rampart that they were not alone.
open staircase wafted the tempting smell of frying sausage and onions. In the
Common Room at the fort’s ground level, Blades and Bows mixed together at long
tables and devoured their evening meal. An occasional burst of laughter lifted
above the low buzz of conversation, a sign of high morale among nervous troops.
Conor could have gone down to join them, and he often did. Tonight, a sense of
foreboding held him in the tower.
echoed up the staircase. A moment later, Kellen Fotharta emerged in full battle
armor to report. Even in armor, the twenty-four-year-old fighter’s appearance
was not impressive. Yet Conor had fought often enough beside Mairin’s younger
brother to know that his size made little difference. A slender frame and
delicate, pale features, copied from his mother, belied a fierce fighter and
clear-eyed battlefield commander who inspired confidence in his men and kept
his head when the going got rough. Such were the men Padraic Conmaicne promoted
to officers over those who could merely stab and pound and hammer at the enemy.
thoughtfully brought with him a platter loaded with sausage and onions and a
slice of bread. He laid the platter in front of Conor and eased himself into
the chair opposite him.
thanks, my friend,” said Conor. “A long night ahead.”
smiled. “My pleasure.”
join us if she likes.”
having a talk with an archer who showed up late for duty and out of uniform.
God help the poor girl.” Kellen let his eyes drift towards the fading violet
glow in the west. “I heard that Mairin’s ship is in Wicklow Harbor.”
grinned and answered between bites. “We spent the afternoon together at the
Fair. She made me promise to watch out for you.”
sisterly affection. I promised, she insisted on it. You should be thankful for
such a sister. Aideen was there too, beforehand.”
thought for a moment. “You and Mairin will marry, do you think?”
think we will.”
“I hope you
do, truly, Conor. She’s had a lonely life and nothing but the service for a
long time. At least so far as I know. She needs a good man to be with.”
each other, I’d say. And I’d gain a brother in the bargain! On the other hand,
Gorman and Etain will not be so happy about it.”
care a whit about Mairin,” Kellen snapped with sudden ferocity.
know that. And seem to hate me and my whole family, exactly why I know not.
Bram despises me too but at least there I know his reason.”
important,” Kellen said in a quieter voice. “Bram won’t be there either.”
almost gets sick if I mention his name.”
was as cruel to her—”
off and swallowed hard. He turned his face away from Conor.
“Are you all
right?” Conor asked him. “We don’t need to talk about this. Forget I asked.”
a deep breath. “I’m okay. Sometimes the anger gets the better of me.” He rubbed
his hands over his face. “Mairin has never told you the whole story?”
life as children? No. If I bring the subject up she gets uneasy and defensive.
I don’t press her about it.”
you in her own time, I guess.”
would be easier if I heard it from you?”
stared upward at the friendly stars beginning to show themselves.
friends, Conor, and I trust you with my life. You know that. If Mairin weren’t
involved I would tell you everything,
gladly. She is involved and it’s best you hear it from her.”
have to tell me anything. What’s past is past.”
always,” Kellen said, meeting Conor’s eyes. “Parts of our past are not so easy
to lay aside. Not so easy at all.”
silent, lost in his thoughts.
high-pitched voice startled both of them.
eyes were fixed on Ballinalea Watchtower.
signal, sir, please wait,” she replied, holding up her hand. The watchtower’s
beacon two miles away was flashing long and short. “I have it, Captain,” she
said, turning to Conor. “Boats in the river, twenty counted, more coming.”
leaped up and flung himself onto the staircase. Conor strapped on his sword and
pulled on his helmet.
signal the Squadron, attack coming down
up the right-hand staircase to signal with a lantern. Seeing the blinking
pattern, the Squadron’s Harbor Patrol would launch fighting boats into Broad
Lough. Any raider boat portaged past the fort would get a warm reception when
it reached the lake.
The boy had
the telescope trained on the Vartry. “Not good, Captain.”
aside so Conor could get to the eyepiece. Dozens of boats were poling down the
river towards them, each one crammed with Dublin raiders.
they’ve been seen by now,” Conor said. “Bradaigh, sound the trumpet alarm,
watch me for signals. Trev, you know where to go?”
The boy, his
cap now on straight, pulled tight the leather straps holding his warpipes and
battle drum. “On the bridge with the Bows, Captain.”
Let’s go. Bradaigh, bolt the hatch after us.”
sprinted down the stairs with Trev a stair behind. In the empty Common Room he
grabbed a shield. Together they plunged down the sloping riverbank.
front of the fort, a stone bridge arched over the Vartry’s hundred-foot span.
