Saga of the Latter-Day Celts
Strike me, ye winds of a frightful black night,
Bend, all ye boughs till your limbs touch the Earth.
Rain in great torrents, blind my pale eyes,
I fear not the rage of the storm.
Thunder, ye waves of the sea on the shore,
Crack, ye hard stones and fall into the foam.
Bolts of fierce lightning, strike where ye will,
I stand on the edge of the cliff.
Howl on, ye wolves of the forest together,
Rend the night’s calm with your heart-chilling song.
Shriek, ye great owl, and hunt as you will,
I stride through the deep woods alone.
Touch me, sweet dawn with your rain-scented mist,
Call to me, larks and ye sea-hunting birds.
Zephyr of morning, caress my fair hair,
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.
Seanlaoch Osraige, Historian of the Province
October 8, Province Year 999
The Harvest 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.
People came 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.
In smaller 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 grudges.
Conor 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.
A woman’s voice behind him. It was not someone he wished to see at the moment.
“Aideen,” he said, turning. “Good to see you, sister.”
Aideen 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.”
“I’m sure,” he said, edging his arm away. “Let’s walk and let your sailors have their fun.”
He led 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.
She stopped 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.
“You didn’t come on me by accident, Aideen.”
“No, I 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.”
“And delayed 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.”
“Whatever 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.”
“I’ve made no secret of my hope for that. I haven’t proposed to her, if that’s what you’re probing for.”
“I suppose it is. And you know my views on that, I’ve told you more than once.”
He straightened up and met her cold stare with one of his own. “And I’ve told you what I think of your views.”
“Fine. Let 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 clear enough?”
Conor held on to an angry face, while his heart cringed at his sister’s unfeeling assessment.
“Oh, it’s 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.”
“I am stating honest facts that I wish you would face.”
“I don’t suppose any human emotions might creep into your analysis?”
“I don’t have that luxury.”
“You’re as 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.”
Her features 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 live.”
“I’ve 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.
“You might have told me you were wounded, Conor,” Aideen said with less rancor.
“Funny that 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 knows?”
“You have your own brand of cruelty, brother,” she said, turning away.
He dropped his shirt. “You bring out the worst in me.”
“I’m not asking that much, Conor. Marry if you must, just no children, not now. Mairin stays at sea.”
“How many years?”
“I don’t know. Until we and Kernow get the upper hand again.”
“It’s possible, yes. How can I tell you that?”
“Mairin agrees with your opinion?”
“She knows our situation and how much she’s needed.”
“Then she’ll refuse me if I ask her. Which I intend to do.”
Aideen pulled off her hat and snapped it against her leg in frustration.
“All right, 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.”
She was about to go on, but he broke in.
“Stop, 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 that anyway!”
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.”
He abandoned 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.”
He turned 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.
She said nothing for a long moment. He took a deep breath and faced her.
“Conor, we 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.”
She turned 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.
He headed 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.
She hadn’t 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?
Laughter 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.
“I’ll take my leave,” Mairin’s companion said. “You have company.”
“Wait, Sinea,” said Mairin. “Conor, let me present my first officer, Lieutenant Sinea Danaan.”
“Lieutenant, you look ...” he began.
“Familiar?” Sinea broke in. She let him struggle for a moment. “Ballyhale Fort, seven years ago?”
He searched 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.
“You were 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.”
“Only too true,” he admitted. “But you cleaned out everyone!”
“It’s funny, 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.”
“You 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.”
She saluted Mairin and disappeared into the milling crowd. Conor linked his arm with Mairin’s and they strolled down the aisle of food vendors.
“What was Sinea like then?” Mairin asked him.
“Funny. Overconfident, maybe. Very smart and ...”
“You don’t remember?”
He saw she was teasing him. “She remembers faces, I remember—”
She whacked 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.”
“You’ve spoken highly of her. You said she’s due for promotion.”
“She is,” 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.”
They stopped in front of the vendor’s massive cast iron frying pans, filled to the rim with plump chicken breasts browned to a turn.
“Famished, not a morsel since breakfast at sunrise and that was cold oatmeal.”
“And they say navy food is better than army food!” he scoffed. “Sir, two sandwiches with extra sauce.”
The vendor 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 decision.
He reached 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.
“Mairin, I 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.”
She stared down in amazement at the symbolic ornament. Her trembling hand closed around it and with her left land she took hold of his.
“Conor, I love you,” she said, “and I will join with you in a union of heart, mind and spirit.”
He wrapped his arms around her and whispered in her ear, “I was so afraid.”
At that moment his eyes settled on the gold anchors adorning her shoulder.
“That I’d say no?” she whispered back. “You know my heart.”
He released her to arm’s length. She ran her fingers over the amulet and then tucked it gently into her own belt-purse.
