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The Lies Behind the Use of Irish Family Crests:

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The Lies Behind the Use of Irish Family Crests:

If you’re a person of Irish descent, there are a few things you should really think about if you’re considering a purchase of your ‘family coat-of-arms/ family crest’.

  • Heraldry – the assigning of coats-of-arms/family crests – was originally used so that those people (the aristocracy) who’d gained more cows and more soldiers than their neighbours, could identify and manage the property they controlled
  • The tradition of heraldry (and therefore of family crests/coats of arms) is an English/Norman one. It is not, and never was, a Gaelic one
  • The concept of family crests for Irish clans of Gaelic origin (e.g. MacCarthy’s, O’Sullivans, O’Briens, Murphy’s etc.) makes no sense as they never used them and would not have recognised/respected them
  • A very limited number of later Hiberno-Norman clans (the Fitz’s, de Burgs, etc.) did have a family crest but most of these clans didn’t last long enough to utilise them in any meaningful way
  • There’s actually no such thing as a ‘family coat of arms’. Traditionally, heralds awarded family crests to INDIVIDUALS, not to families
  • A single family surname, therefore, might have a multitude of different family crests. I could, for example, apply to the Herald Office of Ireland for a family coat of arms. My brother could also apply for one and end up with a completely different design. So could my sisters and each one of us would be right
  • If you already have a mass-produced crest-of-arms on your wall, you might want to know who had it made. It was quite possibly granted to someone who walked in off the street and paid the necessary fee
  • Given the fact that heraldry was predominantly an English institution and Ireland is a republic, few Irish people have any great emotional connection to a coat-of-arms that claims to bear their name
  • Generally speaking, it is only the uninformed, the psychologically insecure and politicians who enjoy the false pomp and ceremony of heraldry
  • The Office of the Chief Herald at the National Library of Ireland (the official government department responsible for “grants” of family crests/coats of arms) has a direct conflict of interest in providing real information around the true basis of heraldry in Ireland (“just keep sending in cheques with your applications , thanks!”)
  • This is the same Irish government, by the way, who wants to sell you the laughable Certificate of Irish Heritage at €45 (plus VAT) and a framed certificate is €120 (plus VAT)
  • I will sell you a Certificate of Irish Heritage for half that price as long as you don’t mind it being written in crayon (I subcontract to the kids!)
  • The only people who really benefit from people’s ignorance of the concepts behind the heraldry/ coat-of-arms are mass producers of plastic “Irish Family Crests” flags/ badges/products for ill-informed tourists

Has any one noticed there’s a lizard on the O’Sullivan Beare coat-of arms? 🙂

Quiet Moments of Beauty and How to Use Them in Writing

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A few years ago in West Cork, on the cusp of winter-spring, I took my son down to one of my favourite places – a mountain valley with a lake that feeds into the River Laoi.

It was a typical winter’s day for that part of the country; cold showers, low lying cloud, intermittent patches of watery sunshine between the wisps of mist. At the same time, there was something very unique about the quality of the illumination. The damp sunlight combined with the black rock, the black water, the black clouds – black on black on black – to create a kind of monochromatic landscape softened only by burnt patches of withered fern on the surrounding hills.

The sight was beautiful, in the same way that photos of the moonscape or a desert at night are beautiful; bleak, remote and melancholic. All of a sudden, a single swan appeared out of the gloom, a blaze of white on the still black waters like the prospect of joy on a dour day and it was as though the valley had released a sigh.

I was lucky enough to capture the latter parts of the swan’s approach moment on a shitty camera (see the clip above). On the clip you can hear my son saying “Oh, do chuaigh se faoin uisce!’ – ‘Oh, he’s gone under the water!’ when it finally disappeared beneath the causeway and out of sight.

Such moments are rare but they tend to stay with you. Last week, the memory resurfaced – unlike the swan – for some reason, and in a fit of creativity, I drew on it to write a short but important character development scene from the third book in the Fionn mac Cumhal series. This is a rough, unedited first draft so bear with me:

From her refuge in the ferns, Liath Luachra had been observing a fat pair of wood pigeons that were oblivious to her presence. Now, her belly growled and her fingers tightened unconsciously about the leather thong of the sling curled about her right hand.
I could strike one. I could strike one easily at this distance.
She scowled and took a deep breath before turning her head. Hunger was making her careless.
Averting her eyes from the feathered temptation, she rested her cheek against the rough bark of the tree and reverted to that old occupation – daydreaming – she often used to pass the long periods of inactivity while in the Great Wild.
She drew up a mental image from the past, a memory from a period when she’d still been with the mercenary group, Na Cinéaltaí. At the time, she’d been travelling through rough territory, bound for a gathering at some distant tribal stronghold. The day had been uncharacteristically mild for the winter-spring cusp but, weary from the sustained effort of hard trekking, she’d paused to rest in a deserted valley at the foothills of an isolated mountain range.
The valley, a barren and lonely passage wandering between two steep hills of jagged, grey rock and had a deep lake at its centre. Although it must have been a harsh and bitter place at the best of times, at that particular moment the watery quality of the sunlight and the overhanging cloud had combined to imbue it with a colourless intensity she’d never encountered before. Sitting quietly, she’d tried to absorb the sight but the beauty of the landscape seemed almost too much for her swollen soul to take in. Just when she thought it couldn’t possibly grow more beautiful, two swans had suddenly appeared, winging their way down the valley to alight gracefully on the waters of the little lake.
She’d watched in rapt silence for a long time as the elegant birds drifted noiselessly, their white shadows forming perfect mirror images in its still black surface. The moment couldn’t be sustained however, of course. Despite a deep desire to continue absorbing its soothing beauty, she had places to be and people depending on her. She’d left the valley shortly afterwards but she’d never forgotten what she’d seen.
A year later, when she was passing through that region again, she’d spent days criss-crossing the terrain in an effort to relocate the valley. After many frustrating and unfruitful attempts, she’d finally understood that she would never find what she was looking for. Although she’d located several valleys with lakes, none of them looked like the one she remembered. In different light, at a different time, the valley was just another valley in another forsaken piece of land. The valley that she’d experienced was gone, an element of time, of circumstance and of nature, existing now only as a ghost of what could have been.

******
This is just one example of how you can use old memories or sensations when you write. Generally speaking, its much easier to write a description of a place or of an emotion if you’ve actually been there or felt it. Because I come from Ireland and I write about events taking place in Irish landscape I my writing tends to be very – well – Irish.
Ah, well!

Come Taste the Flowers

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Whenever I feel homesick – as I did last night – I have this habit of poring through photos of the last trip home, extracting the memories associated with each particular image.

Going through this process last night, I was a bit surprised to discover the number of photographs of fuchsia hedgerows clogging up my photo library. To be honest, that’s hardly surprising. I tend to return home in the summer after all, when they’re blooming to maximum effect. Driving down some roads in Beara at that time is like driving down a passage framed by two walls of brilliant scarlet and green, interspersed with white wild flowers. In winter, of course, those same hedges resemble little more than sickly networks of pale brown sticks that give the winter land an even more skeletal aspect.

Until about ten years ago, I’d been under the impression the fuchsia was a native plant. In actual fact, it was originally sourced from South America (introduced to England in the 18th century and, subsequently, to Ireland) and because of the weather conditions in West Cork, it has absolutely thrived there.

Despite this, when I think of fuchsia, I think of childhood memories of sucking nectar, plucking scarlet outer petals to create a miniature bouquet from the purple heart.

And, of course, the scent …

Hitting your nostrils like some kind of perfumed, French, wet kiss.

