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Authors: Aubrey Flegg

Fugitives!

BOOK: Fugitives!
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Fugitives! is dedicated to
my mother
Mairín Flegg (née O’Brien)
1907–2002
who loved history

I am the wind which breathes upon the sea,

I am the wave of the ocean,

I am the murmur of the billows,

I am the ox of the seven combats,

I am the vulture upon the rocks,

I am the beam of the sun,

I am the fairest of plants,

I am the wild boar in valour,

I am a salmon in the water,

I am a lake in the plain,

I am a word of science,

I am the point of the lance of battle,

I am the God who created in the head the fire.

Who is it who throws light into the meeting on the mountain?

Who announces the ages of the moon?

Who teaches the place where couches the sun?

                                      (If not I)

[From:
The Mystery
. Amergin was a Milesian prince who settled in Ireland hundreds of years before Christ.
The poem, from
Leabhar
Gabh
á
la
, or Book of Invasions, was here translated by Douglas Hyde.]

I am deeply indebted to my family and friends for their help and encouragement throughout the writing of this book. I am particularly grateful to my wife, Jennifer, for reading and commenting on my manuscript at numerous stages. My thanks to her also for her company on my research trips, and her eagle eye for finding places – such as the priory at Rathmullan – which feature in my story. I have special reason to thank my young reader, Stephanie Johnston, whose brilliant suggestions really brought my story to life. To Denis Conway special thanks, firstly for his riveting portrayal of Hugh O’Neill in Brian Friel’s play
Making History
and secondly for his recommendation that I read Sean O’Faolain’s compelling history:
The Great O’Neill.
This book and John McCavitt’s more recent history,
The Flight of the Earls,
have been my principal sources. Donal O’Kelly’s one-man show,
Running Beast
, also added to my understanding of Hugh O’Neill.

My thanks to The Tyrone Guthrie Centre for two productive periods spent at Annaghmakerrig, and to all the staff who maintain this most perfect of creative environments. To Michael and Ivan O’Brien, and to all the staff at The O’Brien Press, my thanks for their unfailing encouragement, their patience, and skill. Thanks also to Emma Byrne for her imaginative design of the book, its cover and illustrations. Most especially, however, my thanks to Íde ní Laoghaire, my editor, whose contribution to the creative process goes far beyond her meticulous editing.

ou could kill him, you know
, said a voice inside James’s head. He pulled his blanket over his ears, trying to block the voice out, but it was no good.
Slit his throat! It would be for king and country
.

James forced his eyes open. All he could see was the black of the night. He lay, stiff as a board, on his straw mattress. Here, on the upper story of the de Cashel castle, the family and their servants slept. He listened jealously to the regular breathing about him, even the occasional word murmured in sleep. Only Father was absent. James never thought he would miss his father’s rasping snores, but now the head of the family slept in the great hall below, where he tossed and groaned in pain. A musket ball had shattered his knee six years earlier at the dreadful battle of Kinsale.

An alien snore, like a roll of thunder, came from the guest room. James bristled.
That’s Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, sleeping like a lord. How dare he. It was he who dragged Father to Kinsale. I could kill him, easily. Take revenge
.

But James was too tired to kill anyone. At last he sank into exhausted sleep.

Con O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone’s seven-year-old son, was lying on his own mattress, scarcely a foot away from James, listening impatiently as the older boy tossed and murmured. Finally Con opened his eyes and looked at the boy.
Good
, he thought,
he’s asleep; time for me to go
. A tiny square of pale starlight showed through the slit window in the castle wall. He must be careful. Too early and he might be challenged by the sentry, too late and he’d spend the day stuck in the castle being bored. He was used to sleeping in herdsmen’s shelters, or even in the open under the stars. The night sky in the small window was calling to him like a song, but stronger still was the pull of his new pony.

Now!
he decided. He got up with a deft wriggle, letting his blanket fall about his feet. He stood there, as he had slept, ready for the day, barefoot, in saffron-yellow shirt, dark jacket and breeches. All about him, lying on mattresses on the floor, were bodies wrapped in sleep, cocooned in light summer rugs. He stepped over the two boys, James and Fion; they belonged to the castle. He’d only met them the day before when he and his father, the great Hugh O’Neill, had arrived, unannounced as usual. Finally he stepped over the man-servant who slept across the door to prevent intruders. There was just enough space beyond the man for Con to open the door a crack; he slipped through this like a wisp of smoke, and was off, his bare feet making no more than a patter on the stone
of the spiral staircase.

Ten minutes later Con was leading his pony from the stable. He had named him Macha, after Cuchulainn’s favourite horse. He whispered today’s plan into his ears. Never in his seven years had he come as far as this from his native Tyrone; it was a great adventure. But one adventure deserves another, and out there, less than a day’s ride away was the Pale, the part of Ireland that the English ruled. He had heard so much about it. It drew him like a magnet, fascinating and terrifying, all in one. He just
had
to see it. But one thing was certain: it would be out of bounds to him, and he must be away before the grown-ups knew where he had gone.

