One of the challenges with writing a character like Liath Luachra – the woman warrior from the Irish Woman Warrior Series and The Fionn mac Cumhaill Series – is the need to reflect the traumatised aspect of her personality across history two different series, while also allowing her to evolve as a person over the time arc of the time periods within those books.
In the first book of the prequel Irish Woman Warrior Series, Liath Luachra is quite savage and ruthless, the result of different experiences that slowly get revealed over the remaining books in the series. Over that time however, she establishes tentative relationships and, although she never comes to terms with her background, she does develop substantially as person.
By the follow-up series (the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series) which is set 1-2 years after the first series, although she’s still struggling with her traumatic background, the character is an essential part of a larger community, a leader of sorts, and in an established and caring relationship. But nothing burns like trauma and echoes of that remain to shape her character.
The following is a scene from the novel Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma – the first in the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series – which is set in the isolated settlement of Ráth Bládhma in first century Ireland.
In this scene, the woman warrior is speaking with Bearach, a young boy who idolises her, and she attempts to explain to him how being a warrior – gaiscíoch – isn’t all it’s made out to be …
In her own inimitable manner.
‘I wish to be like you, Liath Luachra. I wish to be a gaiscíoch – a true warrior.’
She stared at him in genuine astonishment. A moment later, she started to laugh. It was a rare sound for her and one that was surprisingly soft, if tinged with an underlying melancholy. ‘Ah, Bearach. You are truly the only one to make me raise a smile.’
‘I make no jest, Grey One. I wish to be a gaiscíoch like you. One day I hope to equal your skill as a fighter, your ability to work through the fight in your head. I want to learn courage such as yours. You know no fear when you are Out in the Great Wild.’
‘Ah, yes. The Great Wild backs down when I tramp through its forests. Wolves shit themselves and slink into the undergrowth at my passing. Even the Faceless Ones, the ghosts of hazy glades, hide and tell each other fearful tales of the dreaded Liath Luachra who will come through the shadows to take their heads.’
The youth blushed at her gentle mockery. Picking at a loose thread on the hem of his tunic, he wound it about his index finger, tightening it until the tip of the digit grew white.
‘You are the best of us here in Ráth Bládhma.’
‘Which only goes to show how little of the Out you’ve actually seen, Bearach. There are many out there who would best me in a fight.’
‘But Aodhán says you beat Dún Baoiscne’s finest warriors. He says they fear you, that your reputation for war makes them quake in their boots.’
‘Aodhán needs to harness his tongue. And his fancies.’
‘He told me about the day you first came to Dún Baoiscne with Na Cineáltaí – the Kindly Ones – your fian of a hundred men. He says that you crushed their best fighters in single combat. Humiliated them. That you were too agile, too strong to be defeated.’
Liath Luachra ground her teeth together.
‘I did defeat them. And, yes, I did humiliate them. But that was a mistake for which they never forgave me.’ She shrugged. ‘I understand that now. I’d probably have reacted in a similar manner if I was defeated by someone I considered weaker or in some way inferior.’
‘But you showed them!’ There was a shrill enthusiasm to the boy’s voice that made her cringe.
‘You have a warped understanding of things, Bearach. I accept that the fault is not yours for you base it on the tall tales of those who should know better. I will have strong words with Aodhán about putting such stories in your head.’
The boy looked confused, almost disbelieving. ‘Aodhán has not spoken true?’
Liath Luachra shifted awkwardly on her seat. She was uncomfortable having conversations of such depth with anyone other than Bodhmhall.
‘Aodhán’s claims hold a sliver of truth. I did lead Na Cineáltaí but that band never had more than ten men at any one time. They were brutal men, little more than killers -’ Her voice trailed off. ‘You must understand, Bearach, my life back then … that was a different life. I was a different person. I had a haunting on me, a haunting so venomous that I became little better than a wounded animal: vicious, savage and very cruel.’
Unable to bear his trusting gaze, she dropped her own eyes to the floor. ‘You have seen the way a dog will snap at a wound in its paw.’
The boy nodded slowly.
‘It is the reaction of a stupid beast who knows no better. It experiences pain and immediately thinks it has been attacked. In its attempt to retaliate, to strike back, it hurts itself even more.’
She reached down into the fire and pulled a burning brand from the embers. Part of the wood had burned away and much of it was scorched and black but the tip was still red hot.
‘That was the way of me back in those days. Except that I didn’t strike at my own limbs. No, I was far too smart for that. I struck out at others instead. Bandits, reavers, murderers, sometimes even innocent people who merely looked at me the wrong way, at the wrong time on the wrong day.’
She placed the tip of the burning brand against the back of her left hand. Bearach stared in horror as smoke from the skin rose up, the stink of burning flesh filing the air. Liath Luachra showed no sign of even noticing. Her eyes flared with a ragged intensity.
‘I had a belly full of venom, a heart full of gangrene and battle rage. This world had cut me to the quick and I was determined to hurt it back, to carve its filthy influence out of my heart. I hacked and cleaved a route through blood and sinew and bone when all that time my real target, the one thing I was truly trying to strike, was myself.’
She paused and took a deep breath as she dropped the firebrand back into the fire. Her forehead was sweating profusely. Her heart thundered and there was a sickly taste in her mouth. She focused her attention on these other physical sensations, refusing to acknowledge the pain in her hand.
‘So yes, in a martial sense, that made me strong. It made me impervious to fear and, for a time, to pain. It also made me impervious to those things that make us human: compassion, friendship, affection.’
Her eyes raised abruptly to lock directly on the boy’s. ‘And that,’ she snarled, ‘is what you must sacrifice to be a true gaiscíoch.’