Warning: Mature Adults only
PART I: ABUQUIR
"Pump the bellows!"
Padraigh Harper nodded obediently to his father and began to bear up and down on the bellows, sending a steady stream of air into the smithy's forge. Little sparks began to jump from the fire like glowing fleas, stinging his arms and face. The fire began to roar. Donal Harper snapped at him urgently, there was no time to waste.
Donal took over pumping the bellows while Padraigh hurried out to the yard with a coal scuttle and scooped up an armload of the charcoal. Earlier, he had chopped it into the fist-sized lumps his father preferred. In the process, he had acquired a coat of fine black dust from head to toe, now he added another layer. It itched. He dumped it into the forge around the chunk of iron his father was heating and then took over the bellows again. The iron was white-hot now, and little white sparks sprang from it as it began to burn.
Donal reached into the forge with a pair of tongs and seized the iron, brought it forth and laid it on the anvil. Padraigh took his own pair of tongs to steady it and lifted his three-pound hammer. His father looked him in the eyes, nodded, and brought his own hammer down on the hot metal. A moment later, Padraigh hit in the exact same place, flattening out an edge. "Bam, bam, bam, bam!" The white sparks rained. Another nod from Donal, and the piece was returned to the fire. Donal spoke again.
Again, Padraigh worked the bellows and more white sparks filled the shop. Again, Donal withdrew the iron from the forge, held it in place with his tongs, and struck its edges with the hammer.
"More charcoal, and don't stop to break it up! We can't lose the heat!"
Padraigh hurried out, wondering if the fires of hell itself could be any hotter than this place. He filled the scuttle with the remaining lumps, and added some of the branches he had charred but not yet chopped. Then once again, without being told, he worked the bellows. Donal, with a lifetime's experience behind him, knew when the time came for the final shaping. He drew the glowing lump forth once more, laid it on the anvil, and nodded for Padraigh to come over and help him. Padraigh again took up his tongs and hammer. "Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam!" And "bam, bam, bam, bam, bam" again! The iron was now taking a recognizable shape. As Padraigh held it steady, Donal laid down his hammer, took up a square-handled punch, put it over the hot iron, and then struck it with his hammer. Then he and Padraigh turned the piece over and did it again, punching two holes in the shape. Then, both of them inserted long iron bars into the holes and placed the iron in the fire for the last time. Padraigh once again took over the bellows. His father spoke one word. "Faster!"
Padraigh was getting tired, what time was it? It seemed like they had been at this all day.
The fire was huge now, and too hot to look into. The iron glowed even more brightly than before, and at a nod from Donal, Padrigh gripped one of the handles while his father took the other. Together they lifted it out, not onto the anvil, but the floor before the forge. Quickly, Donal swept over it with a wire broom, removing flakes of burnt iron. Then, Donal gripped in one hand a flat piece of metal on a handle, and in another, a smaller hammer. Holding the "flatter" over the iron's surface, he struck it, smoothing out the last imperfections, cleaning out nicks and dings. It had now cooled to a bright orange. Harper leaned over to take a look, leaning on the anvil. But then he snatched his arm away, it was still VERY hot! Donal nodded at him and they again grasped the handles, lifted it, walked it over to the slack tub, and plunged it in. Great clouds of steam filled the smithy.
Padraigh and Donal looked at each other. Only now did they notice that they were black from crown to sole with charcoal dust and soaked through and through with sweat. As Padrigh looked outside, he realized that the sun was going down and the day was cooling. Then Donal and Padraigh withdrew the plough blade they had made from the cooling tub, as fine a one as you could ask for this side of Dublin or the other.
Padraigh reached up and wiped away a smear of black grime from his face. It revealed broad features lightly sprinkled with freckles, mild hazel eyes, and a shock of sandy hair. He was a skinny, gangling youth of six feet and one inch, and showed no signs of slowing his growth. His arms and legs stuck too far out of his sleeves, and his pants and jacket were patched and re-patched from where he had split them as he had shot up. He was thirteen now, and had been helping his father in the smithy for three years.
Donal wiped away the grime from his own face. He was a full head shorter than his son, but broad and solid, with muscles like the iron he had worked since he had been younger than Padraigh. His head was bald, with but a frizzle of iron gray hair around his ears and a great heavy brow across his forehead, and he shared the hazel eyes of his son. He smiled in weary satisfaction.
"It's been a good day's work. You run along to the house now. Ma will have supper ready. And see to it that you clean up before you set one foot over the door!"
Padraigh looked slyly at the anvil, or rather, the floor on which the anvil sat.
"Why don't we-"
He was surprised by the vehemence of his father's answer.
"No! There'll be none of that!"
