There is something funny going on with Sue Vincent’s photo prompts. I’m finding that each week, the photo illustrates a scene I’m in the process of writing. Maybe we’ll get kangaroos next week to prove me wrong.
Diarmait has ridden hard. By the time he is within sight of the walls of An Fearna, he knows his favourite horse is broken. He feels not even the slightest hint of regret. He is going to see Con again, the son they told him had been beheaded at Kincora by Aedh Mac Ruaidrí. He had looked out for Aedh during the fighting before the siege of Waterford but the devil’s melt was killed in a skirmish before he could get his hands around his throat. The message that Dónal sent would have made another, cooler-headed man pause. It seemed that there had been a mistake, a hoax. Three hostages only had been killed and their bodies burned. Ruaidrí had not had the nerve to kill them all; it was only Aedh’s bragging that he himself had taken the head of Conchobar Mac Diarmait that had started the rumour of their deaths.
Diarmait doesn’t ask himself why Ruaidrí didn’t deny the rumour. Perhaps he didn’t know the truth of it—not if Aedh was killed before he was able to explain himself. Nor does he ask himself why the hostages have been kept so long without any word from them and how Con got away. He doesn’t ask himself, because he wants to believe in his weasly son Dónal who never spoke a true word when a lie would serve him better.
His horse is foundering but he beats it on, across the ford of the Sláine and over the low rolling hills to the fort. The church tower is in sight, then the palisade. The gates of the caisleán are open, and just before the woods of the valley side hide it from view again, he sees a horseman ride out, dark-haired, bright green brat—Dónal. A watchman must have seen Diarmait on the road and passed on the word.
Another man might have thought it natural that Dónal would be eager to tell him the news face to face. But his father knows Dónal had never liked Con. Why would he be so keen to share the news that his brother was come back to them? So close to home, so close to discovering that the past months had been a nightmare and the dawn was coming, Diarmait begins to doubt. All the inconsistencies in the message nag at his intelligence. The trees oppress him, obscuring the sight of home. If Con had been at An Fearna he would surely be riding out to meet his father. Perhaps he is hurt, sick. Diarmait grinds his teeth at the idea that Ruaidrí Ó Conor had illtreated his hostages, welcoming the distraction from his more unsettling thoughts.
Coming up the last rise, his horse falters. If they had been on the downward slope Diarmait would have been thrown. The animal’s legs crumple beneath him and Diarmait slides from his back. The drumming of hoofbeats comes to him through the trees. He leaves the foundered horse and runs towards the sound. A flash of green, of chestnut, and Dónal is before him, reining in his horse.
“God be with you, Father,” he says, looking about him.
“God and Mary be with you, Dónal. Where is Con? Does Ruaidrí still have him?”
“Did you come alone?”
“As you asked. I told no one I was leaving. How is he? Is he at An Fearna?”
Dónal drops from his horse’s back. “I have a message from him.” He reaches for his belt. “He’s waiting for you”—Diarmait steps forward eagerly, his eyes on Dónal’s belt, holding out his hand to take the letter. Dónal’s hand thrusts. There is a flash, the sunlight through the trees strikes steel, makes it glitter—“in the otherworld.”
Cold slices under his ribs, reaching up, spreading. Diarmait staggers backwards. The knife thrusts again, higher this time, hitting a rib.
“Dónal,” he gasps, scarcely understanding what is happening. The face, dark, but with some of his own traits, his father’s too, dark eyes and the mouth that twists into a grin. His son. “Dónal.” He remembers when he was born, his first son, and that he had been proud. The man, his son, grown strong and twisted, grabs his shoulder, holds him steady and draws back his arm again. This is the last. The knife slips between the ribs and finds the heart. He still doesn’t understand.