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    Real Strategy Requires Cunning

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Chapter I The Return of the Wolf​
The waters off the coast of Dublin were the dull color of iron. The Irish Sea was unusually calm, but rainclouds in the east blocked out the rays of the rising sun. The same wind that was blowing the storm toward the Emerald Isle gave purpose to the sails of a pair of galleys making their way to Dublin's harbor. The vessels had peeled away from another three dozen gently rocking about three miles from the shore.

Aboard one of the galleys, under streaming banners with white wolf heads on green fields, stood Conall Mac Carthaigh, the first of his name, Duke of Connacht, Gwynedd and Meath, Lord Protector of Orkney, King of Ireland and Wales. He stood at the prow of the ship and stared at the fast approaching city with intense dark eyes. Only 25 years of age, his mouth and jaw were already hidden under a thick black beard and moustache. Although his hooded greatcoat of bear hides made him appear quite large, Conall was by no means an imposing figure. Many would call him thin at first glance, or weak, if they dared insult him, however the young monarch was no stranger to deeds requiring martial prowess. The bastard sword, on whose hilt he now rested his right hand, had tasted the blood of many a foe.

The young king ignored his general, Báetán of Kildare, as the man came to his side. Báetán was a head taller than the monarch. He was clad in a cape-less suit of light studded leather armor and kept his distance from the edge of the galley's bow in fear of drowning.

'Beg your pardon, Your Grace, but thank the Saints we're finally here,' the general bared the teeth of his open mouth in what could not be mistaken for a smile.

Conall turned his head for a moment and presented the general with a curt, polite smile.

'I am afraid that this is only the first of many such journeys that we will have to face, my dear Báetán,' the king's voice was not very deep, but not effeminate. The Gaelic lilt to his speech was accompanied by an ever-present rasp in the back of his throat, the result of a childhood spent on learning to marshal men in the heat of battle, 'Éire must be ruled from Dublin, but her armies must be commanded from Conwy.'

Báetán nodded his head with a low grumble of dejection that remained inaudible over the crashing of the waves.

As the king's galley drew closer to a wooden pier protruding from Dublin's coastline, its escort lowered its sails and assumed a position at the mouth of the harbor. Conall glanced back at the second vessel and nodded to himself. He lowered his hood to reveal a head of short, black hair with the barest streak of silver - the king's childhood had been brief.

'By the end of this day, the crown of Ireland shall rest atop my head,' he presented Báetán with another curt smile before jumping overboard just as the galley made contact with the pier, 'There is not a moment to spare, general. My father will not put himself in the ground.'

Báetán cringed at the distasteful remark, but then again the boy had not seen his father since he was fifteen.


King Conall's Fleet Near Dublin Harbor​
*​

By noon, rainclouds had engulfed Dublin and Castle Trim. The deluge they unleashed drummed incessantly against the clay tiles and stone walls of the stronghold's great hall. The chamber's open windows allowed puddles to form inside its mortared shell. The only thing that prevented the damp chill of early January from permeating to the center of the hall was a circle of braziers erected around a rectangular table. Nevertheless, the figures seated around it all chose to remain dressed in their heaviest furs.

Conall sat at the head of the table with a map spread between his elbows. His eyes seemed empty as he surveyed the borders of his holdings.

To his right sat Ealdmund, the newly crowned Duke of Ulster, a master rogue, an unbecoming scar running down the side of his face, whom Conall's father had elevated far beyond a modest birth. Truth be said, Ealdmund was no more than a common cutthroat who happened to be in the right place at the right time to force a gate open and force the English out of their last Irish stronghold.

Next to Ealdmund sat Duke Gwenwynwyn, the only Welsh member of the royal council of Ireland and Wales. At 58, he was also the oldest member.

The opposite side of the table was occupied by two of Conall's distant cousins, Mac Carthaighs nonetheless, the Dukes of Leinster and Munster. One was five years older than the Irish king, the other was five years younger, but Conall could never remember which one was which.

And finally, there was the Duchess of Orkney, Lann, the Mermaid of the North they all called her. She was a dark-haired, blue-eyed beauty of 19 who for some inexplicable reason had married a lowly knight who could have fathered her grandfather.

Conall raised his eyes from his map and met Lann's. Blue and cold as ice. And yet she was smiling coyly at him. Mac Carthaigh banshee.

'Well I must say, I am pleased that you think so highly of my father's victories in Éire,' Conall closed his eyes and spoke to the entire council, 'But it is the civil wars in England and my bloody armies in Wales that you should be praising.'

Ealdmund wrapped himself more tightly in his coat and licked at the grime stuck in one of his back teeth.

'And me merry band that done and took Dunluce,' the Duke of Ulster nodded to his own words.

Conall turned his head slightly toward the rogue, an expression of utter contempt painted on his face. We will have to do something about this one.

'What I mean to say,' Conall continued, 'is that the war was won across the Irish Sea, in the highlands of Scotland and on the plains of England. My father, Fáelán, whom you call wise, knew this would be so when he sent me, his firstborn son, merely a child then, to oversee the campaign.'

Gwenwynwyn nodded, but it was difficult to tell whether he was agreeing with the king or sleeping.

'But the war is far from over,' Conall rose to his feet, rolled up his map under his arm and began marching toward the great hall's doorway.

The Irish dukes and their cousin from Orkney craned their heads after him.

'What are we to understand by that, Your Grace?' the gentle voice of the Mermaid of the North seemed almost a whisper.

Conall paused where he stood but turned his head to face his vassals.

'First, we must bury my father. Then, Bishop Diarmait will place the Little Wolf's crown on my head and on the morrow I will show you what battles we have yet to wage.'

The Dukes of Leinster and Munster frowned quizzically, Ealdmund sucked some air through a gap in his teeth while Gwenwynwyn snored himself awake. Only the cold blue eyes of the Duchess of Orkney seemed to betray a sort of understanding. Conall curled the corner of his lip. The blood of the Wolf Kings ran thick in the girl, which could not be said about her cousins. She also has the urge to hunt. Best I give her meat to sink her fangs in, lest she comes to believe that I am easy prey.


