From Clanaboy, to Hebridean, to Portuguese O’Neill to Northern Ireland Rugby baller, all display the Red Hand. Be it dexter or sinister all of these of the red hand seem to hail back to one person, Niall Noigiallach. Perhaps there is cause. Perhaps this is the cause:
Niall sat at the head table as befits the son of King Eochaid Mugmedon. This Airgialla board was not for feasting, however. Would that it were, thought Niall, but instead he’d picked a most inopportune time to visit his father’s subject king.
A haggard looking fellow from west of the kings seat was speaking, “These warriors are on more than a hit and run raid. This attack strikes at our heart. Their aim is clear, they are coming to kill you, oh king.”
“Should we vacate then? Flee to some safe place, perhaps to the Slave Lord himself for protection?” asked the king of his advisers but looking over at Niall.
He is a king perhaps, but a small king, thought Niall. “Of course you have the support of my father. But a king must protect his people and his place or he is no king.” This one is an old worrier. He is wondering now if it is worth being a king.
“We can not summon warriors from the our tributary Tuatha,” babbled one of the king’s officials.
“They should come. It is their sworn duty to come.” said the king.
“But there is no time, we can’t expect . . .”
“I’m their king! Does that count for nothing?”
“Yes my lord, but we should make arrangements to at least get the royal family clear. . .” began yet another advisor, likely a royal.
“Yes, and some measures to get clear as much of value as we can from . . .”
“No no, we should defend here, with fortification. If we can hold here perhaps our tributary Tuaths can relieve a seige. Mugmedon will aid us . . .”
“They are on your door-step, there is no time. . .”
“Will they attack tonight?”
“No, not that soon, perhaps they will be at the gates tomorrow, but no later.”
Niall pounded the table, fed up with the nattering, “Am I to understand that the seat of Airgialla has no warriors at all?”
“Of course, my lord, but. . .”
“No but! We take up arms and we crush the enemy . . .” shouted Niall, he watched the room fidget. Fearful to do what they should or to oppose him directly.
“. . . my lord, that is impossible . . .” said the advisor who was for getting as much of the wealth to safety.
“If you hide in your tec these Connachta will burn it down around your ears. Why would your subject tuatha come if you are too cowardly yourself to go out against the invader? But if you go out and surprise this rabble when they think they will catch you in your bed, well then you might still win. I’ll tell you this, your tuatha will come out if they know that after you crush this enemy you may come to them for not doing their duty.”
“. . . but if they come too late . . .” began the king, but Niall could not let a weak king spoil all these men.
“If I may have your leave, I will lead your forces to crush these Connachta invaders. Know that you have the full support of my father the Ard Righ. . .”
“but none of his strength. . .” muttered an advisor.
Niall ignored that and rushed on, “Now, this hour, send out your champions and your warriors and I will go out with my men. There will be outriders and spies that will know it if we do not come out against them and if they return bloodied these Connachta will come with more care.”
“One day, or two, that is not enough time to gather the Tuatha . . .”
One of the younger warriors spoke for Niall, “We can bloody them. . .”
“They can make sure that no raider escapes alive to brag of this affront.” said Niall, “be sure, my father will hear and he will act. As to these tributaries of yours, I can not say what they will do, only what they should do.” Niall scanned the faces around the table and saw support on a few and doubt on many more, “Look you. A king presides here who is above their own king. Go call these minor chiefs in their own lord’s name.”
“They might come in that way to swell our ranks.”
“See you, here is what we will do,” Niall left no room for contention, “We champions will go out to punch the Connachta in the eye. They will come on slower and there is high ground between here and there that we will hold in the morning. You, oh king, will gather every able man, every boy, every tall woman and you will give each of them a spear and a shield. In the full morning with Sol Nua behind us, our ranks will look stronger than they imagine we could possibly be, but there we will stand. Then too, you will fill the plain behind us with many cook fires, we will look like a host in the night and a more than that in the day. Send to every clan chief and cattle king around and tell them to come in the name of their own king. These little lord will not oppose you and what will their king say after the fact? Of course the messengers will go on to inform those greater lords of your commands. In twos and threes and tens and fifties they will come to swell our ranks, and the kings of your Tuatha will hound what is left of them if they do not reach us in time. There will be doubt, and if we can overwhelm them with our first attack they may flee, thinking we have the better of them and that time is now on our side. Having the son of Eochaid Mugmedon at the head of the host may well decide it, they may believe this larger than expected host is mine.”
“What if this puppet show doesn’t work?”
“What matter? The women and children can flee from the hill as well as they can flee from the fort. Worst case, we retire to your stronghold and fight on, but more likely they do not expect opposition until then and they will turn back assuming their defeat before it is proved.”
“You have the command and everything you need I give you.” said the old king, caught up in the moment.
