Irish tales: from The Hounds of Nemhain

As promised, here are some snippets from my Irish historical novels published a few years ago, in celebration of Saint Patrick. This first post comes from the least known of all my books. For some reason it never caught on, probably because of the clunky title. That might change… Also, it is directed at a rather young audience—I was teaching language to middle-schoolers then, so I may have had my students in mind. I had always been fascinated by the story of the historical Saint Patrick being kidnapped by Irish raiders, turned into a slave, then going on to become the converter of pagan Ireland. My protagonist here, a young boy, is no Saint Patrick, but I was trying to recreate the whole primitive-pirate experience. And since hounds are so tightly woven into Irish lore, I decided to create a canine character as well, my first (and only, except for the manic little Shelties in Wives of the Saints). So to set up the action here: Bran, the main character, at the beginning of the book, has been gravely burned in a fire that has killed the rest of his family. He is being cared for by the pagan priest Matha, who hopes to restore him to health:

Within days, the boy began to squirm and move, coming in and out of consciousness, flailing about in agony when he came to completely. Matha gave him herbs and soporifics, which helped bring on calming sleep and instructive dreams. A few days after that, he began to feed the boy life-giving foods such as cooked chickens’ eggs and cow or mare’s milk, mashing the food carefully in his mortar, and feeding it to him bit by bit. Everything was washed down with water, more and more water.

One of Matha’s hounds was Archu, an enormous creature nearly reaching a man’s shoulders. His name meant ‘the killing hound,’ though the dog was as gentle as a lamb, with soft fur and mottled white-gray-brown coloring. The hound seemed respectfully curious about the boy, and sat by the pallet the boy lay on, watching him for hours with great doleful dark eyes. This puzzled Matha, who was certain the hound must know something about the boy, something he, Matha, could not or would not ever know. For this reason, he did not turn to his usual method of fate-telling, which would involve killing a small animal such as a hare, and trying to read the future in its entrails. Or chewing a dried piece of dog meat and spitting it out. Matha, having grown a bit cynical with age, did not think those actions would really tell him anything.

He continued to give the boy water and apply poultices to the burns; and he let Archu sit and sleep by the boy’s bedside, shooing the other dogs away when they tried to provoke Archu into playful fighting.  Matha hoped the boy would survive the winter that was just beginning; he hoped by spring he would know the boy’s fate. In the meantime, he would do everything he could to keep the boy alive. The gods, he thought, in their wisdom, had reasons for him to live.

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