DiscoverHistorical Fiction

The King's Priest

By

Worth reading 😎

A Viking-turned-priest must revert to his warrior past to fight an invading army in 10th century Ireland.

Synopsis

The year is 971 AD. Ireland is riven by internal conflict and is the target of expansionist Viking ambition. In the aftermath of a bloody battle, an unusual priest stands against the chaos. Rannal must deny his savage past to unite Connacht and defeat the invaders. His actions rekindle a fellowship but pit him against a forgotten spectre from his former life.

The essence of the fabled Queen Medb is embodied in the characters who must rise to the challenge of salvaging a future from the pyre of a ravaged land.

Centuries-long rivalries are renewed in a storm of events that echo the ancient sagas. Celtic and Norse cultures clash at the frontier of the Viking Empire, and the names of heroes will emerge to be proudly born by their descendants for a thousand years.

When Rannal’s King dies in battle and the heir to the throne is taken hostage, the heathen-turned-priest must resort to his old warlike ways to save the land from the raiders.


Martin Byrd’s The King’s Priest is an epic tale of ancient Ireland in the time of the Viking invasions and cattle raids around the tenth century CE. Drawing on folklore and history, Byrd weaves an exciting tale of men fighting against seemingly overwhelming odds against a powerful Invader. The saga begins in the aftermath of the battle of Ceis-Corainn, which occurred in 971, when Murchad (The-King-in-the-North), with the support of Viking mercenaries, defeated Cathal, king of Connaught and laid waste to the region. The remnants of the defeated army and a rag tag group of farmers and militia face the invaders in a final battle at the ford of a river to recover their livestock and drive the invaders out of the kingdom.


The book is full of references to historic events and locations and just enough mysticism to make it an authentic Irish tale. There are cattle raids, set pieces and even the appropriation of a Viking long ship which the defenders turn to their advantage. There are a few of the man-to-man duels that were common in that era, and often decided the battle.


In a bid for authenticity, Byrd uses the original Gaelic names of people, titles and places which makes for a difficult read at times. He provides a handy guide to pronunciation and a glossary that would have been helpful had I found it before finishing the book. The archaic place names make it difficult for those not familiar with Irish history to place the events on a modern map, but it seems to have taken place in what is now Galway.


The King’s priest is a good read for those looking for some distraction from the tension of quarantining and being forced to live cheek by jowl with the other members of one’s clan.

Reviewed by

I am a writer and educator publishing fiction, essays, reviews and poetry. I write reviews for Wendy Welch's little bookstore at Big Stone gap blog. I am a writing teacher and workshop facilitator, and have published fiction, essays, reviews, poems and photographs.

Synopsis

The year is 971 AD. Ireland is riven by internal conflict and is the target of expansionist Viking ambition. In the aftermath of a bloody battle, an unusual priest stands against the chaos. Rannal must deny his savage past to unite Connacht and defeat the invaders. His actions rekindle a fellowship but pit him against a forgotten spectre from his former life.

The essence of the fabled Queen Medb is embodied in the characters who must rise to the challenge of salvaging a future from the pyre of a ravaged land.

Centuries-long rivalries are renewed in a storm of events that echo the ancient sagas. Celtic and Norse cultures clash at the frontier of the Viking Empire, and the names of heroes will emerge to be proudly born by their descendants for a thousand years.

Aftermath

A bloody field south-east of Sligo, A.D. 971


“God, in your mercy, look kindly on the soul of this man who gave his life to protect our lands. Grant him eternal peace in your kingdom. We ask this through Christ, our Lord…”

The words faded into a weary sigh, and the priest turned his eyes up into the gloom overhead. In his thoughts, an imponderable question began to form, but it was quickly extinguished by a wave of frustration and self-reproach. There was no need to beseech God to answer why. He had seen it coming. The choreography of the disaster had been planned and executed with perfect precision. 

He was angry at the world for the stupidity of men and mad at himself for betraying the code he lived by. 

Sombre clouds, pregnant with rain, pressed down offering no solace. Could he have changed things? Should he have tried? Both questions were fatuous, but he couldn’t dismiss them. A caustic voice of regret echoed again in his head. He’d spared his pride, but at what cost? Maybe he could have helped to save some, even if the day was doomed from the outset. Instead, he’d prayed for a miracle and waited out the carnage, hoping for something he knew in his heart could never be. 

