Late afternoon on a searing July day in the year nine hundred and thirty-one, wearing a long saffron-coloured tunic close-fitting at the torso and loose around the forearms and knees, the King of Munster atop the Rock of Cashel, Lorcan mac Coinlígáin, stood before his bedchamber window overlooking miles of rolling pastureland and scrutinising his clammy upper-lip in a piece of polished bronze.
More than anything in the world he detested days like this. Days so muggy they revealed the curse God inflicted upon him, namely sweat glands without restraint. Hours could pass as he tweaked and twisted his thick moustache, growing incensed by its refusal to sit exactly how he liked it. A symmetrical horseshoe widening at the corners of his mouth and falling into two blonde horns precisely one thumbnail’s length below either side of his chin. A look so interwoven with his identity that he had taken to locking himself inside when it could not be achieved, forcing aides to knock on his enormous oak door, sending eerie booms, like overhead thunder, reverberating around the lofty space and a hateful shiver down his spine.
‘What can be so important,’ he snarled, opening the hatch he had installed, low enough to reach yet high enough for him to remain hidden, ‘that you insist on interrupting me while engaged in work of the utmost importance?’
‘I carry news of another raid, my King,’ the breathy voice responded. ‘Every day now they advance closer – Lismore the latest. Fourteen men slain, eleven of their women abducted.’
‘Tell me something, Óengus,’ the king replied, fanning himself with the bronze and throwing a beam of light around the room.
‘Is there a waterway in Lismore suited to longship sailing connecting them to the sea?’
‘Uh, I believe so.’
‘I may be mistaken, but from my window I see no evidence of a waterway with similar capabilities in the area. Has it managed to elude me these forty-four years?’
‘No, my King, but it has been said that they are growing more brazen on foot, that it is only a matter of time before they overrun the middle country. We must be prepared.’
As the king emitted a series of contemptuous groans, a pattering of goathide sandals on stone floor could be heard in the great hall, followed by an exchange of mutterings between their owner and Óengus.
‘Fool! Those fleshy oafs could not walk a thousand paces on foot –’
‘My King, a boy here carrying a message for you.’
‘Give it,’ he whispered with an exhale as if surrendering to a deep melancholy, and a hand came through the hatch offering a folded piece of vellum. He opened it carelessly and, with his left hand flattening the sides of his moustache, read
Lest beef swiftly restore our brains and brawn,
Lest lodgings are bestowed at the first yawn,
Lest ale is proffered for forty to swill,
Satire will befall the King Coinlígáin
‘Why do you punish me, Lord!’
‘What is it?’ Óengus inquired. ‘Oh, God! The Vikings approach?’
‘What could be worse?!’
The king scrunched up the vellum and threw it through the opening in the door.
As Óengus investigated further with the messenger, the king moved to the window to look down on the marketplace in the foreground. With disgust, he saw a large gathering of outsiders conversing, laughing, plotting amongst the town traders and their livestock. The formidable figure of his cousin Cellachán alongside them. His attention naturally fell on one of them dressed in a multi-coloured cloak, the likes of which he had only ever seen on the High King of Ireland. A servant holding a gold branch above his head followed him wherever he went. The king squinted, attempting to discern some of his features, but, besides a solid constitution, he was too far away.
‘Apparently the newly elected Chief Poet of Ireland is among them,’ Óengus called through the hatch, sensing the king to have moved away. ‘They travel with a retinue of forty poets and servants. Their demands must be met; the law grants them the right to satire.’
‘And? There is nothing here to satirize.’
‘Of course not. But you know how crafty these poets can be. If they contrive to spoil your good name, it can bring shame upon the Eóganachta and, God forbid, invoke facial blisters and even death upon you personally.’
The king held the mirror to his face and examined his narrow freckled jaw, his tall forehead streaming with sweat beads, and his strained close-set eyes.
‘Nonsense! Give them bare barley loaf and water. If they must stay the night, run whatever vermin occupy those ramshackle guesthouses behind the stables out and let them rest there.’
‘But the boy here says the Chief Poet expects to dine with you in full banquet inside the castle walls. I urge you to do as they please.’
‘The offer is already too generous. Now go!’
‘Yes, my King.’
Not ten minutes later, Óengus returned.
‘I have spoken with the Chief myself. She is already making enquiries about you with the townspeople, and threatens a public show of satire before vespers if you do not comply.’
‘I am as surprised as you are. Uallach ingen Muinecháin, the first Woman-Poet of Ireland in a thousand years. I am told she was the top student in all twelve years of study, without exception, excelling in oration, memory, chants, and composition.’ He paused for a response and, when none came, added, ‘You know how unethical these poets can be.’
The king, lying face down on his four-poster bed with eyes closed and arms by his sides, mumbled an unintelligible demand into his pillow.
‘Pardon?’ Óengus asked.
He raised his head.
