River of Hope
December 1649, Province of Munster, Ireland
This is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches
who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood…
–Oliver Cromwell, 1649
From the beginning, all I had ever wanted was to live my destiny. I was the daughter of a great warrior, born to be a leader of my people and defender of my country. I was not a liar. I was not a killer, and hardly an assassin. It is only by the cruelest of circumstances that I was thus transformed. I had just turned fifteen years of age – too young to question whether my choices would be my own, and too foolish to realize the world turned on its own relentless path with little regard for a red-haired orphan girl. I was safe. I had hope. And then, just before dusk on a bleak December day, a traveler arrived on a thick black horse.
A cold blast of wind caused me to shudder the moment he entered our dank little tavern, tucked as it was off the roadway amongst the junipers beneath a great Scots pine. I felt a rare chill seize the back of my neck, but my mind was distracted by Uncle Aengus’s shouting. He did so frequently and I knew I should not let anger command my behavior, but I had no one about me with a reasoned head to tell me how to do things otherwise.
Uncle Aengus was nothing but a child in men’s clothing, and any of the villagers would describe him so. He was twenty years my senior and yet we argued like siblings. Aengus had set me about cleaning the tavern hearth, though I’d just finished scrubbing every table and every tankard, and cleaning up after our meal. I allowed my bitterness to swell and rule my tongue. I spewed out a worthy string of curses on his life for him thinking I’d have my sore hands in the filth again, and mind you I’d learned some fine curses from the wives of our steadfast customers. “Die, Aengus O’Grady, and make a puddin’ for the crows!” I cried. But Aengus pinched the fat of my arm with such a fury I fast conceded, grabbed my pail with as much clatter as I could muster, and set to the task.
“And make quick of it Elvy, or ye’ll be dumping the ashes after dark and you know it’s a fearsome danger. When you’re done, set a good hot fire for the lads.”
“It’s the dark I should fear, is it? And never mind the raging storm a-comin’?” I flicked my tongue at him as he turned his back to me. Elvy was not my true name, and though I had grown accustomed to it I still resented it when I was angry. I was called Ailbhe by my own mother before a violent fever took her away from us–it is a strong Irish name meaning white, noble and bright, and I knew she intended me for the pure and high life my grandfathers had ordained. My mother descended from Gerald FitzGerald, the 15th Earl of Desmond, and I was proud to have grown tall and lanky as she and her forebears had been.
I was daughter of a warrior on my father’s side from the powerful clan of Burke, and like them I was strong and quick. My ancestors were kings owning great tracts of land sweeping across the province of Munster. My given name should have been revered in every household. But our lands and houses had been taken by the English many decades before my birth. And it was not my noble name that was known throughout our village, but the soft and loving sound uttered from my father’s lips. Elvy was the only name Uncle Aengus would call me, except urchin when he wished to raise my hackles.
The twinkle in the eyes of our few customers meant our quarrel had provided entertainment, and so for a brief wisp of a moment I was glad when the traveler’s arrival drew the attention off me. Aengus’s tavern was the first structure just west of the old bridge that crossed the River Ilen. Though the local gentlemen were our mainstay, we gladly welcomed the coins from parched folk crossing the river off the Cork road. I glanced up, brushing an unruly copper curl from my eyes, and returned to my work until the sight of him registered like a whip’s lash to my brow. I dropped my pail to the stone hearth, spilling the ashes I’d just collected on the dirt floor I’d just swept.
With the tails of his black cloak dripping mud and the hood pulled over his brow, he could have been the Devil himself, risen up from the bog. He collapsed on a rough-hewn bench like wet sack of bones and upset a full tankard of ale. I might have cursed him as well for the mess he’d made, had he not looked up with the vacant eyes of a man who has foreseen his own end. Those eyes sent a shiver up my spine and caused the voices to hush and the old village men to stare, their ales half drunk and their mouths gaping. I pulled the rough-spun hem of my skirt close around my ankles and watched the color drain from Aengus’s face until his jowls turned stone gray.
