Today I’m delighted to be sharing an excerpt from Micheál Cladáin’s newly released novel After Gáirech as part of a blog tour hosted by The Coffee Pot Book Club. After Gáirech is the third book in Micheál’s series The Milesians.
The palisade of Crúachain poked through the mist, a pauper’s crown atop a monstrous head. The bleating of despondent sheep echoed from the plain. For once Conall could not smell them because the stench of the army, which had gathered only a few days before, hung heavy in the air.
‘It will be a glorious morning,’ Imrinn said. Conall grunted a reply, the words from the reticent youth coming as a surprise. Imrinn had spoken little during their chase across the Five Kingdoms.
Conall’s thighs were aching, his arse complaining. His cheeks felt like they’d been hung up and paddled by an angry fishwife. And all in vain. The army of Connacht was safe behind the wooden walls of their dún, their treacherous king with them. ‘We’re too late,’ he finally said.
Imrinn nodded but returned to his reticence. Conall knew the youngster blamed him for the death of Fergus because he’d been the one to encourage their friend to climb between Queen Medb’s legs and use intimacy as a way into her head. Now one of Ulster’s great heroes was dead, murdered on the king’s orders, only to wander in the Void because of the ignominy of his passing, sword left beside the firepit, forgotten in his haste to lie with another man’s wife.
‘Bull’s balls, Imrinn, you’re right to blame me. If I’d not suggested the affair…’ He trailed off, glaring over the mists. ‘I’m a bundún and no mistake.’
Imrinn pulled down his hood and looked at Conall, who found it impossible to read anything in the blank face. He was more of an enigma than his older brother, Genonn, which Conall had not thought possible. Not until his long ride with the lad.
‘I don’t blame you,’ Imrinn said, before turning back to the ráth. The words conveyed no feeling, which didn’t help Conall’s desire to know what had driven him to charge across the country. He knew anger was there; he was always angry, or so they said. The evening of the battle, Conall watched Imrinn fighting with his father, Cathbadh. It was the druid’s reaction to Imrinn announcing he would no longer follow the druidic way. The battle had been over; the queen was defeated. Everyone had been jubilant, even the druid, only for his youngest son to abandon the family calling. Genonn had turned his back on druidism years before, which meant Cathbadh was now short a successor.
Conall shook his head, glad he was not subject to Cathbadh’s wrath, who was notorious for punishing those who crossed him. Imrinn might be the old man’s son, but Conall didn’t think blood would intervene. Cathbadh was one druid who let nothing get in the way of duty.
Why did you mount up and ride with me? he wondered again.
He and Imrinn had been together when they found Fergus after Medb ran into the Red Branch camp screaming bloody murder. Screaming that her husband Ailill ordered the death of their hero. That morning saw the warriors of Ulster gather in a war council. All agreed, King Ailill ordered the killing. The guilt was confirmed when they discovered his army had decamped during the night, skulking off to Crúachain not being an act of the innocent. Conall immediately gave chase, and Imrinn followed, which was a foolish thing to do. Once begun, neither could admit the folly; neither would pull on the reins and say, “Wait a minute. They’re an army, and we’re two men, one not even a warrior.”
Conall turned back to the black teeth of the palisade poking through the grey, the guards’ spearheads glinting in the weak sunlight. With mists below and smoke above, Crúachain appeared to be floating in the clouds, a royal palace of the Fae.
‘Bull’s balls, but Ailill lives in the clouds if he thinks I won’t avenge Fergus,’ he said, patting his mare’s neck, more to relieve his stress than hers.
‘I cannot assist you,’ Imrinn said, turning back to the mist.
‘I must go, Conall. This fruitless charge across the kingdoms has cost me time I do not have.’
‘So, why did you come?’
Wiping his forehead with the back of a gloved hand, Imrinn said, ‘I’ve no idea. Impulse? Or maybe I just needed to get away from my father.’
‘Aye. I heard you fighting,’ Conall admitted.
‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
Staring over the plain, Conall asked Imrinn where he intended going, while wondering at the fickleness of youth. He also saw the vanity of their chase, but for him, it had no bearing. He had to go on. Killing the king was all there was left, all he could do to make amends for sending Fergus on a foolish errand, which had ended the only way it could.
Instead of answering, Imrinn nodded in the direction of the settlement and asked, ‘What is it you mean to do here?’
Conall shook his head. He didn’t know how to answer. What could he do except await his chance to kill the king? ‘You’re going to the island because Cathbadh is not in Caer Leb?’
