I, Catherine Ui Niall Meathe writing in this year Christians number 1067, hereby bequeath this diary and accompanying papers to a female descendent whom their guardians shall deem worthy.
Why place it in the hands of monks whose religion I disdain for the old Druidic ways? Because they alone have a sense of written history's value; they alone can fulfill my terms by delivering this to you. My fellow Druids rely on oral history, recording little in writing, and one day that will prove fatal to our continuity. I cannot stop the avalanche of affection to the Christian god, but I have no compunctions about employing its most ardent adherents and their script for my own purposes.
That you are reading this means that unlike my granddaughters, the children of two daughters by my previous husband, who care for little but the wealth and prestige of a court they came by undeservedly, and have taught their children likewise, you are deemed by the monks who safeguard this document to be a woman willing to sacrifice personal interest and even her own life for the sake of Ireland. You must also be a proven warrior--Boudicca returned in spirit, not just the political show I've made of the legend that gained me a share of deathless Cormac's throne. Surely my bloodline will produce someone worthwhile eventually, even if I was too old to have children when I married said Cormac. What a line I could have mothered by him had it not been too late.
Aye, and does Ardrigh Cormac think he can fool me? Catherine of the Ulaid and northern Ui Neil may be losing her grip on this mortal coil, but she knows a fellow duplicitous trickster when she sees one, much less has been married to these many decades. "Well preserved." "Ages slowly." Does he think me a simpleton? His grey hair and wrinkles are poured from bottles. Mine are from the ravages of more than nine decades of time's arrow that passes him by. And, that blacksmith's hand of his that Brian Boru fasted me after Clontarf as the guarantee of the Ulaid's cooperation under the new crown, is as iron-like as ever fifty-three years later, while mine is the remnant wrinkled claw of Ireland's oldest known woman. Indeed, my hand now has the shakes in the early morning, so it is time to pen this memoir while I am still able.
Differences aside, we worked together all this time on the important things--keeping Ireland unified, England divided, and the Normans safely bottled up on the European mainland. Had we failed, a united Norman-dominated England would surely have become our master.
It's ironic that his daughter Myst, once a hostage to our deal at my home in the north, will determine the royal succession. I know nothing of Myst's and Cormac's real origin, certainly not of her mother, Cormac's deceased previous wife of some far off land. Yet I have come to appreciate Myst as the best of women, simple, honest, sharp as my sword, the finest of the next generation. She married an outstanding Neal cousin of mine, the best of the Ulaid on the farm or in the army. I wept when he died of old age. Their son Cormac is an Irishman worthy of the name and will be an excellent king one day when my Cormac, if I may term him so, passes the sceptre. Christians the lot, but you can't have everything. Besides this document, it is all I leave for posterity, so I must be content. Given the trends of belief it is too much to hope you are a spiritual descendent.
Don't get me wrong about Cormac. He loves me after a fashion and I will never complain of how he treats me, but...
Ah, be done with maudlin sentiment, and on to the heart of the matter, Oh descendent of mine. I'm sure there will be no shortage of history volumes in the good monks' hands to tell you the gist of things, so some of what I record here will surely be redundant. But historians never get things quite right, and they certainly won't tell my story true. They'll leave out the important, poetically embellish the trivial, and fabricate involvement of those who weren't even present, depending on their paymasters and hearers, and I suspect said audiences will be heartily unfavourable to the memory of Catherine the Druidess a generation from now.
To the quick. I was born in the year of their lord 974. My father Eoghan MacNeill was a typical minor king of the Tir Eogain, ruling only our small tuath, comprising, when I was a child, scarcely a hundred spirits. My mother was a bought slave whom he freed and married as another man might a great lady, but she was a slight woman who failed to survive a bout of the coughing sickness after a particularly harsh winter when I had but four years. He never recovered from his love for her, never married again. Indeed, so far as I know, he never had another woman before or after, which alone set him apart as a minority of one man. Oh, yon followers of the Christ might preach such, but they rarely follow their own words, and among us Druidic-leaning pagans, such fidelity is unheard of.
While technically of the Ulaid, our tuath was situated in the uncertain borderlands with the Ui Neil, so like us, could be considered part of either, depending on the shifting winds of political allegiances. I dreamt Eoghan a man worthy of being lord of both, and who knew, when next it came the turn of a northern Ui Niall, perhaps as Ardrigh over all-Ireland. I knew not in my childhood fantasies how empty the latter title could be if local kings declined to send tribute, as they often did, how little the Ardrigh really mattered in those days, or how complex were the larger machinations of Irish politics. I also would only later learn how out of favour the Ardrigh was in the north country.
Like Eoghan's peers, he and Riley, the kin-husband Father brought home for his only child, together led the troops of our Tuath into battle each spring, sometimes to defend our lands against neighbours, other times seeking to add territory and cattle to the family holdings. Every resource was bent to such wealth-extending ends, including my own person. I had no say in my marriage at age fifteen to a nearby king's son, but when Riley's father died but three years later, our two domains became one, together soon subjugating also the three between, making father and him the effective masters of more than a thousand persons, and I their de facto co-ruler as day-to-day manager of our kingdom's resources. They schemed and fought, but I raised and fed their armies, then paid the tradesmen's reckonings.
Very unlike his northern peers in so many ways, Eoghan was from earliest times an admirer of the Delcassian, Brian Bóroimhe mac Cennétig, later known as Brian Boru, and studied his exploits and battles assiduously. In their handful of personal encounters, the two got on famously, being both scholars of the ancient ways, especially of military history, a passion I also came to share with them, though I usually couldn't out-drink either while we discussed such.
