On a remote Gaelic farmstead in medieval Ireland, word reaches Alberic of conquering Norman knights arriving from England. Oppressed by the social order that enslaved his Norman father, he yearns for the reckoning he believes the invaders will bring—but his world is about to burn.
Captured by the Norman knight Hugo de Lacy and installed at Dublin Castle as a translator, Alberic’s confused loyalties are tested at every turn.
When de Lacy marches inland, Alberic is set on a collision course with his former masters amidst rumours of a great Gaelic army rising in the west.
Can Alberic navigate safely through revenge, lust and betrayal to find his place amidst the birth of a kingdom in a land of war?
We moved before sunrise, silently and swiftly breaking camp. We pushed on beneath uncertain moonlight, the bóthar widening out to a more substantial roadway – becoming a slíghe. The lightly armed scouts they call kern padded the hills on each side calling down softly at times. I rode behind Donchad at the head and at some invisible sign or landmark, he held up his hand stopping the host and led us off the slíghe and into the tree line. I could not imagine what he could read in the darkened surroundings that prompted him to move with such confidence. I began to feel fear. What if he had missed his path. What if he had sold the party over to ambush for the grant of a ráth and a woman somewhere in these hills. The darkness began to take shape around us. Donchad’s broad back ahead of me. Shadows in my eyes. Shades coming across the greyness. We pushed through branches which trailed us like the fleshless fingers of crones. We came to a wide, untended ditch, and crossed over where the bank had collapsed into the bottom, green grown with bramble and nettle. Kern ranged out making sure none guarded the border of the tuath. Through the thinning trees, a blue grey sky appeared and as we approached the eaves of the wood, we saw a sloping meadow running down to a stream and beyond, emerging from the mist, the ráth of Áed Buidhe.
The Tiarna rode up and Donchad dismounted. Shielding themselves behind a large stump they spoke in low tones pointing down over the scene below, toward the outer stockade around the ráth. This was where the herd could be seen, shifting and lowing, brought in for the night against the depredations of wolves or raiders. My eyes strayed back to the stump to find the Tiarna and Donchad both looking towards me. The Tiarna called me over with a motion of his hand. I slid from the warm back of the horse, handing its tether to the man beside me, and approached. The Tiarna sat back into the bole of the tree where the heartwood had been eaten away by louse and fungus and he took both of my hands in his. He spoke softly, his voice full of assurance.
‘Now young kelt-bringer,’ he said smiling, ‘I have another thing to ask of you and this to one who has challenged the sídhe in their own house, will be a thing of no consequence.’
‘We need you to open the gate,’ Donchad said, bringing me around to the edge of the stump and pointing to the wooden doors set between thick posts with a watchhouse rising above - a dark square space beneath its awning of thatch, impenetrable in the pre-dawn. He pressed something into my hand and looking down I saw it was a long-bladed knife, the length of a forearm, the type they call the scian mór. ‘Go now, do not think on it. Move before the light strips the shadows from the valley. Run low and straight, and do not fear. If the alarm is raised, run to the river. We will be thick around you before the household can drag their fat bellies from their beds.’
He laid his large hands on my shoulders and guided me out into the open and, before I could protest, he pushed me gently forward. The hillside took me then, momentum dragging me forward until I was running, clear of the trees, through the meadow grass and onwards towards the tóchar. I ran faster, and faster still until I was running simply to keep upright, the stream approaching fast. The pounding of my feet, the pounding of my heart echoing like an army of tree fellers in a valley and I watched the blackness beneath the awning of the guard turret, watched for movement, for a shout, for an arm rising to strike a bell.
As the slope bottomed out, I missed a step and fell, tumbling violently. I lay still for a moment, amid the stalks of meadowgrass, brushed with their moisture, smelling their greenness and listening. A waking dove cooed in the trees, the imperative sound carrying far. No hint of movement in the treeline, though I knew they all watched, too tense to speak. I crawled forward, staying low, and reaching the stream, I slid down the side of the bank and moved upstream towards the tóchar, the water fast and lively beneath me, masking the sound of my passing. Beneath the tóchar, I climbed across the underside, grabbing the beam with my hands and hooking my ankles over. I dropped into the moss and leaf litter on the far side and pushed up the bank on my front, and peered through sparse branches of a blackthorn.
The palisade stood not fifty paces from me; its circuit built of roughly split beams set into the earth of a bank raised up over a ditch. I studied, in the waxing light, the set of each beam on the stretch closest to me. I looked for the uneven line of one against the other that might afford a handhold in their imperfect join. A cock crowed from within and this spurred me onwards. I stood out from the bush, hunched over, ready to run for the palisade. And to my left, not four paces away, a girl stood. A woman. Lithe, pale, beautiful beyond propriety. I had not seen her, shaded by the rail of the tóchar and at once, I realised that the dove cooing with strange insistence had been Donchad from the trees, warning me of the danger.
She did not move, standing tall with her garment hanging, brushing the ground. Her bare feet planted in the grass. Her hair, the blue-black of a raven in sunlight and a basket on her hip. She did not move, and I raised my hand slowly, as if to a skittish colt.
‘Ail a n-uír,’ she said with an unnerving clam – a stone from the earth. Her words unmasking me. Her curling lip and dark eyes stripping me. I shrank back into the thorn bush, feeling naked and exposed. The blackness beneath the awning of the guard tower glared from over her shoulder, sharing her distain.
‘Please,’ I said bringing my hand to my mouth, gesturing silence.
Her eyes scanned the valley then, probing the margins, looking for more like me. Considering whether to raise her voice. My life in the balance. And then she took a step forward, onto the board of the tóchar. And as she went, she spoke over her shoulder in a low voice, as if recounting something of little consequence.
‘The gate is unbarred. The spears sleeping.’ She walked on, and I watched her crossing the stream and turning to follow its margins looking through the growing shrubs, sorting their lolling heads as a kennel master sorts the hounds.
To trust her word and run to the gate? Into a javelin hurled at my breast? The cock crowing once again, the rooks in the trees beyond waking, the crake of their voices tearing the soft fabric of the moment. Lifting Lasair’s embroidered strip from its place beneath my belt, I put it to my lips, invoking her protection.
I looked back to the darkened treeline, beckoning Donchad forwards with my arms and ran on, hunched low, towards the gate and whatever might come. No shouts rose up, no javelins rained down and I pressed myself flat to the heavy oak doors, invisible from the tower above. I put my shoulder against one to find that the bar had indeed been raised. I eased the gate inwards, taking the scian from its sheath, slipping into the space between. The yard was open, a broad space with few buildings. A second gate beyond, it too with a watch tower, I slammed myself back into the palisade out of view. Hens scratched around in the dusty light and behind a rough stockade of lengths of roundwood, the herd jostled and steamed in the morning chill.
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