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Lion of Ireland
By Morgan Llywelyn
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 1981 Morgan Llywelyn
All rights reserved.
The little boy sat on the crown of a rocky hill, his thin arms hugging his scabby knees. He tilted his head back and gazed up into the immense vault of the sky, feeling wonderfully alone.
To the youngest child of a large and brawling family, privacy is a rare thing. Brian always seemed to be walking in someone else's shadow. He had sought this hill because, at the moment, no one else claimed it, and he held his occupancy uncontested.
In a tentative voice he addressed the darkening gray sky. "I am the king," he said, tasting the words. He heard no argument, so he repeated it. Louder. Standing up. "I am the king of all the kings!" he cried, throwing wide his arms to embrace as much as possible of his domain.
The tireless wind swept across the green land. It came driving inland from the sea, herding a flock of rain clouds before it and releasing them at last above the wooded hills and granite mountains.
Even before the rain fell the air was saturated, heavy and rich with a wetness like the moist breath of babies. Ferns in their dark hollows burned with an emerald flame; the curving flanks of the mountains glistened, polished; the air smelled of life and death and growing things.
Under the cairns and dolmens, within the ruined ring forts and passage graves, deep in the mossy, haunted earth, ghosts stirred. Giants and heroes and cowards slept their thousand year death in the ancient soil and were aware in their powdered bones of the coming of another spring.
Brigid came to find him, of course. Even the littlest boy had tasks to perform, and Brian was assigned to guard the flock of tame geese that nibbled grass along the banks of the Shannon. Cennedi had no small daughters to be goose-girls.
"Aha, here you are!" Brigid crowed as he came up over the breast of the hill. "Never where you're supposed to be, are you? Your mother's geese could be in a wolf's belly by now for all the good you've been to them." She reached out to pinch his shoulder and give him a shaking, but Brian backed away. He was not about to accept punishment from a girl who was merely the daughter of his father's herdsman.
"The geese are all right," he told her confidently, trying to shade his boyish treble so that she would recognize it as a kingly voice. "I can protect them; I can protect all this!" He gestured expansively to indicate his kingdom.
But Brigid was a hard-working girl with chores of her own, resentful at being summoned from them to fetch an errant child, and she had no interest in a little boy's pretend world. She stood before him with her hands on her hips, her tangled chestnut hair whipped about her face by the rising wind. "And how would you be knowing they're all right, when you probably haven't laid eyes on them all afternoon? You come with me right now, and we'll try to get them back to Boruma before this storm blows them away."
She extended a red-knuckled hand to him and, after a brief hesitation, he took it. The two of them started down the hill as the first drops of rain splattered about them. Brigid checked her stride and looked at the little boy.
"And did you come out with no warm clothes? What have you done with your bratt?"
Brian stared blankly up into her stern face, then looked around him. A few yards distant, crumpled and forgotten, lay his bratt, the heavy cloak that was a necessity in the damp climate. Until Brigid mentioned it he had been unaware of the cold, but suddenly the red wool looked inviting.
He retrieved it quickly and handed it to her to pin around him with the silver brooch that was his only personal wealth. The wind, which seemed to have been waiting until the child was snugly wrapped, responded with a rising howl that sent Brian and Brigid plunging headlong down the slope together, anxious to get the geese to their pen and themselves under a roof.
They trotted hand in hand through the rain until they caught up with the scattered flock, grazing in the marshy grass at the river's edge. Brigid, twice Brian's age and size, moved after them with the dogged persistence of one who knows a task will get done somehow. Brian darted about like quicksilver, second-guessing the nimble geese, turning and maneuvering them with a skill beyond his years.
To Brigid his antics were annoying; she was afraid he would scatter the birds and delay them both in the increasingly chill rain. But Brian was not herding geese; in the well-lit inner landscape of his mind he was a general, marshaling his troops, wheeling and driving them with the expertise of a battlefield veteran. His imagination quickly reduced Brigid to the role of second in command, so that he was angered when she guided the geese according to some plan of her own.
"Not that way!" he shouted to her. "Take them up the path through the trees!" Open country was not safe, his army could be spotted too easily by enemy scouts!
"And lose half of them in the woods before we get them home?" Brigid countered indignantly. "Your mother would have my hide for the pot! Do come along, Brian, and quit playing around; the both of us will be soaked before we get these stupid birds penned!"
Actually, Brian was right. The path through the trees was shorter and more direct, and once the geese were headed home, their awakening memory of grain was sufficient to keep them going in the right direction. But Brigid had never seen them taken by any course but across the meadow, so that was the way they must go. Flapping her sodden skirt at them, clucking and shooing, she drove them before her as Brian watched in frustration.
