Uprooted from city life by the death of his father, Dark is beckoned into a rath or fairy ring as he wanders the fields near his new home. There, he meets people big and small whose magnificent stories of warriors, monsters and the fairy people provide an escape from his crumbling school and home life and take him deep into the world of Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the Fianna. O’Neill’s powerful new tales of adventure, heroism, treachery, weakness and redemption entwine with ancient Irish folklore as Dark realises that he, like his eccentric uncle Connie, belongs to two very different worlds. See www.irishfables.com for more from Tom O'Neill, Dark and several characters from the book, or read about them on Wikipedia. PRAISE FOR OLD FRIENDS ‘Wonderfully irreverent, engrossing … a tour-de-force of storytelling’ Gemma Hussey, former Minister for Education ‘Gripping and gory and vivid’ Máire Uí Mhaicin, academic and folklore specialist '[O'Neill] takes his young teen readers time-travelling with protagonist Dark through tales that straddle the knowable and the imaginary. There is nothing implausible about the emotions that course through these latter-day folktales that bring LED lighting to fairy raths; no false notes dim their sense of loss and betrayal or, indeed, O’Neill’s idiomatic style. This is a book straight from the oral tradition – it would sparkle if read aloud' Mary Shine Thompson, The Irish Times 'Tom O' Neill manages to bring new twists and new ideas into the tales in this book. You get really engrossed in the characters' lives and they seem real, not just myth and legend anymore. Tom O'Neill really brings the characters, and the stories themselves, to life. I really liked this book and was absorbed in the story from the very beginning' Bríd, age 14, Leitrim
|Publisher:||Little Island Books|
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|Age Range:||8 - 12 Years|
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A PLACE BEST LEFT ALONE
Stormy clouds blacked out the quarter moon. A screech momentarily paralysed Dark. Maybe a disturbed snipe. He was already close to the forbidden place.
His LED torch failed. With another mis-step into a soft spot, water seeped into his boot and the toxic spring thorns of a hawthorn branch made painful contact with his face. Shite! Feckit! His mother didn't like it, but recently, Dark had found that cursing helped to beat back tears of frustration. He sucked in his breath. His courage was rapidly draining away into the cold bog-water. What kind of foolishness was it that had landed him, all alone, in this dark and desolate marsh in the middle of the night?
There was a time, about three years ago now, when Dark's only worries had been the release date of the next Playstation console and whether he'd get picked for the under-twelves football team. Then, one Sunday afternoon, his father went and drove his BSA M20 into a tree and everything changed.
They buried him deep in the ground.
The house in Glanmire Heights had to be sold. Someone else was in Dark's room now, with the secret compartment his dad had made for them to hide the BB gun from his mam, and Dark and his mother had come to live in a converted cowshed in the middle of nowhere with no channels on the TV and awful, dark, cold silence every night from nine.
His mam 'wasn't coping very well', people said. When his father's half-mad brother Connie had insisted that they come to live in the converted 'extension' to his house, she seemingly hadn't many other offers on the table. So Dark hadn't said anything when she asked what he thought.
Dark had never met Connie before – he'd been away somewhere. He was a huge fecker with a great black mop of hair and beard. Dark had been a bit afraid of him that first day they'd arrived in the white van Connie had sent to collect them and all their things. When he talked and laughed with the van driver he could surely be heard all across the valley.
Dark hadn't liked this place of Connie's very much, but he still didn't say anything. There wasn't anything much to say anymore. That was how he felt about things anyway. That's how he'd got the name The Dark when he started at the local community school. He didn't mind the name. The names he used less often now were McLean from his father and Arthur from his mother.
At first they'd tried to get him to talk. They got some kind of counsellor person into the school to talk to him. He could still picture her very clearly. How does this make you feel, Arthur? she would ask, with nowhere for him to look, no escape from her big watery eyes all surrounded in blue make-up. How does that make you feel, Arthur? It's OK to miss someone. Do you feel angry, Arthur? It's OK if you ever want to cry, Arthur. But he hadn't given in to any of it. He didn't have any desire to 'explore emotions' or do any of that stuff. That wasn't his kind of thing.
