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The dust of 100 dogs, p.4
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       The Dust of 100 Dogs, p.4

           A. S. King
 
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  Before too long, Emer stopped sobbing. She just sat, peering into her starlit lap, and vowed two things: that she would never trust her brother again to take on her chore of watchman, and that she would one day stitch the finest embroidered cape the world would ever see.

  News traveled quickly to the valley. The Morriseys and their neighbors gathered in the cold to hear stories of Oliver Cromwell and his massive army from a worried young man on a horse. By Christmas just past, the man reported, Cromwell had not only taken Drogheda, Wexford, and Ross, but he’d landed a brutal siege on Waterford before retreating to rest his troops to the south. Emer and Padraig stayed out of sight, in their secret hiding place near an old well, and listened to the young man as he spoke of the massacres of people gathered in their churches for safety.

  “He threw fire through the windows and stationed two men at each door to kill anyone who ran! No woman or child was spared, I tell you, not one! And that’s not the least of it. His canons have destroyed the best of our fort walls and his cavalry are faster than any Irish horse!”

  “Whose side are you on?” someone asked.

  “It’s the truth,” the young man argued. “I speak of what I’ve seen with my own eyes, in Ross. His army breathes fire like a dragon! A monster that kills innocent babies! Have you readied your men and muskets? Have you found a place to hide your families, and readied your horses?”

  “Now look here,” Emer’s father boomed, before anyone else could muster words. “I’m not readying my horses and I’m not going to hide. This is our valley and we’ll have it that way until my body lies dead at the Carabine Bridge! How can you compare us to Ross or Wexford? We’re not a walled town! We’re not owned by any man nor shall we be! Let them come, and then come again, and meet with our pikes and our powder!”

  The rest of the farmers cheered and yelped in assent. No, Oliver Cromwell wouldn’t have their farms, their church, or their children.

  “How do we know you’re not one of them? If they killed every last beggar, then how did you escape?” Mr. Mullaly accused.

  “A spy?” someone whispered. “A traitor?”

  Emer’s Uncle Martin added, “Maybe you’re here to survey the next battlefield?”

  The young man held his hand out and denied everything. “I came only to warn you of what’s coming.”

  “Surely you are aware that we’ve known of this monster for months!”

  “But did you know of his plans to take Kilkenny this spring?” The man looked at the gone-silent crowd. “He will surely pass through this valley!”

  Emer looked at her brother. She could see his chest puffing out and his face twisting into a maze just like the other adults who had gathered. Suddenly, everyone in the valley looked twenty years older. She tapped on Padraig’s leg in an attempt to whisper something to him, but when he wouldn’t pay any attention to her, she quietly sneaked from their hiding place and scurried to watch from her panoramic outpost.

  I knew it. I knew they would come for us, she thought as she climbed to her tower and sat on a large stone on the edge. Now they can’t say I’m just a simple girl who never does anything right. Now they can say I’m the one who sounded the alarm when Oliver came.

  She looked down at the meeting and the young man on his horse. The stranger showed the crowd several wounds on his chest and a large scar on his calf to prove that he was not a traitor or a spy. Then the meeting dissolved, and people began walking or riding back to their farms.

  As her parents returned to their house, Emer heard footsteps behind her.

  “I want to help you watch,” Padraig said. “We should work in shifts.”

  “No. It’s my lookout. Get your own.”

  “It was my lookout before it was your lookout.”

  “You get out of here. Daddy will need you in the field. I can do it myself.”

  “No, you can’t.”

  “Yes, I can!” Emer screamed. “Now get out!”

  “No one will believe you if you sound the alarm because you’re just a stupid girl.”

  “Yes they will.”

  “No they won’t, because you’re stupid.”

  “I am not.”

  “Yes you are. All girls are.”

  “Stop saying that. And get out!” she yelled, pushing him.

  He pushed her back. “Just share it with me,” he said. “I promise I’ll do a good job.”

  “Like all the other times you watched for me?”

  “Yeah. Just like those times.”

  “Ha!” Emer yelled, pointing. “You never even came up here those times I asked you to! I know you didn’t. You can’t be trusted! Just go away!”

  “It’s my house and I’ll do what I want! You get out! It’s my house,” he said, and pushed her again.

  She turned around with uncontrollable rage and pushed him down onto the stone floor and kicked him. “You get out! Traitor! Spy! Get out!”

  “What’s going on up there?” her father yelled. “Emer, come down here!”

  “I can’t. I’m looking out for the dragon, Daddy!”

  “Where’s Padraig?” Mairead asked.

  “Tell Emer to let me watch!”

  “Get down here, Padraig, and leave your sister alone! We have work to do!”

  “But, Da!”

  “Get down here!”

  Padraig gave Emer a quick hard pinch to her thigh and she yelped in pain. Before she could retaliate, he was down the staircase, and she was alone again.

  She made a point to look in every direction every minute, so that she rotated a fraction of an inch on each second. To keep track of her duties, she piled dirt onto the floor in organized mounds, and each time she looked one direction or another, she marked it on her pile of dirt, all the while humming the same tune her mother sang to keep the beat of her rotations.