"She thinks I don't know anything," he fumed to himself, wiping a lock of dripping red hair from his freckled forehead. "Nobody ever listens to me." He kicked at a small stone that lay invitingly near his foot, then turned to gaze once more at his chosen line of march; he shrugged his shoulders and set off in the wake of Brigid and the flock. "Next time," he promised himself under his breath, "I'll bring them my own way."
The thatched roofs of home glowed golden through the rain. Set in a magnificent grove of oak and pine, Boruma had been built by the princes of the Dal Cais on the ruins of an old ring fort, or dun, utilizing its earthen wall and deep ditch as the perimeter of their personal compound. In keeping with his status as tribal king, Cennedi's round timber-and-wattle dwelling was the largest of the buildings. It occupied a central position opposite the gate, surrounded by the homes of his noble kinsmen and domestic buildings and pens for stock. Beyond the wall were the farming lands of the Dal Cais and the cottages of the plowmen. Boruma was — almost — a town, and as large a concentration of people as one could find outside the monasteries and the port cities built by the Norsemen from the distant shores of the place they called Lochlann.
The geese broke into a waddling run as they drew near the gate of the compound. All winter Brian's mother had fattened them in a brush-and-timber pen, feeding them on sprouted grain and bread soaked in barley water. That memory called strongly to them now.
"You feed those birds better than you feed me," Cennedi liked to complain to his wife; but she always had the same smiling answer: "You will get it all eventually, and bad grain and stale bread are much improved by being converted into fat gooseflesh."
"Practical," Cennedi sighed to himself, "she's so practical." Left to his own devices, the chieftain of the tribe was inclined to daydreaming and grandiose visions. It was his wife who saw that nothing was wasted, that food was stored in the souterrains each autumn, and that mattresses were replaced and weapons sharpened in the spring.
Today she was busy in the miller's shed, grinding flour in the communal stone quern. A handsome woman who had not outgrown her beauty, Bebinn looked at the world through calm gray eyes, set in large sockets beneath arching brows. She lifted one feathery brow even higher as the commotion outside announced the arrival of Brian, Brigid, and the geese.
Pouring through the gate, the geese headed straight for their feeding pen, just in time to encounter Cennedi's brace of shaggy wolfhounds returning from some adventure of their own. Forgetting their usual discipline, the dogs flung themselves joyously into the flock, yapping and snapping in mock attack and setting off a cacophony of squawks that brought faces peering from doorways throughout the compound.
Within a matter of moments all was chaos. Bebinn remained at the quern, an amused smile curving her lips. She expected, with justification, that the commotion would become a war and she would be called upon to pacify it.
Soon enough her husband came storming into the miller's hut, waving his fists and complaining bitterly about the amount of peace a man could expect in his own household.
"Your son is out there now, woman, running the feathers off the geese and exciting my hounds so much they'll be no good for hunting for a fortnight! Can't you control that child?"
"I am controlling him," Bebinn responded evenly, not lifting her eyes from her work. "I gave him the job of minding the fowl, to teach him discipline and responsibility."
"Discipline! Responsibility! I tell you, he's out there playing with them, like a wolf harrying lambs! Is that how you want your geese tended?" A massive man with graying hair that had once been the same bright copper as Brian's, Cennedi had a tendency to turn crimson in the face when he was excited. The more he blustered and waved his hands, the calmer his wife became.
"He will always have to make mistakes and suffer for them, if he is to learn," she replied. "If some of the geese are damaged we will cook and eat them, and he shall watch us do it while he goes hungry. And he will learn. But there is nothing to be gained if you go out there yelling and adding to the upset."
"It might not do him any good," Cennedi retorted, "but it will give me a mighty amount of comfort!" He boiled out of the hut, intent on catching his smallest son and rendering him incapable of further mischief.
Bebinn released the handle of the quern and wiped her hands on her skirt. She peered out through the slanting rain, watching as her husband flung himself into the melee. Her eyes were warm with the tolerance of a woman who has borne and raised a dozen sons.
She pulled her shawl over her silver-threaded dark hair and walked briskly across the compound to her house. At the door she turned to look again at the seething mass, to which a new element of confusion had been added as the other Dal Cais menfolk returned from field and pasture. Men were picking their way among flapping geese and darting dogs, and the earth was churned into a sticky sea of mud.
The air rang with imaginative profanity.
Bebinn ran her fingers in an unconscious, loving gesture over the elaborately carved doorposts of her home, the gleaming wood polished by her frequent caress. "Come and eat, Cennedi!" she cried between the gusts of wind, her deep voice booming out from her full bosom. "Come and eat, or I shall use it to fatten the hogs in the forest!"