So now this place had been defiled. Hundreds lay in tortured testament to the brutality and madness of unnecessary conflict. A flicker of resentment touched his mind. This place was his home. A home he had never looked for. The patient product of a virtuous life, not the spoils of avarice such as he’d known before. It was just a small parcel of land, given over to the church by a long-dead noble in exchange for a burial plot amongst the saints at Clonmacnoise. Its riches were measured by the spirit of its people more than in mere pecuniary wealth. Those spirits were now bruised by events the story of which would resonate long into the future. In a day of tragedy, their home had been transformed from a quiet idyll into a living purgatory. 

But surely it wasn’t his fight. Maybe once, but not now. He was a foreigner. Elevated to the priesthood by order of a dead king, only to be spurned by his prideful replacement whose army now lay destroyed.

His face betrayed confusion. He was pensive for the future and yet full of remorse for the past. These emotions gnawed at him as he fought a wave of tiredness. 

As daylight had waned, he’d worked hard to galvanise recovery. Then he had toiled on through the night to find and help those who’d survived. The dawn had brought the appalling task of clearing the field of those who lay inert and cold like so much winnowed chaff. His companions laboured on in a mood of subdued resignation, cleansing the ground of its harvest of horror. A keening cry of despair marked misery for one family on finding the broken and twisted remains of a cherished son. The bodies of twenty score others were strewn out across a swath of mud-clogged ground below the looming presence of the hill they called Ceis Choran. 

He looked back down and moved on, only to be jolted by a memory from the past. A familiar face stared back through sightless eyes from the ground at his feet. It was oafish Harald, a long way from his Orkney home and no more to enjoy drowning his dull wit in cups of björr.

A golden pendant, fashioned in the shape Mjölnir, Thor’s war hammer, dangled from a worn thong around his neck. The priest recognised it. A grim smile breached his lips as he reached down and touched the familiar trinket. It had once been his treasured talisman, but he’d lost it to this man in a drunken game of dice. 

Impulsively he tightened his grip and tugged. The leather thong pulled against cold and stiffened flesh but held firm. He yanked it and the cord parted with a dull thunk that released a stab of guilt. What was he doing? A priest robbing the dead! 

Then his guilt subsided into sadness for a lost past. A time of unburdened excitement, when he’d lived life in pursuit of selfish aims, hiding the consequences behind a false creed.

He drew his fingers down across the cold eyes. 

“Go in peace, even as you came for plunder.”

He stood again and brushed back an unruly lock of dark hair that had fallen in front of his eyes. He closed his grip on the pendant and wound the cord into a hank around his fist. Then he paused, his attention caught by the sight of the scars on the back of his hand. He flexed his cold fingers and saw the skin was now wrinkled slightly. Time, the great destroyer. Soon he knew he’d no longer be able to sustain the physical presence and poise of his younger self. 

He pocketed the reminder of his past and turned his slate grey eyes to survey the desolate scene. He wondered whether this was God’s punishment. It was hardly that, but there was no denying the facts. Harald’s lifeless body was a testament to an alliance that would be hard to resist. The invaders had come out of the north like a slow-moving plague. Vikings had been despatched by the Earl of Orkney, who now ruled over the vast archipelago of Suðreyjar, to bolster the Uí Néill from distant Ailech. They’d united as uneasy partners, drawn by pernicious intent. The combined army had killed without mercy and then marched on southwards, heading for Cruachan, the seat of kings. Behind them, smoke rose from burned roundhouses to form a chain of misery across the land. 

In the centre of the field, a grizzly stake cut from greenwood was buried half its length in the soft earth. Four branches pointed accusingly at the sky. Each was adorned with a severed head. The ghastly display was a deliberate symbol, but what it meant he couldn’t say. He just knew that this wasn’t their way. 

Ireland was a land full of men accustomed to the brutality of constant conflict, but respect for fallen opponents endured. It was deeply embedded in culture, arising from an era when reverence for the natural order was a well-spring for beliefs. Defiling the bodies of nobility was anathema. It spoke of a mind broken free from convention.

