“Crowley is generous, obsessed, fascinating, gripping. Really, I think Crowley is so good that he has left everybody else in the dust.”—Peter Straub
From award-winning author John Crowley comes a novel that masterfully blends history and magic in Flint and Mirror.
As ancient Irish clans fought to preserve their lands and their way of life, the Queen and her generals fought to tame the wild land and make it English.
Hugh O’Neill, lord of the North, dubbed Earl of Tyrone by the Queen, is a divided man: the Queen gives to Hugh her love, and her commandments, through a little mirror of obsidian which he can never discard; and the ancient peoples of Ireland arise from their underworld to make Hugh their champion, the token of their vow a chip of flint.
From the masterful author of Little, Big comes an exquisite fantasy of heartbreaking proportion.
Please enjoy this free excerpt of Flint and Mirror by John Crowley, on sale 04/19/2022.
But I know that all things that happen are not due to chance and happenstance alone but are brought about by intelligences who have constraints—but who have wills as well.
Everyone agreed: it had grown colder in Rome in these latter days.
The damp chill of winter lasted longer, the great stone houses and palaces of the noble rioni remained cold when spring came. The churches were colder still. The warm blue Italian skies of former times blazed as ever in innumerable paintings, but were less true now. In truth the whole world had grown colder, from China to Brazil, but Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, didn’t know that; his own land— which he had not seen in a decade—was still green, still warm, in his mind. England, yes, had been cold: when as a boy he had dwelt there, he had gone with his fosterers the Sidneys and walked out on the frozen Thames river, hard as granite, where buildings and arcades of ice had been put up, lit at night by candles and cressets that seemed to shiver in the cold; sleighs flitted past as on a broad highway, drawn by horses with studded shoes, casting off a glitter of ice with every step.
How long ago that was.
The apartments in the Palazzo Salviati that the Pope had provided to the Earl were furnished with charcoal braziers, but the tall windows weren’t glazed, and the Earl refused to batten the shutters at nightfall. He slept through the night wrapped in the rugs of his couch, sitting up, his head propped on pillows like a sick man. A naked sword within hand’s reach. He thought that on any night he might be murdered by agents of one or another of the powers he had striven with, or betrayed, or failed. The King of Spain’s son. The English Crown. His own clan and liegemen. Sanctissimus himself, or his cardinals for the matter of that: they might soon tire of the Earl’s endless pleas for money and arms whereby he might return to Ireland, of his plotting when in vino plenus with his fellow exiles—this one brooding on vengeance, that one mad for justice—who might themselves hate him secretly. A pillow over his face as he slept. But the great and beautiful ones, the legions of earth and air, whom most of all he had failed and who had failed him in turn—they could not reach him here to punish or to harm: could no more leave that island than he could return to it.
But it was summer now, a blessing; on waking he felt it, this long day breaking, somehow suddenly. His bedchamber door was rapped on lightly and opened; his attendants brought a basin of water for him to wash in, white towels for his hands and face. He rose, pushing aside the bedclothes and standing up with an old man’s groan, naked. Would his lordship break his fast, he was asked, or attend Mass first? The Earl looked down on himself, the red curls of his breast gone gray, the scars and welts where no hair grew. The land that was himself, in all its history. Was he well or ill? He could not say. He would hear Mass, he said. He was helped into the long wadded coat that the Romans wear at morning, vestaglia, robe de chambre, and took the hands of the men on either side of him while he put his feet, twisted and knuckly and seeming not his own, into velvet slippers. He drank the posset given him. He thought of turning back to bed. He belted the robe, thanked his attendants, who stepped away backward from him bowing and out the door, a thing which always charmed him. With a great yawn, a gulp of morning, he awoke entirely at last.
The Salviati palace contained a small chapel where each morning the Archbishop said Mass, as he was required by canon law to do, and wished to do. His daily congregation was small: the palace’s serving nuns, a superannuated monsignor, the Archbishop’s secretary. And the Earl of Tyrone, taking a gilded chair at a prie-dieu between the two rows of benches. When the Archbishop entered, followed by his server, he touched O’Neill on his shoulder as he passed, smiling, looking toward the Mass vessels and the Gospel open on the altar.