“It would mean leaving the sea, when we start our family.”
She reached 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?”
“Of course,” he said. He kissed her cheek. “I need some time to build our home!”
Her gaze wandered over the fairground.
“You know, it will be a strange ceremony. My mother and father will not be there.”
“Kellen will be. And there must be cousins and aunts and uncles who would come. You know my whole family adores you.”
“I know. Kellen will be happy about it, certain sure.”
Tears 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 right?”
“Yes,” she said after drawing a deep breath. “Just a little overwhelmed.”
Conor offered her a leftover napkin from their lunch. She mopped away the tears and managed a smile.
“You must 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.”
“I understand.” He thought a moment. “Let’s announce our betrothal together, when you get back. I won’t even tell Kellen tonight.”
“You’re both at the fort?”
“Yes, I think he’s commanding the Blades there all week.”
She took hold of his hands and intertwined their fingers.
“Watch out for him.”
Conor smiled 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.”
“Promise,” she insisted, her eyes searching his.
“Sure I will,” he said. “Now, can I kiss you?”
“Any sailors around?” she said, scanning the other benches.
“None that I can see.”
“All right, then.”
He kissed 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.
They both laughed. The kissing youngsters broke their embrace and glared at them, thinking they were the subject of the old-timers’ mirth.
Mairin stood and drew Conor to his feet.
“I have about two hours,” she said, “and I want us to enjoy every second.”
“Then let’s go!”
They linked arms and plunged into the mob.
They spent 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 gifts.
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.
They held 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.”
“We’ll have a party when you return, at Laigain House, and we’ll tell everyone then.”
She kissed him and turned to mount. He laid a restraining hand on her arm.
“One last thing. Before I found you at the clock ... Aideen found me.”
Her smile faded. “What did she have to say?”
“Mainly that I was fooling myself to think you’d give up the sea to marry me and raise children.”
Mairin cursed under her breath, then drew the Celtic Knot from her pouch.
“I would never have accepted this from you if I felt that way. I wish she’d mind her own business.”
Conor took 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 should know.”
“Now I know,” she said with an angry edge. “She commands me at sea, Conor, and that’s the end of it.”
She replaced the amulet in her pouch and swung easily into the saddle.
“Give my best to your mother,” she said, struggling to regain a cheerful smile. “Plan a good party, love.”
She clicked 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.
“Maybe I 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 proposing?”
Treasach finished off the apple in two bites and snorted.
“Not sure how to take that.”
Conor 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 hear?
Other 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.
Conor Laigain, Fort Captain, First Rank
Conor 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.
In his 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?
A low 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.
“Take your posts,” he ordered mildly, “and I’ll serve out tea. You can join me one at a time.”
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.
“You first, young lady,” he said to the girl.
She walked 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.
“Thank you, Captain Laigain,” she said in a soft voice.
“What’s your name?”
“My mother’s name is Liadan,” he said, “so I’m very fond of that name. Do you live near the fortress?”
“At 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 you, Liadan?”
“What’s your brother’s name?”
“Take your tea with you, Liadan, and watch through the telescope for your brother. Bradaigh?”
The boy 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.
“Bradaigh Cumain, sir, senior sentry tonight.”
“Tea?” Conor offered him a filled cup.
“Thank you, sir.”
“How old are you, Bradaigh?”
“Just turned fifteen, sir.”
“It’s all right if you sit,” Conor said, waving his hand at a chair.
Bradaigh 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.”
Bradaigh took a long draft of his tea.
“Your sister tells me your family has a farm.”
“Yes, sir, I baled hay this whole day. We all have to work, at harvest time.”
“How many are you?”
“Eight. Oh, I mean seven, now.”
“Did someone move away?”
Bradaigh shook his head and looked down.
“There’s been a loss, then?”
Bradaigh 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.
“Our brother Driscol,” he whispered. “Last week at Ballynamult. We’re ... having a hard time with it, Captain. Liadan loved him dearly. So did I.”
Tears dripped onto the table.
Ballynamult. 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.
“I was there, Bradaigh. I was there with your brother.”
Bradaigh swiped the tears away and looked up wide-eyed.
“You were? When he died?”
Conor 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 guess.”
“I understand, Captain.” He gulped his tea and struggled for composure. “Maybe in a few weeks?”
“You come and see me,” Conor said, “at my home if you like. Any time.”
Bradaigh 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.”
Conor slid the sword out of its sheath and handed it to him. “See how it feels in your hand.”
Bradaigh gripped the hilt, got to his feet and stepped away from the table. He made four quick thrusts and parries.
“You’ve been instructed already.”
“Yes, sir,” he said. He slid the sword back into the sheath. “By Driscol.”
Conor tapped 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.”
