The Year of the Warrior, by Lars Walker (excerpt)

Maeve screamed when they raped her. She screamed all the time they were raping her, and they raped her many times, for she was young and fair. I tried to run to my sister, straining the chain they'd bound me to, until some merciful soul laid the hammer of his axe against the base of my skull.

I was marching when I awoke, chained in a line with all the other Christian souls the Northmen had taken, men and women, the young and the strong and the hopeful. We hoped again the following day when a troop of bold young lads from Collooney came pounding over a hill and down upon us, swinging their axes and shouting their slogan, and they looked like the angels of God to me, beautiful as the love of children. But the Northerners met them with a tough shield wall and cast their spears and offered them axe and sword and thrusting spear, and those fair lads died, except for a few who were taken and bound with us. After that we saw no more resistance. The king was warring with the O'Neill that year, and much taken up with other things.

My head ached as if Satan had poked a toe in my eye, but I cared nothing for that. I had set my heart to praying. The abbot would have wondered at the fervor of my prayers. I pleaded—I begged God—I promised Him that I would be a monk and a priest if only He would deliver me and my sister. I prayed without ceasing; I made vows to all the saints I could think of. I watched the heavens and the earth for an answer, refusing to doubt.

The Northerners had their camp in a river mouth in Sligo Bay, and they loaded us into one of their ships—a fat knarr with an open hold amidships, where we huddled with the beasts they'd stolen, and ate much the same fodder. I gazed back to shore, squinting for my miracle, refusing to know that I was leaving Ireland. I had no words for what was happening, but surely we weren't being taken across the sea. God was too good to let that happen.

But when we rounded Inishmurray and Sligo Bay fell from sight and only the waves to port and strange shores to starboard, I knew that my miracle would not come. And so I knew there was no God, and the only thing left was to die.

We were chained starboard of the mast, balanced by the livestock to port. The Northerners had strung a rope down the center and warned us not to approach it. When one of them was making his way from the stern to the foredeck, I gathered up my length of chain and threw myself at him. I caught him unguarded and we struggled a moment before the other Northmen pulled us apart and kicked me bloody. Then one of them, a squat bruiser who'd lost part of his nose and spoke barbarous Irish, put his face down near mine and said, "We're going to Visby on Gotland to sell you. If you make us mad we won't kill you, lad, no—we'll sell you to the Arabs, who'll take you far off to Eastland and geld you so you'll be quiet and good."

So I limped back and sat in bilgewater, and Maeve stretched to the end of her chain so that she could just touch my hand, and wept, and we sat like that until I slept.

Many are the years and uncounted the miles since the White Northerners took us from our home in Connaught. Where is Maeve now? With our ancestors, I suppose, long since, and glad of the rest. And I, against all hope, have stood before kings. I have seen a saint made and had for a friend the greatest hero since Cu Chulainn. I've seen high times and headlong deeds to outrun and leave in the dust all the dreams I dreamed, woolgathering in the monastery when I should have been construing my Latin.

But I call God's holy Mother to witness, I'd drown it all in the sea like a kitten if it would unmake one day of my youth and draw my sister's tears back into her sweet eyes again.

If ever a morning was gotten out of wedlock, that had surely been it. It had been raining the stones underground when I trudged into my father's yard to tell him that the abbot had driven me out of the cloister with a stick, shouting, "Son of six devils, you have the spleen of a tomcat and the brains of a chicken in the egg! You will never make a monk though Saint Columcille himself come down from heaven to box your ears!"

My father, of course, had no choice but to beat me about the head with curses, which I endured with Christian patience, and he was still at it when the Northmen swarmed down. They killed him, and my mother, for being too old to sell and my brother Diarmaid for no particular reason, but they took me and Maeve, and then she was screaming, "Aillil!" and the rest you know.

I dreamed I rode a snorting stallion over a pitched landscape.

High were the mountains, steep-sided, their peaks sharper than needles.

Deep were the canyons, cataract-cut, riven with yet deeper fissures and crevices that belched smoke, and sometimes I could glimpse the glow of Hell's fires at their bottoms.

But my steed spurned them all, leaping from peak to peak, clattering up and down rock faces, his hoofs striking sparks and making a noise like hammered steel. He was red as blood, my steed, with white ears and golden mane, tail and feet. On closer examination I discovered that he was attached to me where my privates should have been.

"Aillil, old son," I said to myself, "the abbot was right after all. He always said your organ would run away with you one day."

I tried to rein the horse in, but learned quickly I had no control over him.

"What do you want?" I cried, dizzy with fear.

Then I saw what he wanted.

There in the blue distance, poised on an outcrop like a goat, I caught a glimpse of a white hind. She was a glorious thing to look on, the fairest of God's creatures, whiter than ermine in January, with red antlers and black feet and eyes the color of a lake full of sapphires. The moment I saw her I wanted her, but as she bounded away I knew I could not have her.

