Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology

  I Was King (Short Story)

I Was King was the first short story I ever wrote, and it's still one of my favourites despite the fact I have grown as writer. And it was the one that convinced my father that I can write - he bought me a laptop after he read it.

I Was King

I lie on the bed in my cell in the monastery of Icolmkill, covered with a blanket too thin for a feverish man. But they have brought me a brazier this morning. The warmth emanating from it slowly fills the small room. I can hear the bell announcing vespers. Soon the monks will return from their work in the fields to dine in the large refectory. Until recently, I have shared the daily routine. The work is not heavy, not for a strong man like me. But there was a time when everything was different, a time I cannot forget. I am often punished for disobedience and pride, and I always take upon myself the extra vigils and prayers, the additional fastings.

For I am a monk.

I close my eyes. Bits of memories flicker through my mind, images of times long gone. I see our fortress, surrounded by plains and framed by green hills, I behold the enemy marching towards us. I hear the clash of steel against steel, the cries of the wounded, horses screaming.

I sink deeper into dreams.

It was the battle of Fortríu. Slowly, I realised that I had lost everything, not only the battle. I beheld my sword on the ground several feet away. My arm ached with the impact of the stroke by which Cináed disarmed me. I sank to one knee, king no longer. "I am your prisoner," I said to the man before me. He was auburn-haired like the men of the Dálriadic tribes, but he stood taller than most.

"Rise," he said, his voice not ungentle. I tried, but swayed with weariness and the loss of blood. Cináed's grasp was strong as he helped me. I looked into his face, the steel-blue eyes of a Viking. Only too well did I remember such eyes, I had seen them shine beneath the rim of more than one helmet. Cináed had a Norvegian mother and was in league with the Vikings. With their assistance he rose to power, and with their assistance he now defeated us.

Cináed mac Alpín, High King of Dál Riata. King now also of my people.

The creak of the door wakes me. Talorg, who shares my confinement in the monastery, comes in, carrying a tray with some broth, bread and spiced wine. The scar on his cheek glows red in the afternoon sun casting its rays through the small window. He is young and brave, he deserved a better fate. But he stayed with me when the other men swore their oath to Cináed. I sip some broth and drink the wine. Then, I dismiss Talorg with a smile. He is worried about me and wants to stay. But there are things I don't want him to see.

With some effort, I fold back my blanket. The pain is increasing, the wound begins to smell pungent. I reach for the bottle with the poppy syrup on my bedside table and pour its contents into my mouth.

I sink back into semi-consciousness.

The battle was over. Cináed walked through the door in the ringwall of our fortress at Fortríu. After a day of fighting his bearing was still proud. I had to lean on Talorg's shoulder as I followed him, guarded by his men. Cináed looked around. "It is a good place," he said.

"It is yours now," I replied in a low voice. He would live here. He would use my silver tableware, take his pick of my weapons, my jewelry. At that moment I felt glad that my wife and sons were dead. Cináed regarded me with something like pity. "You fought valiantly," he said. "But I have the better warband." That was true. His incredible rise from an obscure tribal leader to High King of Dál Riata, his successful wars against the Britons of Strathclyde and our people were due mostly to his ability to gather the best men in his warband, former enemies among them.

In the evening, they held a victory celebration. My wounds had been tended, and I was allowed a place at the fire at Cináed's side. In the glow of the fire his steel-blue eyes were less menacing. He sang a lament for the fallen in a beautiful voice. Talorg sat beside me, the tears on his cheeks mingling with the blood trickling from a small wound. "My king, is this the end?" he whispered. I nodded, I could not speak. Cináed turned towards us, and, briefly touching my shoulder, he rose to walk among his men. I began to understand why he was such a good leader. He had an air that made people like him, and he cared for his men. That evening, I for the first time heard him called by the title everyone gives him now.

Cináed mac Alpín, King of Alba.

It is dark in my cell; only the brazier gleams reddish. Talorg is at my side, a darker shadow in the near-darkness. "My king, do you need anything?" He alone still calls me king. I should prevent this, I am king no more. But he is the last connection to my former life, and his reverence comforts me. "Talorg, you should go to sleep. You have been at my side constantly these last days. You need rest." I reach for his hand and press it. "I will sleep a bit more." He sighs and leaves. The red glow from the brazier seems to increase in a strange way. I realise it is the fever sharpening my senses.

I am more awake now. I try to focus my thoughts.

