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The Vikings' Tale

Placid lake water lapping sun-warmed stone, the only breeze a lazy breath of scented air. No birds on the wing in afternoon heat. Drowsy dullness stirred only by a passing bumble bee. A corncrake's wooden clatter shattering the quiet in a straw-strewn meadow. Warmth. Peace. A summer's day, and all is calm.

Lying on my back, hands behind my head, girdle loosened, sandals at my side, I close my eyes and let all the muscles in my body relax. Scything hay from Terce to Nones is tough, hard work. Aches and pains in legs and arms, shoulders bunched, and lower back on verge of seizure, the angelus bell brought blessed relief. Now, after mid-day meal of griddle cake and cold spring water, it is time to rest and recuperate. R and R the abbot calls it. "Time for R and R", he says with a smile, knowing full well that a rested man can work longer, harder, and achieve greater output than one who is worn-out, tired, dispirited.

Not like the last man. Work you to the bone. No rest periods. No smile. No encouragement. All bile. "Lift those stones, fork that hay; if you don't like working, let's try some fasting."

Been working all my life. Grew up around here, half an hour across the lake, on the main bank. Knew this island before there was a church on it. Now look at it. Stone chapel. Stone prior's house. Stone tower half built. Brush cleared. Meadow cut. Only gathering and stacking to be done.

Graveyard neat and tidy. Two headstones already up, another being carved. Shows respect for the dead, and that's a good thing.

Glad they didn't touch the other cemetery, the old one, the one that has always been here. How old? Nobody knows. Is it really a cemetery? I like to think so. Funny gravestones. Funny carvings. Two heads. Back to back. Looking in opposite directions. Been here from the time of the primitives. Eerie.

Nobody comes here. That's why I like it. Good spot for a snooze. Nobody to argue with. No religious argy-bargy. No theological disputation, leaves on a shamrock, angels on a pin. Me--I'm a simple man. A plain man. A brother monk. A worker. Leave all that other stuff to the pious and the holy. I work. I pray. They're both the same thing--to work is to pray, to pray is to work. To snooze is to snooze. The bell will call me back to work soon enough.

Longboats that the foreigners sailed up the Bann to Lough Neagh, and made their captives portage to Lough Erne, came skimming, swiftly, silently over the lake to Boa.

Broder in the lead boat, leader of men, destined for Valhalla, the Vikings' Hall of Fame, gave the order to ship oars. Under sail, the boats covered the last little stretch without a warning splash.

When beached, "Now, men, now!" A human horde of violence spilled over chapel and priory, cutting hacking, stabbing, looting, burning, drowning. People, books, vestments tossed in the lake, floated and sank.

Even the very haycocks were set afire.

Twenty churches had Broder raided. Twenty churches had Broder burned. His story would be told from fjord to fjord, and grow in the telling. Twenty would become thirty, and thirty, forty. Now it was time to head for home.

The trail of destruction lying in his wake ruled against returning by the same route. Surprise was essential, this far from the coast. The hinterland was roused, and the clans uniting in pursuit. He must press on and gain the sea, the open ocean, the Vikings' highway to hearth and home.

Then the great god, Thor, smiled on Broder, and to Broder delivered-- me!

When I awoke I knew something was wrong. The sun in the sky was quartering west. I blinked. Then I sniffed. Smoke! Something was wrong, very wrong.

The meadow was ablaze, the church on fire. Men, strangers in leggings and wearing round helmets, swarmed everywhere. Bodies. Bodies on the ground. Blood oozing from them. My abbot, my brother monks!

Why Lord? Why?

I started to run, and their leader spotted me.

"Quick! Don't kill him! Stop that monk! I'll kill the son of a bitch who kills him!"

I was caught, and thrown at his feet.

One of his band, one of his murdering band, knew some Irish, picked up God knows where, under God knows what circumstances.

They wanted a pilot, a river pilot. Did I know the river?

Like a flash it came to me.

"Know the river? Like the back of my hand! Didn't I grow up on its banks? Didn't I fish it, day in day out, year in year out--Just let me live! I'll see you safe to the sea!"

"Into the boats. Time to go. You--with me, in the lead boat. One false move--"

He didn't have to finish.

And away we went. Down the lough, into the narrow water at Caol Uisce, over the level-bottomed flats of Belleek, the Rose Isle Fall, the Ford of the Monks, river rushing, water swirling, and a wild race through the rapids at Cathleen's Falls.

Day was drawing to a close. Did he want to make the sea tonight, or camp till the morrow?

Ahead lay the Falls of Aedh Ruaidh, and no way could they be described as rapids. Soon we would be in earshot of them. Everything depended on his answer.

"Dear Lord, make him say 'press on'. Dear Lord, let me lead the way. Dear Lord, let me do it my way."

My prayers were answered.

"To the sea!"

"But the falls are dangerous. We can't portage in the dark!"

"To the sea!"

"I know you Vikings are brave. But you're not that brave! Only champions shoot the falls, and that by daylight. Cuchulain did it. Finn did it. Cormac himself did it. But only in daylight! Only true champions shoot the Falls of Aedh Ruaidh."

God forgive me, but I laid it on thick. And who's to say Cuchulain didn't, and Finn didn't, and Cormac didn't? If they'd thought of it, sure they would have, and could have, and maybe it's one of the untold stories of the Gaels of Ireland.

I had spoken loudly, and my tone must have conveyed something of the meaning of my words.

Broder was in a quandary. Stop and camp, and be less than the heroes of Ireland? Or press ahead and show that Vikings could do what Gaels never did?

"Of course, if you're man enough, there is one way. Keep to the very centre of the river. Don't go left; don't go right. With the tide in, the drop will lessen. Row like Vikings, and don't stop for anything!"

Maybe it was the "Row like Vikings" that settled it. Vikings, whatever else they may be, are men of action. Action appeals to them.

"We go!"

Word was passed along to the other boats, "Close up! Hold to the centre! And row, row, row!"

Like the lemmings they were, they followed me in the lead boat, over the cataract, crashing into the Great Pool below.

Of the whole host that Broder led from Boa, only three escaped drowning. Considering what happened to those three later, drowning would have been a much more merciful ending.

Myself? As I told you, I grew up on the banks of Lough Erne. Maybe I forgot to add, I could swim like a fish, like a salmon, and that I'm still alive is proof of what I say.

Hawk of the Erne had Viking eyeballs for breakfast, but you won't find that in the annals.

"The Age of Christ 836. A fleet of sixty ships of Norsemen on the Boyne. Another fleet of sixty ships on the Abhainn Liphthe (the River Liffey)...The churches of Loch-Eirne (Lough Erne) were destroyed by the foreigners...A slaughter was made of the foreigners at Eas-Ruaidh."
     (Annals of the Four Masters).

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