I also shared the sword. Understand that only a few women of my day trained at arms, but I made sure to be his and my husband's equal in everything military, as I was their better in management. Were it not for the legends of women warriors, the sword too would have been denied me. So, though I was required to fulfill my natural role of producing children, I would stand second to them in no skill. We downplayed this to outsiders, so few outside our little kingdom knew excepting Brian, who seemed to espy everything before being told. Once when we visited Kincora, he insisted on a practice bout to try me. I had little chance of winning at arms with that giant of a man, but held my own in the fight several minutes--longer than many men could, and the feat earned me his grudging respect. That he would afford the same earned him more than my respect. I became a fervent promoter of the Delcassian and his designs for Ireland, more so even than Eoghan.
While I spent some of my best years attempting to produce heirs to father and Riley, then raising two girls, Brian was busy expanding his influence from Kincora throughout the south in the years before 1000, eventually forcing all-Ireland to bow to him when he essentially deposed Malachy the Meatheman, all much to Father's delight. "A man among men," he would repeat, "more worthy of being Ardrigh than any other." He was ever contemptuous of distant kinsman Malachy, glad to see him humbled.
When Riley died in a petty cattle raid in April of 1008, I took his position with the troops, for our two daughters were now eighteen and sixteen, well grown by then, both married of course with two children apiece born or on the way, and I at loose ends and the possessor of little beyond overweening ambition. Dierdrie, my eldest, was by then as competent a bookkeeper and manager as I, perhaps better, and her husband a skilled cattleman and highly regarded lieutenant in our forces, a prince of men, as I said.
Does my casual dismissal of a husband of near two decades sound shallow, callous? Well, Riley was better than average as men go, but I won't pretend I was happy being married--his chattel and plaything--especially because he upbraided me regularly for failing to produce a son--his defect, as his like failures with some seven or eight concubines abundantly proved.
Father had but perfunctory objections to the new arrangements. He knew I had as good an arm as any of his captains and better than all his lieutenants, and I was now all he had left in his advancing years. Like it or no, I was his sole immediate descendant, and was determined to inherit over any male cousin or nephew. If so, I had better be able to lead the defence of our kingdom, though I was fully aware all odds were against a woman in such an endeavour, despite any skills at arms. Realistically, had things gone differently at Clontarf, our branch of the Ui Niall would surely have passed into oblivion, my efforts to the contrary brushed aside by some slightly related Niall of equal ambition, and no talents to recommend him but an arm strong enough to wield a sword and lift a flagon. Father was sceptical of my dreams, but I neither told him of their extent nor paid his concerns about me much note, for he doubted many things. I could fight, and he always needed another sword. Doubtless, in his reasoning, if I was of no further use in my born purpose, why not let me act as a soldier? I was expendable.
I put one of my interests to immediate use, for I had spent much time with horses, and soon had organized and was leading a small cavalry unit. Again, he approved, for had not the Brian done this also? I also studied what the Delcassian was doing with ships, and was fully in agreement that we Irish must have our own fleets to meet and defeat the Northmen in their own element. I could do little but study the theory of ship building and fighting, of course, for our kingdom was landlocked. I did make several visits to the south however, and scrutinized every detail of the vessels Brian captured from the Northmen or built himself, becoming intimately involved in the design of the latter, both on the spot and through extensive subsequent correspondence.
Eoghan's scepticism of his better known and more powerful relatives got him into much trouble, especially when he broke ranks early to become the only northern Ui Niall or Ulaid chief to support Brian Boru when he made himself joint Ardrigh with the Meatheman. We were strong enough so no one or two of our neighbours dared attempt to enforce their politics on us by arms, and the three it would have taken couldn't set aside their mutual enmities long enough to craft a sufficient army to best us. Eoghan and I became rather adept at fostering the continuance of those divisions. Living along a border it was easy. You scoff? Remember, we are Irish. We live the bloody politic. Other peoples merely play at it.
Meanwhile, even while perforce being a mother, I had cultivated the image and spirit of Boudicca about myself, though I shall admit that without my bodyguard, I was at best a very good journeyman soldier and captain, not a great proficient like the Delcassian--well enough at the strategy table, strong enough to lead without too much protection, skilled in finesse fighting, but lacking the truly powerful arm and skill of a mighty warrior such as my father had been in his youth, and Brian still was. Indeed, though the men at first humoured me in my fanciful role as the great Celtic warrior woman, once I had bested some of the less skilled and carefully chosen braggarts in personal combat, then successfully led a hand of expeditions, they took me seriously enough for my purposes, even promoted the Boudicca aura on my behalf.
And yet, I should rather have been a Druidess full time or become a bard or historian if the truth be known, and in a world where things had gone differently in 1014, I would beyond a doubt have died in obscurity, unknown even to my own, let alone to the next generation. It gives you pause.
* * * * *
The meat of my story lurches to a start in the latter part of 1012, when father Eoghan's spies brought him a report of a mysterious foreigner named Cormac O'Malachy of Laigin, which province the Danes, when they ruled Dubhlinn, termed Leinster, a name that appears to have stuck. Like any king of more than a few hundred subjects, Eoghan spied on all the Norse towns, and particularly watched Sitrygg Silkbeard, also termed "the craven". It was thus he heard tale of this Cormac who had apparently first arrived in Cork from ports unknown, quickly become a trusted arms supplier and trainer to the Delcassian, but then broke with Brian to set up shop in Viking town.