Kingdom of Ireland and Wales 1258 AD​
 
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Chapter II Of Wolves, Hounds and Vermin

As much as he did his best to downplay his father's funeral, Conall missed the man. He had missed him since the day he had set foot in Wales on a fateful August afternoon in 1248. The boy that Fáelán the Wise sent to wage war on the English never understood why his father sent him away and the man that the boy grew up to be was only beginning to fathom his liege's difficult choices.

Difficult choices were always being made by the Sons of Carthaigh ever since Muiredach the Holy, Earl of Desmond, set out to unify the Irish under one banner. Followed by only a handful of men, the Lord and Master from Desmond had stormed north to Thomond, where he cut down the Duke of Munster and his armies thus seizing the duke's title and the holdings that went with it for his son, Tadg, the first of his name.

Although Tadg was not a warrior himself, he did raise a son whose name inspired awe and fear even in the Wolf Kings that were to follow him. Máel-Martain Mac Carthaigh, for that was his name, was a true son of Mars, both in name and in the carnage he wrought. Given ample resources by his father, Máel-Martain could have lived out his life basking in opulence yet he chose to set the Emerald Isle ablaze. For nearly three decades, the founder of the Mac Carthaighs' wolf sigil thundered across Éire in an attempt to quench an insatiable thirst for power. Those who would not kneel were brought to their knees, those who resisted saw their homes burn and their families decimated. Sibling to four brothers and a sister, Máel-Martain wanted a kingdom for each, but ultimately failed to build even one.


Máel-Martain Mac Carthaigh​

His only son, Gilla-Coluim, also the first of his name, saw the First Wolf's dream come true. After ousting the English from Dublin and marching his victorious army through the city's streets, the duke, whom no one suspected of being warlike in any way, accepted the Crown of Ireland from the trembling hands of a feeble pope coerced into supporting the Second Wolf's claim.

Nearly half of Ireland still remained in the hands of the English, but Gilla-Coluim saw riper pastures across the Irish Sea and chose to let the Saxon nobles in the north stagnate. After a short campaign east of the Isle of Mann, the same trembling pope would be brought before Coluim's successor, this time bearing the newly wrought Crown of Wales. Then came the conquest of Orkney, a long and grueling naval ordeal that saw a young Irish fleet wrestle supremacy over the frigid North Atlantic from the barbaric, yet more experienced Norsemen.

And then came the horrors of a second English invasion, when the wolves became mice.


Gilla-Coluim Mac Carthaigh​

But mice we shall never be again. Conall covered his eyes as he prayed before his father's funeral bier. Conall's betrothed, Alberade, and his four siblings were by his side. The oldest, Lochlann, was 18. Colmán, the youngest, rested in Alberade's arms as he was only 2.

Conall remembered Lochlann as a child not much older than Colmán was now. His other siblings he had never seen before, yet they flocked to him instinctively. It may have been the resemblance to his father that drew them to him. Whatever it was, Conall did not want them growing accustomed to his presence. They were not his family. His brothers awaited his return on the battlements and ramparts of Wales.


Fáelán the Wise (Left) and Conall Mac Carthaigh (Right)​

'In nomine patris, et filii, et spiritus sancti,' the Irish king rose to his feet and glanced with teary eyes at his young bride-to-be.

Alberade was fourteen and neither beautiful nor ugly. She did not speak a word of Gaelic or English, but her compassionate Slavic face spoke volumes. Conall cared not if she loved him. What mattered was that she was the perfect wife for him. A disinherited Bohemian duchess unaware of her claims, she would neither be a problem in Ireland nor draw the king's attention to foreign lands. He could sense that she shared his grief, but he also felt her shiver at his touch and could tell that she was afraid of him. As long as my sons are not cowards...
 

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Chapter III Leading Cubs Astray

The rain picked up as Fáelán's offspring left Dublin's St Patrick's Cathedral. With the old king interred within the church's catacombs and the crown of the Kingdom of Ireland and Wales resting atop his head, Conall was free to focus on the tasks at hand.

The royal family was followed by a procession of vassals ranging from the dukes of the kingdom's constituent realms to the lowliest of knights and burghers. Most were dressed in dark or black attire. They had chosen to pay homage to the passing of the old king rather than celebrate the crowning of a new one. Conall did not mind. He would give them ample reasons to celebrate later, or so he planned.

The king and his siblings were about to reach the cathedral garden gates when a hooded figure accompanied by two Irish men-at-arms appeared from behind a bush at the intersection of the main road to the cathedral and a garden pathway. The king's guardsmen instinctively drew their swords but slid them back in their sheathes when the hooded figure raised his hand and uncovered his gnarled, wrinkled face.

'Apologies, Your Grace, but I must speak to thee immediately.'

Conall barely recognized his father's spymaster. The last time he saw him was a decade ago. The young king rubbed his eyes in a gesture of fatigue but beckoned the coordinator of all things clandestine to approach.

'Walk with us and say what you must.'

The old man looked confused.

'But, my king, these are matters only for your ears.'

'Come, come,' Conall nudged the spymaster by the shoulder as he sped up to distance himself from his entourage, 'whisper in my ear, if you must.'

The old man nodded and leaned toward his liege as they walked through the cathedral garden gates and out toward the road leading from Dublin to Castle Trim.

'I know, Your Highness, that it is not my place to speak. You have your own man of whispers to handle your affairs, but your father asked me on his deathbed to make certain that you hear of several things.'

Conall squinted while he listened to his father's trusted advisor.

'As you are aware, Your Grace, Prince Lochlann is betrothed to a Finnish Duchess. Your father wanted me to tell you that by no means should you interfere with his marriage even if he is your only heir. Lochlann is dangerous.'

The King of Ireland and Wales looked back at his brother with unbelieving eyes. The boy was eighteen, unhealthily fat and bore the expression of a halfwit.


Prince Lochlann Mac Carthaigh​

'Appearances can be deceiving, Your Grace. It is said that Lochlann is already conspiring with some of your vassals to curb the crown's authority. His continued presence in the country is tantamount to civil war. The ship that is to carry him to his bride is ready to sail at a moment's notice.' the old man hissed into Conall's ear in a barely audible whisper.

