Nothing but heaven itself is better
than a friend who is really a friend.
– TITUS MACCIUS PLAUTUS
The Roman emissary was having a hard time trying to convince this incredibly stubborn – if not downright fearsome – Hibernian king to give him the information he needed. This particular king was not one of the Roman client kings, and although he was known to the Alexandrian trader who held the monopoly on trade in Hibernia, he was not known much to the Romans in Deva. So Priscus had sent him, Gaius Vibidius Bestia, the only living offspring of a retired Roman legionary of the XX and a Hibernian slave, to see if he would be amenable to a little friendly palm greasing. Priscus needed information on Ciarán mac Broccan, and as his neighbor, this Láegaire mac Conchobar might be expected to know a thing or two the Romans had overlooked. Bestia had tried everything he could think of – flattery, which definitely did not work with this particular man, who had patently heard it all before, and bribery with the best Gaulish red to be had in Burdigala. With no success.
The king was bad enough. Things got much worse when the Roman shifted his gaze slightly to the left and right of him. On the king’s right sat a woman in her late twenties to judge by her face, and from her clothing and unusual lack of jewelry or ostentation he knew that she was his chief advisor – and a Druid. He was well used to seeing Hibernian druids, and for the most part, they seemed every bit as human as he was himself. But a woman and a Druid – that was something that gave him a long, superstitious pause for thought. On the King’s left sat a young man – scarcely come to manhood to judge by his beard, and so like the older man on the elaborately carved and upholstered King’s bench that it must be his son. Beyond him, another, older man in his thirties, in a splendid tunic dyed in many expensive shades of blue. At his side, the unmistakable shape of a harp satchel – the king’s bard. They were looking at him, all of them, with that same expression of polite if slightly annoyed boredom he could see all over the King’s face, and he was fast going nowhere, with either his wine or his solicitations. He cleared his throat and tried again.
“Lord, it is known all over this part of Laighin that Laoghaire the Black is a most powerful and just mor tuath king, who rules his tribes well. Even the Romans in Deva have–”
The King’s eyes flashed ominously green when he interrupted him.
“The Romans,” said Láegaire mac Conchobar, mor tuath king of the Laighean Eoghan, “come here often enough, just as you yourself. Strangely, they have never mentioned my prestige or standing here in Laighin, although they always have more than enough to say about just how much they are willing to pay me in goods and Roman coin not to raid their shores in Britannia!” He leaned forward in his chair toward the hearth. “But they forget one thing.”
He paused, and Bestia froze where he sat.
“I have no need of the Romans or their coin – which would be worthless here in Erin in any case, the silver is so debased it is even useless to melt down – and I do not…” his voice dropped even deeper, and the emissary blinked, startled, “raid in Britannia, nor have I ever. As you can see,” one long arm swept out to encompass the sumptuously appointed hall and all its contents, “I have not the need, and furthermore, I have not the desire to do so.”
“I apologize, Lord, if I have offended you. You can be assured I meant no offense.”
A thousand curses on you and all your kin, Priscus, thought Bestia. For the mere slight of being half-Hibernian by birth, you condemn me to this trying, severely underpaid task of requesting information from a Hibernian king who has no intention of giving me anything at all, never mind information!
Nevertheless, Priscus had him by his very hairy apples – and he was honor-bound to at least try. Might as well just take that sword hanging in its wooden scabbard by the King’s side, plunge it into his heart and be done with it…He took a deep breath.
“Lord, I come now to the real reason for my so importuning you. I can assure you that the Romans in Deva hold you in the highest esteem and regard, and have no issues with you at all. However, it seems we have been having them with your northern neighbor. What might you be able to tell me about Ciarán mac Broccan?”
The atmosphere in the warm hall grew suddenly very chilly, despite the crackling fire on the hearth behind him and the warm afternoon beyond the open double doors. Bestia noticed that the ban drui by Láegaire’s side shifted slightly in her seat, and the bard on Láegaire’s left leaned forward.
Láegaire himself did not move so much as a muscle. His green eyes flashed again. He took a leisurely sip of ale, carefully placed his cup on the table before him, and cleared his throat before he answered.
“I could say much about Ciarán mac Broccan and none of it good. We of the Eoghan have never had any quarrel with the Moccu Garba, although it follows not at all that Ciarán the man has no quarrel with us. Every battle season, his folk try to take my cattle or my sheep, and every battle season so far, we have driven them off my land. The man envies my prestige with the King of Laighin and the High King of Erin, he covets my lands and the fruits of my peoples, and he rages at my very ancestry. He would take it all, if he could.” Láegaire looked Bestia right in the face.
“The which he cannot, as I hold his only son as my hostage, and since it is well-known all over this part of Laighin just what the Moccu Garba are and are not – they know less about farming than even the cattle they steal – he takes what he can where he can – in Britannia.”
“Lord, is he –” Bestia considered a moment, wondering how to phrase his next question. Hibernians were such sticklers for formality. He tried again.
“Lord, does he hold much prestige in this part of Laighin? Is he held in honor at the courts of King Ír, or at Tara?”
“It would be better for all, not least the people of the Moccu Garba, if he were. For one, he would have no need to sully the reputation of his forebears with his raids if he did.”
