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He’d Speared a Squid

When I saw that scene in Game of Thrones, where they throned Rob Stark, it reminded me of squid fishing in the Bay of Naples, January ninety-four. “The king in the North! The king in the North!” they clamoured, raising tankards and slurping ale while covered in bearskins and wearing swords. There were no bearskins nor swords in Napoli. Even in January, it was too warm for furs, and nine-mills were — and probably still are — the preferred weapon. I guess a longsword would have attracted police attention, even in a corrupt region like Napoli in the nineties. It’s also a little hard to hide a longsword in the waistband of a pair of chinos.

“The king in the North! The king in the North!” I remember that January night as clearly as I remember that scene.

After Christmas, when the winter sets in for real, the local fishing methods change from free diving with a snorkel, a mask and a spear gun, hunting sea bass under the hulls of anchored ships, to fishing from boats with gas lamps shining on the surface to attract the fish, and tridents used to spear them. Needless to say, balance is critical. Thrusting with a trident while standing in a rocking boat is not easy.

The fishing technique might have changed, but the quotas did not. The Guardia di Finanza — Italian Customs and Excise — limit the size of each fisherman’s catch, meaning a surplus after each sortie. Because their wives would no longer allow late-night fish binges, having lived with them for too long, fishermen were always on the lookout for somewhere to cook. Despite being aware of the tradition, I hadn’t expected a ring on the doorbell at ten o’clock on a Friday in early January. With my wife still in Ireland, visiting her family in Limerick, I’d been about to go to bed.

“Who is it?” I asked at the intercom.

“Pippo, it’s me, Andrea. We have caught some fish. Can we come up?”

Of course, I would not have rejected fresh fish for any reason and so buzzed them in. I was surprised when I went out onto the landing and heard squelching as they made their way up the two flights of stairs. When they arrived at the door, I noticed Andrea was soaked. I grinned at the brothers, Beni and Genno, nodding at the footprints the doctor was leaving on the marble stairs. Genno, the head fisherman, pushed the doctor into the apartment, laughing as he did so. 

“Why’s he so wet?” I asked as I closed the door.

“You won’t believe it, Pippo,” Genno gasped between laughs. “Il Dottore speared a squid!” 

I knew Genno’s laughter was not to do with Andrea spearing a squid. Watching the slumped shoulders as the man walked down the corridor, I wondered at the bedraggled state of a senior specialist at Antonio Cardarelli hospital. I let it slide because I knew Genno was a storyteller renowned in his own head and loved to drive suspense at his own pace.

“Pippo, can I have a shower and maybe borrow some clothes?” Andrea asked from the kitchen doorway. 

I frowned, conflicted when it came to providing Andrea with support. According to the village gossip mill, the guy was shagging my wife! Although gossip mills, especially those in rural fishing villages, were renowned for inaccuracies, I still couldn’t shake the idea there might be some truth. I looked at him. He seemed so forlorn and desperate. Would he really come here in need of help if the rumours were true? Unless, of course, it had not been his suggestion to use my place.

I turned to the others, Genno, Beni, and another man I didn’t know. They were grinning and looking guilty. The wife had delayed her return from Limerick. I looked at the monster from the lagoon and wondered if they had had a spat. Christmas breaks seemed to be getting longer, but I supposed it could just be because she needed to get away from the village. She could be avoiding the waggling tongues, and I wouldn’t blame her for it.

“Okay!” I said, “I’ll get some clothes.”

Andrea followed me to the bedroom. I gave him a towel, a t-shirt and a pair of jogging pants and joined the others in the kitchen.

“Come on then, why’s he so wet?” I asked Genno.

“Well, we keep a bottle of wine on the boat, you know, for emergencies.” Shaking my head, I wondered what type of emergencies might be counteracted with a bottle of wine. “When Il Dottore finally speared a squid — for years he’s been trying — he decided it was an emergency.”

Genno stopped and looked around to make sure his audience was listening. Each of them was grinning and nodding. “So he took the bottle of wine — he was in the bow of the boat with his back to the sea, by the way — tilted it back and back and back, until he fell off the boat with a splash!”

Everybody laughed. 

“The most amazing thing,” Genno continued between splutters, “was he didn’t spill a drop. He went into the sea with a bottle of wine and rose from the waves like Neptune, although he dropped his trident, which Neptune would never have done!”

The laughter became raucous. Each of the men in the company had their own memories of that moment. Still, they were as one when it came to the doctor’s seeming ability to rescue wine from a hopeless situation. Rather than making wine from water, he saved wine from water. 

To this day, I don’t think the fishermen were in awe of the feat but were playing with Andrea in a way only they knew how. The caste system is solid — at least it was solid — and the doctor’s continued attempts to bridge the gap annoyed those he was trying to reach. Also, to the locals, the gossip mill was never questioned. As far as they were concerned, he’d broken a cardinal by sleeping with another man’s wife. They were just waiting for me to shoot the bastard with my speargun. Maybe, if I’d been sure, I would have shot him, but I was never sure. Even now, I’m not sure. I remember her sister staring at me while I eulogised at the wife’s funeral, daring me to voice my suspicions. Instead, I extolled her on her love of food and a constant smile. I kept her memory clean. If I ever get to eulogise the doctor, maybe I won’t be so reticent.

Finally, Andrea returned from the shower and announced, “If nobody objects, I will cook. I know you guys can fish, but only I can cook!”

They looked at each other and nodded, fighting hard against a need to laugh. Let Andrea cook. They were men; cooking was for girls. If anything, in their eyes, the doctor was undoubtedly feminine.

The fish was in a plastic bag. The doctor upended the load on the draining board and started to sort through the catch, I suppose deciding how to cook them. A fish stew for those fish not big enough for individual cooking, grilling for those that were, and so on.