There was a secret compartment in the floor beneath the anvil, which was far too heavy to be moved, or so any unwelcome searcher would assume. And in this compartment were no less than forty pike heads, forbidden by the law. For being the town smith made Donal Harper a natural leader in the community. And when talk of rebelling and throwing the English out began to circulate, he was one of the first that the people of Donegal town looked to. Donal Harper had done his time with Brown Bess, in the American War nearly twenty years gone, and he knew of revolution. He was dubious of their chances, but had agreed to forge the pike heads in readiness for the great day. In any case, a better chance was not likely to come. And Padraigh had helped him, working late at night, when prying eyes would be less able to spy. Nothing Padraigh did in the smithy was as exciting as fashioning a pike head, the long, double-edged blade and the cruel, downward turning hook. He had hammered them out and smoothed them off, tempered them, and then put a razor's edge on the blades before riveting them to long, ashwood staffs. From there they had been smuggled to various places throughout the county, usually on wagons, hidden under piles of turf or manure. Waiting for the day when they would be used to gut English soldiers. Erin go Bragh!
But with every day that had passed, Donal's misgivings about the rebellion had increased, especially with last night's narrow escape. He had heard that the rebellion's leadership had been infested with government spies, there had never been the slightest hope of taking the country by surprise. He had heard of the growing unrest down south, and feared that rebellion would simply form a convenient excuse to plunder and murder. He also had a feeling that the rebels might not do so well against trained, prepared troops.
And the risk of discovery was growing greater, with more and more of the damned yeomanry tramping through the countryside, and the Sheriff's men on every street corner. All of Donal's instincts told him that now was not a time for foolish risks. But Padraigh lacked his keen senses.
"Just get onto the house now. I'll be along directly."
Donal's tone brooked no argument. Padraigh gave none.
"Yes, Da." He tramped out the door, heading north across the Diamond and up the Ballyshannon Road, towards home. Donal watched him, tramping along as if he had not a care in the world.
His worry deepened
Donal began to clean up the smithy before heading home himself. He quenched the forge's fire out and put away the tools. He was just finishing up when he heard the "clop, clop" of a horse, no, two horses being walked across the Diamond towards his door. He kept his eyes on his work as they came closer, then as the noise stopped, he finally looked up. Into the eyes of Sheriff "Bastard" Browne.
He looked grand and full of himself, in his powdered wig and red uniform with its green facing, all lace and shiny black leather. He was manly enough, with brown eyes and a clever face. With him was a sergeant who did not speak, but kept his hand near the pistol on his saddle. Donal's voice was cordial.
"A fine night sir, and I'm home to my family. I open early tomorrow."
Browne's voice was dry, amused. He had worked hard to expunge the last traces of Irish brogue from it, and spoke like the Englishman he aspired to be.
"My horse has thrown a shoe, my good man. It won't be a minute's work to fix it."
"Of course sir. Always a minute to spare for a fine gentleman."
Browne dismounted and stood by his horse's head, holding the reins. Donal took his one-pound hammer, a horseshoe, and a handful of nails and walked over to the bay gelding. It had thrown its left foreleg shoe. He tapped the horse's knee to get it to raise its leg, and resting the hoof on his own knee, began to hammer the new shoe home. Releasing the reins, Browne walked about the smithy as Donal worked, looking around with more than curiosity.
"The shoe was thrown while I was in pursuit of some Whiteboys. I don't suppose you know of any of your neighbors who go out late at night for no good reason?"
Donal continued to work, without looking up.
"Whiteboys, sir? Haven't heard of them. What other color should a boy be, sir?"
Browne sighed and walked slowly over to the anvil. He looked at Donal in irritation as he tapped his riding crop absently against it.
"Where are the pikes?"
Donal hammered in the third nail, not showing by so much as a tremor that he was affected by Browne's question.
"Pikes, sir? That's a fine eating fish, sir, very tasty. Get yourself a pole and net and you should be able to catch some in Duggan's pond-"
Browne's patience was at an end. He was an Ulster Protestant, and he'd had enough of the Papist lout. He strode over to Donal.
"I mean the pikes that are being fashioned to kill His Majesty's soldiers. I know there is a store of them in this village. It will go better with you if you tell me where they are. Now."
Donal continued to hammer the shoe onto the horse's hoof, not looking up.
"I wouldn't know about that sir, but you're welcome to search my smithy-"
"Your smithy has already been searched twice, and nothing has been found. Which means you're either innocent or very clever."
"There you are then, sir."
He hammered the last nail in and stood up, the horse resting its newly shod hoof on the ground. Browne put the end of his riding crop under Donal's chin, and raised the smith's eyes to meet his. Donal looked into Browne's eyes and saw a vicious anger hidden beneath the gentility.