We had seen this man before, passing through Skebreen from Youghal, and Aengus knew him as William. His appearance surely heralded disaster, for word had come already that the English General Oliver Cromwell had chosen Youghal to establish his winter quarters. William needed say nothing of the general’s terrible progress from Drogheda in northeast, where the great Irish rebellion had begun, to Wexford in the southeast, for the news had preceded him in morbid detail with entire villages slain, women and children cut down like weeds and left to die in blood-sodden ditches. In Wexford, just a few days ride away, two thousand souls had been lost and the destruction was so horrific it prevented even the army from camping there. And so, the brutal general had pushed farther west on the rocky coast road toward Munster, toward Cork, seeking every last rebel even where there be none. In Skebreen we had all prayed Cromwell would tire of his crusade before marching any farther.
William opened his lips to speak but no sound came, his voice lost in a fierce constriction, and the old men waited until at last his sound eked out as high as a woman’s: “He comes!” He raised an arm and pointed a bony finger toward each of us in turn, twisting slightly as if he himself were the instrument of death selecting the next soul to take. “I bring news of Oliver Cromwell and his filthy cavalry. They ride this way, sure as you breathe, and his fleet, heavy with cannon, sails beside him. He rides from Kinsale to Desmond Castle, and from there southwest. In my own village, the magistrate fell at his feet, snivelin’ like an idiot and pleading for our lives to be spared. But that be not enough for this monster. His work be not done until he sees a river of blood. Now he presses his deadly boot upon our very throats, so I’ve come with a warning. You must all collect your families and leave here and make haste! Join me now and head deep into the wilds of Kerry where the butcher dare not follow. What say you, Aengus O’Daly, my old friend? Will ye go?”
Aengus looked as if he’d seen a spirit pass before him, his mouth hanging open for the flies, his fine graying hair in long strings about his face. Tall and narrow as the pines he was, but bending to the winds like a willow. As my guardian since I was seven years old, he protected me fierce, like a big brother who’d dare any soul to touch his sister. He looked at me with his sad brown eyes, then down at his battered old shoes and I knew his answer. Had my father been with us, he’d have raised his sword already. But Da was in his grave, and all the able young lads who might defend the village had joined rebel bands to the north or pirate ships to the west. Aengus was no warrior. In his whole life, he’d not been more than a stone’s throw from our village, and I’d never seen him lift more than a thumb to kill a flea. The little windowless tavern with its drafty door and leaking thatch offered little comfort, and yet I wondered did he fear leaving more than he feared to stay. He shook his head, an autumn leaf barely turned by the wind.
“Should I go, what’s here will be burnt sure as we breathe. And should they come, they’ll be wantin’ the drink and not the man. I’ll serve ’em what I have and mayhap be spared.”
“Ye’re daft!” William cried. “Cromwell spares nothing but his own and those who can bring him profit. He leads a path of murder and destruction so bloody few survive to tell the tale.”
A fragile silence filled the tavern until old Mr. Fitzgibbon stood and scratched his white-bearded chin with the tip of his pipe. No one knew Mr. Fitzgibbon’s exact age, but his craggy face and bent stance suggested years beyond anyone else in the village, and he seemed to know the history of the earth and all its wisdom. He gruffly cleared his throat and his rumpled brown cloak fell in folds from his shoulders to his shins. “’Tis the land that draws Cromwell. He’s fresh out of a civil war and cares to know what’s here for the taking to reward his best men. Mayhap he’s not in a killing mood after all the bloodshed that has been, though I’d not lay a wager on it. Anaways, do not fool yourself into believing Kerry offers escape. Are you forgetting the battles fought by the Earl of Desmond nearly seventy years gone now? And after that the bloody massacre at Smerwick on Ireland’s farthest edge? You’ll find no refuge west of here if it’s where the English wish to go. I say, pray you with fervor this madman will pass us by. We’ve no rebel camp and hardly an establishment suitable for a general’s rest. Insignificance may be our brightest hope.”