Duann Loigde’s archers reached the bridge first and released pins holding up a
massive iron grate. The grate crashed into the river directly below the bridge,
blocking passage to boats but not water. The land on the bridge’s far side was
a soggy bog at any time save the dead of winter. The only sure-footed path for
the Dublin fighters to reach the fort was a two hundred-foot strip of dry land
between the river’s edge and the steeper part of the southern bank. This strip
was fast being blocked by Kellen’s massing Bladesmen.
span was packed from end to end with Duann Loigde’s archers. Crowded among them
at the span’s center was Trev Fiachrach, the blowstick of his warpipes touching
his lips and his battle drum hanging at his side. In the fort’s tower, Bradaigh
leaned over the balustrade, signal trumpet ready, with a worried Liadan at his
elbow. The barracks reserve troops sprinted down the bank, some still tugging
on armor and helmets, and joined the forces already assembled.
lowered his faceguard and took a position next to Kellen a few strides behind
the battle line. Two hundred yards upstream, boats glided onto the river’s
sandy banks and disgorged twenty fighters each.
“How many do
you think?” Kellen asked.
twenty boats. Four hundred fighters, even five.”
barked out an order to extend the left flank another two paces.
haven’t tried a direct assault here for two years,” Kellen observed. “Why now?”
thinks they plan to wear us down before attacking with a big army.” Shouting
broke out upriver. “Here they come.”
up!” Kellen shouted.
Bladesman lifted their weapons to shoulder height. Behind them Duann Loigde’s
voice called out “nock arrows, ready fire.” Her archers raised longbows to
his eyes over his force. With such experienced fighting captains there was no
adjustment he could make that would matter.
his sword at Trev. “Sound the pipes.”
the full power of his warpipes. Conor felt a chill run up his back at the
astonishing sound. Never had he heard the warpipes played this way. It seemed
as if five thousand years of the Celts at war were cascading over the
He turned back,
pulled the straps of his cuirass tight, and waited. Upstream, hundreds of
Dubliner fighters pounded towards them, their screams and bellows clashing
strangely with the melodious battle anthem. When the vanguard of the fighters
came in range, the Line of Bows launched a first volley, then a second, and a
third, not two seconds apart. Dozens of fighters crashed face first into the
yards, Kellen cried “Blades, launch!”
ranks of heavy-armored infantry hurled javelins in a broad arc. More screams
and death-gurgles erupted from the charging mass of warriors.
out again, “Swords up, brace and hold the line!”
tightened his grip on his father’s sword. Father,
protect all of us. He took two steps backward and signaled upward to
Bradaigh with his sword. The boy blew three long blasts on the trumpet,
alerting Ballinalea and the Harbor Patrol that battle had commenced.
the familiar crunch of body against body, sword and pike against shield and
armor, the grunting and cursing and anguished cries of mortal combat.
Blood-smell mingled with the sweet scent of wet grass. The massed double-rank
of Blades bent and wavered yet held firm against the first rush of four or five
times its number. Duann’s archers poured fire over the heads of the Blades into
the swelling rear ranks of the enemy’s force.
experience Conor was certain the Dubliners would use sheer weight of numbers
and ferocity of attack to break them. A steep, muddy bank made an attack on the
left flank virtually impossible. An attack in the shallows of the river on the
right would bring their fighters under withering fire from the archers on the
bridge, yet the Dubliners lacked for nothing in courage and audacity, and less
than a minute into the furious fight, the attack on the right was on its way.
Enemy fighters splashed forward in the shallows, instantly drawing the
concentrated fire of the Line of Bows. Conor had to admire the raw courage of
warriors protected only by circular shields plunging ahead into a blizzard of
longbow fire. Come on they did, and in great enough numbers to threaten the
flank and the entire battle line.
it too and blew two short blasts on his signal trumpet, followed by two more,
the signal for the second rank to shift right and take on the assault. This
meant the front rank bore the full weight of the main assault.
the flank,” Conor shouted to Kellen. “Hold the center!”
sprinted to the point where the bridge intersected the river. The archers were
directly over his head and the blast from Trev’s pipes was deafening. Kellen’s
second rank ran to new positions in the shallows facing outward, forming a line
bent at an angle to the main battle line. Into this thin line the attackers
splashed ahead, and as they came close, the archers had to stop firing into
them for fear of hitting their own soldiers.
himself at the end of the line where the cool river water overtopped his boots.
