Coming Home

IMG_0617   The red poppies in the field reminded Conal of the bloodshed from battle, once they were a thing of beauty and nothing more. A sudden squall made them dance along with his emotions and he was having them all, excitement, fear, sadness all of them taking their turns, one pushing the other aside to have their moment.

   As he came over the summit of a small hill he stopped for a moment and rested his weary eyes upon the land. It usually brought him a certain calmness and stillness with its rolling fields and small clusters of trees standing by the shallow stream, but Conal was not the same man who had left for the Burren many moons before. He squinted as if looking through a keyhole, his attention on the small oak farm house with its golden straw roof positioned in the middle of the valley. Drawing a breath he tried to center himself. He imagined his family inside warm and happy, his boys playing undistracted with the wooden horse toys he had made for them, his wife’s face with the soft glow of the fire upon it. He closed his eyes and felt utterly lost in a most familiar place.

   His horse approached as weary as its passenger. The clouds moved in close together  to bring a grayness to the land. His instincts served him well as he dismounted he sensed  his family were away.  Usually his boys greeted him within fifty yards of his arrival. Drawing his short sword he tentatively entered the house only to find an old woman weaving on a small stool beside a dying fire. Her bent back and familiar actions Conal had not forgotten. ” Come closer son.” She spoke without turning her head or pausing while weaving. Kneeling by her side he took her hand into his own and kissed it. The old woman he called mother had become more shriveled and bent, her gray hair had turned white. He noticed the vision she once had the pleasure of had diminished and left her. Yet her warm smile remained. It was not long before it left her as her expression changed and her forehead creased like the bark of an old tree.

   He felt bad news was coming and he was right. ” Your Kin are gone son. ” “Gone!, gone where?” “North.” A silence fell between them as he searched his mothers face as if it were a map  with hints for directions. Eventually she spoke ” She has found love with another.” Conal felt the space around him come in and out. His stomach swirled as he straightened himself. ” And my boys?” ” Gone with her.” He watched the old woman’s eyes flicker and move, waiting for a reaction or another question, But he did not ask. His pain cut too deep to hear another word and he could see the strain it was taking on his mother. He leaned down and gently kissed his mother on the forehead. He placed another wood log on the fire and watched it burn, standing motionless and numb as the darkness filled the room.

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Kincora’s Scorched Earth.

Kincora's Scorched Earth   A silent smoke rose from the smoldering ash, dispersing high in the air and meeting the grey dawn. Brian and The Dalcassians had returned to Kincora under the cloak of darkness. Brian pulled on the reins bringing his steed to a halt. Looking on, his face was grim, his eyes black with rage, like pools of boiling tar waiting to explode. “Another village burned to ash.” he said through clenched teeth as Conal and Angus rode in beside him.

   He looked to Aodhan, Mathghamain’s trusted scout. “Is this what Mathghamain calls peace?” Aodhan swallowed hard fearing to meet Brians eyes. “The Danes grow brave Brian, for every attack your Dalcassians make on them they meet it with one of their own.” Brian cut across, he had heard enough. “With innocent people? Does Mathghamain not protect these lands? Is it not his duty to his people?” Aodhan made no reply, the shame on his face was evident as The Dalcassians pierced holes in him with their stares.

   His horse kicked up small red sounders as Brian moved on he observed skulls and bones submerging from the mounds of ash, smoke bellowing from shared and scorched eye sockets. Nothing remained of the small farming village. What was once green and full of life was now a dark hellish land poisoned to the very core. He welcomed the rain when it began to fall for it took the foul stench from the air, he closed his eyes and tilted his head back for a moment and allowed the rain to wash over his face. Too long had he watched this savagery, too long had he witnessed friends and Kin die at the Mercy of Danes and greedy Irish clans. The rain felt cold,  it ran along new formed lines on his face he had brought back from the Burren. He was removed from his moment of solitude with a roar from one of Mathghamain’s men. “Movement beyond the trees!” Brian raced up the small hill from which the man looked down. His keen eyes scoured the terrain below, there was at least thirty men on horseback . Brian could not make out if they were Danes or Clans people but they were leaving in a hurry. Brian’s commands were direct and strong.