Peter Lombard, Archbishop of Armagh in Ulster, had never entered his See. He had been a bright Munster boy, sent off to Oxford and then the Continent to study; earned a doctorate at the Catholic college of Louvain in Belgium. When he came to Rome he so impressed Pope Clement VII that he ascended quickly through several appointments and soon was made Archbishop. He was the obvious choice for Armagh, but though he was anointed and given the ring and crozier he could never reach his seat in Ulster; couldn’t be shepherd to his flock, couldn’t marry or bury, couldn’t say a High Mass for them on holy-days. Catholic clergy in Ireland were being imprisoned, exiled, hanged, and butchered. He would have gone to Ireland anyway but the Holy Father forbade it, and instead made Peter his Domestic Prelate, with a good income attached. The Irish exiles in Rome were made his concern. Like his friend Hugh O’Neill, he would never leave Rome, nor ever stand again on Irish soil.
I will go unto the altar of God, he said, hands lifted to the standing crucifix on the altar. And in the soft Latin of the Italian church the server answered: To God who gave joy to my youth. The Earl whispered in concert with the priest, he in Irish, the priest in Latin: Why do you turn me away, why am I made to go on in sorrow, while my enemy afflicts me? How many times in how many ages had that question been asked, the Earl wondered, and how often gone unanswered. He felt his tears arise, as they did often now, at small things, at nothing.
Midway in the Mass the Archbishop raised the circle of bread that had become transformed, bread into body; then wine into blood. The nuns rose and in a line, gray ghosts, approached the rail to partake. Panis angelicus. On this day the Earl would not. He could not; he had not confessed, had not done his penance, his sins had not been forgiven.
Hugh O’Neill attended divine service most mornings; in the evenings, if he did not engage in visionary plots and plans with other old Irishmen like himself, he sat with the Archbishop in his chambers, for the Archbishop, author of the huge De regno Hiberniæ sanctorum insula commentarius, his account of the saints and defenders of the Irish realm, wished to compile the intimate knowledge that Hugh O’Neill had of the events of the last Irish defense against the heretic. He was the Earl’s historian; he put questions and wrote down what Hugh answered, when he could answer: the names and clans of old companions, the course of battles lost or won, the years and months and days of them; the letters of supplication or refusal, the oaths sworn and broken. The voice of the old Queen: Hugh would not tell the Archbishop how it was that he had come to hear that voice, and spoke instead of a sort of sense he had had, or a sensitivity to the procession of events: that he could know them at a distance, or in a time yet to come.
On Fridays he was a penitent: the Archbishop was his confessor, sat alone knee to knee with the Earl, his face turned away and his hand at times hiding his eyes, listening without speaking, unless what he heard needed explication or inquiry. In their tall cages the Archbishop’s turtle-doves moaned, flitting pointlessly, gifts of the new Pope, Paul V. Here too Hugh was allowed a chair, was not made to lower himself to his knees, from which posture (he had said to the Archbishop) he might never rise again. And with head lowered, he confessed. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned, in thought, word, and deed.
A week’s sins could be told in the tenth part of an hour; the old Earl had few of what the priest called Occasions of Sin now. Hugh O’Neill’s confessions were not of present peccata but of the sins of his whole lived life, not so different from the history the Archbishop was writing, except that in the written history the crimes that the Earl acknowledged were excluded, whereas in confession they were probed and totted up with care. The nightly history-telling began at the beginning of Hugh’s coming of age and went toward the end, to these rooms in Rome; the Friday confessions, however, had started at the end—the end of all the wars and all the battles in the wars and the things done in the battles and after them—and went backward, toward the beginning. Each week the Earl and his confessor turned back a little further, seeking what must be honestly spoken of now, all that he should have done and did not do, what he did and should not have done. Hugh O’Neill had never been an observant son of the Church; when it was advantageous he would enter a church, or kneel with his captains before a hunted priest in the wilderness for a blessing, but what things he had done as a warrior, as a leader, as the O’Neill and the champion of Ireland’s and his own clan’s rights and freedoms—those he would not have called sins; and even now in the face of the Archbishop’s gentle questioning he sometimes resisted. When he could say no more, baffled by himself, and they had reached a place to stop, they arose together and exchanged a kiss of peace.
