England is much the junior partner to Ireland in the United Kingdom of the Emerald Isles. Yet she is governed differently from most of Ortho (Greater Hibernia as they often term their planet). Tara has divided the big island into the districts of London (South), Birmingham (Central), and Leeds (North), with an administrator over each, but under Tara's direct authority. Thus, there are no Domain lords there as in Scotland and Wales. However, the London administrator is received at Tara as first of the three, accorded the courtesy title 'Lord Ambassador, Protector of England', and is allowed to wear the ancient sword of Logres at court. This simultaneous giving and withholding of trust has maintained a stable tension, but it surely provokes reminders that the English are a vanquished people. How long will they put up with second-class citizenship?
--from a standard lecture in Federation political history, Babylon executive school, Para Earth.
Brian and Meghan, Edwardston to London, 1991
When you've just run a priest through and killed him, you need to disappear quickly and rather thoroughly. If you're only fourteen yourself, it's your first serious duel, and you're not even supposed to own a real sword, it hardly matters the priest was false enough to his peace vows that he drew first and tried to kill you. Nor does it help that you're already on the run as members of the banished and hunted royal family. By the time anyone at Tara's palace investigated, Meghan and Brian McIlhargey had to be ... well, nowhere would be best.
"Where to, Da?" Meghan asked her father as the two strode briskly along a narrow dirt footpath in the hill country north of the tiny collection of shacks that was the only human habitation for hundreds of Irish miles around. Both took it for granted she could match his rapid pace, for she was fully his height of a staff, though her gaunt frame carried scarcely half the mass.
It was a bright, cloudless morning, and there was a slight hint of salt in the air from a brisk offshore breeze.
"How would you like to learn the sailor's craft?" was Brian's response, thereby settling in her favour their debate over whether to ride the rails east and back to New Tara, then south to Centralia, or instead ship out to the Orient.
Brian and Meghan McIlhargey had flown out of remote Edwardston in their capacity as members of Lord Walking Buffalo's official entourage on an official trip to Los Angeles--one of the few places with the same name as on Tirdia. At least one plane a week stopped at Edwardston, but Walking Buffalo used his domain's new military jet for the trip. After landing, the two men had a rehearsed public quarrel ending in Brian's resignation, and Walking Buffalo flew home alone. By the time Buffalo returned to his manse, his warriors would noisily discover the false priest's body in an alleyway behind the fellow's favourite pub, and bury him with neither honour nor mourners.
Brian had been Edwardston's only law officer, so no one would conduct an autopsy or mount an investigation. Buried in administrative reports, the news might be noticed at Tara in a few weeks, or when the late Kees VanBuren's effects followed in due course. Even if the palace sent out someone to investigate in person, they might never connect Meghan with VanBuren's death. Unfortunately, dead men tell no tales, and though by his equipment the false priest had been a torturer and executioner for one of the high houses, Brian could not afford to investigate further lest he draw unwanted attention.
Their cash replenished by a generous gift from Walking Buffalo, and feeling more secure now the latter had arranged to cancel their old arrest warrants, the two lived around the edge of Los Angeles village for a few days to check for obvious pursuit. They had broken camp early and were making their way through the dense brush to the coast.
"You'll teach me?" Meghan asked. It didn't occur to her to ask how or when he had learned the trade, or why he knew the local terrain. Brian McIlhargey knew whatever was necessary, whenever he needed it. It gave her a warm feeling to depend on him. She stamped a mental foot, declaring to herself, He's my father, even if he isn't. She'd never forgotten that awful day when he'd told her Brian McIlhargey had no children, that she was daughter to Jack Devereaux and Katherina Rourke, both tragically killed at Glenmorgan.
So, it was done. They slipped down to a hidden cove where they waited a few days until a small freighter stopped to unload illegal cargo out of sight of the ineffective local customs office. Brian had little difficulty persuading the captain to take on an experienced hand and a neophyte who was unafraid of hard work. Large modern freighters were almost entirely automatic, but these rusty old tramps required a crew of up to a dozen for loading and unloading at the numerous tiny ports of call that lacked robots.