Cathal mac Tadhg had been King of Connacht for less than a year. His wretched reign was now over. He was kept company by his distant cousin Tadhg mac Muircheartach, lord of Uí Díarmada. Beside them swung the heads of the overlord of the Uí Maine tribe and the chieftain of the Ó Flaherty clan. Their defeat presaged slaughter across the land. Few warriors were left. Fewer still could stand steadfast in the path of Murchad Glun, the King-in-the-North.

At the foot of the battle-ground, a movement caught the priest’s eye. He saw a gaunt-looking stranger outlined against the steel waters of the lough, breath misting the cold air. The ageing figure stooped to pick up an object and then raised his head, somehow aware that he was being watched. He began to approach, walking with the aid of a long staff. There was something familiar in his frame and gait. His feet were plastered with mud, and the hem of his full-length robe was soiled. The sleeve covering his right forearm had ridden up. The ornate arm-ring of an ollamh, the most senior rank of brehons, hung from his thin wrist. He was one of a cast of sages whose task it was to interpret the law and dispense justice. 

Once within earshot, the brehon acknowledged the priest. “You must be Rannal, the King’s priest in Duncarrow. My name is Morann.”

In front of him stood one of only two people in Connacht, the only one whose domain was secular, who could make judgements over the king. He had a kindly face for one used to the remoteness of high position. He lent on his staff and stretched his back while appraising the priest. His eyes were bright and intelligent, undiminished by his age. 

Rannal greeted him with deference and mild surprise. He remembered where he’d seen the man before, sitting in council in the great assembly-hall on the mound at Ráth Mór. “It’s a poor day to make your acquaintance, my lord.”

“I’ll grant you that,” said Morann, “but I’m glad nonetheless. We’d be much the poorer if you were lying among the fallen.”

“I’m flattered to be known by you.” The priest’s accent was strange, although he was unaware of that. His words were inflected with a sibilance that marked him out from those born to the region. The cadence of his speech was deliberate and sometimes ponderous. “As to being here on my feet and not there on the ground, let’s just say that my currency at court passed with old King Conchobar. His brother, Cathal, God rest his soul, was happy in the conceit of his ill-informed wisdom.”

“So I heard,” said Morann. “Sadly for us, Cathal lacked many of his brother’s qualities and has now paid the price for his ignorance.”

“If you’ll pardon my question,” said Rannal, “how come you are here? Warfare isn’t your calling, so far as I know.”

The brehon sighed. “You’re not mistaken. I came reluctantly by order of the King. He wanted me to observe the administration of justice to the invader, more fool him. I stood to one side of the field, and am ashamed to say I hid in the caves when things started to go badly.” 

The caverns he spoke of were scattered along a scar of limestone that separated the high moor from the bracken-covered slopes beneath. They were like a series of demonic eyes peering out over the landscape. In legend, they were the haunt of spirits and the lair of terrifying beasts. Their presence was a fitting backdrop to the lamentations below. 

“You’ll not have been the first to take refuge there,” said Rannal.

“Unfortunately, the excellence of the vantage spared me little of the scene. Though, for small comfort, I saw three or four hostages taken at the end. My perception at a distance is not the best any more, so I couldn’t be sure who they were. One was taller by a head but bowed with his injuries. Might have been Cúcheanann mac Tadhg from Kiltullagh. I pray one of the others was our new tánaiste. I found this brooch just now where they were held. It belongs to him.”

The heavy brooch was wrought from interwoven strands of gold and silver. It had the design of an oak tree at its heart, the royal emblem of the Uí Briúin tribe. Rannal had seen it before. His face betrayed surprise at the mention of its owner now being the de facto king of Connacht. 

“Ah, I see you didn’t know,” said Morann. “There was a meeting of the derbfine to consider succession before the King set out. Alas, the debate was not a comfortable one. At its conclusion, they elected the old king’s son. I think Cathal’s resentment of Ó Connor could have played a part in what happened here.” 

Rannal studied the face of the brehon, looking for clues to his loyalty. He saw a tiny, but deliberate uplift of an eyebrow and relaxed. 

“Ó Connor’s a credit to his father,” he said. “In him, we may have hope for the future, provided of course that he still lives.”

“Agreed,” said Morann, “and he would not have parted willingly with the brooch. It looks like he trod it into the mud, hoping it would be found and taken as a sign of his captivity.” 