   “Conal, Angus, Fergus, Cahal and Phelan ride as swift as you can, flank left along the trees by the river when you pass the riders, wait with Bows on the ready. The rest of you with me.” Brian charged without a seconds haste, a dozen men followed with hooves pounding like rolls of thunder. They cut through the trees winching as branches and twigs lashed their skin, adrenaline surged through their bodies, their blood was up from the scene they had just witnessed and if the men they pursued were responsible they would pay a hard price. Brian knew these woods as did the men who rode with him, they did not use the road through the forest for time was of the essence.

   The steep path they paved proved fatal for a Dalcassian as his horse lost its footing, crashing, tumbling and crushing the rider beneath it. The Dalcassians pressed on pushing their steeds to their limits. Brian was the first to emerge from the trees, he clenched his Tuagh Chatha (Battle Axe) with his right hand, the warriors eyes were fierce and glistening with rage, his tangled hair blew in the wind with his teeth pressed together and his snarl distorting his face. His men followed closely, they had seen that berserk look before and knew it’s reciprocator’s fate. Brian galloped on as they dashed up the road, tearing mud and stone in their wake. They came over the hill and Brian felt his heart beat harder, faster as the riders they tracked came into view.

   It came as no surprise to him when he seen the riders slow and turn to face them.The Dalcassins were outnumbered two to one, they had faced far greater odds than this before and if the hunted riders thought of slowing their pursuers down through intimidation, they were very wrong. It only added speed to a furious gallop. the final stretch of roadway was all that stood between them. Brian’s suspicions were confirmed on approach as he observed two wagons with Iron cages each holding children and women imprisoned within. The Dalcassians broke off into two separate parties each flanking on either side of the enemy and cutting as they rode. Brian stretched out and let the cruelty of his Tuagh Chatha be felt. His strike was swift and accurate, he knew the look of his Danish enemy, he watched the life leave his prey, it was not his first time to see this nor would it be his last.

   Brian now a tried warrior and a fierce adversary, one that these Danes would never have encountered before. Five Danes fell as the Dalcassians passed. Brian turned to make another charge but the enemy was on him, swords flashing , eyes peering through black iron helmets. Two Danes rushed Brian, he tried to pull his horse back but a Danish longsword cut its mark along his ribs, his horse threw him in the commotion. His landing was soft as he rolled through the wet mud, he stood recovering quickly, found his target and let his Tuagh Chatha fly finding the same Dane who had just cut him. Now drawing both Cloidheamhs (Short Swords) in each hand, he gave the next charging Dane a sinister smile. Covered in blood and mud, his teeth and eyes the only part of him untouched by the wet muck. Conal’s band of men had arrived at the edge of the tree-line, they positioned themselves and each picked a target. Conal paused for a second as he watched Brian cut a Dane from his horse. He reminded Conal of the stories the old Seanchaithe had told of  the warriors of the Fianna, how a beserker rage would distort and transform them on the battlefield into demonic warriors.

   Brian looked ferocious, the remaining Danes approached cautiously with fear and uncertainty, giving power and strength to the Dalcassians. Conal gave the order and five arrows loosed from the trees with four of them finding their targets. Danish numbers were diminishing and odds began to even for the Dalcassians. The battle did not last for long. Brian and his men were merciless, allowing none of the Danes to survive. There was no glory to be had with the loss of two Dalcassians and three of Mathghamain’s men, including Aodhan, there was only room for sorrow.

   The rain became heavier after the battle. Brian looked to the prisoner’s and called for his men to release them. Their faces held despair and anguish, their freedom would not relieve their pain or heartbreak. Brian felt their grief, he looked to his war torn party of men, they were haggard, bloody and weary from battle yet still a fire burned in their eyes. The trees creaked and groaned with the elevated wind, the rain blew in every direction. A strong storm was brewing.

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Mór

Her hair stretched across the pillow like a golden sunset sea in a storm. The candle flicked its last flame as the wick ran out. The dim white moonlight was all that remained, youthful skin absorbed the light revealing this ghostly beauty as she slept.