As Andrea divided the fish into piles, an eel decided to protest against its fate and lunged at him, grabbing hold of the flap of skin at the base of his thumb. Needle-thin teeth sank into flesh, causing a scream and futile attempts to shake it free. He continued to scream, little yelps in time with each shake, until the eel fell and started to flop around my kitchen floor, looking for an escape route. Incensed, Andrea grabbed my cast iron wok from the hob — a wok which was dear to me — and began chasing the eel around the kitchen, attempting to bash its brains out. With each swipe, the wok clanged like a tolling bell. The words, It tolls for eel, kept running around my head until I realised the danger.

“Hey, use something else,” I shouted, but the doctor was on a crusade and heard nothing. With his final smack, he killed the eel, and my prized wok gave up the ghost as its handle separated from its body with a final clang. 

“It tolls for eel,” I said as Andrea dropped the handle and grabbed the fish with an eerie look of triumph on his face. I decided to get out of the kitchen before saying something I would regret.

“Don’t ask,” I said in answer to the raised eyebrows in the dining room. 

I slumped into the chair at the head of the table and crossed my arms in frustration. Banging my wife was all rumour. Banging my wok, not so much. “Bastard killed my wok. Present from me ma, that was,” I said to the ceiling.

The fishermen just looked on. They’d no idea what I was saying because none spoke any English. Local dialect was their mother tongue; Italian a distant second, and no such thing as a third language.

“You okay, Pippo?” Genno asked.

“Been better,” I admitted.

My subdued mood persisted. If the others noticed, they said nothing. The doctor served the fish, which was good, and the wine flowed. Genno continued to dart the odd veiled jibe at the doctor, which he either ignored or missed entirely. No mention was made of his infidelity or the murder of my prized wok.

It was only after Genno raised his glass and said, “I would like to propose a toast to The King of the Sea!” that I noticed the t-shirt I’d lent to Andrea. It had an image on the chest of a ship’s anchor wrapped in rope, surrounding words, the logo of a local clothing brand called King of the Sea.

Each person around the table raised their glass and repeated the toast, “The King of the Sea! The King of the Sea!” The doctor sat there, face split from ear to ear, not laughing at himself, not laughing at Genno’s joke, but seeing it as his crowning achievement. 

He’d speared a squid.

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Selling Hard Truths

I am not sure I can call them truths, not in my chosen speciality, pre-Christian Ireland. There were no written records at the time, the “truths” were passed on by the druids as a verbal tradition. They were committed to paper hundreds of years after the alleged events by monks prone to flowery exaggerations. So, at best, they are unreliable and at worst, simply untrue.

Putting that aside, the unreliable untruths I was told as a child turn out wholly different from those I have uncovered during my research. In the tales that were told to me, there was no mention of Cuchulainn’s psychopathic tendencies, the promiscuity of Medb, nor the evil of Conor Mac Nessa. I do not recall any mention of Conor’s rape of Medb, nor of Cuchulainn’s murder of the women at court after the death of Dervla. I do not recall any detail of Cuchulainn’s death, which was gruesome to put it mildly.

It seems I am not alone. One of my practice readers asked me if my stories are set in pre-Celtic Ireland. “These are not stories about the Celts, surely?” The actual question. “The Celts were musicians and poets. Jewellery makers. Not brutes.” Yes, they were all those things, but they were also brutes. They did take the heads of their battle victims. They did commit ritual sacrifices. They did consider rape and pillage as entertainment.

And my last work, Milesian Son of Light, relates those things. It does not gloss over the indelicacies of the pre-Christian tribes of Ireland.

For a free KU version: www.amazon.com/dp/B07QH1JY48

The next in line for release is the Omnibus tale of Conaire and Cuchulainn, A Prelude to War, available for pre-order at: www.amazon.com/dp/B08428DHLS

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Release Schedule (revised)

Here’s the PH Publishing planned release schedule for 2020, the year of perfect vision.

A Prelude to War

A Prelude to War, The Milesians was released on February 28th. It is the tale of a king who is too weak to rule, a queen who is defiled by one from whom she sought succor and a hero who crosses boundaries to the extent he loses all control.

Available at: www.amazon.com/dp/B08428DHLS

The Hidden Syndicate

The Hidden Syndicate is due for release on April 30th. It is the complete tale of Inspector Izzo and Archie Moses all rolled into one. There are new bits and the previous three books have been heavily edited.

Milesian Daughter of War

Milesian Daughter of War is due for release August 30th. Queen Medb has tried everything to get her revenge on King Conor. All has failed, so now she has decided on war. She fabricates a grievance against one of his chieftains and invades Ulster. Only, Medb did not count on the youthful hero of Ulster and her war does not go to plan.

The Alcoholic Mercenary

The Alcoholic Mercenary is due for release on October 30th. Andrea became a merc when he was dishonorably discharged from the Col Moschin, Italy’s most elite regiment. Rescued from his alcoholism by the capo di tutti, his principles are sorely tested when his brother is brutally murdered in what he thinks is an internecine conflict.

Milesian Brother of Justice

Milesian Brother of Justice is due for release on December 25th (Christmas, Yippee). Cathasach The Vigilant used to be a druid, but when he saw the injustice of the tribal feudal system, he decided to work for the people. When Lee Fliath is made known to him by the witch Niamh, he takes up the youth’s cause, despite suspecting it would fail.

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Reduced price acclaimed novel

From November 15th for a limited time, Berserker is available for download at only £ 0.99. This is the work of which David Ebsworth, renowned historical novelist said, ” It takes a great deal of courage to pick up something so well-loved as the Irish sagas of the Red Branch and the Milesian Kings and dust them off. But the author has managed to do this very well.”

Available from: https:/www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B079V6Q2FR

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Milesian Son of Light – Trailer – Release Date July 3rd

Dawn

1

I see it in my mind as though it were yesterday. It seems strange, but now I can see the flapping of The Morrigan’s wings, everything that had become misty through time, I see with clarity. Although my eyes are dulled by pain, my mind is sharp as a boar spear. Yes, yes, your impatience is obvious in your fidgeting. I will tell all, but it will be in my own time. You can wait for my death but not for my story? But then you are waiting, aren’t you? You fear her too much to leave, and you fear me too much to act, I warrant.

