When I have trouble working on my longer, more involved work, I sometimes sit down and try to write short fiction. Usually trying to find a style of writing I don’t normally practice. Earlier this year I completed a piece entitled “In The Eyes of the Emerald King” which is a sort of historical fiction story chronicling a battle waged by an Irish king going by the name of Máel Sechnaill mac Máele Ruanaid who upon his death in November of 862 was referred to as “king of all Ireland.” There is a lament for this man listed in The Fragmentary Annals which reads;
There is much sorrow everywhere;
there is a great misfortune among the Irish.
Red wine has been spilled down the valley;
the only King of Ireland has been slain.
This story tells the story of his encounter with a fictional Norse warlord named Brynjar Asmundsson. Máel had numerous encounters with viking raiders but the battle described here is (to my knowledge anyway) entirely fictional. Details of his early life and familial squabbles are historically factual however although his characterization is also a creation of my own devising, as historical records that hew towards fact as opposed to hyperbole seem to be lacking.
Anyhow, seeing how today is my birthday and I’ve received several wonderful gifts I am presenting this story as a gift to the world, because I’m feeling generous and honestly I like the story. It’s not like my usual work and I hope people enjoy it.
In The Eyes of the Emerald King
By J. Goodson Dodd
The King stood on a grassy hill that overlooked the sea. Blue waves crashed against white sand and the fine, grey, salty mist splashed his face as he looked out across the sea. His mind was a tempest to rival the raging of the waves. His rule was in contention. There were those who sought to usurp his reign as rí hÉrenn uil, “King of All Ireland.” Blood had been spilled to earn the title. He had taken the life of his brother, Flann, and taken even more land by force following the death of Niall Caille mac Áeda.
The dreamscape of his mind was awash with red fire. The Norsemen who so often plagued his lands and pillaged his treasures had amassed in grand numbers to take the isle in its entirety. Vikings, brandishing stolen swords and shouting war cries in foreign tongues stormed the beach below and beat out a pounding rhythm against their shields as they fell into a tight formation. The Norsemen were warriors, true. But the men of Ireland had a fury in their veins that the Viking intruders could never match. This was their land, and they had fought Saxons and Welshmen and all manner of attackers to protect it.
King Mael was a warrior born, unafraid of battle or the possibility of death. He had come to prominence years earlier, gaining fame after striking down his own cousin to protect the kingship of the lands of Mide, which he would later take for himself. He knew how to fight and would lead the vanguard against the invaders on this day. He had experience fighting the Norsemen. He had two years past defeated Thorgest, also called Turges or Turgesius, a violent Viking raider. Mael, not yet the King, had taken Thorgest captive and in a show of dominance that spread his legend far and wide, drowned the bastard in Lough Owel.
The man leading the raiders today was unknown to him. He was a burly man, with pale hair the color of rough ash and a beard that hung low to his belly. He looked a fearsome sight, his pock-marked face wet and flecked with sand. He bellowed in his native tongue and the men he gathered shouted back, a cacophonous symphony of impending violence. King Mael knew that sound well. He had faced it down enough times that it no longer turned his guts to fluttering sparrows but instead burned the blood in his veins and pushed him forward to war.
He turned on his heels and approached his own men, an assemblage of tested warriors who had fought behind the shield wall many times over. It took strength to fight in a shield wall. Courage. It was not a common thing to find men who could count the number of times they had stood in a shield wall on both hands. Those who had were lucky if they had both hands. The wall was a proving ground for young warriors. Those that lived were made stronger and those who did not suffered a harsh end. It had taken time for the men of Ireland to adapt to the shield wall. They preferred a more frantic attack, to keep the minds of their enemies scattered. The wall was structure, solid and impregnable if manned by hearty warriors. It was logical. Mael spat into the dirt. Logic did not win wars, tactics did. Courage did.
He could see the Norsemen building their shield wall. They kept their left flank to the beach so that Mael’s men could not circle around to that side and break through that exposed area. The right flank curved to provide protection on the opposite end. It was a strong wall. Their leader stood at the fore of the wall and beat his shield with the pommel of his sword.
“We will drive a wedge through their wall,” Mael said. “Break them in the middle and penetrate outward. Let them know what sort the men of Ireland are.”