'His closest ally is the Duchess of Orkney. Your father never trusted hers and similarly you should not put much faith in the Mermaid,' the old man blinked as a raindrop hit his eye, 'The blood of the Mac Carthaighs of the north is tainted with that of the barbarian Norsemen. Their hearts are cooled by the frozen grasp of the Scandinavian kingdoms.'


The Mermaid of the North​

Conall's jaw tensed and his nostrils flared.

'Please, My Liege, it is not my intent to anger. I bring only advice from beyond the grave,' the old man bowed almost to the ground and backed away from the king. Conall grabbed him by the shoulder.

'Is there anything else?' the king stared out into the distance as he posed the question.

'Yes, King Fáelán maintained good relations with the Mac Carthaighs of Northumbria. The English branch of Your Grace's family has acquired the services of, how should I put this, a band of men with a peculiar set of skills. Your father wished for you to know that should the English armies threaten the borders of Wales once again, you should not hesitate to seek the aid of your kinsmen. For the right price a kingdom can be toppled with a single dagger or a prickly rose.'

Conall eyed the spymaster carefully. He was certain that all that he was told would have been written down somewhere for him to read in case the old man failed to gain an audience.

'Did my father leave any letters for me?'

'Aye, he did. Your Grace will find them hidden under the bed in the master bedroom at Castle Trim.'

Conall nodded and stopped walking. He waited for his royal guard to catch up and then grabbed the spymaster with two strong arms.

'Guardsmen! Arrest this man and have his tongue ripped out!'

The spymaster's eyes went wide with shock and fear.

'But...' he began to mumble, 'I did all that was asked of... Why?! WHY?!!' he screamed as he was pulled away from the king.

Because some secrets are only safe with a mute.

*​

The next morning, after putting Lochlann on a ship heading for Finland, Conall led a cavalcade of horsemen from Castle Trim north along the eastern coast of Ireland. The dukes of the kingdom's constituent realms rode with him as his guests.

At midday, the nobles stopped at a baron's estate to dine before heading out to their final destination - the Giant's Causeway, a cluster of basalt columns in northern Ireland, from where one could look upon the shores of Scotland.


Giant's Causeway​

As the Irish and Welsh nobles dismounted from their destriers, Conall led his horse atop the basalt columns. The trek was treacherous for both the rider and his mount. One false step from the animal could end in tragedy, but the king was a master of horsemanship. After reaching the highest point of the Causeway, the monarch reined his charger and raised a sword at the Scottish coast visible just above the horizon. In the light of the setting sun he resembled a monument cast in bronze.

'That, my Lords and Ladies, is our destiny! The English must wait for our wrath. First, we shall take the Isle of Man and there I shall build a mighty fortress from where our armies will liberate our brothers from the false kings of Scotland!' the king's voice thundered over the waves crashing against the Giant's Causeway, 'We are of the Emerald Isle, she is our home, but it was not always so. All of Britannia must be and will be returned to us! God be my witness, the Sons of Carthaigh shall not rest until the banners of Éire fly above every hold in the realm!'
 
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very good writing here, but a question:
Why did you decide to conquer Orkney? It's far away, and protected by a powerful liege (unless it had gained independence or something happened to Norway?)
 

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very good writing here, but a question:
Why did you decide to conquer Orkney? It's far away, and protected by a powerful liege (unless it had gained independence or something happened to Norway?)
Thank you :)

And to answer your question - I took Orkney from Norway in two wars. The kingdom was weak (splintered into two or three duchies) and I needed a fallback position in case the English decided to invade Ireland (which they did on two occasions). At the time I could only field about 15 thousand men to their 50 thousand, so every war with them required a lot of cat and mouse action and fleet dodging.
 

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Chapter IV Lashing Out

Báetán of Kildare was considered by many to be a patient man, but six years of waiting was more than enough for him. King Conall had returned to Wales a fortnight after his coronation. He left his most trusted military advisor in charge of the kingdom's levees in Ireland in January of 1258. It was now February, 1264 AD.

'See that the boys learn to wield their swords as well as their fathers did when we beat the English. Now, now. Don't ye frown, Báetán, you said yourself that you hate sailing,' those were the last words he had heard his liege speak in person right before the young monarch crossed a gangplank onto his flagship, the Celtic Wolf.

But back then Báetán would have never guessed that he would be stuck overseeing the training of a generation of warriors for the better part of a decade. The days had gone by slowly. Each seemed exactly the same - riding on horseback between baronies, supervising the construction of new armories and smithies, even collecting tithes from the more obstinate of the king's vassals.

I'm a king without a crown. Báetán's beard had turned from brown to grey and the wrinkles around his eyes grew deeper with every cringe or smile. I hope I live to see this war.

His mood was as gloomy as the interior of Castle Trim's main keep. The general discarded an unread letter from his liege and decided to stretch his legs. He climbed a flight of stone stairs to the top of the keep and was surprised by what he saw from the vantage point. The main road leading east to Dublin was a river of men, horses and green banners. The general squinted and focused his eyes on the front of the column.

'Well I'll be a snake banished by Saint Patrick!' Báetán burst out laughing and ran down the same flight of stairs he had just come up.

*​

King Conall's raspy voice had grown slightly deeper over the years and the streaks of silver in his black hair had become more prominent, but his dark eyes betrayed a sense of purpose bordering on insanity.

'My father's cousin, the one with the silver tongue, you know the one, he has done what I have asked,' the king stroked his beard as he walked side by side with Báetán, 'He found the oldest hag on the island and convinced her that my grandfather sired the old earl. Half the people on the Isle of Man are now allegedly begging me to liberate them from the tyranny of the Scottish boy king,' Conall smirked.


The One With the Silver Tongue​


'Then the time has finally come?' asked Báetán, the question exuded his excitement.

'Aye. But the time has come for many reasons. The Scottish boy king Thomas is in dire straits. The Duke of Galloway has raised his armies in open rebellion claiming that no boy still drinking milk from his mother's breast will rule him. Any host dispatched to relieve the strongholds on the Isle of Mann will have to go through his forces,' the king raised his right hand and clenched it into a fist, 'And if the boy king's regent tries to circle around Galloway he'll walk right into the Mac Carthaighs of Northumbria who have raised their banners against the English king. Everywhere there is rebellion and chaos!' a low, rumbling giggle erupted from the ruler of Ireland.

