Idiot Sticks book cover design for Red Mantle Publishing.
Red Mantle Publishing are an Irish Indie Publishing House, based in the Dundalk, Co. Louth. We offer Magic Realism, Fantasy and non-Fiction with a distinctly irish flavour.
The cover of our upcoming collaborative novella, ‘Idiot Sticks’ (which will be free for a limited period), written by myself Tara Tine, and Chris Smith, cover design by Seamus Mc Ardle.
It’s a tale of na Fianna ~vs~ the Romans, where Agricola eats his words about conquerable old Ireland. We hope to release it next month, but here’s a chapter to tide ye over.
“For the first day and a half they’d been traipsing through unspoilt forests and fields, Josh hadn’t spoken a single word, other than to ask Dara where they were going. “To hear the stone sing” had been the response, and it had eradicated his desire to ask more questions. They’d confiscated his sticks again, which left him feeling totally emasculated. Like, even their women were more armed than he was.
On top of that, he was exhausted and still stunned at having been captured by what he could still only presume was the most hardcore biker gang to have ever sprung into existence. He found himself considering running in the local elections if ever he made it back home. Someone was going to have to ensure even tighter regulations on these crazy new drugs. His surrealist kidnapping would be exhibit A in the ‘Bath Salts Rot Your Brain’ Bill Proposal he would put forward. He’d definitely get elected. Nice tidy income for life, assuming he still had one and was compos mentis enough to enjoy it.
There was still, however, a possibility that this whole experience was some kind of mushroom-induced hallucination. He couldn’t help but wonder if he’d actually ingested some of those weird-looking ones he’d considered picking for Aideen. He knew his body had a mind of its own, especially when it was hungry, and it could perhaps have absentmindedly downed a few whilst he’d been busy panicking. This whole spectacle may just have been his body’s last pleasant slideshow to keep his mind busy whilst all his major organs took it in turn to shut down. This thought was, however, continually elbowed from his consciousness by the pain in his feet. He was sure that if his body was trying to lull him into a seamless death, it would have left out the blisters.
In all likelihood, it was just plain old getting kidnapped by maniacs. They’d probably have him dressing like them soon; maybe he’d even take up face-eating. Yes, he could see it now – sitting in his tunic and his cape and his best hairy leg-warmers, Josh would grow his hair into long, ridiculous plaits and start snacking on people’s cheekbones. He’d like to see Trig have a go at him then. He got the impression money-lenders weren’t much of a concern for the Fénnid.
That was what the lunatics called themselves, and they referred to Finbarr as ‘Rígfénnid’, since he was the leader. He seemed to be answerable to no-one, but he frequently took advice and opinions from Dara and Cara, who were his seconds. Finbarr was well-liked – he bantered fiercely with his Fénnid and took no offence at their digs and ridicules. He was a man secure in his position, commanding respect and loyalty from the men and few women who comprised the so-called ‘Fian’. Josh thought it was rather cocky to claim the name in this day and age though. The Fianna were, according to his primary school history classes, expected to do mental things like vaulting over a tree branch higher than their heads without breaking pace and run full tilt barefoot through a forest without snapping a twig or slowing down. These tossers didn’t look capable of those things but he wasn’t going to take any chances. Most of them were tough as nails and would still give the rugby team a run for their money.
Since apparently neither Aideen nor the mysterious voice on the mountainside had yet managed to send a search party out, Josh had spent his time watching closely for a chance to escape. As far as he could make out, toilet breaks were the most viable opportunity. People routinely disappeared from the convoy to empty themselves behind ditches and trees, and a different person had come each time and led Josh to just such a spot. He had deduced that Enda took pride in his occasional position as hunt-leader and would certainly run Josh down with ease if he’d attempted an escape. Dara too was much too wily for him. Cara had too much to prove and was hawk-eyed when she’d taken her turn at toilet break, reminding him that his tiny carrot was of no interest to her, just his cowardly scheming. He’d thought at first that Fergus could perhaps be outrun until he’d seen him take down a badger with a rock from thirty paces away. It turns out there were benefits to not blinking. Ultan, now he was another story. Ultan showed potential. He’d spent his turn chatting over and back to Enda, apparently placing a lot of confidence in Josh’s cowardice and/or in his own running ability. Josh felt the latter was probably misplaced. Ultan was built like a space hopper which had been perched atop two beer bottles, and he’d been scratching his ass and boasting to the womenfolk when Fergus had brought down the badger earlier.
