The Iron Shirts

The Iron Shirts

illustration by richard anderson

Geantraí

The outriders were galloping in from both flanks and David ó Flynn pulled back on his pony’s reins to wait halfway down the hillside. His companions imitated him, some yanking warbows from their scabbards and stringing them with thoughtless ease. The footmen lined up in a loose array, holding their javelins ready but with their thumbs not yet in the throwing loops. They had passed unmolested south of the bog country around Dun Mor, avoiding the Foreign-held lands, but one never knew. The heavens cried out the deaths of kings; but on earth in this Year of Grace twelve hundred and four and twenty, men planned those deaths in whispers.

Cill Cluanaigh rolled away fat and green from the base of the hill toward the broad expanse of Lough Corrib. From his position on the hillside, David could just make out the smudge of the lough’s farther shore. Iar Connaught resembled nothing so much as a sullen, gray cloud on the horizon. Freshening, the breeze rippled the grass and raised a sparkling white chop from the lough, as if the grass were an emerald sea breaking on a shore of shattered glass.

The outriders signaled with the finger-ogham but David couldn’t make out the numbers.

“A party of fourteen,” said Gillapadraig, his principal man-of-trust. “Armed.”

“Now, there is a surprise…” David glanced behind. “We’ll move back,” he said. “Just below the crest, not atop it.” Such a position would provide the widest field for the archers.

On David’s other side, Liam ó Flaherty shifted on his pony. “It’s not a trap,” he said. “Only an escort. Himself would not send me all the way into the Sliabh ua Fhlainn only to lure you into a trap.”

“Would he not, then?” David replied distractedly. The western man spoke as if the Sliabh ua Fhlainn lay at the very ends of the earth. Yet if any land deserved that name, it was surely Iar Connaught. West of Lough Corrib they grew nothing but stones, and not very good stones at that. “Those horsemen may not be your own folk, but Rory’s sons,” he said. “Rumor trickled south with the melting snow: Turlough and Little Hugh have left The ó Neill’s hospitality and have come back into the country to wrest the kingship from Aedh.” He turned to Liam, all bland innocence. “Perhaps you did not hear of it out here in the West.”

Liam grunted and said nothing. David faced forward, morosely satisfied at having his suspicions confirmed. Fools the sons of Rory might be to come back, but not such great fools as to ride openly about. They were hiding under the protection of some great lord, and what better place for hiding than at the very ends of the earth?

* * *

Ó Flaherty’s stronghold squatted upon an island in the lough, distant from the shore and stoutly defended by a fleet of war boats. David considered how he might attack the place should the need arise. There was nothing ill between The ó Flynns and The ó Flahertys, but a prudent man kept his wits as sharp as his sword, lest he have need of either weapon. The walls were built of stone after the Foreigner fashion; but if there was anything of which The ó Flaherty had a sufficiency, it was stone.

By the time the party disembarked at the wooden dock below the stronghold, David had concluded that only a siege would be practical – and impractical as well. A hosting of Gaels could perform marvelous feats, but sitting on their backsides and waiting was not one of them. The very word siege was a foreign one, learned the hard way from the wrong ends of trebuchets.

In the courtyard, a ridge of turf had been built up and wooden planks laid atop to create a long table. Upon this a quantity of food had been spread: meats of all sorts—beef, pork, horse, poultry, salted fishes; milsén, wheat cakes and loaves; butter, sweet cream and soured cream, a variety of cheeses; milk – boiled, of course, and with honey added; beans and beets; two or three sorts of apples; and the three condiments: salt, leeks, and seaweed.

There were some strange foods set out as well. Kernels of some large yellow grain mixed with a flat, round, pale-green bean. Lumpish brown things that he thought might be roots of some sort. These looked and smelled not at all toothsome, and their odd aromas hinted that something out of the ordinary awaited.

Hugh ó Flaherty greeted David in the courtyard, gripping his hand, as was the Irish custom. Hugh squeezed. David waited and Hugh squeezed harder and David waited some more. Finally, The ó Flaherty grunted and released him, then presented him with an arm bracelet as a hospitality-gift. David praised him for his open-handed generosity, all the while wondering was the old fox was up to. The guests, as was customary, clapped their hands to show approval.

Hugh led him to the center of the table, where a linen cloth had been laid across the planks and three high seats placed side by side. David’s standard-bearer already stood behind the rightmost one. On the left sat Naoife, his host’s wife, a rail-thin woman with falcon’s eyes. She welcomed David with a smile intended to be pleasant.

Once David was seated, gillies hurried about the courtyard, serving out the food. David turned a little to the side and handed the arm band to Gillapadraig, who sat beside him. “Have you ever seen the like of it?” he murmured.

“Cunningly wrought,” his man-of-trust replied, “but the gems are only polished, not cut.”

“Oh, it’s fine enough work,” David said, taking it back and slipping it onto his arm, where it nestled among twisting tatoos. “But when have you ever seen an eagle outspread and perched upon the sun?” He searched the crowd for what he knew he must find. The ó Flaherty held a platter of roasted boar to him and David took a portion.

“Serving you with his own hand, is he?” Gillapadraig whispered. “He wants something.”

“Is not this day full of surprises.”

The guests were a mix of ó Flaherties and clans allied with them. David noted some rough men from Connemara, the rockiest part of Iar Connaught. Fell fighters, but clearly uncomfortable here among their betters. Their Pictish blood showed in their shorter stature and dark hair, prominent here in a tall sea of Gaelic red and blond. There were two Danes present. Both wore their hair twisted into long braids. The shorter Dane boasted a broad, flattish face, darker in coloring.

David chewed the meat, savoring the juices. “Excellent boar,” he told his host as he continued to study the assembly.

“I speared him myself,” ó Flaherty said.

“Valiantly done.” David had no doubt that the boar was safely dead before ó Flaherty’s men-of-trust had allowed him to approach. Kings were not so plentiful as to waste them on the odd pig or two.

Gillapadraig leaned close. “What are you looking for?”

“Turlough and Little Hugh.”

“Ó Flaherty would not be so bold!”

“Would he not? He’s all twisted in on himself like those capitals the monks draw in their books. He’ll use the sons of Rory to bring down the sons of Cathal; and he’ll use Cathal’s sons to bring down Rory’s. It’s the use that delights him, not the cause. He brought me here so that I might take some word back to Cormac. What word, I don’t yet know.”

He spotted them at last. Not the sons of Rory, after all, but at one with the strange foods and the odd eagle motif. Half a dozen men and women huddled in a small group in the back of the courtyard. Their hair was dark like the Connemara men. But Picts, like the Irish, greased their hair and pulled it out into spikes, while these braided their hair like Danes. The strangers shared with the shorter Dane the same flat features, and their skin was colored a dark copper.

From the corner of his eye, David caught ó Flaherty’s feline smile.

* * *

Nothing so pleasures a man who believes himself clever than to succeed at some small trick. Hence, David was not surprised to find Rory’s sons waiting when The ó Flaherty led him into his hall after the banquet. Turlough was standing with his back to the fire, his arms clasped behind him. Little Hugh, his brother, sat at the long table with a bowl of uiscebeatha—and not, by the evidence, his first of the evening. They both turned to face the doorway when David entered.