Cináed mac Alpín had not been unkind to me. He offered me to swear an oath of fealty, and to continue to rule my people under his supremacy. I refused, I did not want to become a member of his warband. Thus, he sent me to a monastery to be confined there until the end of my days.

Even today, I am not sure what motivated my decision. Was it pride not to become a tribal king dependent on someone else, was it fear to fall for Cináed's personal charms?

Had I known, deep inside myself, that my people were already doomed? My father said so after a lost skirmish against the Vikings. He had been old and dissapointed, so I did not believe him then.

I remember my men at the campfire in the fortress of Fortríu, wounded and downcast. I did not blame them for accepting the future Cináed offered them in his warband.

I had given up that night. Weary, wounded and dejected, I would have preferred death. But a few days later, on the way to Icolmkill, I felt the sun warm on my skin, I beheld the blue sea, I admired the strong play of the oarsmens' muscles. And I was glad to be alive.

The large, grey building of the monastery dominates the island. My home from now on. I told myself that I had accepted my fate. But I had not.

I have seen Cináed mac Alpín one last time.

After I had spent some years in the monastery of Icolmkill, he sent for me. We met outside the Dálriadan fortress of Dunadd. He walked down the boulder-littered hill to greet me, tall and proud, but the expression of his steel-blue eyes softened. A king indeed. He had come to tell me of my men, and to enquire after me. His realm flourished; he had driven the Britons of Strathclyde further south, he defeated the Saxons near Dún Edin. Yes, Cináed mac Alpín was a good king, no matter his obscure ancestry and partly Viking blood.

"Thank you," I said. "Life will be easier for me from now on."

A noise echoed in the hills near the fort, and swords gleamed; Danish marauders from Ireland who had hidden in the forest attacked us. And thus we fought side by side, the conquerer and the defeated, Cináed and I. One last time I felt the joy of battle, one last time my hands held a sword, one last time I shouted our battle cry. The Danes were few, and Cináed's men much better trained. We won; but I was severely wounded.

They brought me back to Icolmkill.

It has been several days now since I last had the strength to leave my cell and take my walk in the cloister, and longer still that I could go as far as to the shore, looking at the ever-changing sea, feeling the wind in my face. Now I stare at the ceiling of my cell, dreaming of the land of my ancestors. It once stretched from Icolmkill in the west to Inbhir Nis in the east; from Dumbarton in the south to the Insi Orc in the north. Proud and able kings have reigned over it. Their valour will continue to live in song.

I will die soon.

I, Eoghanán, last king of the Picts.

Oh, Gabriele, that is lovely!
That's really good stuff. Reminds me of some old stories from a few years back... I'll have to see if I can dig one up.

I assume, by the way, you've read Bernard Cornwell's The Winter King and its sequels? That's what this puts me in mind of. If you haven't, you really should. :-)
Yay! More Gabriele-stuff to read! :-D

I really liked the narration he gave. Very, very good. I'm glad your father got you a laptop after reading it. I like the picture following, too.
Wonderful post. And a beautiful picture, too. Skye is on the short list of places I'd like to visit when I go back. :)
Thanks, Bernita, Ian, Jen and Ann.

Ian, I have read those books. It's a great compliment to be compared to Bernard Cornwell.
Very good, Gabriele. Wonderful.


P.S. I'm not just being nice. I am truly awestruck.


I liked how the story develops.
Whoa, very powerful. I can see why it's one of your favorites!
Wow - very nice! I especially like how you switched between past and present. It was quite seamless.
Great stuff Gabriele - especially if it's from early work. You have some talent, girl!
Thank you very much, Tom, Hank, Joely, Bethanie and Lady D.
This is good stuff, ma'am! I can see why your father was moved to buy you a laptop. This story doesn't read like it was written by a beginner but by an old hand at writing.
This is beginner's work? You're sure?

I loved it. Very powerful, and I liked your depiction of Kenneth macAlpin.

Though I wouldn't be complaining if I had to spend my last years on Iona! :)
Thank you, Cheryl and Kirsten.
I had some 90K worth of a crappy novel under my belt when I wrote that story, but it is the first thing I wrote after I learned a few tricks how to write better. There's no way I'll share that first novel thing online, and most of it is deleted anyway by now. ;)
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The Lost Fort is a blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK and other places, with essays on Roman and Mediaeval history illustrated with lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes. You may also find the odd essay about geology or Mediaeval literature.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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Location: Germany

I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who hasn't yet gotten an Instagram account. :-)