"I shall find them, rest assured, my man, and when I do, it will be time for the lash and the gallows. I'll not have rebellion breaking out-"
Donal's voice was cold.
"That will be a shilling and six for the horseshoe, sir. And I'll thank you to be taking that thing out of my face."
His eyes told Sheriff Browne that he had been pushed as far as he would go, and it would not be wise to push him any further. Browne met his gaze for a few moments, then dropped his eyes, lowered the crop, fumbled for the coins, and thrust them into Donal's hand. Without another word, he mounted his horse, and he and his sergeant swept out of the smithy and down the street.
Donal watched them go, and his face was grimness itself.
Padraigh made his way across the Castle Bridge, shouting greetings at the various townspeople who stared, bemused, at this tall, blackened scarecrow. He flipped off a mock salute to the scowling sentries who lined the walls of the restored O'Donnel Castle, now the headquarters of the hated Donegal Yeomenry, and proceeded on up the road through the green countryside. The sky above was clear and orange in the setting sun, and the air was fresh and pure as only Irish air can be.
He took a side path below the towering cliffs of Lough Eske, to where the sea lapped gently on the broad, sandy beach. He stripped off his sooty clothes, savoring the warmth of the sand beneath his feet, and waded out into the cold, cold water. The tide was out, the water no more than waist deep. He plunged into the sea, reveling in the tingling it brought to his skin, and swam like a seal, then lay on his back spouting salty water from his mouth. When he began to get numb in his hands and feet, he waded back out and ran his clothes through the water, expunging the last remnants of soot. He put them back on wet; they would dry as he walked.
He looked overhead, and saw to his delight that the air was filled with birds, Great Northern Divers and Iceland gulls, Manx shearwaters and storm petrels, skuas and roseate terns and there, far off in the sky, a peregrine falcon! There they all were, wheeling and crying and diving for fish. And though he did not know all their names, Padrigh reveled in them nonetheless. He stood on the beach and put out his arms like wings and throwing back his head, pretended he was flying with them, up, up, far above the land and the water, across the sea to far distant lands, where adventure awaited him. But always, he came down to earth and realized that there was no better land than Eire, and no better part of Eire than Donegal.
He turned and made his way back up the hill to the path that led to the road. As the last light of sunset played across the land, he came through the Barnesmore Gap and saw in the setting sun all of the county of Donegal laid out before him like a great green patchwork quilt. Here, on top of the world, he felt as invincible as Cuchulain himself. He stood there on the height for a moment, and then threw back his head and let out a great roar of satisfaction that echoed across the still land.
By all the Saints, it was good to be alive!
The Harper family home was like many homes in Ireland, poor in what money could buy, and rich in family love. It stood on nine acres of rented land, a better than average allotment, and enough to provide grazing for Shannon, their one milk cow.
Nine acres for nine children. It was a wonder how mother did it.
The house was a rectangle, divided in half by a single wall, for, as all know, a house more than one room wide is unlucky. Its roof sloped and was thatched with beautiful golden oat straw, and its lime-washed walls glowed dusky orange in the last flicker of the sun as it disappeared over the horizon. And standing there at the half door, with an expression of mock severity on her face, was his mother.
Moira Harper was slim, with auburn hair barely touched with gray; sparkling green eyes and a mouth that always seemed about to burst into laughter. It was amazing how such a small woman had given birth to the eight children who crowded around now, especially to her "big wee one" who now approached. And although her voice was severe as he drew near, the expression on her face was tender and conveyed the message that the scolding was not in earnest.
"Look at you, Padraigh, soaked to the skin! I thought I raised a son with more sense. 'Tis not to me you should be running if you die of pneumonia!"
Padraigh kissed her over the half door, and then swung it open and came in.
"Sorry Ma. Da will be along directly."
The turf fire on the hearth gave off a cheery glow. Harper's brothers and sisters sat around the house, pursuing their various chores. One was missing, the oldest brother, Owen, brilliant, brilliant Owen, who Da had always said had been gifted in his mind by the fairies. Owen who had so amazed the traveling "hedge teachers" who had been the Harper's children's only source of education. Owen, now nineteen, who had received a dispensation from the Bishop of Dublin himself to attend Trinity College, and would soon finish his first year. There was Judith, slim and dark haired, churning butter by the turf fire, and Matthew, with hair as red as flame, hugging Padraigh's knee, and blond, serious Shamus, studying his sums on the small table pushed against the wall, squinting by the light of the single paraffin lamp. Eliza, the younger image of her mother, checked the pot simmering over the turf fire, and little Sarah reaching up to place plates and cups on the dinner table. And in the crib, the twins, wee Randall and Katy, stirring up from slumber just in time to eat.