  After several hours of this, Mairead called up to her.

  “What are you doing up there Emer?”

  “Just looking.”

  “Come and help me with the dinner, so. You’ve been up there long enough.”

  “What about the dragon?”

  Mairead answered, “Just come down and wash yourself.”

  “Where’s Padraig?”

  “He’s out with your father. Come down now.”

  “But I can’t leave until Padraig relieves me.”

  “Of course you can. No one is coming tonight.”

  “How do you know?”

  “I just do,” Mairead answered, making sure to sound as annoyed as she was.

  Emer couldn’t bear to step down from her wrap-around view of the valley.

  “Emer!”

  She took one last look and barreled down the steps.

  “Come when I call you, girl! No more of your stories about dragons.”

  “But he said that a dragon came to … ” she forgot the name. “To … to other places.”

  “Who said?”

  Emer stopped to think for a moment. “Padraig.”

  “He told you about a dragon?”

  “Yes.”

  “What else did he tell you?”

  “About Oliver and the horses that are faster than any Irish horse,” she answered.

  Mairead put her hand out. “Stop that talk. Your brother is in some trouble now, and I’d say you’re happy.”

  “But what about the dragon?”

  “There is no dragon. Your brother tells you lies to scare you, that’s all.”

  “Well then, why did that man come on the horse today? Wasn’t he the one who told you all about it?”

  “That man was here to sell us dried fish. He comes every winter in case we haven’t enough of our own food. I certainly will have a word with your brother when he gets back.”

&nb
sp; “I don’t want to die. I don’t want you to die. Or Daddy. Or Padraig. If the soldiers do come, can I hide in my secret place instead of in the church?”

  Mairead stopped busying herself and sat down next to her daughter. Gently she asked, “Pet, why would you think we’re going to die? Who told you that?”

  Emer didn’t answer.

  “Emer? I told you what your brother said was a lie.”

  “Padraig wasn’t lying, I know it.”

  “Yes, he was.”

  “And that man wasn’t here to sell us fish, either.”

  Mairead looked at her little girl and began to cry a little, but said nothing.

  “Mammy, I don’t want to die.”

  With that, Mairead pulled Emer into her arms and rocked her as they hugged quietly. She said nothing until she found something other than “Oh Emer” to say, which took over two minutes.

  “I’m sorry. I know you can tell when I’m lying.”

  “So there is a dragon?”

  “No. No. There is no dragon, but there could be some trouble, I guess. You know you’re safe, don’t you?”

  “Yes.”

  “So please don’t worry. Your father and I can take care of you and your brother no matter what happens upon us, I swear it.”

  Emer stopped crying and sat up on her mother’s lap. “Can I be the lookout then?”

  “Well … ”

  “Please?”

  “When there’s nothing else to do, yes. You can watch.”

  “What about Padraig? Will you tell him that I can?”

  “Of course, Emer. You’re the perfect choice for that anyway. He’s too busy with your father.”

  “Good,” she whimpered, and stayed curled in her mother’s lap, nuzzling.

  Certainly there was trouble to come. Situated halfway between two principal towns, one of which was Cromwell’s present target, their small corner of the world would soon be crawling with soldiers, looters, and worse.

  “Emer?”

  “Yes?”

  “Do you want to know what your name means?”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Well, I think you’re old enough to know why your father and I named you Emer. We had good reasons, you know.”

  “Does Padraig know what his name means?”

  “I think so.”

  “Then I should know what my name means too.” She looked attentively at her mother.

  “You’ve heard me speak of Cuchulain before, haven’t you?”

  “Yes.”

  “Well, Cuchulain was a great Irish hero. He was the son of a god and more beautiful than any man has ever been since. For fear he would steal the hearts of their wives and daughters, people searched Ireland for a suitable wife for him. But Cuchulain would have no one but the most beautiful. And that was Emer.” Mairead raised her voice a little to capture Emer’s fleeting attention.

  “Wasn’t Cuchulain a warrior? Didn’t he fight in a war?”

  “Yes. The War of the Brown Bull.”

  “Didn’t he fight on a pole?”

  “Yes, but that’s not what I’m talking about.”

  “What sort of pole?”

  “No mind what sort of pole. I’m getting to the bit where Emer joins the story.”

  “But how could he fight tied to a pole?”

  “Well, actually he died on that pole. But that doesn’t matter because many years before the War of the Brown Bull, he met Emer.”

  “I knew he couldn’t fight tied to a pole.”

  Mairead smiled. “So, it was known across the land that Emer possessed the six gifts of womanhood. With these traits and some untold others, she had her pick of a great many suitors. It seemed, though, that once Cuchulain had it in his mind to marry Emer, all the other suitors were too afraid to take her. And Emer, though she loved Cuchulain, refused to marry him until he proved, through his deeds, his honor. This made her father angry, because he didn’t like Cuchulain. He tried many times to trick the warrior and sell Emer to various other suitors, but in the end, Cuchulain stormed her house and took her away to marry.”