They embarked on a long voyage through the Far East, stopping in China and various places in the Irish East Indies, before circling back toward Penal City in Australia.
The captain, an old soldier himself, saw more than merely a strong deckhand in Brian's massive bulk, military mien, and the sword hanging ominously in a worn scabbard. He habitually hired such men. McIlhargey's impossibly tall girl was too young to fight, but if she could peel potatoes for her keep, and otherwise stay out of the crew's way, her presence was a small price for a prime sword hand.
A day out of Penal City, in the sleepy predawn gloom, his precautions proved as prescient as his assessments were premature.
Meghan was dressing in the tiny cabin she shared with her father when she heard a thump, followed by running feet, then a scream. Brian sprang from the bed, instantly alert.
"Pirates," he shouted. "Bring your sword. Stay close."
The two rushed on deck to find the freighter's dozen crew members fighting for their lives. Two low, open boats, each carrying fifteen raiders, had crept up on them from the nearby shore in the fog that had caused them to anchor here the night before. One group must have beaten the other to the prize and boarded on the port side, where a crewman's body lay, his throat cut. Those in the second boat were tossing grapples to follow on the starboard. They had to be stopped, or the ship would be overrun.
Meghan and Brian ran to the rail and slashed at the grapple ropes, causing several pirates to fall back from their climb. Then, some sixth sense warning her, Meghan spun about to encounter a woman rushing her, sword in one hand, and bloody knife in the other.
"Ha, girl, surrender or die."
Meghan stood her ground, and the pirate carried on, slashing low toward her legs. She was too slow. In mechanical rehearsal of a standard defensive routine, Meghan jumped over the attack, simultaneously burying her own blade in the other's shoulder.
Her opponent slumped to the deck to bleed away her life, and Meghan whirled to face a man screaming obscenities as he leaped at her from the rail. Too late to change course, he impaled himself on her blade. She withdrew it before he fell, and faced a third opponent, who died an instant after slipping in a pool of blood.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw her father seize a man from the rail and hurl him back. There was a loud cracking sound, rushing water, and screams erupted below. Before the pirate boat's sinking could register, she faced two more men from the first crew. But they failed to fight in tandem, so she was able to turn them, dispatching one with a thrust to the chest, at which the other threw down his blade and surrendered.
Suddenly, it was over. Nineteen pirates were dead on deck, and six drowned when their boat capsized. Five were captive. Only two sailors died in addition to the watchman, and none of the others were critically wounded.
The captain looked across to where Brian and Meghan stood among nine bodies, clicked his heels, came to attention, and snapped off a salute to the pair whose attention to the second boat had saved his vessel and his life.
As when she was forced to run VanBuren through, Meghan responded by throwing up, and the three men and one woman she killed populated her nightmares for weeks afterwards. When she spoke of her revulsion, her father shrugged, repeating what he'd said at Edwardston.
"You get used to it."
They had to return to Penal City with the bodies and prisoners, but the subsequent investigating board heard no mention of illegal sword work by a fourteen-year-old, and Meghan was not called to testify. A few days later, both their journey and a semblance of former order were resumed, though crew members, who had previously joked with Meghan and treated her as a child, were now more careful, addressing her politely as "Mistress McIlhargey", and a couple of times as "My Lady".
They travelled on via India, and thence to South Africa. At the Cape, she and Brian were paid out, and, after waiting a month for a suitable berth, returned to sea, making their way via African and European ports to the small river port town of London in the southeast of the largest of the Emerald Isles.
As they approached their destination, Meghan excitedly reviewed her history. The big island had for centuries been home to three people groups. To the north were the Scots, who had been one nation with the Irish, sharing a single language and traditional customs for over nine centuries. In convergence with events on Tirdia, they eventually adopted the original Roman name for Ireland of "Scotia". To the west, the Welsh had been Irish allies nearly as long, though they proudly persisted in keeping alive their own version of Gaelic, their unwieldy names, and the customs many Irish found quaint. The largest part of the big island, however, had been home to a diverse group of warring tribes who were not at any time after Arthur able to unite themselves under one rule, though by 1500 all spoke roughly the same tongue.