Mór’s dreams were filled with blood and fire. Beads of persperation began to form on her forehead as she grimaced. Once again sleep was left behind as her green eyes opened wide. Mór’s hand slid under her pillow, she ran her fingers along the pomel of the blade she kept there. Her thoughts were on Brian, anxiety and fear were her awakening thoughts for a long time now. It was useless there would be no sleep for Mór this night, sitting up the sheep skin slid off her body to reveal her nakedness. She pulled back her hair and clipped it with a bronze chaplet.

She stood and looked to her infant child as he lay peacefully in his bed of straw – six weeks old to the day. His father had not seen him yet and Mór wondered if he ever would. She walked towards the far wall to fetch wax and flint, as she reached it she heard the door sound a long slow creak, it was her chamber door and somebody was entering cautiously and silently into her space, she froze transfixed, eyes an ocean of fear in the darkness of her chamber.

No she thought as she seen the glint off the blade she had held close for so long, it lay on the other side of the room with the sheepskin which had covered her. Thoughts flooded her mind, it’s the enemy, but how, not here, Brian had told her Grianán Lachtna their dwelling place was an impregnable fortress. Mór held her breath for fear of sound as the shadowy figure stealthy  moved just feet away from her, holding  a short sword. Her feelings were justified and her fear real, any rational thought was smothered with alarm bells roaring, the enemy was in her chamber.

He will discover me any moment now she feared as he paused and looked towards Mór’s bed, she watched not daring to twitch or move. Now his attention switched to Murchadh her infant son. She realized the assassin had thought she still lay under the sheep skin as it’s fold might have suggested. Her primal instincts took over the situation, what was a motionless Gargoyle still in the moonlight now moved like a cat from the shadows where she was frozen. Her hand gripped the glinting pomel she had focused on and with the blade firmly in hand she lunged forward. The assassin with his sword brought high to take the childs life was stunned, he turned to meet his aggressor but his action was off by a nanosecond it was all Mór needed as she lodged the blade into the center of his chest, the assassin replied with a high pitched shriek, Mór twisted the blade and let it go as the man put his hands to her throat, she hurried backwards and the assassin fell like an anchor leaving a Knarr, hitting the stone floor with a slap.

Jumping over the body she plucked Murchadh from his bed , the infant screaming with the startled awakening. Holding him tight to her chest two guards crashed onto the bloody scene holding flaming torches and drawn swords shedding light all around the chamber. Bledros, her trusted guard , whom her father sent with her when she first came to Kinora to wed Brian Boru  held the body on the floor at sword point for a moment. Then with his foot turned him to reveal one of the servants who had served Brian’s family for many years. The assassin was dead. Bledros spat and muttered ” traitor. ” Mór kissed her sons forehead as she gave thanks to her dreams of blood and fire.

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The Antediluvian Forest.

   The Yew wood bow had become increasingly heavy. Drawing the bow made Conal’s arm tremble as he brought his hand high to steady his aim. It was no use the shake had become worse, his strength was leaving him. He took a deep breath remembering his training, it steadied him slightly. The arrow rested on the bowhand Knuckle but the pain of the draw was disrupting his concentration. The deer grazed undisturbed – it was almost three days since Conal or any of the remaining Dalcsssians had eaten. The hunt was impossible with game so scarce.

   Without his consent the arrow took flight, firing a good four feet above the deer. The noise of its action made the animal bolt. Conal looked into the vast forest in despair, he felt his body step out of itself. Dropping his bow Conal clutched his belt and brought it in another loop to prevent his trousers sliding down his waist, his flesh was withering and his bones protruding. He wondered if his wife and two sons would recognize him if he ever did return home.