In the course of the years of exile, the Earl’s and the Archbishop’s, these two histories of Hugh O’Neill—of his acts and of his soul— reached the moment in his life where they crossed, like two riders each headed for the other’s starting point: as one went toward the end, to matters hardest to speak of, so full of failures and defeats, the other reached the years of youth and childhood, when he went unschooled in grace and sin, and mostly learned to do things, to ride and run and throw the javelin, wrestle and brag, wake and sleep in the green world.
it was in the spring that his fosterers the O’Hagans brought Hugh O’Neill to the castle at Dungannon. It was a great progress in the boy Hugh’s eyes, twenty or thirty horses jingling with brass trappings, carts bearing gifts for his O’Neill uncles at Dungannon, red cattle lowing in the van, gallowglass and archers and women in bright scarves, O’Hagans and McMahons and their dependents. And he knew that he, but ten years old, was the center of that progress, on a dappled pony, with a new mantle wrapped around his skinny body and a new ring on his finger.
He kept seeming to recognize the environs of the castle, and scanned the horizon for it, and questioned his cousin Phelim, who had come to fetch him to Dungannon, how far it was every hour until Phelim grew annoyed and told him to ask next when he saw it. When at last he did see it, a fugitive sun was just then looking out, and sunshine glanced off the wet, lime-washed walls of its palisades and made it seem bright and near and dim and far at once, heart-catching, for to Hugh the stone tower and its clay and thatch outbuildings were all the castles he had ever heard of in songs. He kicked his pony hard, and though Phelim and the laughing women called to him and reached out to keep him, he raced on, up the long muddy track that rose up to a knoll where now a knot of riders were gathering, their javelins high and slim and black against the sun: his uncles and cousins O’Neill, who when they saw the pony called and cheered him on.
Through the next weeks he was made much of, and it excited him; he ran everywhere, an undersized, red-headed imp, his stringy legs pink with cold and his high voice too loud. Everywhere the big hands of his uncles touched him and petted him, and they laughed at his extravagances and his stories, and when he killed a rabbit they praised him and held him aloft among them as though it had been twenty stags. At night he slept among them, rolled in among their great odorous shaggy shapes where they lay around the open turf fire that burned in the center of the hall. Sleepless and alert long into the night he watched the smoke ascend to the opening in the roof and listened to his uncles and cousins snoring and talking and breaking wind after their ale.
That there was a reason, perhaps not a good one and kept secret from him, why on this visit he should be put first ahead of older cousins, given first choice from the thick stews in which lumps of butter dissolved, and listened to when he spoke, Hugh felt but could not have said. Now and again he caught one or another of the men regarding him steadily, sadly, as though he were to be pitied; and again, a woman would sometimes, in the middle of some brag he was making, fold him in her arms and hug him hard. He was in a story whose plot he didn’t know, and it made him the more restless and wild. Once when running into the hall he caught his uncle Turlough Luineach and a woman of his having an argument, he shouting at her to leave these matters to men; when she saw Hugh, the woman came to him, pulled his mantle around him and brushed leaves and burrs from it. “Will they have him dressed up in an English suit then for the rest of his life?” she said over her shoulder to Turlough Luineach, who was drinking angrily by the fire.
“His grandfather Conn had a suit of English clothes,” Turlough said into his cup. “A fine suit of black velvet, I remember, with gold buttons and a black velvet hat. With a white plume in it!” he shouted, and Hugh couldn’t tell if he was angry at the woman, or Hugh, or himself. The woman began crying; she drew her scarf over her face and left the hall. Turlough glanced once at Hugh, and spat into the fire.
Nights they sat in the light of the fire and the great reeking candle of reeds and butter, drinking Dungannon beer and Spanish wine and talking. Their talk was one subject only: the O’Neills. Whatever else came up in talk or song related to that long history, whether it was the strangeness—stupidity or guile, either could be argued—of the English colonials; or the raids and counter-raids of neighboring clans; or stories out of the far past. Hugh couldn’t always tell, and perhaps his elders weren’t always sure, what of the story had happened a thousand years ago and what of it was happening now. Heroes rose up and raided, slew their enemies, and carried off their cattle and their women; O’Neills were crowned ard Rí, High King, at Tara. There was mention of their ancestor Niall of the Nine Hostages and of the high king Julius Caesar; of Brian Boru and Cuchulain, who lived long ago, and of the King of Spain’s daughter, yet to come; of Shane O’Neill, now living, and his fierce Scots redshanks. Hugh’s grandfather Conn had been an Ò Neill, the O’Neill, head of his clan and its septs; but he had let the English dub him Earl of Tyrone. There had always been an O’Neill, invested at the crowning stone at Tullahogue to the sound of St. Patrick’s bell; but Conn O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, had knelt before King Harry over the sea, and had promised to plant corn, and learn English. And when he lay dying he said that a man was a fool to trust the English.