In 1487, then High King Patrick V of Ireland was conned into hiring Amerigo Vespucci, the fantastic Florentine pickle dealer turned pirate, as a privateer under the Irish flag to patrol the Atlantic against English pirates. When Vespucci instead sailed away on his own adventure and stumbled onto a whole new world that he promptly named after himself, the King was quick to dismiss him and claim the lands for the Irish crown. Patrick's attempt to call the western continent "New Hibernia" came to naught, however, after Vespucci's lecture tour to the courts of Europe resulted in everyone else applying his name.
In eighteen short years the discovery saw greatly expanded trade and made Ireland the leading world power, but brought clashes with other nations wanting to share the spoil. The Spanish established themselves peacefully in the new world's southern hemisphere, but the English tribes' persistence in warring with their neighbours and mounting pirate raids on the very coasts of Ireland and her allies eventually offered sufficient provocation for war in order to protect the lucrative world trade.
"It all began here," Brian lectured Meghan as they sailed inland through the damp water-hugging fog. "On this very river, in 1505, a peaceful Irish merchantman, stopping over after trading sugar from the new continent for spices picked up in Holland, was boarded by English pirates in broad daylight, her crew murdered, and cargo stolen. What at the time passed for government hereabouts refused to act."
He pointed out a massive monument on their port side.
"The Irish punitive force landed there on the south bank opposite old London, but quickly realized the whole of England must be taken or none could be pacified, much less held. Massive reinforcements followed, and we launched full-scale war. When by 1510 we and our allies conquered the badly-divided warring tribes of England and brought them under Irish rule, we found ourselves addicted to conquest. In the process of extending the new United Irish Kingdom, the English became our finest soldiers and sailors. When Spain, last of the old European powers, fell in 1596, nearly a century of expansion came to an end, and Ireland's Peace was worldwide."
Megan enjoyed her Da's history lectures. He made it sound like he'd been there, or interviewed someone who had.
How very differently things turned out in Tirdia's England, she thought, where the Normans did for England in 1066 what Ireland achieved here centuries later. On both worlds a United Kingdom rose in the isles, but there a unified England gained ascendancy, and Ireland became her slave.
This sleepy port of London served as the administrator's seat, but was a small town of no military importance. It had but a few thousand inhabitants from the look of it. She knew her father had never visited London, and that somehow added to her excitement. She'd be able to learn about the place independently.
As the two walked up a narrow cobbled street from the dock, the fog lifted, revealing the beauty of a bright summer day. Surrounding buildings were uniformly of reddish brick, looking as fresh and new as the day it had been laid, most of it a century earlier, just following the fire that destroyed much of the old wooden town in 1880.
They took lodgings at the Boar's Head Inn, and Brian immediately sent a message on the public MT requesting an appointment with Protector Kent to seek a position in his household.
* * * * *
At the appointed time of nine o'clock next morning Brian and Meghan were ushered by a secretary into the second story office of the main government building. They entered a plainly appointed room with a few framed certificates on the wall behind a huge oak desk.
First appearances could be deceiving, and Brian did a double take as he scanned the room and recognized three paintings on other walls as priceless Italian masters. He instinctively supposed them to be originals. So much for one stereotype. The owner of this office was clearly no barbarian, as the Irish often termed the English. If anything, the simple but costly appointments enhanced the already imposing stature of the man who rose to his feet behind the desk at their entry. He was a giant, slightly taller than Brian and like him, the possessor of an enormous muscular frame that bespoke barely suppressed mighty potency.
Here's a worthy warrior, Brian thought, deciding he liked the fellow at first sight.