Lugaid took up the thread from his King. “It is said among the bards of Laighin, that a time there was when the Moccu Garba had no need of raiding in Britannia, and no need to fear their neighbors, and naught at all to fear from a Laighean king. But some long time ago, when the kingship of the Moccu Garba shifted to the branch that has given Ciarán mac Broccan to the world, much that was theirs was lost, and their prestige most of all. Since that time, they have taken what they could not grow, and stolen what they could not keep. Their reputation among the peoples and tribes of Laighin they have never regained.”
Bestia tried to look away from the both the man and his compelling voice, but found that he could not. This man was clearly no journeyman bard, but then, this tribe was no ordinary Hibernian tribe. The order and prosperity he had already seen everywhere around him, and even this opulent hall, had confirmed it. Even their ale was excellent, much as he hated to admit it.
“So you see…” Láegaire continued, “Ciarán mac Broccan is no friend to the Eoghan, no supporter of king Ír, and no ally of mine.”
“But you knew that he raided in Britannia?” asked Bestia eagerly. Too eagerly, as it happened, for Láegaire gave him a long, stern look that left him in no doubt what he thought of him.
“Bestia…strange name for an Erinnach man…never mind. Go to Ciarán mac Broccan yourself, you fool! Go to the halls of the Moccu Garba, and you will see Roman wares and luxuries, rugs and silver, gold and jewels, corn and wine – all of it taken from Britannia!” Láegaire had become exasperated with this stupid ox of a man, and had no more patience left, sacred guest or no. He hammered his huge fist into the table before him, and the empty ale cup danced, bounced, and fell to the floor with a mighty clatter. Bestia nearly jumped out of his skin.
“Should we repeat the tales that are told in this part of Laighin for you, of how Ciarán and his men lie in drunken stupors for days on end after they return from their raids, drunk on the Roman wine they have stolen from the legions of Britannia? Should I have my son take you to his fields and show you the sheep that once grazed Briton meadows, or perhaps show you the brood of half-Briton children he and his men have bred on Briton bondswomen? Ah, but no! I can take you, right this moment, and let you see the cattle that even now chew their cud on his grass, branded with the eagle of Rome! By the Gods of Erin, man! Just how foolish do you think I am?” Láegaire leaned back on his bench.
“Cup-bearer!” he roared. Erc, his young cupbearer, hastened forward, retrieved his ale cup and refilled it.
The woman leaned over and whispered something in his ear, and Láegaire took a deep breath and a longer, deeper draught of his ale.
“Do you know…” he finally said after an endless silence, “I have the strangest feeling about you, young man. Bestia – a Roman name, and yet, you are not, or not entirely. I gather my reputation has preceded me even to the Romans in Britannia, since they had not the mettle to send their own, and so had to settle for the expendable likes of you. Who is to say you will even survive this little journey to Erin? Who is to say I could not have one of my men, say, Gobbán here –” Láegaire waved over toward one of the guards who stood at the open doors of the hall – “slay you where you stand, and none would be the wiser? If not at my bidding, then perhaps some other Erinnach king whom you have also thoroughly underestimated. I do not think, Bestia, you would be sorely missed, much less lamented, if you failed to return to Britannia…”
Only by my mother, Bestia caught himself thinking, and then he realized just what the king had said, and what he had done. To his horror, he felt his face flush.
The young man, Láegaire’s son, was obviously trying very hard not to laugh.
Once he had found his voice again somewhere in a deep forgotten pit of his stomach, Bestia cleared his throat. Certainly, Priscus would never forgive him if he bungled this mission, and Galba would very likely have him flogged.
“Lord, if I have offended your sensibilities, I sincerely apologize. I meant no offense to you or to the illustrious tribe of the Eoghan. I merely came for information pertaining to Ciarán mac Broccan.”
“Indeed you did.” The woman Druid rose to her feet, and so did everyone but Láegaire himself.
“Indeed you did,” she repeated, “and so it was given to you. And now, Bestia, I fear you have rather overstayed your welcome. Gobbán and Daire shall escort you to the gates.”
“One moment…” Láegaire’s deep voice called out. “Tell your man in Britannia, Bestia, that I know quite well what Ciarán mac Broccan has been doing, in Britannia as well as here in Erin, and that neither he nor the Moccu Garba are friends to the Eoghan or to any of my tribes. And be certain to tell them, also, that the Romans shall have no cause for complaint from Láegaire the Black, nor any of his kin. Last of all, take pains to tell them that few Romans have been welcomed at my gates – nor will they, so long as Láegaire the Black draws breath in Erin.”
Bestia knew better than to argue by now. He bowed low to the ground, his hand over his heart to show his sincerity.
“I shall be certain to tell them all of it, Lord.”
The guards made sure he did not get any chance to look back into the hall as he left. But outside on the ceremonial lawn, something made him turn his head slightly to the left and right, and Bestia could see beneath the thick reed thatch of Láegaire’s hall.
Underneath, safe from the elements of sun, rain and wind, hung the decaying remains of at least thirty human skulls.
Only when his horse had taken him well away from the dun of Láegaire the Black, did Bestia dare to breathe again.