Báetán frowned.

'What is wrong?' Conall stopped pacing down the halls of Castle Trim and turned to look at his general.

'Begging your pardon, Your Grace, but this will be a bloodless war.'

The king nodded.

'Aye, our only plight will be the deserters who are too bored or too craven to sit out a siege. And what is wrong with that?'

'My king, there is no glory to be had in this war.'

'Glory is for the elderly and the dead,' Conall snarled and left his general dumbfounded where he stood.

*​

The spring landings on the Isle of Mann and in Galloway were uneventful. An Irish fleet consisting of over 350 galleys and longboats reached each of its destinations unhindered. Báetán was given command of the 11 thousand men laying siege to the strongholds on the Isle of Man, while Conall lead a relief force to aid the insurgent Duke of Galloway. Neither army encountered any opposition in the field and so the months passed as the king and his general waited for garrisons to starve and gates to open. Spring turned into summer, summer into fall and fall into winter.


The War for the Isle of Man 1264 AD​

On Christmas Eve, after the last of the Scottish castles in Galloway finally surrendered to the Wolf King of Éire, a messenger was dispatched to the royal court of the boy king of Scotland. Conall grew restless as he waited for his return and even pondered the idea of passing the time by executing some of the Scottish nobles shackled in the dungeons of Galloway. His wife, who accompanied him wherever he travelled, stayed his hand and guided his attention toward more pleasurable endeavors.

On January 6th 1265, the messenger finally returned. Thomas the Unready had yielded. The Isle of Man was to henceforth be known as Irish soil. The King of Ireland and Wales wasted no more time in Galloway and immediately set sail for the isle to commence preparations for the next phase of his campaign.

If Báetán wants glory, then glory he shall have.
 

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Chapter V Betraying a Traitor​

The dining hall in Lothian's Dunbar Castle was as grim and foreboding as the dark summer storm raging outside the stronghold's walls. The hearth at the end of the chamber gave off only the semblance of light and heat. The diners gathered in the hall had a better time seeing each other's faces in the sporadic flashes of lightning that were followed by the low rumbling of the thunderstorm. The faces of the dozen men sitting at the large oak dining table were as grim as their surroundings. Their mouths contorted from the strain of chewing the meal they were served, however their grimaces, as odd as it may seem, were of pleasure. Many had not eaten in days.

'T'was a wonderful battle m'lord.' one of the figures remarked between gulps of a thick meat stew.

The man sitting at the head of the table nodded his head and pointed a finger to his right, at a dark silhouette outlined by another random lightning bolt.

'It was Duke Eadmund's knights breaking through the right flank that guaranteed our victory.'

The silhouette shook its head.

'You are too modest, Gabrán. Your men did a fine job holding the ford.'

Duke Gabrán Mac Carthaigh of the Northumbrian Mac Carthaighs smiled to himself. That's right, you old fool, I could have done without your token support.


Duke Eadmund of Bedford​

'Nevertheless, I propose a toast to the continued friendship of the houses of Mac Carthaigh and Godwin and to the quick demise of the tyrannical Swaefraed! May his reign as king of England be short and miserable!'

All the men sitting at the table raised their goblets and roared in laughter. They were the commanders and generals of a grand rebellion that had been shredding the English countryside apart for the past 5 years. More than half of them were no more than hedge knights elevated to the ranks of barons and earls as replacements for the nobles who had the misfortune of perishing early in the insurrection, however such was not the case with Eadmund and Gabrán. They were the uprising's architects.

Eadmund, the Duke of Bedford, was old and of old Saxon blood. He fought for the restoration of an England he once knew. Gabrán, the Duke of Lothian and Northumbria, was young and of old Irish blood. His only goal was to weaken England for his own gain or that of his brothers across the Irish Sea, but neither Eadmund nor most of the rebels were privy to this information.


Duke Gabrán Mac Carthaigh of the Northumbrian Mac Carthaighs​

While the warriors continued to cheer at the table, Gabrán brooded over the state of the civil war. Indeed, they were winning battles, but the war was at a stalemate. Thousands had died already but their deaths did not help pave the way to any form of victory. The only outcome that seemed plausible was defeat. Gabrán needed a way out of his predicament, a scapegoat, someone to be held responsible for his failure and someone to take all the blame for the rebellion.

'Get the serving wenches in here! I have a craving for large jugs... of ale!' the Duke of Lothian bellowed at the top of his lungs. Quiet contemplation was not something he was known for. Too much of it and Eadmund would become suspicious.

*​

Over the next two years, Gabrán Mac Carthaigh did his best to paint Eadmund Godwin as the sole leader of the uprising against the English king. Everywhere Gabrán went, he told the same story.

'I am a simple man! I crave wine, women and war! Eadmund came to me and said he had a war for me. I asked what I could expect in return. He said wine and women! Ha!'

The other greater and lesser nobles would laugh, clap him on the shoulder and nod understandingly. It was even said that Swaefraed had smirked upon hearing the exact same words from one of his spies.

The scene was set, now all that Gabrán needed to do was trip Eadmund and make certain he did not go down with him.

It comes as no surprise that the Duke of Lothian was delighted when he heard that one of the Mac Carthaighs of Éire was planning on paying him a visit in order to discuss 'the acquisition of a certain county held by a certain duke rebelling against a certain king'. I now understand why they call him the One with the Silver Tongue, Gabrán thought to himself as he finished reading the letter from King Conall Mac Carthaigh's chancellor.

Reading the man's handwriting did not prepare Gabrán for the meeting with the white-haired, dirty-robed monstrosity that walked into his castle in the early summer of 1267.

The duke arched a brow as the distant cousin of the Wolf Kings of Éire casually strolled into his study and landed himself on a wooden chair near the room's entrance.

'I am the One with the Silver Tongue.' the white-haired monstrosity announced in the typical Gaelic lilt of the Emerald Isle and bowed forward in his seat with arms outstretched to either side, 'King Conall sends his regards and asks for a little favor.'

Gabrán bit down on his upper lip and caught some of the hairs of his moustache with his teeth. He squinted at the One with the Silver Tongue and glanced briefly at the door. Where the Firth of Forth are my guards?

