While Oath of the Brotherhood is 100% fiction, I enjoyed using a backdrop of the real culture of Ancient Ireland from about the 3rd century to the 7th century for my fictional Seare. We tend to believe that the peoples and cultures outside Rome at that time were barbarians (partially thanks to the fact that most of our records come through the Romans…) but in truth, Ireland was an advanced civilization with customs and habits that are much more consistent with our understanding today.
- The ancient Irish loved bathing. – While people on the continent either didn’t have access to or were suspicious of daily baths, the Irish were extremely fastidious with their personal hygiene. Bathing was quite usual among the upper classes, and stories from the era reflect that guests were often offered the use of a bath when coming to a keep or monastery. There is also plenty of evidence that the upper class warriors would bathe while on the march or encamped during war, which suggests that cleanliness was of the utmost importance.
- The ancient Irish were obsessed with their hair. – It wasn’t just cleanliness that was important (though we’re told in many manuscripts that clean hair should be combed smooth after the daily bath), but fashion as well. Both men and women wore their hair long and in elaborate coils, which must have been done with some sort of primitive curling iron and suggests the interest of professional hairdressers. Men are also spoken of having their hair done in “hooks and plaits and swordlets.” The illuminations in the Book of Kells backs up this standard of fashion, as every figure within it, including the angels, has his or her hair elaborately dressed.
- The ancient Irish wore kilts. – We associate the kilt with the Scots after the 17th century, but drawings, carvings, and illuminated manuscripts well before the 11th century demonstrated that the garment was worn in Ireland as well. Likewise, the tartan pattern may have had its origins in Ireland, though traditionally the pattern is tied to a county or province and not a single clan. While this clearly would have been historically correct, the kilt is so strongly associated with Scotland that I decided not to incorporate into the world of Seare. Instead, men wear knee-length tunics, over which is worn a close-fitting jacket or vest and leg-coverings/trews/trousers, which is also consistent with Celtic tribes in the first millennium.
- The ancient Irish (almost) worshipped weapons. – Weapons in pagan Ireland were so important that they were sometimes treated as though they were sentient or outright worshipped. This gave rise to the practice of swearing oaths of them, a practice that I borrowed with the Fíréin and their oath-binding ceremony. Of course, the oath-binding sword was a little more special than the standard blade…and if the ancient Irish had’ve come across that in the course of actual history, it would be understandable that they’d think it had a mind of its own!
- The ancient Irish didn’t necessarily raise their own children. – There was a centuries-long tradition of fosterage, not just within the very wealthy, but in lower classes as well, where children would be sent to live with another family within the clan. They might be sent away as young as a year old and brought back at marriageable age (seventeen for boys, fourteen for girls). In the meantime, the children would be raised as a member of the foster family and be educated according to their station; sometimes this was done for love, others for payment. Regardless, the ties between foster-child and foster-parents were often stronger than those with their birth parents and considered sacred. While I’ve nowhere seen it spelled out why this is a principal feature of Irish culture, it seems reasonable that it was done to strengthen ties within a clan and outside individual bloodlines. Children could also be sent to literary or ecclesiastical fosterages, where they would be educated as scribes or priests. A number of early Irish saints were fostered in this manner, and it seems a reasonable way to educate acolytes for specialized service. As Oath of the Brotherhood begins, it’s differences on what constitutes an appropriate education that gets Conor in hot water and has him sent to a neighboring king as a hostage for their peace treaty.
While many of the other details of Seare were changed or completely invented, Ireland’s rich history and surprisingly advanced culture was the perfect canvas upon which to build a new fantasy civilization.
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Oath of the Brotherhood has had many, many iterations over the years. It was a book I started when I was still working full time in marketing: I’d spend my lunch hours researching and my evening hours writing. So somewhere in the land of unusuable 3.5-inch floppy disks are some renditions that I hope will never ever see the light of day. (Excuse me while I go set fire to them to ensure that fact.)
But while preparing for this launch, I started sorting through my old drafts and came across a version that I actually, surprisingly liked. This prologue didn’t end up in the final cut because, while it was a compelling introduction, it didn’t fit with the book’s pacing and took away some of the impact of the book’s reveals. So I got rid of the prologue completely, started with a variation of chapter one, and that’s the one that’s in the book that’s (hopefully) in your hand. Normally, I don’t share abandoned clips because they either don’t fit the final version of the story, but this one I feel introduces the secondary characters in an intriguing way…
Riordan climbed the long, winding flight of stairs in the ancient keep, his feet moving silently on the stone steps, only the slightest breath of air that guttered the candles to betray his passing. It was late, well past the time the other brothers, save for those on watch, should be in bed. The meeting had been carefully calculated to garner as little attention as possible, but even if it hadn’t been, he could make himself nearly invisible, the presence of others who possessed the same skills notwithstanding. Riordan was considered one of the finest warriors of the Fíréin brotherhood, and it was not simply because of his skill with the sword.
