Black Lab Books is proud to follow in the tradition of Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Wilkie Collins, Hemingway, Maupin and, most recently, Tom Wolfe by serializing a 500-page work entitled The Chronicles of Saint Patrick: The Captivity – the first volume of a tripartite work set in the fifth-century British Isles, chronicling the life and times of a sixteen-year-old young man kidnapped from his Britannic villa and sold into slavery in Ireland. Installments will appear once a week beginning with Saint Patrick’s Day 2009.
Since Black Lab Books cannot verify the information contained herein, it therefore presents The Chronicles of Saint Patrick: The Captivity as a work of fiction.
The person in possession of the original manuscript of this book is a graduate student in Church Architecture at a renowned Irish university. During the summers of 2000, 2001 and 2002 he was researching the development of architectural evolution at several monasteries on the European continent which had Irish beginnings. While participating in the repair of a disused library wing at one of these monasteries – he declines to identify the monastery or say which summer – he claims to have found this book and two others secreted within a hollow wall. When he presented this book, it was housed in a silver reliquary, the workmanship of which suggests it was created in the ninth century. It was further protected by being wrapped in a white, red-eared calfskin. This calfskin was of indeterminate age. The gold hinges on the book are of the style that was prevalent between the first and eighth centuries CE. The leather cover, the pages and the ink on these pages have yielded values which suggest they were utilized in times close to the fifth century. While the convention used in relating these events is that of a journal – a literary device which was not common until the twelfth century – the language itself is resonant with the style used when Irish tales were first written down in the seventh century. However, certain nuances contained herein seem to be reflective of what appears to be a more archaic form of the Irish language.
This book is presented purely and simply for entertainment purposes and the editor makes no claims regarding the veracity of the events recorded. The reader is encouraged to avail of the name and pronunciation guide as well as a glossary appended to the end of the book.
THE BEGINNING OF THE TALES
Before the telling of these tales there must be given the place, the person, the time and the reason. The place is mighty Tara. The teller is Bear, fosterson of Conall, son of Guaire. The time is one on twenty years into the reign of Niall of the Hostages. The reason of this tale is not easy to tell. I write these words at the request of Conall for I can deny him nothing. I write these words in fear of my life for if Conaire knew of this enterprise he would have my head taken. And probably the head of Conall, too. But my love for Conall exceeds any power in this land so I commit these words. I know, too, Conall made this extraordinary request of me with good reason. What is the beginning? Here is the telling of it.
One moon ago, three days after the celebrations of Beltaine, at the time when the last of the cattle were being moved to the pastures of summertime, Conall visited the hill of his favorite gallstone. He went there, as he often does, to reflect. Leaning his back against the great lith there, he utilized one of the sets of foretelling tools – the stones, I think.
His concentration was deep for when I roared up in the chariot, I was almost on top of him before he noticed me. When I informed him of what happened to Conaire, awkward was Conall as he struggled to get out of his thoughts and climb aboard the chariot. When I saw Conall upright, and had a purchase of two hands on the rim of the car, we raced off.
Hastening down the Long Road, our speed became slowed by a large herd of cattle. As I yelled at the cowherds to move their beasts, they paid little attention to me until I asked if they noticed the number of colors on the robe of Conall. That spurred them to action and they rushed to clear a path, mumbling apologies to which Conall paid no attention except to say the words “Bear, fish and sword.” But the words came to his lips as a question. Looking as distracted as he was, I assumed he asked me if Conaire had eaten fish. Did Conaire bear a fish that sworded his belly? I said I did not know what he ate.
As I laid the goad on the horses, and sped past the last of the cattle, he said, “Eat?” I repeated that I did not know what Conaire ate. He said, “Conaire?” The faraway look on his face told me he had yet to become emerged from his visioning. It was best to keep driving and remain quiet for when the mind of this druid had been fixed on something, he was sometimes a long time coming out of it.
As we neared the Turn of the Willows, he asked me to slow down. I took this turn at full speed many times and was about to ask him why, when he anticipated my question, saying, “A cloud.” More cattle, I thought. They would slow us down and we might not get to Conaire in time. “It is not cattle,” he said. I thought, truly, he was an extra long time leaving his faraway place because I heard the clink of the bells worn by the cows in the van of the herd.
As we entered the cloud, Conall grabbed the reins and gave them a savage pull. We lurched to a halt. The cloud was not the dry dust of the road but a wet, white mist. Through it, I discerned figures whose slow tread was accented not by bells of cows but by the chains of slaves.
Poised to give lung to the leader of this troop and ask him if he saw the robe of Conall, Conall stayed me. Conall does not like to use his rank. So I yanked on the reins to wheel around this lot, when Conall stayed me again.
My look of puzzlement brought a response.
“We will wait until they pass.”
“We will arrive in time.”
I shrugged and watched the drudge pass in front of us. They were from Gwent by their clothes. One after the other, they plodded on. They affected that stoop-shouldered walk of their lot. Their glazed looks said they knew they had exchanged one master for another. The clink of the iron leg chain as it pulled down against the heavy handring drove that knowledge home with every step.
In this group were several who, by the cut of their garments, had to be of other than the bond class. Some were freemen; some even of the upper class. Easily spotted, their heads bobbed higher – to steal furtive glances with almost every stride. Their heads twitched back and forth, the burgeoning fear in their eyes unmistakable as they took in their new circumstances – the foul odor one them emitted, testimony to the abandonment of home and now body.
With intensity, Conall scanned the line as it slogged in front of us, his eyes darting over these unfree creatures, fixing on one person, then another. Studying them, his eyes would vault forward to one and then they might leap back to one he lighted on before. A shake of his head and his eyes sought out another. He frowned.
“What is it, Conall?” I asked.
“I do not know, Art.”
He has always called me Bear or Cub, except when he is serious or when I did something wrong. Like the time when I was five summers and by mistake I let the calves at the cows. For a time we went without milk. Or the time Emer dyed linen in a vat of woad and I wanted to know the appearance of a blue dog.
We remained motionless except for the scan by the head of Conall which widened and swept along the ranks of this parade in accelerated fashion each time he came to the end of the line.
When they finally passed us and the mysterious cloud lifted, I poised the goad and again Conall stayed me. I said nothing as Conall stared after the slaves until they faded away. Only then did he nudge me to move. The goad found the mark and we launched into a gallop.
Soon we careened up the High Road toward the summer Compound of Conaire. Conall was returned to the here and now. I knew this by the way he stared ahead, by the way his eyes fixed on the looming hut of the Arddruid.
Flying through the hurriedly-opened gates of the palisade of Conaire, Conall did the chariot leap for which he was famous in his younger days and vaulted towards the door of the lodge of Conaire, landing, of course, on his feet – no easy feat when you wore the robes of a druid.
At the door, Aoife, the bondwoman, worry tugging at her face, bowed to Conall.
“How is the Arddruid, Aoife?”
“He appears to be in a deep sleep. His breathing is low,” replied Aoife.
“Bring me to him so I can have a look.”
Conall stepped inside the lodge of Conaire and disappeared for the time of a boiled egg. When he emerged, it was obvious whatever he did or said benefited at least one person – Aoife – for the tension was dispersed from her face and the moisture gone from the corner of her eye. Conall was at ease.
Conall looked at the bondwoman and said, “All right, Aoife, tell me how this happened.”
The right hand of Aoife flew to her mouth. A series of involuntary gasps possessed her.
“Do not be concerned, Aoife. The Arddruid will recover. Conaire is a vigorous man. Many more summers will he have before his banshee calls for him. And, Aoife, even when she does call, I am sure you will fight her off. Will you not?”
“That I will, Conall, that I will,” said Aoife, managing a smile.
“That is good. Now tell me of this.”
After a few moments she began, “He took in a small afternoon meal and ... oh, Conall, please tell me it was not the food I prepared for him...”
“Be at ease. Food did not cause this. Please continue.”
“Ach, near the end of his meal, we heard the commotion of the men returning from the raid on Gwent. The Arddruid said he wished to walk up to the cliff and watch them in their landing. He strolled up the hill to his roost. That spot where he likes to sit? You know, that perch near the edge? He always worries me when he sits there.”
Conall nodded and Aoife continued.
“He sat there tossing either stones or straws on the apron of his robes – I did not see which. Sometimes he does not like it when we – the other bondwomen and I – get too close when he is thinking.”
Conall nodded again.
“He looked up from his toss and down to the beach every few moments. Then he made another toss but he did not look at it. He jabbed... he jabbed his finger in the air. He jumped up… held his temples with both hands… and then jabbed his finger again.”
“This is good,” said Conall. “Continue. Did he point at something? Something in the air? Out on the water? Down on the beach?”
Then to me, Conall said, “Bear, I will work on Conaire while Aoife recounts this tale. Please bring my satchel.”
When I retrieved his satchel from the chariot, Conall removed from it the leather of the head-measuring and stretched it around the head of Conaire. Aoife watched with great interest. Conall nodded to Aoife.
“Perhaps... something... down on the beach,” she said.
As Conall measured the head of Conaire from top to bottom, he asked, “Did he say anything?”
“No, he just moaned a moan that...” Aoife shuddered.
Conall caressed her face, smiling at her. “What happened next?” he asked.
“He swayed... held his head again and then... then he slumped to the ground.”
Conall put down the leather and took the head of Conaire into both of his hands. Conall tented his fingers over the ears of Conaire, applying fingertip pressure to the head.
“What did you do, Aoife?” Conall took up his leather again.
“I, and two other bondwomen, raced up to him. Between us, we carried him back here.”
“Did he vomit?” asked Conall, as he took a measurement from the right jawbone of Conaire over the top of the head to the left jawbone.
“Aoife, go now and fetch those women who were with you.”
She returned to Conall in the time of a whisper with the other women. Conall asked them the same questions. They recounted even less for they had looked only at the Arddruid and not down on the beach. Now they appeared very worried.
Conall removed from his satchel the bronze razor and the blisterers.
The three women stared. They followed every movement of the hands of Conall as he, with great ceremony, made the Sign of the Horseshoe on the head of Conaire.
“What did you see?” asked Conall.
Aoife said, “Raiders beaching ... Unloading spoils... slaves... Conall? What are you about here?”
“Did you glimpse the beach?” asked Conall as he laid out a number of different herbs.
A nod. “Conall?”
“Anything out of the ordinary? A fight? A slave trying to get away? A curragh capsizing?”
“Nothing like that... and it was... I only a managed a glance. I... I... Conall?”
“You did well, Aoife. Thank you.”
“Conall? Are you shaving the head of Conaire?”
“It is part of the treatment for headaches.”
“But he will be bald.”
“And then I will blister his head.”
“Oh, Conall. Is there any other way?”
“Aoife? Do you question my wisdom? The wisdom of one of the chief healers of Tara? The wisdom of one who sits at the table of...”
“Oh, no Conall. It is that he will look so horrid.”
“Are you saying an enormous presence such as the Arddruid is capable of being horrid in appearance?”
“No, no, Conall. No. I did not mean that. I meant...”
“What did you mean?”
“Is... is there any... any way to relieve his suffering without... without the shaving and blistering?”
“The crowfoot? It might work. But I will not take the blame if it does not cure him.”
“Conall, I have no fear. Your cures work so I will take it on my shoulders. Then if the unbelievable happens, if it does not work, you can bald and blister him.”
“Thank you for your permission.”
“Oh, Conall. You know what I mean.”
Conall chanted over the crowfoot. He scrutinized the leaves of the crowfoot a long time, rejecting several upon very close examination. Finally, he selected nine leaves for his right hand and nine leaves for his left hand. In sunwise circles did he massage the right temple of Conaire, using one leaf for each circle. Each circle bigger than the last. Then he repeated the process on the left temple of Conaire. Then the right forehead. And the left. At the end of the rite, Conall gave forth a deep breath as though exhausted.
Conall packed up his trappings, and said, “There is no more I can do for him now. Bestill yourself, Aoife. Conaire will recover. You will have to forgive me, Aoife; I was having some fun with you. The cure of the crowfoot is as good as or better than balding and blistering.”
Aoife smiled as her chin bounced off her breastbone. She said, “Even if you do sit at the table of the Ard Righ, you are still a rascal, Conall, son of Guaire.”
Conall smiled back and said, “I spied the larkspur in your garden. Please bring me three stems.”
On the return of Aoife, she handed the three-foot stalks to Conall who stripped them of their dark green leaves. After he offered a silent incantation over the seven on twenty leaves and the three most perfect of the blue flowers, he mashed them all onto a linen bandage. The rich juice flowed. He gave the bandage to Aoife and said, “Maintain this at the nose of Conaire. Let him sniff it in his sleep. Hold it there until the bandage is dry. Then bury the bandage in the garden under a rock facing west. If you have any water from a druid well, see he takes some when he wakes. If he is hungry he should eat. If you need me, you know where to find me. I think, now, I will go up to where the Arddruid roosted, to see what I can determine.”
Conall and I walked up to the perch of the Arddruid. The fading sunlight left little to see. Some raiders yet unloaded their booty. Some chained slaves. A few straggling craft still approached the beach.
On the ground we found two of the black stones of the Arddruid. The third one could not be located. Conall told me to take the two stones back to Aoife. As I left him, he peered over the edge.
At the bottom of the hill I turned to see if Conall was coming. Gone was he, from the edge of the cliff.