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I, Catherine Ui Niall Meathe writing in this year Christians number 1067, hereby bequeath this diary and accompanying papers to a female descendent whom their guardians shall deem worthy.
Why place it in the hands of monks whose religion I disdain for the old Druidic ways? Because they alone have a sense of written history's value; they alone can fulfill my terms by delivering this to you. My fellow Druids rely on oral history, recording little in writing, and one day that will prove fatal to our continuity. I cannot stop the avalanche of affection to the Christian god, but I have no compunctions about employing its most ardent adherents and their script for my own purposes.
That you are reading this means that unlike my granddaughters, the children of two daughters by my previous husband, who care for little but the wealth and prestige of a court they came by undeservedly, and have taught their children likewise, you are deemed by the monks who safeguard this document to be a woman willing to sacrifice personal interest and even her own life for the sake of Ireland. You must also be a proven warrior—Boudicca returned in spirit, not just the political show I've made of the legend that gained me a share of deathless Cormac's throne. Surely my bloodline will produce someone worthwhile eventually, even if I was too old to have children when I married said Cormac. What a line I could have mothered by him had it not been too late.
Aye, and does Ardrigh Cormac think he can fool me? Catherine of the Ulaid and northern Ui Neil may be losing her grip on this mortal coil, but she knows a fellow duplicitous trickster when she sees one, much less has been married to these many decades. "Well preserved." "Ages slowly." Does he think me a simpleton? His grey hair and wrinkles are poured from bottles. Mine are from the ravages of more than nine decades of time's arrow that passes him by. And, that blacksmith's hand of his that Brian Boru fasted me after Clontarf as the guarantee of the Ulaid's cooperation under the new crown, is as iron-like as ever fifty-three years later, while mine is the remnant wrinkled claw of Ireland's oldest known woman. Indeed, my hand now has the shakes in the early morning, so it is time to pen this memoir while I am still able.
Differences aside, we worked together all this time on the important things--keeping Ireland unified, England divided, and the Normans safely bottled up on the European mainland. Had we failed, a united Norman-dominated England would surely have become our master.
Downey, Ireland, Hibernia 1332
In 1332 at the tiny village of Downey in County Tyrone there lived a little orphan horse girl whom people called Katie. Having never had much of a childhood, Katie normally passed by the village play-green oblivious to the children. Not today.
"Horse face, nose a mace, horse hair, Kate's a mare."
Their skipping chant registered on the edge of her attention, and she stopped to watch, to think. A bemused, dispassionate corner of her mind noted the shortened version of her name was required to fit the chant's metre. A larger part grimly knew how they perceived her. The reflection she saw every day in the broken bit of silvered glass she'd hung over the rusty wash basin in the stable displayed an almost seventeen-year old--raw-boned, heavily freckled, with a Tyronese-sized nose and a long mane of coarse, roan-coloured hair that flowed out behind her whenever she rode, which was much of the time she spent awake of a day.
So, she resembled her charges. What of it? There were worse things than being horsey, like a cruel disposition, a slanderous tongue, or contempt of authority, especially that of the Lord of Heaven. She grimaced. Yet it hurt that she was the only village woman in many years to reach sixteen without being hand-fasted. Lack of family meant no status, no one to negotiate bride payments. Besides, who would marry a horse? She snorted wheezily, momentarily wondering what it would be like to be a mare. But no. Master Maynard had taught her to distinguish fantasy from reality. Still, horses could be better friends than people—excepting him. And it was her beloved Maynard who claimed most of her thoughts.
Horsemaster Maynard was a soldier who'd lost a leg back in 1320 in the Battle of Aberdeen at the close of War of the Isles. She could almost hear his history lesson. "Yes, Scotland came permanently under the Irish crown, but it were otherwise inconclusive with respect to England, the greater problem. Most such fights are nae more than cattle raids," he would instruct. "Soldiers fight and die, boundaries of one wretched kingdom move past those of another by a few miles for fewer years. But I fought the battle of the generation under the Neal banner, and they take care of their own. Afterwards Ahern Neal assigned me here as horsemaster to live out my days in peace."
Or, she wondered, was the village assigned to him? Rufus Maynard, not the hetman, made all the important decisions.
As in many such local settlements variously raising horses, cattle, cows, or chickens, half Downey's animals belonged to Lord Neal, and he paid the horsemaster's pension, so exercised direct control over the equine enterprise, ensuring there would be no cheating on his share. Here Horsemaster Maynard had superintended raising the famous Tyronese, the culls of which were assigned to village drudge work, while the best went on to Neal Keep at Dungannon for training as war horses. She snorted again. Dungannon was a mere eight miles southeast of Downey, but might as well be a hundred, for all that she would ever see it. And, not for her the fabled Irish touchstones of Armaugh, Cashel, Dubhlinn, Tipperary, or fabled Tara. As for Paris, Rome, and such places…
Oh, courtesy of her education, she certainly knew about the wider world. Ireland, post Catherine the Great, highly valued education, even though only the small upper and growing middle class benefitted from it. But knowing wasn't the same as seeing.
