Dawn was a yellow streak on the horizon as a Roman cargo ship set anchor near a small cove off the eastern coast of Hibernia. Amphora after amphora of wine, along with other goods from the ship, was hoisted into the smaller rowboats under much cursing and swearing, since most of the men doing the unloading and hoisting were anything but sober.
First ashore and out of the boat was a tall, dark-haired man whose hair was just beginning to gray. He turned to the rowdy men behind him with an angry swirl of his cloak and a furious expression on his face.
“Be quiet, you drunken louts, or the entire dun shall be down on the shore!”
“Why ever should we?” grumbled a man called Conaire. Dragging those cursed containers of wine over the pebbles of the shore and up the path of the cliff was hard work.
“You do not think all this loot can be kept a secret, do you?”
“How could anything at all be kept a secret with you, Conaire?” the man replied. “Certainly, once you wake up to make yourself useful for the day, you shall be the first to inform all and sundry, down to the very birds themselves, of what we have done!” His tone was pleasant enough. The drunken Conaire didn’t even blink.
But the next thing he knew, the man had grabbed him by the edges of his cloak, frighteningly close to his tunic neck.
“Many ways there are to ensure a man’s silence. It can be bought with women, with a full belly or with wine and ale, but best of all is to silence the man himself.” Conaire was let go, but not before he had received a good rattling shake and almost fell backwards upon the amphora he had been hauling.
In a low, ominous growl, the man went on, “Should there be any need to silence you, Conaire?”
Conaire averted his eyes. “No, lord.”
“Excellent. Now haul those amphorae back up to the dun, and be quiet about it!”
Conaire had lost his tasty wine-fuelled glow, the rest of his men had suddenly become silent and there was nothing left to do but haul off their loot to the dun.
Situated on a cliff top, half a day’s walk from the bruidean of Coll at the Ford of the Hurdles lay the dun of the Hill, the main residence of Ciarán mac Broccan, a mor tuath king of Laighin. It had been a Roman ship he had captured that had brought him back from Britannia, and the remainder of the ship’s cargo – after what he had taken for himself and his tribe – had been sold off at Deva, where Ciarán paid a few disreputable traders very well to do just that. Winter supplies that were meant for the legion at Deva were too easily identifiable to be disposed of there, and so Ciarán had brought them on to Isca, where few would be the wiser, and fewer questions were asked. What he had wanted for himself and his people, he had kept, and the cargo – including many amphorae of excellent wine originally destined for the XX’s officers – was now being unloaded in various locations all over his dun, while Ciarán himself retreated to his hall and fell onto his King’s bench with an inward sigh of relief. If he had hoped to make a discreet return to his dun, his people had spoiled all chances of that. Ciarán had brought back wine from Britannia, and what he brought back he was usually generous to share, which was one reason he had remained king – and later, a mor tuath king ruling over three tribes beside his own – for almost thirty years now.
The big double doors of the hall were open to the new day, and sunlight flooded into the dark corners, illuminating the cold ashes on the hearth, the dead rushes on the wooden floor, and even the man who ruled the hall, the dun and the land around it. But even though the king of the Dun of the Hill had been absent from his dun for many days, it was a lavishly appointed hall. Silver cups and niello plate adorned the King’s table, along with several ewes of elegant Roman glassware, and the wall-hangings glowed with both Erinnach patterns and thick, costly Parthian rugs. The wooden pillars were elaborately carved in curving, twisting lines and stylized vines, picked out in gold leaf, and the east-facing double doors were inlaid with white bronze studs and decorations. The hall spoke volumes about its owner, his obvious wealth and his eclectic tastes. The man on the King’s Bench on the dais near one end of the hall was a different matter.
A time there had once been, when Ciarán had been widely considered one of the fairest men in Laighin, with fine, even features, gray-green eyes and the black hair that had given him his name. Still striking, but he was now beginning to show his life on his face, and his hair was turning gray.
His unquestionable skills with sword and spear had made other kings from both Laighin, Midhe and even Moma offer their daughters in marriage, but although Ciarán had married three times, he had also buried three wives. Of the three, only one had managed to give him a living child – his spineless son, Diarmait, now a hostage with his detested neighbor Láegaire the Black to the south. Damned boy had been stupid enough to be captured in a cattle raid this summer past, and so, he remained with Láegaire and from what Ciarán had heard, quite content with it.