The mention of Ó Connor and Cúcheanann stirred a cherished memory for Rannal. It was of events long past and the binding of a fellowship that had brought him to his new life. 

“Damn this stupidity!” Rannal’s fist clenched reflexively, bringing to mind the cold, hard feel of the hilt of his long-unused sword. For a second, he looked out through eyes turned cruel. Then he blinked away the spectres and saw Morann studying him, much as though reading a book. The old brehon reached out a boney hand and gripped his thickset shoulder. He felt the tension inside diminish and his sinews relax. 

“I understand how conflicted you must feel,” said Morann.

“My troubles are the least of our concerns. If you can bear to recall the detail, I’m curious about what we can learn from the defeat. How did it come to such a bad end?”

The old judge continued to study him and then deflected the question. “I’d say you probably have more than a passing appreciation of that.” 

“You have me at a disadvantage,” replied Rannal. “You appear to know my past better than most, certainly all those here whom I minister to.”

A faint smile crossed Morann’s face. 

“Being a brehon is not all about applying justice according to our books of law. A judge must form fair opinions from competing views. To do so, he must first be a student of the human condition. In this way, he can assess and then listen most to those worthy of trust. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that you were the subject of debate in council. The presence in our midst of a foreigner with prowess at arms defies precedent. Especially one placed in a position of some importance. These exchanges were always put aside by those whose voices I viewed most credible. You were a comfort to the old king. He never regretted using his ancient rights and knew the benefit you’d bring after your tutelage at Clonmacnoise.”

“Some men are blessed with great insight,” said Rannal. “I’ll always be grateful for what he did for me.”

“Entirely deserved I’m sure, so kindly tell me what you see from the evidence on the field.”

Rannal understood the test. It was reasonable, so he cast about looking for clues. Nothing surprised him, not least where the fallen were heaped like a tide-line on a beach, the hallmark of an effective shield wall. He’d done his time struggling in the stink and press of men, disciplined and organised to resist and deplete. He also saw where the bulk of casualties lay, corralled and broken on the steel of their enemy. Hoof marks showed where horses had charged onto the field out of the trees that encircled the lough.

They’d been stupid or at best tricked by unseen forces. It was a pitiful sight that amounted to an exhibition of undue confidence. The King-in-the-North had obliterated Cathal’s men with shrewd tactics and superior arms.

Morann listened to his summation before replying. “You’re right, but I’ll spare you the detail. Cathal chose the ‘old ways’.”

“There’s a reason they’re called that,” remarked Rannal.

“Seems so. If there’s to be fighting in the future, we must marshal our forces more like the tall man who led the Vikings. He had an iron grip, and knew exactly what he wanted and when he wanted it.”

A spike of worry caused Rannal to look sharply at Morann. “Can you describe him?” 

“Not in detail, but for what it’s worth, he wore a full-length mail shirt, steel helmet and a red cloak. He carried a round-shield painted brightly in the same colour. His face was hidden, but I’m pretty sure he had blond or grey hair. He fought with a long blade.”

“God’s bones!” muttered Rannal. 

“By that remark, I assume you mean this news is not good.”

“No, indeed not. I recognised a familiar face among the dead a moment ago. Now I can only conclude that the man in charge is someone whom I’d thought never to see again. It seems fate has finally found a way to hold me to account for the sins of my past.”

Morann was quiet for a moment, allowing Rannal to wrestle with his thoughts. Then he offered a piece of philosophical counsel. 

“One of the things that life has taught me is that the concept of fate is an illusion. It is born of a man’s need to give attribution for the predicament he finds himself in, usually any cause except his own hand. Chance plays a part. But so does a vast number of decisions and actions, all seemingly independent of each other, that combine to influence the future. I understand how you must sense a perverse symmetry in these happenings. Our destinies are more pliable to conscious intent than you give them credit though.” 

“A thinking man’s response,” said Rannal. “I suspect I’ll always be a prisoner to some of my old beliefs. Thank you for reminding me that God’s will is unknowable and that we’re masters of our own lives.” 

Morann smiled, “I’ve had many years in which to ponder what drives people and events.”

“Then you’ll know we’re going to be driven by other people and their choice of events if we don’t find some allies. There’s nothing more certain. Did none escape the field?”