Within the tangled histories, each strand bright and clear and beaded with unforgotten incident but inextricably bound up with every other, Hugh could perceive his own story: how his grandfather had never settled the succession of his title of an Ò Neill; how Hugh’s uncle Shane had risen up and slain his own half-brother Matthew, who was Conn’s bastard son and Hugh’s father, and now Shane called himself the O’Neill and claimed all Ulster for his own, and raided his cousins’ lands whenever he chose with his six fierce sons; how he, Hugh, had true claim to what Shane had usurped. Sometimes all this was as clear to him as the branchings of a winter-naked tree against the sky; sometimes not. The English . . . there was the confusion. Like a cinder in his eye, they baffled his clear sight.
Turlough Luineach tells with relish: “Then comes up Sir Henry Sidney with all his power, and Shane? Can Shane stand against him? He cannot! It’s as much as he can do to save his own skin. And that only by leaping into the Blackwater and swimming away. I’ll drink the Lord Deputy’s health for that, a good friend to Conn’s true heir . . .”
Or, “What do they ask?” a brehon, a lawgiver, states. “You bend a knee to the Queen, and offer all your lands. She takes them and gives you the title Earl—and all your lands back again. Surrender and regrant,” he said in English: “You are then as her urragh, but nothing has changed . . .”
“And they are sworn then to help you against your enemies,” says Turlough.
“No,” says another, “you against theirs, even if it be a man sworn to you or your own kinsman whom they’ve taken a hatred to. Conn was right: a man is a fool to trust them.”
“Think of Earl Desmond, imprisoned now in London, who trusted them.”
“Desmond is a thing of theirs. He is a Norman, he has their blood. Not the O’Neills.”
“Fubún,” says the blind poet O’Mahon in a quiet high voice that stills them all:
Fubún on the gray foreign gun,
Fubún on the golden chain;
Fubún on the court that talks English,
Fubún on the denial of Mary’s son.
Hugh listens, turning from one speaker to the other, frightened by the poet’s potent curse. He feels the attention of the O’Neills on him.
“In Ireland there are five kingdoms,” O’Mahon the poet said. “One in each of the five directions. There was a time when each of the kingdoms had her king, and a court, and a castle-seat with lime-washed towers; battlements of spears, and armies young and laughing.”
“There was a High King then too,” said Hugh, seated at O’Mahon’s feet in the grass, still green at Hallowtide. From the hill where they sat the Great Lake could just be seen, turning from silver to gold as the light went. The roving herds of cattle—Ulster’s wealth—moved over the folded land. All this is O’Neill territory, and always forever has been.
“There was indeed once a High King,” O’Mahon said.
“And will be again.”
The wind stirred the poet’s white hair. O’Mahon could not see Hugh, his cousin, but—he said—he could see the wind. “Now cousin,” he said. “See how well the world is made. Each kingdom of Ireland has its own renown: Connaught in the west for learning and for magic, the writing of books and annals, and the dwellingplaces of saints. In the north, Ulster”—he swept his hand over lands he couldn’t see—“for courage, battles, and warriors. Leinster in the east for hospitality, for open doors and feasting, cauldrons never empty. Munster in the south for labor, for kerns and ploughmen, weaving and droving, birth and death.”
Hugh, looking over the long view, the winding of the river where clouds were gathered now, asked: “Which is the greatest?”
“Which,” O’Mahon said, pretending to ponder this. “Which do you think?”
“Ulster,” said Hugh O’Neill of Ulster. “Because of the warriors. Cuchulain was of Ulster, who beat them all.”
“Wisdom and magic are good,” Hugh conceded. “Hosting is good. But warriors can beat them.”
O’Mahon nodded to no one. “The greatest kingdom,” he said, “is Munster.”
Hugh said nothing to that. O’Mahon’s hand sought for his shoulder and rested upon it, and Hugh knew he meant to explain. “In every kingdom,” he said, “the North, the South, the East, and the West, there is also a north, a south, an east, a west. Isn’t that so?”
“Yes,” Hugh said. He could point to them: left, right, ahead, behind. Ulster is in the north, and yet in Ulster there is also a north, the north of the north: that’s where his bad uncle Shane ruled. And so in that north, Shane’s north, there must be again a north and a south, an east and a west. And then again . . .