Láegaire. Now, there was a toothache that would not die, simply because that tooth could not be extracted. Láegaire had the favor – and the ear – of king Ír of Laighin, and shared blood through his grandmother with the High King Lughaid mac Con, whom he had also supported when mac Con had fought for the High Kingship, as Ciarán had not. Láegaire mac Conchobar was his equal in rank and his peer in wealth and the prestige he held, despite all the dirty dealings Ciarán had had to do through the years to maintain his own. Far worse to Ciarán’s thinking were all those other, far more weighty ties to wealth and power that so outdid his. Láegaire was of royal Eoghan blood through his father’s line and of the line of Cruachan twice over, through his great-grandmother Scacath, and through his late wife, Aibhlin. At a Samhain Assembly at Tara four and twenty years ago, Aibhlin had created such a sensation among the kings of Erin that even Ciarán had bid for her hand, but she had chosen Láegaire, that upstart, over him, Ciarán, whose family had been in Laighin for far longer.
He was in the process of thinking far more poisonous thoughts about his neighbor when his reverie was interrupted by his rechtair, Eochaid.
“Lord…” Eochaid bowed low. “The men have finished packing away the goods you have returned with.”
“Good!” Ciarán yawned, showing that he still had all his teeth. These past few days had been hectic, and he was not getting younger. He squinted in the bright morning light. “Tell the men that they may share one of the amphorae if they like, but do make sure they only take one!”
With such a large container of wine, his men would be utterly worthless the rest of the day. No matter. It was the tail end of battle season, but no one had dared attack Ciarán or his duns for many years, and he did not think that likely to change any time soon.
“I praise the Gods and give them thanks for your safe return, Ciarán.”
Ciarán nearly jumped out of his skin. His drui, Roisin, had come up upon him as he usually did, with no noise and less warning. It was one habit of Roisin’s that Ciarán found most annoying, and it certainly annoyed him now.
Roisin settled himself on his customary bench with a flourish of his cloak. Unlike Ciarán’s hair braided in the one long braid that signified him as a man of Laighin, Roisin’s long, gray hair flowed unbound down his back from the front of his shaved scalp, which did nothing much at all to flatter him.
“My sorrow, that I so surprised you.” Roisin did not bother to look the least bit sorry.
Ciarán waved him off. “I was merely a long way away in my thoughts.”
“True it is, Ciarán, that you have many reasons to be distracted, and much to think about.”
Immediately, Ciarán became defensive.
“What in the name of Lugh is that supposed to mean? I am a mor tuath king of Laighin, I protect four tribes within my borders, and I have returned from Britannia with more grain than we could ever grow for ourselves for my people – what reasons should I have to worry?”
“What reasons not to worry, my King? Merely think, something you are not too wont to do, if you can possibly avoid it. You have been taking Roman coin and Roman goods for many years now, all for not attacking Roman interests in Britannia and leaving the poor people in peace – and what do you do? You attack them anyway. Your fields are full of Briton cows, your byres are bursting with Briton sheep, all carried off despite your agreements and assurances to those Romans…”
Ciarán, who moments before had been simply exhausted, was now wide awake and absolutely livid. Roisin was his drui, and as such his counselor and more than equal, and unlike his men, Roisin could neither be frightened nor intimidated into submission.
“What else would you have me do? Unlike you, Roisin, I have no magic to my hand, no spells to pronounce! I have a people to provide for, and my men-at-arms to keep occupied, or else they shall all of them head right down the Slighe Cualann and straight to Láegaire the Black, who already…” Ciarán’s voice dropped nearly a full octave and hissed between his clenched teeth – “has enough, and more than enough!”
Roisin looked amused, and did not so much as flinch at Ciarán’s blazing temper.
“Aye, right enough…that he does, that he does…and all without ever taking a single Roman coin!”
“And what of it? The Romans offered…coin, grain, supplies we cannot trade or barter for – why should I have refused them?”