“I saw one group get separated from the focus of the fighting,” replied Morann. “They managed to battle their way out and head for the forest. A few others got away in ones and twos, but most were hunted down. The King and his nobles didn’t last five minutes on horseback once he committed to the field. Only the hostages survived from his party.”

Rannal eyed the soiled clothes of the brehon. “You look as though you walked a mile or two before coming back here. Where did you go after the battle?”

“I took shelter in the caves for a while. There wasn’t much I could do to help here and not a lot of sense in chasing the raiders south. So I followed some wagons that returned north carrying their wounded. I tried to find out if they’d taken the hostages that way. I didn’t succeed, but I did catch sight of a fleet of longships drawn up on a strand in the mouth of the Ballysadare. That’s when I came back to try to find you. Darkness came though and, after I stumbled a few times, I decided to find a place to rest up overnight.”

“So, we’ve longships not far to the north.”

“There were dozens. They seemed larger than I’ve seen before, deeper and wider.” Morann examined the brooch in his hand, turning it repeatedly. “I wish I were more use, but my calling isn’t to the sword. Words are my only weapon.”

“All the same, my lord, it’s good that you’re here. There are many things for us to do. Not all need a blade or a battle-axe, and your presence will steady the people. I must ask you one thing though.”

“Name it.” 

“You know the history I’ve attempted to forget, but all here look upon me simply as their priest. I’ve tried not to colour their regard with knowledge of my past. They know I’m not from Ireland and that my appointment came from King Conchobar, but little more. I’d be grateful if you’d let me explain, always assuming it becomes unavoidable.”

“Of course, but I recommend you start to think about the words to use. We face a difficult challenge, and your people need a different kind of leader now, as do we all. I pray God finds a way to bring strength to your arm once more. People will follow you the better if they know their priest was first a warrior.”

“Has it come to that?” observed Rannal. “Undone by the stupidity of kings and the violence and greed in the place that I came from. So yes, I suppose you’re right. You say we make our own fate. These circumstances may have always been going to find me because I made myself into who I am. Though, it’s easier to consider things the way my former countrymen would. For them, the weave of destiny is inescapable. There’s a natural order to the world that’s not ours to control.”

“Don’t mourn for events yet to come. You’re mistaken in your talk of fate. I’m sure of that. Nor should you let what’s happened here obscure your achievements. Duncarrow may be a small church settlement, but it had strategic value to the King and was a problem for Abbot Dúnchad. The ministry was floundering under your predecessor. He contributed little to the life of those hereabouts, less to the security of Connacht and nothing to the exchequer. Now is the time to believe in Conchobar’s wisdom and live up to the expectation he had of you.”

“You have a rare talent for words, my lord. You’re better armed than you care to admit.”

“We each have our calling,” admitted Morann. “But who’s this riding up the field?”

The appearance of a newcomer on a magnificent bay horse stilled their talk. He moved with purpose towards the grizzly relic erected after the battle. 

“He doesn’t appear bruised and soiled from the fighting,” observed Rannal, “so we’d best take care.” He began to approach the horseman and signalled to two young men to converge with them. “His intention is as unclear to me as the meaning of that vile exhibit.” 

Morann’s face betrayed his disgust. “It’s meant to remind us of a time before when Ulster humbled Connacht. There’s a passage in the Táin Bó Cúailgne from a thousand years ago. It describes what happened to the two sons of Nera. The Ulster hero Cú Chulainn killed them and displayed their heads like that. In the poem, the stake is buried in a ford to prevent the armies of Queen Medb from crossing.” 

Rannal’s mind turned back to childhood. “Of course, yes, I remember now.”

The stranger had dismounted by the time they approached. He was busy examining the miserable trophies.

“Friend,” said Rannal, “what brings you to this field?”

The man turned towards him, revealing a florid face that was pock-marked and seemed set in a sour expression. It was apparent he was of high status because his mount was adorned with a glittering bridle decorated with silver and enamel. He held its single-rein in his left hand. When the horse backed away from the stake, he turned and struck it with his whip. 

“I’ve come to find the chieftain’s brata used by Tadhg, not that it’s any business of yours. I travelled with my men from Uí Díarmada to join the King, but our journey was a fool’s errand. Now I must return south with nothing but a token of defeat.”