A mendicant on Tara's streets, Summer 1420
The ragged beggar with the lurid scar on his left cheek sat cross-legged on the walkway of Queen Catherine Avenue, in Tara's old uptown, half a mile downhill from the palace at Warren Street, the city's effective western and hilltop boundary. Beyond the Palace were the mounds, a place of superstition and, as lurid rumour variously had it, ghosts, pagan worship rites, or bandit hideouts.
Parts of the neighbourhood had seen better days, for the town's main commercial district had gravitated over the years from Old Main and Gowan, north to Queen Catherine Avenue, then east to Tyrone and north again to High and even Smith, leaving behind Tara General Hospital, ChristChurch, and Tara Event Hall at one edge of three city blocks largely consisting of decaying old buildings and collectively known as The Warrens. Even the north side of Queen Catherine east of Gowan alongside The Warrens had seen better days, and some were starting to term it "North Warrens".
Apart from the perhaps now misplaced Event Hall on Kate's Walk, the Warrens housed numerous shops sporting merchandise of questionable providence behind dirty windows, and presided over by shopkeepers of dubious reputation. Most passers-by were shabby, the local prostitutes as worn out as the beer served by the area's three woebegone pubs. There was one high-class restaurant frequented by good society when feeling bold, a few banks, and some respectable businesses, but it was fast becoming a sorry place, well past mid-life, and slowly declining, though its residents tended to see it more favourably, even be loyal to their neighbourhood. In all, it was an inauspicious location for a busker, and the beggings for a broken-down man were as slim as his shillelagh that leaned against the concrete waste bin beside him. Farther east on the Avenue or at the Event Hall would surely be better places to ask custom.
But this beggar had prodigious skill in assessing whether a hospital visitor needed to hear the notes of a sympathetic mournful lament or a celebratory cheery air. Thus, his scarred fingers and homemade five-stringed rebec usually elicited sufficient coinage to stay a worn out man's progress a few steps short of a pauper's grave.
This particular afternoon, his eyes were following the departing young man who had come to visit his recovering sister. He'd paused to hear a jaunty hymn played in the continental style, then deposited an entire crown in a battered hat.
Preoccupied, the beggar was uncharacteristically taken slightly by surprise to feel a breath on his temple. He turned sharply to discover himself eye-to-eye with young Amelia McGowan. The tiny, serious, perpetually dirty five-year-old with the fine, long, flyabout red tresses was well known around the streets of low Tara for her exhaustive and indiscriminate questioning of anyone on whom she deigned to bestow her attention, and concerning any and all topics she fancied at the moment. Not for her the simple "why" of the child. She needed details. How did the shoemaker's machines really work, why did a knife maker made so many kinds of blade, could she visit the back room and watch the jewellery being crafted, how was a police constable trained, what made rain, why was it brass shone, how did one of Queen Kat's refrigerators work, who decided to build Tara on a steep hill, what made some men kings and others peasants, some rich and others poor, some brave and others cowards? Dressed in torn canvas shoes, a brown shirt and leather overalls that were her mother's homemade miniature of her Da's working garb, and often sporting a sooty face, coal stains, or the dirt and dust of neglect on her clothes, hair, and arms, she was termed by the merchants "Melia-Mouse" for her ability to appear out of the background to startle her unsuspecting victim with a string of queries, then as quickly vanish, as her mercurial attentions turned elsewhere.
She was far from inconspicuous this afternoon. She stared at the beggar a long time, grim faced, moved her head from side to side in some private rhythm, then stared some more. Finally, in a voice so low it was barely more than a whisper, she said, "Did you know Ma died?"
He merely nodded back to her overwhelming sadness, for the nameless beggar never spoke, never sang to accompany his airs. He knew a many things, though, including that Melaine McGowan's cancer had been far beyond remediation even when first diagnosed, and that her husband Fergus had let the fires of his forge grow cold while he took solace in cheap whisky over the pending loss of his life's love. He'd be far worse now.
Finished her appraisal, Amelia glanced quickly up and down the Avenue, and, seeing no one else close by, whispered again, "I will visit you afterwards." There was a touch of the regal princess in her voice, despite the sooty sleeve she employed to further smear her face as she turned away. She forlornly wandered off toward her home at the blacksmith's shop on the edge of the fairgrounds, themselves just up Warren Street from the palace.
The beggar shook his head, chagrined. His disguise fooled everyone else. Yet young Amelia, despite being distracted by grief, had penetrated it in her first close look at this persona. He'd considered the risk, knowing she would be here today, but there were conversations pleading to be overheard by a man of his profession in this spot. "Afterwards" must mean following the funeral, which he anticipated for two days hence. He'd be ready.