It seems the residents of that benighted place were agog over this man and his daughter, who'd set up business as a blacksmith and wholesaler of fine arms, the man wielding the hammer, the daughter running the business and keeping his books. Cormac the smith, it was said, was a fine handsome specimen of a fellow, possessed of phenomenal size, strength, and endurance, and as skilled in the use of the weapons he sold as he was in their manufacture. He was said to have bent two iron bars together that none other could even one at a time. The daughter Myst, though a mere snip, and no warrior, was reputed a prodigious scholar, and fully his partner.
Stories came via my own spies of a blade Cormac forged for himself--one that had no equal for the strength of its steel, resistance to nicks, and rich decoration on the hilt. In these later years one hears yarns about the blade being imbued with magic, but that's humbug. Everyone knows that only the earth herself, and by extension living things in contact with it, or ones at least recently alive, can have resident magic, for magic comes from and affects life, and is unconnected with dead things. We Druids do not so much command magic as sense it in nature and ever-so-politely request it to redirect its flow. A magic sword? One might as well say a Druid bishop or a Christian witch. What thing made of iron could abide magic? It's an oxymoron, all nonsense, a silly superstition.
Father of course must have one of the man's blades, cost what it may, and parted with a bag of gold in return for what he declared was the finest sword ever forged, and worth every coin he paid. Apart from my own sword and knife, I gave little attention to his precious war toys, rather preferring to see them and the men who wielded them as tools to my personal political ends--removing the High Kingship from Brian's and Malachy's descendants both, then bestowing it on my branch of clan Ui Niall. I would never have rebelled against Brian himself, but saw no reason one of his sons or grandsons should succeed him. Mind, I did know how to use the other weapons, except for the heavy Norse axe, which Eoghan had taken up when he heard Brian had adopted it and taught its use to his men. Remember that I was married to weapons long before being joined to Riley. The Boudicca image, right? Many was the time though, that I repaired to my tent after a strenuous workout or battle, and picked up a precious book.
* * * * *
If I may go back a few years, how typically Irish were the machinations that led to the bloodbath of 1014. Maelmordha King of Leinster, and joint villain of the piece, cemented his previous alliance with Olaf, the Norse King of Dubhlinn, by giving the latter his scheming sister Ghormlaith as wife. Understand that this wretched excuse for our sex cultivated a reputation as the most beautiful and talented woman in the land, though I confess to thinking sharply otherwise on the three occasions I met her, which were far too many to suit either of us. That she hated me with handsome fulsomeness was manifest. Though utterly incompetent with the sword, she coveted both the image of Boudicca most people attached to me, and thence the high throne, but in her own name. Ghormlaith was a tall woman, and attracted men like bad meat does maggots, but her ambition was too naked and her temper too foul to keep them for long, so she eventually rotted all her husbands' lust into hatred.
In 980, Malachy, the Meatheman and southern Ui Niall then styled High King, warred with Olaf, defeated him, and took both Dubhlinn and Ghormlaith. Her charms were sufficient to persuade Malachy to place her son Sitrygg by Olaf on the city's throne, subject to Malachy. Then, as the subsequent years rolled by, the previously obscure Brian Boru gradually rose to power in the south, becoming first the King of Munster, and then greatly expanding the borders of that province. Ultimately, he was able to force Malachy to acknowledge him as equal and divide Ireland's rule between them. Later still though, Maelmordha rebelled, and the two allied in 999 to defeat Leinster and their Viking allies, including the treacherous Sitrygg, who by this time scarcely acknowledged the man who'd given him his pathetic throne. We heard that Cormac and his daughter went back to Brian, and just as well, for the Delcassian left Dubhlinn a smoking ruin, and Sitrygg few resources with which to rebuild. But in fact, as Cormac eventually admitted to me, he had lived in Dubhlinn for the express purpose of passing military information to Munster, and his reputed break with Brian had been a sham.
Astonishingly, Brian also took the aforementioned Ghormlaith, replacing his long dead first wife, though the two were neither very young by this time. Then, three years later, Boru essentially deposed Malachy, taking the entire High Kingship for himself. In this he met with general approval, excepting most of my northern kin, who bowed in public and schemed in private. There followed more than a decade of peace and prosperity under the unified rule, with great public works erected, churches built and repaired, some treasured old Irish documents recovered from the continent, and the ravages of the Vikings gradually erased from a land that had suffered for centuries. This was a situation so unusual for Ireland that I knew it couldn't last, and would likely end in cataclysm. I was not far wrong. Suffice it to say that our clan prospered due to our early alliance with Brian, but I had to maintain and train an ever growing army to thwart the schemes of our own kin, and prepare for the coming bloodbath to come.
Sure enough, the combination of Brian's eldest son Murrogh insulting Maelmordha, and Brian himself setting aside Ghormlaith, who then goaded her brother to take revenge on both counts, provided the ostensible excuse for Leinster and ally Dubhlinn rebelling again in 1012. Sitrygg recruited all over northern Europe to augment his rebel army, setting the stage for the cataclysmic confrontation at Clontarf on Good Friday, April 23 of 1014. It's said he promised both the High Kingship and his thrice rejected mother to more than one foreign adventurer in return for ships and troops to aid the rebel cause.