Beside him, and slightly to the rear on either side, stood two lanky young men. He judged the taller to be a couple of years older than Meghan's fourteen, and the shorter to be younger by the same amount.
The giant fixed the new arrivals with a penetrating stare, and announced, "Welcome to London. I am Richard Kent, and these," he waved to the sides, "are my sons, Zack and Jonas."
"My name is Brian McIlhargey, and this is my daughter, Meghan. We are recently of Edwardston, and bring greetings and a recommendation for employment from Domain Lord Walking Buffalo." He handed Kent a sealed envelope from his former employer.
Kent barely touched the proffered item, letting it fall to his desk without a glance. "What can you do that would be of value to us?" he growled.
"Security systems, programming, troop training, general administration, odd jobs, whatever you like."
"I suppose you'll work for cash and found?" When Brian imperceptibly nodded, Kent continued his questioning with, "Are you on the run?"
"Check the police database. There are no outstanding warrants."
"I did yesterday when your arrival was noted by my dock agents and the Boar's Head Inn manager. More interestingly, the warrants were there six months ago, and are now gone. Why?"
"They were forgeries."
"David Buffalo removed them at his father's request?"
"So I understand."
"My son Zack here," Kent nodded his head in that direction without taking his eyes off Brian, "is already partway through his General Administration Certificate courses, and Jonas starts his this year."
"Meghan's completed hers." Brian countered flatly.
"Last round of exams?"
"She used a pseudonym." It was not a question. "Walking Buffalo and I have known each other for years." Kent seemed distracted as he stared briefly at a point on the wall behind his visitors before resuming in his gruff tone. "A few months ago, Buffalo put through a correction for the mark of 'James Dillworth', saying he realized one of the problems had been ambiguously stated because of his idiom, and the interpretation by the student in question was, after all, fully correct. Now he agrees with me and the third Academician that Dillworth deserves a perfect score, the first time in history this has happened.
"I have taken the trouble to meet and interview all but this one of the new GAC holders, whom I have been unable to locate despite diligent enquiries. There are not a few other members of the academy board who would like also to know who Dillworth is."
He glanced at Meghan whose red face obviated need of confirmation. Then he shrugged. "But, in any case, I train my own troops, and when they are older, Zack and Jonas will help me administer London."
"Can English officer cadets attend Kilkarney?" The tone of Brian's question was cutting.
Richard Kent's eyes narrowed dangerously, and an eerie silence settled upon the room. Partners though the English might be as coresidents of the Emerald Isles, that they could not attend the best Irish military school was a sore point in relationships.
Brian noticed Meghan's hand creep to the stick at her side, preparing for a possible fight. Zack Kent's did the same.
After several tense moments Richard Kent turned to Jonas with a grim smile and announced. "The McIlhargeys will stay. Prepare the guest suite by the armoury and escort the young lady to the inn to fetch their bags, then show her over the keep."
Brian nodded at the arrangement, and the two departed in silence. Kent waved Brian to a chair, motioned Zack to remain in the room, sat down himself, and launched into terms without further questions. "You'll set up a duplicate of Kilkarney here, assist me to find teachers for the academic subjects and personally supervise the officer-specific curriculum. All training takes place inside the keep, and there'll be no messy questions asked about the cadets' backgrounds or ages."
Brian showed no surprise at the sudden extension of trust. He'd already decided Walking Buffalo's commendation was enough for him, and supposed it was for Kent as well. He guessed the protector knew the role played by "Brian McIlhargey" at Kilkarney. Besides, the proposal fleshed out an idea that had grown in his own mind while at sea. Meghan had to learn to be his weapon somewhere. Why not here?
"I will have full authority to dismiss a cadet as unsuitable at any time. Your sons will have no excuse in being underage if they don't keep up with the rest."
Richard Kent smiled for the first time. "Good. We understand each other." He glanced at Zack. "My boys are very good already for their age. With the right instruction, they will wield the best two blades in England by the time both reach seventeen and can legally wear steel in public."