  “So I was named after the wife of a hero?” Emer sounded disappointed.

  “She was more than just a wife. She was a very good woman to have around for a feared, half-god hero like her husband. For if everyone feared him, how would they get things done? If no one dared cross him, where could they go without challenges and troubles to follow? You see, Emer had the gift of sweet speech and wisdom. She could raise her voice up high, and gain whatever they needed by simply asking. Her beauty was unsurpassable and ravishing. This was a great strength, as beauty can often cut through the hearts of the heartless. Most importantly, she was modest and chaste and—”

  “What does that mean?”

  “Chaste? It means she was pure and honest. Like you tonight when I told you that lie. Like Emer, you made me tell you the truth.”

  “Oh.”

  “It was a combination of all these gifts, and the way Emer used them to get what she and Cuchulain needed, that made her a hero as well. And there was one other thing, which is very important. Emer was a master with a needle. With her skilled hands, she could sew most anything and decorate it with the finest of needlework. Like you, she had a talent for making plain things beautiful.”

  “But she didn’t become king or anything, did she?”

  “No. Of course not.”

  “And she didn’t fight in battles?”

  “I don’t know. There is a part in the story where another woman falls in love with Cuchulain and Emer ventures out to kill her, but instead, after much talk and thought, they find a solution in which none of them need die. After that, she and Cuchulain were never meddled with again.”

  Emer sat and thought about the story. Was this some sort of lesson her mother was trying to teach her so she’d stop fighting with Padraig? Was she serious at all? “Does anyone else know about Emer?” she asked.

  “The story of Cuchulain has lasted many centuries, pet. I am sure many know when they look at you why you are also named Emer.”

  “Because I’m so beautiful?”

  “Yes. And the rest.”

  “Will you and Daddy sell me off to some man like her father did?”

  “No. But you have to understand that girls have a different reason for living than boys do. Girls can have babies and can cook and sew and keep the stock and the yard and the house. Girls can do far more things than boys can. But it doesn’t make us better than them, it just makes us a better pair.”

  “A better pair?”

  “Like shoes.” Mairead took the worn cowhide slipper from her foot. “If you wear one shoe, it wouldn’t really work, would it?”

  “No.”

  “Well, a man without a woman is like wearing one shoe.”

  “What about Miss Mary? She’s a woman and she doesn’t have a man.”

  “Her husband died a long time ago, Emer. She once had a perfect match like I do, and the rest of the mothers here do. The most important thing to remember is that Emer didn’t allow her father to marry her off to a man she didn’t love, and she didn’t marry Cuchulain, either, until he proved his honor. She had a mind of her own and could wield it as sharply as any sword.”

  “So girls fight different than boys.”

  “That’s right.”

  That night, when Emer closed her eyelids to sleep, she imagined her embroidered cape, just as she had every night since she’d vowed to stitch it. It was thick with flaxen threads woven into the most colorful design anyone had ever seen, and she was inside it, wielding her wisdom and beauty to fend off the thousand suitors lined up and down the valley wishing for her hand.

  Emer could hear loud cannons firing as she tried to sleep. Padraig shif
ted about beside her, sometimes jumping a bit when the noise echoed between the church and their small cottage next to the castle. They stayed silent for some time before Emer sat up and said, “That one sounded close.”

  “No, it didn’t. They’d be a lot louder than that.”

  “Are you sure?”

  Padraig swallowed. “Yes, I’m sure.”

  “I can’t sleep, anyway. Do you want to play a game or something?”

  “No. Try to sleep. We’ll need our rest.”

  Emer lay back down, listening to the little man that her brother had become. How did he grow so serious so fast? Only a few months before, he’d been chasing her around and teasing her like a proper ten-year-old. Now he said things like that. We’ll need our rest. Try to sleep. It was as if the cannons miles away were pounding the childhood right out of him.

  She waited a minute and then replied, “We’ll need our rest for what?”

  “Just try to sleep.”

  “What will we need it for?”

  “Emer, just be quiet.”

  “But I’m scared.”

  He reached out and held her tiny hand. “Don’t be scared. Nothing bad will happen to us.”

  “But Mammy and Daddy?”

  “Emer, just go to sleep and think of something happy.”

  “Okay, Padraig. Good night.”

  Every time she pictured Oliver’s soldiers, she thought horrible thoughts and heard terrible screams. Since the young man on the horse came, she’d had such bad dreams that Padraig often had to wake her and caress her back to sleep, repeating the same advice: think of something happy.

  She curled up and thought of the happiest thing she could: what she would look like as a full-grown lady wearing her hand-embroidered cape.

  The next morning, she woke to the same loud reports. They had been hearing them for over a week now, and for the past fortnight, twenty-four hours a day (even in the drenching rain), someone manned the tower, looking out.

  All anyone saw from up there was smoke—lots of smoke. In three directions. It rose in different colors—black, gray, and white—and sent a rank smell across the frosty valley, curling noses and making thoughts wander. Secretly, some were claiming that they could smell the burning flesh of animals, people, babies. Grown-ups walked with far-away looks, barely watching where they stepped.

 
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