Still, even if the brothers themselves had little interest in the news he carried, there were others who did the bidding of the darker forces of the isle, who would give dearly to know the message he carried. Once, such stealth in the heart of the Fíréin’s power would have been unnecessary: the ancient keep of Carraigmór which overlooked Ard Daimhin was warded by powerful Balian magic, a type that had been long forgotten in Seare, as far removed from their little tricks of mind and shadow as the ocean from a raindrop. Now, its power was weakening, gradually, imperceptibly, insidiously. Shreds of mist appeared in the trees, or on the surface of Loch Ceo, as if merely waiting for an opening, an invitation to enter the walls of Carraigmór itself.
Riordan put away those dark thoughts as he approached the terminus of the corridor, which dead-ended into a closed door. He lifted his hand to knock, even though he knew it was unnecessary. The Ceannaire had undoubtedly known he was coming before his foot touched the first step. Sure enough, when he swung the door open, the single occupant didn’t need to turn from his post by the window to greet him.
“Is it done?”
The voice was pleasant, well-modulated, elegant even, at odds with the leader’s compact, powerfully built stature. His reddish-gold hair was bound in a single long braid as was the Fíréin custom, his face clean-shaven in contrast to the current Seareann fashion. When he turned, Riordan as always found himself struck by the youthfulness of his features, even though he had known Liam since they were much younger men. His eyes, however, held a newfound wisdom and sorrow, as if his mantle of responsibility had grown steadily heavier.
Riordan remembered he had been asked a question and bowed his head slightly. “It is done.”
Liam smiled then, an expression that lit his face and erased any shadow of pensiveness. “I take it was as easy as you expected?”
The formality lifted, Riordan settled himself in a chair and regarded his friend with an eloquent shrug. “He owes me. Had it not been for my foresight—and politicking—it might be Fergus sitting the throne of Tigh instead of Galbraith. I just don’t think he expected me to call in my favor on behalf of his son.”
“I’m sure he didn’t,” said Liam lightly, taking a seat across from Riordan. “Especially since Clan Maonagh has never been a friend of the Mac Nir.”
Riordan studied Liam closely. As always, he sensed the things that the Ceannaire left unsaid, the insights meant only for him. “It’s a long game you play, my friend.”
“We play,” corrected Liam, “and not long now. I was put into this position of leadership for a purpose greater than the Fíréin. I’ve always known that, but I hardly expected to see these times come to pass so quickly. Surely you feel it. The wards around Ard Daimhin weaken daily, even as the gifts grow stronger in Daimhin’s blood. We will see the High King sit the throne of Seare in our lifetime, mark my words.”
A chill rippled over Riordan’s skin, but he was not sure if it was from anticipation, or foreboding, or both After five hundred years of division and strife in Seare, the return of the High King was something to be eagerly anticipated, but from the few prophecies to which he was privy, he knew that the return of Comdiu’s chosen leader would be presaged by darkness and destruction.
“You think my nephew has a role to play in all this?” asked Riordan doubtfully.
“I know he does. To what degree remains to be seen. Comdiu only shows me what I need to know in order to do His work. And I know that the boy’s fosterage is vital to his future.” Liam smiled reassuringly then, and his voice took on a more calming tone. “Don’t look so worried. For all our planning and clandestine meetings, our Lord has matters well in hand. He hardly needs us to do His bidding to achieve His goals. Remember, the outcome is already written, the end of the journey known since the beginning of time.”
“’But the path of the faithful is perilous and fraught with sorrows as well as blessings,’” quoted Riordan.
Liam’s gaze went distant then, an unsettling look that made Riordan think he perceived things in his mind’s eye that were far beyond this small upper floor chamber. But he only said softly, “It is indeed, my friend, it is indeed.”
* * *
Hundreds of miles away, in a highland fortress across the Amantine Sea, a young girl awoke in her chamber, her heart pounding. Somehow, she knew that beyond the safe stone walls of her home, a decision of great importance had been made, one that would change the course of her life. It was a weighty revelation for a girl merely five years old, but she was long accustomed to messages being delivered this way.
“What’s wrong, poppet?” whispered the sleepy nursemaid from her pallet across the room. “Did you have a bad dream again?”
The little girl shook her head and lay back down again. Instinctively, she knew that these were not things one spoke of openly. As she drifted off to sleep once more, two images remained in her mind: a craggy, towering fortress carved from a mountain, and the face of a little blond-haired boy.
