The Long Life of Tuan McCarrell
Finnan, the abbot of Moville in the Kingdom of Donegal, set out on foot one crisp and chill winter's morning, heading toward the fort of Tuan Mac Carrell. With nothing but his staff and the clothes on his back, he climbed through the gap in the mountains towards the valley beyond, enshrouded at this early hour by the whitened freezing fog. Descending the far side, he strode purposefully through the forest towards the silvered ribbon of the river he knew still lay some hours distant, beside which river Mac Carrell's fort stood, a blackened and aged oaken palisade surrounding it. Through the trees he could spy the trailing pack of wolves flitting from trunk to undergrowth, rustling the brittle iced leaves and twigs. Fearless though, he was, and not be steered away or alarmed by such as they.
'Poke your black noses anywhere near me and I'll and have them off your grizzled faces!' said the abbot under his breath, stomping his staff before him, still straight-backed even after the toil of the mountain crossing and his years.
By midmorning, just as the sun was burning the fog and low-lying cloud cover away, snow started falling from a changing wind and blackened clouds coasted over high above. 'Good God, you're testing me now!' he said as the breeze grew to a wind and increased in speed and the cold grew deeper into his bones. 'Good thing I'm still a-sweat from the climb up and down yon hill. A younger man would feel the effect much worse than this for he would not have this leathered and toughened hide to protect him. I could have put this visit off for a milder day but I'm determined to see this Mac Carrell man before he or I leave it too late. '
So onwards he strode, out of the forest and down the slope of the valley to the bank of the black and fast-coursing river. He continued south along its edge as the snow continued to fall and the wind fluttered at his robes. Without seeing through the haze of the fine snow he knew he was getting closer to his destination, for his feet found the solid surface of a widened cattle-trail, yet it was still two hours or more before he came upon the outer perimeter of the fort of Tuan Mac Carrell. He stopped for a moment to catch his breath and rest his quivering wearied legs, leaning back against a marker stone standing taller above him. The wind quietened and the snow passed on over the mountain behind him, trailing just an occasional flurry which eventually ceased altogether as he remained there. Not having yet broken his fast, his hunger had grown and he was wearier than he admitted to himself. And though he refused to admit it or accede to the discomfort and pain, his feet were wet and frozen through their bindings of leather straps and rabbit skins.
He surveyed what lay before him. The outer ramparts were built on a massive up-jutting slab of bedrock burst from the ground, with dried thorn bushes making a fence in front of a wall of raised boulders. A tributary feeding the river passed around it, and the bridge which normally lay across the widened stream had been pulled away and lay on the far side. A track led up to the closed gate. Tendrils of smoke climbed upwards from the wood fires within the compound. Finnan heard a dog bark and cows lowing. Hoisting himself from the rock, he continued the last hundred yards to the streams edge, leaning wearily on his staff but still straight-backed despite his slower pace. Before he reached the bridge the gate opened and a guard came down to the far bank.
'Who are you and what do you want?' the man demanded.
'I am Finnan, the Abbot of Moville, and what I want is to be let in to preach to your chieftain, Tuan Mac Carrell. ' Finnan replied, removing his hood and standing askance.
The guard passed the message to a youth who had appeared at the gate, and as the youngster went to relay the message the man stood at the ford and stared suspiciously at abbot. The youth returned and called out to Finnan -
'Tuan has no need to hear you, nor has he time for this new religion. Away with you, old man, over the mountain where you belong!'
Finnan made no reply but covered his head and bowed it, holding the staff in front of him with both hands. Here I will remain, he said to himself, until I drop dead of either the cold or old age, or until that man takes me in. Which he will do. Eventually.
The morning went on and the bridge remained on the far bank. Flurries of snow and sleet came and went. Men and women and children came to look at him, their faces revealing a multitude of conflicting emotion. Finnan remained where he stood, motionless and silent as a tree-trunk except for his eyes which returned the gaze of all who examined him.
Inside the great hall Tuan sat with his men-at-arms and advisors. Platters of stew and bread were laid on his knee, yet he refused to touch them. He would not allow speech, for all his people could talk about was the madman at the gate, but the silence was sour with the taste of shame. It was against all the laws to forbid a person hospitality, and that ate at Tuan's resolve until, by late afternoon, when the day was growing dark, he himself broke the silence: 'If that man is still at the ford, bring him here. '
There was a bustle as a place was made for Finnan at the central hearth by the slaves and the guards went down to throw over the bridge and take Finnan, not un-gently, by the arms to the great hall. When Tuan saw the cleric and the state he was in from the cold, a man as old in mortal years as he was himself, he leaped to his feet and ran to take him to the great fire.
'Forgive me,' he cried in distress. 'I have broken the laws of hospitality in my arrogance and have behaved as a scullion, not a chief. Please forgive me. Here, sit aside me, by the fire. Food! Mulled wine! Bring them here. Take his robe and get me some good brushed bearskins to warm this poor man! Again, please, I beg your forgiveness, ask what you please and I will see it done!'
Finnan was led to cushions on the floor close to the heat of the central fire and it was with some assistance that he laid himself down. His hands shook as he held the warm wooden goblet of wine and his teeth he chattered as he said -
'By God in Heaven, Tuan Mac Carrell, you nearly had me done for there, for the cold was inside me hard and biting. I was counting on your hospitality all right, but I wasn't reckoning on you being such a hard and stubborn man. All I was asking was that you let me preach to you and your kin, as I've done afore in many other more gracious halls. '
In his disgrace Tuan declaimed that the old cleric could preach all he wished once the heat was back in him, and the mood of the now-darkened hall lightened as the abbot drank his heated wine and water and had a clay bowl of steaming stew. When replete and envigoured, Tuan let the man take his own chieftains seat and commence the attempted conversion of the tribe of Mac Carrell.
The tale of Tuan Mac Carrell begins. . .
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