 

Update on Writing Projects

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The above road sign is from the Gaeltacht (area in Ireland where Irish is still the first language). Essentially it’s a ‘Yield right of Way’ sign which kind of outlines how I feel at the moment. It’s been a pretty exhausting year with various work, writing and family projects on the go.  Needless to say, I’m nowhere as far as advanced as I’d like to be in terms of my writing. Two things in particular have changed my priority:

  1. The popularity of the Fionn mac Cumhal series: This one took me a wee bit by surprise.  The first book (Defence of Ráth Bládhma) was pretty popular – despite a complete absence of advertising or marketing on my part. Ironically, the second book seems to be even more popular (go figure!). When I originally started writing the first book, the plan was essentially to give myself a bit of a break/change before starting the next Beara book. This is because, in terms of writing technique, the Fionn series is easier. It’s a complete linear narrative (unlike Beara which intermingles historical and contemporary stories) and the plot and underlying themes are nowhere near as complex. In any case, people are now hounding me for the next in the series (which I can’t really complain about)  so I feel a bit of responsibility for delivering the goods
  2. The lack of interest by Irish book distributors:  Ireland is quite interesting in that we only have two distributors for new books in the entire country (Easons and Argosy). For commercial reasons, both of these tend to deal only with large and very established publishing companies. Easons – almost a monopoly – make it very difficult to even try and contact them for distribution purposes. Argosy were at least kind enough to rely to my query and explain why they wouldn’t be doing so. I’ll probably start working around them and sell directly to bookshops in future but for the moment, this means that my main focus has to be in digital books (ebooks).

As a result, therefore, I’ve had to amend my – ahem – ‘production schedule’.  In summary, this is where things stand at present:

  • Beara Two: “Cry of the Banshee” – two chapters completed. It now looks like this won’t be completed until the end of next year at the earliest.
  • Fionn 3: “The Adversary”  – Estimated release date May/June 2015
  • Fionn 0: “The Kindly Ones”  – A prequel to the Fionn series based on the earlier life of the Liath Luachra character – Estimated release date May/June 2015
  • A non-fiction book on Irish folklore and practical magic – title yet to be confirmed – Estimated release date December 2015

I’m very keen to make some progress on the second Beara book so I may move this up depending on how things go. My apologies to those of you waiting for this.

 

My writing: Excerpt from Traitor of Dún Baoiscne

One of the more enjoyable aspects of writing is the ability to create a conversation between two or more characters  whose  personality and mannerisms you know intimately. For me, these ‘dialogue’ scenes are probably the most fun and – at the same time – the easiest scenes to write. If you have your characters well defined, the dialogue between them flows easily onto the page however you also need to have a context for the dialogue  (i.e. why the characters are talking together in the first place). Often, dialogue is a handy mechanism for getting plot details across in a fast and natural manner without laboriously having to describe them. Sometimes however – and these are the one I really enjoy – the dialogue is just a scene to cement character development.

This scene is from my new novel Fionn: Traitor of Dún Baoiscne and outlines the discussion between the battle weary Liath Luachra (a hardened warrior woman who has difficulty connecting with her emotions or getting close to people) and the six year old Demne (who is soon to be taken away by his real parents).

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Before she started, she paused for a moment to rest her head in her hands. Fatigue lay heavy on her, the sleepless night and the after effects of the battle adrenalin combining to wear her down. From experience, she knew that she could force herself to remain alert for a while longer if necessary but, at some stage, she would need to curl up in a dark corner and sleep.

Using a ladle from the rainbucket, she poured water over her feet. The liquid was already tepid from the morning sun and its touch briefly reminded her of the moment the blood had spurted over them. That sticky warmth of spilled battle blood was a distinct sensation that wasn’t easily forgotten. There was really no other feeling like it. Even the slaughter of animals was different for it lacked the heady intoxication of violence, the overpowering sensations of desperation and relief.

She wiped the remaining stains away with her hands, watching the pinkish liquid dribble off her skin and onto the surface of the lis where it was immediately absorbed by the dusty soil.

Another offering to the Great Mother.

She felt no remorse at the taking of the scout’s life. The scout and his comrades had posed a threat to those she held dear and she was very clear about where her priorities lay.

A dark shadow slid across the earth in front of her and she looked up to find Demne standing before her, staring down at the pink stains with a troubled expression.

‘The blood of your opponent,’ she said. ‘Always better than the blood of your friend.’

She spoke quietly for most of the Lamhraighe warriors were still dozing in the makeshift beds off to the far side of the hearth. Demne too had slept with the visitors, his mother insisting on removing him from Lí Bán’s roundhouse, where he usually slept with the other children, to spend the night with her and Gleor.

The boy nodded sagely, acknowledging the wisdom of her words although he couldn’t possibly have understood the context behind what she was saying.

‘You do not remain with your mother?’

‘She sleeps.’ He sniffed and looked up towards the sun as though to verify that it was still up there. ‘The old man is tired. He snores.’

‘Uh-huh,’ Liath Luachra grunted sympathetically. The news came as no surprise. The Lamhraighe party had travelled a significant distance in a very short time. Anyone would have been taxed by such a hike. And Gleor was not a young man.

‘You do not like my mother.’

Liath Luachra looked at the boy, surprised by such intuition in one so young. ‘No,’ she admitted and looked down, her attention focussed on scrubbing the last of the blood from her hands and feet.

‘Why?’

‘Your mother is … untrustworthy.’

‘Un-trust-wor-thy,’ he pronounced the word out in four distinct syllables. ‘What does that mean?’

‘It means that she is scant with the reason of things. She does not always tell the full truth.’

‘Do you always tell the full truth?’

This time she stopped what she was doing and raised her eyes to consider him intently. Demne could be an odd one at times and had the annoying habit of switching from the temperament of a gregarious child to that of a worldly old fogy without any warning. ‘Usually,’ she admitted. ‘Unless I have strong reasons not to. People who lie are fearful of others or fear repercussions for their actions. I have been close to death too often to truly fear the Dark Leap anymore. When you do not fear, you can tell the truth and when you tell the truth you make any problem belong to someone else.’

‘My mother says I am to leave Ráth Bládhma, that I will live in a fortress far from Glenn Ceoch and never see you or Bodhmhall again. Is she telling the full truth?’

Liath Luachra returned to scrubbing her feet. ‘She is probably telling the full truth as she sees it.’

Demne went very quiet and stared down at the ground. The woman warrior glanced sideways at him and saw that he was trembling and his face had gone very pale.

With a grunt, she got to her feet. ‘Perhaps this is a good time to give you something.’ She started across the lis in the direction of her roundhouse, trailed by Demne’s haunted eyes. Her flax backpack lay against the wall by the entrance way and as she knelt to rummage through it, she could hear Bodhmhall and the others arguing inside. The voices were heated and full of emotion, not anger so much as concern and fear.

Ignoring them, she pulled an object wrapped in dock leaves from the basket and returned to where the boy was waiting. His face was still pale and his lip quivered but his eyes held an unmistakable trace of curiosity. She held out the package. ‘This is for you.’

Demne looked at it and then at her. ‘What is it?’

‘A weapon.’

‘A weapon?’ His eyes widened.

‘You are no longer a child of the hearth ashes. Tomorrow you go Out. You travel in the Great Wild so you will need a weapon of your own, something more threatening than the wooden sword we practise with.’

Face bright with suppressed excitement, he took the package and started to rip it apart, tossing the torn leaves aside until the contents were exposed: a hand-woven flax cradle attached to two separate lengths of braided flax and a small leather bag.

‘It’s a sling.’ The boy’s voice was flat.

Liath Luachra scowled. ‘Do you want a weapon or do you not?’

‘I want a real weapon. A man’s weapon.’

‘You’re too small to fight with a full-grown man’s weapon. You need something you can use from a distance. Something that’s accurate and fast but allows you to flee if you miss.’

The boy’s eye brightened at that. ‘I could use a javelin. Or a harpoon. Like Aodhán.’

She shook her head. ‘No. You’re too small. Your cast would lack force.’

‘Bran’s small. And he casts javelins.’

‘He’s bigger than you. And he’s had practice casting javelins for many years.’ There was no give in the woman warrior’s voice. For her, at least, the subject was closed. She picked up the leather bag, undid the leather string that bound the opening. ‘Hold out your hand.’

Demne did as he was told and she poured a number of smooth, pigeon-egg sized stones into his palm. Each individual stone had been painstakingly decorated with small carvings, basic but creative depictions of wild-fern curls, bird’s wings, or badger claws.