So, to my tale.

It was late afternoon when I first met the warrior. The sun was falling slowly from the sky, approaching the eaves of the forest in the mountains where my father had chosen to hide us. It had been a normal day. Chores completed, I was hurling with Diarmuid and the others. Da was chopping wood and Ma was cooking, as she always seemed to be. Cooking or washing our clothes in the Dargle, anyway. I remember smelling the smoke of the cook fire and beginning to salivate over thoughts of fresh venison and oats, tiring of the game. I was just wondering if always winning could be as tiresome as never winning, and thought to ask Diarmuid, when he stopped and looked over my shoulder at the rise.

‘He looks like he has just fought a hard battle,’ he said with a nod.

I scoffed and shook my head. ‘You think I will fall for that, Diarmuid? I am not as thick as you think. You want the sliotar, you will have to take it by force.’

‘No, really, Seti. He has a bandage on his head and on his arm. His horse is skittish too. I swear on The Morrigan. He is a warrior.’

‘And what in the name of The Morrigan would a warrior be doing in this Gods’ forsaken dung heap? They have better things to do…’ and then a horse neighed, so I looked.

The man sitting at the top of the rise had the look of one in need of rest. The bandages were as Diarmuid had said, and blood-stained. He was one who had seen hard battles, I supposed. I had never seen a warrior before, hiding in the mountains because of the fears of my father, I had never seen anything of interest, let alone a warrior or a princess, a king or a queen. Those things, until that day, had been the stuff of my dreams and my father’s drunken stories.

‘Now, there is a warrior if ever I saw one,’ I said, with a knowledgeable nod.

‘What was I telling you. A warrior here in the Wicklow Mountains. Never thought I would see it happen. Blooded too.’

‘You think the rumours of invasion are true?’ I asked of no one. Travellers had been in the forest, running from reavers, they said. Da said they were just looking for a free meal and to ignore them. But seeing the warrior sitting at the top of the rise, I had my doubts.

My prayers that he would continue to the settlement were answered when the man kicked his horse into motion, and they started down the path. I stood my hurley between my feet and leant on it to watch him come. He seemed in no hurry the gait of his horse easy. My chest heaved with excitement. It was as though my life’s meaning was riding down the slope. I had thought I would spend my days tilling the hard ground, trying to make enough to live on, back bent by the labour, gut distended because of the mead necessary to forget the hardness of life, a wife and children on whom to beat out my frustrations.

As he neared, I could see he was no longer young. His hair was greying at the temples, below the dirty bandage. His bare forearms showed the scars of many sword strokes.

‘Are you straight from battle, warrior?’ I asked, as he reined in beside us. He frowned down. The sun was behind me, and I knew he could see little.

I was about to repeat my question when Diarmuid shouted, ‘Look Lámthapad,’ pointing at the red and black shield, where it was hanging over the horse’s rump. ‘It is the shield of the Ulster champion. Are you he, Conall Cernach, the captain of the Red Branch?’

‘Is it true? Have you just ridden from battle?’ I repeated.

‘Enough,’ the warrior’s voice carried power and we stopped, holding our collective breaths. ‘Who is chieftain of this settlement?’

‘My father,’ I said.

‘Which is your homestead, boy?’

‘It is there. The second one. You can see my father chopping wood,’ I pointed my hurley for emphasis.

The warrior said nothing more. He turned his horse in the direction of our small roundhouse and said, ‘Ride on, Dornoll.’ The horse obeyed with the same easiness she had shown walking down the slope. We abandoned our game and followed them, seeming to reach a silent agreement to go and listen. Whatever the warrior wanted it was bound to be of more interest than a tired game of hurling.

‘Well met, farmer,’ I heard the warrior say as he reined in his mount.

My father did not respond immediately but straightened his back as much as it would go and leant on his axe, one hand shielding his eyes from the setting sun.

‘And who might you be, stranger?’ he asked, in a tone that was in no way welcoming. ‘Or more to the point, what are you doing in my glen? There is nothing here for the high and the mighty.’

‘I am lost. Seeking my way to Tara.’

‘Over there, the deer track will bring you to Slíghe Chualann,’ da pointed his axe at the other side of the glen. ‘Follow it north and you will come to Tara. Good day to you.’

‘Da, da, look it is the champion of The Ulaid,’ I said, trying to delay the warrior’s parting.

‘I did not say I was the champion of anywhere, boy.’

‘If you are not Conchobar Mac Nessa’s man, why do you have Lámthapad hanging over your horse’s arse?’ da asked.

‘You seem to know a great deal for someone hiding in the Chualann forest,’ the warrior said, looking back at the shield with a frown.

‘I know enough to keep my family safe.’

‘How do you know it is Lámthapad? It might be a fake?’ Da shook his head and smiled. Even I smiled at the futile attempt of the warrior to keep his name to himself.

‘My brother is a blacksmith. I know white gold when I see it. If the shield is false, it is a very costly affectation.’ My father looked over at the darkening forest before turning back and saying, ‘The deer track is yonder. You should be on your way before night keeps you here in the glen,’ where you are not welcome, da’s eyes said, even though his mouth did not have the courage to utter the words.

I expected the warrior to drawer his sword or crush da’s head with the war hammer strapped across his back. Instead, he shook his head, sighed, crossed his wrists over the horn of his saddle and said, ‘I need a favour of you.’

‘What is it you want?’

‘What is it I want, man? As you rightly just said, night is upon us. I was looking for succour until the dawn. I have ridden long and hard with news for Tara.’

My father looked away, deep in thought. It was obvious he did not want to play host to a warrior known for his ability with all weapons, but nor did he want to offend. Like us all, da had heard of Conall Cernach. He probably thought he was standing before a man who would use the hammer resting across his back without thinking. My da surprised me then for the only time in my life. I had not thought it possible a vindictive and cowardly man would have it in him when he said, ‘You can sleep in the ox shed.’

