A wartime wedding

They stood in the wooden chapel in the defeated fortress. Inside it was like being in the hull of an upturned boat, lined with rough hewn pine trunks that still had their bark and a scent of resin. In the fading light Richard de Clare looked across at his bride as they waited for the priest.

She was fifteen years his junior. Too young and strong for anything but courage, she had braided her red hair with iron bars before riding into battle beside him. She rode a black stallion that obeyed her voice and the pressure of her legs, a horse whose thoughts were as her thoughts, and who needed no reins. In the thick of the fighting, wielding her longsword with both hands, with her iron armguards and breastplate and the grey metal gleaming all over her head, she looked like a spirit being. Men shrank back from her rather than attack. No missile had touched her and her foes spurted blood from many wounds.

The longbow was the weapon that gave the Anglo Normans the edge in battle – the Irish would wish it had never been invented. No defenders could face the deadly rain of arrows, a killing force as though a thousand spears were hurled from the sky, as though God himself sought their blood. The arrows thudded into their bodies and bristled from the wooden walls of Waterford like a thousand thorns. The city had fallen, with seven hundred men killed in the streets.

But this must now no longer be a massacre, it was to be a wedding: Richard de Clare claiming his trophy, the red haired Eva of Leinster, a princess with the blood of warrior queens alive in her veins.

Richard had known he had to keep command of the men, asserting his authority, or this proud woman would never respect him. He had called the army to order, and at the thunder of his voice they had become as stone.

‘This land will be ours,’ he had told them, ‘it will be in our care. Did you see the lovely curves of the blue river? Did you see the fertile pastures? This wild land can be as civilised as the Normandy we love. Its women will be your wives and bear your children, its men will build your fortresses and herd your cattle. Hold it therefore in your guardianship, take it not by rapine, but with respect, and what is today bound to you may be your destiny for the rest of your lives.’

The frightened priest at last brought hither from the Abbey by their captains stammered out the blessings. Eva put on a show of humility. Her head, with its golden circlet, bowed before the priest. A long mantle of green was fastened at her throat with a heavy brooch of gold, and gold bracelets glittered on her wrists as she prayed. Her mouth curved in a smile as their hands were joined.

She had spared the lives of their noble prisoners but Richard doubted that her mercy was genuine; he knew well the gleam in her eyes whenever her father spoke of revenge. Driven from their ancestral lands, they had become hard and bitter, their army of exiles and mercenaries contemptuous of the defeated, impatient to slash and burn again. They had all grown used to killing, to breathing the stink of death, to feeding on murder. They would boast of how they had stampeded the men of Baginbun with their own cattle before mutilating them and throwing them down their own cliffs. The sea had turned black with blood.

Her father, King Dermot of Leinster, king only in name, watched in silence, old now, eyes watery, seeing the sun setting in a blood-red pool over the western mountains. On the east the river was violet and orange, its far banks black. Her mother, Queen Mór, wept, for her daughter married away from their nobility to this foreigner; for her son held as a hostage by The High King Ruairi. It was said there was no escape for Conor; the king had put out his eyes. Mór knew that as the army advanced to claim its revenge he would surely be put to death; there would be no marriage for him.

After the wedding feast, Richard and Eva stood in their chamber, high in the tall tower, guarded by a hundred soldiers. They had sworn to forsake all others: and Richard knew that he would never dare otherwise under the stare of her bold eyes. They looked out from the small window, down at the moonlight glinting on the resting weapons, across what remained of the wooden battlements, to the riverbank where their longships, brought up-river from their landing place in the estuary, were moored to the jetties, their sails and masts stowed away and their tall prows rocking gently in the inflowing tide. In a few days they would sail onward. They would wreak their revenge on Ossory’s king, on the O’Rourke, and on the High King of Ireland himself. Dermot and Richard had both set their sights on Dublin.

Richard stood closer behind her, his hands carefully stroking her body, unclasping the golden brooch at her throat, pulling the mantle softly away from her shoulders as though afraid to arouse her violence.

She said that wood was a foolish material for a fort, too easy to put to the torch.

‘We, and our heirs, will build in stone,’ he promised, and with that she turned and kissed him.