As he rode from the gates he sat straight, aware of the eyes of the sentry on his back. His heart was fluttering like a sparrow in a cage. He longed to whack his bare heels into his pony’s sides and gallop off, but he had told the sentry that Macha had a fever and needed to be walked in the morning cool, so he kept both himself and his pony well reined in. He could at least take deep breaths of the night air – free again after weeks of being good, and of attending to Father. A summer mist had settled over the meadow, and rose about him as he rode down into it. A warm milky scent and patches of deeper dark in the mist told him that he was riding through a herd of cattle that had settled on the road to enjoy the warmth stored there from yesterday’s summer sun. He let the pony find his own way through the shadowy forms.

The road was rising now, lifting him out of the mist. He allowed
his pony to trot, riding as he’d been taught, loosely and without stirrups, using his feet to urge, and to guide and to balance. At one point he spun Macha about and looked back. There was the castle, remote and secure. But he was free! With a whoop of joy he reared his pony into a half-turn, whacked him with his heels, and galloped off again on the road to the Pale, his pony a grey ghost beneath him in the dim light.

As he rode, he imagined the Pale as a high wall with battlements like a castle, lined with English knights in flashing armour, or perhaps peopled by blackened devils! Either way, he regretted that he hadn’t brought a bow and arrows. His short little dagger with its jewelled hilt wouldn’t impress anyone. He slowed to a trot, then a walk; it would be a long ride. He began to look about him.

Yesterday he had climbed to the uppermost turret of the castle and had quizzed the watchman as much as he’d dared about the Pale – how far it was, and how the land lay.

The watchman, glad to have someone to talk to, had pointed out the road to him. ‘See how it takes a long loop to our left before it disappears into the trees?’ Con nodded. ‘It goes along that way for a couple of miles and then doubles back behind the hill that you see there in front of us.’

Con was surprised.
Why go all that way around?
Where he came from, people used pack-horses that could easily climb a small hill like that. All the time his father had been away fighting his wars, Con had been fostered to a family of herdsmen who followed their cattle and sheep from pasture to pasture. ‘Why doesn’t the road just go straight over?’ he asked.

‘It’s carts we use here, son, and they need a wide, flat road. Then
there’s also getting through the forest.’

‘Well, there’s forest everywhere. That’s easy.’

‘Ah yes, but this is special – it’s plashed. Thick as a thorn hedge it is.’

‘Plashed?’ asked Con, innocently.

‘That’s right,’ the soldier chuckled. ‘You ought to see those trees; we have them woven together like a basket. I tell you a sparrow couldn’t get through that wood … unless it knew the way,’ he added with a wink. ‘We wouldn’t want Mr Chichester creeping up on us unannounced, would we?’

Con nodded wisely, but didn’t ask any more questions in case he aroused suspicion. He ran his eye along the ridge. It was quite featureless except for a clump of Scots pines that stood tall and proud on a height opposite the castle.

Macha was a working pony and he soon settled into a pace half-way between a walk and a trot that he could keep up for hours at a time. Con looked about him, noting the way he was going, and imagining what he would do if he were suddenly attacked, and then imagining heroic deeds in which he always came out on top. He whistled until his lips felt tired; then he tried a song or two. As the light increased, the grass began to show green instead of grey, and people appeared on the road heading towards him, bound for the castle – early risers carrying provisions and tithes, a pig perhaps, or some chickens hanging from a pole with their legs tied. This was a month of plenty when promises to the lord of the castle were kept and people paid
their dues. Con made a cheerful sight in his bright saffron-yellow shirt. He had a greeting for all of them and they went on their way, smiling.

The sun was well up now, and he noticed that the people he was passing on the road were walking in the same direction as he. From the carefully packed baskets of eggs and the neatly tied bundles of vegetables, he guessed they were going to sell these at some market. There were a few carts and several pack-horses. Then, turning around a bend in the road, he saw a village ahead. It was the usual line of thatched cottages and a tower. Smoke was rising from breakfast fires. He looked left and right, wondering if this was the Pale, but there was nothing more than a ditch topped by a hedge, enough to keep out cattle raiders, no more. There was a town gate where a group of people had gathered while the gatekeepers questioned them and looked in their baskets before letting them through. As he watched, a couple of vagrants were turned away. Among them was a stooped man wearing quite the shaggiest mantle Con had ever seen. His hood was up, so that when he turned to glance over the crowd he looked exactly like a performing bear. The bear-man’s head swung in Con’s direction, and even though the face was shaded, Con felt eyes boring into him. Con’s immediate problem, however, was what to say to the guards if they asked him what business he had in the town. He was busy thinking up some colourful tale when a hand was suddenly placed on Macha’s mane. There he was, the man in the cloak, looking up at Con, his eyes
glinting darkly from his hood.

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