And for two hours he stayed in the same position, awake but still, until a burgeoning furore outside coaxed him to the window. Through the small diamond panes, he spied Uallach standing on a makeshift stage chanting with her arms aloft. In front of her, her adoring audience of a hundred or so, made up of her entourage, the market traders, and what looked like most of the town, were matching her every word. Enraged, but unable to make out what they are saying, he smashed one of the panes with his mirror and heard
The Magic King of Munster,
Why is he unseen?
The Magic King of Munster,
Because his armpits gleam!
The Magic King of Munster,
His face soon a-rash?
The Magic King of Munster,
Imprisoned in moustache!
sung on a continuous loop.
‘That’s what they call poetry nowadays, is it?’ he asked through gritted teeth, pacing back and forth before slamming open the hatch. ‘Óengus!’
Moments later, Óengus’ voice appeared.
‘Those Vikings, what do they do with the women they abduct?’
‘Uh, the reports say they are put on the ships and never seen again.’
‘Well then, tonight in Cashel we are going to have a Viking raid of our own.’
‘Send some of our most trusted into the surrounding lands under order to pick up as many brawny wayfarers as they can find, the dimmer the better. Tell them we are arranging a mock Viking raid, or something, to test and improve the town’s defences. If they refuse, offer whatever amount of food and shelter it takes for them to agree – we can banish them as soon as the job is done. In the meantime, fashion costumes for them to wear. It hardly matters what. The halfwits of this town would not know a Viking from a washed-up seal. As soon as we have fifteen or so, choreograph the attack. Ideally only the Woman-Poet and one or two others for appearance should be taken. So describe to them in detail her distinctive clothing.’ The king paused his lecture to listen to the town chanting below. Then, pinching his earlobe until he could take the pain no longer, ended it with, ‘If some of the men decide to play the hero, killing them would not be the worst thing.’
‘You must reconsider!’ Óengus ventured.
‘I mean, I beg you respectfully, my King, to rethink this course of action.’
‘If you question me once more, it will be your life you are begging for.’
‘So…what do you want done with the women we capture?’
‘Discreetly bring the poet to me. She too will know how it feels to be encroached upon. And make any others disappear.’ He closed the hatch before Óengus could pique him further.
Darkness fell. And, though the public performances at the king’s expense had subsided, sporadic bursts of laughter down in the marketplace told him the poets were far from moving on to the next town. Delirious, he waited five hours for his plan to unfold, pondering what these leeches could possibly have to laugh about and repeatedly checking his reflection for signs of facial blisters only to revile himself each time for doing so.
Once the first screams cried out below, he leapt to the window and, with a candle illuminating his black grin, listened to them race through the town like sinister waves branching off in different directions before coming to an abrupt end. He put his ear to the broken pane – not a conversation in the still night – and brooded until three assertive knocks at the door, unlike Óengus’, made him flinch. Uneasy, he approached the hatch.
‘I am with Uallach, my King,’ Óengus’ nervous voice announced.
‘Who else accompanies you?’
‘Uh, just your cousin Cellachán, who spearheaded the operation without fault.’
‘Are you present, Cellachán?’
‘I am, Lorcan,’ a gruff voice replied.
‘Before I open up, lift up this Woman-Poet so I can see her.’
The top of Uallach ingen Muinecháin’s head appeared above the bottom ledge of the ill-lit hatch, peering unperturbed and, as the king suspected, smiling down at him.
‘No need,’ she said. ‘Now let us proceed.’ Her voice’s commanding downward inflection in stark but somehow compatible contrast with its pacific tone.
‘Not the Good Jesus, just a humble poet on a sultry night awaiting the King of Munster to open his door and fulfil an invite.’
‘An invite?! Well…well…you are mistaken there!’
‘Well, forgive me. I was escorted to your chamber on another’s decree?’
‘Uh, no, but…’
‘But nerves have dealt you a change of heart. Yet only regret will beat if we now part.’
‘This is not…!’
Uallach turned from him and said, ‘King Coinlígáin is ready.’
‘My King, are you opening up?’ Óengus asked from behind her.
‘I did not say…! All right. I will open the door marginally. Only the poet may enter.’ He closed the hatch, lifted open the iron latch, and pulled back the door.
Uallach half entered and stopped, her visible eye locked on him.
‘Believe me when I say, in reality your tash possesses a majesty no words can convey.’ She offered him her hand. The king, acting on a curious impulse to get her into the light where he could see her better, took it. A brief lapse in concentration that allowed Cellachán and two accompanying Eóganachta to slip in behind Uallach and tackle him to the ground, sending his mirror clanging across the floor.
Carried off the Rock of Cashel for the last time, and concealing the bottom half of his flushed face, Lorcan mac Coinlígáin heard rejoicing from townspeople who stayed up for the deposition. And the celestial voice of the Chief Poet of Ireland declaim
Narcissus high on the Rock,
A man so foul, yet enabled to be king
I guess the only true shock:
I got that close, and did so without puking!
Following a stint as a scriptwriter in London, Darren John Travers returned to his home county of Kildare, Ireland to focus on his literary career. Darren is currently at work on his first collection of short stories.
Image via Pixabay