Joseph H.J. Líaigh
To my family: my wife, Mandy, and my sons, Timothy, James and John, who have graciously and generously put up with my writing; especially to John for whom this story was originally written.
Published in Australia by Leach Publications for Shakespir.
PO Box 2123, Parkdale, Vic. 3195, Australia.
Email: [email protected]
First published in Australia 2015
Copyright © Leach Publications 2015
Cover design: Caligraphics
Editor: Isabella Kružas
All rights reserved. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this publication may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express prior written permission of Leach Publications.
The moral rights of the author are asserted.
Liaigh, Joseph H.J.
The Answerer: A Modern Tale of the Tuatha De Dannan
Cover layout and design by Caligraphics
Cover Image: Copyright: beawolf / 123RF Stock Photo
This book would not have been written without the encouragement and support of my family. I would especially like to thank John, for whom this story was originally written, for sharing his story with the rest of the world.
Chapter One – 1171 AD
Heavy grey clouds hung low in the sky as Padraig lay close to the ground. He could hear the Norman soldiers talking as they rested from their march. They were lying on the other side of a low mound from him, less than fifteen feet away. He could hear them talking and laughing as they passed around a flask of whiskey. He clutched his burden tighter to himself. The Red O’Connor’s Avenger had given it to him and he had sworn not surrender it this side of death. Eventually a series of orders were given and the soldiers moved off. Padraig sighed with relief and began to stretch the cramp out of his limbs. He was till to solve his problem. Where in all of Ireland could such as this be safe? He didn’t even know how to start looking.
An old monk had once told him that, when you don’t know what to do, then only thing you could do, was pray. Padraig fell on his knees. As he was praying, a rider came out of the west, mounted on a milk white horse. Her hair was red gold and hung in flowing curls down her back. She was more beautiful than any woman Padraig had ever seen and he had seen a few. A radiance seemed to come from her and everything about her: a glow that made the backdrop of rolling hills seem grey and uninteresting. When she stopped in front of Padraig, he quickly made the sign of the cross. The rider on the horse laughed.
“I’m no demon, Padraig,” she said, “In fact, I’m an answer to your prayer. I’ve come to take that which you carry back with me to Tyr na nOg. It exists out of its time and it must pass with us beyond the western sea. If it does not, great sorrow will follow.”
Padraig stood still, frozen in shock and fear. Here was the stuff of legends come out of the west and he knew the stories. He knew he was in mortal danger. Nothing good ever came of mixing with the Sif. Men disappeared, or died, or went mad. Yet when the lady reached down to take his burden from him, he drew back and clutched it even tighter.
He summoned all his courage and said, “No! This was given into my care by the High King’s Avenger and I will die before I surrender it. I have sworn to keep this safe. I cannot, in honour, give this to you but even if I could, I would not. Ireland is already a land of sorrow and this is a thing of great power.” He raised his burden, a massive, double handed sword, above his head and cried, “Here lies the answer to Ireland’s pain and Norman blood to anoint her wounds.” The lady looked at him in sorrow and said nothing. Eventually he had to lower the sword, which was quite heavy. “It is a mighty weapon,” he said, “and we need weapons.”
The lady sighed and said, “If you must, you must. But at least I can show you where such as that can be safe. Follow me.” She led Padraig to a fairy mound a few miles away. At a word from her, the green turf parted and a doorway of grey stone appeared, framing a square of darkness. Once again, Padraig made the sign of the cross and was praying silently as he passed through the doorway. Inside the mound, the darkness was not as complete as it had seemed from outside and Padraig found himself in a vaulted chamber. In the middle was a raised stone slab, carved into intricate patterns. Padraig placed the sword on the slab and left the chamber as quickly as he could.
He blinked as he once again stepped into the overcast sunlight. The lady was still on the horse in front of him but when he turned around, there was only the green turf of the fairy mound and no sign that a doorway had ever existed.
The lady smiled sadly at him. “Don’t worry Padraig,” she said softly. “You did your best and you have ensured that no Norman will ever wield that sword.”
Two days later, Padraig was dead. While trying to re-join the O’Connor’s forces, he was discovered by a Norman patrol. The red of his blood stained the green Irish turf – but he had company.
Chapter Two – 1972 AD
Connor’s ears rung from the explosion and clods of earth rained down around him. He lay flat on the turf, waiting for the second round. It never came. Eventually he heard the English trucks drive away. Connor stood up and looked around. The mortar shell had blown a huge crater into the side of a small hill and had evidently broken into some hidden cavity because there was a dark opening in the crater wall. Connor climbed down to investigate. As one of the newest gunmen in the Provisional IRA, Connor was not superstitious and the dead certainly held no terrors for him, but he still made the sign of the cross as he entered the darkness.
Light streamed in through the opening and, as soon as his eyes became accustomed to the relative darkness, he could see quite well. He found himself in a vaulted stone chamber which was empty except for a raised stone slab in the centre: a slab carved with some of the most intricate pre-Norman stonework Connor had ever seen. On this slab there lay a sword, a sword such as men dream about: a steel sword, double handed, black and silver, darkly shining, possessed of unlimited power. Connor took up the sword and became aware of nothing else.
Later, and without any recollection of movement, he was standing in the open. It must have been several hours since he had entered the chamber because the sun was setting: a real sunset, red as if all the west was stained with blood. In his hands he held the sword.
The British soldier came over the hill, carrying his rifle at the ready. Connor knew that the rest of the patrol would not be far behind. The soldier opened his mouth to shout something at Connor but stopped when he saw the sword. Still and silent, he watched as the sword rose and caught the fire of the sun. Connor gave a cry, full of anger and the desire for revenge…
In the early morning twilight, before sunrise, Connor woke to find himself surrounded by bodies: bodies hacked apart until they were almost beyond recognition. A four wheel drive truck stood motionless on the road with its windscreen smashed and a great gash through its radiator. The decapitated body of the driver was still slumped behind the wheel. The green hillside was red with blood and Connor shuddered at the horror that memory brought him. He had done this.