“So?” Hugh blurted out. “Are you with us?” Turlough reached out and placed a silencing hand on his brother’s shoulder. Ó Flaherty closed the door upon them.

“I haven’t spoken with him yet,” he told the brothers.

David went to the board by the wall and found the jar of uiscebeatha and poured a bowl of his own. “I am with you in that we stand together in this room. Whether I am with you in any other fashion depends on where else you may stand.”

Little Hugh, who had brightened at the first sentence, scowled upon hearing the second. Turlough grimaced. “That wasn’t funny, David.”

“So. I hadn’t meant it to be.”

“All the chiefs are with them,” ó Flaherty commented. Having closed the door on the little gathering, he too proceeded to the jug. “They’ve come and given their pledges.”

“Oh, doubtless there’s been a regular procession through here,” David said. “I can even guess at the names of them. Oaths must have little value these days, if men discard them so lightly.”

Ó Flaherty had fetched his drink and sat with Turlough and David. “I’ve sworn no oath to The ó Conners of Cruachan,” he said.

David shrugged. Iar Connaught had never been counted a part of the kingdom. The ó Flaherty had been expelled from Connaught only a few generations earlier – and by The ó Conners of Cruachan. “And the others who have come?”

Turlough spoke up. “What oaths they gave to my cousin he has forfeited by his feckless and dishonorable behavior.”

“As an argument, that has its conveniences.”

Turlough stood and leaned on the table with both fists. “He is ‘no-king.’ We’ve all agreed: ó Taidg, ó Flannigan, mac Garrity…”

David maintained composure. The consent of the four principal chiefs was needed to proclaim a king in Connaught, and Turlough had just named three of them. No wonder ó Flaherty had feasted him and covered him with honeyed words. Win over The ó Flynn and they could raise Turlough up on the very rock at Cruachan! He emptied his bowl and tossed it to the table, where it clattered and spun.

“You haven’t mentioned Cormac,” he observed. “The Marshall of the Host may have some little say in the matter, whether the Four Chiefs forswear themselves or not.”

“You’re his officer,” ó Flaherty said. “He listens to your advice.”

“The mac Dermot has the most marvelous sort of ear. What goes into it is only what he permits.”

Turlough struck the table. “The white rod is mine,” he insisted. “My father was High King!”

“And what came of that,” said David, “but that the Foreigners came into Ireland? And there is the pebble over which all your plots will stumble. If I do come over, and if I do bring The mac Dermot with me, Aedh will turn to them, with their shirts of iron. They’ve already castled Meath and Leinster. Would you hand them Connaught, as well?” With a growl of disgust, he turned away.

The ó Flaherty spoke quietly, and a little smugly. “The sons of Cathal are not the only party with iron-shirted friends.”

* * *

The ó Flaherty’s briugaid brought them into the room, the very strangers that David had noted earlier. With them came the two Danes, and David suddenly realized, seeing them all together, that the shorter Dane was a half-breed: Danish blood mixed with these strangers.

He studied these new Foreigners with great care, for he knew that ó Flaherty planned some devious trick involving them and he did not yet know what that trick would be. Nor, by all appearances, did the Foreigners, for they cast sidelong glances at their host, and all but one, despite their outward arrogance, displayed signs of wariness.

Four he knew immediately for men-of-trust. Two entered first and two entered last and they stood to either side of the little group. Their clothing was a soft leather with fringes along the arms and leggings. From their belts hung short swords. On top of all, they wore iron shirts, not of mail as the Normans wore, but of metal sheets that had been shaped to their torso and wonderfully engraved with the likenesses of birds and wild plants. Two wore helmets, differently shaped than the Norman sort and topped with the brilliant plumage of an unknown bird.

The three men who had attended the banquet with their women were obviously chiefs. They were tall, but they held their heads a little back, as if they sought to look down at the world from as great a height as possible. They wore the same soft leather garments as their bodyguard, but theirs had been inlaid with colorful beads and shells, and across their shoulders were flung cloaks woven of a smooth fiber dyed in intricate patterns. Black hair, knotted behind their heads, was pierced by feathers. The man in the center wore in addition a circlet of silver: an eagle whose wings swept forward around his temples to hold between their tips over his brow a sun of hammered gold.

And yet, confronted by this arrogant finery, David’s eye was caught by the last man, who hovered in the back of the group with the women—the only man who showed no wariness. He was shorter, wider, and darker than the others and his dress was a roughly-woven jacket, sashed in the front like a robe, which he wore over a kilt of a plain color. His head was wrapped in a towel so that David at first thought him injured. Then he thought him perhaps a priest of the Mohammedans. Later, he was told that the man was a servant, but his flat, unblinking eyes were like no gilly’s that David had ever seen. Had I a servant like that, he told himself as he stared into those arrogant eyes, I’d have him thrashed for his insolence.

* * *

Suantraí

“The ó Flaherty’s gone mad,” David announced that evening while he and his men were preparing for sleep.

“Has he, now.” Gillapadraig took David’s cloak and draped it over his arm.

“Pure Sweeney. I expected him to float off toward the roofbeams at any moment.”

“Because of the New Iron Shirts?”

“Because of the New Iron Shirts.” David pulled his knife from its sheath and threw it at the door, where it sank half a thumb into the wood. “Kevin, you sleep across the door tonight. Anyone who tries to enter, give him my welcome.” The clansman nodded and laid his cloak upon the rushes by the doorway. He pried David’s knife loose and placed it beside his pallet.

Gillapadraig had been watching. “You expect the king to violate his hospitality?”

David shrugged. “The ó Flaherty’s a fox, for all that he is mad. He won’t act dishonorably, but Turlough gave no pledge for my safety. The ó Flaherty is perfectly capable of closing his eyes, then expressing outrage afterward. There is a game being played here, and I don’t know which of them is playing the other, Turlough or The ó Flaherty. Both, maybe. If I’m dead, Fiachra is chief of the Sil Maelruain. Perhaps they think they can move my son more easily than me.”

“They can move the Rock of Cruachan more easily than you. Why do you think your son might…?”

“Because Fiachra is friendly with Donn Oc mac Garrity and the other young men – and Donn Oc has gone over to Turlough. Aedh is too close to the Foreigners for their taste, so they have all given their pledges to Turlough. They talk big about driving the Foreigners out of Aire Land, but I mind a fable about bells and cats.”

“But, if The ó Flaherty has brought in men the equal of the Foreigners…”

“Then he is mad, as I’ve said. Remember how in the Holy Bible the Jews called on the Romans to help them against the Greeks – and then could not rid themselves of the Romans? So the king in Leinster called on the Foreigners to help him in his war against Rory, and today Strongbow’s son is king there in all but name. Now The ó Flaherty would be calling on these new Foreigners for help against the old ones? That woman has a lot to answer for.”

Gillapadraig paused before drawing off his own tunic. “Which woman would that be?”

“The ó Rourke’s wife. It was because she slept with Rory that ó Rourke called for the Leinstermen’s aid in the first place.”

Gillapadraig grunted. “It always comes down to a woman in the end. I’ll hang our clothing in the garderobe to kill the lice. Tell us about these New Foreigners. What are they like? Are they fighting men?”

“They brought their women with them, so they are no war party. But the men look no strangers to battle, either. They were in a fight, and lately at that.”

