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The Adventure of Dun Aengus

Pentecost falls on a glorious morning and the knights set out in search of adventure once more. Three of them only, this fine day, for word has reached Steeple Langford that Sir Rupert's father has at last departed his earthly home, and the young knight perforce must return home to take charge of the estate. The others bid him farewell with much regret, and turn their course toward Bath, where they take lodging at the Cowardly Wyvern.
     The innkeeper is nosy, and asks the knights about their purpose in the city; Bath is not exactly known for its questing potential, and there are rumors of giants in Cornwall. Elffin tells the man that they are planning to head north. Richard makes the close acquaintance of one of the serving wenches, much to his own astonishment (not to mention everyone else's). The knights look about the city, but find no sign of Isaac. That night, they are awakened in their room by an urchin knocking at the window. He tells them that Isaac sent him. He has their horses, saddled and loaded. The knights and their direly confused squires (who know nothing of the secret mission) follow him with some misgivings, but he does indeed take them to the wise rabbi and a brave captain, Mertyn of the Blue Cap, who Isaac has chosen to take them west. They must leave at once, Isaac tells them.
     They reach the port of Bristol at dawn, and Captain Mertyn's ship, The White Rose, just in time to take the morning tide and begin their westward journey. The squires are, for the most part, unhappily resigned. The horses are unhappy and not particularly resigned. Isaac, on the other hand, seems very pleased to be underway, but also concerned about something. He has with him a large, locked trunk full of books and mysterious instruments. He explains to the knights that they must stop on the island of Dun Aengus, off the west coast of Eire, in order for him to take measure of their course.
     The White Rose stops in Cork, where the horses get to experience landfall—one of them permanently, for the squire Thomas' is stolen in the night ("welcome to Ireland")—but the main party must remain below the deck lest someone see them, Isaac insists. When pressed for a reason, he will say only that he fears "enemies of the king."
     The next day the rain begins, and it continues through landfall at Dun Aengus the following day. Isaac continues to appear worried about being followed, although he will not give any specifics. The party disembarks on the island; Isaac cannot make his measurements until the rain ends, and he will need to do them by both day and night before the ship can go further.
     The situation on the island is a complicated one, the knights soon discover. They are greeted at the dock by a quartet of Pictish guards and immediately taken to see the Chieftain, one Cormann Mac Eugar, who is evidently new in his post. Of course he wants to know their purpose, so far from home—Isaac claims to be making a map of the entire world, and says that the knights are there bringing Arthur's greeting. Elffin makes an appropriate speech. Cormann gives each of the knights a gift (belts and goblets), making sure they know that this places them in his debt. He claims to be a fellow Christian (despite the overwhelming presence of pagan idols, and his chief advisor, the Druid), and shows off his monk, Brother Dafyd—who tells Elffin, in Latin, that he is being held prisoner and begs for help; when the knights speak to him later, he tells them that he was kidnapped from his monastery by Picts several weeks ago. Cormann also lets the travelers know that there is a rebellion under way by some part of the island population.
     The drizzle continues the next day as it becomes entirely obvious that the knights are unofficial prisoners; they have their weapons, and are allowed to wander about the keep but not to leave it, and Pictish guards follow them everywhere. Their armor and Isaac's chest are brought up from the ship and placed in the middle of the main hall. Speaking further with Cormann, he reveals his plan for dealing with the rebels, who are based on the far side of the island, on a ledge in a sheer cliff. His plan involves a diversionary frontal attack down the path, and a second attack by means of ropes down the cliffs. The knights, adrift in a cultural sea and tending to feel sympathetic toward the rebels at this point, are still further appalled by these cowardly tactics and suggest that he adopt a more chivalrous mode of attack, like forming up into two lines and charging at each other on horseback.
     More things become clear as the day goes on. The old chieftain was apparently killed some time ago when he grew too old and infirm for the position (the knights are shocked) and an election was held to determine the new chieftain (silence while the knights try to connect the words "elect" and "king" and eventually give up until Mertyn can explain it to them). Apparently Cormann rigged the election by driving off everyone who supported his opponent—who is now, of course, leading the rebellion against him. Cormann's strength lies about half in his imported Pictish army and half in native Irish who support him. There are rumors that the land is dying because he is not the true-elected chief, explaining the rain. The Picts, aware that they are the main source of his power, are not particularly well-disciplined.