I whispered a prayer to my beloved St. Brendan for protection. He alone I trusted, who had sailed west from our island in a tiny leather boat, and returned years later to prove that indeed Heaven exists and is magnificent beyond anyone’s dreams. If he could return safely from such a daring voyage into the unknown, he could lift the curse that now befell our little village. But I could not prevent the whisper of doubt that found my ear, nor the heavy weight of dread filling my chest as I remembered the omen I had seen the last eventide: a setting sun with a blood-red circle around it and a stroke cleaving it in two. I could not read its meaning then, and I dared not ask Uncle Aengus for he would either swoon or panic, but I was sure it warned of a danger. If it foretold something terrible for Skebreen, naught could be done now.
I scooped the spilled ashes back into my pail and uncovered the banked coals with the tip of a willow branch as my father had taught me. In my mind I could see his blue eyes, bright and challenging as my own, and hear his voice as clear as if he crouched beside me. “Is it honor ye value, daughter,” he would ask, “or will ye be takin’ defeat?”
Since he’d first lifted me screaming from my mother’s arms, he had filled my head with centuries of chieftains and warriors defending a great kingdom. With each telling he breathed the fire into my belly. Honor or defeat—both always there for the choosing, and it was no true warrior of our blood who would choose the latter. “To choose honor is to choose life,” he would say, “even if it brings death.” And then he would laugh out loud at the irony. Would Da find it honorable to wait for Cromwell’s coming and hope we’d be ignored? Or to flee to the wilds where we might not be followed? Or would he see defeat? My belly began to burn as the smoking coals found new life, and I sucked in a quick breath.
“The bridge!” The words escaped my lips before I’d even thought them. Mr. Fitzgibbon’s head snapped around and he gave me a curious stare.
“What say you, girl?”
“The bridge, sir. The little stone bridge crossing the River Ilen. ’Tis the only thing leading him right to us. What if we could tear it down, and him pass right by?”
The others stared at me now, and Aengus stood hard as a stone, glaring fierce as if to make me disappear. He always preferred me to stay quiet and unnoticed when the customers were in, the better to protect my maidenhead, and always he was disappointed for I could not hold my tongue. Mr. Fitzgibbon stepped away from his bench, his whiskers twitching and his lips moving without words.
“Ye cannot hide a bridge, lass,” Mr. McSherry said as if placating a dull child, and shrill laughter erupted from his brother Sean. Always together in their farming frocks, the McSherrys never had a fresh idea between them. But old Mr. Fitzgibbon stepped closer, one of his frail legs trembling, and found the strength of his voice that had guided our little village for decades.
“Hold now, gentlemen,” the elder said. “To be sure, our Elvy’s an impulsive little sprite, but in fact she may have something there for us to consider.”
There was grumbling across the room as if we’d just raised the price of ale. “It’s insanity, man. Ye cannot remove a bridge once it’s built!” Mr. McSherry argued. “And do I needs bother to mention you’re takin’ strategic advice from a flame-haired fop of a barmaid who’s still with the hips of a boy and always believin’ she’s some kind of a princess?”
The men of the tavern knew me as well as their own children and grandchildren, including the most tender places to cast their barbs and get a rise. I stood, as tall as I could manage, ash-blackened fists on my hips. “A fop, am I? And here ye are, a bunch of gossipers carrying on with your feeble tales,” I hissed, “whilst our lads and lands are to be attacked by this vicious, killing enemy! How can you sit so, drinking your ale and blatherin’ as if it’s just the lord of the manor having a bad case of the gout? I’m far more a princess than you are a man, for at least I’m looking to solve our troubles and not just fume about them!”