Nine children, and that was not counting the five who had died, and who now rested in the churchyard.
Though he had seen it many thousands of times, Padraigh could not help but be struck again by the warmth and cheeriness of the home his parents had made. As always, the turf fire burned merrily on the hearth. Its glow softened the scene, giving it a pastel effect. It shown on the copper pans hanging above the hearth, on the fire irons, pot shifters and trivets. Centered above the hearth was a picture of the Holy Family, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, all barefoot as an example of humility to good Irish children. To the right, against the wall, was his mother's dresser, its shelves lined with gleaming blue willow pattern dishes, scrubbed wooden piggens, lustre jugs, bowls, and teacups that had been in the family for decades. On the left was the flour bin, with one compartment for flour and one for yellow corn meal. Next to it was the beetle that was used for pounding potatoes and washing clothes in the stream. In the corner was a large chest of oatmeal that the children would periodically stamp down with their bare feet to squeeze the air out and prevent it from getting musty. Father's wooden seat stood ready for him at the right side of the hearth, next to the niche in the wall that held his tobacco and clay pipe. Mother's smaller seat stood on the other side, with her knitting in a basket by its legs.
It was not long before Donal came home, scrupulously scrubbed from the last trace of charcoal. Soon, the family was seated around the table. Moira removed the pot from the hearth and set in on a trivet in the table's center. Padraigh's eyes widened as she raised the lid; it was colcannon! Usually, the family had a few boiled potatoes, eaten with the fingers, dipped in a communal bowl of hot salted milk. But colcannon, potatoes mashed with butter, cream, chopped cabbage and scallions, that was a rare treat! But what could be the occasion that would inspire such a feast? Before he could ask, father was saying the blessing, and all heads were bowed.
"Our Gracious and Heavenly Father, we thank Thee for the bounteous provision of Thy table. May we be ever thankful for Thy many blessings, and -"
Donal's voice caught for a moment, and then he went on with the traditional closing.
"-and may this next year find all at this table safe and well. Amen."
The family repeated "Amen" and crossed themselves. Then they fell to with gusto! As usual, Padraigh's portion was smaller than his appetite, but he did not complain. He had learned to live with hunger.
Afterwards, the family gathered around the fire, Donal lit his pipe, while Moira picked up her needlework. But all eyes focused on Padraigh, for he was the storyteller.
Early on, Padraigh had shown a great love and a phenomenal memory for the tales of Ireland. He only had to hear a story once to remember it word for word, and he could tell it with a vividness that could transport his hearers to the days of the ancient heroes. In the days of Brian Boru, he might have been a traveling bard, always welcome in the King's Hall. But today, he was storyteller for his family. He leaned back against the hearth.
"Let's see, what shall it be tonight? The story of Conal Yellowclaw? Or the Sea-Maiden? Or King O'Toole and his Goose?"
Matthew spoke up, his eyes bright in the fire. "Padraigh, tell us about Cuchulain and Ferdia!"
"Ah, my favorite, too. Well, the telling is this. Now it happened that Queen Maev possessed a famous red bull, and . . . "
And so he told the story of the cattle raid of Cooley, and how Cuchulain stood at the Ford of the Forked Pole against the whole host of the mighty men of Connacht. He told of how he fought in single combat against his childhood friend Ferdia, Son of Daman, and slew him with the terrible Gae Bolg, the Belly-Spear, and then mourned for him. It was late night before he had finished, and all the children but Matthew, Shamus, and Judith had drifted off to sleep.
Quietly, Moira led Donal and the children still awake in the saying of the rosary. Then they gently bore the sleeping children to their mats beside the fire, all except for the infants Randall and Katy, who would sleep in their crib in the parent's bedroom.
Padraigh lay down on his mat and whispered "good night" to his mother and father as they went into the bedroom. Did his mother's eyes linger on him longer than usual? Or was it his imagination? He lay down his head, and thought no more of it. As he drifted off to sleep, the last thing he heard was his mother's voice from beyond the bedroom door softly singing a lullaby as she rocked the crib.
"Sleep my child, for the rustling trees,
Stirred by the breath of the summer breeze,
And fairy songs of sweetest note,
Around us float."
O Thou who hearest this song of fear,
To the mourner's home these tidings bear.
Bid him bring the knife of the magic blade,
At whose lightning flash the charm will fade.
Sleep, my child!"
Padraigh was soon asleep. He woke once, in the middle of the night, to hear his parents speaking from their bedroom, his mother first, his father answering.
"Oh, Donal! Is there no other way?"
"Moira, we've been through all this before. There's nothing else to be done. This way, he at least has a chance. With any luck, he'll be safe and sound."
The voices trailed off. Padraigh wondered vaguely what they were talking about, and then slept again.