On a remote Gaelic farmstead in medieval Ireland, word reaches Alberic of conquering Norman knights arriving from England. Oppressed by the social order that enslaved his Norman father, he yearns for the reckoning he believes the invaders will bring—but his world is about to burn. Captured by the Norman knight Hugo de Lacy and installed at Dublin Castle as a translator, Alberic’s confused loyalties are tested at every turn. When de Lacy marches inland, Alberic is set on a collision course with his former masters amidst rumours of a great Gaelic army rising in the west. Can Alberic navigate safely through revenge, lust and betrayal to find his place amidst the birth of a kingdom in a land of war?
In the orchards I walked down rows of fruiting trees until I came to the Basilia and her ladies sitting beneath a netting of branches. Cool shadow, the black soil rich with windfall exuding a fragrance of souring ale. Seeing me approach, Basilia called me forward. Men at arms keeping their distance looked for Basilia’s nod and did not impede my progress.
‘He arrives, ladies. The poet-slave. The Justiciar’s fancy. Look at that lovely young face. That dew berry. Stained with perpetual embarrassment for his crimes. The stain of impure thoughts, I am sure.’ She spoke with the powerful composure of a wealthy and handsome woman, raising in me true blushes as my eyes sought escape in the tracery of grafted branches behind her head and in the flight of wasps hovering noisily between the rotted cores. She rose from her couch, supporting her stomach with one curled hand, and said
‘Come now you are not some country stutterer afraid of the sport of a lady, I have seen you berate bishops and charm barons. Come and speak to me as we walk to the cathedral. I would know more of you and of this civitas. It is bigger than our own Vadrafjord, though more open to the elements, more mixed in its inhabitants.’
Her manner of speech perturbed me and I struggled to know how to speak to her. We began to walk down the tree-lined sward and her ladies followed several steps behind. Do you not wish to tell me of yourself?’
‘I will gladly tell what you would know, ma dame.’
‘Do you write verse? You seem to have the soft heart for it, the warm eye?’
‘I cannot write, though I can read well enough the script of the Gael and also Latin to a lesser degree. I have yet to see the Engleis tongue written out, though I hope that the opportunity will present itself.’
‘No doubt,’ she said, and I divined that this was not the answer she had been looking to elicit. ‘Tell me then, you who recite the romances of the court in your young life have you loved?’
I looked behind to her ladies who followed, they affected not to hear our conversation. Again, this was something new to me and I was not sure how to answer. I was not sure of the truth of the matter and I was not experienced enough of those in love to know that they just want to hear their own flowery fantasies and agonies repeated back to them. In my uncertainty, I began to speak, words that had been waiting to fall from my lips like the heavy apples around us. Like a fruit of large sad tears.
‘I would say yes, ma dame, I have.’
She smiled a thin smile, her eyes narrowing, the freckles across her nose, delicate and speckled as a thrush’s egg.
‘Tell me of her,’ she said, leaning in conspiratorially, taking my arm. Her breath hot against my cheek.
‘We captured her on a cattle raid,’ I began and she snorted an involuntary laughter and I could hear supressed giggles from behind also.
‘Child,’ she said, ‘I do not wish to hear of your dirty carnal acts perpetrated on the poor savages of the forests.’
Sudden anger spiked into the cavities of my being. I did not heed her but continued slowly, deliberately.
‘Standing in the pre-dawn dew, her bare feet bright in the gloom, a clutch of herbs and hedge flowers at her breast. She did not move as we thundered from the thicket and she was got up onto one of the horses with little fight. As if she had been expecting it. Indeed, I would hazard to say that it was not the first time she had been carried off.’
Basilia quietened as I continued speaking, listening now with a guarded interest.
‘Sixteen of years perhaps, dark hair, pale eyes, skin like the purest snow.’
I faltered at this. The paleness of my words against the image of Ness that smouldered in my mind. ‘I am no poet. I do not have the skill to tell you of her beauty.’ And speaking of her hurt me as I had no conception it would. Words scalding my heart like charred coal. My thoughts turned against me and I grew angry at the sly amused air of this lady. Her highness, her fickleness. I continued rashly; anger unbinding words that should have remained bound. ‘Nor do I need to tell you what befell her when we returned to our tuath, for these things are universal.’
I continued on, emboldened, speaking of such low things with a high-born lady, disregarding the danger. Disregarding her stiffening gait, the exhalation of breath from her nose, the dead silence from behind me.
‘I convinced her to run away with me, into the hills and the deep forest. I told her that my people, the Engleis, were at hand and that I would bring her to them and that we would be liberated. Though in truth I knew nothing of the world beyond our small borders, nor what lay east or west, north or south. I told her all I could to make her come away with me and we wandered in the wilderness for weeks, eating what we could find. And in the end, she lay with me. She lay with me to change things.’ Basilia touched my shoulder as if to say enough but I could not stop and I continued, louder and faster, ‘Lay with me to make something happen, to do the only thing that she had known and in laying with me, I became all men and she rutted like an animal and pushed every sin that had been perpetrated upon her down onto me. She expelled a blackness and a screaming terror and she clawed me and gored me and when it was over, she had passed on.’ Basilia stopped walking and her ladies came forward, full of affronted awe, gathering around their lady.
‘Stop,’ Basilia said. Releasing my arm forcefully. But I did not stop.
‘Passed on, passed over, I do not know which. Perhaps she lies cold in the forest or perhaps torn by wolves or enslaved by another who chains her to a post and ruts her daily…’
Her slap came hard and jarring, her long, ringed fingers catching my lip so that blood spilled dramatically into my mouth and down my chin.
‘Filth’, the ladies said, ‘ordure, morveau de merde,’ and I turned away so that they would not see my tears. Basilia silenced them with a raised hand.
‘Boy, you are a fool. I knew it at the feast and you have proven it here today. You are offered liberties beyond any expectation of your station and you utter outrages.’
‘A slave has no need for decorum,’ I said. ‘Words have ever been the only freedom available to me. For good or for ill.’
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Meet Paul Duffy
Paul Duffy, author of Run with the Hare, Hunt with the Hound (2022), is one of Ireland’s leading field archaeologists and has directed numerous landmark excavations in Dublin as well as leading projects in Australia, France and the United Kingdom.
He has published and lectured widely on this work, and his books include From Carrickfergus to Carcassonne—the Epic Deeds of Hugh de Lacy during the Cathar Crusade (2018) and Ireland and the Crusades (2021). He has given many talks and interviews on national and international television and radio (RTÉ, BBC, NPR, EuroNews).
Paul has also published several works of short fiction (Irish Times, Causeway/Cathsair, Outburst, Birkbeck Writer’s Hub) and in 2015 won the Over the Edge New Writer of the Year Award. He has been shortlisted for numerous Irish and international writing prizes and was awarded a writing bursary in 2017–2018 by Words Ireland.
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