On the eve of battle, Brian and Malachy met in the former's tent for a council of war. Eoghan, as Brian's only Northern ally to bring troops, was accounted a captain, and the two of us were present at the debacle that followed. Murrogh came late to the council, Malachy snidely derided him for his tardiness, and Murrogh snapped back that he'd at least brought his manly courage, and not left it at home as Malachy was wont. There was truth to the insult, and all knew it, but Malachy was looking for a way to excuse further cowardice. He demanded an apology and got a sneer. When he applied to Brian for a forced contrition, the latter refused, saying it wasn't up to him, and implicitly supporting his son. So, Malachy told him to fight the battle by himself, and withdrew to watch. I suspected then, and still do, that he engineered the whole affair, hoping Brian would not survive the morrow and he could reclaim the title Ardrigh, though his had been an empty one before Brian.
So that was that. The Meathemen would sit in their tents. Brian Boru had Munster and Connacht, some rebel Danes, and our clan alone of the north. Sitrygg had Leinster, Dubhlinn, all the other northern Ui Neil and Ulaid, plus a host of Northmen and other foreigners. Our side had perhaps the slightly larger force, but all knew it could go either way, though Brian surely had more priests and monks imploring their god on his behalf. I doubt my fellow Druids had any special preference, except for peace. So why was I a fighter? Bag of contradictions, I.
The black thing of the affair was the Irish kings and their sons (with a very few daughters who slipped in--none but me in the histories, though) who fought and killed each other wholesale, winnowing both sides. The histories contain detailed accounts of the back and forth struggle that ensued that fateful day, the many individual combats fought, the heroism of exhausted men, the valour of the Delcassians and my Ulaid, and the treachery of Malachy, who withheld his men until finally certain Brian's forces would prevail, and only then recovered his malleable conscience concerning his sworn alliance sufficiently to enter the fray with his still fresh troops, who would be sure to survive the fray in large part. With so much information available from other accounts, I need only elaborate my own role, which is, depending on the historian and audience, either grossly exaggerated or deleted altogether.
In what was fast becoming a common employment in Irish war, Eoghan led a mixed troop of infantry and cavalry, perhaps two hundred in all. Ours was the only northern band so employed on the side of the Delcassian. Out of a jealousy over the high kingship that I've already admitted I shared, our relatives all supported the rebels, and were present in considerable numbers on the other side of the field. I was supposed to stay in our headquarters tent to coordinate communication among our units, but when a messenger brought me news of Eoghan's fall, I wasted no time donning his spare armour and assuming his place. Since I had assembled, trained, and paid the men, who would gainsay me? Our men and horse distinguished themselves, leading charge after charge to avenge their lord, until the Leinster-allied Norse, Northern Ui Neil, and Ulaid we faced finally broke and fled the field at the end of an epic struggle, one of the great battles of the modern age.
What I didn't do, and I subsequently discovered most of the other nobles did, was get involved in individual combats by calling out rivals from the other side. I'd laboured in my father's shadow and was largely unknown even in the north, so none called me out either. But by that means did most of the valiant perish, generally piercing each others' hearts with daggers or short swords while holding a foe's beard or hair. I can scarce count how many self-styled kings Ireland lost on both sides that day, perhaps hundreds, though many of that title ruled little more than their own house and stables, and were accompanied by a bare squad.
Stories circulated afterward had the pious Boru unwilling to fight on Good Friday, and sequestered in his tent praying before the very crucifix he had waved before the men when rallying the troops. Against that fantasy, the truth is that he was over seventy, too old to go into battle, too valuable to lose, and his commanders would not permit it. Besides, his son Murrogh was a more than competent field warrior. Murrogh was a handsome man too, and I had considered resolving my designs on real power in the land through a partnership. I was too old to have more children by then (though Ghormlaith had somehow managed the astounding trick with Brian long after she shouldn't have been able) but I reasoned I might be able pass the high Kingship from Murrogh as Brian's obvious successor, to a compliant Ui Niall. And Murrogh seemed not unwilling when we delicately discussed the possibilities for a marriage realignment the night before the battle. That's another malleable--the Irish are prepared to terminate one marriage to make another that presents as more convenient, or politically expedient.
In one critical encounter, my horse routed the forces of Bothair the Dane, later termed Brodar, one of the adventurers Sitrygg imported. We forced them and others into retreat in the direction of Clontarf, where it developed they were caught between surf and shore vainly attempting to return to their boats, and were slaughtered--all but Bothair himself, who escaped the melee on foot in the opposite direction. Indeed, though the bulk of the battle was fought closer to Dubhlinn, it ended up being named after that engagement, and the ensuing massacre.
My memory of what followed is obscure, for it has two forms, one apparently a phantasm.
In one recollection, I peremptorily signalled a nearby lone and bloodied infantryman wearing Delcassian colours to follow Bothair, and he obediently took off in hot pursuit, while I continued to dispatch the remnants of the force we'd defeated. In another, I turned from the scene and experienced none of this. In both I fought the clean-up engagement for some time thereafter and thought little of the bifurcated memory until later. In any event, the battlefield shortly resolved itself into numerous desperate skirmishes, then the looting of the dead. It wasn't until I saw some of Brian Boru's personal guards participating in the latter that I took to concerned investigation, riding over to his tent with a couple of my captains and a half dozen men.
What exactly did happen in those last minutes of the battle lacked witnesses excepting two, and they both wily liars to the core, so is somewhat obscure, but the gist appears to be that Bothair, in fleeing from my cavalry after we broke their lines and effectively won the battle, came across the very tent where Brian awaited news of the outcome, rent the side open, fought the elderly Ardrigh and was in the process of raising his battle axe to his head when the man that half my memories say I sent in pursuit of Bothair, burst in behind and separated the Dane from his own treacherous head with a single stroke of his blade, so saving Brian's life. By the time I arrived, the deed was done, and Brian's rescuer sent off to gather news of the battle. I ordered Bothair's body parts removed from the tent, replaced the guard Boru had so carelessly dismissed to looting by my own men, scolded the king for his recklessness, and went in search of my father's own body, barely noting that the Delcassian's rescuer had been the aforementioned Cormac. By this time, the Boru was as calm as if we had been to Good Friday Mass instead of in a fight for his own life and that of the nation.