But Mr. Fitzgibbon silenced me with a wave of his hand. His eyes had turned bright as the stars and he straightened his back, standing taller than ever I’d seen him, then he cast his smoldering pipe at our feet. Its sparks died quickly as they settled. Another omen, I was sure, but there was my weakness with omens. Would our troubles be extinguished? Or our village? My mother would have known the answer instantly, but I could not read the meanings until circumstances made them obvious. I could not read them in time to change the future.
“Insanity? No.” Mr. Fitzgibbon said, and then paused for emphasis. “Genius is what it is.” At this the others erupted into arguments in every corner of the tavern and lasting well into the night. I stayed in the shadows by the hearth as they raged, but in the end no one could pose an alternative that could stand up against Mr. Fitzgibbon’s wise counsel and worldly experience. He persuaded them with his gentle, unyielding tongue, and then commanded them.
“Go now, gentlemen, and come back on the morrow’s dawn, your wives, your sons and your daughters with you. The old folk, too. If each takes a stone, the bridge will fall in the wink of a cat’s eye. Bring buckets and axes, an ox and a plow horse if you’ve got them. When you go home after, bring in the livestock for the warmth, as we’ll have no hearth fires until the threat of Cromwell is gone. You can maybe hide a bridge, gentlemen, but ye canna hide a village with the peat smoke rising above the trees.
“And when the bridge is gone,” the old man added, “our boys will hide along the riverbank to let us know when Cromwell’s band has passed us by. Elvy, have your shoes on and your shawl about your shoulders. Being your idea, you’ll lead us all to our task.”
I felt the prideful spirits soaring in my head. Genius, Mr. Fitzgibbon had called me! We would dismantle a stone bridge that had existed before any of us were born. We would save the village from Cromwell, and I—but a girl—would lead the way! And then I felt the spirits of the dead rise against me for daring to scatter ashes after dark. Aengus warned me it would anger them and now they planned their revenge as they swarmed around me, their tiny needles pricking and digging sharp points into the back of my neck. Fear, plain and simple, that a brilliant idea one instant could lead to disaster the next.
By the songs of the first bird the following morning, I dressed and I pulled my mother’s green shawl around my shoulders. It was old, nubby and threadbare, but still green as the leaves in spring, and it was the only thing I had left that had been hers. It offered little warmth but it was a great comfort, as if my mother’s arms were about me as I marched toward the Ilen, with Aengus beside me muttering all the way. The night’s storm had passed but the ground was puddled and muddy, and above me the clouds seemed thin and bruised. Along the river’s edge everyone in the village had gathered, nearly three score of us, shivering with cold anticipation.
The Ilen took no notice. Coming south to us from the Mullaghmesha Mountain, she lay in bronze repose with her misty veil close at her surface. She was the very river who nourished every fox and sparrow from above Bantry and all the way out to sea at Baltimore. At Skebreen she abruptly turned west as if she’d simply changed her mind, and then south again as if to wrap a gentle arm about us. Sometimes flowing narrow and peaceful, she was our meandering ribbon of sweet dark nectar yielding trout in the spring and salmon in summer. With the winter rains she swelled at her seams, as anxious and irritable as a new mother; and, yes, wasn’t the earth at her flanks the most fertile?
At her narrow waist, the old stone bridge linked north to south, and was skirted in splendid green ivy to entice prosperous travelers. It had always been our open door to the world, bringing trade, supplies, news and letters from our kin and country. But now it was the gaping hole that exposed the village to dangers we’d heard of but did not wish to know. With the bridge away, the Ilen could rush and flow to her heart’s content without its shadow to cloud her waters. She would be our protector, our moat against a siege. I stood on the riverbank, and Mr. Fitzgibbon handed me an ax.
“Be thankful our bridge is old and many of her stones brittle, child, to make the task easier.”
“Mr. Fitzgibbon,” I whispered, my cold hands shaking. “What if it doesn’t work? What if Cromwell comes anyway?”
He leaned closer. “So it may happen, Elvy. No one’s to know in advance, but we all love a clever trick, don’t we? If it fails, at least we’ve had a bit of hope while we’re waiting. Nothing conquers fear like activity. Now, strike the first blow where you think it’ll do the most good.”