He looked at the men he had killed, at their sacred humanity scattered cross the hillside like so much rubbish, at their eyes staring blankly into the sky: men reduced to waste offal. He remembered his mother begging him not to go and join the fighting and he fell to his knees and wept. He wept for the men he had killed and for the sad and sorry world in which they had died. Most of all, he wept for all the dark and hidden passion that raged in his soul. He wept at the thought of the type of man he had become. His tears fell on the sword and washed some of the blood from the blade. They mingled, blood and water, and flowed into the earth.
Then he heard a woman’s voice calling him, soft as falling rain. He looked up and saw a vision from a legend. A woman with skin as white as snow and hair as red as fire. She was sitting on a pure white horse and seemed to glow in the pre-dawn twilight.
‘Connor,” she said. “You need to give me the sword. It has stayed in the world long beyond its time. I am of the Tuatha De Dannan. I have been sent to bring the sword to Tyr Na nOg but I cannot take it from you. You need to give it to me freely. Give it to me and it will pass into the west, beyond the world, where it can be safe.” He knew that she could not be real: a woman as beautiful as legend riding a horse as white as snow. He shook his head.
“It is An Fragarach,” he said. “It must be. It is the Answerer and we have need of answers.”
“Connor,” she said urgently. “In your hands, the only answer it can give is violence and vengeance. Do you like the answer it has already given you?” He looked about him and saw again the mangled bodies and was struck even more forcibly by the broken humanity of each. He remembered the blood, and the screams, and the pain. He shuddered again at the horror of it and closed his eyes to try and shut out the memory.
“Take it,” he said suddenly. “Take it away. I want no more of it.” His only answer was silence. When he opened his eyes, she was gone. The sun rose and plated the eastern sky with gold. In the west, the last stars were dying in the light of the rising sun.
The silence of the dawn was broken by the sound of an approaching helicopter. Connor didn’t hear it. He was lost in himself, remembering the passions that had raged in his heart, the demons in his soul. Yes, the sword had set them free but the demons were his own. The pain and guilt grew within him until it was unbearable and he didn’t know how he could live as the person who caused this carnage.
In desperation he cried out, “My God forgive me! I wanted none of this.”
The pilot of the attack helicopter paled as he saw what lay on the side of the hill. He saw that one of the rebels was still there and in anger he fired his guns, one short burst and the figure fell to the ground. Briefly, lying on the cold earth, Connor smiled for he knew that he had been forgiven and he gratefully accepted the gift of death.
There was a bit of trouble afterwards. The Irishman shot by the helicopter was found to be unarmed, except for the rusted and broken remains of an ancient sword. There was no reasonable way he could have caused the carnage on the hill. It was decided to hide the remains of the sword away in a regional museum and forget that the incident had ever happened.
Chapter Three – Present Day
It was a fine, soft afternoon with the wind coming in from the west. There would be rain later but for now the sun was shining, the wind was in the grass and it was lunchtime. Guard Sean MacCarthy relaxed, ate his sandwiches and watched the waves roll into a small, deserted beach. He was just eighteen months out of the Garda College in Templemore and on his first posting as a probationary member of the Garda Síochána na hÉireann: the Irish police force. Mind you, his first posting was not entirely to his liking. He had been posted to Dingle, on a small peninsula in the far west. It was a beautiful place to be sure but one where the only crime was of a petty, mundane sort: not the sort of thing on which to build a notable career. In short, it was dull and Sean had ambitions for higher things.
He was not sure when he first noticed the boat but he had been watching it for a while when it occurred to him that it moved very strangely through the water. It was also a very strange boat and it was moving to make landfall on the nearby beach. He decided that it was something he should investigate. As he had been told to do in the training college, he went up to his patrol car and reported in.
“Sergeant, its Sean MacCarthy here. I’m at the small beach up near Brandon Point. There’s a boat I’m a bit suspicious of about to land near here and I’ll be going down to investigate.”
Sergeant Murphy, the desk sergeant for the day, sounded as if the last thing he needed was an eager young probationary guard complicating his day. “Fine, but be careful,” he replied. “What do you think it is; drugs or guns?” Sean paused before replying. What did he suspect? He didn’t really know. He just knew that the boat wasn’t normal and he needed to investigate.
“Not sure,” he replied. “It’s just … strange.”
He walked down to the beach as the boat was coming in. It was a curragh, a canoe, made of white bullock hides with slim lines and a high prow. Although it had no obvious mean of propulsion, it moved easily through the surf and glided up onto the sand. It had only one occupant and he stepped easily and gracefully from the boat as it came to rest. He was dressed in a white tunic which came down to his knees and had a brightly coloured cloak around his shoulders. He had long, sandy-red hair and deep, royal blue eyes. Sean was considered tall but this character had a good few inches on him. He also had a short sword hanging from each hip. Sean began to wish that he was armed. Of course he was not. There was no need for it in the small rural communities of the peninsula. The stranger greeted him in Irish.
“A blessing to you,” he said. Sean came from an English speaking family but he knew enough Irish from his studies at the Garda College and from his work around the peninsula (where everybody spoke Irish) to get by.
“And Jesus and Mary bless you,” he said in reply. “Is it that you are part of an historical re-enactment group?”
The stranger smiled. “No,” he said. “Not quite. I am Declan MhicOisin of the Tuatha de Dannan and I am here because we find ourselves in the unusual situation of needing help. We have encountered something we have never seen before and it may be that we have need of the skills of the Garda Síochána.” Sean just starred at the stranger trying to decide if he was mad and/or dangerous.
“OK,” he said at last and in English. “I need to know who you really are and why you are walking around armed with offensive weapons. Tell me now and we’ll say no more about it. Continue with this fairy land malarkey and there’ll be real trouble. No more messing about! It’s a serious thing to lie to a Guard and even more serious to try and make fun of him. I’m warning you: when someone is armed I lose all my sense of humour.”
The stranger smiled broadly. “You people cling so tenaciously to your limited view of reality,” he said. “I had really hoped that I wouldn’t need to do this. I thought I might but I really didn’t want to. Ah well, it’s probably easier this way.” He pointed at Sean and the world began to spin and become a blur. Sean had a surge of panic. He knew that he was moving but he could make no sense of his surroundings. Then he fell asleep.
Chapter Four – A river journey.
When he woke, he was lying in the bottom of the boat. It was gliding up a river whose banks were covered with deep, ancient oak forest. The character who called himself Declan was standing at the prow with his back to Sean, looking up the river. Sean felt calm and relaxed and he knew that he shouldn’t.
“You’re doing that to me, aren’t you,” he said to Declan’s back. “I should be afraid, I should be worrying about where I am and how I got here but I’m not. You’ve given me some drug that’s messing with my emotions.” Declan turned around and it was clear that he was trying not to laugh.
“No, it’s not a drug,” he said, “and I can release you to panic if you wish but I’d rather you were rational.”
“Well then, I’ll give you something rational to go on with,” Sean said. “You’ve kidnapped a guard. That’s a very serious crime and the whole force will be out looking for me. They will chase you down wherever you go.”
Declan was still smiling. “I seriously doubt it,” he said. “Sean, I am one of the Tuatha de Dannan. I have the power to change reality at will. Your ancestors would worship us as gods. What are your comrades going to do? Arrest me?” He held out his hands and handcuffs appeared on his wrists. “But that really wouldn’t work, would it?” The handcuffs shattered and fell as a pile of steel fragments into the floor of the boat.”
“Nice magic trick,” Sean said. “But I’ve seen better on TV. What was it? Liquid nitrogen on the steel to make them brittle?”
Declan gave a deep sigh. “By Lugh’s shiny left hand, you are more stubborn than an ox. I’m sorry about this but I do need to convince you.” He made a small rising motion with his hand and Sean found himself being lifted up into the air. He stopped when he was about twenty meters above the boat.
“Now, you’ll stay there until you admit that what I’ve said is true,” Declan said, before turning back to again look up the river. Sean twisted in panic but he could find no purchase anywhere. There were no wires, no supports, nothing. He was just hanging in thin air. After a while he calmed down enough to look about him. The floor of the river’s valley was covered with forest and in the distance there were rocky mountains, tall and steep. He knew he was not in Ireland any longer. It had been hundreds of years since such a forest existed there and he did not recognise any of the mountains. He looked down at the boat, gliding upstream along a broad and swiftly flowing river with no motor, or sail, or oars. He looked at the figure standing at the prow: a figure straight from childhood tales and legends and yet real and solid. He felt something within him give way. A door that had been firmly locked shut was opened.
“Hey you in the boat,” he called. “If I treat what you say as true, just as a working hypothesis, will you let me down?” Declan looked up at the figure hanging stiffly in the air and gave a broad smile.
“Good enough,” he said. “Come on down.” Sean found himself being lowered gently into the boat. He moved up to stand beside Declan at the prow.
Declan’s face became serious. “Look Sean, I deeply regret taking you against your will but I’m afraid it was necessary. We have a problem and we need your help. There has been a number of murders and an important artefact has been stolen. Now, normally we would handle this ourselves but some of these men were killed in a way that we do not understand and we think weapons from your world may have been involved. We need your help to hunt the killer.”
“Why me?” Sean asked. “I’m just a probationary Garde. Why not get someone from homicide? Someone who’s had experience.”
Declan shrugged. “Getting such a person would be more complicated. You were available and we think you have the skills we need.” As he was speaking, the forest ended. The boat was still gliding silently up the river but now they were passing through open fields where black faced sheep and small, hairy cows grazed. The fields, however, only occupied the valley floor and the surrounding hills were steep and covered in thick forest. They rounded a bend and a small hill, close to the river, came into view. Its lower flanks were covered with blossom trees but the top was a steep, rocky outcrop. This had been augmented by high stone walls to form a formidable fortress. Inside the walls, a number a high gabled timber halls could be seen and from the highest of these there flew a green banner with a gold insignia.
Declan smiled and spread his arms wide. “Welcome, Sean MacCarthy of the Garda Síochána, to Tyr na nOg, the land of the Tuatha de Dannan and to Carrig na Ardri, the home of the High King.”
Chapter Five – A walk through an orchard.
They pulled into a wooden landing, which was built out past thick reed beds, near the foot of the hill. Declan stepped out with the same easy grace he always showed and Sean hurried after him. They started to climb up through the blossom trees. After only a few steps, Sean stopped and stared at the trees in shock. They were apple trees in green leaf and white blossom but there was also ripe fruit hanging from the branches.
He muttered to himself. “How is it that a tree can be in blossom and fruit at the same time?”
Declan turned around and saw Sean starring at the trees. He smiled broadly, “Guarda MacCarthy, How’s that working hypothesis of yours coming along?” Sean didn’t reply but stopped staring and started to walk after Declan: for the first time accepting that he was now in another world and suddenly feeling very out of place in his Guard uniform. He was a guard though, and if a crime had been committed: it was surely his duty to co-operate with the local authorities and investigate.
As they were walking up through the groves of apple blossom, Sean asked, “What was stolen?”
“It was a sword: a very special sword,” Declan replied. “It was called An Fragarach: The Answerer. It was forged by our people many years ago and was originally the sword of Mannan MacLir: whom your ancestors considered to be the god of the sea. He gifted it to Cúchulainn, the greatest warrior of your people, and it passed then to Con of the Hundred Battles, who was High King of Ireland at the time. It became the sword of the king’s avenger and it could slice through any armour or shield and answer any injustice. No one could lie if it was held to their throat and it was rare indeed for anyone wielding that sword to be defeated in battle.”
“I know about the King’s Avenger,” Sean said. “We learnt about him at Templemore. In old Ireland, he was the chief law enforcement officer of the High King. If a judge gave an order, it was his job to make sure the order was carried out.”
Declan nodded. “And An Fragarach was a mighty tool to help him,” he said. “When Rory O’Connor, the last High King of Ireland, was being pressed hard by the Normans, his Avenger became separated from the main body of his army and retreated to the north. Fearing that he would be overwhelmed by numbers and that An Fragarach would fall into Norman hands, he gave sword to a young warrior to be hidden, to be kept safe. We sent an emissary to meet the warrior and arranged for the sword to be hidden in a fairy mound.” He stopped and turned to look directly at Sean. “This sword is dangerous, far too dangerous to be left free in a world that was losing its sense of myth and lore. The Lady Finola, our emissary, cast a mighty geis on the sword that it should remain hidden – and hidden it remained for nearly a thousand of your years.”