Roisin shook his head. This was an old argument, an argument they had had between them for years and years, and it was, alas, an argument that would never end.
“I have never advised you in error, Ciarán, and I do not do so now. I believe as I did when first the Romans came to this shore, that you should never have taken their coin, never their advice, and above all else, you should never have turned against them. The Romans hold all power in Britannia now, and far more so now that the Cruithni are losing against them in Alba. They have made life quite difficult for many men besides you, far worthier men even, and I do think you have no idea as to what – and whom – you are truly up against.”
Roisin helped himself to a cup of ale from the Roman glass ewer on the table beside Ciarán. The ewer was one of many luxurious prestige objects in Ciarán’s hall that had been paid with Roman coin, the Roman coin that had created this trouble in the first place. He drank down his ale with a sigh, and absentmindedly rubbed the gray fuzz on his scalp.
Ciarán was not easily mollified, and certainly not now, when his drui had done all he could to irritate him even more than usual.
“So, then, drui…what are you saying? That I should renege on my oath to the Romans and send them packing like common thieves the next time they deign to visit my duns?” Any more sarcasm in his voice, and Ciarán would soon be obliged to pay Roisin a blush fine for his offensive tone.
Roisin glared back at his King. He set down his ale cup on the table with a slow, deliberate motion, and shook his head.
“Ciarán mac Broccan, I am merely saying, you are playing a very, very dangerous game indeed. From me alone of all your retinue, you will always hear the truth. You think that the Romans are fools enough to be deceived when you say aye and yes to all they propose, you think that they will never discover you are the one behind those raids, you think that they shall never find out who stole their very winter supply ships – aye, I know all that tale well enough, your men are only too willing to talk, if one knows how to ask,” Roisin held up his hand to silence Ciarán, who had begun a vehement denial – “and far worse, you think that should you need their help against your foes, you shall only have to let a word or two fall, and they shall rush to Erin to offer their help.”
“Am I not a good enough warrior on my own merit to slaughter my foes on my own?” roared Ciarán. He was so furious, a costly Roman silver drinking cup containing equally costly Chian crashed to the floor with a loud clatter and a large crimson splash.
Roisin’s composure never faltered.
“If that were the case, my King, then what need would you have of the Romans?” He took a deep breath, for what he had to say might cost any other man his life, or his head.
“And why then, Ciarán mac Broccan,” Roisin went on, “would you take such elaborate measures to cover your deeds in Britannia? Why should you be so afraid; why do you quake in your very kidneys with fear of what the Romans might do to you in retaliation?”
Ciarán was so incensed; he flew off the King’s bench and onto his feet faster than Roisin could blink. Eochaid, who had entered the hall to ask a question, hastily beat a retreat.
“I am not afraid! I am a prince of Laighin and an Erinnach mor tuath king! I have nothing, nothing to fear – from the Romans or anyone at all!” Ciarán bellowed.
“Aye so?” Roisin’s face and voice both were skeptical. “If that were the case, my King, then why should you take such measures to hide what you hold – rightly or wrongly? Even those amphorae – why, you have them broken into shards, ground into powder and plowed into your very fields to hide their origins! That Roman, from Deva…him you have watched so carefully the man cannot yet go to the trenches on his own without an escort, an Erinnach escort, mind!”
“What would you have me do, drui?” Ciarán hissed. “Should I proceed to the legion camp in Deva with the goods and there apologize for the error of my ways?” he sneered. ‘Forgive me my trespass, Galba, but it seems I took these goods by mistake…’ Ha! The Romans would never let me leave alive!” He was pacing the hall now, up and down the length of the hearth. No reasoning with a drui, and surely not this one!
“For certain that they would never pay you again!” muttered Roisin. “Although I can well see that it would solve many of their problems to have you killed…for one thing, there would be far fewer raids!”
Ciarán collapsed on his bench. He was about to reach for his silver wine cup, when he remembered he had thrown it on the floor. And where was his cup-bearer when he needed him, anyway? He sighed, a massive sigh that shook him from head to feet.
“Well enough, then. What would you have me do?” Ciarán’s voice was reasonable again, or at least much calmer. He knew that he might lie and deceive anyone at all else, but never his drui. Alas, but his troubles might be less if he could!