“Listen,” O’Mahon said. “Into each kingdom comes wisdom from the west, about what the world is and how it came to be. Courage from the north, to defend the world from what would swallow it up. Hospitality from the east to praise both learning and courage, and reward the kings who keep the world as it is. But before all these things, there is a world at all: a world to learn about, to defend, to praise, to keep. It is from Munster at first that the world comes to be.”
“Oh,” Hugh said, no wiser. “But you said that there were five kingdoms.”
“So I did. And so it is said.”
Connaught, Ulster, Leinster, Munster. “What is the fifth kingdom?”
“Well, cousin,” O’Mahon said, “what is it then?”
“Meath,” Hugh guessed. “Where Tara is, where the kings were crowned.”
“That’s fine country. Not north or south or east or west but in the middle.”
He said no more about that, and Hugh felt sure that the answer might be otherwise. “Where else could it be?” he asked. O’Mahon only smiled. Hugh wondered if, blind as he was, he knew when he smiled and that others saw it. A kind of shudder fled along his spine, cold in the low sun. “But then,” he said, “it might be far away.”
“It might,” O’Mahon said. “It might be far away, or it might be close.” He chewed on nothing for a moment, and then he said: “Tell me this, cousin: Where is the center of the world?”
That was an old riddle; even boy Hugh knew the answer to it, his uncle Phelim’s brehon had asked it of him. There are five directions to the world: four of them are north, south, east, and west, and where is the fifth? He knew how to name it, but just at that moment, sitting with bare legs crossed in the ferns in sight of the tower of Dungannon, he did not want to give it.
In Easter week there appeared out of a silvery morning mist from the southeast a slow procession of horses and men on foot. Even if Hugh watching from the tower had not seen the red and gold banner of the Lord Deputy of Ireland shaken out suddenly by the rainy breeze, he would have known that these were English and not Irish, for the men were a neat, dark cross moving together smartly: a van, the flag in the center where the Lord Deputy rode flanked by his shot, men with long guns over their shoulders; and a rear guard with a shambling ox-drawn cart.
He climbed down from the tower calling out the news, but the visitors had been seen already, and Phelim and the O’Hagan and Turlough were already mounting in the courtyard to ride and meet them. Hugh shouted at the horse-boys to bring his pony.
“You stay,” Phelim said, pulling on his gloves of English leather.
“I won’t,” Hugh said, and pushed the horse-boy: “Go on!”
Phelim’s horse began shaking his head and dancing away, and Phelim, pulling angrily at his bridle, commanded Hugh to obey; between the horse and Hugh disobeying him, he was getting red in the face, and Hugh was on the pony’s back, laughing, before Phelim could take any action against him. Turlough had watched all this without speaking; now he raised a hand to silence Phelim and drew Hugh to his side.
“They might as well see him now as later,” he said, and brushed back Hugh’s hair with an oddly gentle gesture.
The two groups, English and Irish, stood for a time some distance apart with a marshy stream running between them, while heralds met formally in the middle and carried greetings back and forth. Then the Lord Deputy, in a gesture of condescension, rode forward with only his standard-bearer, splashing across the water and waving a gloved hand to Turlough; at that, Turlough rode down to meet him halfway, and leapt off his horse to take the Lord Deputy’s bridle and shake his hand.
Watching these careful approaches Hugh began to feel less forward. He moved his pony back behind Phelim’s snorting bay. Sir Henry Sidney was huge: his mouth full of white teeth opened in a black beard that reached up nearly to his eyes, which were small and also black; his great thighs, in hose and high boots, made the slim sword that hung from his baldric look as harmless as a toy. His broad chest was enclosed in a breastplate like a tun; Hugh didn’t know its deep stomach was partly false, in the current fashion, but it looked big enough to hold him whole. Sir Henry raised an arm encased in a sleeve more dagged and gathered and complex than any garment Hugh had ever seen, and the squadron behind began to move up, and just then the Lord Deputy’s bright eyes found Hugh.
In later years Hugh O’Neill would come to feel that there was within him a kind of treasure-chest or strong-box where certain moments in his life were kept, whole: some of them grand, some terrible, some oddly trivial, all perfect and complete with every sensation and feeling they had contained. Among the oldest which the box would hold was this one, when his uncle Turlough, leading the Deputy’s horse, brought him to Hugh, and the Deputy reached down a massive hand and took Hugh’s arm like a twig he might break, and spoke to him in English. All preserved: the huge laughing head, the jingle of the horses’ trappings, and the sharp odor of their fresh droppings, even the soft glitter of condensing dewdrops on the silver surface of Sir Henry’s armor. Dreaming or awake, in London, in Rome, this moment would now and again be taken out and shown him, a green and silver opal, and make him wonder.
The negotiations leading to Sir Henry’s taking Hugh O’Neill away with him to England as his ward went on for some days. The O’Neill’s brehon, lawyer and lawgiver, translated Sir Henry’s English for those who knew none; Sir Henry was patient and careful. Patient, while the Dungannon O’Neills rehearsed again the long story of their wrongs at Shane’s hands. Careful not to commit himself to more than he directly promised: that he would be a good friend to the Baron Dungannon, as he called Hugh, while at the same time intimating that large honors could come of it, chiefly the earldom of Tyrone, which since Conn’s death had remained in the Queen’s gift, unbestowed.
He gave to Hugh a little sheath knife with a small emerald of peculiar hue set in the ivory hilt; he told Hugh that the gem was taken from a Spanish treasure-ship sailing from Peru on the other side of the world. Hugh, excluded from their negotiations, would sit with the women and turn the little knife in his hands, wondering what could be meant by the other side of the world. When it began to grow clear to him that he was meant to go to England with Sir Henry, he grew shy and silent, not daring even to ask what it would be like there. He tried to imagine England: he thought of a vast stone place, like the cathedral of Armagh multiplied over and over, where the sun did not shine.
At dinner Sir Henry saw him loitering at the door of the hall, peeking in. He raised his cup and called to him. “Come, my young lord,” he said, and the Irish smiled and laughed at the compliment, though Hugh, whose English was slight, wasn’t sure they weren’t mocking him. Hands urged him forward, and rather than be pushed before Sir Henry, Hugh stood as tall as he could, his hand on the little knife at his belt, and walked up before the vast man.
“My lord, are you content to go to England with me?”
“I am, if my uncles send me.”
“Well, so they do. You will see the Queen there.” Hugh answered nothing to this, quite unable to picture the Queen. Sir Henry put a hand on Hugh’s shoulder, where it lay like a stone weight. “I have a son near you in age. Well, something younger. His name is Philip.”
“Philip. Philip is an English name. Come, shall we go tomorrow?” Sir Henry looked around, smiling at his hosts. Hugh was being teased: tomorrow was fixed.
“Tomorrow is too soon,” Hugh said, attempting a big voice of Turlough’s but feeling only sudden terror. Laughter around him made him snap his head around to see who mocked him. Shame overcame terror. “If it please your Lordship, we will go. Tomorrow. To England.” They cheered at that, and Sir Henry’s head bobbed slowly up and down like an ox’s.
Hugh bowed and turned away, suppressing until he reached the door of the hall a desire to run. Once past the door, he fled: out of the castle, down the muddy lane between the outbuildings, past the lounging O’Hagans on watch, out into the gray night fields over which slow banks of mist lay undulating. Without stopping he ran along a beaten way up through the damp grass, out and up the long rise of earth that lay between Dungannon and the ancient mounds beyond. He kept on, to where a riven oak thrust up, had thrust up for as long as anyone knew, like a tensed black arm and gnarled hand.
Near the oak, almost hidden in the grass, were straight lines of worn mossy stones that marked where once a monastic house had stood; a hummocky sunken place had been its cellar. It was here that Hugh had killed, almost by accident, his first rabbit. He had not been thinking, that day, about hunting, but only sitting on a stone with his face tilted upward into the sun thinking of nothing, his javelin across his lap. When he opened his eyes, the sunlit ground was a coruscating darkness, except for the brown shape of the rabbit in the center of vision, near enough almost to touch. Since then he had felt the place was lucky for him, though he wouldn’t have ventured there at night; now he found himself there, almost before he had decided on it, almost before the voices and faces in the hall had settled out of consciousness. He had nearly reached the oak when he saw that someone sat on the old stones.
“Who is it there?” said the man, without turning to look. “Is it Hugh O’Neill?”
“It is,” said Hugh, wondering how blind O’Mahon nearly always knew who was approaching him. Nearby a man of the O’Hagans lay with his head pillowed on his arm, asleep; he’d have brought the poet here, tasked to protect him.
“Come here, then, Hugh.” Still not turning to him—why should he? and yet it was unsettling—O’Mahon touched the stone seat beside him. “Sit. Do you have iron about you, cousin?”
“I have a knife.”