Do you require further obscurity in this narrative? In the aftermath, some witnesses swore Cormac had never been near the tent, Bothair had indeed killed Boru, they had seen his severed head, and Bothair had then variously died of wounds inflicted by Brian or been hung by enraged Delcassians who came on the scene. Others gave the version I have provided above, which must be correct in essentials, as Cormac and Brian survived, but Bothair manifestly did not, nor could any trace of evidence for the alternate account be found, despite a dozen or more sworn statements to its authenticity. The Ardrigh had some fun with it afterwards, assuring sceptics that reports of his death were slightly premature, thus dashing the hopes of the ambitious.
Withal, I was put in mind of sometimes contradictory tales of European history that have been floated from time to time, and confess I have often wondered if there could be another Ireland somewhere, where matters did indeed go the other way, an Ireland of which some caught a glimpse before it separated from ours. Yet it would be a pale shadow of ours, for such an Ireland, though likewise triumphant in this battle, would surely be too weak without its head to stand long against the Normans, especially if they took and consolidated England first. You see, without Brian, that dog Malachy would have recovered his precious undivided high kingship, but over a once again fragmented and, on the local level, all but leaderless Ireland. We could never have survived the loss of the real High King at that moment and remained a nation in anything but one's fantasies. Malachy as a high king who could defeat the next wave of Northmen? Don't make bad jokes.
Of course, I say nothing of such speculations to the good Christian priests and monks, for they are suspicious enough of me as things are. They are convinced the world they perceive is immutable, and the only possible reality, though I do not see their Holy Books specifically supporting such a doctrine, and indeed somewhat the contrary. I am inclined to see ours as one of many possible realities, a shadow among many, and to suppose those inhabiting other shadows may from time to time get glimpses of ours, as we do of theirs. After all, do not their own Holy Books record such a shadow world in which their Christ was executed, where he simply vanished in ours? Do they not trust in that shadow Christ for their salvation, citing his death on a Roman cross in just such an alternate universe as the punishment for their sin? I have no problem believing that those events all happened in the parallel world recorded in their Holy Books, and not in ours. Of course, I don't put the same interpretation on their personal significance. What if they did indeed take place in some reality, even if not ours? It is nothing to me, for I live in the now, not in some heaven that might be. Perhaps this is a jaded view of what the priests call my "immortal soul", but if I have one, I'd rather go into eternity dwelling with the Tuatha de Dannan as the under-ruler beneath some fine Irish hill.
But I digress. When it developed that Brian's son Murrogh, grandson Turlough, brother Cuduiligh, and nephew Coniang, along with just about every noble and senior commander on both sides excepting yours truly and the vacillating Malachy had perished or been incapacitated in the fighting, Brian was faced with a dilemma. Everyone now knew he was too old to fight, but he had no successor of his own blood old enough to take over as warlord of Ireland, consolidate the kingdom, continue his rebuilding program, purge the rebels once and for all, and keep the Danes at bay when they returned for more. (No one imagined, much less said "if".)
Moreover, his army of some 7500 was down to under 3000, many wounded and dispirited despite the victory, and none too united. Understand that although the enemy had lost six of their seven thousand, including all their leaders but the craven Sitrygg, who had watched the battle in safety from the walls of Dubhlinn, the majority of them were Irish too. As I saw it, the most likely outcome was that the remaining commanders, most newly promoted, would go home, declare themselves king over their father's small patch of the green island, and the nation Boru had forged in blood would drown in that same blood as they all fought for advantage among each other. We'd suffer the same fate as my other imagined Ireland. That would not suit him; I did not realize he knew it would not suit me either.
Anyway, you understand that when I was called to a conference of the remaining nobles and petty under-kings a week after burying Father, I was already scheming to wait no longer than when Brian expired to declare myself High Queen, dispatch Malachy, and re-establish my sept of the Ui Neil as supreme in the temporarily united land. No one in the north had the strength to stop me. Who else could? I wasn't lacking in ambition, just sense. I also failed to reckon with the wiliest politician who ever lived.
When I arrived at the door of the grand pavilion, a man I initially thought I'd never met, but who looked vaguely familiar, was waiting to be called. He was a tall fellow, muscles like rocks, seemed like me in his early forties, blood-red headed like the departed Murrogh and me, easy in his arms, seemed a brawny warrior, and friendly enough, so I brashly asked, "Any idea what our lord and master has in mind?" Respectful, but not overly, if you understand.
He spread his hands and shrugged. "No, I was hoping you did, Lady Catherine."
My eyebrows shot up at this. "You have the advantage of me," I temporized. "I do not recall being introduced."
"Cormac Malachy, currently a resident of Clontarf, or what may be left of the town," he replied, offering his hand. "I once did business with your father, and he showed me a painting of you. You were also wise enough to dispatch me to attend Bothair and the High King while you ensured the battle's outcome. I could scarce forget so lovely and talented a woman."
I grimaced at his flattery, despite it feeling good, extended my own hand, and he raised it to his lips--a gallant then, even if perhaps a commoner. I then stared a moment, for I'd heard the King's rescuer had been injured before killing Bothair, yet this man hadn't a mark on him. That should have been a clue.