“Where do they come from?” Gillapadraig’s voice came from the small necessary. The dung pile that lay below the open grating provided the fumes that killed the lice.

David shrugged. “I can tell you only what The ó Flaherty told me, and I don’t know how much truth the story holds. The strangers spoke some unknown tongue. The dark Dane translated that into the Danish they speak in the Ice Land and the Galway Dane rendered that into Gaelic, but how much of the sense of it made it through that bramble, who can say? I follow the Danish a little, and…”

There was a knock at the door. Two raps, followed by a pause, then another rap. “It’s Donnchad,” said Kevin. He unlatched the door and Donnchad ó Mulmoy slipped in. The clan na Mulmoy had been allied with the clan na Fhlainn since time unremembered and David had given Donnchad the command of the footmen in his party.

“The men are all settled,” the newcomer told them, “and I’ve set watches. I do not trust these western men.”

“Did you see any of those New Foreigners about?” David asked him.

“The red-skins? Two of their men-of-trust stood guard outside The ó Flaherty’s hall, so I take it that they are bedded down within. To me, they would not answer hail or farewell, so they might have been cast from copper for all I could tell you. The other one, the one with the rag on his head, was about on some errand, but he only glowered at me when I hailed him.”

“A friendly folk,” Gillapadraig said.

“They are uneasy about something,” David told him. “And they sense that we may not be with them.”

“What did you tell The ó Flaherty?”

“I told him that I did not think that seven warriors, six women, and a gilly would drive William the Marshal into the sea.”

“How did he answer?”

“About as you may expect. That these are but an embassy and their warriors over the Western Sea are as numerous as the leaves in a forest.”

“Did the Ice Lander tell you that? They’ve no trees in the Ice Land.”

“Thorfinn Rafn’s son, he names himself. He is not from the Ice Land, but from some other place farther off. They call it the New-Found Land.”

“‘New-found,’ is it? Saint Brendan the Navigator sailed the shores of Ui Braiseal in the long ago.”

David shrugged. “Thorfinn said that some of those who went with Eric the Red to the Green Land discovered it. He thinks two hundred years ago. Perhaps they went looking for Irishmen to plunder. It’s what vikings did back then, and ’tis said that a party of monks fled west from the Ice Land when the Danes first came to it.”

“The Saga of the Lost Danes,” said Kevin. “I’ve heard that tale sung by their skalds down in Galway Town. When Leif went back, he found no trace of the settlement; only some cryptic runes. Then he vanished, too. I never thought it was true; only a saga the Ostmen made up for amusement.”

“Olaf Gustaf’s son – he’s the tall one, the Galwegian – believed so, too. But he can understand the Danish that Thorfinn speaks. It’s near enough the Ice Land tongue. Olaf says it’s like talking to his grandsire’s grandsire. This Thorfinn claims that Leif’s party in the Vine Land met with savages – skraelings, they called them – but found them easy enough to overawe. Then one day the skraelings were attacked from the south by an army of The ó Gonklins…”

“Ó Gonklins, was it?” said Donnchad. “So they were Irish after all?”

“It sounded like ‘ó Gonklin.’ They came as foot soldiers, like the old Roman legions, but with a troop of cavalry mounted on large, hairy horses. As shaggy as the ponies from Shet Land or Ice Land, yet as large as those the Foreigners ride. The skraelings ran, and Leif’s people saw that there was no fighting such a force. They were taken to the king of The ó Gonklins, who moved them to a city farther west, on the shore of a great inland sea, and that’s why the Green Landers never found them again.”

“That makes a better saga than the one they sing in Galway,” Kevin admitted.

“The ó Gonklins were pushing their empire into the plains and so had little interest in the Green Land Danes. They kept a watch on the northern shores and captured any Green Lander vessel that came near thereafter, settling their crews in the new Danish towns on the Inland Sea. That’s why the Green Landers gave up sailing those waters. No one ever came back.”

“In Galway Town,” Kevin said, “they say there is a maelstrom west of the Green Land that swallows ships whole.”

David shrugged. “There is probably more to the story. I think the Danes helped The ó Gonklin capture the Grass Lands; and Thorfinn said something about giant hairy cattle and giant hairy elephants, but maybe Olaf misunderstood.”

“Is it everything in their land that is giant and hairy, saving only the men?” Donnchad asked, and the others laughed.

“So now their king is wondering where these Danes were after coming from?” guessed Gillapadraig.

“Once he had pacified the marchlands – Thorfinn called it Thousand Lakes Land – the king thought to look east and sent these emissaries. At least, that was the story I was told. The ó Flaherty said that their ship made landfall out in ó Malley’s country. Savages the Picts may be, but they know how to separate a man from his head. Yet the Red Foreigners, few as they are, drove them off. The survivors then made their coasting until they found the mouth of Lough Corrib. That’s where they found Olaf.”

“And why was he not taking them to Galway Town?”

“Olaf is out-law there and, anxious for his neck, he guided them upriver to The ó Flaherty’s stronghold instead.”

Gillapadraig pursed his lips. “An embassy, is it,” he said.

David looked at him. “That’s what I thought. Sure, who sends an embassy out with no care to which king he is sending it?”

* * *

The ó Flaherty took David stag-hunting the following day, in company with the sons of Rory and the eagle-chief of The ó Gonklins, who bore the outlandish name of Tatamaigh. As all were chiefs of some consequence, they were accompanied by their men-of-trust to the number prescribed by the cain-law, by gillies to wait upon their needs, and by huntsmen and skinners, and kennels of hounds, so that the party, withal, resembled a small war band and required a fleet of boats to set them on the western shore of the lough.

They rode the soft emerald hills of Oughterard, across meadows and peat-land, with great silent hounds loping before. Beaters started the red deer and chased them from the forest into the aire-lords’ embrace, to be welcomed by the kiss of arrow and javelin. The sun was to their backs and the wind off the distant southern sea, so that a mist hung over all the land, filling up the valleys like milk. Oughterard lay in Moycullen, The ó Flaherty’s tuath-lands, and rolled westward in gentle hills toward the farther, rougher peaks of Connemara.

They had brought down three deer—one by each chief, as was fitting—when the beaters started a boar.

The first sign David had of it was the shriek of one of the beaters as he was tusked, followed by the baying of the deer-hounds as, gray and growling, they encircled the beast. The hunters raced their ponies toward the brush at the forest’s edge, followed by the other beaters and footmen.

The boar was all bristles and red eyes. Caught in a ring of snapping hounds, it turned first this way, then that, then fell to tearing with his tusks at a pair of saplings behind him. The saplings grew too close together to permit the boar passage, and a good thing, too, for taking refuge behind them was the gilly of the Red Foreigners. The man’s robe was torn and a part of it hung askew. His curious headgear had come off as well, tangled a bit on the boar’s right foreleg and leading like a path to his sanctuary. His eyes bulged with terror and his hair, now unencumbered with wrapping, fell black and matted to his shoulders.

The eagle-chief reined in some distance away and paced his mount in jerky circles. His retinue spread out to protect him, but none came closer.