Demne stared at them, intrigued and suddenly looking more impressed. Noting his expression, the woman warrior put the leather pouch aside. ‘These stones … They are not playthings, do you understand? They are carriers of death and should be respected as such.’

The boy reluctantly dragged his eyes away from the stones and glanced up to give a half-hearted nod before his attention turned once more to his gifts.

‘The sling carries no name for it does not draw blood. It is the stones – the bullets – that do that.’ Liath Luachra took the sling from his hand and hefted its weight in hers. ‘Don’t underestimate this weapon. The fools do, the loose-mouths who brag about close quarter fighting. Close quarter fighting’s all hack and cut. It doesn’t matter how skilled you are. It all comes down to brute force and strength and it’s only a question of time before you get cut.’

She grew silent for a moment, haunted by some distant memory until she realised, with a start, that Demne was waiting for her to continue. She drew herself up straight. ‘With practice, a good sling cast can hit a man at seventy paces and kill him dead. Even if he’s wearing leather armour the blow from a stone will break him on the inside.’

She reached over to pluck one of the bullets from his hand and dropped it into the cradle. ‘The sling stone is placed in the cradle, like so. You see how I have cut a slit. That allows the flax to fold around the bullet to hold it more securely.’

Demne peered closely. ‘I see, Grey One.’

‘Put your middle finger through the loop at the end of this length of flax. The other length has a release tab that you hold between your thumb and forefinger, like so. When you’re ready, you swing your sling to build up speed, then flick your wrist to release the tab and the bullet flies out to hit the target.’

The woman warrior got to her feet. Turning towards the southern embankment, away from the sleeping Lamhraighe warriors, she slowly started to swing the sling in a vertical loop, adjusting her position until she was facing the lean-to where firewood, tools and other items were stored. To the left of the lean-to was a wide, flat section of wood used as a base for chopping wood. Standing on top was a solitary wedge of firewood.

‘You see the wood there, waiting to be split?’

Demne nodded.

Using the momentum of the arc, Liath Luachra snapped the sling upwards, releasing the tab at the exact same time. The discharged bullet flew through the air, smashing the firewood backwards off the base. Demne clapped enthusiastically, his earlier sorrow forgotten. Off to the side of the lis, one of the Lamhraighe warriors cursed and turned on his side, angrily drawing his cloak tight over his shoulder.

The woman warrior bent down and started to wrap the sling about the boy’s forearm. ‘This way,’ she explained, ‘you can carry your weapon at all times.’

Demne looked up at her shyly. ‘Thank you, Grey One. This truly is a wondrous gift.’

He moved as though to hug her but the woman warrior quickly shifted backwards. ‘The sling extends the strength and the length of your arm,’ she said hurriedly. ‘That means you can cast your shot farther and faster than you would if you tried to throw it by hand. If you cast from higher ground you can increase that range. If you have enough comrades you can create a hailstorm of stone that no force will resist.’

Demne stared at her, confused and unsure how to respond to the woman warrior’s sudden coldness. Liath Luachra, meanwhile, continued with her awkward lecture. ‘You might wonder why the flax cords are braided. That would be a good question. It’s because the braiding stops the flax from twisting when it’s stretched. It improves the accuracy of-’

‘Liath Luachra.’

Taken by surprise, the woman warrior turned to find Bodhmhall standing beside her.

Excerpt from Fionn: Traitor of Dún Baoiscne

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This is an excerpt from the soon to be released Fionn: Traitor of Dún Baoiscne.
In this piece, the woman warrior Liath Luachra is making her way back to Ráth Bládhma (the ringfort Bládhma) after an encounter with the youth Fintán mac Gleor when she finds some disturbing sign.

People occasionally ask why I write such detailed descriptions for the Great Wild. The truth is because it’s a central part (or element) to the series. Given that the story is set in a time period when there was very little safety or security from the elements and people greatly mistrusted anything or anyone they weren’t familiar with, I felt that needed to be reflected in the storyline.

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Liath Luachra left An Folamh Mór at a rapid pace, initially following the same route taken by the Lamhraighe youth. As she ran along the trail, she crossed sign of his passing on a regular basis, every ten paces or so, and her lips compressed into a tight line. Confident in his ability and fleetness of foot, Fintán was making no effort to cover his tracks, a potentially lethal oversight in the hostile lands of the Great Wild.

The trail she followed was a natural track from the low hills where An Folamh Mór was situated. Several hundred paces south of the clearing the forest faded into a stony flatland that resulted from the poor topsoil and the rocky terrain which she knew as An Slí Cráite – the Tormented Path. This rough flatland extended towards the south-east, spotted with occasional clusters of trees and scrub. Although Liath Luachra didn’t like being out in the open, on this occasion her desire to get away from An Folamh Mór meant that she was willing to compromise safety for speed.

As she progressed further south-west, the forest gradually began to close in again on either side and An Slí Cráite grew more and more constricted. Further on, she knew, it would reduce to little more than a narrow passage through the forest before, eventually, petering out.

Soon she reached a natural fork in the path where a new trial branched off to the south-west along the remains of an old river bed. This turn-off marked the point where her shared route with Fintán ended for it was her intention to follow the south-westerly trail.

Throwing one last look at An Slí Cráite, she veered off to the left.

And came to a complete stop.

Slowly turning about, she backtracked to the fork in the trail and stared down at what had caught her eye.

A footprint.

Dropping to a crouch, she reached around to the wicker basket on her back and slid a javelin free. After carefully scrutinising the surrounding scrub, she shuffled forwards on all fours and lay on her stomach in front of the track to examine it in more detail.
It was an impression of a bare foot. No boots, no moccasins. No missing toes either from the look of it. It was an adult size, big enough to assume it’d been made by a man but whoever it was, he’d been travelling light for the imprint wasn’t deep. The footprint was also pointed in the direction of the north-east, the direction Fintán had taken.

Snapping a dry spine off a withered blackthorn bush beside the track, she used it to poke the imprint gently on its outer side. It did not crumble.

Recent then.

She frowned. Very recent. In this heat, the shallow imprint would have dried out very quickly and the brittle remnants crumbled apart at the slightest poke.

But it hadn’t.

Studying the surrounding trees with care, she rose to her feet and cautiously advanced along An Slí Cráite once more. Sure enough, now that she was actively looking for it, she found another, similar, imprint several paces further on from the first. This one lay in the shade of the treeline where the soil was still soft, untouched from the sun.

A few paces on from that she found another and now she was able to see that the tracks were quite widely spaced. The person who had left them was running, apparently in a hurry. Unlike Fintán, this individual had made some effort to hide his passing but given the speed at which he was travelling he couldn’t avoid leaving some trace, like this imprint, behind.

So why is he hurrying?

She frowned and chewed thoughtfully on her inner cheek, an old habit of hers when she was absorbed in concentration.
A stranger travels on An Slí Cráite. He is hurrying, trailing Fintán who also travels at speed.
She frowned. Perhaps she was being too suspicious. This new stranger might simply be on the same trail. It happened.
Except she didn’t believe it. Her instincts were telling her that this was not right. In terms of timing, this person would have had to come across Fintán’s track after he left An Folamh Mór and before she herself had left. Besides, as a general rule in the Great Wild, people tended to avoid contact with strangers and, when an unfamiliar track was encountered, would often take a more circuitous route to their destination to avoid any kind of engagement.

She bit her lower lip.

No. Whoever this person was, he was following Fintán. She was convinced of that. Given the freshness of the tracks, she was equally convinced that if she backtracked to An Folamh Mór, she’d find similar tracks somewhere along the edge of the clearing. This person had probably been watching while she’d been talking with the youth and then followed him directly once he’d departed.
A good thing there was no rutting in the long grass.

Liath Luachra cursed quietly under her breath. Once again, Fintán was unconsciously interfering in her plans. Despite her dislike of the youth she could not ignore the fact that someone was following him and possibly intended harm.
She considered her options a little further.