'His majesty, the King of Ireland and Wales, wishes that you inform us of the troop movements of the Duke of Bedford. We are most interested in knowing when his armies will be absent from the strongholds of Argyll and for how long,' the One with the Silver Tongue gave the duke a knowing look.

'And what will I get for this favor?'

The One with the Silver Tongue bared his yellow teeth in a smile.

'The king's gratitude and our help. We will make sure that Swaefraed is too busy to pay heed to a trifling matter such as a former rebel duke once this civil war of yours is over.'

The One with the Silver Tongue explained the details to the duke and succeeded in persuading him to King Conall's cause. A small army led by the Duke of Ulster secured Argyll by June 27th 1267. Excluding the county's skeleton garrisons, the Irish did not encounter a single foe.


The Argyll Deception June 1267​
 
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Chapter VI The Debt is Settled

It was a sunny summer afternoon, but King Conall, since recently the Just, was morose. The dining table in Castle Trim where his family gathered every year for the summer solstice was noticeably empty. His wife Alberade was off with their three daughters in Litomerice, in Bohemia. Although no longer a duchess, the mother of Conall's children was a highly respected countess in the Holy Roman Empire, one who could do as she pleased despite the crown on her husband's head.

I was worried about craven sons. I should've been worrying about having a son at all. Conall was 38 and still without an heir who would call him father.

Aside from Conall's closest family, there were many more missing from the family gathering. Lochlann, although still the official heir to the crown, wanted nothing to do with his brother. As consort of the Duchess of Finland, Conall's oldest sibling could never expect any of his seven children to inherit the Kingdom of Ireland. At least not as Sons of Carthaigh. Duchess Yonefij had made sure that all her offspring would belong to the House of Yngling. Lochlann was bitter and angry at the whole world. Were it not for the seas that divided them, Conall was certain that his brother would have murdered him a long time ago.

Two more seats at the dining table remained empty. Colmán, the king's youngest brother, died last winter at the young age of 14. His last days among the living had been painful for Conall to watch. The boy kept coughing up blood until he could no longer breathe. A month later, his sister Lerthan died of the same strange disease. She was only 18.

And so Conall sat at the family gathering with only his second youngest brother, Máél-Dúin, the 29-year-old Steward of the Kingdom of Ireland and Wales. The two siblings shared the same dark eyes, but Máél-Dúin preferred to keep his face clean-shaven. They also had the same nose and facial structure inherited from their father. All in all, one could have mistaken them for twins were it not for crows' feet at the corners of Conall's eyes.

Máél-Dúin dined on a pork chop that he firmly held in his right hand, while the King of Ireland stared solemnly out a window. Conall had no appetite that afternoon, but his brother made up for the both of them. The king appeared to be only interested in the wine, which he would sip briefly with a bored expression on his face before letting his goblet hang loosely between the fingers of a limp hand.

'Almost seven years of war and the Northumbrian Mac Carthaighs have achieved nothing,' Conall spoke to his brother as if thinking aloud.

Máél-Dúin ran his tongue against the front of his teeth and swallowed down his meat with a gulp of ale, his signets clanking against the tankard.

'Aye, but it is no wonder. They say Swaefraed has foreigners fighting for him now. Five companies from the cities of Italy,' the king's brother smacked his lips twice to add credibility to his statement.

Conall eyed him with a sidelong glance.

'That is no excuse,' the king sighed, 'Either way, a promise was made and we shall keep it,' he took a sip of his wine and turned his head to face his brother who continued to eat oblivious of the conversation.

'Marshal Báetán has already raised the armies of Wales and is marching toward Gloucester,' Conall added matter-of-factly.

At the mention of war Máél-Dúin stopped eating mid-bite with the pork chop in his mouth.

'Aye, brother. You'll be getting that duchy you've been wanting,' Conall swallowed down the rest of his wine, smashed his goblet into the wooden table, rose to his feet and stormed out of the dining room. Máél-Dúin spat out his pork chop and quickly trotted after his brother.


Marshal Báetán of Kildare leading Welsh levees into Gloucester, Summer 1271


*​

The agreement with the Mac Carthaighs of Northumbria had been a simple one. In exchange for a quick Irish victory over the Duke of Bedford, the Northumbrians could expect an Irish invasion in southern England once the civil war began to wane. Swaefraed would have to abandon the notion of any royal retribution for rising against the English throne if he wanted to keep his holdings. The rebels' sins would be absolved for the price of thwarting a foreign invasion, which Conall knew could not be thwarted. The plan allowed all of the Mac Carthaighs to win.

Báetán of Kildare led his Welsh levees of 11 thousand men across the border into Gloucester in August of 1271, two weeks before the Duke of Bedford and the Duke of Lothian laid down their arms. Conall and Máél-Dúin arrived with the might of the Irish fleet three days late, however the 15 thousand troops they brought with them were more than enough to make up for their tardiness.

The green banners of the Wolf Kings of Éire were carried from Gloucester toward London in a procession of victories over an English army almost too tired to fight after seven long years of civil war. While Báetán kept the English occupied in the north, the Irish king and his brother lay siege to Tintagel in Cornwall.

Despite their overwhelming numerical superiority, the Irish were unable to storm Cornwall's main stronghold and the war dragged on into the winter. By February 1272, Báetán of Kildare was forced to split up his forces in order to keep them provisioned during what would be known as the winter of the century. This did not prevent him from routing the English in two major battles. Just days after sending the bulk of his forces back to Wales, the Irish marshal achieved a major victory over a much larger enemy army at the Battle of St Albans. He pursued the fleeing English and forced them to retreat once again in what became known as the Battle of the Crowland.


Battle of St Albans, February 1272​


The campaign of the kingdom's Welsh forces allowed Conall's Irish companies to finally seize Tintagel in December of 1272. On New Year's Day 1273, Máél-Dúin Mac Carthaigh was declared Earl of Cornwall.

After signing the peace treaty at Tintagel, Conall and Swaefraed exchanged words in private. Neither monarch told anyone what was said during the conversation but it was easy to tell. Both returned to their courts furious.

