On a remote Gaelic farmstead in medieval Ireland, word reaches Alberic of conquering Norman knights arriving from England. Oppressed by the social order that enslaved his Norman father, he yearns for the reckoning he believes the invaders will bring—but his world is about to burn. Captured by the Norman knight Hugo de Lacy and installed at Dublin Castle as a translator, Alberic’s confused loyalties are tested at every turn. When de Lacy marches inland, Alberic is set on a collision course with his former masters amidst rumours of a great Gaelic army rising in the west. Can Alberic navigate safely through revenge, lust and betrayal to find his place amidst the birth of a kingdom in a land of war?
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Enjoy an excerpt:
I entered the Tiarna’s house and at first, my eyes refused to see through the dimness. The warmth washed over me, the smell of broth, thick on the air. When my eyes adjusted to the firelight, I could see that the plank walls were high and decorated with hanging shields and axes, an adze, an auger, a saw, all suggesting a lustre in the low, red light. Around the edges of the room were benches draped with skins and rich cloths. On the woman’s side of the house, a kneading trough, iron vessels, a washing bucket. Naked children raced and shrieked around the wooden bath while Gormflaith, the Tiarna’s wife, nursed a baby as her ladies spun wool together. The Tiarna’s favoured hounds lounged on the rushes by the fire in the centre of the room, ears twitching and nostrils flaring as the smell of meat rose from the hanging cauldron.
And from the shadows, amongst the women, Conn’s eyes suddenly staring from where he had been playing with the younger children. His face hot with embarrassment and outrage, compromised by my presence. His veneer of strength and manhood was not yet fixed within the safe confines of this place.
‘Here, giolla,’ the Tiarna called from beyond the fire. I approached and the Tiarna’s household guard Donchad stepped out from inside the door, a warding presence by my side. ‘Do you play, giolla,’ he said mockingly, as giolla is what they call a kind of squire to the high born. He motioned to a board marked with squares set in a bench and beside the board, a broken cup containing two bone dice. His mocking was twofold as only the nobility were permitted to play such games. I chose not to respond.
‘This is a game that trains the mind for politics, for battle, for the reading of other men and their wants, their workings, their weakness.’
‘My Father speaks of such things,’ I said to push back gently.
‘Of course, as he would,’ the Tiarna said thinking on this briefly, rolling the dice and moving the whittled gaming pieces on the board. And then he looked at me with some intensity, preparing to read my reaction. ‘Tell me, why would a poet come to me when it is known that I maintain my own file,’ he said gesturing to Tuar, ‘when my family has been served and lauded for generations by the masters of the Ua Dalaigh? Why, would a file, hungry for his livelihood or seeking a new horse in payment, come to me and my house where there is surely a surfeit of poetry? And then, seeking to win acclaim by the verse he must so fully believe to be superior in all ways to that of the poets of this land, why then steal away and not announce himself?’
The Tiarna stared as he spoke, seeking to unsettle me and I wondered, under that gaze, what oracles had he read in my face.
I replied carefully so that my meaning would be understood but not explicitly stated. ‘Perhaps he is waiting for a praiseworthy event to occur. An act of bravery and daring worthy of commemorating in verse. Perhaps he intends to arrive once this act has been carried out so as to disguise foreknowledge.’
I could feel Conn’s stare on the back of my neck, willing me dead for speaking so freely. The Tiarna’s eyes finally released me as he looked to Tuar significantly. In Latin, he said, ‘does the slave speak to me of our táin? Of our coming raid to the north? How could that be as only my captains know of this.’ Tuar played the game.
‘Surely not, Tiarna.’
Of course I had heard of it. Such secrets unable to be kept by the straining youths of the household, bent on winning honour, dreaming aloud of great deeds to come and their own place within them.
‘A secret told to more than one is difficult to keep,’ I replied in Latin.
‘Your thinking is sound but it must go deeper,’ the Tiarna said. At that moment, he looked up at me again, his bright eyes amused and dangerous. ‘Why, for example, would I allow you and your kind to eat my fowl without sanction?’ Sharp, icy veins of fear travelled my spine as he watched his words worm into me. I faltered in that warm, smoke-filled place, intoxicated by sudden guilt. By my sudden and inescapable visibility. By my nakedness in front of such inquisition. Sights of the room came to me as powerful visions, amplified by fear and the overpowering sense of the momentous. The surety that, regardless of what I was to answer, the past would be burned by it. Would be no more. And I was dazzled, as my eyes sought escape from his insistence, in glimpses of the beautiful looped chains on his hounds. The painted shields on his walls. I answered.
‘I would suggest that the Tiarna knew the value of such secret pursuits in expelling the energies of youth with no more than the loss of a winter fowl to himself.’
His gaze remained on me and I could not say in those moments what else was passing in the room, in the compound, in the world as he channelled something into me through those impassive brown eyes. Finally, as all sound subsided and even the hounds seemed to hang on his word, he made his pronouncement:
‘There may be some truth in what they say of you. You are changed.’ He laughed lightly then, seeing the fear on my face. ‘You may stand where you are giolla. If there is no poet found, know with certainty that I will teach you humility by beating you from here to the river until your ribs show through your skin.’
His eyes returned to the gaming board and the pieces there arrayed like fallen rondels at the foot of a lathe.
‘If you are proved true, you will ride with us on our táín to the north and you will share in the dangers and the rewards.’ He spoke to Donchad, ‘take a horse and ride out to see if you can spy this mover on the fringes. Do not alert him to your presence if it may be helped and return to us with news.’
Paul Duffy, author of Run with the Hare, Hunt with the Hound (2022), is one of Ireland’s leading field archaeologists and has directed numerous landmark excavations in Dublin as well as leading projects in Australia, France and the United Kingdom.
He has published and lectured widely on this work, and his books include From Carrickfergus to Carcassonne—the Epic Deeds of Hugh de Lacy during the Cathar Crusade (2018) and Ireland and the Crusades (2021). He has given many talks and interviews on national and international television and radio (RTÉ, BBC, NPR, EuroNews).
Paul has also published several works of short fiction (Irish Times, Causeway/Cathsair, Outburst, Birkbeck Writer’s Hub) and in 2015 won the Over the Edge New Writer of the Year Award. He has been shortlisted for numerous Irish and international writing prizes and was awarded a writing bursary in 2017–2018 by Words Ireland.
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