The soldier on his left had just butted shields with him when the full force of
the assault struck their line. Conor knew in an instant it would be a close
fight: the attackers were two and three deep, big men, wild with battle fury,
swinging heavy swords and hammers and maces. The single line of Blades slowly gave
ground, stabbing and killing as they bent further backward. The Blade on
Conor’s left took a direct hit with a hammer on his chest and fell with a
muffled cry into the shallow water. Conor found himself facing five men, alone.
Only for a second: Kellen took the fallen man’s place and together they
attacked, stabbing and slashing while taking heavy blows on armor and shield.
slashed open the throat of the man in front of him. The man splashed face down
into the swirling water and drifted away. Kellen deflected a hammer strike with
his shield and then gutted the hammer’s wielder. A tall, heavy man lunged
toward Conor and whirled a spiked iron mace straight at his head. Conor raised
his shield and absorbed the shattering blow, but the sheer force of it drove
him sideways, his boots slipped in the muddy ooze and he fell onto his knees.
He hacked at his attacker’s shins and the man roared with pain, yet stayed on
his feet and whirled the heavy mace again, driving it straight into Kellen’s
undefended right side with a sickening thud. In a frozen instant of time, Conor
saw the mace stove in Kellen’s cuirass as if it were made of paper. Kellen sank
to his knees. Another blow would mean his death.
be no next blow. Still on his knees, Conor drove his father’s sword full
through the man’s belly. The Dubliner stumbled backward, slid off the bloody
blade and splashed into the blood-tinged waters. Conor no sooner regained his
footing than a hammer wielded by yet another attacker glanced off his helmet.
Thick steel saved his life but did not spare him a stunning shock that grayed
his vision and brought him again to his knees. In the brief seconds that passed
until he could see again, some part of his mind waited for the death-blow. It
never came. When his eyes focused he saw his attacker floating downstream with
an arrow in his side. Duann had led half of her archers into the river where
they gained an open line of fire past the hard-pressed Line of Blades.
plunged back into the fray and slowly the bent flank straightened. When he was
convinced the line was no longer in danger of collapse, he stepped backward to
see what had happened to Kellen. Medics had carried him onto the sandy shore,
where he lay on his back. Blood leaked from the corners of his mouth. His face
was bleach-white and his features frozen into a mask of pain. Seeing Conor
kneeling beside him, he seized hold of Conor’s blood-spattered bracer.
bastards,” he said. “All of them.”
to his feet and sounded his own signal trumpet. Two long blasts: attack and destroy. In response, Trev
silenced his warpipes and pounded the battle drum with a steady pulse that gave
the Line of Blades their cadence for advance. Conor wedged himself into the
center of the line and after that he saw and heard and smelled nothing except
fighting. All conscious thought faded into a distant place. Steel-hard muscles
and a superbly conditioned body did what they needed to do. Shield up, jab and
step, slash and jab, jab and step. Dimly he was aware that Duann’s entire
archer force had abandoned the bridge and waded upstream past their line. From
that position, eighty archers poured relentless, accurate fire into the
It could not
go on much longer. After five minutes of the grinding attack, the remaining
Dubliners turned and tried to flee back upstream to their boats. It was too
late for that now. Archers sprinted up the river bank, shooting as they ran.
Arrows found every one of the panicked fighters. Corpses piled up against the
iron grating below the bridge, blocking the river’s flow and sending pink water
pouring over the banks.
to their knees in exhaustion and pain. When Conor eased off his own helmet,
agony flared from his head as unyielding steel squeezed over the place the
hammer struck him. He knew he was bleeding too, though not dangerously.
He made his
way back to where Kellen lay on a stretcher carried by two medics. Conor walked
alongside until Kellen saw him. Kellen seized hold of Conor’s hand.
I love her.”
spewing bright red blood onto the white cloth of the stretcher.
tell her yourself in a few days.”
managed a weak smile. “Sure, Conor.” His eyelids fluttered. “Just tell
hurried him up the river bank towards the fort’s surgery.
Fiachrach approached him, his face shining with sweat, his tartan cap clutched
in a trembling hand.
real battle,” he said in a quavering voice. “Not like the drills at all,
Captain. I wasn’t ready for it.”
against the cool stone of the bridge, his heart sinking into a black abyss at
the moaning of the wounded and the sobbing of comrades bent over lifeless
concern yourself, Trev,” he said. “You did your job very well indeed.” He drew
the shaking boy under his arm. “Nothing makes a man ready for this.”