I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. I knew nothing of bridges, only that an army with its horses and supply wagons would need its center to cross. This bridge was plenty sturdy with its stone supports and wooden planks. I imagined some sweaty worker scappling the stone into the proper shape with a crude toothed chisel, then stopping for his dinner of peas, bread, cheese, and beer. And the architect, his back aching and a candle dripping as he drew the lines and calculated the number of stones each section would require. Had he supervised each hour of construction, nodding approval or scolding the worker for mistakes? Had he paced the riverbank as the last stone was placed, then puffed out his chest with pride? And had the worker and the architect both boasted to their friends of their accomplishment, so small and yet so wondrous? And would these men now turn in their graves as a tavern maid began its destruction?
If I continued to think of them I could not do the task before me. I focused instead on the clear banks of the river. By removing the bridge we were only restoring the Ilen to her to her natural state. I stepped to the middle of the bridge, aiming my ax over the side at the narrow stones that pressed together to form the arch. I swung, and a chip fell away like the broken tooth of a scrapper’s smile. The others cheered and quickly formed lines across the top of the ancient structure, some along the riverbank, sweating and pounding, the old men heaving large stones with their strong hands and backs or filling the buckets with smaller stones and passing them to the women singing their courage along the bluff.
I stood on the riverbank with the men, believing for a while I was one of them, chipping away at the bridge’s foundation, rolling away the stones I could not lift, my shoes sinking into the muddy ground. We cheered again when the center of the arch splashed down to the river’s deep bottom, and once more when they sent the planks floating like little barges heading south to Baltimore. We forgot our hunger and worked with greater purpose as the chill December wind whisked around our legs. My shoulders ached and my fingers were raw and bleeding, but slowly the bridge began to lose its shape, like an anthill being moved grain by grain to higher ground.
When darkness settled, the children slept together beneath the trees, and yet we labored under the very silver stars where childish wishes had been begged through the ages. By dawn the youngest lads were artfully placing branches along the Cork road to disguise any trace of what had been, and were ferried back to safety in a fishermen’s small curragh.
Four days we waited, with no word nor sight of any travelers. At night Aengus and I huddled together, no fire nor livestock to warm us. Had Cromwell come and passed us by? Had our plan succeeded? By the fifth day I could stand it no longer. I followed the ditch behind the tavern down to the bank where the bridge had been. Kevin Harrington, just ten years old, was our sentry crouched in the brush behind a mossy boulder. He gave me that crooked smile I’d known since he was old enough to walk and his mother let me play with him when they came to the village square. I gave him a nod, then hid beneath a rhododendron to watch for myself.
In mid-afternoon, the clop of a horse startled me. The rider wore a dung-colored tunic that blended with the browns of the forest behind him. He rode past us along the river, then slowed and continued a bit farther. On a rise just beyond us he stopped, turned in his saddle, and lifted his broad-brimmed hat to look about. My heart pounded a tribal beat until I thought for sure it would explode and I’d die right there. I could not breathe. My palms sweated, clenching the branches of the bush like the hawk clutches the throat of a dying rat. Please let him ride on. Please let my little scheme be the saving of our village!
The scout rode over the hill. I exhaled slowly and looked up at Kevin’s wide green eyes. He stared back, his Adam’s apple taking a jump as he swallowed, but still we waited, unable to move from our posts until we knew for sure we were safe. I had just started to crawl from my spot when I heard the pounding hooves again.
The rider returned fast, his horse kicking up thick clods of dirt. He pulled up short where the branches had been laid, and walked his horse eastward, looking from side to side of the river bank. I dared in my heart to believe for just one second that our ruse had worked but knew already the lie was to myself. He mounted again and spurred his horse back to where other soldiers would be waiting.