Faces turned toward her, activity lessened for a moment. Satisfied, she went indoors, and soon the cessation of noise from outside assured her the geese had been penned at last. Brian came trudging home, covered with mud, and was followed almost immediately by the vast troop of his brothers, returning from the hilly pasturage where they tended the cattle, the "walking gold" of the Dal Cais.
They came in one by one and two by two, tall young men and stripling boys, peeling off their wet bratts and shaking water everywhere as they hung the dripping cloaks close to the fire to dry. They lined up at the hearth, where Bebinn bent over her cauldron, so that each might kiss his mother after his own fashion. Lachtna and Niall and Echtigern. Donncuan, who was to replace Brigid's father one day as chief herdsman. Dermott and Muiredach and Conn the Quarrelsome. Benin and Marcan and Anluan, with his perpetual cough.
Sitting on his little three-legged stool by the fire, reveling in the smells of his mother's cooking, Brian watched the doorway eagerly until Mahon's broad shoulders filled it. He knew that sometime during the evening he could expect a tongue-lashing from his father; but that would be all right, he could bear it, if he could look up and see Mahon's slight smile and subtle wink.
His other brothers did not notice him sitting there in smallness. Even Anluan, nearest him in age, only paid him the attention of sticking out his tongue as he shoved past to salute Bebinn.
Cennedi would not come in to his own hearth and dinner until the men of Boruma were home and the day's business ended. Bebinn believed in discipline and self-restraint for her sons, but she did not expect the impossible; as soon as Mahon arrived she began handing out the crusty loaves of bread, and ladling thick chunks of meat from the pot.
Every edible that came to her hand was simmering in that pot: beef and fowl, with grain and herbs and mushrooms from the woods beyond the compound. Niall had even devised a little tray that his mother could put beneath roasting meat, so that the drippings could be caught and saved for her fragrant stews.
The meal was not a quiet one. Each boy customarily strove to outdo the others in his ability to talk with his mouth full.
"There will be too many cows of breeding age this spring; the red bull can never cover them all."
"Nonsense! You're just saying that because you want to try that gangly brown calf of yours on some of the cows. But he's no good for breeding; you've spoiled him rotten and ruined his temper."
"I have not! I raised him myself because he was orphaned, but I never spoiled him. He's the best young bull we've ever had, and he'll be given the entire herd someday. Just ask Mahon, if you don't believe me!"
The two boys — neither of whom had any say over the policies of breeding — turned to Mahon as the final arbiter of their dispute. Mahon helped himself to a steaming gobbet of meat, chewed it reflectively, winked down the table at Brian, and began wiping out his bowl with his bread.
"It seems to me," he said at last, "that there is something to be said for both bulls. We must observe Liam and our father closely and see what they decide. Perhaps they will use the red one on the majority of the herd, and try the brown on those cows who need more vigor in their calves. But we'll wait and see, and I'm certain we'll all learn something."
The air grew thick with the smell of food, and smoke, and damp clothes drying on warm young bodies. One of the tribeswomen arrived to help Bebinn just as Cennedi himself appeared at last in the doorway, followed by a stooped gray-beard wearing a silk-lined bratt.
"Welcome, Fiacaid!" Bebinn hailed the oldster in the nightly ritual. "Will you do us the honor of sharing our evening meal?"
The old man bowed his acceptance and took the seat of honor at Cennedi's right hand, the place that was his from long custom. He was old, and frail, the nobly sculptured bones of his face hidden behind a network of lines like the creases in parchment, yellow and dead. Only his bright eyes were alive, glittering wetly beneath his tangled brows. The years of his maturity had been given in service to the Dal Cais as their seanchai, their historian and storyteller, and on a night such as this he often congratulated himself for having a talent that earned him a place at the table and a dry bed.
Bebinn selected the choicest contents of the pot for his bowl, and poured his mead herself, rather than entrust it to the serving woman.
"Will he tell a tale tonight?" the woman asked eagerly, almost treading on Bebinn's heels.
"How can I tell? The physician lives with your family, does he not? And does he set a broken bone every night, or brew a potion at each meal? It is the business of the tribe to care for the members of the filidh, the artists and physicians, the poets and harpers and students of the law, and in return for that they share their talents with us when they are needed. It is not my place to tell the seanchai that one of his stories is wanted tonight, Maire. Nor is it yours."
The woman snapped her lips shut and returned to her chores, but she frequently rolled her eyes toward Fiacaid, alert to the possibilities of his magic. If he began to talk she would abandon her tasks and run to the other cottages with the news, that all who could crowd into Cennedi's house might come and listen to the legends of their people.
Excerpted from Lion of Ireland by Morgan Llywelyn. Copyright © 1981 Morgan Llywelyn. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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