   He felt a hand rest on his shoulder, it was the hand of the man he shared the hunt with, a man he believed in and would follow through hell and fire, that man was Brian Bóruma mac Cennétig (Brian Boru).He too looked frail from weight loss but the light and power in his eyes lent strength to Conal. ” The arrow my friend you must retrieve it. ” Conal could not believe what Brian was asking of him. ” I can’t do it Brian, I am dying…my strength has left me.” Brians eyes flashed above his prominent nose as he replied ” there is still strength in you and me as long as we stand and breath, we are all that stands between these grim foreigners and our sons and daughters laying safely in their beds.” Brian removed his hand from Conal’s shoulder. ” Now retrieve the arrow and cover our tracks we must keep moving, these Danes are closing in on us, we must keep them off the sent, are we agreed?”

   Conal nodded and forced a smile. ” Be quick Conal, I will return to the Dalcassians, we leave camp shortly. ” Brian slapped his back before leaving. The morning sun broke through the trees and rested on Conal’s face for a moment. He took a morsel of energy from it. Wearily he placed one foot on front of the other and headed for the direction in which the deer had grazed. To his surprise he founds the arrow easy enough.Conal felt light headed as he picked it from the fallen leaves, he placed it into his quiver  and began his journey back to camp.

   Upon arriving he found Brian and the Dalcassian’s locked in heated discussions. He found his alloy and friend Aongus leaning heavily against a huge ash tree. He looked a little better than he had a few days ago the wound on his forearm from a Danish longsword was stuffed with moss and bandaged, it looked like he had escaped infection. He too was very weak and only for the ash tree this big man would not be able to support himself standing. Aongus was perhaps the biggest man of the remaining party with a barrel chest and a large square head, he wore his hair short bar one platted lock but even the fierce Aongus had faded to an older shrunken version of his former self.

   ” Whats happening Aongus? ” He took a moment to reply as it was obvious his concentration lay on the parties debate. ” Scout says riders approach on the main path south of here, looks like Mathghamain’s looking for us.” There was a slight bitterness in his tone when mentioning the name Mathghamain and Conal felt  a slight sting to it also. Brian’s men had become more reserved with Mathghamain and a lot of them held heavy grudges towards him and his followers with Dalcassians dying in the wild whilst they slept in warmth and comfort with their wives, their bellies full as they watched their children grow. Most felt betrayed as they gave their lives for a cause as Mathghamain held a peace with the very enemy who hunted them.

   Conal and Aongus found themselves sitting when Mathghamain’s men accompanied by Brians Scout entered the camp. They received no welcome. Conal listened to the sounds of the forest, its insects and birds over powered Brian and the other mens wispers , the soft movement of the leaves made his eyelids heavy but he fought sleep as he noticed one of Mathghamain’s men walk from Dalcassian to Dalcassian handing out large slivers of red meat. The men ravaged it in seconds. Conal felt his mouth go wet, if he had the strength he would have run to the man with the bag of meat and pulled it from his grip, it seemed like an eternity until the man stood above Aoungus and Conal. They received the meat and ate like wild animals, Conal felt tingles go up the back of his head,it tasted so good. Both men looked at each other and laughed. Then Brian let his voice be heard ” Dalcassian’s gather your strength, we’re going home. “

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Cian Of Desmond

A thick grey fog shrouded The Rath Raithleann Ringfort, broken mist covered the surrounding area. It looked errie to Cian of Desmond. He had seen it under fog before, it wasn’t this that unsettled him, nor could he find an explanation for the uneasy feeling but instincts told him something was array.

As always he Dismounted his horse a few feet before the entrance. Cian was met with cool glances from his fathers men as he passed them. They did not agree with his political views, less of them greeted him on his visits and most completely avoided direct eye contact. Cian had few friends here. He observed more horses than usual at the posts – purebred, fine horses. He guessed the men riding them were not on a par  with the beasts as he noticed the tall white horse with the black patch belonged to Ivar Of Limerick. Cian gave a curt nod as he passed the two guards at the entrance to his fathers house, the great oak doors creaked open. In the hall a table was set with wine in casks, baked bread still steaming from the ovens, silver trays were laid with varieties of meats, there were baskets of apples with blueberries, blackberries and strawberries, the benches were crammed with bodies, a few of them Cian recognized.