The captain of his warriors nodded in approval. He was a tall man, lean and dark, sporting a face crisscrossed with scars from fights long past. He barked orders at his men who lined up and brandished their axes and short-swords, eager to draw blood from their Norse enemies. Every one of them was a hardened warrior. Each man in the ranks had faced Viking steel before. It would be foolish to say that they did not fear their opponents, that they did not have to ready themselves for the oncoming carnage. A few men vomited, their half-digested breakfast splattering upon their boots and leather armor. A few prayed, but not all. Every man had a ritual, and though there was some overlap they were often undertaken in solitude, independent of the man beside him.
“These men,” the King shouted to his men with the thundering authority of the crown in his voice, “wish to take our land! Our home! Will you let them?”
There was no intelligible reply. The men roared, a fiery rage of defiance echoing and crashing back against the sound of breaking waves. The King did not allow a smile to cross his face. He was proud. Proud of the Irishmen who had assembled before him, ready to fight and die to repel the foreign bastards who dared to insult the beauty of his kingdom. Mael had fought to become rí hÉrenn uil. The whole of the land belonged to him and he would be damned before he saw any fraction of it under the thrall of Norse usurpers.
The King drew his own sword, a short steel blade with a keen edge sharp enough to shatter lesser weapons. “Cuimhnigh I gconai,” he shouted. “Nil ach braon beag fola ort!” Always remember. It is only a little blood. That was always Mael’s cry, always his creed, and his men took it to heart.
The Irish raged forth, shouting and howling like banshees, the noise of their fury rising over the sound of crashing waves. The Norsemen held fast and stood their ground, bracing for the impact of the attack against their shield wall. They dug their feet and locked their shields, ready to repel the onslaught. Mael let loose another blood-curdling scream of righteous fury and from his rear a pair of men rushed forward, ahead of their king. One stopped mid-sprint and knelt, exposing his back to the other. The second stepped up the man’s spine, and the kneeling man stood, launching his ally into the air and over the front ranks of the shield wall. He came crashing down, slashing with a short sword in each hand, drawing blood as he tore at the Norsemen from inside their own ranks.
There was panic now, as men in the front rank turned to face the danger to their rear. And it was in their panic that Mael found his victory. His men crashed against the shield wall, shattering it inward and raining violence down upon them. Men in the viking rear rank rushed forward to repel the attack but such actions were folly, as the glorious Irish trod over the bodies of fallen Norsemen to drive them back toward their fleet. The fighting spread outward, expanding rings of violence leaving a trail of spilled crimson lifeblood in its wake, staining the sand beneath the battling warriors into a swampy muck of rust colored drudgery.
Mael scanned the crowd for his enemy.As he had made an example of Thorgest he would do the same for this new would-be usurper. He would take his sword and take his life. For a viking warrior there is no greater shame than to die without a sword in hand, for they could not reach the halls of Valhalla and feast with their fallen comrades if they did not die a warrior’s death. Mael had no intention of giving this man a warrior’s death. He had not earned it. He was a slithering eel who sought to take what was not his own and for that he would be punished and humiliated.
He finally caught a glimpse of his foe from across the field of battle. The King locked eyes with the man and turned to face him. He stalked across the beach, stepping over fallen vikings, his boots sloshing through blood-rich mud. “Who is it that dares to face King Máel Sechnaill mac Máele Ruanaid?” he shouted at the viking, teeth gritted and anger flaring in his eyes. “Who is it that came here to die this day?”
“Brynjar Asmundsson,” the man called back. “And I still breathe! My men still fight!”
Mael laughed.“They will soon be lost souls wandering without purpose after death,” he shouted. “Or slaves to plow my fields and reap my corn and they will all remember the day King Mael laid low Brynjar Asmundsson, the worthless whore who thought he was strong enough to defeat the men of Ireland.”
“The men of Ireland are worthless dogs,” Asmundsson replied. “who should have been drowned as pups.”
They stood a swords breadth apart now, staring each other down and waiting for someone to make the first move. The fighting around them scattered and the men fell into groups. The norsemen fell back against the shoreline, watching as their leader stared down the Irish King. The Irishmen backed away as well, forming a semicircle behind Mael and cheering him on in bursts of shouted gaelic.