All this David saw with only part of his attention. He waited until the boar, alternating between attacks on the gilly and fending off hunters and hounds, had made another of its quarter turns. Then he hurled his javelin into the beast’s neck. The boar gave forth the most horrid grunts and cries. Turlough, riding up, fleshed his spear as well, while Little Hugh leapt from his pony and approached on foot, holding a boar-spear in front of him. He made barking cries at the creature, trying to goad it into attack.

Turlough went white. Behind him, David saw The ó Flaherty’s archers with arrows nocked, waiting for their king’s guest to get out of the way. He gave Turlough a glance, then buried a second javelin into the boar’s left eye.

The pig squealed and thrashed and toppled onto its side, kicking. For a moment, it seemed that it might rise up once more; then it shrugged and collapsed. Little Hugh, seeing his chance, dashed forward and struck with the spear from the blind side, but by then the blow was no more than a death-grace.

When the boar had twitched at last into stillness, the trapped gilly stepped out of his shelter, edging around the carcass without taking his moon-eyes from it, then scurried behind David’s pony, which started a bit at the motion.

Turlough rode to David’s side. “Well struck,” he said, offering his hand. When David took it, he added in a whisper, “And my thanks for saving my fool brother’s neck. He’s young, and young men are rash.”

“As well, that; for where else do old men learn wisdom save from the rash deeds of their youth.”

Turlough laughed. The ó Flaherty, who had also ridden up, studied the boar. “He is nearly as large as the one I slew for the banquet.”

David said, “That creature will grow larger with every telling, I’m thinking.” Turlough laughed again, and The Ó Flaherty slapped David on his back. “As big as the Dun Cow!” he cried.

“You’re after finding some fine allies,” David said as Turlough and The Ó Flaherty turned away.

His words reined them back. “And your meaning…?” asked Turlough.

David signaled with the finger-ogham to indicate Tatamaigh and his retinue. “What sort of chief does not trouble himself to protect his own gilly?”

“As for that,” The ó Flaherty said, “Boars are unknown in their country and his people feared to draw near.”

“And might such a chief not fear equally to draw near your enemy?”

The ó Flaherty said nothing, but yanked his pony’s head round and rode off. Turlough lingered while his brother remounted. “Do you think them cowards?” he asked.

“I think they may not be what they seem. Do you truly believe their king will send his warriors across the entire Western Ocean when William the Marshall need only crook his finger to fetch Normans by the boatload across the Irish Sea?”

* * *

Goltraí

Though low-born to a Connemara clan, the slain beater had served faithfully for many years, and The ó Flaherty Himself was lavish in his praise and in the gifts he bestowed on the widow. Mourners were brought in and they set up a caointeachán around the corpse, taking turns wailing and crying so that none would tire too soon. Their keenings writhed through the gathering dark, echoed from the vises and empty passages within the chapel, and came upon one from unexpected directions.

David had gone to the chapel to pray for the dead man’s soul and stood on the flagstones before the altar, wondering what he was supposed to tell God that God did not already know. In the end, he prayed not for the servant, but for Connaught, that she not be ruined between the powerful allies of rival clans. Ó Conner had fought ó Conner since time’s birth. It was in the nature of things, like the rolling of the heavens in their crystal spheres. But now each faction would bring in Iron Shirts, and that would be the end of it all.

With such grave thoughts he turned away and found that the sons of Rory had come into the chapel. David said nothing, but stepped aside that they might approach the altar. Little Hugh stopped to speak to him.

“You didn’t save my life, you know.”

David nodded. “I will remember that, the next time.”

The remark puzzled Hugh, but Turlough turned about and gave him a searching look. David saw in that look that Turlough knew that he would not come over. And if not David, then not The mac Dermot—and the clans of the Sliabh ua Fhlainn and the clans of the Mag nAi would fight for Aedh, and that meant a bloody time in the West. “He’ll ruin the country,” Turlough said, and David knew he meant king Aedh.

“Only if there is a fight,” David said. “Otherwise, why call in the Foreigners at all?”

“Should I wait for him to die, then?”

“Patience is a virtue in kings. The wait may not be long. Wives have husbands to defend their honor, and Aedh may cuckold one too many.”

Turlough’s eyes retreated from his face, as if they looked on some inner struggle. His mouth turned down in a grim line. “And after Aedh, Felim. Aedh may be weak and foolish. His brother is neither, and while I may wait out one of my cousins, I have not the patience for two.”

Little Hugh stepped close to David, though he had to stand a-toe to do it. “If you fight us, we’ll destroy you, now that we’ve the Red Foreigners on our side.”

David looked over the younger man’s head into Turlough’s eyes. “I pity Felim the foolishness of his brother.”

Turlough understood and put a hand on Little Hugh’s shoulder. “Come, we’re here to pray for a good man, not to quarrel with an old one.” He gazed at the body on its bier before the altar, washed and wrapped in a winding sheet. “He, at least, had no part in the quarrels of kings.”

When David stepped outside the chapel, Gillapadraig was refastening the thong on his sword-hilt. David grinned. “You thought they would attack me in a holy place, and myself under The ó Flaherty’s protection?”

Gillapadraig grunted. “My blade wanted whetting, is all.”

“It might have been interesting if they had,” David mused. “I could have goaded Little Hugh into it. Then ó Flaherty would have had to kill them to save his honor. Would that have been too high a price for peace in Connaught?”

“Not if you could be sure you had actually purchased so elusive a thing.”

David laughed. “And what is that foreigner gilly doing over there by the stables?”

“Oh, him. He’s trying to rewind his headscarf.”

David clapped him on the shoulder. “Come. Let’s see if he can tell a tale as twisted as his hat.”

“But we don’t speak The ó Gonklin tongue.”

“Nor does he.”

The man saw their approach and watched with calculation. He had obtained somewhere a needle and thread and was mending the long scarf. He studied David’s face, then grunted and pulled the thread through his teeth and bit it off.

“I hate it when they fawn all over you,” Gillapadraig said. “I suppose it wasn’t much of a life, if that is all the thanks you get for the saving of it.”

“It was the only one he had.” David stepped to the drinking barrel that the stable-hands used and pulled out a dipperful, which he offered to the Red gilly. “Akwa?” he said, employing an ó Gonklin term he had learned.

The squat man stared at the dipper for a moment, then raised his eyes to David’s face. “Oka,” he said distinctly. He took the dipper from David’s hands and sipped from it.

“I’m glad he cleared that up,” Gillapadraig said.

“He speaks a different tongue than the other Red Foreigners.” Then he squatted on his heels directly before the other and said in his halting Danish, “Who are you?”

The red man showed surprise for just an instant before his face reverted to impassivity. “Warrior,” he said, in a Danish even more awkward.

“A warrior servant?”

Incomprehension was evident. David turned to Gillapadraig. “He understands only a little of the Ice Land tongue. I understand only a little of the Galwegian tongue. Between the two of us, we understand only a little of the little. But I must know what to tell Cormac. I don’t think The ó Flaherty knows as much as he believes, and I don’t think that Tatamaigh fellow will be telling him.” Facing the gilly, David pointed to himself and said, “David mac Nial ó Flynn.” Then he pointed to the gilly.