Where he’d hit a wall in the planning process was when he’d been watching for signs of civilisation. After all, he’d need someplace to run to if he did manage to get away. But so far he’d come up short. Far from being littered with towns or traffic, the route they’d travelled along for the guts of twenty hours now hadn’t even so much as a power line or a proper road. He hadn’t known there were still so many untouched areas around – sure they were always complaining up in Donegal and down along the west coast that they hadn’t sufficient public transport or internet, but he hadn’t realised so many parts of the cosmopolitan east coast, were still so badly neglected too. No wonder the boys from the countryside were all so eager to emigrate when they left school.
By the third day he was starting to doubt himself, big time. They hadn’t passed a single sign of civilisation except for the odd stamped-out campfire strewn with carcases and flattened patches of grass. It just didn’t feel right. There should have been people, aeroplanes, signposts, anything…. This morning he’d decided to just run for it anyway, but he’d been waiting to get Ultan on toilet duty for a second time and it looked as though that wasn’t going to happen. Ultan always seemed to be busy elsewhere when jobs were being allotted and he hadn’t yet had even a second turn supervising Josh, though Cara, Dara, Enda and Fergus had each had at least two turns. And now it was Fergus’s turn again.
Josh knew he couldn’t outrun Fergus’s throwing arm. He knew he was hopelessly lost, and he knew there wasn’t a search party coming. But the instinctive suspicion that there might be a town on the other side of those trees was enough to make the gamble worth taking. As Josh stepped between two massive oaks and fiddled with his waistband, Fergus’s politely deferred attentions were drawn suddenly to Josh’s furious pointing and loud declaration of “Fergus! There’s yer man from ZZ Top!”
In the moment it took Fergus to check what a ZZ Top might be, Josh was gone for dust, whizzing between trees and snapping many, many twigs underfoot as he ran. He didn’t care. Every moment which lacked a crack in the head from one of Fergus’s rocks was a victory. After what seemed like mere seconds but was probably more like minutes, a light appeared at the end of the tunnel. He could see tents, sort of. They seemed to be made from animal skin though…. He’d nevertheless already decided to run straight to the door of the one nearest to him when he’d cleared the forest and to shout for help, when a man strode out from behind the last tree and directly into his path. He was really more wall than man, and Josh bounced straight off him and crumpled to the ground, defeated. It was Fergus.
“Welcome to Tara,” said Fergus, before ambling unconcernedly back to the rest of the Fian, who were already mostly congregated at the forest’s edge, just a little way up from where he stood. How in Christ’s name did they beat me down here?
Finbarr emerged from the horde, laughing so hard he had to wipe a tear from his eye and lean his hands on his knees to catch his breath.
“You know you’re pretty stupid for a wizard,” he said, sighing with satisfaction at the thrill of the race. “Come on, let’s go stuff our pockets and our faces.” He extended a beckoning arm to Josh, who found himself moving sheepishly towards it.
So, this is what Stockholm Syndrome feels like, he thought, as he walked alongside Finbarr and tried to take in the breathtaking spectacle of the lengths some very geeky people had gone to to get their kicks. It looked like they’d stumbled into the Game of Thrones set, but they surely couldn’t be in Belfast after travelling south for three days. And there were no signs of any cameras or smartphones among the tents and the excruciatingly realistic pop-up commune scene they were a part of. It was like the Fian’s camp but bigger. Much bigger. The weirdos here were just as into the whole thing as his captors were, and there were hundreds of them, everywhere, just doing stuff, like normal. It was so warped.
“Not one of them looked at us when we walked in, did you notice that?” said Dara, sounding offended. “Their heads should be spinning around so fast they fall off,” he snorted.
“And what should we be recognised for, dear Dara,” said Cara, obviously lining up a trap. “Chasing a deer halfway around the country at the suggestion of a witch and returning with nothing but a cowardly clown-man?”
“My point exactly, dear sister,” he said. “It’s time to stop pissing about and do something worthwhile…”
Josh bristled at the sight of three men bound and kneeling outside one of the tents. Judging by the screaming inside and the crowd gathered outside, he took a guess at what would happen next, if this were a historically-inspired TV show, which it had to be, hadn’t it…?
“It’s a blood fine,” said Finbarr.
“It’s a what?” asked Josh, glancing at one of the girls who’d been travelling with the Fian.
There was something of Aideen about the way she carried herself, too gentile for bath salts and face-eating. Her tunic was longer and styled in a more feminine way than most of the other women in the gang. He wondered how’d she’d ever gotten mixed up with them, and wondered if she was as desperate to escape as he was.
Suddenly, the crunching noise of one of the bound men being cracked sharply over the head with a huge club made Josh jump so hard he almost tripped over Finbarr’s foot. The jet of dark red blood it sent cascading through the air before him, made Josh think the man wasn’t getting back up again. Ever. No-one but him among the hundred or so people gathered round had flinched. These people were properly psychotic. They didn’t seem remotely concerned that they might get caught murdering someone. Fresh waves of terror shuddered down his spine and his stomach churned violently.
