Since becoming a hostage, Diarmait mac Ciarán had never had it so good in his short and fairly miserable life. As he lay in a large, comfortable bed reflecting on his situation, in the best of Láegaire’s guesthouses, he had to admit that getting caught in a drunken cattle raid had been one of the best things that happened to him, not that much good ever had. Not with Ciarán mac Broccan as his father.
What he and a few of his father’s men had been thinking that night two moons before, he could hardly remember. They had been rummaging around in a cow barn one night when his father had been away, and had come across an old and apparently forgotten full barrel of mead, so strong it had made his eyes water to drink it.
Some time and not a little mead later, one of the men had begun mumbling about one of Láegaire’s prized bulls, or was it cows in calf, out on their summer pasture beyond the oak wood? In any case, it had been far enough away from his father’s borderlands that it had taken most of the short summer night to get there. The live willow fencing surrounding the cattle had taken the better part of his tunic, but the cows were there, right enough, trailed by their suckling calves. Healthy, happy cows, grown sleek and plump with the rich summer grass, cows without hoof rot, cows with udders full of sweet, delicious milk for their calves. Cows. Milk. Cream. Butter. Meat. Leather. Theirs for the taking, and all that remained was to slip the halters they had brought around their heads and…
So went the plan. They had not taken into account that quite so many cows were in calf, and they had had only a vague idea what hard work would be involved in getting all those cows and calves back to his father’s land. Diarmait himself had figured not at all on slipping and sliding on the dew-drenched grass, trying to put a halter on one highly unbiddable cow that showed no interest in cooperating. Just as he was finally getting a halter on the wretched beast, taking great care not to get in the way of those sharp horns, he trod in a cowpat, lost his grip on the halter and twisted his ankle trying to regain his footing. He found himself sitting in a fresh cowpat, ankle throbbing, his men laughing, and the cows…Gods; the cows were slowly retreating, trotting off to another part of the pasture, their outlines growing sharper in the blue predawn light. He had heard a twig snap behind him, then another. Just as he turned his head toward the sound, Mathgamain and about a score of Láegaire’s men had emerged from the shadowy fences, spears pointed, swords drawn.
Diarmait rolled over in bed, smiling at the memory. He knew Mathgamain, knew him from several crossroads fairs and Lughnasa festivals at Dun Aillin, but it would be fair to say he did not know him well. They were around the same age, Mathgamain being a year or two older. Mathgamain was, he reflected, the son Ciarán should have had, a loud-mouthed rogue who won all contests and chased most girls with equal ease. Nothing at all like Diarmait mac Ciarán.
“Do you know,” Mathgamain had drawled in a casual, offhand tone, “my father has a very particular punishment for cattle thieves. Usually, he hangs their skulls beneath his roof thatch. After skinning and boiling them, naturally.”
The men behind him laughed.
He beckoned a torch closer, and waved it in front of Diarmait’s face, peering closer.
“Lugh’s beard! It’s the son of the Badger himself! Who would have thought the Moccu Garba would send their finest to steal his cattle? Or to find Diarmait mac Ciarán sitting in a fresh pile of cow dung, trying to steal our cows? Diarmait mac Ciarán! Sitting in a cow pat!” He started to chuckle. The chuckle evolved into a laugh, which grew to a full-blown fit of hilarity so contagious, even Diarmait’s men could not help joining in, and soon, even Diarmait could no longer defend himself against that laugh. It was funny, even as he felt a combination of dew and dung beginning to seep in through his tunic into the seat of his breeches.
Once their fit of mirth had subsided, Mathgamain wasted no time in taking action.
“I’m sure your skull would look particularly fine, Diarmait mac Ciarán, but it would not be the lawful thing to do.” He motioned to his men.
“Consider yourself a hostage as of this moment. You would be worth far more to my father so; especially given that thorn in his side that is your father.” He reached down, and pulled Diarmait to his feet.
“Bind his hands.”
Diarmait was appalled. “Surely, there is no need to bind me? I promise you, I shall behave with all due respect and not run away.”
“Not run away? But of course, you would never do such a thing!” Mathgamain laughed again. “We of the Laighean Eoghan are here to take you to my father and show you how a proper king rules his people, and how a people are properly ruled, even those – ” he gave a pointed glance to Diarmait’s ragged trail of men – “who try to steal Eoghan cattle!” He considered a moment.
“Now, you might behave, at that.” Mathgamain shrugged. “Or, being of the Moccu Garba, you might not, and run away. I shall take no chances, either way. Bind his hands, and hobble his feet.”
So Diarmait became a bargaining tool for Láegaire. He was hauled through the pastures, past far too many sleek cows to ever steal, his feet hobbled just enough to walk and his hands tied behind his back, acutely aware of the reeking patch of wet on the seat of his breeches, the dull throb and ache of his ankle and the sharp point of a spear in his back as they made their way back to Láegaire’s dun, across the common lands and through the orchards, past kitchen gardens, stables, stores, and the houses of his household, and up the long road that wound up the enormous cliff Láegaire’s hall commanded, the new reed thatch of the roof gleaming like gold in the first morning sun.
Diarmait sat up in bed and threw back the coverlet, running his fingers through his
unplaited hair, and reached for his breeches, pulling them on.
Thanks to the King’s daughter, that ankle had been healed well. And there, he thought to himself, was his problem.
Lassarfhína. They all wanted Lassarfhína. Even Diarmait. A face and form to scorch and burn the eyes of any who saw her, she had, and a tongue to scorch the ears of any who thwarted her. Only her father was immune, and that cursed, unsettling ban drui of Láegaire’s. But every one of Láegaire’s men, from Gobbán, his temporary champion now that Aed had died, down to his own miserable self, gave her long looks and sweet words whenever she happened by.
Not that it changed a thing. She smiled, or laughed, and went on her way, and all any of them could do was dream. Except for Gobbán, who had had the glory of taking her into the orchard at Beltane, and who refused, much to his friends’ consternation, to speak a word about it.
He tied his boots, splashed his face and hands with water from the basin, and began untangling his hair with his comb. The Eoghan could not be expected to know the Moccu Garba braid.
In all else, however, the Eoghan knew so much the Moccu Garba had forgotten, if they had indeed ever known. The care of cattle, from bulls and steers to suckling calves, the herding of sheep, reading the land for plowing and sowing, for fencing and building – all this, and so very much more, they knew. What they knew, what Láegaire himself knew, they – and he – took great pains and greater care to teach Diarmait.
For the first time since he could remember, Diarmait felt important and valued. For the first time in his young life, Diarmait felt not like a bitter disappointment to his father and the Moccu Garba, but like someone who…mattered.
The Eoghan had made him realize what his own people had forgotten.
They had forgotten to laugh, or his father had made them forget. The Eoghan had never forgotten.
He pulled his tunic over his head and tied off his braid with a leather thong. There were fences to be repaired this morning, and he was needed to help.
He was needed.
Becoming the hostage of the Eoghan had changed his life.
He had never had it so good.