‘Yes. He is petitioning the southern kings. His absence gives me a chance to talk to the elders, or just to Dornoll, maybe.’ The lad’s voice took on a different tone when he mentioned the leader of the Elder Council. Almost obsequious. So, he is in thrall to her. ‘There is a reckoning due. The Council must decide how best to proceed.’
Conall glanced over, curious, but Imrinn was staring innocently across the plain. Maybe I’m hearing things that don’t exist. ‘Aye, there’s a debt, but who owes it other than the king?’
‘The king is behind strong ramparts. An army is needed to break him out. There will be a siege, which the Elder Council must sanction. They won’t do it without proof.’
‘Who else could it have been,’ Conall said. They won’t do it unless it is in their own interest, you mean. No one doubted the queen when she came wailing into camp, covered in blood, he thought.
‘I don’t believe her,’ Imrinn said as if he’d seen into Conall’s head. ‘She ran into camp like a mad woman, then ran for Crúachain like a horde of síabraí was after her. That was an act of guilt, not of mourning.’
‘Aye, lad, maybe,’ Conall said, frowning across the plain as if trying to unravel some complexity hidden under the mists.
‘You cannot do anything here. The chase is lost. Why not come with me? Get permission from Dornoll and return with the Red Branch to lay siege.’
Conall considered the words.
The gates of Crúachain were closed, the sentries on the palisade and gatehouse alert. They were watching intently. Conall did not doubt the king had told them to kill him on sight. Ailill was afraid, and rightly so. They exchanged promises: Ailill promised no harm would come to Fergus and Conall promised not to fight for the Red Branch. As soon as the battle was over, the king ordered the death of his best friend, playing Conall for a fool.
No one played him for a fool and lived.
‘I’ll stay a while longer.’
Imrinn nodded, offering his wrist in the warrior grip. ‘May the Tuatha guide you.’
‘That sorry lot never guided anyone,’ Conall chuckled. ‘Take it handy, lad.’ He watched as Imrinn turned and rode back into the forest.
Conall’s mare whinnied, edging sideways. He patted her neck again.
‘Easy girl. What has you so riled? I wager you were spoiling for a charge,’ he said with a tight, joyless smile.
He rubbed his chin, getting some sort of solace from the rasp, wanting to accept the wisdom of Imrinn’s words but finding it as hard as the chase.
Anyone could see there would be no glorious death seeking revenge on this day. He wouldn’t reach the gates before a slingshot, arrow, or spear knocked him from his saddle, to leave him dying in sheep pellets and wondering about the vagaries of a warrior’s life.
A sudden breeze rattled the leaves. The forest was talking to Conall, scolding him for his stupidity. Urging him to go for the Red Branch, but he was too proud. They’d abandoned him when Mac Nessa put a price on his head. He would be staring into Donn’s mound before he forgave them.
The leaves rattled again.
‘I hear you,’ he hissed, not needing the forest to tell him. He knew he was wasting time staring across Mag nAí at the inaccessible fortress. And in truth, charging across the Five Kingdoms did nothing to alleviate his hurt. He missed his friend, and now he’d missed the funeral, his chance to give a final farewell, to give advice on how to convince Donn to let him sit at His table, all thrown away by a reckless chase.
He continued to stare across the plain for a few more moments, waiting for some sign of weakness, despite the futility of it. Finally, with a sigh, he said, ‘I’m sorry, Fergus, vengeance will have to wait.’
The battle of Gáirech is over; the armies of Connachta, Lagin, and Mumu are destroyed! Survivors are ravaging The Five Kingdoms of Ireland!
While working to resolve the Kingdoms’ issues and bring peace, Cathbadh is murdered, dying in his son Genonn’s arms. Genonn vows to avenge the death of his father.
For his revenge to work, he needs Conall Cernach and the Red Branch warriors of Ulster. But Conall is gone, searching for the head of Cú Chulainn. Genonn sets out to find him, aided by the beautiful Fedelm, the capricious Lee Fliath and the stalwart Bradán.
Micheál Cladáin studied the classics and developed a love of ancient civilizations during those studies. Learning about ancient Roman and Greek cultures was augmented by a combined sixteen years living in those societies, albeit the modern versions, in Cyprus and Italy. As such, Micheál decided to write historical fiction, trying to follow in the footsteps of such greats as Bernard Cornwell and Conn Iggulden. Because of his Irish roots, he chose pre-Christian Ireland as his setting, rather than ancient Italy or Greece.
Micheál is a full-time writer, who lives in the wilds of Wexford with his wife and their border terriers, Ruby and Maisy.
Book Title: After Gáirech
Author: Micheál Cladáin
Publication Date: 30th September 2021
Page Length: 370 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction