Niall: the Hurling Match

This is most of a draft of the first chapter of my Niall Nine Hostages novel.  Notably it is a hurling match and it is for the hurling and not because there will be more of this novel offered that I present it.

Niall, eldest son of the Ard Ri, hurtled toward the goal with the sliotar balance on the end of his hurley.  Half the boys shouted with exhilaration; half howled their distress as they struggled to mount a defense in front of the H-frame goal.  A knot of boys formed up, waving their hurleys menacingly, ready to block the intruder’s drive.  Behind Niall, a howling mob closed in.  At the last moment, Niall spun away from the center of the field, still balancing the ball on his stick.  Niall grinned over his shoulder and his pursuers knew that they had been tricked.

Niall, skidding to a stop, shook his red hair out of his eyes and laughed.  He hurled the sliotar just over the outstretched hurleys of his opponents.  “Fynn!” he shouted over the cries of consternation from the defense, “Take it!”

A lanky boy with a worried look ran toward the bouncing pass with a determined set to his jaw.  Fynn Vyrrn saw nothing but the ball.  He was so determined that he did not see the larger boy, named Cenid, preparing to take him out instead of competing for the ball. Niall saw the danger, but too late, and yelled a useless warning, “Fynn!”

Fynn never saw Cenid coming as his eyes followed the path of his shot, nor did the shouted warning have an effect.  Cenid caught the running hurler about chest high and drove Fynn into the ground with his hurley.  Fynn dropped like a stone, the impact slamming his head and shoulders to the turf with a thud that brought gasps from other players.  Fynn came to rest in a crumpled ball.

A wicked grin split Cenid’s face, but he leered not at Fynn but at his older brother, Niall.  The thick-waisted lad, the second son of the Ard Ri, the high king, was easily the tallest of all the hurlers.  Satisfied that Niall had seen his intent, Canid turned his attentions back to the ball, but it was too late, already other offensive players had reached the sliotar.

A small brown-haired boy scooped up the ball with his hurley, catching it in his left hand.

“Seamus!” cried the older boys, waving their sticks in supplication.

Seamus, the quick-tongued youngest son of the king, scowled and pointedly ignored their calls for him to pass.  Three quick steps toward the goal and he slapped the ball in the air.  With all his strength the small boy swung two handed at the ball driving it at the goal with a loud crack.

A defense-man took the shot hard off his chest.  As brave as the boy was to face the first shot, he was not near brave enough nor fast enough to stop the avalanche of players all pounding after the ball.  The defender fell under the onrushing players and came up bloodied.  With a loud shout the sliotar skidded through the goal posts.

“Three!”  They called and “Seven!”

The hapless defense-man hurried after the ball, wiping the blood from his nose onto the bratt which was wrapped around his waist and pinned at one shoulder.  the scorers jogged back toward the center of the field cheering and squabbling about who had actually scored the goal.

The bloodied boy tossed the ball in the air, watching it with a practiced eye.  With a grunt he sent it soaring past the middle of the field.  The game resumed in earnest.  Nobody but Niall seemed to notice Fynn beginning to stir on the ground.  Niall made note of the movement and tuned back to the game.  The ball was surrounded on all sides by a press of boys and never traveled far before striking a leg or hurley.

The smaller lads hovered around the central melee of chopping an cursing boys.  When the sliotar came loose the nearest boy batted it toward his goal.  Every boy knew that if he hesitated he would be quickly mauled by the other players.  If he was quick, he might try to pass the ball with practiced swings or kicks. When given a moment to attempt it, a boy might try to scoop the ridged ball onto his hurley and carry it there or even flip it into a hand for more control.

Few of the younger boys tried this tactic. Everyone seemed to swing at the sliotar with their sticks whether it rested on the ground, flew through the air, or was being held in an unfortunate hand.  So eager were the boys that it did not seem materially important whether or not the lad holding the ball was on their team or not.

A few of the boys were older and a lot more accomplished than their mates.  Two stood out far above he rest, one for his size and brutality and the other for his speed and skill.  Where Cenid went, he pushed the smaller boys away with shoves, kicks, and even an occasional reckless strike with his hurley.  Stifled tears followed close behind Cenid, the Ard Ri’s second oldest son.

Niall, the elder by less than a year and shorter by nearly a foot, made up for his stature with his wits, his skill, and his ferocity.  No collisions impeded his rapid dashes unless a shoulder sent an opponent stumbling unbalanced but unhurt.

Niall moved like the wind.  Slicing in, Niall tapped the sliotar free from the knot of boys with a well aimed poke from his hurley.  Laughing with glee he easily scooped up the ball with his carved ash stick, his ears full of the cursing and the consternation of his fellows.  Niall snatched the ball from the air and took two quick steps away from the other combatants.  He looked for a teammate down the field in scoring position, but all his team seemed tangled in the cluster of struggling hurlers behind him.

Decision brought instant action, Niall lifted the hurley to his shoulder as he took another step and slapped the ball into the air with an open palm.  The sliotar hovered in the air a moment and then began to fall to the green, but Niall, his hurley gripped tightly in both hands now, was well prepared for his shot.

A moan went up from the boys who were unfortunate enough to be on the other team.  Though smaller than most of the other boys Niall was powerful and above all intense.  With practiced efficiency he drove the ball over the goal in a high arching shot that brought a sigh of admiration from his team-mates.

“Hah!” crowed Seamus.  The scrappy brown-haired boy nudging the large, now red faced, Cenid, “Niall is going to beat you again.”

“Shut up Seamus!” Cenid placed his hand over the smaller boy’s face and shoved him back onto the pitch as he strode through the press of players toward Niall, “You carried that ball and threw it.  I saw it!”  Cenid’s eyes narrowed and he stabbed his hurley at Niall’s chest.  “You always cheat.  How else could someone so small and puny beat me?”

Seamus had dusted himself off and followed, the mischief that danced behind his eyes would not let him resist the urge to take another poke at his older brother, “Perhaps if you had something other than moss in your head you’d be smarter than the sliotar, Cenid…”

Cenid rounded on the smaller boy, charging with his heavy ash hurley raised and a murderous gleam in his eyes. Seamus cowered, seeing the glint and fearing a beating.  Other boys seemed to melt away from Seamus, where he stood.  The hurley fell toward Seamus in a blur too quick, the youngest prince couldn’t even cover his head with his arms.  Inches short of the small boy’s head, another hurley shot out to catch Cenid’s and knock it aside.  The ferocious impact shattered the hurley that Niall held and sent Cenid stumbling past Seamus.  Seamus scrambled behind his protector.

“You owe me a hurley Cenid,” quipped Niall as he examined the broken stick before casually tossing it away, “and you almost owed me a new brother. You would have killed him if you’d hit him.”

“Mind your own affairs Niall or I swear I’ll give you worse than I’d ever give Seamus,” growled Cenid.

Niall frowned and strode closer to the taller Cenid, “I thought I explained my interest in this, not that I need an one to keep you from killing someone on a whim,” Said Niall.

“He had it coming brother, and I’m sick of your interfering too.” Cenid crouched with his hurley held like a weapon before him, “What makes you think you can command me?  And what makes you think you can stop me?”

Niall chuckled humorlessly and stepped even closer to Cenid, ready to fight, but bare handed, “Age, experience, intelligence, and the fact that I just did it.”

Cenid roared and lifted the hurley for a killing stroke.  Long before he could strike, Niall seized the haft of the hurley and pulled it down and away from Cenid as he whirled inside the arch with an elbow raised.  Pulled off balance Cenid could do nothing to avoid the elbow that sent him sprawling without his hurley.

Seamus snickered, but a look from Niall silenced him. “Hurling is over for today, off with you all.” Niall shouted loudly enough for all the players to hear him, but to his smaller brother he spoke softly aside, “That goes double for you Seamus.” Niall turned back to Cenid where he crouched on the ground, red faced.

“I’ll make you pay Niall,” Cenid hissed.

Niall ignored his threat. “Cenid, you owe me a hurley,” He said examining the finely carved and decorated hurley that he had taken from Cenid, “this used one will do.  Keep your wits about you and learn from your mistakes Cenid.  I’m not your worst enemy.  You should know I’m no enemy at all. Your worst enemy is yourself.”