“Take it off, will you? And put it a distance away.”
He did as he was told, sticking the little knife in a spiky tree-stump some paces off; somehow the poet’s gentle tone brooked neither resistance nor reply.
“Tomorrow,” O’Mahon said when Hugh sat next to him again, “you go to England.”
“Yes.” Hugh felt ashamed to admit it here, even though it had been in no sense his choice; he didn’t even like to hear the poet say the place’s name.
“It’s well you came here, then. For there are . . . personages who wish to say farewell to you. And give you a commandment. And a promise.”
The poet wasn’t smiling; his face was lean and composed behind a thin fair beard nearly transparent. His bald eyes, as though filled with milk and water, looked not so much blind as simply unused: a baby’s eyes. “Behind you,” he said, and Hugh looked quickly around, “in the old cellar there, lives one who will come forth in a moment, only you ought not to speak to him.”
The cellar-place was obscure; any of its humps, which seemed to shift vaguely in the darkness, might have been someone.
“And beyond, from the rath”—O’Mahon pointed with certainty, though he didn’t look, toward the broad ancient tumulus far off, riding blackly like a whale above the white shoals of mist—“now comes out a certain prince, and to him also you should not speak.”
Hugh’s heart had turned small and hard and beat painfully. He tried to say Sidhe but the word would not be said. He looked from the cellar to the rath to the cellar again—and there, a certain tussock darker than the rest grew arms and hands and began with slow patience to pull itself out of the earth. Then a sound as of a great stamping animal came from ahead of him, and, turning, he saw that out of the dark featureless mass of the rath something was proceeding toward him, something like a huge windblown cloak or a quickly oaring boat with a black luffing sail or a stampeding caparisoned horse. He felt a chill shiver up his back. At a sound behind him he turned again, to see a little thick black man, now fully out of the earth, glaring dourly at him (the glints of his eyes all that could be seen of his face) and staggering toward him under the weight of a black chest he carried in his stringy, rooty arms.
An owl hooted, quite near Hugh; he flung his head around and saw it, all white, gliding silently ahead of the Prince who came toward Hugh, of whom and whose steed Hugh could still make nothing but that they were vast, and were perhaps one being, except that now he perceived gray hands perhaps holding reins, and a circlet of gold where a brow might be. The white owl swept near Hugh’s head, and with a silent wingbeat climbed to a perch in the riven oak.
There was a brief clap as of thunder behind him. The little black man had set down his chest. Now he glared up at the Prince before him and shook his head slowly, truculently; his huge black hat was like a tussock of grass, but there nodded in it, Hugh saw, a white feather delicate as snow. Beside Hugh, O’Mahon sat unchanged, his hands resting on his knees; but then he raised his head, for the Prince had drawn a sword.
It was as though an unseen hand manipulated a bright bar of moonlight; it had neither hilt nor point, but it was doubtless a sword. The Prince who bore it was furious, that was certain too: he thrust the sword imperiously toward the little man, who cried out with a shriek like gale-tormented branches rubbing, and stamped his feet; but, though resisting, his hands pulled open the lid of his chest. Hugh could see that there was nothing inside but limitless darkness. The little man thrust an arm deep inside and drew out something; then, approaching with deep reluctance only as near as he had to, he held it out to Hugh.
Hugh took it; it was deathly cold. There was the sound of a heavy cape snapped, and when Hugh turned to look, the Prince was already away down the dark air, gathering in his stormy hugeness as he went. The owl sailed after him. As it went away, a white feather fell, and floated zigzag down toward Hugh.
Behind Hugh, a dark hummock in the cellar-place had, for a moment, the glint of angry eyes, and then did not.
Ahead of him, across the fields, a brown mousing owl swept low over the silvery grass.
Hugh had in his hands a rudely carven flint, growing warm from his hand’s heat, and a white owl’s feather.
“The flint is the commandment,” O’Mahon said, as if nothing extraordinary at all had happened, “and the feather is the promise.”
“What does the commandment mean?”
“I don’t know.”
They sat a time in silence. The Moon, amber as old whiskey, appeared between the white-fringed hem of the clouds and the gray heads of the eastern hills. “Will I ever return?” Hugh asked, though he could almost not speak for the painful stone in his throat.
“Yes,” O’Mahon said, and rose.