‘The ox shed…’ the warrior started, his hand drifting towards the hilt of his sword.

‘I do not mean offence, lord,’ da interrupted, seeing the rising anger in the warrior. ‘There is not enough room for you to sleep in the roundhouse, my apologies. The shed is warm, not overly fragrant, but warm. You may eat with us, then, I am sorry, you must retire.’

The warrior also surprised me when he said, ‘I thank you for your hospitality,’ before dismounting and rubbing the backs of his legs.

‘Is there somewhere I can water the horse?’

‘The ox shed is under the eaves, there,’ da pointed. ‘There is straw inside and a trough with water at the side. Do not startle the ox, it is a temperamental beast at the best of times. You boys go home. There is nothing to see here.’ Saying which, da returned to his chopping and the warrior walked his horse to the ox shed.

I nodded at Diarmuid as he backed away, before following the aging warrior, keeping my thoughts to myself. I did not want to be sent away. I wanted this man to tell me all about the life of the Five Kingdoms I had missed. I wanted him to tell me why he was carrying wounds. I wanted him to tell me what was in the leather sack slung over his mare’s neck. The sack that looked suspiciously round and seemed to have blood caked to its base.

When he reached the shed, the warrior put his clenched fists into the small of his back and stretched with a groan. His horse skittered as he took off her saddle. I could feel the oppression of the forest that was making her nervous. Wolves were howling. Mists were rising from the forest floor. The night was always a time that was best spent under the thatch of the roundhouse, beside the fire with the aromas of cooking and the safety of deep sunk timbers.

‘You feel it too, Dornoll?’ he asked, patting her neck and feeding her a handful of oats from his saddlebags. She tossed her head and neighed. I watched the warrior duck into the ox shed and reappear with two fistfuls of straw. He began to wipe down the mare’s flanks, lovingly, cooing as he did so.

I could not resist and asked, ‘What is in the sack?’

‘What do you want, boy?’ the warrior asked, without looking away from his work.

‘Nothing,’ I shrugged, unsure what to say.

‘Nothing, he says. Well then, get lost. I do not like children at the best of times, but nosey children annoy me.’

‘I am not a child,’ I said, knowing that compared to the old man grooming his horse, I was hardly a man. When he lifted the back of his hand, as if to give me a swipe, I ran, but only as far as the eaves from where I could see without being seen.

When he had finished wiping down his mare and had hobbled her beside the shed where she could reach the water trough, the warrior returned to our roundhouse and knocked on the upright at the entrance before lifting the oxhide cover.

‘Enter, warrior, be welcome at our table,’ I heard da say from within. Again, his tone did not lend credence to his words. I ran around the side nearest to the deer path and propped myself against the logs next to a small crack, where I knew I could hear without being seen.

‘What is your name?’ the warrior asked.

‘I am Tiubh, and she is my wife, Gránna.’

‘Where is the boy?’

I nearly laughed when I heard da say, ‘He is using the last of the light to finish his game. As he always does before nightfall. No controlling the brat.’

‘He asks a lot of questions.’

‘Yes. The curiosity of youth. Mead?’ There was a pause. I suppose da was pouring the sweet liquid. Perhaps they were both a little nervous in the company of strangers.

‘I heard rumours of an invasion,’ da said, after the awkward silence.

‘It has been quashed the invaders put to the sword. More,’ with a thump of flagon on the tabletop.

‘And the leader of the invasion?’

‘Is dead.’

‘What of the high king?’

‘What of the high king, the bull’s ball sack asks. I can see where the lad gets his curiosity.’

‘I did not mean offence, lord. As a farmer, I need to know I am safe to continue tilling the soil. I need to know if the Peaceful King is alive. I need to know whether I should take my family and hide in the forest.’

‘Are you not already hiding in the forest?’

‘I meant deeper in the forest.’

‘I know, I know,’ followed by another pause. I could see in my mind the warrior holding up a hand, a mixture of impatience and tact. ‘He died at the hands of Ingcél, the leader of the invasion. The Briton executed him after the battle at the hostel in Glencree. Put his head on a cairn and stole all the horses.’

I felt my heart quicken at the news. I had never seen the High King. Hiding in the mountains, we did not feel the effects of his time of peace. But we did listen to the occasional traveller who spoke of his generosity of spirit. He was known as the Peaceful King. To hear that he had died, seemed to be something of an omen to my young mind.

‘There was a battle at Da’s?’ I heard my father ask. He was familiar with the hostel in the valley of Glencree. He and the other men in the settlement would often ride the miles to drink and talk to strangers about what passed in the Five Kingdoms. Those were the times when I would hear my mother whimpering in the night in time with his animal grunting and would invariably get a beating the morning after.

‘Yes, the high king’s entourage were slaughtered defending him.’

‘What of Da Derga?’

‘Dead as far as I know. The hostel is in ruin. The gates nothing but blackened wood. If he lived, I am sure he would have repaired them by now.’

‘So, there will be an assembly to select a new high king?’

‘There will, but I do not expect any quick resolution. Conery’s only heir escaped before the battle at the hostel. No one knows where he is and there are no suitable replacements that I can think of.’

‘What of your king, Conchobar Mac Nessa?’

‘As I said, I can think of no suitable replacements.’

Da hesitated then. I knew he was dying to ask more about the possible replacements. I guessed the warrior was looking at da in the same way as when he had suggested the ox shed as a bedding place, because instead he asked, ‘Do you think an assembly of kings is a good place to make a start in life?’

‘Make a start in life?’

‘Where to begin seeking a fortune?’

‘What are you getting at, farmer?’

‘The winters are hard. My crops are not bountiful. My boy is growing too big to feed…’

‘So, you want me to take him to Tara, where he can make a start in life?’

I slapped the side of my head sure I had not heard correctly. Could da be trying to sell me into the slavery of this warrior? It seemed unlikely, but there was always a glimmer of hope in my young heart.

‘Yes, maybe you could find him a foster family?’