His mam would wait until they were in the car so that he couldn't wander off. She would switch off Beat FM and then ask him, worriedly, How are things going, Arthur? He loved her and was worried about her too. But this talking business didn't serve any purpose that he could see. It just made him uncomfortable. Fine, was all he could say. He didn't know what the feck they wanted from him.
One evening, when she was home from work earlier than usual and the three of them were in the kitchen, her on her laptop, him sitting on the armchair next to the Aga playing with the collies, and Connie mixing milk formula for calves, she said to him, 'Arthur, you should ask your Uncle Connie to show you how to play the drums. He used to be in a metal band once. Let out everything you're feeling on them.'
Dark said nothing. But he kind of wished his mam didn't think she had to be all 'with it', talking about metal and stuff.
Connie turned away from the sink and laughed.
'You can hammer the shite out of the drums any time you like, Art. But maybe, Helen, you're watching a bit too much Oprah.'
His mam looked like she was going to cry, but then she just shook her head and laughed too.
That was when Dark had started to like Connie. Gloom never got much chance to settle on the house when he was around.
Dark didn't mind working with the animals. He had started to do some feeding and watering and other jobs around the yard. Connie had given him two white-headed heifer calves of his own. He also gave him a key for the quad bike on the condition that he didn't tell his mam.
Back when Connie was around, the place always had visitors. Neighbours generally called in if they were passing. They'd stand at the Aga and relay news or look for Connie's opinions, which he was never slow to offer, on anything from problems with the bank manager to scabby sheep. Dark wasn't sure whether they were mainly there for the advice and mystery poultices or for the company and the entertainment.
Then there were the others who called at night. Others of all shapes and sizes. Some talked with strange accents and most were a bit more peculiar than Dark ever remembered meeting in Cork city. Or anywhere. There was the purple-cheeked lad who had driven them from Cork in the white van. He always brought boxes of stale USA biscuits. Dark also remembered a short, red-haired man who smoked a pipe nearly as big as his head. And there was a very fat woman with a brown leather coat down to her ankles and a voice that boomed nearly as loudly as Connie's. Those people would come in and sit nursing a mug of tea or a can of beer at the oilcloth-covered kitchen table, talking, playing cards and laughing.
Connie never toned things down just because Dark was there. Dark would sit on the sofa under the stairs at the back of the room reading or playing his DS, only picking up on bits of the conversations. Connie wouldn't care how long a caller stayed or what farm work he had planned to do that day.
'Once the animals are fed, Arthur,' he said, 'there's no work that can't wait while there's good company and diversion to be had.'
Dark remembered asking Connie back then about the forbidden place. He had heard lads in school telling hushed stories of terrible things. A place best left alone, they said. Once, a tractor that pulled a grass topper too close to the McLean rath had apparently turned over and killed the driver. Another man who had collected firewood there saw his wife die of a mystery illness within minutes of him putting the sticks into the range.
'Gnarly, useless old yew and oak,' Connie said. 'Hardly worth taking a saw to them. What class of an eejit would bring yew boughs home to burn anyway?'
Dark understood even then that it was fear that had protected this ground from clearing for centuries.
Connie was usually as blunt as a sledgehammer, but he was very vague when talking about the rath.
'The people believe they'd be better off not disturbing that place even with thinking too much about it, Art.'
'Are the stories true, then?' Dark asked.
'It was always said around here,' he said eventually, 'that the sí are good people only as long as they are left alone.'
'The sí?' Dark asked. He was younger then, and didn't know much.
'The little people, I mean,' said Connie. 'Not that I believe in them. Or the little fear dearg, the red man. Oh no. Not at all!' He burst out laughing for some reason.
And then, about a year ago, Connie had gone away too. Not dead, though. Taken by the gardaí. His mother just said, 'Don't worry, Arty, he's not gone forever.'
