A Royal Headache
For a long time after Bestia had left, only the crackling sound of the fire and the outside sounds of late afternoon were heard in the hall. Láegaire sat deep in thought, his long legs stretched out in front of him and a dour expression on his face. Aífe had moved from her chair by Láegaire’s side to the hearth where she sat on a bench and poked absentmindedly at the embers. Lugaid was stringing his harp, and Láegaire’s son Mathgamain whittled away at a piece of yew wood, although it was anyone’s guess as to what he was making.
Aífe broke the silence.
“There will be others, Láegaire, others who will come on some trumped up excuse to make sure we have no designs on the Romans or the Britons in Britannia.”
“Aye, Aífe, there will be others…and that is my misery entirely – that there will always be Romans who come to check that my teeth are sound, my bones well-padded and my hooves are not rotting! And every single one of them will learn what manner of man is Láegaire the Black and what manner of king as well. They will learn –” Laoghaire sat up straighter and eyed his son, shedding flakes of yew all over the polished floorboards – “that I am neither a sheep to be led blindly nor a docile bull to do as the Romans command.”
“Or…” Lugaid said, “a fool to use the Romans as it suits you and then to turn on once they have fulfilled your purpose. Think of the trouble Ciarán now finds himself in.”
“Indeed.” Láegaire shrugged, Bestia and the Romans already forgotten. He had more imperative matters to attend, and his son was first among them. “I have other issues on my mind. For instance…” he went on in his most casual, off-hand voice, the voice that made Aífe and Lugaid look up sharply at their King’s change of tone, “time it is, my son, for you to find a suitable wife.”
Mathgamain groaned. “Gods, Father, not again!”
“Yes, Mathgamain, again! I shall not rest until I know you are to wed, some suitable alliance with a suitable girl who shall give you some proper children to your name and your tribe, and not the countless offspring you have been so busy making with any woman who asks!”
“Och, the sheer, unrelenting tedium of having to bed the same woman every night!”
“I was wed to your mother for one and twenty years, young man, and I can assure you I was never bored!”
“That,” stated Mathgamain flatly, “was because it was Mother, who was surely not at all like other women!”
Láegaire had to laugh. “No, she was not, and Connachta women never are. But that was your mother and I, and this is now and here are you. The Eoghan need to find some suitable alliance – nothing threatening, say, oh, a ríg tuatha from one of the other provinces, and not a Laighean lass mind, or there will be yet more trouble than is already staring me down. You have reached an age to marry, and there are other matters to consider…”
Mathgamain interrupted him. “Father…there is so much more that is far more important than finding me a suitable wife! To the north, you have Ciarán mac Broccan, worrying the Romans in Britannia and playing both sides of that fence. Who is to say he will not call in for help should he decide he wants to take what we have so long fought to hold? To the south, there is the vile Fionnbarr mac Adamnan, and you know that Fionnbarr has never forgiven you for slaying his father three summers ago! He has stayed behind his borders and he has stayed his hand, but we all know he is just waiting for an excuse, or an opportunity, to attack.”
“Indeed he is,” said Láegaire, “and you are to be commended for your part in keeping both Fionnbarr and Ciarán’s men away this summer past. But I said –” he dropped his voice again, and Mathgamain braced himself – “there are other matters to consider. The time has come, or else the time will not be long in coming, that the tribes of the Eoghan shall have to choose their Tanist, and there is no other we have, unless we go to Donn and the Mumhain Eoghan, and they know nothing of Laighin and the battles we face.”
Mathgamain was startled. His father had been king of the Laighean Eoghan for over twenty years, and Gods willing might well be for yet ten more. Why this haste to elect a Tanist? Had his father – or Aífe, more like – seen something he had not? He tried another tactic. Anything to make him forget all this nonsense talk of marriage, and tanists, and other matters that gave Mathgamain a headache!
“You are forgetting my sister, Father.”
“I am your father and the king of the Laighean Eoghan, Mathgamain mac Láegaire, and I forget nothing!” his father yelled.
“Lassarfhína has her own path to follow, and beside, she has neither the taste nor the inclination for war, and you do, as this summer past has proved. We need that skill in the times to come, and so we need you.”
“But surely, Father, if you are to make alliances that we could use come next battle season, then she should be your first consideration for marriage, I mean, she is only a woman…”
“And with statements like that, my son, you only prove she is worth ten of your ilk! I have said this before, and I say so again – her fate is neither yours nor mine to decide, so leave it at that.”
