I thought I'd share a little snippet with you here, just to whet your appetites. I love these two heroes, and the story's villain, the mad King of Dublin. Meet all three after the jump.
The room was massive. A place for giants, Darragh thought. It dwarfed him, and the men with him. It even dwarfed the man who waited for him in the dome-ceiling alcove at the room’s end, past the lit fireplaces with the soot-stained tapestries hanging above them, and a pair of huge columns. Darragh walked the length of the dirty carpet with the king’s men on either side of him, skirting the large table that took up much of the floorspace.
They reached the alcove, and one of the men pushed Darragh forward. “Culchie scavenger, boss.”
“Found him in the hospital,” another added.
The rounded end of the room was actually a raised dais of black and white marble, two steps above the ratty carpet where Darragh and the king’s men stood. The king himself lounged on what appeared to be a filthy red cushion sitting in the dais’s center, in a position that called for someone to be fanning him or feeding him grapes. He was a small, sharp-faced man with a wicked childish smile and black, glittering eyes, wearing a massive golden collar like a pharaoh's.
“And what were you hoping to steal from your king?” the king asked, the question arch as if he’d rehearsed it.
“Not steal,” Darragh said. “I didn’t know.”
“You didn’t know what?” the king asked him.
Darragh twisted his mouth in frustration. “I didn’t know there was a king.”
The king looked offended. “You didn’t know there was a king? Are you simple?”
“No. I travel. No king in my home.”
“Of course you have a king. The king of Dublin is the king of all Ireland.”
Darragh opened his mouth to argue that they’d never heard of him in Cúil Aodha, king or no, and then it occurred to him that maybe he didn’t want this man to know the name of his home. Not to mention he seemed the sort of man who wouldn’t take such a statement with good grace. “I didn’t know,” he said again.
“Did you travel far?”
“A long way,” Darragh replied. “Days.”
The king looked more closely at him. He had a shrewd gaze. Darragh wondered what kind of man he must have been in the days before. “How did you get here?”
Darragh nodded, and wondered why the king sounded so surprised. What other ways were there? He remembered with sudden clarity a children’s picture book his mother used to read him, each page glossy and colourful. Buses and planes and cars and ships and boats and bicycles. Darragh hadn’t had any of those, and he couldn’t risk taking a horse, not when the others depended on the beasts to do the farming and heavy lifting. He had perfectly good legs.
“There were no bandits on the road?”
The king arched his brows. “Maybe?”
“Maybe there were bandits. Maybe they didn’t bother me because I’m big.”
“Too big for bandits, he says!” The king’s men all laughed on cue. “No, I’ll tell you why. Because I’ve made it safe again, that’s why. Because even though big dumb culchies like yourself don’t know it, the roads you travelled are under the king’s protection!”
Darragh didn’t know what to say to that. He didn’t think it was true, but he’d be as dumb as the king thought he was if he said it aloud. He hadn’t met anyone on the road, not bandits and not the king’s men. But he’d also kept off the road whenever he could. After all, he may not know much, but he knew that the garda had gone from Ireland, and without them surely the criminals would have the run of the place.
Perhaps the king was a criminal himself. A king of criminals.
The king’s smile faded, all playfulness vanishing from his expression. “But you never did say, culchie, what you wanted at the hospital.”
“Medicine,” Darragh said, remembering again why he was here. A king, a criminal, or both. What did it matter if the man had medicine?
“Are you sick?” the king asked.
Darragh sighed. He was tired of having this conversation already. “For home. For the winter, so nobody dies.”
The king spread his arms magnanimously. “What medicine do you need, then?” In in contradiction to his body language, however, his smile was back: that teasing, cruel smile. If the king was a boy in a man’s body, then Darragh imagined him as the sort of boy who pulled the wings from flies.
Maybe he thought Darragh was an idiot who wouldn’t know the answer, but Darragh didn’t hesitate. “Anti-virals. For the flu.”