I tried to recall what I'd heard of the fellow, but just then a steward called us in. We entered together, and I suppose that coincidence either ignited or cemented the idea in Brian's mind.
We walked side by side between the rows of chieftains, most suddenly elevated by deaths, then hastily assembled here to pay feigned obeisance to their Ardrigh, but nearly a third too young to have beards. Cataloguing them one by one, I estimated I could take roughly three quarters in single combat, and guessed Cormac man enough to put them all down, even two or three at a time. Between us... At the front of the assembly stood the few warlords who'd survived the battle, all relatively junior in the ranks of officers, most injured sufficiently to terminate their days of soldiering or kingship.
The steward bowed to Brian, who sprawled casually on a wide chair, more of a bench, that was raised slightly above the dirt upon a rude platform. Unlike other monarchs, and despite later fanciful depictions, Brian eschewed pretensions such as crown, regalia, or other signs of office, and could have been any aged but grand old man in his casual element. We Irish like to think of our Kings as one of us, and the office of High King as one to which any man could aspire, were he only sufficiently strong, clever, and treacherous. "Ardrigh" is a casual, almost familial term, and "High King" does it inexact justice. Brian was different from them all--not in kind, but degree. Bard, scholar, warrior, judge of character, overlord, visionary of a united nation, king of the Irish--there was simply more of him, no matter how you thought upon the matter. He was even noble.
The rough dais where he lounged was covered by furs, as was his chair, and the king's clothing had more than a hint of silk. And, yes, though he may have eschewed regalia, Brian did fancy his gold chain and rings. In front of the dais and the row of warlords were two tables covered with brocaded cloths and bearing assorted weapons, jewellery, money, gold dust and bars, the regalia and banners of defeated kings, and other items gleaned from the battlefield. In the centre of each was an ornate glass salt cellar filled with at least a pound of the precious substance. Lesson noted and taken to heart: The Ardrigh has to display some of the kingdom's wealth. It betokens his power, and therefore gives his followers a sense of security. Was this not the man who once gifted a whole province's annual cattle tribute to his bard to impress visiting chiefs with that wealth and power?
I glanced to one side where Malachy, Brian's sometimes enemy, sometimes ally, and the battle's reluctant and opportunistic semi-participant, was standing with a few of his house lieutenants, and dressed, not as the high king he had once been, nor even as a provincial overlord, but as the minor regional ruler to which Brian had now reduced him--an object lesson on cowardice and negotiable loyalty. A lesser man than Brian Boru would have executed him. Had Brian died, no doubt that worm would have claimed his pathetic throne back, though he could scarcely have meaningfully held it going forward, when he hadn't been able to earlier. Second lesson, and perhaps a brand new symbolism: Malachy now stood below the salt and other wealth represented on the tables, and would participate in it no longer. Whatever else happened here, he would return to his family tuath, lord of some few acres of the land and little more. He'd better watch his own kin for assassins. Myself included, I supposed.
The steward who preceded us to a position between the tables bowed low, then shuffled off to one side, leaving us before Brian, who now officially took notice of us.
"So, we have here the two to whom we apparently owe both victory and our own life."
All right, I lied. He had the same verbal pretension as other kings in referring to himself in the royal plural. And he did enjoy titles.
Side by side, we two strangers bowed, not too much, just sufficiently to honour the office and pay respect to whom respect is due, as the Christians say. No use giving an Irish King European-style pretensions of grandeur or divine right.
"The question is," he continued, "what constitutes a suitable reward for those who conspire to save a king and his kingdom."
I scrutinized him carefully then, noting his slight emphasis on the word "conspire", his somewhat sardonic expression, and realized he had seen through my plan, taken steps to thwart me. I grinned and bowed slightly, acknowledging defeat--for the nonce.
"It is clear to all but the most dense," he continued, "that I can no longer claim to be the warrior I once was. Ireland deserves, indeed must have better, as there will be more invaders to repel, more rebellions to suppress. However, nearly all those who could have pretended to the throne after me have also gone to their eternal reward, or punishment, as may be." His face was a thundercloud. Like any other who kenned the rudiments of high Irish politics, I knew Brian hadn't had the best of relationships with his son and heir-apparent, but it was obvious he felt his loss keenly, perhaps more for the nation's sake than his own. He too could see down the tunnel of time and realize how close Ireland had come to Pyrrhic victory. Now what, Oh great thinker?
I heard a rustling behind me, and guessed that many others were thinking as I had--of opportunity for themselves. But surely, if he had no obvious successor, the result would again be what I'd imagined for that "other Ireland" I envisioned. Our hardly-forged nation would shortly fragment back into the hundreds of fiefdoms it had been before Brian, becoming easy pickings for the next lot of invaders who were led on by one of them to believe the High Kingship was available for the taking. If the Northmen, thwarted here, were to take England instead, a divided Ireland would surely be doomed a few generations later. Yet none but Brian and Father had the vision to see better for the land, to see it as one place and one people. We could be in for generations of war. I felt myself grimace and shake my head. No, there had to be another way, or fledgling Ireland would perish.
I looked at him, and recalled the vision he, my late father, and I had discussed--of an Ireland for all the Irish--one nation under God (or, the gods, as I might prefer) where Leinster, the northern Ui Neil, Ulaid, Connacht, Munster, Meathe, and Osraige stood together, not apart, a people that fought foreign enemies rather than each other.
"I see," Brian then announced, "that one other person at least agrees with me. Explicate the obvious solution, Lady Catherine."
I hesitated, my mouth suddenly dry, but there was only one possible answer, and it meant dust to my ambitions. "To ensure the integrity of the nation, you must appoint a worthy successor, and employ your own prestige to establish him on the throne while you yet live. He must be one strong enough to fight as need be to keep Ireland a united land, skilled enough to rule the ambitious pack of would-be claimants to the throne standing behind us over the long term, and sufficiently acceptable to them to forestall foolhardy rebellion in the short run." Right, I'd said it. It couldn't be me. I might rule the north till someone slipped a knife in my ribs, but could never claim the hearts of these hardened warriors, particularly the Munstermen. The Delcassians would never willingly follow an Ui Niall or Ulaid, not this soon after the example of Malachy.
"Well put, my lady. You have learned much from your father, some of it only in the last few seconds. You perhaps overlooked the requirement that such a man be of at least Leinster, Munster, and Ulster at once, and able to walk on water and multiply loaves into the bargain." He looked up to address them all. "My son Murrogh should have been the man to rule Ireland, but he is dead, victim of the code of honour that required him to call out and fight his enemy to their mutual deaths, even when the battle was won. So are all the other logical successors. Some of you know that I have fostered in numerous children over the years, some taken as orphans from my enemies. They are all mine now, as are some others whom I regard as sons and daughters because we are of like mind and purpose. Two of mine stand before you."
Suddenly I had a premonition, and glanced Cormac's way, to find him staring bemusedly at me. He winked, shrugged, and looked a question. I nodded acquiescence. What choice had I but to accept the inevitable with as much equanimity as I could muster under the circumstances? The north would support such a solution. I would make it do so--after all, the side I'd fought for had defeated its majority, and their leaders were now dead. Their sons would support the throne so forged or drown in their blood.
That reader of minds Brian watched our exchange, remained where he was for another full minute, then wearily rose and descended the step from the dais. "All right you two, sit there. Do so side by side, mind. It's a double throne, not one for a man, with the kitchen and bed for the woman. Ardrigh Cormac and Boudicca share equally."
Yup, I'd seen it coming--for all of ten seconds. It was good enough for me, far better for the nation.
Once we complied, he called a priest over. "Bishop Reilly, marry these two."
His honour the bishop hadn't seen it coming yet, and was astonished. "Now?"
"But she is..."
"Never mind that. Marry them. Now."
We two strangers consented to the vows of course. What choice had we? The worthy bishop no doubt ground his teeth at marrying two strangers, one reputed a Druidess. What choice had he? In matters of the Irish state, sword trumps cross.
That done, he turned to the chieftains and announced. "I give you High King Cormac and High Queen Catherine, now of the house of Meathe, joint rulers of a united Ireland. Long may they live and reign on one throne over one people, regardless of origin."
That last bit was intended to include any Northmen who chose to live in peace in the new nation.
I glanced below while the forced applause reverberated, observing some faces light with delight, others with calculation, and a few go dark as thunder. Malachy, defeated and humiliated, was impassive. Little wonder. Some shamed or jealous kinsman was likely soon to separate him from both authority and life. Not all are statesmen like the Boru.
I had to admit that it was a masterful solution, better than any other possibility, though it played fast and loose with the personal lives of us two, and with the traditional mode of succession to the high kingship--fight till one man survives to claim it. I a pagan noblewoman of the Ulaid with Druidic leanings, he a Christian commoner of foreign origin, later of Munster and Leinster, but loyal, both now given the new Meathe surname by the inventor of such appellations, with Brian Boru to give weight to the arrangement, and few living rivals for years to come. I thought at the time that if we three couldn't keep Ireland united, no one could. To date, it's been a near thing, and only successful thus far.
So that, whatever the later histories may fabricate, is how it happened. Oh, a few details remained to be settled. Cormac and I had to come to our own understandings. I had no real objections to bedding the man--he was a magnificent specimen after all--but I extracted a promise of a sword the equal or better of his own, a decree of freedom from religious persecution for pagans, and a guarantee I personally would be allowed to follow my own beliefs, even if in private. After all, I would have to be joint head over a nominally Christian nation in public.
More, I demanded the task of developing and commanding the new navy I envisioned, a fleet of ships built with the best technology, and a cadre of army sailors trained to fight them, with the end of clearing all our coasts of Northmen once and for all, perhaps taking the raiding to them. Also, we both assumed there could be no children from our match, so we agreed that the descendants we already had would be intermarried across clan lines and given the Meathe surname, establishing the new clan for posterity. So would any we fostered in. As I write these lines many years later, ten grandchildren, forty great grandchildren and twenty-five great great grandchildren thus far testify to a potent clan indeed, though only my daughters by my first marriage continue my own blood.
The other loose end was Sitrygg. We dealt with him by releasing the some thousand prisoners of Leinster and their allies, and suggesting they seek refuge and treatment for their wounds in Dubhlinn. Of course, we stripped and branded them first. That night, Cormac and some twenty men who'd been among those "released" killed the guards on the gates, then opened them for the six hundred armed men I led across the bridge, bringing spare arms for the twenty and one. Sitrygg finally fought and died at Cormac's hand. His mother Ghormlaith committed suicide rather than become my captive. We amalgamated Dubhlinn to Meathe, severing it from Leinster, and placing Brian on the city's throne to live out his days in some comfort. We made him keep the title "Emperor of the Irish", but everyone knew it was his alone and merely for ceremony, an appellation that would not be (and has not been) used after his death.
Brian at first divided his time between Kincora and Dubhlinn, but after three years remained in town for the duration. He died nine years later, full of days, and all Ireland mourned its creator for a solid month.