Niall blushed slightly, nobody would know it for embarrassment, “Then in addition to the things I’ve mentioned, I will need to borrow a shield of you. I did not know I would be at war.”
The king smiled, “I have a new one of finest quality being crafted for me. It is nearly finished but bears no mark or adornment yet. Pure white it is. It is yours.”
* * *
Niall and his body guard in three chariots rumbled along the cart track, going far too fast, but needing the haste they risked. Night was gathering quickly and they needed to be at the hill.
In truth, he should have been in the trailing chariot, but his men were too cautious of his safety for good speed, so he led. His concession to safety was arming his driver and turning the reins over to a local. The young man drove like a demon and swore like one too.
As they topped a hill and began to round a long slow curve there were men beside the track, surprised faces turned to him. “Are you with the Ard Righ?” he managed to shout, knowing the answer. An ill aimed spear cast that hurtled over all drove the driver to new heights of foul language and the horses responded.
His men leaped from their chariots to engage the enemy along the road, but Niall had his Airgialla driver wheel around so that Niall might cast at them from their flank and, as it turned out, harry their retreat. They did not face his men for long, Niall’s hardened vets killed a few, but the better part of them showed their heels.
Niall took a few in the back with spear casts and, when his casting spears were all gone, his driver used the blades on the war chariot’s wheels and Niall his long sword to bring another few low.
Chariots and guard all gathered around Niall in his war chariot. “Are you wounded? Should we pursue? Now do you see why you should not be in the first chariot?” Were questions all hurled at him.
Niall answered with few words. “Mount!” he said to his men and to the demon driver, “get us to that hill as fast as you can.” The boy was a wonder. Perhaps, if he lived, Niall would see if his master would part with him.
As they rumbled along a goat path Niall wondered if the men he’d frightened off would remember his shouted question or just the dead they’d left behind. He wondered if his terse orders and fear had worked to motivate the weak king of Airgialla. As they topped a rise Niall saw down in a valley beneath a great hill half a hundred cook fires.
All was lit with the strange light of a double sunset as Spark and Sol Nua plunged below the horizon. It was a rare thing to see. Niall wondered if it boded well or ill. Niall nudged his Airgialla driver and pointed to the hilltop, “To the top, let’s see where the enemy lies.” Niall motioned for his guard to flank him as they rumbled toward the summit.
He saw them long before his three chariots reached the knot of men at the summit. This time he was ready and he urged his men on with a mighty, “For the Ard Righ!” The dozen or so men almost held their ground, but a chariot charge is a fearsome thing. A few of the less agile fell to spear casts and one unfortunate was ridden down my Niall’s Airgialla demon driver. Niall would have liked to follow up the charge, he saw his men’s blood was up, but the wise thing was to hold the heights, that was the plan.
“See there,” said one of his guard, “two chariots.”
“Aye,” said Niall, “And there two more, and I count five coming from the fires.
“And two more from the North.” cried another of his men pointing, “Oh look you, they’ve caught some sneakers too.”
Niall saw. The chariots wheeled and turned a couple of times before they stopped briefly, likely to retrieve weapons before hurrying up the hill toward Niall and his men. Niall nudged his old driver, “Put up the standard. If there are any who lurk, let them see while there is still some light.
Niall looked down the hill in the direction of the retreating enemy. There was a dark blotch on the grassy plain. “There is their main body, too late to give battle today. Set the fires on the heights. They’ll know we are here, but set the pickets a bit down the hill toward the enemy. I don’t want them sneaking up on us fire blinded.”
The king of Airgialla rolled up with the five chariots from the fires. “Have we won our race?”
“Aye, we drove some skulkers off the heights. They saw the fires, no doubt, and they likely know that forces of the Ard Righ are here, but not how many or our disposition. I think the morning charge will break them.”
“Pray it is so. I’ve women and children down by the fires. They can hold a weapon, but not much more.”
“They will look a proper army on the hill,” Niall said, confidence in every word “Did you see the sunset? It will rise at our back as I’d hoped. We will press them for an early fight, our eagerness will be just another worry to them.”
Chariots kept rolling in filled with eager men. The energy was contagious. “We could attack them now, sweep them from the field.”
“If its a fight you want then go at night, five or six chariots together, there will be more lurkers still. We must keep that horde from going around and keep them blinded too. Change the drivers and the fighters each round so everyone stands a rolling watch. We can’t let them sneak around us and they won’t know if all the racket is the same chariots or all your lords coming to your aid.”
“This is a masterful plan,” said the king, “I was wise to put the defense in your hands.”
Sadly, this post has gone on too long. I think all this but sets the stage for the story I mean to tell of the origin of the Red Hand associated with Niall and his progeny. I should add geographical and dynastic information and may do that when I revise this. But the real meat of the story is yet to be revealed.