He wasn’t a fool. He was on a fool’s errand maybe, but he wasn’t a fool. He and some of the others had pored over the books left in the tiny village library, learning what they could when they weren’t working. Farming, first aid, carpentry, husbandry, sewing, all skills that their ancestors had known but that they had forgotten. Well, they remembered now. They took what they could from the books, and the rest they learned by experience. Hard-won, sometimes deadly experience. Last year six had died of the flu. This year, they had the knowledge to be prepared.
“Very well, then. I’m a generous king. I’ll give you what you require . . . in return for your service, that is.”
“Why, yes. I’m generous, I’m not a charity. You’ll get your medicine, but you’ll work for it.”
Darragh drew a breath. “For how long?”
The king raised his eyebrows. “Impertinent, aren’t you? Don’t worry, you’ll be home before winter.”
Darragh didn’t want to push his luck, but he had to ask. “What would I have to do?”
The king narrowed his eyes. His face twisted. “What you would have to do, culchie, is whatever the fuck I tell you to do.” His voice rose, echoing in the vaulted alcove. “You can go home before winter, or not go home at all! After all, you were trespassing on the king’s property with intention to steal from the king.”
A frisson of fear chased up Darragh’s spine.
Then, as quickly as it had appeared, the king’s anger was gone. He relaxed back onto the cushion. “A big brute like you, you’ll put the fear of God into your king’s enemies, won’t you?”
“I will,” Darragh said, knowing there was no other answer he could give.
“Good man. I knew you’d come around.” The king extended a hand. “Boy! My knife!”
Darragh stiffened, fists clenching at the word. Knife. But no, the king wanted his aid, and he’d agreed. No reason to kill him now.
He twisted his head as movement distracted him.
A shadow in one of the dark oak alcoves set into the king’s wall had solidified into the childlike shape of a young man. He must have been there the whole time, waiting to be summoned for whatever the hell this was. He was lean, but pampered looking, shirtless and glittering with gold. Gold armbands around his small biceps, gold cuffs around his wrists, a gold torque at the hollow of his throat. None of it, though, quite compared to the gold of his hair. Even inside this grim, shadowed room it seemed to gleam. In the sunlight, Darragh thought, it would burn.
The boy approached the king silently, balancing a knife in his raised, uplifted palms. He knelt at the king’s side with it. The king’s pet? A lover? Well, Darragh supposed, a king could do what he liked. And who he liked. It wasn’t any of Darragh’s concern.
The knife certainly fucking was.
“Kneel on the stair, culchie, and take off your shirt.”
Darragh glanced anxiously at the king’s men, but their shuttered faces didn’t give him any comfort. He raised his fingers to the mismatched buttons on his shirt, and fumbled with them for a while. Then he shrugged the shirt off, screwed his courage, and went down onto his knees.
The king leered and sat forward. “What do you think of him, Boy?”
Boy’s face was as shuttered as the others’. “Very big, your majesty.”
Darragh grimaced. They kept saying that, but it wasn’t like he was a freak. His father had been this size, and so had most of his uncles. On both sides. He had the body of a man shaped by hard work. Maybe they just bred them small and rat-like in Dublin. That was another thing he’d probably be better off not saying aloud.
The king took the knife from Boy’s hands and twirled it thoughtfully in the air. “State your name, culchie, and swear loyalty to the king.”
“Darragh Fearghal Anluan, of Cork. I swear loyalty to the king of Dublin,” Darragh recited, held in a trance by the glint of the knife as it twisted and caught the firelight.
He hissed as the blade made contact with his skin, and was aware of one of the king’s men grabbing his shoulders to hold him still. Darragh was bleeding before he even realised the blade had cut him. The pain was sudden, sharp, and then it was over; the blade had sliced a thin, shallow path down his chest, no more than a hands breadth long, above his heart. The man holding his shoulders released him, and Darragh pressed his hand to the wound, staring wide-eyed at the king.“A blood oath,” the king said. “Sworn and witnessed. Welcome to the ranks of the king’s men.”