Life for a Life
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
‘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
‘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.
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
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
‘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
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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