After a moment, the gilly slapped his chest and said, “Muiscle ó Tubbaigh.” He put his mending aside and reached inside his robe, to emerge with a small bowl made of briar and carved into the form of a rearing horse. Yet such a horse David had never seen before, with a broader face and shorter muzzle and with shaggy hair almost like a dog’s. The bowl had a long, gracefully curved handle. Into this bowl, the man poured a small measure of powder or ground-up leaves from a cloth pouch he carried and which was tied up with a drawstring around its mouth. Ó Tubbaigh gazed wistfully at this sack. “Tzibatl,” he said. “Tzibatl Aire Bhoach achukma. Much good.” He hefted the sack once or twice as if gauging its weight before returning it to one of the numerous pouches sewn into his robe. Lastly, he lit a straw from the brazier the stable hands used and with it, set fire to the leaves in the bowl.

The handle was actually a pipe, David now saw, one end of which was fixed to the bowl enabling ó Tubbaigh to suck the acrid smoke of the leaves into his mouth. When Ó Tubbaigh handed the bowl to him, David took it and, following the prompting of the gilly, sucked also.

The smoke seared his lungs and he coughed convulsively. The foreigner smiled a little, but did not laugh. He made puffing sounds with his mouth, then, with a negative motion of his hand across his mouth, mimed a deep breath. David understood and took the smoke only into his mouth, holding it there for a moment before expelling it. After several puffs, a curious tingling sense of alertness came over him. He could hear the harp playing in ó Flaherty’s hall and the high nasal singing of “The Lament of The ó Flaherties.”

Clan Murchada of the fortress of hospitality

Was governed by clan Flaherty of swords,

Who from the shout of battle would not flee…

Except that they had fled, westward from the Foreigners to these dreary shores – and the fair, former lands of clan Murchada were governed now by The ó Conners, who had been content to gather up the remnants after the Foreigners’ withdrawal. Ó Tubbaigh, his head cocked, also listened to the faint music and, though he could not have understood the words, a sadness passed momentarily across his face, for he could hear the haunt of loss in the winding notes.

“Gillapadraig,” said David suddenly, “do you remember how mac Costello took Nial Og prisoner last summer?”

“And our cattle in the bargain. What of it?”

“I was only thinking how a warrior might become a servant.”

David accepted the smoking bowl when ó Tubbaigh offered it again.

“Smoke friend maketh,” the man said in halting, antique Danish.

David grunted. “I suppose I can sort those words as I please.” He pointed to himself and Gillapadraig and spoke again in Danish, “We twain, Gaels.” The he pointed at ó Tubbaigh. “You, ó Gonklin?”

The other man looked first puzzled, then startled, then angry, then finally, contemptuous. He passed his hand back and forth in front of his mouth, then spat in the dirt.

“What was that all about?” Gillapadraig asked.

“He does not think highly of his masters,” said David.

“Small wonder, after they made no move to save him today.”

David thought about it some more. “I wish I knew how far I could trust the two Danes. The dark one, I think, not at all, if he is one of The ó Gonklin’s vikings and loyal to them. The Galwegian, I am unsure of. He is out-law, but that might be a trifling matter. He may regret having become entangled in this affair. The Ostmen keep to themselves and pray the Normans will overlook them when the time comes. They have forgotten that they were once vikings. But let’s make the most of our time. I doubt The ó Gonklin chief would be pleased to find us sharing the white smoke with his gilly.” David drew ó Tubbaigh’s attention to one of ó Flaherty’s servants emptying slops in the pig sty just outside the keep and near the stables where the three were smoking. “Gilly,” he said, “of ó Flaherty. You. Gilly of Tatamaigh?”

The Foreigner laughed and settled the turban over his head, adjusting it until it sat right. Then he grabbed himself by the crotch and again waved his hand across his mouth and spat in the direction of the keep.

“Does he mean that Tatamaigh un-manned him?” Gillapadraig asked in shock.

“No. He means that The ó Gonklins have no balls.” With a stick, he drew a small circle in the dirt. “Aire land,” he said and patted the earth and pointed around. Then he made another small circle a little distance off. “Ice Land.” He added Green Land, then New-Found Land. Then below the New-Found Land, he drew a much larger circle and said, “Ò Gonklin’s Land.” Finally, he handed the stick to ó Tubbaigh and, indicating the crude map, said, “You. Land. Where?”

Ò Tubbaigh scowled at the circles for a time and David thought that perhaps he did not understand, so he named the circles once more.

Slowly the man began to nod. The he reached into the dirt, scooped up a handful, and poured it over the large circle that David had named Ò Gonklin’s Land. David stared at the dirt, then at the man himself, who grinned savagely. But before David could pursue the matter, a woman’s voice called from the keep the name of Muiscle ó Tubbaigh. The grin vanished, replaced by the stone face. The gilly knocked the ashes from the bowl and, swishing it in the water barrel before returning it to his pouch, rose and aired his garments of the smell of the smoke.

“I suppose he did not understand what a map is,” Gilla said when the man had gone.

“Oh, he knew enough.” David watched the gilly approach the ò Gonklin woman, saw how he stood before her, and saw too in the torchlight the look she gave him, and understood just a little bit more the tangled skein among the New Foreigners.

“Then why did he pour dirt all over it?” Gillapadraig wanted to know.

David dropped his eyes to the sketches in the dirt before, with his foot, he obliterated them.

* * *

Olaf Gustaf’s son was morose to the point of suicide, but it was a point in exquisite balance. “I’ll end in a nameless grave,” he confided to David later that same evening when David had found him on the castle wall overlooking the moon-lit lake. “That’s the fate of out-laws.” David had brought him a tankard of ale because words were like fish and when wet swam more freely. “I was an important merchant in Galway Town. I took tin and timber from Cornwall to Bordeaux and to Henaye in the Basque country and brought back La Rochelle wines, Bourgneuf salt, and Spanish wool. Now there’s a price on my head, and I never even had that poor man’s woman. I wouldn’t mind being cut down so much if I’d ever futtered her; but she and I hadn’t closed the bargain yet. Her husband thought otherwise, and so he died for the sake of an error. That don’t seem right.” Olaf sighed. “Still, people will go against me. Me, what’s fought Breton and Basque pirates, and sailed with the Hansards against the wild Prussians.”

David pointed to the vessel tied up to the wharf on the west side of the island, half visible in flickering torchlight. “Is that The ó Gonklin boat?”

“Ship,” the Ostman told him. “Not ‘boat.’ Ja, that’s her. Looks a little like a cog, but she’s a poor sailer. Flat-bottomed, no keel. Her master fought his leeway all up Lough Corrib. Used oars, he did, to bring her to dock, so she’s even part galley. No castles, fore or aft, to give archers height over pirates.”

“May be there are no pirates in her home waters?”

Olaf spread his hands. “Or may be the pirates win. But she’s got that queer second mast behind the main, which I fancy would harvest a bit more o’ the wind than the usual bonnet sails, so she’d have heels when sailing large. And the strakes are clinkered, d’ye see – but top-over-bottom like the old knorrs, not bottom-over-top like modern ships. If I had to guess… D’ye have any more of The ó Flaherty’s ale? Ah, my thanks t’ye. If I had to guess, I’d say this ó Gonklin fellow never had deep-water ships, just coasters; and what he’s got now, he’s copied off knorrs from the days of Eric the Red. That little hind-mast, though. That’s new. That’s a good idea.” He took a long pull from his tankard. “I’d like to be out on one now. Not on that bastard. I’d not try the Gascon coast without a proper keel beneath me. But I’d like to be out on a proper ship. Out of Aire Land, where every man’s is hand against me.”