Mathgamain stood and threw his wood knife and the small block of yew on the hall table.
“Leave it? How can I leave it at that? You are about to decide my future entirely, all as neatly tied up as wool for the dye pot, that I shall become Tanist, that I shall marry, that I shall succeed you as King of the Eoghan even, lead us all victorious in war against all our foes and neighbors, and all the while my horrible sister gets to do entirely as she pleases, when she pleases, and with whomever she pleases! Where, oh mighty King of the Eoghan, is the justice of that? Oh, why should I even concern myself anymore? It has never been a secret that you prefer her over me, ever since Mother died…” Mathgamain turned his back, hunched his shoulders and began walking toward the doors, muttering under his breath as he went.
Láegaire became even more incensed.
“Mathgamain! You do not turn your back on your father or your King, and you do not leave until such time as I say you may! You will sit down this instant and you shall listen to what I have to say, or I will have Gobbán draw his sword and slay you for your lack of respect! Sit!”
Mathgamain skulked back to the bench and tried to stare Laoghaire down, mutiny all over his face.
It took several moments for Láegaire to regain his composure. Aífe had suddenly chosen to busy herself mending one of Ethni’s tunics, and Lugaid was preoccupied with adjusting his strings. Erc, meanwhile, had fled the hall, and Gobbán and Daire, his guards, were deliberately focused on the faha outside the doors. This is one of those moments, he thought to himself, where I wonder why I received my children with such joy, when they give me such headache now!
“Mathgamain, listen to me. I am not recommending marriage because I wish you to be bored, you understand. I am saying…there are other matters to consider here, and any marriage of yours will play its part. Samhain Assembly at Tara is coming again, and the kings of Erin must again decide which laws to uphold and alliances to make. Also…” Láegaire took a deep breath. There was no simple way to say this, but say it he must.
“We do not have much time. Great changes are coming to the Eoghan, and to each and every one of us, and we must all be prepared to face them, even you.” He leaned forward and looked his son in the face, so like his own.
“Perhaps I should say…you, in particular. For Aífe has seen for all of us, and my own time is ending, whereas yours is beginning.”
Aífe never stirred. Her only movement was the needle pulling through the fabric of Ethni’s tunic.
What anger Mathgamain had felt was immediately blown away by his father’s words, and now he was confused.
“Seen, Father? Seen what, exactly?” He turned to Aífe.
“What have you seen?”
His father waved it off.
“All in good time, Mathgamain, all in good time. For now, let me say that Samhain Assembly is coming, and change is coming, and the tribes of the Eoghan need to be prepared. By Beltain, at the latest, we need to celebrate a marriage for you, and we need to have you proclaimed Tanist. Already, they are muttering in their halls, those kings of Laighin, that the Eoghan might become a sweet and juicy apple, ripe for the picking come next battle season! Meanwhile, we have Ciarán on our border to the north, in a dangerous mood, and Fionnbarr to the south, bent on vengeance for his father’s death, and he bides only his own time.”
Láegaire shifted on his bench. He never should have killed the wretch, and yet he had.
“If we can prove to the Laighean kings at Samhain Assembly, that the Eoghan are still strong, that we still own the favor of both Ír and Mac Con, that we have provided for the future by electing you as my Tanist, and that we intend no slight by choosing to ally ourselves with some minor, faraway tribe, in say, Moma, Connacht or Ulaid, then perhaps they might think again before they attack.”
And should I become King, Mathgamain thought to himself, I shall have to remember these things, and to master them all…to take the full blame when anything goes wrong, from the harvest to a cattle raid, and to provide for four tribes beside my own. Gods, such a headache…
“And my sister?” he asked after a long pause. “Why should you not make some marriage for her as well, since she is old enough to marry off? If we need allies so badly to keep the other kings of Laighin in check, then should she not become another part of our plans?”
To his surprise, it was Aífe who replied. She looked up from her sewing.
“Lassarfhína was always a part, Mathgamain, and always will be. All I can say is that there is a geis upon her, and neither her fate nor her marriage is our decision to make. Leave it at that.”
Mathgamain was angry all over again.
“Always, she is left off easily, and always, I have to pay! Why can you not all just say that you prefer her to me and be done with it? Why not just choose her to rule us, since you are all so preoccupied with her virtues and my vices? You should proclaim her Tanist instead of me!”
