Drumshee series Cora Harrison, Children's Author Dragonfly books

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A Life for a Life by Cora HarrisonA Life for a Life


Chapter One

The call for help came on a wet night in May.

17th May 1318 Fidelma had just written on her vellum book of poems.

 She paused for a moment, stroked the silky springy tip of the feather pen against her cheek, and looked out of the castle window. The old ash tree outside the walls of the castle enclosure was bending and swaying in the wind, and billowy clouds of wet mist swept across the valley of the river Fergus.

And it was at that moment that a loud hammering came on the oak door of the castle.

‘O’Malachy!’ came the shout. ‘Open up, O’Malachy! Conor O’Dea needs your help.’

Fidelma’s father, The O’Malachy, jumped to his feet.

‘Why doesn’t someone open up? When Conor O’Dea calls, the O’Malachy clan answer immediately.’

Sixteen-year-old Shane was ahead of him, however. He was through the door before his father had dragged on his leather jerkin. Fidelma followed him, but stayed standing at the top of the stairs. With three bounds, taking six steps at a time, Shane was in the Great Hall and had opened the door before Conall emerged from the kitchen.

The man on the doorstep was dripping wet and hoarse from shouting. He looked past Shane to O’Malachy thumping heavily down the stairs.

‘Can you bring some men, O’Malachy?’ he croaked. ‘We’re lost unless we can get help. De Clare and his Norman troops are camped outside Ruan. They’re only ten miles from us. Conor O’Dea has sent messages to Loglen Og O’Hehir of Magowna, and to Felim O’Connor of Fisherstreet, but you are nearer. How many men can you bring?’

‘I’ve thirty men-at-arms standing by,’ said Donald O’Malachy steadily.

‘Thirty-one,’ said Shane.

Fidelma shivered. Something told her that this night would bring great danger. Perhaps her beloved brother would be killed this night.

‘Thirty,’ said O’Malachy. ‘You stay here, boy, with your mother and your sister. This will be a bad fight. You know how de Clare, cursed Norman that he is, killed your mother’s grandfather and now occupies his castle at Bunratty.’

‘We need every man-at-arms that we can get,’ said the messenger. The words jerked out of him through the knotted cords in his throat.

‘I’m going,’ said Shane quietly. He cast a quick glance up the stairs. His mother had come out of the solar, and was looking down. Her hand was at her throat.

‘I have to go,’ said Shane more loudly. ‘For the honour of the O’Malachys, I have to go.’

Donald O’Malachy nodded. He cast a quick glance up at his wife, but then turned his eyes away. The honour of the O’Malachys was important to him, too.

‘I’ll sound the alarm,’ he said. ‘Conall, give this man something to drink and a fresh horse.’

‘I’ll sound the alarm,’ said Shane. In a moment he was out, leaving the door wide open behind him. The south wind blew strongly through the open doorway and lifted the tapestries and painted leather hangings from the walls. Maur O’Malachy turned and went back into the small cosy solar. She would weep there, Fidelma surmised, but she would not stop Shane. He was a young man, now, and his mother would know that the honour of the O’Malachys would be all-important to him. Fidelma did not follow her. Her mother would not welcome her company at this moment. Holding up her long dress in one hand she ran down the stairs, crossed the Hall and stood at the doorway.

The great bell at the gate began to toll. The wind would pick up its solemn message and all of the able–bodied tenants and their sons would snatch their weapons from the walls of their cottages and soon they would be there.

The torches flared in the courtyard now and the tall iron gates were flung open. Once, long, long ago, this courtyard had been the inner enclosure of the fort of the ancient people of Drumshee. Almost a hundred years ago, Malachy, the great–grandfather of Shane and Fidelma, had built his castle, four storeys high, within its walls. Beside the walls he had built stables for his horses and Fidelma could see Shane going over towards them now.

‘Shane,’ she called out. ‘I’ll saddle your horse. You get yourself ready. Put on the padded leather jerkin. That will keep you safe.’

He nodded. The pale cream of his skin was flushed with excitement. His blue eyes sparkled. He crossed back over the courtyard in three strides of his long legs.

‘See mother before you go,’ she murmured as he passed her.

He nodded again. For a moment the burning blue of his eyes seemed to cloud over, but then the shadow passed. He was a man now and he had to fight when his neighbours and friends called for assistance. That was the way that the clans worked; Fidelma knew that. When he spoke his voice was light–hearted and joking.

‘It’s raining hard. You’d better put on your cloak and cover up that fancy hair style,’ he said. He touched her head where the heavy rich-brown hair was braided and looped under the net of fine gold, and then he was gone, bounding up the stairs.

Fidelma took down her fur–lined cloak of brushed wool and threw its hood over her head and then went out into the rain. Con O’Donoghue, his son, and three men–at–arms were coming in through the gate, the light from the torches flashing on their short swords. There was a sound of hoofs on the avenue. That would be the Neilans, she guessed. All the clans were gathering. They would go forth under the leadership of The O’Malachy of Drumshee. Perhaps they would all be back by this time tomorrow, she told herself, but somehow she could not banish the feeling of blank horror in her mind.

When she opened the stable door, Shane’s horse was already stamping and blowing heavily. He sensed the excitement.

‘Easy, boy, easy,’ she murmured slipping the bridle over his head and then fitting the flat leather saddle across the broad muscular back. Shane had got this magnificent black stallion for his sixteenth birthday and it was the best horse in the stables.

‘Take care with him, now,’ warned Brian the stableman who was busy saddling her father’s horse. ‘He’ll burst out as soon as you open his stall door. He’s a highly-strung fellow; he knows there’s something amiss.’

‘I’ll be all right,’ said Fidelma confidently. She blew into the horse’s nostrils and then placed her hand across them and whispered into his small, elegantly-pointed ear. ‘You’ll keep him safe, Bel, won’t you?’

Then she opened the stall door and led him across the yard to the front door of the castle. Shane was already there; so was her father, but there was no sign of her mother.

‘Fly my hawk for me, Fidelma, if we’re not back by tomorrow,’ he said as he swung himself on to the horse.

‘God bless us and save us, don’t be saying that,’ said Brian, his right hand automatically flicking the sign of the cross over his face and chest. O’Malachy said nothing, however; his face was grave. There was danger in this expedition; Fidelma knew that by the look on her father’s face. Fighting the Normans was a different matter to fighting unfriendly clans. The Normans were better armed, better protected with their suits of chain mail, than the native Irish. Edward Bruce the brother of the Scottish king, Robert Bruce, had come over to help the Irish fight these Normans, but all over the country the Normans had won the battles and now Edward Bruce was dead – killed at Dundalk. She looked around her. The courtyard was now filling up with the tenants who farmed her father’s four thousand acres. And every one of those faces bore the same grim look. This would be a fight to the death for many of them.

‘In the name of God, let us go,’ said O’Malachy. He raised his right hand, holding his sword aloft and the candlelight streaming out of the Great Hall sparkled on its blade and for a moment the drops of rainwater turned the iron into a brilliant rainbow.

‘O’Malachy, abú,’ shouted his men.

‘O’Malachy, abú,’ shouted Shane, his voice still high and sweet–toned.

And then they were gone through the gate: first O’Malachy himself, then the O’Donoghues, the Carneys, the O’Neilans, the O’Hegartys, the McMahons, the Queallys – thirty men–at–arms and then, last of all, Shane. They all went through the gate without a backward glance, except the last of the riders. At the great gates, Shane reined in his horse and turned and looked back as if he were taking his last look at the tall grey stone castle. He lifted one hand, whether in salute to his sister, or to his home, Fidelma did not know, but then he, too, was gone.


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