'Máél-Dúin, I promise you I will not rest until you have that duchy!' were the first words Conall spoke in the company of his Irish courtiers.

'We shall send the Irish back into the sea! And then into the ocean!' were the first words Swaefraed uttered at his court while pushing a bishop to the ground and sending a page head first into a stone column. The boy never recovered from the encounter with the granite pillar and was soon appointed the English king's court jester.


The Kingdom of Ireland and Wales, January 1273​
 
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Chapter VII Hell Hath No Fury Like a Mermaid Scorned

A lone figure stood atop a hill in a frozen wasteland surrounded by turbulent seas as a cold November wind blew clouds of snow at a ramshackle fortress that the figure was surveying. Clad in a thick, white cloak trimmed with white sable, the figure blended in with its surroundings save for its long strands of black hair, which danced in the air from the successive gusts of a sea breeze. Cold, blue eyes stared at a pitiful excuse for a noble's stronghold, while their owner's face contorted in a grimace of rage, hate and despair.

Lann Mac Carthaigh, the granddaughter of King Fáelán the Old and only child of Duke Gilla-na-Náem, had grown bitter over the years. Her father, who had been born over a quarter of a century too late to inherit the Irish crown from her grandfather, had left her with a gift horse whose teeth she would have gladly smashed with a hammer. He left her with the Orkney Islands, a barren, barely populated backwater that the duchess despised with all her heart.

I could have been the queen!

Instead, she was aunt to a king older than her. King Fáelán the Old had outlived his firstborn son, Gilla-Coluim, who was named after the famous king that ousted the English from Dublin. Everyone had expected that the crown would be passed on to Gilla-na-Náem, Gilla-Coluim's much younger brother, but Fáelán the Old surprised everyone on his deathbed. He cherished his grandson and namesake Fáelán, later known as the Wise, more than anyone else in the world and granted him the kingdom by changing the realm's succession laws. Fáelán the Wise wisely reinstated the old laws once he ascended the throne and thus the Mac Carthaighs of Orkney were shorn from the direct line of succession.

Admittedly, my father would not have been ever called wise. Truth be told, the kingdom may have not survived long enough for me to inherit if he had ascended the throne.


Lann Mac Carthaigh's Fortress on the Island of Mainland, Orkney​


But it was not the past alone that made the Mermaid of the North so angry. For years, she unquestioningly supported Conall Mac Carthaigh in all his endeavors. When called to war, the Norse-like longboats at the Mermaid's command were always among the first to brave the seas around the British Isles and her half-Gaelic half-Norwegian warriors never shied from being the vanguards of Éire's mighty armies. However, recently, the men of Ireland's northernmost duchy were being relegated to the role of raiders and pillagers or pawns to be sacrificed for some other duke's benefit.

The final straw that destroyed any love that Lann still had for her nephew was the Argyll Deception of 1267. The Duchess of Orkney, whose fleets had carried the Duke of Ulster and his men to their destination, had expected to receive at least a barony or two along the much warmer Scottish coast. When she heard that a noble unrelated to the Mac Carthaighs was declared the Earl of Argyll, Lann made up her mind. Enough was enough. Conall could have his Welsh armies and his Wales, but Éire would be hers.

At 33, Lann was still childless. Her plot to wed an old man and remarry after inheriting his wealth and holdings had not gone according to plan. Máel-Martain de Yell, her husband, had the constitution of a warhorse. At 82, the former crusader was still as strong as an ox and as infertile as a gelding. What is more, the man was an overzealous fool. After a series of sleepless nights of reliving the horrors he had witnessed in the Holy Land, Máel-Martain donated his holdings to the church as a way of repenting for his sins. Lann would get nothing from the marriage.

As she stared at the bleak skies above the North Sea, the Mermaid of the North began to collect allies in her head. The Duke of Ulster was unrelated to the Sons of Carthaigh and could probably be bought. The Dukes of Munster and Leinster would require more attention. Lann had no doubt that her feminine charm would do the trick. She cared not for seeking help from the Welshmen. Even though they would gladly support an Ireland independent from Wales, they had their own agendas and could not be trusted. All in all, if all went as planned, Conall would have no one to turn to for help but his brother in Cornwall.

The duchess hugged herself to stay warm as another gust of wind blew her hair back. A sly smile crept onto her attractive, albeit deathly pale, face.

Lann Mac Carthaigh, the First of Her Name, Queen of Ireland, Lady Protector of Orkney, the Mermaid of the North. No... The Mermaid of Éire.
 
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Chapter VIII Lowborn and Loyal

Ealdmund's left eye twitched as he scratched the scar running down his left cheek. The irritating itch required all four fingers of his left hand. He scratched and scratched and scratched some more. His hand formed a twisted rake with prongs of broken, dirty, yellow fingernails delving into his skin, which quickly turned red.

The scar would always begin to itch when Ealdmund was nervous. Beautiful women made Ealdmund nervous. Young, powerful, beautiful women made him even more nervous. Lann Mac Carthaigh belonged to the latter category.

Ealdmund did not dare make eye contact with the duchess. He was transfixed by her full, red lips. He watched them move as they formed words, but he did not hear nor care much for what they were saying. Two straight rows of perfectly white teeth made brief appearances while Lann droned on. The Duke of Ulster kept his own crooked and decayed incisors well hidden behind a closed mouth, although he wished for nothing more than to display them in what he believed to be his most charming and seductive smile.

He briefly glanced at the duchess's long, coal-black hair cascading down her sable-clad shoulders. He could smell it from where he sat. The aroma was a delectable combination of blackberries and sour cherries.

'Ealdmund. Ealdmund!'

The Duke of Ulster finally looked up at Lann's eyes.

'You are bleeding,' the Mermaid pointed at his left cheek.

Ealdmund retracted his hand from the side of his face and examined the smears of blood on his cracked fingernails. He cursed under his breath and stuck his arm under his right shoulder to which action Lann's red lips formed into a demure smile.

He is mine.

'So are we in agreement?' asked the duchess with the slightest trace of a Norse accent in her Gaelic.

Ealdmund's left eye twitched again, but instead of scratching the scar again he inhaled deeply though his nose while tilting his head back.