Bradaigh stared at the sword a moment more, then said, “best I go back to the scope, sir. A dangerous time, it is.”
He walked 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.
“Sentry?” Conor called him. “Join me for tea?”
The boy 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.”
“Trev, some tea for you,” Conor said. He refilled the cup with steaming brew.
The boy 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?”
“Not far, 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 Wicklow Armory.”
“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.”
“Yes, Captain,” he said. “I’m a composer.”
“If we have a quiet night, you can play a tune for us?”
“Of course, sir. My uillean pipes are in the Common Room.”
Conor turned his gaze on the boy’s tartan cap. “The plaid must mean something to you, Trev.”
“My mother is Scottish, sir,” he said. “ ‘Tis the tartan of Clan Carmichael.”
“Glad to have the Scots with us tonight.”
Trev smiled 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.
From the 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.
Footsteps 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.
Kellen had 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.
“Many thanks, my friend,” said Conor. “A long night ahead.”
Kellen smiled. “My pleasure.”
“Duann could join us if she likes.”
“She’s 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.”
Conor grinned and answered between bites. “We spent the afternoon together at the Fair. She made me promise to watch out for you.”
“Watch out for me!”
“Just sisterly affection. I promised, she insisted on it. You should be thankful for such a sister. Aideen was there too, beforehand.”
“You could say that.”
Kellen thought for a moment. “You and Mairin will marry, do you think?”
“Yes, I 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.”
“We need 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.”
“They don’t care a whit about Mairin,” Kellen snapped with sudden ferocity.
“I already 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.”
“Not important,” Kellen said in a quieter voice. “Bram won’t be there either.”
“Mairin almost gets sick if I mention his name.”
“My brother was as cruel to her—”
Kellen broke 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.”
Kellen took 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?”
“About your life as children? No. If I bring the subject up she gets uneasy and defensive. I don’t press her about it.”
“She’ll tell you in her own time, I guess.”
“Maybe it would be easier if I heard it from you?”
Kellen stared upward at the friendly stars beginning to show themselves.
“We’re 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.”
“She doesn’t have to tell me anything. What’s past is past.”
“Not always,” Kellen said, meeting Conor’s eyes. “Parts of our past are not so easy to lay aside. Not so easy at all.”
He fell silent, lost in his thoughts.
Liadan’s high-pitched voice startled both of them.
“Yes, what is it?
The girl’s eyes were fixed on Ballinalea Watchtower.
“Silent 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.”
Kellen leaped up and flung himself onto the staircase. Conor strapped on his sword and pulled on his helmet.
“Trev, signal the Squadron, attack coming down the river.”
Trev bounded 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.”
He shifted 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 know 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.”
“Right. Let’s go. Bradaigh, bolt the hatch after us.”
Conor 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.
Directly in 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.
The bridge’s 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.
Conor 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.
“At least twenty boats. Four hundred fighters, even five.”
Kellen barked out an order to extend the left flank another two paces.
“They haven’t tried a direct assault here for two years,” Kellen observed. “Why now?”
“Padraic thinks they plan to wear us down before attacking with a big army.” Shouting broke out upriver. “Here they come.”
“Javelins up!” Kellen shouted.
Eighty Bladesman lifted their weapons to shoulder height. Behind them Duann Loigde’s voice called out “nock arrows, ready fire.” Her archers raised longbows to firing position.
Conor swept his eyes over his force. With such experienced fighting captains there was no adjustment he could make that would matter.
He pointed his sword at Trev. “Sound the pipes.”
Trev unleashed 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 battlefield.
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 damp sands.
At fifty yards, Kellen cried “Blades, launch!”
Two dense ranks of heavy-armored infantry hurled javelins in a broad arc. More screams and death-gurgles erupted from the charging mass of warriors.
Kellen cried out again, “Swords up, brace and hold the line!”
Conor 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.
Then came 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.
From long 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.
Kellen saw 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.
“I’ll lead the flank,” Conor shouted to Kellen. “Hold the center!”
Conor 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.
Conor posted 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.
Conor 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.
There would 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.
Conor 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.
“Get the bastards,” he said. “All of them.”
Conor leaped 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 Dubliners.
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.
Blades sank 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.
“Tell Mairin I love her.”
He coughed, spewing bright red blood onto the white cloth of the stretcher.
“You can tell her yourself in a few days.”
Kellen managed a weak smile. “Sure, Conor.” His eyelids fluttered. “Just tell her.”
The medics hurried him up the river bank towards the fort’s surgery.
Trev Fiachrach approached him, his face shining with sweat, his tartan cap clutched in a trembling hand.
“My first real battle,” he said in a quavering voice. “Not like the drills at all, Captain. I wasn’t ready for it.”
Conor leaned 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 friends.
“Don’t 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.”