And so they carried the two bodies back from Clontarf to Drumshee.
They went slowly; although the man was dead, the boy was still alive.
The two bodies were carried on leather stretchers slung between
pairs of carthorses; the riderless grey stallion was led behind the
first stretcher, then came the second stretcher. And behind them came
what was left of the company of men that had set out with Brian Boru
from Kincora to drive the Vikings from Dublin.
The dead man was Oscar of Drumshee. And the boy…
‘What’s the boy’s name?’ asked Niall of Corcomroe swinging
around abruptly to face young Fintan who rode behind him.
‘You were neighbours?
‘Yes,’ said Fintan. ‘We were neighbours; Lough Fergus is only
two miles away from Drumshee. I haven’t seen him for a few years,
though, because he’s been at Kincora with King Brian,’ he added.
‘About your age?’
‘Yes, he’d be about sixteen?’
‘So you would have known him well?’
‘Yes,’ said Fintan. ‘I knew him. Our fathers were blacksmiths
– both of them – and the families knew each other.’
‘What did the healers say about him?’
‘They think he has brain fever as well as the wound in his leg.’
‘Will he recover?’
‘They thought he might,’ said Fintan carefully. ‘They thought
the sight of his home might rouse him.’
Niall shrugged. ‘That’s if he is still alive when we get to
Drumshee,’ he said dourly and then after a moment he added: ‘Only
‘Yes,’ said Fintan. He spoke reluctantly. He knew what would
‘One,’ said Fintan shortly. He could hardly bear to think of
Nessa just now. He had thought of her almost continually during the
last few months, of her eyes, blue like the sky on a summer’s day,
of her soft silky primrose-coloured hair. What would Nessa say to him
when he brought to her the two bodies – her dead father and her
of Drumshee knelt before Malcolm II, king of Scotland. He bent his
knee, but he did not bend his back.
He stared with pride into the seamed face of the man they called
The Destroyer. Lochlann felt no fear.
He was the messenger of a greater king than Malcolm. He had come
from Brian Boru, and men had named Brian Boru, ‘The Emperor of
‘Your message?’ Malcolm’s voice was deep and guttural, the
voice of man who drank heavily.
‘My Lord, King Brian Boru, asks for your help. He joins with King
Malachy of Tara in his struggle against the king of Leinster, and
Sitric The Viking, King of Dublin.’ Lochlann spoke slowly and
clearly. The Scots and the Irish both spoke a Gaelic tongue, but there
were differences. He scanned the king’s face carefully. Malcolm
nodded. He had understood; that was plain. The small ruthless eyes
were sharp with intelligence. Lochlann turned to the woman at the king’s
‘My Lady,’ he said courteously. ‘My king, your father, sends
you his best wishes for your continued good health and happiness.’
Unexpectedly Malcolm laughed. ‘Yes, yes,’ he said. ‘I had
remembered that your King Brian was my father-in-law, but, – see you
– I have relations everywhere. I cannot come to the rescue of them
‘My Lord,’ said Lochlann quickly. ‘It is no rescue that my
king asks for. Rather he would offer you a chance to share in the
glory of this battle.’
Malcolm threw back his head and laughed. He turned to his wife. ‘This
fellow countryman of yours has a silver tongue, my dear – silver
hair, silver tongue.’
Now it was the woman’s turn to smile. She was like her father,
Brian Boru, thought Lochlann. She had the same thoughtful hazel eyes,
the same high forehead and long shapely nose. She was looking at him
‘You are very blond for an Irish boy,’ she said. ‘Where do
you come from?’
‘I come from Drumshee in the kingdom of Corcomroe, west of
Thomond,’ he replied. ‘My grandfather was a Viking,’ he added
proudly. ‘He served your father, King Brian, from the time that he
was fourteen years old until his death three years ago. His name was
Ivar and my grandmother was Emer of Drumshee, in the kingdom of
Her eyes widened. ‘I know who you are now,’ she said. ‘It was
your grandmother’s family in Drumshee who sheltered my father before
he became king. Your grandmother, Emer, was my tutor and my sisters’
tutor when I was young. You serve my father now?’
‘Yes,’ said Lochlann proudly. ‘I am one of his bodyguards.’
‘You are young for that,’ said Malcolm.
‘I have been with him for two years now,’ said Lochlann. ‘He
trusts me. There are ten of us. We form his bodyguard.’ He thought
over the ten. The faces passed through his mind, especially that of
his enemy, Turlough, the old king’s grandson. Turlough and he had
been rivals from the time that they were both ten years old and they
had both been sent to the same monastic school on Scattery Island.
But I am the one that Brian Boru chose to send on this mission,
thought Lochlann proudly. He remembered Turlough’s fury at the
decision, and at that thought his white teeth showed in a small smile
‘You speak Norse?’ asked Malcolm.
Lochlann nodded. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I speak Norse. My
grandfather taught the language to my sister and to myself, when we
‘So that’s why he sent you on this mission,’ mused Malcolm,
‘it is useful to be able to speak Norse around the coast of Scotland
these days.’ He spoke like one whose mind was busy considering
something else. His eyes were like the points on a javelin, thought
Lochlann – sharp, bright, menacing. He had ceased to think about the
boy in front of him; Lochlann knew that. Now he was weighing up the
consequences of helping his father–in–law. There were so many
groups to take into account: in Ireland there were five or six kings,
in Scotland, Malcolm the Destroyer held the balance of power over the
minor kings, but the Vikings were on the islands all around him, and
in England, Saxons warred with Danes and Norsemen. Lochlann held his
breath. Would this first mission of his be successful? What would
‘I’ll send a galley with a couple of hundred men,’ said
Malcolm abruptly. ‘I hear that Sigurd, the Viking King of Orkney, is
sending dragon ships filled with men-at-arms to aid Sitric of Dublin
and so is Brodar of the Isle of Man. The Vikings unite; so the Gaels
must unite against the Vikings. Go now. Tell my wife’s father that
the galleys will be sailing up the Shannon to Limerick by Easter
Sunday — no, we will get them there a week sooner, they will be
there by Palm Sunday.’