Finbarr laughed. “They’re murderers who didn’t pay the fine. They’ve been handed over to the families of their victims for punishment.”
Josh didn’t really know what to say to that.
“It’s an honour for the families to get their justice publicly at the Aonach festivities, though most of them would have preferred to receive the fine, I’m sure. This festival has birthed all of our country’s laws, and for the families here, it is as though every law-abiding person in the country is giving their blessing to the torture and killing of the fine-dodgers. Some of them have travelled for over a week with their loved one’s murderer to get here.”
Josh found it hard to absorb what he was saying. None of it made sense, at least not in his world. And that was the point, wasn’t it? It was obvious he wasn’t in Kansas anymore. But where the fuck am I?
“You find her attractive?” asked Finbarr, noticing Josh’s eye sweeping past the girl who reminded him of Aideen again.
Josh didn’t want to answer. He did find the girl attractive, but more so, he missed Aideen intensely when he looked at her.
“Where are we, Finbarr?”
“It’s the Aonach festival,” he said. “There’s to be a new High King.” Seeing not a single iota of recognition in Josh’s face, Finbarr continued. “It’s Beltane, you know? What better time for the dickheads to have their party…. Anyways, the eejits are here to spend their money, and we’ll take our share of it, sure as hell.”
Finbarr began to meander between makeshift stalls which had both dead and live animals, as well as clothing and jewellery and basically the rest of your standard Electric Picnic spread. He was followed loosely by the Fian, some of whom wandered off to begin negotiations for the booty they’d been carting along with them since they’d picked Josh up. Josh found himself keeping as close to Finbarr as his seconds did. He’d begun to feel a bit like one of those tiny fish who hang around with sharks all the time.
He could sense that the Fian was different from the other festival-goers. For one thing, people seemed desperate to fling themselves out of their path. They’d get this look of vague terror in their eyes as they scrambled in the other direction. Josh couldn’t blame them. The Fian gave off the impressions of both raggedness and extreme ruggedness compared to everyone else. They wore more leather and more clothes in general, as though they were prepared for anything life might throw at them. Like real life warriors. And whilst there were other people who carried spears and tools and were dressed somewhat similarly to them, few individuals and certainly no groups had the same amount of steel in either their belts or their attitudes as the Fian did.
“No I don’t want to buy a birch-skin pouch,” said Finbarr suddenly to an idle-looking young man at one of the stalls. “Yer shop’s a kip anyway.”
“Why are we here, Finbarr?” asked Josh, as they passed Ultan handing an armful of animal hides to a withered old man who looked like he was wearing a potato sack. The man was giving him a small bag full of gold in return.
“You see why. Gold,” said Finbarr, surveying a heaving vat of pig’s feet on a nearby snack stall.
The chatter among the crowd was beginning to rise noticeably, and what had been a random smattering of people was now taking on the form of a swarm as they began to make their way onwards towards the centre of festivities.
“Fénnid,” muttered Finbarr, just loud enough for Dara, Cara and Josh to hear him. Dara and Cara immediately spread out pincer-style into the crowd and disappeared.
Josh briefly considered running again, now that there was a shortage of bodyguards and a nice big crowd to disappear into. But the public execution he’d just witnessed, on top of the dawning realisation that he’d been dragged kicking and screaming into some kind of time-warp had left him feeling rather more philosophical than all that. “But,” he said to Finbarr, “if you just take what you want when you want, why do you need gold?”
“Glory,” said Finbarr, matter-of-factly, already halfway through his first trotter and savagely sucking thick, sticky jelly from his fingers. “People respect people who have gold. Give the man a trotter,” he barked at the snack vendor as Dara and Cara suddenly reappeared, both elbowing each other out of the way and trying to be the first to whisper the news to Finbarr. Dara got there first, and Cara was left to foot the bill for the trotters.
The rest of the Fian seemed to materialize instantaneously around them again as Finbarr led them towards the back of the nearby crowd. Perched on the brow of a soft incline and craning desperately to get a better view, the people glanced disgustedly round at the Fénnid as they parted like the Red Sea before them.
“So, these are the guests of honour,” Josh heard Finbarr say, as he made his own way to the front and drank in the sight of a sea of red cloaks and tarnished steel, marching stolidly as one behind three similarly-dressed cavalrymen.
One among the mass of men blew a horn, and four more among them followed suit. Even to Josh’s modern eyes, this one was a no-brainer.
“Fucking Romans?” he winced.”
©Red Mantle Publishing, 2017