“Mine isn’t.”

“Ach. That only means ye haven’t heard the price on me yet.”

David studied the ship again. He had never seen a cog before, let alone something that wasn’t exactly a cog, and Olaf’s explanations were as much a foreign language as that of The ó Gonklins. It astonished him that so large and heavy a thing could float at all. “I don’t think those vessels can bring an army across the Ocean.”

“Don’t be fooled by her size,” the Ostman said. “There be plenty room in ’er hold.”

“It isn’t the size I’m after thinking of. You said you wouldn’t take it to the Gascon coast. Would you take it on the Ocean Sea?”

Olaf considered that. “If Hengist’s family were breathing on my neck, I’d try Ocean in a coracle. If I’m to end in a nameless grave, better a watery one. But…The easting would be simple enough. Put up enough linen, catch the westerlies, and here you are. As for the westing…Well, she’s got oars.”

“But if a flat-bottomed ship slips sideways…”

“Leeway, we call it. That’s the problem with her. Ye couldn’t be sure where ye’d raise land. If these Red Foreigners had keeled ships that could hold a bearing, they would have been here long since.”

“You can’t spin linen from straw,” David agreed.

“And without those hairy horses of theirs, they’d have to walk everywhere, and how big would their kingdoms be? As big as a thumbnail, I’d wager. No grand cities as Thorfinn’s told of: Manahattan, Lechauweking. That Tatamaigh fellow, when we slipped past Galway Town and her great walls, he turned his nose up and laughed. I’d be offended, if the Galwegians weren’t all trying to kill me. I suppose a folk can be only as great as their tools will let them.” Olaf turned as another man climbed the steps to the rampart and he called to the newcomer in Old Danish. “Hail, Thorfinn, son of the Rafn! How fare ye?”

The dark Dane said nothing, but he took the jug of ale from Olaf’s hand and drank from it, wiping his mouth afterward with the back of his hand. He looked at David without expression, and did not return the jug. Smiling, and speaking the Gaelic so that the Red Dane would not understand, Olaf turned back to David. “He wouldn’t last a week in Galway Town before he smiled below his chin.”

“They are afraid. All of them but the gilly.”

“Then they shouldn’t swagger so.”

David looked into the night, past Lough Corrib, past Connemara, past the Ocean Sea. “Sometimes a man must push himself forward, if to step back is death.”

* * *

David went off by himself the next morning to watch the sun come up over Cill Clunaigh on the eastern shore of the lough. The breeze, smelling of fish and the damp, whipped his cloak about him and he gathered the edge of it in his hand. A party of horsemen breasted the horizon, paused, and disappeared on the farther slope. Normans – perhaps mac Costello’s men. David spat over the wall into the waters that lapped against the foot of the fortress. Or a party of King Aedh’s men, or even Leyney men sent south by Conner god ó Hara. Outriders? Or were rumors spreading?

Below, crossing the courtyard, ó Tubbaigh carried slop buckets to the midden. David whistled and the man looked up. For a moment the two locked gazes, then ó Tubbaigh put the slop buckets down and climbed the ladder to the parapet. David mimed smoking the bowl-and-pipe, but when the other drew it out made the negative gesture of passing the hand back and forth across his lips. He pointed to the horse carved into the bowl and said in Danish. “Saga horse sing.” The previous night Thorfinn, through Olaf, had described how the Red Foreigners esteemed the horse above all beasts, and ó Tubbaigh seemed from his bow-leggedness a man who had spent most of his life astride one.

Ó Tubbaigh thought for a moment and his lips moved, as if he were puzzling from the Danish to his own tongue. Then he shrugged and began to speak in a sing-song voice. David began to walk slowly around the parapet and the Red Foreigner walked beside him, singing in a high nasal whine. David understood not one word of it, but that was not his purpose.

At one point in the song ó Tubbaigh gnashed his teeth, then rubbed his stomach and pointed to the horse carving. Then he waved his hand before his mouth, by which David understood that at one time his people had eaten horse meat, but did so no longer. The Normans had a similar taboo, and small wonder. Eat all your mounts and what do you ride? A knight in armor would present a less fearsome appearance riding a cow. The miming with which ó Tubbaigh accompanied the song suggested the capture and breaking of horses, but he rode his imaginary steed with a wilder abandon than the Norman kettle-heads, and he mimed the shooting of a bow and not the lowering of a lance.

At that point, turning the corner of the parapet, they came face to face with The ó Gonklin chief Tatamaigh and his woman about their own morning circuit of the walls. Tatamaigh halted and stared with onyx eyes at David and ó Tubbaigh. The gilly, who had been in the midst of loosing one of his imaginary arrows, smiled and released it directly at the chief’s chest.

Tatamaigh snatched at his sword-hilt, but the gilly said, “Hahkalo iss’ubah, sachem. Sa taloah himonasi,” and bowed most insolently. Then he grinned and made riding motions, biting imaginary reins in his teeth and loosing another bow shot. The ó Gonklin affected not to listen, but his woman, standing a pace behind him, watched ó Tubbaigh’s rolling hips with her lower lip caught between her teeth.

Tatamaigh released his sword hilt – and David heard the subtle sound of other swords sheathed a few paces behind him. Gillapadraig, as always, his shadow. But the chief reached out and snatched the smoke-pipe from ó Tubbaigh’s hand.

Ó Tubbaigh cried out, but Tatamaigh fended him off with a sharp blow that rocked the gilly’s head back. Then, holding out his palm, the chief spoke sharply. David heard ‘tzibatl’ but it sounded no more at home on this man’s tongue than it had earlier on his servant’s. Possibly it was a word of the Aire Bhoach folk, those who grew the leaves. Ó Tubbaigh snarled something that David had little trouble interpreting as a refusal, slapped his chest and said, “Mingo-li billia!”

The ó Gonklin chief grabbed his sword-hilt again and might have drawn it this time, but that his woman put a hand on his arm and said something soft. Tatamaigh shrugged her off without looking, but nevertheless unhanded the sword. “Tzibatl,” he said again, holding his hand out. Two of his guardsmen had come up behind him and watched the servant with smoldering eyes. David crossed his arms and leaned his back against the parapet, waiting to see how it would play out.

The moment stretched on.

Then ó Tubbaigh sighed and reached into his cloak and fetched out the bag of smoking powder. He held it for a moment, and David thought he might throw it over the wall in spite. Then, he handed the pouch to his chief saying something that David thought might translate as I hope you choke on it.

David noted how both men’s hands trembled while handling the powder and he thought that the white smoke might exert some powerful influence over them, as whiskey did over drunkards. Before he had even departed with his retinue, Tatamaigh had filled the bowl with the powder and had sent one of the guards to fetch a coal to light it with.

“They didn’t fight,” Gillapadraig said. He had come to walk beside David and spared now a backward glance at the departing eagle-chief. “I thought you said they would fight.”

“Not yet,” David told him. He turned to ó Tubbaigh and said, “Mingolaigh. Chief?”