“So, how did it come to be here?”Sean asked.
“About forty of your years ago it was found by a young rebel…” Declan explained.
“That would be during the time of the troubles in the north.” Sean said.
“Just so. Anyway, he couldn’t control it and the sword possessed him. It became the focus of all his anger, of all his feelings of injustice and his need for revenge. When he encountered a company of English soldiers the results were…unpleasant. We knew we had to retrieve the sword. We also knew that it would be foolish to try and take it by force, so we again sent the Lady Finola. She persuaded the young rebel to surrender the spirit of the sword to her.”
“The spirit of the sword?”
“Yes. As a physical object, the sword is just a sword, but as An Fragarach, the Answerer, it is a mythical object and it was this mythical character that was returned here to Tyr na nOg. The physical sword remained in your world.”
“So it was a myth that was stolen. How do you steal a myth? Why would you want to?”
Declan smiled. “Sean you are now in Tyr na nOg,” he said. “Here myths are a solid reality. When the spirit of the sword was returned here, it once again assumed physical form. I really don’t know what would happen if it returned to your world.”
By this time they had reached the fortress on top of the hill. Two massive wooden gates confronted them and on either side were tall stone towers. The gates were carved in intricate and complicated patterns. By carefully tracing the pattern with his eyes, Sean could make out two hounds, or maybe wolves, facing each other. The gates were closed and standing in front of them were two guards. They wore bright orange tunics under chain mail coats. On their heads were high crowned helmets and round, wooden shields were strapped to their left arms. One of them held a short, fighting spear, about six feet long and tipped with a vicious leaf shaped blade. The other held a great, double handed sword. They were terrible to look at: every inch of their being seemed to radiate violence and overwhelming strength. The sight of them filled Sean with an overwhelming sense of dread and fear. He felt sure that no army could stand against these two guards and it took every bit of courage he had not to run away as they looked at him.
“Oh seriously!” Declan exclaimed. “Is this really necessary? You know who I am, you knew my mission, and you knew the company I would be bringing back.”
“Declan,” the right hand guard replied, “we know you but there has been violence and murder and a dangerous article is missing. We need to know who you are bringing into the citadel.”
Summoning every bit of his courage and will, Sean stepped forward and identified himself.
“I am Guard Sean MacCarthy of the Garda Síochána na hÉireann. I am a guardian of the law and I am offering my assistance in solving a crime.”
A brief silence followed and Sean straightened his uniform and looked the guards in the eye. Suddenly they seemed much smaller somehow. They were undoubtedly still capable fighters but he no longer felt the awful fear and dread. Also, each of them now only carried light, ceremonial spears.
“That’s fine then,” the left hand one said, ”but we did have to check.”
A memory rose in Sean’s mind, a memory from childhood tales. “It was a glamour,” he said, amazed. “You put a glamour on yourselves so that no one would dare challenge you!”
Declan was laughing beside him. “And yet you did!’ he said. “You looked them in the eye and answered them back. This is priceless. Finn and Finbarr used their most fearsome glamour and they couldn’t scare a country policeman! This is a tale that will live long over many a dinner and it will get better at each telling.” The guards looked decidedly annoyed at this but Declan just walked past them, still laughing. “And a glamour is the simplest bit of magic for us. Children do it for fun and yet the mighty Finn and Finbarr cannot!”
He was still laughing as he gestured at the gates. They swung open for him and Sean followed him into the citadel of the High King.
Chapter Six – A royal audience.
Inside there were a large number of tall, round buildings standing around a central, open space where a large oak tree was growing. The largest hall, from which the green banner was flying and which Sean guessed was the palace of the High King, was on the opposite side of the tree to the gate and it was here that Declan led Sean.
Inside the building it was dark and Sean’s eyes took a while to adjust from the bright sunlight outside. Massive timber poles, carved in intricate shapes, surrounded a central fire pit. At the other end of the building was a raised dais supporting a large, flat stone. The building appeared empty and Declan walked swiftly around the fire to the dais at the other end. Sean took off his hat and followed close behind.
“Your majesty!” Declan called into the darkness. “I have brought you a guest.” There was silence. Declan called again, this time clearly annoyed. “You must’ve known I was coming. I expected to find you on your throne, waiting to greet us.”
A deep voice growled from behind them, “If you think I’m going to sit on that damnably uncomfortable stone any longer than I need to, you’ve had too much of Maeve’s cider. Let’s see you peace officer.” Sean turned around and found himself facing a giant of a man. A giant in all directions: very tall and very fat. He had dark red hair, a florid complexion and a long, untidy beard. Around his neck was a heavy, gold torc and he was dressed in an ample, brightly coloured, and heavily embroided, tunic. He stared intently at Sean with bright, royal blue eyes.
“Hmm,” he said after a moment’s inspection. “He seems a bit small. Couldn’t you get someone bigger? This one couldn’t wrestle a boar to save his life.”
“Your majesty,” Declan replied, with just the faintest hint of laughter in his voice, “May I present Sean Mac Carthy of the Garda Síochána na hÉireann. Who has been brought here to help catch a thief and solve a murder. I seriously doubt that there were any boars involved.”
The king continued to look at Sean, examining him with a casual curiosity. “MacCarthy eh? One of the Eóganachta. I knew Éogan Mór, a good man. He had a temper about him mind you but a good man nonetheless.” Perhaps it was the personal connection but of the all the wonders he had seen this day, it was this casual reference to his ancient, semi-legendary clan ancestor that sent a shiver up Sean’s spine. Sean made an awkward attempt at a bow but the High King just waved his hand in dismissal.
“Yes, yes,” he said. “All very important, I know. You’d better be on about it then. The fiana will be back from the hunt soon and I’m not sure that this little one would be entirely safe around them, even with you to protect him. He might get stepped on.” Declan made a graceful bow to the king and led Sean back outside.
There was a woman waiting for them just outside the door. She was dressed in a white tunic that hung off one shoulder. She had flawless, pale skin and long, bright red hair that shone gold in the sunlight. She was by far the most beautiful woman Sean had ever seen and for a moment he was speechless.
Then he leaned over and whispered to Declan. “Is that a glamour she has cast about herself?”