Dark heard in school that Connie had been done for 'assault and obstruction' of a government official in the course of his duties. Dark knew there must have been more to it than that. Connie might have made big noises, but Dark had never seen him being hard on anyone.
Dark didn't know when Connie would be coming out. He didn't let on to his mam that he knew or cared anything about it.
So then it was just him and his mother alone again. She got a new job and was working very long hours, so mostly it was just him. She had quietly gone back to looking sad and worried.
He was doing a lot on the farm now, before and after school. It helped him to not think too much. A friend of Connie's, Brian, was coming in for the morning and evening milkings and getting in contractors for spreading slurry and making silage. Dark was taking care of the feeding and herding and fencing. He was tall for his age, and nearly able now to lift the bags of fertiliser or pull a calf on his own. He was trying to make sure everything kept running smoothly till Connie got back. And trying not to let farm worries pile on top of the other things that were weighing his mam down so much. He reckoned he was going along pretty OK, considering.
Except at school. Not going along too well there at all. But he was planning to be done with that problem soon.
Then two days ago this thing started.
He had been out wandering the back fields as usual, after school. Counting the yearlings. Checking the water troughs. Talking to the donkey. Thinking his own thoughts. As he was walking towards the hedge of the bog field, he saw and heard a movement. At first he thought it was a fox. Or maybe a winged pheasant unable to rise and get away. Definitely something fairly big. And close. Yet he couldn't see what it was – although the hedge was a gappy blackthorn. It seemed to move on as he walked towards it and then stop again a little way off. He kept following. About halfway along, he heard it run down from the ditch on the other side. He ran ahead to a gap and climbed over a bit of barbed wire tied between two sceach bushes – Connie's idea of fencing. He looked back along to where the creature had come out and could see a movement continuing through the rushes and long grass of the bog. It was again very noticeable. Like a big creature, but unhurried and still not showing itself. Too slow for a pheasant legging it. Too careless for a fox.
It was as if the creature was calling him. Leading him. He had nothing better to do than to follow. It quickly became very plain where he was going. The creature was beating a path straight to the rath that was in the middle of the bog field. Dark had had no real interest in the rath since Connie's advice not to go near it, a while back. But suddenly he was excited by it. The movement stopped a few metres from the edge of the rath. He went very cautiously to the place it had stopped. He pulled the grasses apart carefully at first. He didn't know what he expected to see. But it didn't matter because there was nothing there. Nothing he could see, anyway. And then, somewhere in the middle of the rath, he was certain he heard a strange sound. It was a high-pitched male voice, and it was laughing. From that moment, Dark began to understand that what was in front of him was no ordinary place.
He stood there, seeing properly, for the first time, the dense bushes towered over by dark, peculiar trees. He was beginning to understand that he was on the edge of another world that somehow wasn't alien to him. He knew that it was calling him into it. Indeed, he was overcome by a desire to enter it.
He found a way through to the centre, where so little light penetrated that not even brambles grew. At first, all he could detect was a louder rustle in the leaves. Then he became aware of someone near him. It didn't scare Dark at all.
'Who's there?' he called.
Then an echoing, musical voice: 'It's grey now, but my mane was as black as your darkest night. They called me The Fair One as a joke.'
A deep, quiet laugh followed and Dark caught his first glimpse of the Old Man, sitting momentarily beneath the biggest yew tree. The tree seemed to rearrange its branches to make him comfortable. Though ancient and bent, he was more massive than any human Dark had ever seen. He was wider than the trunk of the old tree. His hair and beard flowed down past his yellow and blue tunic.
The Old Man talked in a rambling way, telling a story. Most of it, Dark didn't understand. The Old Man reeled off names as though Dark should know them.
After talking a while, he said, 'Arthur, a mhic,' – somehow he knew Dark's name – 'I know what it feels like having the happiness crushed out of you by suddenly losing everything. It happened to Fionn Mac Cumhaill himself. His father was cut down not long after he was born. They thought Fionn didn't understand and didn't feel anything, because he couldn't talk yet. But he knew exactly what had happened. He might not have had words, but he understood how total his loss was. He knew nothing would be the same again.