Brian smiled back. "So they will make good sparring partners for Meghan. She will teach administration and assist with the sword." He saw Richard Kent's eyebrows rise, and added, "You'll have to put up with an underage teacher if you want underage cadets attending an unregistered school."
"No one who has not killed an enemy is qualified to instruct the long blade."
"She qualifies on several counts. I would not suggest it otherwise."
"Agreed, then. What else do you want?"
Brian ticked off terms. "Equipment and supplies for the school. Access to an MT whose integrity I can establish. I examine your security systems, and you enhance them to my specifications. We teach the Kilkarney curriculum the old way to Meghan and your boys, along with others you bring us, provided we find them suited. You give us cash for safe passage away when the job is done. There will be no mention of our names outside these walls."
Kent frowned. "That's all you ask? This is too easy. Why are you willing to do this?"
Brian countered, "Why are you? Is England no longer loyal to Tara?"
"She serves the Tara that was."
Brian said nothing, waiting for the other to elaborate.
Richard Kent leaned forward. "What do you see in me? A big ox of a warrior? A man of action? That's all the palace knows. What do I see? Ollamh Filea Seanacha Kent--musician, scholar of history, sociologist, lover of the beautiful and classic, and an Englishman who fully understands that without Ireland we would all still be savages in our own land. What can either of us see in today's Ireland? Death and destruction spreading over the whole planet." As he said the last words, he pounded a fist on his desk, making a sound like a signal cannon.
Brian was taken aback by his vehemence and started to interrupt, but his new employer gestured for silence and continued, "From the time the eleventh donal took office, an insidious stain has emanated from Tara. A black hand at the palace is destroying civilization, methodically readying us for dark tyranny." He got up and paced, pounding one meaty fist into his other palm to emphasize his points.
"Good men and women in positions of power meet violent death and are replaced by incompetents. Mindless violence increases. Crime rates are up everywhere. Mysterious agents stir up local revolts, and cannot be found when peace troops arrive. Law officers and the army are corrupt. Racism is rampant. I have even heard," he spat out the words, "of false priests.
"Only the bards keep their integrity, and the Lord of Heaven protect us if they become corrupt." His voice a growl, he added, "A brehon was assassinated last month in Manchester. A brehon! Every attempt to control lawlessness merely presages an outbreak elsewhere. People are losing heart, and there will come a time when everything will collapse. If Tara cannot or will not stave off that day, then by the strength the Lord of Heaven gives me, I will die trying to do it in her place." He looked up toward the ceiling, running out of words at the same time as he began to wonder if he had spoken too freely.
"What day? Do you have data?" Brian tried to make his enquiry sound calm, but his heart was beating rapidly.
Richard Kent looked savage. He strode to the wall and pulled down an apparently blank paper chart. "No one has seen this but me and Zack here, not even Jonas. My system is watched, so the two of us plot small portions of our innocent historical hobby on the MT and erase all traces when we have something to transfer here." He spoke to a switch, and ultraviolet light illuminated the hitherto blank chart, revealing a series of spidery, multi-coloured lines. He pulled a laser pointer from his pocket, and Brian rose to take a closer look.
"All right. Look here, and here. See this trend? Crime rate. See this one? Confidence in government. This one? My measure of social breakdown." He pointed out several more. "Look where the lines converge. We are heading for a crisis, friend McIlhargey, in roughly ten years time, and if we cannot stop it, we may none of us survive. Tara will surely not, but seems ready to take us unawares to oblivion." He stopped, shaken to have revealed so much so fast.
Brian stared at the production for some time, then asked quietly, "What do you think will happen, and what do you propose to do?"
"Ten years from now, in 2001, the throne can again be claimed. I expect it will be, and my family, together with those of the first Welsh and Scottish lords have the right to place a man at Tara when it is. Who shall sit on the throne is the single most important decision to be made in our lifetime.
"I will place in that room," his voice became slow and strident, "the most powerful weapons on earth to fight for the restoration of the Peace."