She’d directed him to Ráth Bládhma via the longer route that circled about Ros Mór and brought him into Glenn Ceoch from the west. She herself could return much more quickly via a route through the secret pass at Gág na Muice. Her directions for the slower Ros Mór passage had not been given out of spite so much as from simple necessity. The Gág na Muice route was a secret known only to the members of Ráth Bládhma and she didn’t want it spread further than that. The western route was also more practical and easier for a stranger to find. If the youth strictly followed the topographical bearings she’d provided, he would find his destination. If he did not, he might wander the forests for years, despite the directions that Muirne Muncháem had given him.
If she moved fast, she could reach Glenn Ceoch before him and intercept him – and his pursuer – in the woods at the entrance to the valley.

She sighed as she replaced the javelin.

It was time to run.

Book Two of Fionn mac Cumhal series for release

I’m pleased to say that Book Two of the Fionn mac Cumhal series is almost ready for release. Given a lot of family, work and other pressures this has come out several weeks later than originally planned.

The story is set six years after the events of the previous book. The survivors of the assault on Rath Bladhma (in book one) are still struggling to get their lives back together when two separate techtaire (messengers) show up unexpectedly. Both bear unwanted news that will take Bodhmhall, Liath Luachra and Demne on a dangerous trek across the treacherous lands of the Great Wild.

A three chapter sample is available here.

The book will be released digitally on Amazon on 18 October 2014 and will be available on hardcopy a few weeks after that. The book will also be available on Kobo and other ebookstores.

 

FIONN: Traitor of Dún Baoiscne

The Fionn mac Cumhaill Series – Book Two:

 Ireland: 198 A.D. Six years have passed since the brutal attack on the community of Ráth Bládhma. The isolated valley of Glenn Ceoch is at peace once more but those who survived still bear the scars of that struggle.

Now, new dangers threaten the settlement.

Woman warrior Liath Luachra has discovered troubling signs of strangers in the surrounding wilderness. Disgraced druid Bodhmhall fears a fresh attempt to abduct her talented nephew. A summons from the fortress Dún Baoiscne sets all three on a perilous traverse of the Great Wild where enemies, old and new, await them.

And Muirne has returned to reclaim her son.

Come what may, there will be blood.

Based on the ancient Fenian Cycle texts, the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series recounts the fascinating and pulse-pounding tale of the birth and adventures of Ireland’s greatest hero, Fionn mac Cumhaill.

This book includes the following extra content:

  • a glossary with explanations of ancient Irish cultural concepts
  • historical notes on the Fenian Cycle
  • a pronunciation guide and links to an online audio pronunciation guide

Fionn mac Cumhaill: Irish Mythology Hero and Legend

The Fionn mac Cumhaill Series is a series of Irish mythological and adventure novels based around some of the early events outlined in Macgnímartha Finn (The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn).

An exciting contemporary version of a narrative that’s almost a thousand years old, the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series recounts the adventures of the young Fionn (originally known as Demne) and the people who protected him during his upbringing at Ráth Bládhma: his aunt Bodhmhall, the woman warrior Liath Luachra, Fiacail mac Codhna and Muirne Muncháem.

Although the series is a work of fiction, it is far more historically accurate than any other existing version of the tales and aligns completely with the original 12th century manuscript on which it is based. This series introduces rare ancient Irish cultural concepts and insights into the tribal systems that have been omitted from all previously published works.

There are six novels planned:

Book 1: FIONN: Defence of Ráth Bladhma (available in ebook and also in paperback)
Book 2: FIONN: Traitor of Dún Baoiscne (available in ebook form and in paperback)
Book 3: FIONN: The Adversary (available in ebook form and in paperback)
Book 4: FIONN: Currently in production
Book 5: Untitled
Book 6: Untitled

A prequel short story FIONN: The Stalking Silence is available free in ebook form on this site and at all major ebook stores.

This unique Irish adventure series allows some of the stranger and lesser-known elements from the ancient social structures to be introduced in an accessible manner. Although the books are painstakingly researched and as authentic as possible, they’re also pure, unadulterated action and adventure. The first book in the series (FIONN: The Defence of Ráth Bládhma) came 4th (out of 300 entrants) in the highly competitive SPFBO 2016 fantasy competition and we’re pleased to say our other books have been just as popular.

Irish Folklore: Magic Fairy Rocks

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After a recent post on Adrigole I was reminded about a local feature that we used to pass on the road as kids (and still do as adults). This is just one of those many features that adds that ‘resonance of connectedness’ or ‘familiarity’ to the land that I mentioned last time.

This particular feature is a carraig draíochta (a magic rock) and we’ve certainly got plenty of rock down Beara way so some of it must be magic!!!

Basically, it’s a white rock situated about two thirds of the way up on the hill overlooking Adrigole harbour and clearly visible from the road if you’re travelling from Glengarrif towards Castletownbere or Kenmare. The ‘magic’ part is that the closer you get to the base of the hill, the higher the rock travels up the hill until by the time you reach the hill it’s sitting happily on top.

Magic!

In essence, of course, it’s the most basic of optical illusions but real facts shouldn’t really interfere with the story. According to the story version I’ve heard, na Sidhe (the fairies) carry the rock uphill just to baffle travellers. I’ve never actually stopped to examine the rock in more detail as I always seem to be honing through but, if I remember correctly, there’s also a larger rock up there that’s said to be one of the Sidhe paths – a kind of door to the Otherworld. If anyone’s heard another version, it’d be lovely to hear about it.

Irish Folklore: Connecting with our Landscapes

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For a landscape to be dear to you, it has to have an emotional connection, some kind of resonance that works its way into your heart, tightens about it like a jealous fist and just doesn’t let go. Sometime this emotional resonance can be a simple familiarity with the local history (e.g. a sad tale of lovers killed in a fall from a cliff, a murder in a cave, a cow lost in a particular piece of bog, etc.). 

Sometimes that resonance is a familial one (e.g. my Da was king from that rock to that bog, over to that twisted tree then around and back – and his wife was called Queenie!).

The most powerful of all are those emotional resonances resulting from a combination of familial and historical connections (e.g. I was conceived on that particular rock in a moment of passion by my parents back in  … yadda, yadda, yadda).

Another landscape connection however, is the mythological or folklore connection; those stories or tales linked to an area of land that you are intimately familiar with. One of the strongest example of such a connection, for me, is down in the townland of Adrigole. That piece of land holds a special place in my life. Passing through there (when I take the road from Cork) always heralds the joy of an imminent return to Beara or a subsequent, heartbreaking, departure when I leave again. I’ve passed through this rugged landscape countless times since I was an infant. It never fails to wring some kind of emotion out of me.

 

 

My Writing: Secrets, Sighs and Sex

My walk at Galway

It’s always fascinating to learn how other people have interpreted something you’ve created, particularly when it’s something as complex as a novel. I’m still a bit surprised at times when a reviewer comments on my books and adds an interpretation that I really didn’t have in mind when I was writing the story.

This week, a review (here) on Beara: Dark Legends  came out from Tintean Magazine (an excellent Irish magazine from Australia). Again, as I was reading through it, the reviewer’s experience of the book was quite different (at times) to the one I’d imagined a reader would have. Still. That’s no real biggie. The reality is that different people experience different things from the same art form. Thousands, if not millions of people can study a painting and see something completely different based on their own life experiences. The same is certainly true with respect to a book.

Years ago I wrote a short story entitled Sex with Sarah which was basically about the moral corruption endemic in some large public departments. Yes, there was some sexual content in there of course – but essentially as a mechanism of reflecting that corruption (God, yes, I can be up myself sometimes!)  –  and for years afterwards people would come up asking me who Sarah (of the title) was.

I thought it was a bit funny that so few people seemed to get the key message I was trying to get across. Most seemed more interested in getting her contact details.

 

Irish Folklore: Murder and Secrets in the Land of the Mastiff

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The valley of Cummeengadhra (which probably derives from the word ‘Coimín’ – a commonage or common land and ‘gadhra’ a mastiff) is a pretty isolated spot. It’s very typical of Beara; grey slabs of mountain granite, bogland, shredded tatters of green, incessant rain. All the rock you could eat!

