In today’s excerpt, Seumas is preparing for the Battle of Carham with his father and uncle and the armies of Alba …
When Dadaidh nudged Seumas to waken, he was already alert. The sky was still dim, though the stars had begun to fade and the rim of the world showed a faint pinkish glow. Together they draped and pinned their brats, strapped on their leathers, and buckled their sword belts as all around them men did the same. Last night’s fire roared back to life under an iron cauldron. The air filled with the constant many-voiced hiss of blades on whetstones, and the smell of oatmeal, smoke, and fear.
Seumas followed Dadaidh to the loose queue of men waiting for breakfast. Someone passed around a basket of bannocks and salt fish, and Seumas stuffed one in his mouth and filled both hands.
“Don’t eat too much, or you’ll be sick,” Dadaidh warned, his mouth quirked in a humourless smile as he took one portion of each.
Seumas glared at him and swallowed his mouthful half-chewed. It grated his throat on the way down but he tore off a large bite of a second bannock all the same.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Dadaidh accepted a tin bowl of oatmeal.
Seumas popped the rest of the bannock in his mouth and took his own bowl from the cook. They found a clear spot on an exposed knot of rock and set to their porridge with spoons they’d forged together in the smithy at Dun na Cloich Leith. Seumas had only been ten when he’d made it. The handle was lumpen and lopsided, and the bowl too narrow, but it worked. And at least his artistry had improved over the years.
He emptied his bowl and ate seconds and thirds, till his stomach was pleasantly bursting. Dadaidh raised his eyebrows and shrugged as if to resign him to his fate. It was hardly as though Seumas was a child, about to heave his gorge at the slightest provocation. Wouldn’t it be better to fill himself now, rather than risk weakening on the battlefield?
Domhnall Mor strode into the camp, just returned from war council with the Ard Righ and the other lesser kings, and the men hushed. Seumas put his spoon down, laid aside his bowl, and leaned forward to hear him.
“Brothers, in moments, we ride for battle.”
The words shivered through Seumas. At last.
“We have but to listen for the Ard Righ’s pipes, and we will leave this place – some of us maybe to death. So while we have the time, let us lift up our voices to the Ard Righ of Heaven.”
All around, men went down to one knee, and an unearthly hush settled over the camp, broken only by the distant murmur of the river and the wind in the trees.
“Athair in Heaven, Iosa Criosd, Spiorad Neamh – God the three in one, be upon us now.” Domhnall Mor’s voice rang out, carrying through his camp, over the bowed heads of his men. “Give us the strength of your mighty arm. Give us the courage of your defending shield. Give us the peace of your holy banner.”
As his uncle prayed, Seumas tried to feel the words within him. He tried so hard his head hurt. But all he could think of was the itch in his fingers to draw his sword, the restlessness to ride. Please, a Dhia, make us victorious.
“Let the righteousness of our cause shine like the noonday sun. And may all who look on our blades run in terror. Forgive our enemies, and forgive us our sins as well.”
Where was the place of forgiveness in the clash of battle? Why would Domhnall care if the Sassanaich had a clean conscience?
“And if we should die upon the battlefield this day, take us to your care, and be husband and father to those we leave behind.”
The hum of the pipe drones cut through Domhnall’s amen, followed by the piercing whine of a score of chanters. He glanced sharply in the direction of the Ard Righ’s tent. Then the piob mhor took up a steady, martial pibroch that sliced the air like the sharpest sword, stabbing through the river’s burble, the voices, and the distance. As one, the men stood.
Seumas’ heart rollicked to the the skirl of the pipes, his feet itched to move to the throb of the drums. He rested his hand on the grip of his sword. Every practice swing, every drill, every step from Dun na Cloich Leith to this place was for this moment.
The men moved to their horses and mounted up. Seumas’ horse shifted and stamped under him, and to both sides men were bobbing up and down, to and fro as if they sat astride a sea of dun and chestnut and grey waves. The pipes grew louder, building to a crescendo and drowning out the hoofbeats of the Ard Righ’s charger as he cantered past with his champions, followed by Eoin an Maol, the princes, the pipers, and then the other clanns led by their Righs.
Domhnall Mor took up his place in the procession, and Ruairi followed with Seumas close by his side, and it began.
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