Ivar the Dane from Limerick was seated next to Cian’s father and at Ivars side sat the enormous Viking Egil, his large hands held a bone of meat to his devouring mouth as his eyes swept the table for his next consumption. An assassin, murderer, rapist, cold, callus, and a dangerous man to cross, here in his fathers hall devouring his meat and drinking his wine. Cian also eyed Donnabhán King Of Fhidhghinte to his fathers right, he sipped his wine as he spied Cian over the lip of his cup. A silence fell on the gathering as Cian entered. Maol -Mhuadh King of Desmond and father to Cian held his sons stare for a moment before he spoke. There was no greeting only a question –  ” What news of The Dalcassians ?”

Cians unsettled feeling was justified. His eyes flicked to Ivar before answering, ” Mathghamain wants peace he swears it, Brian Boru has gone rouge without his brothers support…” Ivar spat as he slammed his cup against the table spilling wine everywhere. ” I want the heads of every Dalcassian there is and my bed chamber shall not know my presence until this is so, there shall be no peace as long as Mathghamain and that dog brother of his still breath! ” Cian ignored the Viking and addressed his father ” Since when does Maol-Mhuadh Lord Of Desmond surrender his hall to these Dark Foreigners ?”

Ivar leapt from the bench drawing his longsword, Egil arose to assist him sucking the goose from his sausage like fingers. Maol-Mhuadh held up his hand and asked Ivar to sit. ” Forgive my son Ivar, his wit is half of what it should be, his abilities do not surpass that of the stable hands. ” Donnabhán could not mask his sly smile, his eyes danced with delight as he watched this confrontation unfold. Cian held Ivars stone cold look, he had no love for Brian Boru but they did share one common desire – to remove Ivars head from his shoulders and put in on a spike.

Cian turned on his heel without a word leaving the hall and Ivars roars echoing  behind him. A serving boy watched Ivar as his insulting taunts went unanswered. He wiped the foam from his mouth before seating himself again. An ice chill travelled up the spine of the young boy as Ivars cool grey eyes locked on his. ” Don’t just stand there boy, Bring me some wine! ” The serving boy nervously approached holding the cask of wine, hoping Ivar could not read the thought on his mind which was – ‘ I need to get word to Brian Boru. ‘

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Brian Boru And His Struggle With The Danes

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Mathghamhain, Lord of Thomond and older brother to the Dalcassian warrior Brian Boru sat in his chamber with the sound of a fire crackling as it cast demon shadows up the walls and onto his face. He had made an uneasy peace with the Danes of Limerick whilst his brother Brian, against Mathghamhain’s will took his own followers deep into the vast, Antediluvian forest. Beginning a year long Guerrilla war.

Their bold attempt seemed to do well initially, Brian had trained his warriors in the art of the Tuagh Chatha (Battle Axe) and the Cloidheamh (short sword). He had thought them to be proficient with both hands in combat. The Danes were no match for the Dalcassian Warriors as they found out upon the chase as the warriors retreated into the woodlands. Their long swords were useless in the trees but the short handed weapons of the Dalcassians proved to be far superior as they cut each Danish Viking down.

It didn’t take the Danes long to stop this pursuit. Instead they hunt the game in the surrounding areas to starve Brian and his warriors out. With the impossible weather conditions of the Burren and the hunger amonst his men, they had began to perish. First one, then Ten and last Mathghamain had heard it was as high as seventy men Brian had lost. “He must stop this folly ” Mathghamains blood was rising, but his fury was not half that of Brians. He could not help feel pride for his younger brother through his frustration . ” This ends now “, with this thought he bellowed for the guard in the hall. A young man entered, he was no more than Seventeen with scattered stubble and a hard look upon his face. He stood silent awaiting his masters command. Mathghamains eyes held the flame from the fire as he spoke. ” bring home my brother. “

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Bark Alone.

I stand alone my friends long gone

Memories old and ancient now

Better days and sweeter times

The years, decades and centuries past

just like the snow flake that fell to sudden death

I suppose all must go

Some fast and others slow

The world I have come to know

Concrete, smokey, mean and cold

My roots still strong but not for long

This road will widen to end my rustling song.

ImageWarren Faye.

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