Declan laughed. “No,” he replied. “That’s just as she is.” He walked over to her and gestured towards Sean. “My Lady Finola, this is the guard: Sean MacCarthy.” Turning to Sean, he said, “Sean, this is the Lady Finola. It was she who retrieved An Fragarach when it was last in your world.” Finola graced Sean with a brilliant, radiant smile.
“I hope that you can help us solve this little puzzel quickly, Guard MacCarthy. I don’t want to have to do that again. I didn’t enjoy my last trip. Come, I will show you where An Fragarach was kept.”
Chapter Seven – The crime scene.
She led off to the side of the enclosure and to a small. stone building. It was of undressed drystone construction with low walls and a high, angled roof of slate shingles.
“This is the treasure house where An Fragarach was kept under guard,” she said. “We have left everything untouched since the bodies were found. I suggest that you and Declan begin your investigation. I will not entre. I do not wish to see what is in there.”
Declan and Sean had to bend down to walk through the low stone archway but once inside, they entered a large hall of polished marble: a hall much larger than the outside building. By this time, Sean’s sense of reality was so battered that he could not be shocked by anything – but he fell silent when he saw the bodies and the blood. He took a sharp breath. This was not a place of wonder. This was a place of horror.
There were five bodies. Two were close to the door and three were around a raised stone platform in the middle of the hall. Sean had no experience in homicide but he had had some procedural training and wasn’t long before a certain professional interest took over. He bent down and carefully and silently examined each of the bodies in turn.
The two close to the door were dressed in normal clothes and the way the bodies had fallen suggested that they had died facing each other. One had a small bullet hole in his back. When Sean carefully raised the body, he saw a massive wound with a sizeable part of the chest blown away. The spatter suggested that this was the source of most of the blood in this part of the hall.
“We know that one,” Declan said. “He was Fítheal, a renegade: one of a small group of misfits who have escaped to your world and hire themselves out as spies and assassins. We track them down when we can but they normally keep a very low profile. We know this one fell out with the current group leadership about six months ago and was expelled. He then just disappeared, something he was very good at. It’s possible that he came here to steal An Fragarach for some group in your world. Whatever of that, it was here that he died. We just don’t know how he was killed, we have never seen wounds like that before.”
“He was shot in the back with a military assault rifle,”Sean said. “The low calibre, high velocity ammunition only has a small entry wound but it sets up a supersonic shock wave in the body – hence the large exit wound.” Sean was already examining the other body. There were no obvious injuries but a small trickle of blood had flowed from his mouth as he lay on the floor.
“We don’t know who that one is,” Declan said.
“I do,” Sean said in answer. “He is William McConakel and his face is on wanted posters in every Guarda station in Ireland. He is a member of the Continuing Real IRA, a breakaway terrorist group that wants to continue the violence in the north. There are no obvious wounds on the body. I would need a post mortem to know the cause of death.”
“No you don’t,” Declan said. “His heart has exploded inside him. If your doctors cut him open, they would find only mush in his chest.” Sean looked up in surprise but Declan only shrugged. “It’s a simple killing spell and the obvious one to use against someone who had no defences.” Sean frowned and once again wished that he was armed: this place was dangerous.
He walked over to the other three bodies lying near the stone platform in the centre of the hall. Two were dressed as guards. They were lying on their backs on either side of the platform. They each had a single bullet hole in their chest and each was lying in a pool of blood. Sean knew that if he turned them over he would see the same horrific exit wound that he had seen before. The third body was that of an old woman. She was lying face down on the platform and had multiple bullet wounds in her back. Between her and the door there was a pile of bullets, undamaged but spent. Three of the light, ceremonial spears used by the guards at the gate lay around the platform. There was a lot of blood: the sight and the stench of it sickened Sean but he was beginning to get a sense of what had happened.
“I take it that the sword was on the platform?” Sean asked.
Declan nodded. “Those two are twin brothers,” he said indicating the guards. “It was their week to watch over the sword. The woman is their mother. She often came to see her boys when they were on duty. Strictly speaking, it was forbidden but no one really cared enough to stop her. After all, it was only an old relic.”
Sean walked over to the pile of bullets and said, “Declan, there will be others like this around the hall, Could you show me where they are?” Declan nodded and waved his hand. Around the hall the spent bullets glowed bright red. Sean carefully noted the distribution and then walked over to the spent shell casings. He picked one up and showed it to Declan, who nodded. Around the hall the spent shell casings glowed yellow. There were two large piles near the door. Nowhere was there any sign of the guns. Seam sighed. He had not personally encountered murder before and the brutality and sadness of it cut deep into his heart.
Chapter Eight – Reconstructing the crime
“I think I know what happened,” he said. “There were three of them; two who I would guess were both Continuing Real IRA thugs and your Fítheal character. As they came through the door, the two terrorists raised their rifles and shot the guards. The guards didn’t even recognise the rifles as weapons so they didn’t defend themselves. They were dead before they knew they were being attacked. Their mother, on the other hand, saw what happened to her sons and I’m guessing she used her magic to create some kind of shield. That’s why there’s that pile of spent bullets: she just stopped them in mid-air.”
Declan nodded. “Yes, it could well be possible.”
“But I’m guessing that she couldn’t do that for long,” Sean continued. “The weapons were powerful, she was old and she was resisting Fítheal at the same time. When she realised she couldn’t resist much longer, she turned to try and secure the sword. Then,” Sean said grimly, “and they shot her in the back…many times. Is there any chance she could have sort of magiced the sword away somewhere before she was shot?”
Declan shook his head. “No, Fítheal would be expecting that and he would have been able to stop her. Why do you ask?”
“Because there’s something wrong…” He walked over to the two bodies near the door. “Let’s consider these two. They died facing each other. I’m guessing they had an argument and Billy McConakel here tried to shoot your Fítheal. That was a big mistake because he had no defence against magic. Bill’s partner, on the other hand, saw what happened to Billy and shot Fítheal in the back before the same could happen to him. The first question is: what were they fighting over?”
Declan shrugged. “It’s not uncommon for thieves to fight over the spoils,” he said.
“True,” Sean replied, “but here I don’t think there were any spoils. I think they were fighting over what had gone wrong.”
“How so?” Declan asked.