The viking moved first. He lept forward, slashing with his sword, hoping to cleave his enemy’s head in two like a ripe melon. Mael stepped aside and let the sword swoop where he had stood moments earlier. He did not block, he did not counterattack. He waited. The norseman cried out and swung again, a wide arcing attack meant to spill Mael’s guts and leave them steaming on the wet mud below. Again Mael sidestepped the attack, choosing not to counterstrike but allow Brynjar to tire himself. The Norseman carried a heavy sword, long and encumbering. Mael’s sword was light and swift, with a keen edge. He did not fear to pair it against the blade of his enemy but he would wait for his moment.
“Why do you not fight, you coward?” the viking spat.
Mael remained silent and again dodged the Norseman’s attack. He did not rise to the position of High King by talking. He did it by winning. By going for the kill. The viking was afraid. Mael could sense it in the wild manner of the man’s attack, the desperation in every swing. Mael was far from desperate, he was relishing the moment.
At long last Brynjar did something unexpected. He dropped his sword and lunged at Mael, grabbing at the King’s throat and tossing him into the muck. Mael lost grip of his sword and found himself for once on the defensive as the viking warlord rained thunderous closed fists against the side of his head. The Irish King drove a knee upward, hoping to catch his enemy in a vulnerable area but the blow simply glanced off the man’s thigh.
The viking grabbed Mael’s head from the sides and jammed his thumbs into the sockets of the King’s eyes.Mael wrenched his head free and drove his elbow repeatedly into the side of his attacker’s face. Bone cracked on bone and Brynjar Asmundsson spat blood and teeth into the mud as he stumbled to his feet. He staggered toward his sword as Mael found his footing. As he knelt to retrieve his weapon the Irish king leapt through the air and crashed down upon the man’s back, sending him face first into the mud and blood. Mael reached for the Norseman’s fallen sword, but the viking kicked out with both feet, driving the heel of his boots into the King’s stomach and doubling him over. With a mighty cry Brynjar rushed forward, tackling Mael and tumbling them both into the muck. They rolled and they tussled, fighting and clawing each other with violent ferocity, a primal battle not unlike two wild predators sparring for dominance.
Brynjar Admundsson found his feet but his opponent swept his legs from under him with a swift kick of his legs, and the viking warlord crashed against the beach onto his back with a resounding sloppy thud. Mael stood and took hold of the Norseman’s leg, raising it vertically as the man lie on his back. Standing above the man’s head and still holding fast to his leg, the King cried out and kicked forth driving the heel of his boot against his opponent’s knee, the sound of bone shattering muffled by the warlord’s screams of pain and anguish. The crowd of Irishmen cheered, for their King was victorious and their enemy had been felled. Brynjar Admundsson crawled through the mud, desperately grabbing for the hilt of his sword, knowing that there was no outcome but death in his future but refusing to be denied a warrior’s defeat.
King Mael arrived at the weapon first and grasped it by the hilt. He raised it high and in a smooth motion flung the blade into the ocean, watching as it sunk beneath the waves. Brynjar Admundsson cursed the Irish King under his breath and rolled onto his back, staring into the grim, grey sky that lingered overhead like an all-enveloping cloak of despair.
Mael grabbed the man by the scruff of his hair and pulled him to his knees, resting the invader on the shattered leg and causing him to cry out in pain. From his belt he drew a small dagger and held it to the viking’s throat.
“Slán go fóill,” he whispered to his enemy. “An nì a thig leis a’ghaoith, falbhaidh e leis an uisge.”
What comes with the wind goes with the water.
The King slit the Norseman’s throat and stood back as the blood spurted from the wound. The warlord fell in a heap at Mael’s feet and the man’s warriors watched as their leader died a terrible death. He died without a sword and would never join his ancestors in Valhalla.
“Go now,” the King shouted. “And never return.”
He turned and faced his men, who knelt and parted as he passed. Behind him, the few remaining Norse invaders trudged toward their boats, looking over their shoulders at their fallen leader lying in the dirt. Mael could have had them all killed, or enslaved, but he let them go. Let them sail far and wide to tell the tale of how King Máel Sechnaill mac Máele Ruanaid spilled blood to preserve his kingdom, of the grisly and humiliating defeat of Brynjar Asmundsson and of the glory of Irish victory.