As I mentioned before, Cormac's daughter Myst initially went north as a hostage to our deal for the first few years until we built some trust, and my younger daughter came south with her husband to live at court under Cormac's watchful eye, though to be honest, he paid them only favourable attention. I finally decided that he actually trusted me, and reciprocated. Myst then came to court, and I have found in her a companion, a daughter, and a sometimes bemused ally against the obtuseness of her father, my husband.
Oh, Ireland's clans are as fractious as ever, and dear descendent of mine, if you are a Boudicca re-incarnate in fact, you are surely engaged in your own exercise in unity as you read this. But in my time it has all worked very well indeed, this business of ruling the land by our peculiar combination of force, cunning, and outright treachery. Our greatest triumph in double dealing came just last year, when we persuaded our Welsh friends and other allies to join us in sending troops to aid Kent against the Northmen invading England, defeating them decisively at the battle of Hastings. The pirates lost too many in the slaughter to return any time soon. The English barbarians celebrate the battle as a victory, little realizing that their failure to unite, albeit under Norman rule, dooms them to repeat the kind of tribal infighting we have narrowly escaped for a generation here in Ireland. The hill spirits, or perhaps the Christian God willing, a united Ireland will yet go on to become a great world power while England stagnates in perpetual barbarity, pickings for our rule when we become strong enough to annex them.
* * * * *
And all that brings me back to the deathless one, "my" Cormac. I cannot complain about the perfect gentleman, gentle lover, frugal spender, integral King, generous prince of a man he is--the ideal husband, who hasn't directed a harsh word to me in all our years together. Foolish and short-sighted like all men sometimes, but never angry or bitter. Nor has there once been a breath of unfaithfulness about the man, though he be strong and virile as a boy when I am near dead of old age. He's as integral as my father and more. He doesn't even think of looking at other women. And yes, we love each other after a fashion, though it is more the regard of gentle companionship than a passionate alliance of kindred spirits. But he will not own to his past, explain the reasons he heals so quickly, ages so slowly. He admits only to coming from a distant land where people live somewhat longer, or die more slowly, as he puts it. But I have far deeper suspicions, provoked by the fact that when he is ill, which happens not often and lasts but a day, he talks in his sleep--not in Gaelic, but variously in French, German, Latin, and, more to the point, in classical Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and several other languages I cannot identify. Most of it seems very old news.
Look, I understand that he must have been around a very long time to be now ageing as slowly as he does. But, hear what he said once in his sleep: "I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, 'Go', and he goes; and that one, 'Come', and he comes. I say to my son, 'Do this', and he does it." An almost quote from the Christian Holy Book, of course. However, he said it not in Greek or Latin, but in Aramaic, as it must originally have been spoken, and with that little variant "son" that reeks of authenticity. Of course I've studied such things. Brian himself was a scholar and bard. So is Cormac. So am I. We Irish don't study war alone, but with all else. And our army will be the instrument of educating the masses, the home of the scholar and bard, a civilizing influence, not a purely destructive one. The point is, I know it was Aramaic and I did understand it correctly.
Worse, I've heard fragments of speeches by Daniel and Joshua, others referencing or speaking to Kings David and Solomon, to a Greek named Alexander, various Pharaohs, Babylonian and Persian kings, Chinese emperors, one even that seems to have been addressed to "Father Abraham", another to Nowack about animals aboard a boat, and I have to assume some of his other gibberish goes back even farther. I've had a lot of years to collect and analyze this data, occasional though its providence be. Sounds like he's always been a military man, the way he orders his troops about the battlefields of the ancient world. Some of that gobbledegook includes clear references to "Myst", and I gather he means another than his daughter. I asked her once if she was named after someone, and she slyly evaded the question, meaning she knows something of the truth, even though she seems to age at a rate that, though slow, is not extraordinarily so. So, whatever fount of youth and life my good husband has imbibed, the blessing or curse of an obscenely long life appears to be his alone. But I can't help wondering what would happen if he passed the trait along to a descendent, especially of the female persuasion.
Once when I nursed him in a fever that would have killed any other man--and that may have been poison in an assassination attempt--he was delirious and spoke first in gibberish, then in Gaelic (I'm guessing the latter a translation of the first) of something that "the Almighty", by whom I suppose he meant his God, had done to his head as a curse for killing someone. I couldn't make sense of it, but it made me shy of him for a while, until his steady care for me after his recovery brought me to wary trust once more. I wonder how many times he's been married. Scores? Hundreds? I daren't ask. He might answer, and I don't want to hear it. I don't want him to know I know. How long has he lived? Millennia, it seems.
Enough. I go soon into the spirit land, perhaps somewhere under a hill, not the Christian heaven, if either exists. He will carry on his extended life under some name other than High King Cormac. You have your own life to live and battles to fight, dear descendent of mine. And, I doubt not that you will meet the deathless one somewhere along the way. When you do, give him greetings through the years from Goodwife Catherine. I chuckle to think what the scoundrel's reaction may be, for he knows not I write this, nor that I am wise to him.
Finally, I have made some financial arrangements that may help you in your own struggles. One never knows about such things for certain, but if there is a man of Hebrew origin carrying on business in Tara under the name Saul Levinsky, take this letter to him, and he will turn over your shares in our joint business holdings. I trust the magic of compound interest will by then have created a sizeable nest egg.
I can pass you little else but my blessing. May the road rise to meet you and every wind blow at your back, may the spirits of the land salute and succour you, may you be stronger in your arm, luckier in love, and more powerful in magic than I, and may you and the Ireland we have forged be worthy of each other.
--Catherine Meathe, sometimes styled High Queen.