Foolish girl! Foolish village, for listening to such a foolish girl! In what seemed like only minutes we heard the harrowing thunder of a hundred or more horses coming for us all. The ground beneath me trembled as if the earth itself might split, and the poor hiding bush came alive in my hands, trembling with the fear of it. When the soldiers came around the bend there was no end to them, dark and heavy as if forged of iron, crashing through the bare branches, leaving nothing God-given to hinder their progress.
At the lead they were two abreast and six deep, huge men on black horses, breastplates gleaming in the afternoon light. Large brimmed helmets shaded their eyes and their stiff white collars. They ruled their horses with thick armored gloves and clutched the hilts of enormous swords under wide leather straps. Turned cuffs of their heavy boots rose well above their knees, as if so deep into the muck they would venture to stamp out the life of a rebel. Behind them came others dressed in leather tunics and red sashes, some with broad hats adorned with feather plumes.
Then came the musketeers in their red coats, with heavy matchlock muskets and bandoliers, and the pikemen with their tall helmets and long terrible pikes. And behind these men, but leading a swarm of others, came the one on a copper horse gleaming with armor. Fearing nothing, this rider wore no helmet or breastplate. It was clear he could only be our enemy, General Oliver Cromwell himself.
His white-plumed black hat was grander than any other and shaded all but the sparse hair over his frowning lips. The stiff points of his long collar rested on a massive leather tunic, as rigid as his back with the shoulder coverings extended beyond his width to make him look broader of chest. A wide red sash sliced from shoulder to hip, ending at the bright sheath that housed his sword. The soldiers parted as he rode forward and joined his scout. The two men dismounted just where our lads had placed cut branches to camouflage our work. The scout removed one of them, and I felt my stomach twist against my spine.
Cromwell looked down, then along the wintered banks to the east and west. He removed his hat, giving me the first glimpse of his eyes, as black and flat as a long-dead salmon, and his broad and bulbous nose, giving his face the dull arrogance of a bull. A wind came down the river and lifted the locks of his light hair like tiny serpents roused from their sleep. He glared at the stone where Kevin crouched. Be still, I prayed, and do not betray us! But our young Kevin could bear no scrutiny and he bolted, his arms and legs flailing wildly and crashing off through the woods toward the village.
Cromwell shouted. “Four of you, after that mongrel! Bring him before me alive! And do not make long my wait!” The soldiers spurred their horses and plunged into the river after poor Kevin. The flowing river that I thought would protect us seemed no impediment at all. I begged that the horses might drown, but they showed no fear of the water and their riders used the currents to their favor. In minutes they were scaling the bluff on our side of the river, the water sluicing from their flanks as they crashed into the woods before I could but take a second breath.
I clung to my little bush, knowing Kevin would lead the soldiers like an arrow into the heart of the village with none prepared for their coming. I had to get a warning to Aengus. But which direction could I take and not be seen? I considered the options too long, paralyzed by my own fear. Before I could run I felt the sharp sting of a blade between my shoulders and a hand squeezing my ankle like a vise. The black-haired karroge—a filthy cockroach with dirt-smeared face and rotten teeth—grabbed my skirt waist and heaved me to my feet.
“Tall for such a young one.” He lifted a lock of my hair and sniffed it, then tugged my hem to get a look at my leg. I jerked away. “Filthy little savage. I’d have ye myself were it not more fun to see the general squeeze the lifeblood out of ye. Let’s go see the man, ye nasty urchin!” There was that name again, and it set me to squealing and squirming to get free, but the soldier grabbed my arm so hard I thought sure it was broken. Stinking of sweat, dirt, ale and horse, he jerked me up against his vile chest and pushed me through the brush toward his mount. He lifted me to his saddle like a sack of barley and plunged back across the river. I screamed, fearing the current, but it was far less threatening than what awaited me on the opposite bank. The soldier nearly crushed my ribs as the horse heaved up the bluff and through the brush. At the top beside the road, he shoved me from his horse and I dropped to the ground in a heap, my face but a whisper from the general’s square-toed, muddied boots.
READY FOR CHAPTER 2?