‘You really are a horse’s arse, farmer.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘He is a farmer’s son. Fostering is a privilege of kings, chieftains and warriors. What makes you think I can find someone to foster your boy?’ the warrior’s tone was incredulous. I sat there with my back against the timbers and my eyes screwed shut, willing the two men to say the right thing, the thing I had been longing to hear since the first time da beat me for getting in late from the forest.

‘But things have changed, lord. Since the arrival of High King Conery, the old and dated traditions have been replaced by more modern practices. I thought…’ da tailed off.

‘Ball sack, you did not think.’

‘I am sorry, lord. I only have the boy’s wellbeing in my heart…’

‘The boy’s wellbeing. You are trying my patience, farmer,’ the warrior interrupted.

‘Sorry, lord, I do not mean any offence.’

‘Boar’s arse does not mean offence, apparently. I will sleep on it. Now where is the food I was promised. I must eat and sleep. Tomorrow will be a long day, whatever I decide.’

It was obvious to my young mind that all talk was done. I stood up from my hiding place and walked into the roundhouse. I could feel the warrior staring at me as I leant my camán against the central pillar. There was a suppressed question in the intensity of the look. I remember making my face into a mask before turning to face him. I did not want my chance in life to fail because of any apparent eagerness. The old man did not return my look. Rather he sat staring into his cup of mead. I did not speak either but took the bowl of oats and venison from my ma and went out into the twilight to eat. I too had much to think about before the dawn.

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The Reticent Detective – Trailer – Due for release in the autumn

The Love Nest

Laconto could not believe his luck as he stopped at the bedroom door and looked down on the near naked form of Welch. She was tangled in the top sheet, all that was needed in the balmy autumn nights, looking like she’d been wrestling a crocodile. Tray in hand, he moved to the window and looked through the half open venetians over the dusty rooves of the town of Baia. The noise of traffic fighting to get nowhere fast was yet to start, the air cool with the morning sirocco. From his vantage point, the inspector could see the island of Nisida and the volcano behind, taking shape in the growing light. Although he couldn’t see it, Laconto knew the city of Naples, nestled between the two, was beginning to waken.

Laconto was happy for the first time in a long while. After Ele, the soon to be ex-Mrs Laconto, the inspector had been convinced there would be no others; convinced that love had left him for good. He didn’t normally have the time for fraternization, being the Anti-Mafia Directorate Senior Investigator for the district of Pozzuoli. Nor did he want a repeat of the heart-wrenching separation, when he’d lost a wife, two sons, a positive bank balance, a villa and an Alpha Romeo.

To avoid a repeat, he’d decided to devote himself to his work. Not that he hadn’t already been devoting himself to his work, the reason Ele had filed for divorce. He’d missed the irony previously, because since the postman left a note telling him to go and collect the registered letter, he hadn’t been in the mood for reflective contemplation. Now, the irony caused him to smile wryly and look through the venetians again.

He thought about recent changes to his life as the apartment block opposite exploded in a wash of orange light. He looked back at the girl on the bed, one breast and one leg exposed by the Kese Gatame she had on the bedsheet. Welch of the American NIS, the Naval Investigative Service. She was a sbirro, a cop, just like him, and subject to the same unsociable hours Ele had hated and which had driven them apart as inexorably as the heat of a Neapolitan summer. Rachel was like something from a fairy tale for Laconto. In her early to mid-thirties, she was maybe a little older than him, vibrant, intelligent, driven like he used to be when he first started his crusade to rid the world of wrongdoers. He felt with Welch at his side, he would be able to concentrate on his fight against The Syndicate and not worry about how she was being affected by it.

He wasn’t ready to continue, though, not yet.

Barely a month had passed since his first major AMD case had ended in a bloodbath. The aftermath of that bloodbath had caused their romance to blossom, like they shared a secret, which was fuelling their burgeoning lust. She, an American, not only young, but also a feminist striving for the pinnacle of her chosen profession, the Directorship of the NIS. He a chauvinist in a service riddled with cops beholden to the very organizations he’d sworn to destroy.

It made him smile to think only a few weeks before he’d believed women had no place in the police and Welch had been a feminist with the goal of making it to the top of that elite fraternity, a place traditionally denied to women in any profession.

They’d been thrown together by a bloody murder after an American sailor had been shot over a little ill-advised adultery. When a hostage situation developed, Laconto had given himself up in exchange for the women being held.

He shook his head, trying to clear it of the near-death images. Welch and her team’s timely intervention with a tear gas cannister through the window had made the difference between living and dying; breaking glass and the hiss of gas giving him the time he needed to grab a gun from the nearest killer and shoot the other before he had time to react.

The bed springs creaked, and he looked over to see Welch had finally woken and was looking at him with a smile.

‘Those for me?’

Laconto looked down at the tray he was holding. Espresso, orange juice and a cornetto, an Italian croissant-like pastry. He nodded, feeling foolish. He’d never been much for domesticity and hoped going down to the bar next to the station would be considered the same as making her breakfast in bed, her last wish of the night before she’d fallen asleep, exhausted by their frenzied love making.

‘Yes, I went to the café for them. You were sleeping. I did not want to wake you. You were so like an angel.’

‘That’s so sweet, Bobbi, thank you.’ He smiled, unsure whether he was sweet for getting her breakfast or for calling her an angel.

He stayed beside the window, admiring the litheness of her tanned body in contrast to the fullness of her breasts. He again felt a surge of emotion and luck and lust. ‘Well, can I have them?’

‘Yes, sorry.’ He walked over to the bed and held out the tray like some sort of votive offering. She puffed up her pillows, sitting unconsciously with her torso uncovered and smiled as she took the proffered breakfast.

‘The café where we first met,’ she said with a smile.

‘No, no, we first met in your Admiral’s office.’

‘That doesn’t count,’ Welch smiled. ‘It was such a fleeting encounter.’

Laconto could see the smile in her eyes. She was, how did she call it? teasing him. Yes, that was it. ‘You are teasing me, I think.’