Ever since the death of their mother three years before, Mathgamain had felt slighted and belittled by his sister and the way she commanded their father’s affections. It was nothing new, and it would never be old, so long as they could war with each other, they would. Láegaire almost laughed at his son’s outrage.
“Because she has her purpose, and you have yours. Leave it at that.”
“I have a much better idea, Father…why do I not just leave altogether?” Mathgamain stormed out of the hall. The double doors were open, or he would have slammed them.
“What are you two staring at?” he yelled at Gobbán and Daire. They averted their eyes and studied the grass on the faha, and said nothing in reply.
“Always my wretched, cursed sister!” he muttered as he made his way down the hill.
In the hall, Láegaire grabbed his aching head and slumped on the bench.
“Why, oh why, drui, do those two hate each other so?”
“They do not, Láegaire…they war with each other for the same reasons all Erinnach do – because they can! And to be fair…Mathgamain has a point, you know. Whether you admit it or no, you do prefer your daughter over your son.”
“Only because my son thinks of nothing but hurley, cattle raids, drinking with his friends and women, rather than what he should be thinking about – that he is to become the next king of the Eoghan!” He cursed under his breath. “At least my daughter has more sense!”
“And you, my King?” Lugaid spoke up. “Were you so very different, before you became King?”
“Alas, but no. Perhaps that is why Mathgamain and I are always at odds – we are far too much alike for my comfort!”
“And there you have it, Láegaire…as you were, so your son is, and as you are, he might, with guidance and support, hope to become. As your daughter is, he shall never be.”
“Och, Aífe…perhaps Mathgamain is right and I should have Lassarfhína proclaimed Tanist of the Eoghan…for certain that all my tribes might benefit…” Láegaire had a dreamy expression on his face. It was true that he much preferred his daughter over his son; not least because she would keep her wits about her while Mathgamain would be all too preoccupied with reaching for his sword.
Lugaid put away his freshly stringed harp in its satchel.
“Do that, my King, and war will come to the tribes of the Eoghan in Laighin as surely as night will follow day. For all that Lassarfhína has no taste for battle, and even less for war, she knows all too well how to incite to it, as events at Dun Aillin this past Lughnasa have proved.”
Láegaire groaned at the reminder. “Blame her mother. Any Connachta woman from the line of Medb is certain to be at least as much trouble as she ever was! For all her virtues, my daughter also has her faults, and mainly that she is so like to Aibhlín it sometimes pains me to look at her. Pity the man with a beautiful daughter, Lugaid, for little good and far more grief shall ever come of it!”
“I should rather pity the poor man who shall gain her as his bride! Think a moment – her mother’s looks and demeanor, and that quite bad enough. But then add the very bullheadedness you call your own which comes to her straight and unwatered, and there you find her. She shall be no easy conquest for anyone, geis or no!”
Láegaire rolled his eyes at the thought.
“Ah, they say that there is no plain speaking to be had from a Drui…but you are right. And at the very moment she needs a mother’s guidance most, her mother, alas, has gone on.” He gave a massive sigh. Three years had it been since the death of Aibhlín, and yet, he missed her still. Even now, when he could see her in his daughter’s every move and breath.
Aífe gathered up her sewing in a basket and inclined her head toward the door. Immediately, Lugaid rose to his feet, slinging his harp satchel over his shoulder.
The King looked up from the patch of polished floorboard he had been studying.
“Rest assured, that in her Drui your daughter shall have at least what help and advice a woman – and a Drui – can provide.”
Aífe turned at the doors and looked back at Láegaire sitting dejected on his bench, feet up on his footstool and his chin in his hand. It would not do, to leave her King in such a black mood.
“Pity the man who gains your daughter, Láegaire! To think – the burden he shall have in living up to a King – and a man – such as you!”
Lugaid howled and Laoghaire with him, and even Gobbán and Daire tried to hold on to their spears with straight faces. Still laughing, they made their way down the hill.
The hall was quiet again, and there was only Ruacra, Láegaire’s favorite hound, whimpering in his sleep at his feet.
For a brief moment, Láegaire thought he heard a rustle from the tapestry behind him. Then, as the back door to his bedchamber suddenly slammed shut and he caught a whiff of Roman lavender oil in the draft, he knew.
Damn you, daughter, he thought.
She had been listening since the Roman arrived.
He had to laugh.