'I beg yer pardon, Lady Duchess, but I be a simpleton in these matters that you and I be talking of. Let me see if I compreha...compre... com... understand this right. I get me boys to fight for you so you can be the queen and you give me a castle near Dublin?'

Lann nodded.

'Well why don't ya just marry Conall?' the duke squinted with one eye and raised half his upper lip in an expression of disgusted incomprehension.

Lann sighed and did her best to remain calm. She ran her hands along her thighs and smoothed the creases on her white dress.

'Because he is my nephew,' her dark eyebrows furrowed in a deep frown.

The Duke of Ulster placed his right hand on the table between them and drummed out a short little beat on its wooden surface. He looked behind at the fire burning on the hearth and tried to think of something to say. He was visibly lost, this much Lann could see.

He has to be mine.

She was less certain than just moments before.

'How many men would you be needing?' the duke cleared his throat and corrected himself, 'Or how many would make the Lady Duchess happy enough grant me ol' Castle Trim and its treasure vaults?'

A coy smile reappeared on Lann's face.

'The banners under your direct command in Ulster will suffice.'

The Duke of Ulster drummed out another several notes on the wooden table and stared directly into Lann's eyes.

He has the audacity to look at me like that. Her smile never left her face. We shall see how well he will ogle me without any eyes.

Ealdmund sensed that his gaze had overstayed its welcome. He turned to look at the fire again and nodded as if to himself.

'Aye, me boys will help...'

*​

She pressed herself firmly against her kinsman's body and let her lips brush against his. She then exhaled quietly into his ear and rubbed the back of his neck. Duke Dabíd III of Leinster pretended to resist her caresses. He grabbed her by her wrists but did not push her away. She pressed her bosom harder against his chest and glared at him with sheepish, seductive eyes.

'Lann, we are both Mac Carthaighs. This is not right!'

The Duchess of Orkney chuckled.

'Oh please, Dabíd, so our grandfathers were brothers...' she whispered as she freed one hand from the duke's less-than-iron grip. She then caressed his cheek with the back of her fingers and continued to stare deep into his eyes, 'Let me show you what pleasures await you once I am queen upon my throne in Castle Trim, just a short ride from your majestic estate,' she brushed her lips against his once again.

Dabíd inhaled deeply and pressed her head against his chest. He looked into the shadows beyond the light cast by the hearth in his bedroom.

A pair of eyes glared back at him. He saw them move up and down in a gesture that had to be a nod. At that point any inhibitions that the duke may have still had vanished completely. He threw Lann onto his bed and began to fumble at the laces of her dress.

'Tell me, sweet cousin, tell me what it is you want of me,' he leaned over her and nibbled on her neck, 'What is this plot you have readied for that fool Conall.'

Lann gasped in delight and pressed Dabíd's head against her cleavage.

'We shall march our armies into Dublin while Conall visits the summer fair. Then block his way to Castle Trim and that pet hound of his. What is his name?'

'Báetán?' Dabíd groaned as she drew him onto her.

'Yes!' Lann exclaimed, 'We shall bind him in shackles and put him on one of my longboats! If he resists we shall drown him...' she murmured into her cousin's ear, 'And if not, we will let him live out his days in Wales. I'm sure we will not wait long to hear of his demise. The Welsh are fickle when it comes to Irish rulers without Irish armies.' Lann giggled like a little girl and kissed Dabíd on the mouth.

She failed to notice a sudden movement in the bedroom and was only alerted by the loud screeching of the chamber's wooden door opening. A figure clad in a dark hooded robe was outlined by the torches lit in the adjacent hall. It stood with its back turned to the lovers on the bed and was evidently leaving.

Lann pushed Dabíd off of herself.

'Who are you?!' she screamed.

'I am Ardgar of Kildare, the pet hound's brother,' the figure's voice was a smooth and cold as ice, 'But that is not important.'

The shadow left through the open door revealing King Conall, the Duke of Ulster and Báetán of Kildare.


Ardgar of Kildare, King Conall's Trusted Spymaster​

Lann's lips began to quiver in fear and shock.

'No!' she hit the bed she lay on with clenched fists, 'No! No! NO!'

If Conall felt anything at that moment, his face did not show it. Báetán was seething through his teeth like a rabid dog and the Duke of Ulster boasted the ugliest, most vile smile one could possibly imagine.

Lann threw herself half-naked at Dabíd and began to choke him.

'You knew of this! You knew!'

The dukes eyes bulged out of their sockets as he flapped his hands at the Mermaid too dumbfounded to put up a real fight.

'Restrain her before she kills the poor man,' Conall's voice was as devoid of expression as his face.

Báetán walked briskly up to the bed and tore the duchess off of her cousin. He grabbed her from behind by the elbows and escorted her toward the king.

Conall glared at Lann's blue eyes. Her irises were no longer as cold and calculating as those of a predator stalking its prey. Her eyes were a mess of tears and red blood vessels laced with hate, fear and not the slightest hint of remorse.

The duchess turned away from his gaze and spat into Ealdmund's face.

'You will burn in hell for your betrayal! Traitor!' she screamed at the lowborn duke as he wiped her saliva from his face.

'You be calling the kettle black, Lady Duchess,' Ealdmund reached up to scratch his scar but ended up only rubbing it.

'Get her out of my sight,' the king sighed while rubbing his forehead.

Báetán escorted Lann out of the room, half of her dress trailing behind her, and led her down to the castle's dungeons.

When the woman's screaming could no longer be heard, Conall turned to Ealdmund and rested his hand on the man's shoulder.

'Tell me. She offered you much and more. Why did you pick me over the riches of Castle Trim?'

The roguish duke smirked and patted his king on the arm resting on his shoulder.

'Well, Your Majesty, to be completely honest, which I am, if I do say so myself, that spymaster of yours left me without a choice.'

The duke moved away from the king and headed toward the door. He stopped at the threshold and chuckled.

'Oh, that, and strong women make ol' Ealdmund nervous. I'd scratch half me face off if she were queen.'


Duchess Lann Mac Carthaigh Imprisoned, July 1274​
 

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Chapter IX Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam

'Forgive me father, for I have sinned,' a raspy whisper came through the wooden latticework of one of the confessionals in Dublin's St Patrick's Cathedral.