Hugh was shivering now. The O’Hagan kern awoke with a start, as from a dream, and sought for his charge, the poet; O’Mahon took Hugh’s hand and with his staff going before him by a step, he went down the way toward the castle. If Sir Henry had known how late into the night Hugh had sat out of doors, he would have been alarmed; the night air, especially in Ireland, was well known to be pernicious.
“Goodbye then, cousin,” Hugh said, at the castle gate.
“Goodbye, Hugh O’Neill.” O’Mahon smiled. “If they give you a velvet hat to wear in England, your white feather will look fine in it.”
Sir Henry Sidney, though he would not have said it to the Irish, was quite clear in his dispatches to the London council why he took up Hugh O’Neill. Not only was it policy for the English to support the weaker man in any quarrel between Irish dynasts, and thus prevent the growth of any over-mighty subject; it also seemed to Sir Henry that, like an eyas falcon, a young Irish lord if taken early enough might later come more willingly to the English wrist. Said otherwise: he was bringing Hugh to England as he might the cub of a beast to a bright and well-ordered menagerie, to tame him.
For that reason, and despite his wife’s doubts, he set Hugh O’Neill companion to his own son Philip; and for the same reason he requested his son-in-law the Earl of Leicester to be Hugh’s patron at court. “A boy poor in goods,” he wrote Leicester, “and full feebly friended.”
The Earl of Leicester, in conversation with the Queen, turned a nice simile, comparing his new Irish client to the grafted fruit-trees the Earl’s gardeners made: by care and close binding, the hardy Irish apple might be given English roots, though born in Irish soil; and once having them, could not then be separated from them.
“Pray sir, then,” the Queen said smiling, “his fruits be good.”
“With good husbandry, Madame,” Leicester said, “his fruits will be to your Majesty’s taste.” And he brought forward the boy, ten years old, his proud hair deep red, almost the color of the moroccoleather binding of a little prayer-book the Queen held in her left hand. His pale face and upturned nose were Irish; his eyes were emeralds. Two things the Queen loved were red hair and jewels; she put out her long ringed hand and brushed Hugh’s hair.
“Our cousin of Ireland,” she said.
He didn’t dare raise his red-lashed eyes to her after he had made the courtesy that the Earl had carefully instructed him in; while they talked about him above his head in a courtly southern English he couldn’t follow, he looked at the Queen’s dress.
She seemed in fact to be wearing several. As though she were some fabulous many-walled fort, mined and breached, through the slashings and partings of her outer dress another could be seen, and where that was opened there was another, and lace beneath that. The outer wall was all jeweled, beaded with tiny seed-pearls as though with dew, worked and embroidered in many patterns of leaf, vine, flower. On her petticoat were pictured monsters of the sea, snorting sea-horses and leviathans with mouths like portcullises. And on the outer garment’s inner side, turned out to reveal them, were sewn a hundred disembodied eyes and ears. Hugh could believe that with those eyes and ears the Queen could see and hear, so that even as he looked at her clothing her clothing observed him. He raised his eyes to her white face framed in stiff lace, her hair dressed in pearls and silver.
Hugh saw then that the power of the Queen resided in her dress. She was bound up in it as magically as the children of Lir were bound up in the forms of swans. The willowy, long-legged courtiers, gartered and wearing slim English swords, moved as in a dance in circles and waves around her when she moved. When she left the chamber (she did not speak to Hugh again, but once her quick, bird eye lighted on him) she drew her ladies-in-waiting after her as though she caught up rustling fallen leaves in her train. The Earl later told Hugh that the Queen had a thousand such gowns and petticoats and farthingales, each more splendid than the last.
A screen elaborately carved—nymphs and satyrs, grape-clusters, incongruous armorial bearings picked out in gold leaf—had concealed from the chamber the Queen’s chief counselor, Lord Burghley, and Dr. John Dee, her consulting physician and astrologer; but through the piercings of the screen they had seen and heard.
“That boy,” Burghley said softly. “The red-headed one.”
“Yes,” said Dr. Dee. “The Irish boy.”
“Sir Henry Sidney is his patron. He has been brought here to be schooled in English ways. There have been others. Her gracious Majesty believes she can win their hearts and their loyalty. They do learn manners and graces, but they return to their island, and their brutish natures well up again. There is no way to keep them bound to us in those fastnesses.”
“I know not for certain,” said Dr. Dee, combing his great beard with his fingers, “but it may be that there are ways.”
“Doctissime vir,” said Burghley, “if there be ways, let us use them.”
Copyright © John Crowley 2022
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