“Well,” Sean replied. “My curiosity was roused by the fact that there was a lot of blood but no bloody footprints. How did they get the sword?”
“Fítheal could have levitated it across,” Declan suggested.
Sean shook his head. “Maybe,” he said, “but I asked myself: wouldn’t the sword have been covered in blood? Why is there no trail of bloody drops on the floor? Is it likely that Fítheal was neat enough to clean it up? I don’t think so. Also, if you look at the platform you’ll see that it’s covered in the poor woman’s blood and there’s no sword shaped gap where the blood isn’t. That means that the sword was already gone before she was shot. And if our murderous little thief did get the sword, what did he do with it? Notice, both guns are missing. Assault rifles are heavy and I’ll bet that the sword was heavy too. How could he carry both guns and a great, heavy sword? Why would he want to? No, the real mystery here is not how these men died but what happened to the sword.”
Declan scratched his head, puzzled. He raised his hand and bright light filled every dark shadow in the hall. There was no sign of the sword.
“Then where do you think the sword is now?” he asked.
“I’m not sure yet but I have another question for you,” Sean replied. “How did these three get in here and where did our missing man go?”
Declan smiled ruefully. “Despite our best efforts, there are many secret, magical portals in and out of the citadel,” he said.
“Okay,” Sean said, ”but could Billy’s very non-magical IRA mate make any of them work?”
Declan looked thoughtful for a moment. “I doubt it,” he said, “and not even those two dolts on the gate are stupid enough to let anyone leave. He must still be hiding in the citadel.” He turned and walked swiftly out of the building. “Come Guard MacCarthy,” he called over his shoulder. “We have a murderer to hunt!” Sean followed as fast as he could.
Chapter Nine – The capture
When they left the building, Sean expected Declan to call some warriors together to start the search. Instead he did something quite unexpected. He whispered to the Lady Finola. She nodded, held out her arms and called down a sparrow. The small bird sat on her hand and listened as she whispered to it. It then flew off to joint its flock and soon there were sparrows flying everywhere. Declan bowed to Finola and then walked off through the citadel, watching the flight of the birds. After a few moments, however, he started to frown and his frown grew deeper as he continued to watch the birds.
“What’s wrong?” Sean asked.
“The birds have been instructed to roost where they find fugitive,” Declan answered. “I expected them to find him before this but they’re not settling anywhere. It’s beginning to look as if he may have escaped after all. The birds are hard to fool.”
Sean watched the flight of the birds with renewed interest and he noticed something that Declan, focussed on where the birds would be landing, had missed.
“Sometimes the absence is just as important as the occurrence,” he said, quoting one of his Templemore instructors. Declan looked at him quizzically and Sean pointed to a small barn of rough-hewn stone, built against the outside wall of the citadel. “Why are there no birds flying near there when they’re as thick as anything everywhere else?” he asked.
“A good question Guard Sean MacCarthy,” Declan said grimly, “And who is it that is going to such effort to ensure that small barn isn’t noticed? You see the old woman sitting at the door, head down and wrapped in a ragged shawl and taking no interest in the world around her?” Sean nodded. ”Well, I know of no such woman in Tyr na nOg. I think it’s time this little game ended.” He strode quickly down to the barn with Sean following close behind.
Declan pointed to the woman, who was still sitting motionless beside the door. “Reveal yourself,” he said. The bent, old lady vanished and in her place was a woman dressed in tight, black leather pants and a metal studded leather coat. A long dagger was strapped to her left thigh.
She threw her long, red hair back over her shoulder and smiled. “Hello Declan,” she said. “It’s been a long time.”
“Gráinne,” Declan said. “I should have known. You’ll get no leniency from the king, not now that you’re involved in murder…”
“I am not involved in any murder,” she interrupted. “I’m just the door keeper here…”
“You can explain that to the judges at your trial,” Declan said.
The woman smiled sweetly at him. “No. I don’t think so,” she said. Then she was enveloped in a ball of flame and smoke and, as it cleared, one more bird joined the thousands already flying around the citadel. Many of these now came to rest on the thatched roof of the barn.
“I’ll get her later,” Declan muttered. “For now, we’ve found our man.”
“Be careful,” Sean cautioned, “You have seen what those guns can do.”
“Do not worry Sean. One of the advantages of being who I am is the ability to see around corners and even through walls. I am prepared.” Declan gestured and the wall of the barn became transparent. Sean could see a frightened figure, holding an assault rifle in each hand and waiting to ambush anyone who came through the door.
“We can see him but he can’t see us,” Declan explained. “I think we should take his weapons off him before he hurts anyone else.” Both rifles disappeared. The man cried out in terror and desperately, almost comically, searched for them around him, as if they had somehow just fallen down.
“I think we should also stop him from running away,” Declan continued, and the figure in the barn was lifted off the ground to hang, upside down, in the air. Even as he was moved out of the barn, into the sunlight, he was still franticly struggling to find what was holding him: nothing was. He was just hanging there, upside down, about five meters from the ground.
A rope appeared from nowhere and wrapped itself around the still frantic figure. Declan then lowered him gently to the ground and stood him on his feet. Behind him the barn had returned to its normal opaque state.
“I know you,” Sean said. “You’re Charlie Bruin. You’re wanted in connection to that terrorist bombing in Ballynagel.” The relief on the man’s face when he noticed the Guarda uniform was truly comical.
“Yes! Yes! That’s me,” he cried in English. “Arrest me! Take me back to Ireland for trial. Don’t, for the love of God, leave me here. This place isn’t natural!”
Sean shook his head. “I’m afraid I have no jurisdiction,” he said in a rather pompous voice, as if explaining the law to a child. “When in a foreign land you are subject to the laws and legal procedures of that place.” He stopped, uncertain, and looked at Declan. “There are legal procedures aren’t there? You don’t just get to kill him?”
Declan laughed. “Oh don’t worry Sean,” he said. “We follow the old ways. This one will have his trial. There will be three judges to hear him and a lawyer to speak for him. They’ll decide the blood price to be paid. The price will be high and he may indeed pay with his life. He killed two guardians and an old lady using cowardly weapons. Still, he also killed Fítheal na Néifinn which was a public service and will count in his favour. Now there is a question I need answered.” He addressed the bound man in English, smiling and with his voice friendly and persuasive.