‘No, really. What makes you think that?’ The inspector was about to respond when he caught the glint again and realized she was still teasing him.

‘Yes. Ha, ha, very funny.’

‘If memory serves, the second time we met, you were standing over a sailor with a hole in his head and his face in a puddle of blood and beer. Every woman’s romantic fantasy.’

Laconto laughed and thought about it. An American sailor, Koswalski, had been executed in broad daylight because he’d decided to fraternize with the wife of a Syndicate soldier. Laconto remembered mutilated lips grinning up at him. The dead eyes and shattered Ray-Bans a direct result of a man unwilling to keep his cock to himself, an opinion the inspector had voiced openly. It was hardly a surprise that Welch and he had got off on the wrong foot. That investigation threw them together, tête-à-tête and it had taken the course of it for them to learn to trust one another. Not too surprising considering one was a chauvinist, the other a feminist and on sides of The Law who rarely, if ever, saw eye-to-eye.

‘Are you coming back to bed? There’s something I want to talk to you about.’

‘We have three days off. I thought we would go into Naples, or maybe we could drive down to Sorrento for lunch and on to Positano for dinner?’

Laconto could see Welch frowning down at her glass of orange juice. He knew he was coming across as needy, sounding frantic in his own ears, but he couldn’t help himself. He didn’t like the sound of the invitation. In his experience, although limited, when a woman said she had something to talk about, it invariably didn’t mean something pleasant. The last woman to use those words with him had been Ele, when she’d called to tell him she was leaving and taking the boys and the Alpha Romeo. The same day as the funeral service, he remembered. That night, at least.

His elation of a few moments before began to wane, replaced with a butterfly stomach and a need for the bathroom.

‘Yes, that sounds nice, but I need to talk to you first,’ Welch pouted.

And so here it comes, he thought. I knew it was too good to be for real. ‘I will sit sul letto, um…’

‘On the bed,’ Welch interrupted.

‘Yes. On the bed, but keep my clothes on, if that will not be a problem for you?’

Welch laughed, ‘Why, you think I can’t resist your ripped abs?’

‘Abs?’

Welch patted the muscle mass under her breasts and said, ‘Abdomen.’

‘Oh, I…’ Laconto started to stumble, causing an ejaculation of mirth.

‘I was joking, Bobbi. Sit,’ she said, patting the bed beside her. Laconto sat and swung his legs up, kicking off his flip-flops. ‘Are you sitting comfortably?’

‘What is it, Rachel? What do you want to ask me?’

‘Do you remember our first date, in that pub?’

‘It was only a few weeks ago. Of course, I remember. That strange pub in Monte di Procida that used to be a clothes’ shop. You pretended that you smoke and nearly coughed your lungs out.’

‘But apart from that embarrassing interlude, I asked you how you came to be SI for Pozzuoli and you said you were too preoccupied to tell me a shaggy dog story?’

Laconto nodded. He felt he now knew what was coming. It was not as bad as he’d feared, but he wasn’t sure he was quite ready for it. Looking backwards was something he’d managed to avoid for a long time and not something he wanted to contemplate, despite his psychologist’s best efforts.

‘You want me to tell you my life story?’

‘Well, not all of it. Just how you ended up as the SI.’

‘I am not sure I am ready to tell that story, Rachel.’

‘Well, at least tell me how you ended up as a boy in blue. You can tell me that much, surely?’

‘It is quite painful.’

‘How you became a cop, what do you locals call cops sbirri?’

Sbirri. Yes.’

‘How you became a sbirri is painful? How can that be?’

Sbirro. Sbirri is when there is more than one, cops.’

‘Sorry, Bobbi, I keep forgetting, “i” for plural.’

Laconto hesitated for several seconds before he answered. ‘My father owned a shop for selling meat in our village. How do you call a macellaio?’

‘A butcher.’

‘Yes. Butcher. The local Syndicate family demanded protection money. Only a small percentage of the takings they said, but they decided how much the takings were, and my father could not afford to pay. He was too debole, too weak, to stand up to them and the police were in their control. When they told him of the bad things they would do, he took his own life.’

‘Oh, God, Bobbi. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.’

‘What does it mean, pry?’

‘Ask too many damn fool questions.’

‘You did, then, mean to pry. Ma, va bene. But it is alright. Perhaps it is time that I spoke about it. The police doctor, how do you call them, doctors for the thoughts, psicologi?’

‘Shrinks?’

‘Yes. The police shrink has been telling me I must talk about it or write it down.’

‘You need to get it out in the open to get some sort of closure. My shrink is always telling me the same thing.’

‘Yes. I need to do that. Why do you have a shrink? You seem to be so normal.’

‘Where I come from, it’s a fashion statement.’

‘Oh.’ Laconto did not think he understood how exposing the inner sanctum to a stranger could be considered fashionable, but then there were so many other aspects of this fascinating woman that he doubted he would ever understand.

‘So, what happened with your father?’

‘He shot himself in the cantina, the cellar. Ho fatto un promessa. I made a vow that I would join the police and stop it from happening to other people. I was so naive.’

Laconto sat with his legs on the bed looking at the crucifix hanging over the balcony doors. What he had not said to Welch, what he thought she would not have any interest in hearing, was he was the one who discovered the body in the cellar. When his mother reported her husband missing, the sbirri told her he’d probably run off with another woman. It was more than a week later when the smell was so strong that neither Laconto nor his mother were left in any doubt as to where Laconto senior was. His mother had said junior was the new man of the family and had to go down into the cellar to confirm what they already knew.

The inspector had been twelve years old.

He’d stood at the top of the cellar stairs and flipped the light switch to see his father sitting against the back wall with his lupara, his shotgun, between his knees and his brains splashed up the wall behind him. At the time Laconto had wondered how his father was able to find the wall where he was going to shoot himself in the dark, before he remembered the lights were on a timer and always went out after an hour. No one had ever needed to be in the cellar for longer. No one until his father, that is.

Laconto looked at Rachel and frowned.