"Such is not for us!" I cried. "That creature was not meant for farmers' sons! She's a proper quarry for Finn MacCumhail, or Bran son of Febal. Such as we can never catch her, and if we could what would we do with her?"

But my steed cared nothing for sense. On he plunged, and my heart rabbited back and forth between my collarbone and my belly as we leaped the heights and plunged headlong, but never came nearer our quarry.

And then we were across the mountains, and a broad, emerald plain, richly rivered and wooded, spread before us. To enter that land we must needs ford a raging river, broader than Shannon, and on its near side stood a man fifteen feet tall, with skin black as a Welshman's heart and long, straight black hair down to his waist, and a great axe in his hands. His face, strangely, looked a bit like the abbot's.

"Pay the toll if you would cross!" he roared.

"And what is the toll?" asked I.

"Your head, cut off neat at the neck!" he cried, and I tried to turn about but my steed would not be curbed. I heard the great axe whistle in the air and twisted to avoid it. . . .

The next evening, while we lay up in a harbor in the Hebrides, somebody whispered to me, "The Northerners are talking about you." I looked up at a cluster of them on the foredeck who whispered and pointed at me. I tried to dwindle from sight, but they hopped down into the hold, grabbed me and held my arms and legs.

I bellowed and cursed them for heathen horse-eaters, but they paid no mind as they brought out a razor and shaved the crown of my skull.

"We're barbering you like the Christian priests," said the boy with the bad nose. "We marked your robe, and sometimes there are churchmen in Visby who'll ransom priests at a good price."

It's a marvel the cuts I got didn't mortify.

We sat in bilge and vomit and waste all the way, in storm and fair weather, and the sun beat down on us, and the rain soaked our uncovered heads, and the ship bucked like a spring heifer and I was always sick. We were Irish when we boarded that ship. We were beasts when they unloaded us in Gotland.

They marched us up the jetty and into the walled town, and they kept us in sheds, the men apart from the women (I never saw Maeve again).

I saw no Arabs in Visby (it turned out the Arab trade had dried up long since), nor any churchmen with ransom-silver. But from time to time the slavemonger would bring in some prosperous Northman, perhaps a tattooed Swede with bloused eastern breeches or a Dane with his hair combed down in a fringe in front. He'd point out three or four of us and we'd be unlocked and led out, to be poked and pinched and examined for spots, and our teeth counted. I'm sure I was no beauty—filthy and bruised, my head sunburned and scarred and my robe ragged and the color of every kind of dirt.

I forget how many days we'd been there when I was led out for the approval of some fat old bastard in a fur cap (worn purely for show—the weather was mild), and the son of a carthorse let his hand linger longer on my backside than I thought strictly necessary. I'd believed I had no fight left, but the next thing I knew my fingers were about his neck, and everybody was grabbing at me, and then I was down in the dirt, being savaged with a whip, and I screamed a curse at God, who had the almighty temerity not to exist when an honest man needed Him.

And then the whipping stopped, and I looked up at what seemed the tallest man I'd ever seen. His hair, old-man white like that of many Norse, glowed in a sort of halo around his head, tied with a gold ribbon about the temples. His beard, in contrast to his pale hair and skin, was a reddish brown. He wore a red shirt edged in gold, and a sword hung at his waist. He smiled at me, and I thought it was surely the Archangel Michael.

"I took you for a priest, but you look a little young," he said, in passable Irish.

"Just ordained," I lied.

He spoke to the slave merchant and the fat man, and they argued for a few minutes, pointing at me, the fat man clutching at his throat, and at last the tall man said something to one of his followers (there were about thirty) who brought out a purse and gave some silver coins to the merchant. The merchant weighed them in a little balance and gave part of them to Fat-ass, and I was unchained and taken away by the tall man and his bullyboys.

They brought me to a certain building, and the tall man said, "My name is Erling Skjalgsson. You've that robe and tonsure to thank that you've just brought the highest price I've ever paid for a thrall, not to mention being spared the flaying of your skin off you alive. I bought you because I need a priest.

"I will not lie to you—I mean to take you to my home, Sola in Norway, and your welcome is unsure. I am a Christian; my father is not. My last priest he killed, and I could not avenge him under the circumstances. I make no promise that things will go better for you.

"But this I do promise. My priest cannot be a thrall. If you wish to come with me, you will come as a free man. If you refuse, I'll sell you—but not back to the merchant, or the fat man."

What could I say to him? What would you have said? He wouldn't make the offer if he knew I was only a failed monk. I knew enough of the offices to be priest for his purposes. God wouldn't care—how could He, not existing as He did?

"I accept your offer with thanks," I said, kneeling.

"Very well," said Erling. "This will be our first stop. It's a bathhouse."

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