These days it’s a pretty tranquil area apart from some isolated farmhouses, the Shronebirrane stone circle and, of course, The Rabach’s Way. Prior to the Great Famine, though, there was actually a relatively large community living here with at least 29 people registered in the 1824 Tithe Applotment Books. The area is probably most famous, however, because of the deeds of one particular inhabitant; Cornelius O’Sullivan (An Rabach – The Rabach).

One evening in the early 1800s, a mariner is said to have arrived at the house of the O’Sullivans Raib (ráib meaning ‘active’ or ‘bold’ was a family nickname), seeking shelter. During the course of the evening, that mariner was killed because he was believed to be carrying a sum of money. Although all of the family would probably have had some complicity in the murder, it was Cornelius O’Sullivan – the eldest of three sons – who’s said to have completed the fatal deed by cutting the mariner’s throat. Unfortunately for him, one of his neighbours (Máire Caoch) happened to be passing and saw either the murder or the subsequent disposal of the body.

Fearful of the violent O’Sullivan Raib family, Máire Caoch had the sense to keep her tongue for several years but, one day, after a period of sustained, but unrelated, harassment from the family, she foolishly threatened Cornelius by telling him:

Tá rún agam ort, agus ní ar ba ná ar caoiribhe.

I know a secret about you and it’s not about cows or sheep.

 Cornelius must have been convinced by the threat for, on a dank June morning in 1814, he followed her up into the high-country grazing pastures and strangled her to death. Once again, however, An Rabach was unfortunate in that there was a witness to this particular murder as well; Daniel Sullivan – a frail man – who was also scared of the violent farmer and decided to keep his mouth shut.

The body of Máire Caoch was discovered, ironically, by a servant girl from the Rabach household. Alerting her friends, they carried the body back to the Rabach family home where she was laid out in preparation for her burial. It was at this point that the community’s initial suspicions of An Rabach were roused. A local at the time belief with respect to murder was that, if the murderer entered into the same room as his victim, the victim’s corpse would immediately gush blood. Unwilling to take the chance, the Rabach refused to enter the house, odd behaviour in such a small community that immediately made his neighbours look at him sideways.

Whatever their suspicions however, nothing more transpired for another 16 years (1830), when Daniel Sullivan was badly injured in an accident at the Allihies mines. Convinced that he was dying, Daniel confessed what he’d seen all those years before to his priest. Horrified, the priest immediately took it to a magistrate and a warrant of arrest was issued for An Rabach.

Forewarned by other family members, An Rabach (who was now about fifty years old) fled his family home and headed much deeper into the valley, finally taking refuge in a cave (now known as The Rabach’s Cave) which offered an excellent view of anyone coming up the valley trail. In total, An Rabach remained in hiding for about nine months and there are numerous tales of the various tricks he used to evade the local authorities. Eventually, however, he was lured back to his home in January 1831 where his wife was due to give birth to his son.

The Rabach was captured by two local constables and a man called Patrick Sullivan (the son of Máire Caoch). In a capricious twist of fate, An Rabach’s son was stillborn. Escorted to Tralee Gaol, he was tried and hanged two months later.

Irish Folklore: Magic Realism and a Haunted House in Beara

Beara10 - Haunted house (2)Catching up with comments on the brilliant Goodreads Ireland community the other day, I came across a fascinating thread on ‘Magic Realism’ that I’d missed while away. Somehow, while writing a response I got carried away with an example of a haunted house story from my own childhood. See below:

Haunted House in West Cork

It seems that when I return home, certain slivers of reality – or perhaps perceptions of reality – tend to differ from what I see outside the country. Any time I’m down in Beara, for example, we invariably get to talking about the ‘hunted house’ down the road from where we were based.

This particular haunted house was haunted even back in my Da’s time. He had plenty of stories about how he ran pass it, terrified, as a kid. The building itself was a pretty interesting place in that it was set in an isolated spot, hidden away from the road by an extremely thick, overgrown hedge. As a kid, I was driven past or cycled past as well and, occasionally, we’d look in out of curiosity although we’d never dare to venture beyond the gate. The truth was, it’s was a bleak and foreboding looking ruin. Quite a big house for it’s day as well and odd in that it’s been deserted for the whole of my lifetime (and my Da’s).

When I brought my own kids home from NZ on holiday, I’d also bring them past the old haunted house and pas on the stories that Dad told me. To this day our family still refer to it as the “Haunted House’.

Several years ago, however, when the boom was in full blast, I returned to Beara and found, to my horror, that the
external hedges around the house had been completely removed to expose the building to the clear light of day. Not only that, but someone had obtained ownership of the property and was in the process of carrying out major structural work including a major extension to the back. I found my own reaction to this a bit strange. I had no real connection to the place, after all. At the same time, being able to see the site clearly for the very first time felt as though an important element of my childhood had been irretrievably desecrated.

Five years ago, I was back home again and, to my delight, (yes, weird reaction, I know) the house remained unchanged. All the scaffolding I’d seen two years earlier was still up but absolutely no progress had been made since then. When I asked my uncle about it, he informed me that the builders had left the place after hearing strange noises (or seeing something). He’d seen the building regularly but heard about the reasons behind it second-hand as well. I’ve no idea if this is true or whether it was simply one of those many consequences resulting from the financial impact of the recession.

Last month I was back home again and the house still sits deserted, in off the road, looking even more depleted and worn out than ever. I felt some sympathy for the person who must own the property now but when I saw how the hedges have started to grow back again I couldn’t repress a smile.

Mise (me): The Accidental Beara Dark Legends Book Launch

It always takes me a few days to open up when I return to New Zealand. It’s a little strange I know but at those times I just want to hold my experiences in Ireland close. Interacting or talking with people in New Zealand always soak the memories and sensations away faster than I’m willing to give them up.

As ever, Ireland was fun, emotional, refreshing, filling, etc. I had some time with family and friends, did some interviews for the Beara: Dark Legends book and, surprisingly,  ended up doing a book launch for it back in Beara – something I hadn’t really anticipated.  Given that I only had two spare copies of the book with me that was a challenge.

The launch took place with little warning down at the Anam Cara Writers and Artist’s Retreat near Na hAoraí  (Eyeries) – a beautiful spot with a staggering view of the Kerry Coast across the bay. Had a very nice crowd of people (about 35-40) there but the highlight for me was seeing some of my family I haven’t seen since I was a kid. There was a nice surreal twist as well with one of the individuals attending Anam Cara turning out to be a juggler/hoola-hooper. She very kindly offered to perform while the various attendees were arriving so as they turned up they found her in full regalia hoola-hooping to some traditional music at the entrance way

In any case, I had a good night so much thanks to all the family (particularly Patrick-Gerard Murphy), Jim O’Sullivan (Beara Tourism), Sue Booth-Forbes (Anam Cara), The Allihies Museum folk and of course Kirsten and Todd (for performing duties).

Some photos of the night are on my facebook page. An interview with Cork Now magazine is also available here http://www.magazine.corknow.ie/ .

Now, back to writing.

 

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My Writing: Taking the Bog Road Home

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Finally heading home to carry out some final research on the second book of my Beara Trilogy.

With this particular series, as well as the usual thriller and mystery element, I’ve always been keen to include a strong contemporary issue that’s recently been to the fore in Ireland. Unfortunately, these days, I seem a bit spoiled for choice. Events in Ireland  over the last few years have pretty much been overshadowed by the recession but, more recently, we’ve also had to deal with a new wave of emigration, Garda upper management that cannot be trusted with issues of justice, a complete dearth of political  leadership (seriously, anyone voting for either of the two larger political parties really has to ask themselves why), the impacts of climate change in terms of flooding etc. blah, blah, blah and so on.

If you’ve read the first book in this trilogy, you’ll know of course that, structurally, it consists of two separate (but interlinking) mystery stories – a style to be reproduced in the remaining two books.  For the second book, I can finally say that I have the contemporary section completely plotted out – something that proved decidedly difficult.