He didn’t want to talk about it, regardless of how much the police doctor said he needed to. And not just because of the pain. He didn’t think anyone should be put through the horror of the smell and the mess of blood and other detritus up the rear wall, or the puddle of puke at the top of the stairs after he had regurgitated his breakfast. He certainly didn’t think sitting in bed with an exposed chest was an ideal location for a woman to hear all the gory details.

‘Anyway, I kept the promise and joined the police as soon as I was old enough. And that is how I come to be here, the AMD Senior Investigator for the district of Pozzuoli. The end. One hairy hound story less to worry about.’

‘Is that it?

‘Yes. There’s not much more to tell, really.’

‘I read your jacket, Bobbi. I must admit, I didn’t believe it at the time, but apparently, you’re the best anti-Mafia detective in the province of Naples, if not Campania. There must be more to it than that.’

‘You want more?’

‘I want the whole sordid story, and you’ll not get away from me until I have it,’ Welch laughed and put her head on his chest.

‘I better make sure it is the hairiest of hairy hound stories then,’ he said, hoping the tremor in his voice was evident only to him.

‘Yes, you had, and it’s shaggy dog.’

‘What is the difference?’

Welch shrugged. There was no difference, but hairy hound just didn’t sit right.

‘Where shall I start?’

‘Why don’t you start when you became a cop.’

‘Oh. Okay, then. It started when I graduated from the Naples State Police Academy in seventy-five…’

Hammer – Excerpt

Prologue

The air was cool in the pre-dawn grey. If not for the fog, it would have been a welcome release from the previous day’s clamminess. Despite the noise in the taberna, Agricola could hear the boatmen calling to each other as they landed supplies on the docks. He supposed the fog from the river Tamesis was making the sound carry, echoes of a wooden city coming to life.

Is it already dawn? Agricola asked himself, rubbing his hands over tired cheeks before studying his drinking companions.

The soldiers were as rowdy as only off-duty legionaries at their leisure could be. As the first cohort, they were not only hardened fighters but also hardened drinkers. Wine was still flowing, despite the late hour.

Early hour would be more accurate.

Now regretting it, Agricola had been defenceless against their calls as he rode through the palisade’s South Gate the previous night. A respected officer, the soldiers of the Fourteenth Legion did not begrudge him because he came from a different command – the Second.

Agricola did not put much stock in it. As a thinker, he knew it was only because he listened to them. Heard them. Stood behind them when the governor was ranting. Drank with them when they were off duty and called for him as he passed their taberna.

I need to be more aloof.

‘I must go,’ he said, downing his cup and standing. He was expected by the governor in Londinium to oversee the delivery of supplies for his command, the Legio XIV Gemina. There were whispers of an insurrection, and the governor was preparing in case the rumours held any truth.

Whispers of an insurrection. Why are soldiers of the first cohort even in Londinium?

‘Why are you here, um…’ Agricola asked.

‘Drinking, tribune, why else.’

‘No, I mean, why are you in Londinium.’

The aquilifer tapped his nose and laughed. ‘More than my position if I let that snake out of the sack, tribune.’

Agricola considered ordering the man to tell him the reason members of the first were in the city before realising the futility of such a course. The aquilifer — whatever his name might be — would laugh at him, and rightly so. As a banded tribune, Agricola had no authority over the legionaries. He was little more than the governor’s personal servant.

‘Come, Aurelio,’ he said to the praefectus of his turmae. ‘Duty is demanding my presence… our presence.’

‘The night is young,’ the aquilifer admonished, lifting the wine jug to pour more. Agricola put his hand over the cup and shook his head.

He could not remember the standard bearer’s name. It did not matter. He would never see him again unless it was in battle. Carrying the legion’s eagle, the man would be targeted. The Britons would strive to take the prize. Agricola knew the soldier would fight well. No one who gained the position of aquilifer ever fought badly. However, his life would probably be short, his end filled with agony and the shame of failure as some warrior of the tribes tore the eagle from his dying grasp.

‘The night is over, dolt. The governor is expecting us.’ Despite the insult, Agricola grinned and slapped the man on the back.

The aquilifer said something into his wine cup. Agricola heard the insult aimed at Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, governor of Britannia. Turning to Aurelio, he could see the praefectus was concentrating on a fight brewing at a nearby table and had not heard. He sighed in relief. It would not be necessary to order the standard bearer punished. He could not, however, let the legionary think it was acceptable to criticise his commander.

‘What did you say, soldier?’

‘Nothing, sir. I was thinking aloud,’ the aquilifer said, staring into his cup. Agricola frowned. It was not the first time he had heard the men of the Fourteenth voicing criticisms of their commander.

Is it the usual grumbling of soldiers, or is there more to it?

‘In my experience, it is best not to think when in your cups and in the company of senior officers. Crucifixion is often the fate of soldiers who think too much.’

The man held his peace and gulped at his wine, suddenly morose, as if he regretted spending time with a tribune. Agricola turned towards the exit nearest the stables under the palisade and gave the aquilifer no further thought. A sudden urge compelled him to use the latrine, so he turned to the rear door of the hostelry, ignoring the calls of the drunks who wanted him to join their table.

‘I will meet you by the stables,’ he said to Aurelio before heading out of the rear door.

Leaving the taberna, Agricola stopped in the swirling fog. He could not see the latrine trench from the doorway, only twenty paces or so from where he stood. Shivering, he tightened his cloak around his shoulders and made for the trench. He did not need to see where to go. He could smell the latrine, even when dampened by the density of the Tamesis’s morning offering.

He had just hung his spatha on the handrail when a voice asked, ‘Tribune Agricola?’

Reaching for the sword, Agricola glanced over his shoulder. A man in a black cloak with the hood up stood a short distance away, only just visible in the grey. Agricola could perceive no threat. If anything, the newcomer appeared bored rather than menacing.

‘Who are you?’ he asked, not releasing the spatha’s hilt.