"And those are?"
"Honourable and honest men capable of standing in the front row and either crowning a good ruler or denying a tyrant, as the case may be. I will go myself, and would send both my own, but eventually Zack as the oldest will become Protector, so he must stay here until he has access to court in my place. Meanwhile, there will be others--secretaries, military aides, lords of houses in their own right, palace guards--all pledged to the true throne."
"Does Jonas know you sharpen him for this purpose?"
"He need not. Does the sword know the rattlesnake it kills?"
"He appears to be only thirteen."
"He is twelve. Nonetheless, he will be a world class swordsman before he is fifteen. Zack is close already, and even he is underage."
"The purpose of the school?"
"Kilkarney and her imitators elsewhere are now corrupt, and their graduates unworthy of the king's tartan. If Tara will not train leaders properly, we must do it ourselves. If all else fails, and Tara casts herself on history's ash heap, perhaps England will have the strength and integrity to rise. Some nation must, or we will be barbarians again as the Irish found us, but with the whole planet for company."
"What of the Babylonians and Metans?"
"The other earths? I see no role for the Babylonians. What is it to them who runs this end of the Federation of Worlds? The Metans may intervene. Who knows what they think? One possibility is that we face another world-dividing nexus. The last spanned a thousand years, starting with the Christ, and ending at Clontarf in 1014. Now nearly another millennium has passed. Perhaps a new world will come into being, dividing the evil for a time, and giving the Lord's people a chance to drive it back."
Brian shrugged the suggestion off. He was uncomfortable talking theology, but the rest...
Should he point out the errors in Kent's version of the calculations he had himself reviewed numerous times? Should he say openly the correct day for the crisis was near the start of September in the year 2000, fully twelve months before the issue of anyone wearing Tara's crown would arise? Should he tell Kent events on Tirdia, not Hibernia, would trigger the crisis?
Instead, he changed the subject back to the practical. "I too have at least one enemy at Tara."
"That much is obvious."
"He has killed many, and will not hesitate to do so again."
"Perhaps it is the same man who would destroy us all."
"Or men. I suspect both the donal and Thomas Monde." Brian paused and turned, but Kent's face was a study in stone, and revealed nothing, so he reverted to the earlier topic.
"Integrity is a weapon believers might hope to use against such men," Brian mused slowly, his features taking on a ghastly cynical smile. "It may be a useful one." He paused again. "However, I shall use one of my choosing to the same end."
"And that is?"
"A woman prepared to exact vengeance for her dead." Brian's announcement was flatly unemotional, but as he said it he realized he had been thinking too small. He needed many blades to make a difference, not merely one. Kent's idea was a good one.
"All right," he said. "If we are not found out and forced to leave, we will give you three years, establish the school routines, and see at least our children and others graduate to take steel. Afterwards, you're on your own, and may well see no more of me until Tara's time comes. However, I have more conditions."
"We use Irish rules, and take women cadets on an equal basis with men, as Kilkarney once did."
* * * * *
Watching them, Zack let out a long, slow breath as his father and this man so like him stood like a couple of bulls, glaring at each other from close range, yet somehow trusting each other for arrangements that could get them all executed as traitors. They'd planned this confrontation for months, ever since hearing from Walking Buffalo, but Zack's misgivings were heightened by how easy it seemed. Who was manipulating whom? If the McIlhargeys could be trusted, why not tell his lordship they know exactly who he and his daughter were? And why train women in men's business?
Moreover, though he'd helped design the chart, done many of its calculations, and understood his father's conclusions too well, he had a different take on the eventual outcome. "Let corrupt Ireland fall and England rise," he reasoned. "And if this alliance advances England, it suits me."
He noticed neither man required an oath on the agreement. They were cut from old cloth, each trusting the other's word alone. His father claimed formal oaths were for lesser men. Zack rubbed his chin. No oath between them meant their fealty was implied and so didn't bind him, unless they swore before he was seventeen. Perhaps he could use that to his advantage.