Morann touched Rannal’s arm and stepped forward to speak. “It’s a bleak day for us all, Maellán mac Niall. My name is Morann. For my sins, I am the court brehon. Your uncle deserved better from his king.”

“We heard that the King-in-the-North took hostages,” said Maellán. “Do you know whether Tadhg’s son is amongst them?”

Morann shook his head. “We know nothing of the whereabouts of your cousin.”

Maellán grunted an acknowledgement without making any concession to Morann’s rank. The brehon’s evasive response had struck Rannal as a sign that he too should be circumspect in what he said. 

“You’re well-advised to be travelling in strength,” said Rannal. “How many are with you?”

“I have a dozen men down by the lough. You needn’t concern yourself over our safety. We’re able to take care of ourselves, more so than most who were here yesterday.” His voice carried a hint of disdain. “Are there any of rank left at liberty?”

“None that have made their presence known. I’m the priest here. These men and women are all from my parish, so you might say that I’m the closest thing there is to a leader. My people are not experienced in war, and few have travelled far from here.”

“That’s unfortunate. You’d best lie low then.”

Maellán’s horse shied again. He cursed and pulled at it. Then he looked about and spotted one of the young men approaching. 

“Hey you!” he called out. He swapped the rein into his whip hand and reached for a linen bag tied to his saddle cloth. “Come here and put that bloodied cloak in this.” 

He tossed the bag towards the corpse of the one-time Lord of Uí Díarmada. 

Rannal took a step closer and said, “You’ve no cause to speak with ill-grace here.”

Maellán turned to him, lowering hand to sword. “Let’s not argue about causes, priest. I asked this peasant for a simple favour. So mind your rank and don’t make things more difficult than they need to be.”

“Well,” said Rannal, “may I assist by holding your rein while you see to your own needs.” He smiled and stepped forward while keeping his gaze fixed on Maellán.

The young man approached. He was athletic and confident beyond his years. “Let me hold the horse father.”

Morann cocked his head at the reference to Rannal’s family rather than his spiritual role.

“Thank you, Ruairí. Now’s a good time to deal with the bodies of the King and the nobles anyway.”

The second youth approached. It was evident from his resemblance that he was a twin brother to Ruairí. Rannal smiled, enjoying the moment.

“My lord Morann, would you be kind enough to assist. We’ll need winding cloths. The cloaks from over there should suffice.” He pointed at a pile of discarded garments before turning back to Maellán who looked bewildered by the exhibition of confidence. “Come, let me help you.”

Moments later, Maellán had bagged the symbol of rank that he’d come for and remounted his horse. He kicked it towards Rannal, who stepped aside in good time. “I doubt we’ll meet again,” he growled, “but you should show a little more respect if we do.”

Rannal ignored the threat. “I bid you a fair journey, my lord. Please convey my greeting to Lorcán mac Conaill when you see him. I understand he is still rechtaire at Kiltullagh.”

Maellán’s surprise at the reference to the high steward of his tribe was evident. “So, you think you have friends in high places. Times are changing though. I’ll be sure to pass on your greeting as he takes his possessions and departs for the miserable lands of his father.” He wheeled his horse and kicked it into a trot, heading back down the field towards the lough.

“That was interesting,” said Rannal. “There’s something I don’t understand going on.”

“Indeed there is,” said Morann. “It’s a dispute that has riven his tribe for many years. Maellán and his older brother Gillacomain contested the election of Cúcheanann. They quibbled with much of the way old Tadhg led their people. I suspect he’ll not be hastening back with fair warning of the invader and news about the existence of high born hostages - whoever they are.”

“That makes things more complicated. Kiltullagh represents the best defence for Connacht to the south of Cruachan. We must warn Lorcán.”

“I can go with a message,” said Ruairí. “You showed me most of the way to the west of Lough Techet and across the Bredoge river last year. If you’re concerned about hostages, Séighín could follow the baggage train to find out about them.”

Rannal stared at his stepson in exasperation. “God help me, my life won’t be worth living if I let you come to harm. You’ve no experience to deal with what we’re facing.”

“Trust us, please,” replied Ruairí. “You can’t go because you’re needed here, and you’ve taught us well.”

Rannal looked sidelong at Ruairí for a moment and saw for the first time how he’d matured. Then he swapped his gaze to Séighín, less impulsive, but similarly grown. They were a gift. The family he thought he’d never have, and he’d schooled them hard. 