Now, however, I have to work in the folklore an mythology linkages that connect the contemporary mystery not only to the Beara of the 1960s but to an issue the country faces today. I do have one particular theme in mind which I found through my research some years ago and which encompasses all of the issues raised above. It is something, in fact, so important I’m pretty shocked that it seems to have disappeared through the cracks of history.

Needless to say, I’m really looking forward to getting into it.

Once I finish the second Fionn book (due in September).

Until then, research, friends and lots of yacking beckons.

Folklore: Messing with the Past

Holiday 12-17 April 2011 171

I’ve always been a bit fascinated by the prehistoric structures around Aghabullogue (there’s an ancient bivallate ring fort to the south-west, sacred saint stone and of course the Ogham stones etc.). Although the prehistoric remnants there are quite cool, what I find particularly fascinating is the way that later communities of that region have actually interacted with them. In present day Ireland there’s, generally, a pretty decent respect for historic monuments and for ‘old stuff’. That hasn’t always been the case, though.

A classic example are the Aghabullogue Ogham stones.  One of these – the eight foot stone in the picture – now stands in a position of honour down by St Olan’s Well in mute attestation of the pattern that takes place in honour of St Olan every year.  To be honest, that’s actually quite funny because an ancient non-Christian spiritual icon is now being used as a prop for what is essentially a Catholic (Christian) process (admittedly also ‘borrowed’ from the early pagan rituals – see previous posts). What’s even funnier, though, was the use to which this monolith was put prior to being placed in its current location. According to the records, this Ogham stone was actually discovered in a nearby drain where it had been used in a much more practical sense as a bridge across the local stream for many centuries.

This Olan’s Well stone (as it’s now pretty well known) has the inscription “Madora MaQi Deag” which shows it’s connection to Clann Deag, a tribe who lived in the region many centuries earlier. It’s quite probable, though that the stone was removed and put to this practical purpose after the English Crown had become established in Ireland (from early 1600’s onwards). Most likely, the stone was removed around 1690 and used as building material for the local Church of Ireland church built around that same time. Despite the fact that the Ogham stone had been standing up straight (possibly from the 5th or 6th century) it was given pretty short shift when there was a new king in town.

Irish Writing: Prologue to Fionn: The Traitor of Dun Baosicne

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Something a little different today.

This is the prologue for the second book in my Fionn series (Fionn Traitor of Dun Baoiscne). Essentially it’s a stand-alone short story that introduces a number of characters who turn up in that book.  The Book (Fionn: Traitor of Dún Baoiscne) is due for release in September this year.

The main group of characters in this particular story are based on a group of aosdána (individuals who were very skilled or respected) that Fionn encounters in the Macgnímartha Finn manuscript (The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn).  The description of those characters in the original written manuscript was quite skeletal (most of the manuscripts were concise to the point of sketchiness to say the least) so I had a lot of fun playing around with it and filling in the gaps.

Hope you enjoy.

 

Prologue:

Sárán an Srón smelled it as he emerged from the rock-strewn pass of Bealach Cam. Drifting in on a gentle breeze from the south, it hung heavy in the air around the rocky entrance, striking his nostrils with a meaty intensity that stopped him in his tracks.

Stew!

His body reacted immediately, from instinct, even as his head struggled to register the presence of a scent so alien to the Great Wild. Slipping into the shelter of the nearest tree, a tall holly thick with green fern and scrub about its base, he crouched in silence, scrutinising the surrounding terrain, as he subconsciously worked through the individual elements beneath the smell.

Some kind of meat. Wild mushrooms and onions. Herbs … but not any he immediately recognised.

His mouth watered as he turned his eyes to the south but beyond the rocky entrance to the pass there was little enough to see, nothing but a rough landscape choked in places with oak and pine. Despite his habitual caution on encountering strangers so far Out in the Great Wild, Sárán allowed himself to relax. There was no evidence of any immediate threat, he was well concealed and the smell was not one to provoke any particular sense of dread. It was not, for example, the acrid stink of urine and shit, the tang of adrenalin or the iron-tinged stench of freshly spilled blood, all distinctly foul odours he’d encountered in the past and which still had the ability to raise the hairs on the back of his neck.

A long period of time passed without incident and Sárán slowly rose to his feet, although he made sure to remain within the shadow of the holly tree. A big, shaggy-haired man of twenty-seven years, he had a muscular frame and a range of scars on his left cheek and shoulder that marked him as an experienced warrior. In his right hand, he carried a javelin with an easy grip that, although loose, allowed him to raise and cast the weapon at speed should the need arise. At the small of his back, tucked into his belt, he felt the reassuring weight of a small – but deadly – hand-axe. Three additional javelins were strapped to a wicker basket that hung from his shoulders. Intended to transport the game he’d caught, the basket was dispiritingly empty.

He tugged at a greasy moustache as he stood in the shadows, closing his eyes to better appreciate the scent of stew. Raising his hand, he wiped a gob of saliva from his lips for it did smell delicious.

He found himself drooling happily at the prospect of food. It had been over five days since Sárán an Srón had left his wife and two boys at Seiscenn Uarbhaoil, a settlement far beyond the eastern swampland. Since then he’d eaten nothing but hard tack and water cress, drunk nothing but river water. Such hardships would have been borne more easily with company but, on this occasion, he was travelling alone. Both his usual hunting companions had remained behind at Seiscenn Uarbhaoil, preoccupied with more pressing matters of their own. Domhnall Dubh, a keen hunter, was awaiting the birth of his first child. When Sárán had called on him to propose the expedition he’d looked longingly at his own javelins but his wife, an irritable woman rendered all the more ill-tempered from the pregnancy, had threatened him with no sex if he dared to leave.

Dalbach, his other regular companion, was also unavailable due to a twisted ankle obtained during a romantic tryst with a local girl on the rocks at Carraig. Flaunting his leaping ability, the warrior had slipped on one of the moss-coated boulders and fallen from a substantial height. He’d been lucky not to break his leg or worse but that hadn’t stopped him moaning when Sárán informed him of his intention to go Out alone. He’d consoled his friend by promising to bring him back a haunch of venison. A big one.

Given his lack of success to date, that boast now looked overly optimistic.

Sárán scrutinised the southern forest once more, this time pleased to note a tendril of smoke rising up from the green canopy not too far to the south-east.

A campfire.

That would be the source of the smell. He stroked his nose, an overly large proboscis that had earned his nickname: Sárán an Srón – Sárán The Nose. Because of its size, many of the people at Seiscenn Uarbhaoil believed that he had sensory skills beyond that of ordinary mortals, that he could in fact ‘sniff out’ potential threats or dangers. Although he encouraged the stories because he enjoyed the attention, Sárán knew there was no truth in them. His sense of smell was no better, no worse, than most others at the settlement.

Staring at the distant plume of smoke, he frowned and scratched at the stubble on his jaw. He should be moving east, using the remaining sunlight to travel back in the direction of Seiscenn Uarbhaoil before he was obliged to set up camp for the night.

A dry camp.

With hard tack.

And cold water.

He sighed. Travelling alone as he was, he knew it would be wise to avoid strangers in the Great Wild, despite the fact that he was a fearsome warrior, a fact that several opponents – now dead – had discovered to their detriment.

His stomach grumbled in counter argument.

Sárán mulled over the possibilities. He could always, he reasoned, scout out the source of the odour. If the people responsible for it looked in any way dangerous, he could simply slip away and continue his journey.

He stared to the south. The smell of the stew was delectable.

And he was hungry.

***

Once Sárán had reached the trees, he worked his way through the forest with the ease of an experienced hunter, carefully avoiding sections of woody debris where branches or twigs might crack beneath his feet and alert others to his presence. As he advanced, the smell of stew grew perceptibly stronger. Soon he was able to make out the muffled sound of a distant conversation.

Dropping to his stomach, he wriggled forward, working his way towards a heavily vegetated mound coated with a thick copse of ash trees and heavy foliage. As far as he could tell, the voices were coming from somewhere on the other side and this particular route offered both the best concealment for his approach and his possible flight, if that were required.