“Now Charlie, you should know that if you refuse to answer my questions, that rope will get tighter: uncomfortably, even painfully, so. If you attempt to run away, it will become so tight you will not be able to breathe. Do you understand?” Charlie nodded miserably. “Good! Where is the sword?”
“I don’t know,” Charlie replied. The rope began to tighten. “No! I really don’t know.” He cried in panic. “There was a bright flash and the sword was just gone. Felix, the bastard who brought us here, he didn’t know either. He said it wasn’t possible. Billy and him had this big argument. Then he killed Billy by magic and I had to kill him quick or he’d have done me too. I swear I don’t know what happened to the sword. It was just gone.”
Declan looked thoughtful. “Unfortunately, I believe you,” he said. “Sean, will you please stay here a moment?” He then reached out and touched the bound man and they both disappeared. Declan reappeared a few minutes later.
“Sorry to leave you,” he said. “I just had to take him off to the dungeon. He’ll keep the rats company until we can get the trial together. Now we have a mystery we may not be able to solve. What happened to the sword?”
“I think I may know,” Sean said. “Can we go back to the treasure house?” Declan reached out his hand but Sean stepped back rapidly. “No, thank you but I think I’d rather walk.”
Declan smiled. “As you wish,” he said. “This way…”
Chapter Ten – The sword
A few minutes later they stepped back into the torch lit hall of the treasure chamber. It was just as they had left it. Sean walked over to the platform, carefully avoiding the pools of blood.
“The question is:” he said. “Why, if there were two guards, are there three spears?” He looked at the spears. Two were lying near the bodies of the guards and one was lying at the base of the platform. “I think that the old lady knew that she couldn’t hold out much longer so she resorted to the simplest magic she knew: magic she had known even as a child. She caused a bright flash of light which not only confused and distracted her attackers but also blinded them temporarily. We use flash bangs to do the same thing. Then she cast a glamour on the sword as she pushed it off the platform.”
He closed his eyes as he bent down to pick up the spear at the base of the platform. It was heavy and as he moved his hands along it, his sense of touch told him that it was not a spear at all but a broad, two handed sword in a tooled leather scabbard, with a long shoulder strap. He felt a surge of power as he held it and he opened his eyes. The glamour had gone and he could see An Fragarach as what it was: ancient, beautiful and deadly. He could feel the power reaching up his arms. He could not take his eyes of the great weapon he held in his hands.
He could hear Declan’s voice as if from a long way away, “Sean put the sword down! Put the sword back on the platform!” He looked up, dazed, as the power touched the edges of his mind. “I’m sorry Sean. I’m so sorry,” Declan said as he pointed his finger. Then all the world spun and blurred and went black.
Sean woke to find himself lying on a bed a sweet smelling hay. Close above him was the thatched roof of one of the round houses. As he rolled out of the bed he could see that he was on a wooden platform that formed a kind of flat balcony all the way round the building. When he looked over the edge, he could see Declan sitting by the central fire pit and playing on a small harp.
“Hey,” he called out. “What happened and why am I up here?”
Declan looked up and smiled. “Ah, good. You’re awake,” he said. “The trial is due to start shortly and we need you as a witness.”
“But what happened?” Sean insisted. “How did I get up here?” He looked around the platform, “And how do I get down?” There were no ladders or steps that he could see and it was certainly too high to jump. Declan gestured and Sean found himself on the floor next to the fire. He struggled quickly to his feet.
“Our people don’t have much use for ladders or stairs,” Declan explained. “As for what happened…”He spread his hands in a gesture of sad helplessness. “I’m afraid I had to render you unconscious. I’m sorry Sean but the sword would have possessed you. I should have realised that you would be vulnerable. You see, it was the sword of the king’s avenger. Its very nature is to enforce justice and it recognised in you a guardian of the law. It would have attached itself to you. I had to stop it before it touched your mind.”
Sean remembered the feeling of power he had felt when touching the sword. “What would have been so bad about it attaching itself to me?” he asked.
Declan grimaced. “It would be a fearsome power. I doubt very much that you would have been able to control it and I don’t think its notion of justice would fit very well into your world’s understanding of legal process. No, An Fragarach is best left with us. Come, straighten yourself up. You need to look presentable before the judges.”
Chapter Eleven – The trial
About twenty minutes later, Sean was standing in the King’s hall watching the trial unfold. The prisoner was held in chains at one side of the hall, with a guard either side of him. When he had first been brought in and had spotted Sean’s Guarda uniform, he had called out desperately, “Guard! Guard! For the love of God, don’t leave me here!” The High King, who was now sitting on his rock/throne with the three dark robed judges in front of him, called to the prisoner.
“Be silent. You will have your time to speak.” When Charlie Bruin kept calling out, the king wearily waved his hand and Charlie was silent. He was still trying to yell but now no sound came from his throat. He started to panic and struggle until a figure in a long robe of white wool came over to him, touched him on the arm and seemed to speak gently to him.
“One of the Christian monks,” Declan whispered to Sean. “Brendan came here and we couldn’t stop him. He set up a monastery out near the mouth of the river and his monks have been here ever since.”
“Brendan?” Sean asked in shock. “Do you mean Brendan the Navigator? St Brendan, who lived over a thousand years ago?”
Declan nodded. “The same,” he said. “A remarkable man, utterly immune to our power. Thanks to him, there are a considerable number of the Tuatha de Dannan who are now Christian and the irony of that is exquisite.”
For all the strangeness of the surroundings, the process of the trial was familiar. One clear difference was that none of the witnesses took an oath. It was just assumed that they would tell the truth. The two relief guards who had found the bodies were called to their account. Charlie Bruin’s representative then questioned them to establish that they had not seen Charlie anywhere near the crime scene. A physician gave evidence that the wounds seen on four of the bodies could not be caused by any weapon available to the Tuatha de Dannan nor by any known piece of magic. Next Finola was called to discuss the importance of An Fragarach and its implications outside Tyr na nOg. She also spoke of the decision to send Declan to Ireland. Then Declan gave his evidence and the two assault rifles were brought in a placed on a table in front of the judges. Sean was alarmed to see that they were both still loaded and that the safetys were off. The court clearly had no idea how dangerous these weapons were.