‘You won’t need your weapon, sir. I come from Viroconium,’ the man said, throwing off his hood and revealing a gallea shining dully in the fog. ‘I am Lucius, bodyguard to Cerialis, sent as a messenger…’

The soldier hesitated.

‘Speak, man. What is your message?’

‘Mine is grave news, tribune…’

‘Spit it out. I will not bite you.’

The legionary thumped his chest, took off his helmet and ran a hand through damp hair. ‘A turmae patrolling on the western borders came under attack.’

‘Under attack?’ Agricola shook his head, unsure why the commander of the Ninth legion would send a messenger to Londinium with such news. Patrols were constantly under attack.

‘They were annihilated, sir. To a man. The attackers took everything. Horses. Weapons. Armour. Heads.’

The Reluctant Mother

She doesn’t want to be a mother!

Prologue

Note: This sample is pre-publication and is subject to change.

Abruzzo, Italy

The Abruzzo is a place in the world that falls under the mantle of “outstanding natural beauty”. Nestled in the Apennines on the Adriatic coast, it is one of those areas of Italy with villages and farms sitting atop seemingly inaccessible peaks. Winding roads and hidden valleys litter it. In essence, the perfect location for a secret meeting.

Midway between the villages of Scanno and Villalago, there is a small restaurant back from the main road, sitting on the side of the small lake, which takes its name from the village of Scanno. Shortly after the death of Rosa Matriacarto, the restaurant was full of men smoking Havana cigars and talking in low voices. Dirty plates littered the white cloth. Half-empty bottles of limoncello added colour to the scene. Plumes billowed from their cigars, creating a smoke screen, which would hide them from The Law if any arrived.

‘Do we have any idea who?’ Savio asked.

Two years before, he’d been on the lowest rung of the clan management ladder in Lago Patria. He would have considered himself out of his depth in the afternoon’s exalted company if the old bosses had been present. They were not. After the Secret Service sting operation, they were sitting in La Casa awaiting trial, or more probably, hoping they would get a trial. The Secret Service was not known for its adherence to the rights of Habeas Corpus.

Savio looked around the room at the sea of bemused faces. There was not a recognizable boss among them. The Secret Service had culled all the senior clan members. Although not a scholar of the ancient world, Savio recognised the similarity with the story where the hero, Hercules, killed the many-headed beast, The Hydrocarbon, or something similar. Many heads had sprouted to replace those lost, but as he looked around at the new Hydrocarbon heads in the restaurant, he did not think Hercules would have quaked in his leather-thonged sandals at the sight of them.

‘Common theory. It was the guy who ran the cheese shop, Guido.’

‘I heard Guido’s dead. Someone blew his brains out above Bar Revolution.’

‘Yeah, that rumour has been scotched by one of the guards in La Casa who saw him being transported away from the prison.’

‘What do we know about the man? Where does he come from?’ asked one of the men gathered around the table, who Savio didn’t recognise.

‘He was a mozzarella maker. Ratted on his friend, the guy from the Moschin, Nico Di Cuma. He’s definitely gone. Someone blew his brains out in Lucrino. There’s no trace of this cheese maker. All our sources have come up blank. It’s as though he never existed.’

‘Scortese’s old crew, are they back in the fold now?’

‘No, they’re in hiding. Seems they’re expecting reprisals because they did nothing to avenge the death of their capo.’

‘What about Rosa’s daughter? Was she involved?’ Savio asked the question they all wanted to be answered. ‘I heard that Nico was giving her one, which is why he was killed. Orders of Rosa before someone clipped her in the prison.’

‘Yea, I heard that too.’

‘So, who gave Rosa to the Secret Service?’

Again, there was a communal shrug around the table. No one knew who had betrayed the padrona.

‘What about the daughter? She’s the one who benefits. Did she do it?’ Savio asked. Once again, the question was met with silence.

‘It would be difficult to see how. She’s very young. True, she runs a classy restaurant, but that was bought with the proceeds of an inheritance from some distant relation. Stateside, I heard.’

‘Can we find out?’ Savio persisted.

‘It’s a little complicated, considering no one knows who to trust.’

‘There must be someone we can trust.’

Savio looked at the men around the table. None of them would trust each other, never mind someone from outside the organisation. During the cull, brothers had died, and friends had died. They would need someone neutral if it was going to stand any chance of success. He thought he knew someone who’d never really made it in any of the clans and could be considered neutral.

‘I have someone who could act as a go-between until we’re back on our feet,’ he said.

‘Who?’ asked simultaneously.

‘Name’s Beni Di Cuma. Never ranked, so he’s as neutral as they come.’

‘Is he one of yours?’

‘No. He’s the brother of that mercenary who had his brains blown all over the station bar in Lucrino.’

Caesar

Countdown to publication, BP (before publication).

Although dead a century by the time of Hammer, Caesar played a significant part in Micheal’s research.

Caesar’s The Gallic War is a significant source of information about the Celts and their culture.

The Last Five Swords — Review

What can I say about this book? The Last Five Swords returns to the type of epic fantasy I loved as a boy. Black and white images and short introductions at the start of each chapter returned me to authors like Jeffrey Farnol and Robert Jordan. Little mores written in Gaelic with a translation lend significantly to the novel’s world-building.

Few authors represent Irish mythology. Micheál Cladáin springs to mind. Of course, Rosemary Sutcliff modernised mythology, including the Ulster Cycle myths, back in the seventies, but not in the same storytelling style this author has adopted and mastered.

So, where does John De Búrca take the reader?

Two Irish lads witness the massacre of a rival gang searching for them in a wood. The mercenaries who killed the boys are hunting a Fae Princess, who is hiding in the same tree. Their meeting leads to a quest that brings the reader on a journey of love, murder, potential treachery and a broken-down bunch of heroes who want nothing more than the chance to live in peace.

There is humour and pathos, violence, and blood. Love and battle. Life and death in ancient Ireland. Swords, archers, heroes and villains abound.

Recommendation

I give The Last Five Swords five stars. I recommend it to all fans of fantasy and storytelling. It is a classic Epic Fantasy.