Mingo, chief Muisce ó Geogh,” he said. “Sachem, chief al-Goncuin.”

David repeated the name more carefully. “Al-Goncuin, is it? Are they Saracens, then?” But ‘Saracen’ meant nothing to the red man and David did not press the matter. What concerned him was less whence the red men had come, than whither they might be going.

When they turned onto the parapet overlooking the lough, David found Donnchad ó Mulmoy and Olaf the Dane waiting, as he had arranged.

“How many?” David asked Donnchad, indicating the cog moored below them.

“Three-and-twenty,” ó Mulmoy told him, “though it was a hard count, seeing how they all look alike. About half wear iron shirts. The others climb the ropes, so I think they must be the sailors. There are always two on guard but they don’t keep good watch.

“They believe themselves among friends,” David said.

“More than friends. A couple of ó Flaherty’s scullery maids have gone inside on one errand or another – mostly the other, I’m thinking – and they have a Pictish woman that they must have captured when they fought The ó Malleys.”

David turned to the Dane. “Olaf, do you have any friends yet in Galway Town?”

The Ostman shrugged. “Does a man with a price ever have friends? I suppose you could call anyone who hasn’t yet tried to slit my throat a ‘friend’.”

“What if you could promise them a ship faster than any they’ve known?”

“So…” Olaf’s eyes dropped to the alien ship. “She needs a proper keel. But I know a man at Bordeaux who would do it.” His eyes danced along the masts. “A dozen to sail her, I think, though the rigging be strange… and we would need to…” He stopped and nodded. “Ja. I’ve cut ships out before. It can be done.”

“Good. Make a list of the men you want and give it to ó Mulmoy. Donnchad, ride for Galway Town. You know the town. Find the men Olaf names and bring them here by stealth. You may encounter ó Dallies down that way, and there is nothing ill between them and us; but if deBurgo is abroad take care. Travel unseen.”

Donnchad smiled. “One ó Mulmoy is worth ten Burkes.”

“Then take Kevin with you. I think there are more than ten.”

Donnchad left. Olaf lingered a moment longer, gazing at the cog and rubbing his hands together. Then he too left.

A silence passed before David said, “Tatamaigh home sail, warriors bring. Take you?”

Ó Tubbaigh laughed bitterly. “Chief al-Goncuin. No more.” He slapped his chest. “Muisce ó Geogh all chief now. Town, stronghold, how say?” And he mimed the striking of a flint, the lighting of a fire.

“Burn,” said David.

“Town, stronghold al-Goncuin burn. Women…” And he thrust with his hips.

“Books, too?” To the gilly’s puzzled look, David mimed reading and ó Tubbaigh shrugged.

“Pfft.” His fingers fluttered like smoke.

“Ochone. They do burn easily, do they not?” David said. He wondered if there were any monks in that New-Found Land. He wondered if they would catch whatever they could on their parchments before all the learning ran through their fingers like so much sand. He thought about the saints of Aire Land scratching away with quills in the failing light of the long ago while vikings howled outside. What they had written was tinder, but tinder of a different sort, which later, in the courts of Charlemagne, had lit a different sort of fire. And now Charlemagne himself was legend, a subject of romance and fable, as distant from the present day as the Fall of Rome had been from his.

Ó Tubbaigh spoke in halting Danish. “Ship take hair yellow.” When David made no answer, a distant look came into his eyes. “Go with. Home see ahcheba. Ah, the grass, the grass.”

David pulled his knife and scabbard from his belt and handed it to the Muisce ó Geogh captive, for such he had concluded the man was: one of the sacking horde in the wreckage of an empire, captured by a fleeing band of al-Goncuins, possibly even as the escape ship was casting forth. There were red stains on the cog’s decks that spoke of a desperate fight. Ó Tubbaigh hesitated. Then he snatched the knife from its scabbard and secreted it in the wraps of his turban, returning the empty scabbard to David. He said, “Smoke we two ahcheba.”

“We will smoke again,” David lied.

# # #

The ó Flaherty Himself escorted David to the edge of Cill Cluanaigh and sat upon his pony beside him while the hill men disembarked from the boats and sorted themselves out for the long trek back to the Slieve ua Fhlainn.

“You’ll tell Cormac,” ó Flaherty suggested.

“I’ll tell The mac Dermot everything I’ve seen.”

The king of Iar Connaught grunted over the careful phrasing, then he looked west, past his stronghold in the lough. “I don’t understand your loyalty to a weakling like Aedh.”

“A weakling he is, and a fool,” David admitted, “but if we demand our kings be worthy before we pay them the respect that kings are due, then all is chaos. Kings come, kings go. It’s the white rod that matters, not the fool that holds it.”

The Ó Flaherty pondered David’s words. “I see,” he said at last. “You are Felim’s man. You’ve been Felim’s man all along.”

“It would be awkward,” David explained, “if he killed his own brother. Turlough will see to that – should no cuckold step forward.”

Ó Flaherty grinned without humor. “And then Felim’s dogs will remove Turlough, with the iron shirts to back them? Sure, it’s a sad tale, then, that the Red Foreigners will upset his plans.”

David shrugged. “Life brims with the unexpected. Oh. I’m after losing my knife.”

“Are you now?”

“I think that red gilly is after taking it. I think he means to murder Tatamaigh.”

“Over the woman? She isn’t much to look at, but I don’t suppose looking is what he has in mind.”

“Maybe the woman. Maybe the smoke. It doesn’t matter. Warn Tatamaigh.”

The king of Iar Connaught scowled, suspecting some cleverness. “It would be better for you – and Felim and Cormac – if Tatamaigh were slain.”

David crossed himself piously. “The Lord commanded us to do good even for our enemies.”

* * *

David halted his party once again on the hill overlooking Lough Corrib and turned his pony round to gaze at The ó Flaherty’s stronghold while awaiting the signal from the outriders that no ambush lurked. Gillapadraig trotted his pony to stand next to David’s.

“So it did come down to a woman in the end,” he said. “How much have you teased out?”

“They’re not coming,” David said. “They’ll never come; not to help Turlough, not for any reason.”

“Can you be so sure? The Normans found it worth the effort…”

David pulled on his moustaches, gauged the position of the sun, and wondered if he could reach the monastery at Tuam before nightfall. “The Irish Sea is a shorter crossing than the Ocean Sea. But that is not the reason. The al-Goncuin empire is broken. The clans of the Muisce ó Geogh light campfires with their books. Tatamaigh was desperate for a refuge and grasping at any straw. He would have promised ó Flaherty anything. We may see a few more such boat-loads seeking the legend-lands the Danes sing of – but that is all.”

“What of these Muisce ó Geogh folk, then? They are the victors, you say. Will they not come?”

“The ó Flaherty is mad. Bad enough to invite the red Romans in; to invite the red Huns is pure Sweeney. They are horsemen, not sailors, and there is more wealth in the wreckage of an empire than on these poor shores. Yet they are a wild folk, and the horizon taunts them. Should ó Tubbaigh escape to tell them of us...”

“Small chance of that.”

“How small is small enough? He is a bold man, and a clever one to survive as long as he has in the hands of his enemies. When Olaf steals the ship, will he not be aboard? Could I hazard his escape? Ah, darling, it’s a cruel and pitiless age we live in to spend such a life to buy a little time. Had they not burned the books, I might have hesitated.” David fell silent and tugged his chin. “There may be a blessing, though, in all this.”