He closed his eyes and said a silent prayer, knowing there was only one choice. 

“Very well. Ruairí, you will go to Kiltullagh and seek out the steward. You can’t miss him, he’s unmistakable. Give him the news of what’s happened here. Warn him about Maellán and let him know that we think Cúcheanann survives but is injured and held captive. Then come back here fast. If the route home becomes dangerous, go back and stay with Lorcán.”

“How will he know to trust me?” asked Ruairí.

Rannal thought for a moment. “Find your mother and ask her for the Damascene sword. Be prepared for an argument, but say we have no choice in the matter. Harness up the old trap and get some provisions to last you two days.”

He turned to Séighín. “Your brother thinks he’s volunteered you for the lesser task, but he’s wrong. You’re going to need great care to stay out of trouble. Don’t be under any illusion about what will happen if you’re caught.”

Séighín grinned. “Don’t worry.”

“That’s easy for you to say,” replied Rannal. “I haven’t spent a dozen years teaching you most all I know only to see you fall prey to the first raider to pass these parts. If you’re not back here by nightfall, I’ll be coming after you with the wrath of God behind me.”

“I’m sorry.” Séighín’s confidence wilted under the pressure of Rannal’s stare. “I’ll do my best to avoid that. Would you rather we wait a bit to be sure that there aren’t any more raiders still to come through.”

“There’s always that chance, but it’s not likely. Besides, the Uí Néill have some regard for the church, even if Vikings don’t. I’m going to bring as many of our people together for shelter in Duncarrow as I can. The King-in-the-North may have brought pagans from the isles with him, but he’s a Christian king. He’s here for cattle to compensate for the insult of Cathal’s ill-judged raid in the spring. I don’t think he means to burn every homestead.” 

His words sounded hollow in his mind. He knew fine well that church estates were not immune to the malicious interest of raiders. The notion of sanctuary was tenuous at best. As for the Vikings, there was a far more distressing truth that he dare not mention.

“If you haven’t caught up with the rear-guard by mid-afternoon, come back as fast as you can. If you do, and there’s no sign of the hostages, please don’t try to skirt around to check further ahead. That would be reckless.”

“I hear you,” said Séighín.

“And I trust you, but remember my words. You’ll have to go on foot. It’ll be easier to stay out of sight. Follow the direct road. See whether you can confirm who’s being held.”

“Both of you are a credit to your father,” said Morann. He turned to Séighín. “Try to get a message to the hostages if you can, but don’t endanger yourself. Say there’s something we don’t understand going on that might mean we’ve traitors in our midst. It’s important for their safety.”

Rannal looked from one to the other of his stepsons and could see unease starting to set in. Nervousness was good, but too much was a problem. “Are you alright with this? I don’t doubt your bravery, but this is not a game, and, if you’re having second thoughts, I’d rather you say so now.”

“I’ll speak for us both,” said Ruairí. “I don’t think either of us is keen. How could we be? But look around. We’ve no choice. At least we’re alive to do something. It’s our duty.”

“I’d rather you said that it was right than it was your duty, but I understand what you mean. There’s a lot of dead on this field whose spirits will be wondering about a misplaced sense of obligation. Now go and get your things and come back here before you head off. I’ve sent a runner to the cairn on the summit of Ceis Choran, and he’ll be back by then with knowledge of whatever he’s seen.” 

A knot of worry grew in him before they passed from sight. It was called to mind by a memory of the callous man who commanded the Vikings. He withdrew his hand from a fold in his clothes and looked at the pendant once more. He cursed and then became aware of Morann watching him again. 

“You need not worry about my loyalty,” he said. “I choose life and liberty, I choose Connacht.”

About the author

Martin Bird was born in the Wirral near Chester in the North West of England in 1960. He trained as a professional engineer and worked in the electricity industry for thirty years. He travelled extensively for work before taking up residence in New Zealand where he now writes for pleasure. view profile

Published on December 13, 2019

Published by

100000 words

Genre: Historical Fiction

Reviewed by

Enjoyed this review?

Get early access to fresh indie books and help decide on the bestselling stories of tomorrow. Create your free account today.

or

Or sign up with an email address

Create your account

Or sign up with your social account