Sean was the last witness to be called. He gave his evidence in the simple, straightforward manner he had been taught at Templemore. He then was cross examined by Charlie’s lawyer.
“Guard Mac Carthy,”he began formally. “That is your correct title?” Sean nodded. “Do you know this man?” He pointed at Charlie.
“Not personally,” Sean answered. “But he is sought by every guard in Ireland.”
“So it would be fair to say that your people have a grudge against him,” the lawyer said waving broadly, “a grudge which could affect your judgement.”
“No,” Sean said firmly. “It’s not a grudge. It’s the law. He is wanted in relation to the murder of women and children as they gathered for a market in Donegal. He exploded a bomb in the middle of a crowded market square.” The whole hall went very quiet. That someone would deliberately set out to kill women and children, and to do so in such a cowardly way, was beyond their experience.
Then the chief judge spoke. “That matter is beyond the competence of this court,” he said. “Guard MacCarthy, I have a question for you. Could these weapons, found with the accused, cause the wounds seen on those four bodies?”
“Yes,” Sean replied. “Those wounds are typical of this kind of weapon.”
The judge on the left looked doubtful. “Could you demonstrate this to the court?” he asked.
“Certainly,” Sean said nervously. “But what would you have me shoot?” He had a real worry that they would ask him to demonstrate on Charlie Bruin. It proved to be unfounded. A freshly killed stag was brought from the kitchens and suspended by magic near the door of the hall. After instructing all those standing directly behind the stag to get clear, he took aim with one of the assault rifles and fired. The shot echoed through the hall which filled with the acrid smell of cordite while blood and flesh from the stag sprayed across the doorway. The court was silent as the sound of the shot died away. The body of the stag was brought up to the judges and the nature of the wound was clear for all to see.
It was the High King himself who broke the silence. “Well I only hope that we have another stag for the feast tonight,” he said. “That one’s ruined and will someone please clean that mess off my front door!” The judges looked at the damage done to the stag and then went over to a private corner to discuss the matter among themselves. When they returned, the chief judge stood and called for the interested parties to come forward.
Charlie Bruin was brought before the judges and two women who, apart from Finola, were the only women in the hall, also stepped forward.
“Gentle ladies,” the chief judge said. “This man has been found guilty of the murder of your husbands and their mother. His life is yours. Do you want him killed?”
The taller of the two women spoke up. “No, my lord. We have been deprived of our husbands to work our land and watch out cattle. We have decided to keep him as a bonded servant until his strength fails and he is no longer of any use.”
The High King nodded. “So be it,” he said. “Take him away and give him into the service of these widows.” Charlie Bruin was taken, still struggling ineffectually against his bonds, from the hall and the assembled crowd began to break up.
Declan came over to Sean. “Time for us to go,” he said. “Come, we need to get you back before you’re missed.”
Chapter Twelve – The return
A short time later, and for the second time that day, Sean found himself sitting in the bottom of Declan’s boat. Declan was again standing near the prow as the boat moved swiftly down the river.
“How long will it take to get back? Sean asked. At the sound of Sean’s voice, Declan turned around and smiled. “We are just approaching the mouth of the river and the Atlantic Ocean. From there we will track directly to the northern coast of the Dingle Peninsula. It will not take us long. See there. That is the monastery of Brendan’s monks.” He pointed to a hill off to the right. At the top of the hill was a high gabled Romanesque church with a tall round tower. There were small, stone huts gathered around it and the monks could be seen working in the fields on the hill’s southern slopes.
By this time the boat was moving through the surf with a casual grace and they were soon out on the open ocean. Soon after, they were approaching the Irish coast through a choppy sea. This didn’t worry the boat at all. Nor did the surf nearer to the coast and it glided easily up onto the sand and was still. Declan jumped gracefully from the boat. Sean followed him somewhat more awkwardly and found himself on the same beach near Brandon Point that they had left from earlier.
“How long have I been gone?” Sean asked.
“In your time, you have only been gone about fifteen minutes. As you may remember from your childhood stories, time is different in Tyr na nOg.” Declan paused and then held out his hand. “Well done, Sean MacCarthy of the Garda Síochána na hÉireann. Today you’ve earned the gratitude of the Tuatha de Dannan and that is no small thing.” Sean shook his hand and then, without another word and with the same unnatural grace he always had, Declan climbed into his boat and passed swiftly through the surf and off into the west.
There would be rain later but for now the sun was shining and it was a fine, soft afternoon with the wind coming in from the west – yet as he watched the small boat disappear, Sean couldn’t help but feel that he was losing something precious and even the gentle day now seemed flat.
Returning to his patrol car, Sean radioed back his status. “Sean here sergeant, that boat was a waste of time. Turns out there was nothing strange about it at all.” Sean’s hand went up to feel his right shoulder.
“That’s good then,” came the reply. “Could you head over to Harry O’Kealy’s place? He claims someone has kidnapped ten of his pigs. The man’s daft! Who would to steal those ugly brutes?”
Sean smiled. “I’m right on to it,” he said. He sat quietly in the car for a moment and remembered the feeling of power reaching up through his arms. His hand went back to his right shoulder. He shook his head to dismiss the feeling. There was nothing there. So why did he feel as if something heavy was hanging across his back?
Thank you for reading my story. If you liked it, why not post a review with your favourite retailer? If you would like to read more about Declan and Sean, watch for the sequel to this story, Return of the Answerer, which will be published in 2016.
Declan MhicOisin is also a character in my fantasy series, Myfanwy’s People. Check it out.
Joseph H.J. Liaigh
The Answerer is a sword of legendary power. It is hidden when the Normans overrun Ireland only to be found, amidst much bloodshed, nearly a thousand years later. The Tuatha De Dannan retrieve the sword and take it to Tyr na nOg for safe keeping but there are still those in our world who want its power and there are those of the De Dannan who would give it to them. There is bloodshed, murder and theft and even the mighty De Dannan need help. Together, Declan of the Tuatha De Dannan and a young Irish policeman, just out of the Templemore Academy, Guard Sean MacCarthy, must bring a murderer to justice and, most importantly, find out what happened to the sword. Of course, the Answerer may not want to be locked away.