It was almost dark when he reached the crest of the mound. Shuffling sideways to one of the wider tree trunks, he cautiously eased his head around it.

Ah!

The campsite was located in a little grotto, part of a long gully carved out of the ground by some ancient waterway and still strewn with smooth, green boulders. That section of the grotto closest to Sárán’s hiding place was relatively level and held a flattened rock that reached up to waist height. In the centre of this boulder was a deep depression full of rainwater from the previous night’s shower. Beside the rock, an impressive fire was crackling. Sárán’s eyes, however, were drawn less to the flicker of the flames than to the metal cauldron that dangled over it, the source of the delicious odour that now completely filled the air.

He licked his lips.

It was something of an effort to pull his eyes away to study the grotto’s human occupants. All six were seated at the fire, three each in a single line on separate logs, facing each other across the flames. They were a strange looking group. Of the trio looking in his direction, two were big men, bald but stocky. Because of their size, both would have drawn the eye even if it hadn’t been for the fact that they were completely identical. From the bald, sunburned skulls, right down to the rough dark robes they were wearing, each was a perfect copy of the other.

A Man Pair.

Sárán bit his lip. He had heard of man pairs before but he’d never actually seen one. Apparently, there’ been such a family at Seiscenn Uarbhaoil in the past. It had been before his time but people still spoke of the cursed mother who’d given birth to two sets of Man Pairs. On both occasions, the babies had died and, after the second pair, the woman had succumbed to fever. Grief-stricken, the father had wandered out into the Great Wild, never to be seen again.

The man seated to the left of the Man Pair, staring into the flames, was a skinny, old man. He too was bald but had countered the absence of hair on the back of his head with a thick growth of beard on his face that fell all the way to his waist.

Although he couldn’t see the faces of the threesome on the closest side of the fire as they had their backs to him, they too looked quite odd. One of them, a cowl pulled tight over his head, looked to be extremely short and was probably a child. Seated beside him, another, taller, individual seemed all the taller for the shortness of his companion. He too was completely bald. On the far right of this trio, the final figure appeared to be of a more normal height but rather rotund given the tightness of the material around his girth and frame.

Sárán nodded in approval at their choice of campsite. It was a good location, one that provided shelter from the wind and which was well hidden. He himself would have bypassed it, completely unaware of their presence, if it hadn’t been for the smell.

With this, his lips formed into a thin line. Despite their clever choice of location, this little group did not appear to have taken any other precautions. There was no-one standing guard and, as far as he could see, only two of them sported weapons – the two staffs carried by the Man Pair.

He gave a scornful shake of his head. Out in the Great Wild, death lurked behind every tree, lay waiting in every shadow for the unwary. Wolves and other predators prowled the land. If he had been a bandit, he could have snuck in and murdered them all without too much difficulty.

Reassured by this initial assessment and confident in his ability to deal with any threat that might arise from this particular group, Sárán got to his feet, stepped out of the trees and started walking down towards the fire.

Naturally, because they were facing in his direction, the Man Pair were the first to spot him. Startled, they quickly jumped to their feet, pulling their staffs up to hold them at the ready.

Sárán suppressed a smile. He could take both of them out easily with a javelin cast, leaving him with the hand axe to take care of the others.

And he was deadly with a hand-axe.

Seeing the Man Pair’s reaction, the others had also turned about and quickly stood up to examine the unexpected arrival. Only the old man with the beard took his time, stiffly rising to his feet to face the newcomer.

Sárán raised a placatory hand. ‘Hallo, Travellers,’ he called out. ‘I come in peace.’

The six strangers looked at one another. In the end, it was the bearded elder who finally stepped forward. He coughed and cleared his throat. ‘I see you, stranger. I am named Rogein.’

‘I see you, Old One. I am named Sárán ua Baoiscne.’

‘Welcome to our campsite, Sárán ua Baoiscne. We are preparing our meal. Would you care to eat with us? There is not much but we are happy to share.’

The old man’s voice sounded oddly brittle as though he’d done some damage to his throat in the past.

Sárán glanced at the steaming cauldron and nodded curtly, not trusting himself to successfully disguise his hunger for its contents. He advanced further into the little grotto and stood closer to the fire. ‘I will join you,’ he said, taking a seat on a small rock set back at an angle from the two logs on which the others were seated. As he sat, he made sure to keep his javelin close to hand. The men seemed harmless enough but he did not intend to take any chances. If necessary, the rock was sufficiently far from the group to allow him time to respond to any hostility.

And they will pay dearly if they tried.

If the old man noticed his caution, he showed no sign of it. Instead, he plunged a ladle into the little cauldron and scooped out a portion of stew which he slapped into a wooden bowl. He passed it to the big warrior who took it in one hand and held it under his nose. Briefly closing his eyes, he inhaled and savoured the aroma one last time before raising the bowl to his mouth and swallowing the contents whole.

‘Aaah!’

He smacked his lips with relish. The food had tasted every bit as good as it smelled. He glanced at his empty bowl then back towards the cauldron but Rogein seemed to miss the hint. The other members of the group, meanwhile, were regarding him quietly as though unsure what to make of him. After a moment, they all sat down again.

‘From where do you hail, Sárán ua Baoiscne?’ asked Rogein.

‘From Seiscenn Uarbhaoil. It is located to the east.’

‘You are far from home.’

‘I am on the hunt. Seiscenn Uarbhaoil is a growing settlement. The local forest has been hunted out.’ He glanced at the other members of the party. ‘Who are your friends?’

‘Forgive me,’ the old man answered. ‘I am a poor host.’ He pointed to the Man Pair. ‘These are Futh and Ruth. They are brothers but you may have already noticed the family resemblance.’

Sárán considered them uneasily. Seeing them sitting there side by side was like looking at a reflection in still waters. It seemed unnatural. Despite his disquiet, he smiled politely and nodded a greeting which the two men returned. Rogein, meanwhile, had moved on to the corpulent man to Sárán’s left. The warrior observed the fleshy face and pendulous jowls hanging below his jaw with silent censure. The folds of fat almost obscured a small tattoo of a spider on his right cheek.

‘And this is Regna of Mag Fea,’ said Rogein. ‘He is the man who prepared the repast which you are enjoying.’

Sárán stared at Regna’s stomach which protruded obscenely, pressing against the material of his robe like the belly of a pregnant woman. Although he’d never seen a man with so much useless bulk, he hid his distaste and nodded.

‘This,’ Rogein was indicating the extremely tall figure with the cowl, ‘is Temle’. Temle lowered his cowl to reveal another bald head, a muted pair of eyes and a strikingly bulbous nose. Like Regna of Mag Fea, he too had a spider tattooed on his left cheek. Sárán glanced at the Man Pair and realised that they too had the spider marking although he’d missed it in the flickering shadows thrown up by the fire.

‘And finally,’ said the old man, gesturing towards the smallest figure at the far end of the log. ‘This one is named Olpe.’

Sárán leaned forward in order to see the little shape more clearly.

‘Hallo, little one.’

The figure turned to look at him but beneath the shadowed cowl it was impossible to tell if it was a boy or a girl.

The big warrior grinned. ‘I have two boys about your age.’

With this a small pair of hands appeared from out of the sleeves and reached up to pull the cowl back. To his horror, Sárán found himself staring at the wizened face of a very old man. Like the others, he was completely bald.

Regna of Mag Fea roared with laughter. ‘I very much doubt that!’

Sárán bristled, angered at being embarrassed in this manner. ‘Who are you?’ he demanded. ‘Why does such an odd group travel Out in the Great Wild?’

Rogein quickly made a mollifying gesture. ‘Forgive Olpe’s little joke, Sárán ua Baoiscne. We are like you. Simple travellers.’

‘I am not a traveller. I am a hunter.’

‘Of course, of course.’ He nodded. ‘My comrades and I …’ He paused. ‘We too are hunters of a sort. Hunters of knowledge.’

‘Hunters of truth.’ Sárán could not hide the scepticism in his voice.