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I often get asked if I visited Ireland for research purposes when I wrote this book. I have visited Ireland, long before I ever conceived of this story idea, but even if I had, it wouldn’t have been much help. The Song of Seare series emulates Ireland in the dark ages (I took inspiration from the third to the seventh century A.D.), and the Ireland in the time of St. Patrick was a much different place than it is now.
For one thing, a great majority of the island was forested. Trees were particularly important to the Celtic religion of Ireland, and druidic rituals were often held in groves of trees. Over time, the forests started to disappear, partly because of the growth of bogs, and partly because as the population grew, woods were needed for building purposes. Still, Irish law (the Brehon laws, which is perhaps the oldest sophisticated legal system in the world) made very specific provisions for how and when wood and shrubs could be cut and set out penalties for those who violated them.
So, while there are wide open emerald-green spaces in Seare as we think of Ireland today, the descriptions of the old forest that surrounds the abandoned fortress of the High King are a much closer depiction of what ancient Ireland would have looked like. In fact, the closest we can probably get to those ancient trees are the old growth forests of Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe.
Typically, when I’m writing a book, it all starts with the characters. Even when writing fantasy, which takes extensive world-building and preparation before the first word goes on the page, I have a conception of the people who will populate my story world. In fact, it’s usually a character that won’t let me go that starts the whole idea in the first place. That character for me was Conor MacNir, a highborn lad whose naturally good and peaceable character was seen as a detriment in his place of birth. When tested, I wondered, would he crumble, or would he find a thread of steel in himself that he didn’t know existed?
Join me for a visual introduction to the characters of Seare as I envisioned them… and don’t forget to enter to win your own limited edition hardcover copy of Oath of the Brotherhood! (International winners will receive an e-book.)
Conor Mac Nir
Conor jerked his head up and stared forward while the king’s gaze roamed over him.
One corner of Galbraith’s mouth twisted in displeasure. “Tell me, have you started your training yet? Sword, bow, spear.”
“No, my lord.” Conor’s voice came out strangled, forced from his constricted throat.
“Then what exactly have you been doing for the last nine years?”
“Studying, my lord.”
“Studying?” Galbraith’s tone changed, a note of curiosity in it.
Conor’s heart lifted slightly. “Aye, my lord. History, mathematics, literature, astronomy, law, languages—”
“I can read and write the common tongue, as well as Ciraean, Levantine, and Norin. My Melandran is passable, and I know a bit of the Odlum runes.”
Galbraith stared at him for a long moment. The hall fell silent but for the crackle of torches and the occasional rustle of a lady’s gown, every eye riveted on the spectacle before them. Then, in one swift movement, Galbraith reached over and ripped the sword from the scabbard in Riocárd’s hands. The ring of metal echoed in the hall as the blade stopped a fraction of an inch before Conor’s eyes.
“The only language our enemies understand is the language of the sword.”
Aine Nic Tamhais
None of the patients taxed Aine’s skills, considering a single touch revealed what ailed their bodies. She made her examinations and assured them she could mix a remedy back at Lisdara. Soon, her wax tablet was full of names and notes, and the crowd dwindled to only a handful of petitioners.
When the last patients had been seen, Mistress Bearrach strode to Aine’s side and took the tablet without asking. She scanned the notations, clucking her tongue. “Too fast. You don’t spend enough time with the patients.”
Aine’s cheeks heated. “Do you think I got the diagnoses wrong?”
Mistress Bearrach’s scowl returned, but her black eyes twinkled. “I have no doubt they are correct. But it won’t do to make it look so easy. People begin to ask questions.”
Aine swallowed hard. “I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Don’t you? When you touch them, you know what’s wrong with them, just as you felt the wards.”
Aine tried to deny it, but her dry mouth wouldn’t form the words.
For the first time, the old healer looked at her kindly. “I know how difficult it is to keep such a thing secret. There shouldn’t be a need. But even here, different can be dangerous.”
Eoghan of the Fíréin Brotherhood
The path emptied into a secluded yard where several brothers, including Master Liam, drilled with unsharpened practice swords. The clash of metal ceased when Eoghan came into view, and voices hummed, undecipherable. Conor peered around the corner and saw Eoghan take up a sword and face two of the older brothers. Master Liam stood aside, watching.
Conor crept closer, aware he was trespassing on a private gathering, and flattened himself against the rocks.
With the sword in his hand, Eoghan transformed, seeming to grow taller and more confident. He assumed a guard stance as he waited for an attack. When it came, he sprang into motion with a speed and fluidity that made Conor’s jaw drop. The boy met each attack effortlessly, ducking in and out of range with amazing ease. Even with his unpracticed eye, Conor could see he was just toying with them, testing his skills. His opponents, on the other hand, were doing no such thing.
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