'And when they took him off to the mountains to hide him from his father's enemies, Fionn Mac Cumhaill spent a very long time immersed in a black pool of anger and emptiness. The old straoil s who were his guardians and tutors had to try every trick they knew just to get him to eat. Mac Cumhaill never tried to forget or to let go. Never. Over time he just began to fill the deep hollow in his life with the knowledge he was gaining of his lost father, his hero, Cumhall. Gradually, this made him strong. In time, he became stronger than most others his age. He allowed the voice of Cumhall to guide him wisely through most of the rest of his days. Never forgetting and never letting go.'
The Old Man turned his eyes away towards the treetops, distracted. He started whistling a beautiful tune that Dark had never heard before. But he was fading.
He stood and said, 'Yes, well, the daylight is not the right time for old souls to walk their lands freely, spinning yarns and raiméis. Arthur, now that you know where we are, next time you want to visit, come down here after the blanket of night has made ordinary people retreat and set the lands free.'
Dark must have looked worried. He didn't mean to, as he wasn't really all that afraid of the night.
'Don't fear. You'll be among old friends,' said the Old Man.
Then he disappeared.
That night, Dark had been sitting in his armchair as usual, avoiding homework. He had borrowed his mother's laptop, supposedly to research something about rivers in Germany for geography homework, but he was playing Fallout instead. There was only one thought in his mind. He kept glancing at the window. He hadn't closed the curtains. Georgina, Connie's older collie going about her own mad business in the yard, kept triggering the halogen lamp. She had never been right since Connie went. Even with that on, the yard light faded away at the gate into the top field. There were two other dark fields from there to the bog field; two strong hedges and the stream to cross, if he went the direct way.
He got up, opened the window, and hung out. Georgina came over to sniff up at him and then went back to walking in circles around the yard. He wanted to just do it. He wanted to just climb out the window and go check out whatever there was to be seen. What had he to lose? But he also wanted to stay in the safe comfort of his room. And he knew that maybe it wasn't very sensible to trust the assurance of the Old Man, whoever or whatever he was, that he would be among friends.
One of the many seemingly random pieces of advice Connie used to give him suddenly came loudly into his head: 'There is no other creature out there on the blackest night for a decent human to be afraid of. The human himself is the wickedest creature there is.'
Without allowing himself to think too much more about it, he pulled on his parka jacket, made sure the torch was in the pocket and climbed out the window. He went quickly across the yard while Georgina was scratching after a possible rat up near the calf sheds. He didn't want her to follow.
The land at night was very different. It reverted to the ownership of the rabbits, foxes, badgers and other creatures. He kept his eyes on the small pathway of light that the torch cleared for him. Everything was very different. A pair of yellow eyes stopped to assess him intermittently as their owner moved across the field in front of him. He made his way quickly so as not to let his courage slip away.
Dark covered the ground and got through the hedges and across the stream without too much bother. He surprised himself with how well he knew the ground. Crossing the bog was harder in the dark, though. Finding the tufts of rushes that gave sure footing in the marshy bits wasn't so easy with only the pale, white light of the torch to distinguish them. He kept going.
The screech of the snipe and the thorns tearing his cheek, not to mention his torch giving out, might have been bearable if he hadn't already been getting near the edge of how far his courage could take him. He stood and looked at the dark mass in front of him. Uninviting as it was in the daylight, it was unambiguously forbidding now. Though it had been full of peculiar whispers during the day it was deadly quiet now. Dark hadn't the slightest doubt that he was being watched. He shouldn't have stopped, because with every second he hesitated, his paralysis grew. There was no longer any way he was going to be able to talk his limbs into moving forward into this dark, unknown place.
Excerpted from "Old Friends"
Copyright © 2010 Tom O'Neill.
Excerpted by permission of Little Island.
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