The confessional and the apse where it stood were veiled in shadows. Bishop Diarmait Mac Carthaigh rested his head against his right hand's forefinger and thumb as he listened to the sinner.

'I have had impure thoughts about my kinswoman whom I have imprisoned in my dungeon.'

'Your dungeon?' the bishop raised his head slightly and glanced through the latticework.

'Aye. She was a threat to my life and I had no choice. But now I find myself lusting for her. The very thought of her chained to the walls of my castle, so vulnerable and completely at my mercy,' the sinner licked his lips, 'The thought is intoxicating.'

The clergyman frowned but remained silent.

'I am also guilty of regicide,' the confession continued, 'I have issued orders to kill the rightful king of Scotland. He still lives, but I have no doubt that my men will succeed.'

The bishop took a brief moment to digest the information and then nodded to himself.

'Your father would be proud of your bold plans, but our Father in Heaven frowns upon such vile machinations. As penance say thirty Hail Maries and spend more time with your lawful wedded wife. Do not neglect your family for they will prove to be your strongest allies. And remember that God smiles upon those who help his servants and that deeds performed for the greater glory of God do not require absolution.'

The sinner looked up from his hands clasped in prayer.


Inside the Confessional​


'Speak plainly, uncle. Riddles have always tired me,' although his voice was still a whisper, his tone was no longer penitent.

Bishop Diarmait Mac Carthaigh, King Fáelán's younger brother, leaned closer to the face peering at him through the confessional's latticework. The bishop's eyes were a shade brighter than those of the former Wolf King, but they did not lack their intensity. His clean-shaven jaw tensed before he finally let out a stream of whispered words.

'Conall, my dear nephew, I never complained when I was forced to pick the way of the church. I had always known that my brother and his children would rule Éire. I have seen sixty springs pass and never asked for anything during all that time. But, alas, I am only a man, and just like any man has the right to err, I erred from the path of my righteous service to God. In my youth I was lonely and longed for the affection of a woman in the way that any man longs for it. The girl that found it in her heart to sin for my sake and warm the bed of a clergyman is no longer among the living. But I have three daughters and nothing to give them once I am gone. I beg thee, take care of them for me.'

Conall scratched his beard for a brief moment and exhaled loudly through his nose.

'Uncle,' the king spoke slowly as if weighing each word, 'your service as Bishop of Dublin and my royal chaplain has earned you more than just my care over your daughters. The people of the realm call me just and it is only just that loyalty be rewarded. Come uncle, we shall discuss your problems further in the sacristy.'

*​

Two months later, Diarmait Mac Carthaigh was released from his holy vows by the Bishop of Rome and returned to the life of a layman. After the initial shock among the peasants and burghers of Dublin wore off, the former clergyman legitimized his daughters. King Conall waited one more month before granting Diarmait the title of Duke of the Isles along with all the holdings that went with it. The lands the king's uncle received included the Isle of Man and Argyll.

Conall was more than happy to see the new Scottish duchy ruled by a kinsman, especially one as close and loyal to him as his uncle.

Diarmait is a true Son of Carthaigh. He is not Lann. Lann...

The king's thoughts were interrupted by a sudden commotion outside his throne room. Its doors swung open as an auburn-haired woman pushed through Conall's guards. The monarch arched a brow and curled his lip in a curious smile.

Why is it that the Mac Carthaigh women are more ferocious than the men?

One of the guards reached back to grab the woman, but she squirmed away from his grasp.

'Unhand me you brute! Do you not know who I am?!'

The guard looked across the throne room at his king with a troubled expression on his face. Conall waved him away and nodded assuredly indicating that everything was fine.

'Well, cousin Deirdre, what brings you to Castle Trim so soon?' asked the king as his unexpected guest advanced briskly toward his throne.

Deirdre, Diarmait's firstborn daughter, was forty years old, but the years had been kind to her. She had a pair of dark Mac Carthaigh eyes that peered from under a set of perpetually arched brows, which made her appear angry even when smiling. Having been raised a bishop's bastard, she lacked the grace of a female courtier. She marched almost like a man, her long wool dress a hindrance.

'It be only right to thank me liege for the good fortune he has bestowed on me family,' she bowed instead of curtseying, 'You look well, cousin.'

Conall smiled on the inside. The joy on the faces of Diarmait's three daughters when they found out they could openly claim relation to the royalty of Éire was something that he would never forget, nor would they let him forget. It seemed that everywhere they went, the three new Mac Carthaigh girls felt obliged to remind everyone that they were the king's kin.

'There must be something else?' Conall leaned forward in his throne.

'Aye,' the woman hesitated and began to play with a single braid resting on her shoulder, 'There is. But it be difficult for me to speak of such a thing. I don't want to anger me cousin.'

Conall examined Deirdre with emotionless eyes. She was tall for a woman and he could tell from the muscles bulging in her ill-fitted dress that she was also strong. Deirdre was neither beautiful nor ugly, but her face betrayed a life of hardship. Her lips always formed into a frown whenever she closed her mouth. Conall had heard stories that the woman had spent several years in a mercenary company pretending to be a man, but her ample chest and feminine facial features made that tale hard to believe.

'Do not worry about my anger. I find it is useful when spent on my enemies,' the king leaned back in his throne, 'Speak.'

'Well, I be wanting to speak about the Isles and me father's inheritance.'

Conall frowned.

'The Isles are to be returned to the crown with the passing of your father. There is no inheritance.'

Deirdre bared her teeth in a forced smile.

'And that be why I done and come to ye, cousin. My father is too old to travel so often, else he'd be here himself. We wish to ask Your Majesty to change his mind and let me inherit my father's lands.'

Conall's hands clenched the arms of his throne until his knuckles turned white, but the expression on his face remained impassive.

'Do you know what happened to the last woman who wanted to rule over the Isles?' Conall's upper lip twitched.

Deirdre lowered her eyes.

'But then again, she never asked and you are here openly pleading your case. Tell me, why would I want you to rule the Isles?'

Deirdre's dark Mac Carthaigh eyes gazed into Conall's once again.

'Because I intend to rule the entire duchy. Because I can help you take Innse Gall...'


Deirdre Mac Carthaigh c. 1255​
 
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