‘Indeed. The stars reveal their secrets to us and we hunt their associated knowledge.’

Sárán continued to look at him blankly.

‘If you can read them, the stars reveal many secrets. Some years past, for example, the stars told us that a great leader, a most powerful figure, had been born. Since then we have been travelling the land to seek him out.’ He made a shrugging gesture. ‘The problem is that although the stars tell us of such events, they do not tell us where they occur. That is why we travel now, seeking the one who was born.’

‘Why would you seek out a baby?’

‘To pay homage to him.’

Sárán struggled to keep the incredulity from his voice. ‘To pay homage to a baby?’

‘Yes.’

‘How would you pay homage to a mewling infant?’

‘Well, we are not wealthy men but we have gathered gifts of significance.’

‘Oh?’ asked Sárán with renewed interest.

‘Temle.’ Rogein looked to the tall man. ‘Show our guest.’

With a sigh, the tall man reached down to open a little backpack resting on the log alongside him. Undoing the upper cord that sealed it, he withdrew three large clay pots and laid them on the ground before him. Removing the sealed lid of the first container, he tilted it forwards so that Sárán could see its contents: a large mixture of some papery bark, paired leaves, and flowers with white petals and a yellow or red centre.’

‘Flowers. Very nice. I’m sure the babe’s mother will appreciate that.’

‘These are no ordinary flowers, Sárán of Seiscenn Uarbhaoil. They come from the lands far to the East and produce an alluring fragrance.’

Sárán ignored him, peering at the other containers. ‘What else do you have?’

Temle opened the second pot. This was full to the brim with a powdery, reddish resin. Sárán leaned forward to examine it more closely only to draw back in alarm as he caught a whiff of the overpowering scent it gave off.

‘This is another fragrance from the Myrrh trees. Again, they are found far to the East. And finally … ’

The last clay pot was opened. Sárán stared. It seemed to contain a large collection of shiny metal disks.’

He looked at Rogein with a quizzical expression.

‘They call this gold,’ explained the old man. ‘It is of great worth.’

‘Of course, of course.’ Despite his disappointment, Sárán supressed a great desire to roll his eyes. He had been hoping for more food of the quality of the stew, some weapons or even jewellery he could have appropriated to bring back to his wife in compensation for the lack of food. He tried not to laugh as he imagined the expression of the babe’s family when this group arrived offering homage and pots of useless junk. The thought prompted his next question.

‘You say you have been seeking this child for some time.’

‘Yes. For some years. Although we know the child was born, we do not know where. Recently, we learned that he was to be found in a settlement said to be led by a woman.’

‘A woman!’ Sárán scoffed. ‘What settlement would let a woman lead them?’

‘It’s true,’ the old man conceded. ‘It is difficult to believe but we were also told that this woman was a Gifted One and has received training as a bandraoi – a female druid. Have you heard of such a place?’

The warrior thought about that. ‘I know of no such settlement in these parts but I have heard tales of a place far to the west, in the Sliabh Bládhma region. My sister’s man once told me that it has links to Clann Baoiscne but I do not know what those links are.’

Rogein looked eagerly towards his companions who were now all whispering excitedly together. ‘You see, brothers! Our informant did not fail us.’ He quietened then as though absorbed in deep thought but after a moment he returned his attention to the warrior.

‘You have our gratitude, Sárán. Can we offer you more stew as an expression of our appreciation?’

Sárán looked guiltily at the little cauldron. There did not seem to be enough for everyone but the flavours were still raging on his tongue, demanding more.’

‘Very well.’ He did his best to sound as though he was doing them a kindness accepting the reward that was his due for helping them in their bizarre search.

Rogein ladled another measure into his bowl and he immediately lapped it up, fearful that he might have to share. When he was finished, he wiped the leather sleeve of his tunic across his lips. ‘Do not take this the wrong way, Rogein. It is not my intent to insult your hospitality but you are foolish to wander about in the Great Wild without protection. These lands can be very dangerous.’

As he spoke, he eased his javelin onto his knees and slowly, casually, allowed his left hand to drift behind his back to where his hand-axe waited. It was ungrateful of him, he knew, but he had come to the decision to rob this little company. They could keep their smelly pots but he intended to leave the camp with that cauldron. If they did not attempt to stop him, they did not need to die.

‘I have a weapon,’ said Regna of Mag Fea. The fat man held up a short boning knife that, although sharp, would have done little more than cause a gash in a real fight. ‘And both Futh and Ruth have their stout staves.’

Sárán bit his tongue. These men were fools. Simple-minded idiots whose bones would inevitably litter the floor of the Great Wild’s forests.

‘You would not frighten a sandfly with such a knife. Staves are useful up close but they are no match for a sword or a battle axe. And they offer no defence against spear or javelin. You would require real weapons, Rogein.’ He tapped his own javelin to emphasise his point. ‘Something to strike fear into those who would attack you.’

Rogein looked at him in surprise. ‘Why would anyone attack us? Apart from our gifts – which we keep concealed – we have nothing of value, nothing that anyone would want.’

Sárán glanced guiltily at the cauldron from the corner of his eye.

‘You should fear travellers in the night,’ the big warrior said. ‘Death comes easily in the Great Wild.’

‘We are six,’ insisted Rogein. ‘How can you claim to advise us when you are but a single man?’

‘Because I am a warrior from Seiscenn Uarbhaoil. My blades are stained with the blood of many enemies. I am not one to be waylaid or interfered with. I am strong. I kill easily, without passion. You cannot compare us.’

There was a dull thump.

Sárán looked down to find that the wooden bowl had slipped from his fingers, hitting the rocky ground. He started to laugh and was about to make a joke of it but when he attempted to speak only a barely audible croak came out of his mouth.

Surprised, he raised his fingers to touch his lips and tried again. Once again, there was no sound but a croak.

Rogein was looking at him with mild curiosity. ‘What is it, Sárán ua Baoiscne? Is the stew not to your liking?’

Sárán pointed urgently at his mouth and grunted.

‘You cannot speak?’ Rogein leaned forward and peered closely at his guest. Annoyed, Sárán opened his mouth wide, offering the old man a better view in the hope that he could see what was wrong.

After a moment, the old man pulled back and tugged thoughtfully on his long beard. ‘I believe I know the cause. It will be the white root, an ingredient Regna of Mag Fea adds to his stews. It enhances the flavour, magnifies both the taste and the odour. Manipulation of scent is one of the many secret skills he learned in his travels through the Eastern Lands.’

Sárán glanced at the fat man who returned it with a smug smile then chuckled loudly. ‘On occasion, it has the interesting effect of rendering an eater silent. A perfect antidote for boastful guests.’

Furious, the warrior made to reach for the javelin lying across his knees but found that his hand did not move. Alarmed, he tried to stand but found that his legs were not responding either.

‘Ah, yes.’ Regna of Mag Fea was stroking the smooth skin of his meaty jowls as he observed Sárán’s efforts. He got to his feet, waddled towards the warrior and squatted down before him. ‘That is another side effect. The more common one in fact. The white root causes a great lassitude of the limbs. It makes a person still and unmoving.’

He smiled at the growing alarm in Sárán‘s eyes. ‘You are a man of sage advice, Sárán of Seiscenn Uarbhaoil. One should not travel without care within the Great Wild. It is a dangerous place. And it is a shame you are unable to follow your own counsel.’

Pulling the javelin from the warrior’s knees, he tossed the weapon aside.

‘I am glad you enjoyed our cooking. You were aware there was not much food but that did not stop you. Still, it can be said you enjoyed your last meal. The last visitor to our campfire enjoyed his meal just as you enjoyed him.

He nodded at the horrified comprehension in the frozen man’s eyes.

‘And now you see the truth of it. Yes, that is how we travel so light. When we are low on supplies we set our web at sites such as this valley entrance where travellers are, eventually, bound to pass.’

He pulled out the little boning knife and held it up in front of the stricken man.

‘But you will forgive me, I’m sure. The night grows late and my companions grow hungry.’