For the second time that morning, Roisin smiled.
“To begin, my King…quit your raids. You have amassed a great deal in all your Briton dealings, and more than that in Roman coin. You no longer need to raid, as once you did.”
“I only did so that I could provide for my peoples.”
“True it is…but then, it is through no fault of yours that your southern neighbor has much the better land for crops and kine.”
Ciarán growled “And here I had just managed to forget about him and you just the one to remind me!”
“That is as may be…but if I should advise you at all, then I should advise you…leave the Romans alone, or else watch and feel your fear grow worse by far…I think, Ciarán, that you already are quite afraid enough.”
Ciarán looked Roisin full in the face. “Have care, drui, that you remain the only one who knows that!”
“I am a King’s counsel, and know full well how to keep my own.” Roisin replied indignantly.
“More to the point”, continued Roisin after a moment’s thought, “perhaps the time has come for you to seek to strengthen your alliances here in Erin. Samhain Assembly looms ahead at Tara in another moon. Have you thought to marry again?”
Ciarán groaned. “Why…you do not think that three dead wives are enough? I have no wish to marry. All women do is become pregnant and die in childbed, and none of the children ever live.”
Roisin leaned closer. “Yes…but there is one…young she is, and apparently fairer far than even her mother, who was quite famed in her own day…who has reached the age where her father might consider marriage…think back, Ciarán, to the Lughnasa fair at Dun Aillin…”
That bit of news stopped Ciarán’s train of thought. Lughnasa fair…but only one girl had made an impression…
He groaned again when he remembered. “Ye Gods, Roisin, not Láegaire’s daughter?”
“Indeed, Láegaire’s daughter. You know, as even I do, that she caused quite a stir at Dun Aillin.”
“Láegaire would never agree.”
“Perhaps not,” conceded Roisin. “However, it surely could not hurt to ask?”
“Láegaire,” Ciarán added pointedly, “has the support of the king of Laighin, and has no need of an alliance with me…”
Roisin was relentless in pursuing a point. “But his daughter? Is she not fair? Would she not grace your duns and your people, increase your status and prestige with the other kings of Laighin? Consider, my King, the blood of Queen Medb herself flows in her veins…”
Ciarán’s eyes wandered off into the far distance as he recalled Lughnasa fair. There was a girl, nearly a woman grown by this time, who could inflame the loins of even standing stones themselves, he thought. And sacred Aenghus, such a girl she was…
“Lugh’s beard, Roisin! Between your insistent scheming, Láegaire the Black and those cursed Romans, I shall never know a moment’s peace!”
Roisin sat up straighter and arranged his cloak in orderly folds around him. He smiled his small, secretive smile as Ciarán again leapt up from his bench and began pacing the hall in agitation.
“You, Ciarán mac Broccan, are a mor tuath king of Laighin and of Erin. Peace should be the last thing on your mind…”
Ciarán located his wine cup on the floor and poured himself a measure. He added no water, but merely drank it down in one long gulp.
There was a long pause, as the wine made its way into his stomach and glowed there like a hidden jewel.
He wiped off the dregs from the corners of his mouth with his tunic sleeve.
“With Láegaire – and his daughter – to the south, with Lughaidh mac Con to the north at Tara, and with the Romans to the east, peace is a thing that I shall never know.” Before he could stop himself, he added “Particularly with you as my drui!”
Roisin glanced down at the folded hands in his lap, before he looked up again at his king.
“Then perhaps, Ciarán, it would behoove us to prepare for war. In which case, you would do well to heed your foes.” He rose to his feet and walked to the doors of the hall.
But something made him turn back toward Ciarán, as he stood at the doors. His King sat slumped on his bench, shoulders sagging, hunched over his precious silver wine cup.
“Many reasons you have to be afraid, Ciarán. Do not forget.”
With a swirl of his gray cloak, Roisin was gone.
By late afternoon, Ciarán had refilled his wine cup many times over. But not even the priceless vintage in his cup could make him forget that he had indeed, as his drui had so rightly pointed out, many reasons to be afraid.