     All this pagan nonsense notwithstanding, the knights reason, they can't go anywhere until the rain stops, so they might as well figure out a way to get rid of this Cormann character, who has abused the laws of hospitality to try to manipulate them, obviously covets their horses and armor, falsely claims Christianity and has abused a man of God, and who apparently just wants as many gods as possible on his side as he can possibly try to finagle before he goes after the rebels.
     The knights request permission to leave, but are denied; it is "too dangerous." Now that they are officially prisoners against their will, they feel free to plot. Elffin tries to convince Cormann that if they are to help him with his attack on the rebels, they will need to ride their horses over the territory and get them used to the land, but Cormann thinks his men can handle the task. The war-horses are not much like the ponies the Irishmen are used to, and even though their own plan didn't work there are some moments of high amusement among the knights as they witness the ensuing attempts.
     Word arrives that the rebels are conducting a raid nearby; all the soldiers rush out to deal with it. The knights look at one another, shrug, and bar the door from the inside. Cormann is also still inside and is not amused; he dashes into the keep, where he begins smashing their armor. Aeron is even less amused (he has a very good set of armor), and deals the chieftain a deadly blow. The knights gather up their squires, the kidnapped monk, and Isaac, and head for the gates. The squires put Isaac's chest and so forth in a chariot and push it down to the ship; Isaac and Mertyn hitch a couple ponies to a second chariot and promptly crash it in a ditch—neither one of them is hurt much, fortunately. Aeron heads down the path to the ship to clear the way for them, while Elffin and Richard, both mounted on Elffin's horse—the party's other mounts having been "borrowed" by Cormann's men to deal with the raiders—ride out to see what happened to the raid.
     It's still drizzling, by the way.
     Aeron and the sailors deal with the dozen Picts down at the village and prepare to set sail, Aeron once gain displaying his fearsome wrath. Elffin vetoes Richard's plan to charge Cormann's entire army, and instead sets out for the path down to the village and ship at a carefully measured pace. The Irishmen riding the knights' good horses are far out ahead of the rest of their force by the time they all reach the village, at which point Elffin circles behind them, cuts them off from the path, and battle is joined, which the knights win handily, although they receive some wounds.
     The White Rose sails around to the other side of the island; there is no harbor there, but there is a place an Irish coracle can land easily. The knights row ashore and ascend a sheer path up the cliff, where they are quickly challenged by the rebels. They convince them of their friendly intentions and are allowed into the camp, where they quickly realize just how impossible Cormann's original plan was; the place is practically unassailable.
     Plans are considered for dealing with Cormann, if he's still alive, and his army, whether he is or not; more information is needed, and the rebel leader sends a scout out to see what's going on. He returns the next day with word that Cormann is dead and the Picts have taken over; they are sending for reinforcements from their homeland. The rebels and knights make a battle plan, centering on a fey bog near the center of the island. The plan is that they will go and attract the Picts' attention, then use fires at night to make it seem as if a sizeable force is camped on the other side of the bog, big enough to require most or all of the enemy forces, but not so large as to induce them to bar themselves within the keep. The knights retrieve their increasingly annoyed horses from the ship by swimming them to the beach, with a few moments of comic lightness as Richard's horse displays its irritation with the whole boat thing and nearly kicks him overboard.
     The following day the knights and some of the rebels go steal some sheep to attract the necessary attention (Elffin turns out to be pretty good at it and is mercilessly teased for being such a good shepherd for the rest of the day). The rebel army moves into position. The Picts, not following the same plan, attack at night and at first things are going very much their way, but Elffin rallies the troops and eventually the rebels send the Picts fleeing; the knights and others give chase. The knights are dismayed to find out that the Irish don't take prisoners. Soon the Pictish infestation is no more.
     That morning, the sun comes out! A new election is held, and the rightful chieftain takes his place. Isaac takes his measurements over the next two days, and finally it is time for the party to travel on, with the thanks of their host and a pony to replace Thomas' horse, much to his chagrin.
     Before they go, a fisherman reports the startling news that a second English ship was seen on the horizon! Isaac is troubled by this news, and they set out the next morning. After sailing S/SW for a day, Richard thinks he has spotted a sail behind them, but it is only for a moment and hard to be sure. Isaac will still say nothing of who or what he fears might follow them. That night the moon is full, and the next day the sailors pull in a bizarre animal while fishing, something like cross between an eel and a wyvern done up in harlequin colors. "This is merely the beginning," Isaac tells the travelers; the farther west they go, the stranger things will become. The captain nails the thing's finlike wings to the mast for luck.
     After four more days, the sun seems larger, and the air has grown much warmer. And then the lookout sights land....


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© 1999 David Twiddy