‘And bring messages of love and duty from me to my father,’
said the queen softly. ‘Tell him that I remember Ireland. I remember
the kingdom of Thomond and the palace at Kincora, and I remember Emer
of Drumshee who taught me when I was a child. It was a great pleasure
for me to see her grandson.’
The king rose to his feet, nodding curtly to Lochlann as he went,
but the queen lingered.
‘Have you any brothers?’ she asked.
Lochlann bowed. ‘I have but one sister, my lady,’ he said. ‘Her
name is Nessa.’
‘And she, is she at the palace of Kincora, also?’
No, my lady,’ said Lochlann. ‘She remains at Drumshee. She has
to… she cares for my mother who is b…blind.’ He stammered
slightly over the word blind.
Lochlann had not been home to Drumshee for almost two years now. He
was a great favourite with Brian Boru, the High King of Ireland. His
father, Oscar, came to see him every few months and brought him news,
but Lochlann never asked to return with him, even for a short visit.
There was always some reason why he should not leave Kincora at that
moment. Even when he formed part of the expedition to Kilfenora to
demand the tribute of a hundred cows due to Brian Boru he still did
not go the extra four miles to see his mother and his sister.
From time to time, Lochlann felt a pang of guilt. I should go back
and see my mother, he thought. She had become blind just before he
left home permanently when he was fourteen years old and he could not
bear to see the change that had been made in her. She had been a
bright, cheerful, competent woman helping on the farm, while his
father worked his blacksmith business. And then one day, just the very
day that Lochlann had arrived home for his summer holiday from the
monastic school, she had gone into the forge and bent over the fire
and a piece of sandstone had split and the hot iron ore had spurted
out and burned her face. Her eye was so badly damaged that no sight
was left. A few weeks later the sight began to leave the other eye.
Soon she was completely blind.
The change in her was terrible. For weeks she wept hopelessly. Then
she turned sour and bitter. Then she clung to her husband and her two
children and demanded that someone was with her all of the time. He
had been glad to leave. He had been glad of the excuse that his
grandfather Ivar had wished that Lochlann, his grandson, who had
shared his blond hair and blue eyes as well as his Viking blood,
should serve Brian Boru as soon as his fourteenth birthday arrived.
His sister Nessa was left behind. Whenever he thought of her, he
felt uneasy. He knew that she bore the heavy burden of looking after
their mother, of trying to keep cheerful, of fetching and carrying and
of bearing with her mother’s moods and doing the work that
previously both she and her mother would have shared. Nessa would have
loved to come to Brian Boru’s court at Kincora. She would have loved
the Great Hall with its painted leather hangings, the Grianán,
or sunroom, where the ladies of the court spent their time singing,
and stitching embroidered cloths, but someone had to stay at home.
‘My mother wishes my sister to stay at Drumshee with her,’ he
‘That is sad about your mother,’ said the queen softly. She had
her father’s interest in people, thought Lochlann. Not many queens
would be interested to hear the family news of a messenger.
‘You must not let your sister sacrifice herself, though,’ she
continued. ‘She has her own life to lead. Once this battle at Dublin
is over you must see to it. Perhaps some woman living locally could
care for your mother and your sister could come to Kincora. I’m sure
my father would welcome her.’
Lochlann bowed. He did not want to think about his mother, or about
Nessa now. He was fired with a passionate longing to be on his way and
to bring the good news to Brian Boru that Malcolm II of Scotland was
sending aid to him.
The queen, however, still lingered. ‘Whom does your sister look
like?’ she asked. ‘Does she look like her grandmother, Emer, with
her dark blue eyes and her dark curly hair, or is she blond like her
‘She looks like me, I think,’ said Lochlann hesitantly. It was
a strange thing, but he could hardly recall Nessa’s face. After the
years at the monastic school and then the time at the court of Brian
Boru, he had almost forgotten what his sister looked like.
‘I must give you a present for her,’ said the queen. She put
her two hands to the shoulder of her cloak and touched a magnificent
brooch, made from gold and studded with rubies. Carefully she opened
the pin and held it out.
‘Give this brooch to your sister. Tell her it’s a gift from me
in memory of her grandmother. Wait, I will write to her. It was your
grandmother who taught me to write.’ She went over to the table at
the side of the room, took a small piece of vellum, dipped the quill
in the inkhorn and wrote a few words. Then she looked up and looked
closely at him. She smiled, bent her head, and then wrote another few
words. Then she dusted the ink with some sand and when it was dry she
carefully wrapped the brooch in the vellum and sealed the little
parcel with some red wax.
Lochlann took the small package and stored it carefully within his
‘I’ve written to your sister and told her what I think she
should do. I’ve told her that you are so like your grandfather and
that yet, there is one thing about you that reminds me of your
grandmother,’ she said, looking at his fair-skinned young face. ‘You
bring back happy memories of my days at Kincora. Now don’t forget to
give this to your sister.’
‘I will go to see her and give her this as soon as the battle in
Dublin has been won,’ he promised with a smile, and she smiled back.
The young are full of courage, she thought. No foreboding of the
future ever disturbs their minds. Would the battle really be won?
Would her father, Brian Boru, survive? And what about her brothers
Murrough, Flann, Teige, Donogh, her nephews, and this silver-haired,
blue-eyed boy, grandson of her beloved tutor, Emer? Would they all
‘Safe home,’ she said softly.
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