“What is it?” Gillapadraig asked.

“That Tatamaigh’s crown was solid gold, was it not?”

“It had the look of it.”

“A bold man with a sword might carve himself a pretty kingdom over there, a greater one than he can ever find in these poor hills.”

Gillapadraig fell into open-mouthed silence. When he found his voice, he stammered, “Would you be leading the ui Fhlainn then into some foreign land?”

“I would not, but the prospect of gold and plunder is a sore temptation.” David turned his pony about and saw the outriders coming in from the east, signaling that it was safe to proceed. He kicked his pony in the ribs and the hill men set off at a slow mile-eating pace. “Maybe the Normans will go.”

 

The Iron Shirts © copyright 2011 Michael F. Flynn

16 comments
Marcus W
1. toryx
Excellent story. I really enjoyed this one.
Patrick M.
2. Patrick M.
Go maith a chara.
Thomas Di Paolo
3. Pattom
Loved it. There feels like so much going on in this world, I'd be curious to see what an expanded narrative does.
Patrick M.
4. Ian P. Johnson
Wow. Great story.

Now I'm wondering what a combined Nordic/Celtic/Algonquin seafaring empire across the North Atlantic would look like. Maybe it was more likely than it sounds– with the navigation skills of the Norsemen, and the fighting skills of all three groups, they could have laid waste to lands from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean…

That's why I love alternate history. They're a glimpse into what might have been. Had the various Native American tribes been more closely linked, and the Norse and NAs gotten along better instead of killing each other off, then it would be remarkably feasible that a second international sea power could have been forged.

I want to read more stories set in this world. Authors, you up for it?
Patrick M.
5. antares
Excellent character development.

But it is all set-up and no story. Conflict without resolution.
Patrick M.
6. laser pointer
I love the convenience using of laser pointer, and I think green laser pointer is the coolest pen.
Patrick M.
7. Séamas Ó Sionnaigh
An interesting idea let down by the poor knowledge of Medieval Ireland and the rather trite stereotypes of character and language (could it be any more ‘Oirish’?). Apologies to the author, but it’s just the usual pseudo-Gaelic/Celtic nonsense in ‘Ye Olde Worlde’ style. It’s Irish history via the Society for Creative Anachronism, and is about as far away from the real history of Ireland (and the Gaelic and Celtic peoples) as one could get.

And the awful mongrel mix of Irish and Anglicised-Irish words were so bad it made my head hurt! ‘David ó Flynn’? Did you mean, Dáithí Ó Floinn?

Sorry, honestly, it is a nice idea but...
Dustin Kurtz
8. Gursky
Very fun. I like that the novum is never revealed (though it seems he's setting up a novel or story arc in which it may well be).
Trey Palmer
10. Pilgrim
Interesting, but I suspect the ultimate ruler would be disease until both hemispheres beult a resistance.
Agnes Kormendi
11. tapsi
The names made me wince as well, and I'm not even Irish...
Patrick M.
12. Dr. Sardonicus
It surprised me that characters in the story were supposed to be familiar with what the Bible said.
Patrick M.
13. Michael F Flynn
Long response:

Many thanks for the kind comments.

@Patton, Ian, antares: The story was not envisioned as part of an expanded narrative, only as one of clever maneuvering and betrayal in an immanent civil war. David's story problem was how to avert the intrusion of one more foreign force into the contention, and this was resolved. But, who knows? The Muskhogi might learn how to handle ships; and there would surely be other refugees from the fallen Algonquin empire.

@Gursky: Yup. "As you know Bob, history took a sharp turn back in...." People wouldn't normally talk in that way. Nor would they be have the same awareness of a turning point as readers from our history. From their POV, nothing has changed. Besides, it's more fun to winkle it out ourselves, right?

@Jimmy Fox: I'm sorry you feel that way. I did consult a number of histories of medieval Irish life, as well as the Annals. But it is often impossible to capture the truth of early 21st century America, let alone other times and places. I did try to avoid leprechauns and shamrocks.

@Pilgrim: I expect you are correct about the diseases; and horizontal Eurasia would have had the advantage over the vertical Americas.

@Doc Sard: They would have heard all the Bible stories from the priests and would have seen the books in the church or monastery. Ireland was not entirely a backwater in the 1200s.

I'm sorry that the names made anyone wince, inasmuch as they all came from the Annals of Connaught and the Annals of the Four Masters and the place-names likewise. I forbore from using the Gaelic forms because you don't want to see what Turlough O Conner looked like in medieval Irish spelling*; however, David O Flynn's name is simple enough: Dabhid Ua Flainn (or Ua Floinn, depending on the chronicle consulted. The broad vowel is only there as a tvyordy znak to protect the "l" from being palatalized by the slender vowel "i". Irish really ought to use the Cyrillic alphabet. LOL.)

Otherwise, and except for the intrusion of the Algonquins, the history is as given. The sons of Rory had taken refuge with the O Neil and did in fact slip back into the country and hide out with the O Flaherty. The Annals tell us that "all the chiefs forswore their oaths, save only Cormac McDermot, David O Flynn, and the rest of his officers." The annals are full of house-burnings (with people still in them), bushwhackings, being bushwhacked, and so on. Clan society was not all rainbows, leprechauns, and fluffy bunnies. It was an island full of Hatfields and McCoys.

I fudged on one name: the king was Hugh mac Cathal O Conner and one of the rebellious cousins was Hugh mac Rory O Conner. In the Gaelic both were named Aedh, so I decided to use Hugh for one and Aedh for the other.

I also cheated with Musholatubbi, the Muskhogi captive, who speaks in modern Choctaw. Under the story assumptions, it is unlikely that any such folk as the Choctaw would have emerged from the broader Amerind population. Musholatubbi is itself a Choctaw name filtered through Anglo phonemes, and it occurred to me that the Irish would have similarly filtered it; so I came up with Muiscle O Tubbaigh. It is actually AmoshuliTabi, and means "Determined to Kill," appropriate under the circumstances.
For those interested in non-alternative history, king Hugh did bring in the iron shirts, under the Justiciar, William the Marshal, and they made short work of the rebellion. Hugh remained king until a jealous husband caught him being bathed by his wife and stabbed him. David died peacefully "after taking the Cross." The cousins, Turlough and Aedh, then fell to fighting each other until the younger brother (Aedh) prevailed. Then Hugh's brother Felim stepped in and overthrew him in turn. David's son, Fiachra, was one of the chiefs who smuggled Felim back into Connaught.

(*) Oh, alright. Toirdhealbhach Ua Conchobhair. Satisfied?
Patrick M.
15. Kirshy
I have to say that I was only able to read just past the first section break. The place and character names were so distractingly difficult to pronounce in my head that I kept getting pulled out of the story. And that was happening every other sentence. I also found the dialogue and prose awkward. Sorry to say I won't be finishing this story.
Patrick M.
18. Naoife
My name's Naoife :)
Patrick M.
19. Naoife
Maith go leoir
Patrick M.
20. Rick Kitchen
Mingo was a name used by their enemies, not by the people themselves.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment