By Thomas J. Howley
At the turn of the millennium, 1000 A.D., European civilization and all the rudiments of Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian knowledge and tradition are on the verge of being violently extinguished. The common people fully believe their world is coming to an end. Viking marauders are steaming down from the north, pillaging from Russia across Britannia to Iceland. Magyars and other pagan steppe riders from the east have only recently been repelled before storming through France. From the Mideast and northern Africa, seemingly unstoppable, Islamic invaders are conquering in Spain, Sicily and southern Italy.
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On the small northwest island of Ireland, its greatest king, Brian Boru, is seeking to unite his country for the first time and establish a Christian bulwark of learning, literature, and prosperity for all his people. But the legendary king is aging and the challenges he faces are immense. It is at this moment that an obscure but legendary figure rises to aid his king and crush the Viking threat. His name is mentioned just briefly and only twice in the Viking sagas. And both times he is described as a feared and indomitable nightmare by the Northmen. Called Ulf Hreda by the Norse and Faolan an Trodach by the Gaels, “Wolf the Quarrelsome” strides into history as a mysterious and powerful giant who develops an unconventional plan to throw the Vikings into the sea, and by extension save all Christian Europe in the process. This is Wolf’s story set in the fifteen years leading up to the most underrated and decisive battle of the middle ages. It is also the story of how he establishes two young peasant friends as commanders of unconventional and fascinating medieval special force units and watches with admiration and curiosity as his love interest, Aoife, develops a corps of brilliantly effective women and girls as spies throughout northwestern Europe.
In 1006, when a dragon ship’s crew attempts a quick raid on Ireland’s east coast, they are met by the king’s nephew Cormac, twelve Dalcassian warriors and two teen age recruits who will play prominently in the scheme for Ireland’s salvation. Aoife, a raven haired orphan teen and her little brother act as bait as Cormac and the others destroy the Vikings in a battle by the beach. Wolf makes his first appearance as he eliminates the four Norse guarding the ship and captures their passenger, a Viking princess.
An old Irish woman tells the tale of Wolf’s beginnings. His father murdered, he and his mother are taken to Dublin by Norse raiders. His mother is later slaughtered by a Viking matriarch and young Wolf is brutalized and starved for years. The old woman dolefully explains the rationale for his unrelenting hatred of all things Norse, and his burning passion for revenge. She is with him during his captivity and present when he is finally liberated after the battle of Gleann Mama. When discovered, he is nearly dead, splattered with the blood of his captors and seemingly incapable of speech.
Young Wolf is sent for academic and military training to a monastery on the island of Innisfallen. He receives a classic education from the good monks while simultaneously undergoing intense physical and martial instruction by the “trainer.” His warrior tutor is a grizzled old veteran and friend of the king from their days together in guerilla raids against the Viking overlords. Wolf recovers his speech, becomes a good student with a love for history and learns Latin to add to his fluent Danish and Irish language abilities. He grows into an immense and formidable physical warrior with a burning interest and talent for military skill and innovation.
Returning to the king’s service at Cashel, Wolf joins the elite Laochra an Ri –Warriors of the King, comprised of young “hostages” from among Brian’s allies in Ireland and Scotland and members of Brian’s clan. During the course of his time at the king’s court, Wolf learns to disdain politics and intrigue, and revel in battles and raids as he naturally develops into a tactical leader and seeks to find novel ways to counter the inherently superior fighting methods and equipment of the Vikings.
Intending to launch a symbolic raid across the sea against the Vikings for the first time, Wolf enlists the aid of natural allies among the Celtic Welsh. He decides to strike a Danish port town just north of Wales with a disguised Viking ship full of Laochra while a force of Welsh volunteers attacks from the land. The Danes are caught in the middle and defeated but first Wolf must battle twelve Beserkers – much feared savage Norse beastmen – who have locked themselves in a longhouse in the town protecting the Danish chief’s treasure. The Irish stumble upon a prisoner of the Danes, Pyrrhas Lakepeno, ambassador of the Byzantine Emperor. Pyrrhas has come to hate the barbaric and “filthy” Danes just as they despise him. The learned and jovial Greek diplomat becomes a favorite among the Irish and a valued ally.
Back in Ireland, wolf and Pyrrhas discuss history and tactics. They decide to create a small corps of heavy infantry modeled on the ancient Greek Spartans. As recruitment and training ensue, Wolf discovers Aoife, the orphan from the beach, is pretending to be a man and drilling with the others. Aoife is now a beautiful and healthy young woman with a hatred of the Vikings to match his own. He pulls her out of the ranks and places her on his staff where she eventually develops an intricate network of women and girl spies across Ireland and Britannia, giving the Irish tremendous advantage in discerning the intent of the Norse foe. One of the teen recruits, red-haired Fergus, becomes captain of the Irish “Spartans” and Aoife enlists a famous animal trainer, old Blamec MacGoll, to form a never before seen pack of war dogs to employ as a surprise weapon against the enemy.
Pyrrhas also convinces Wolf to develop a separate squadron of light cavalry based on the tactics of the fierce nomadic Magyars. Hard-riding archers and organized cavalry in general are unknown among the Vikings and the Irish. They are mounted on the magnificent local breed of Connemara ponies and the appearance and actions of this small band of Irish “Magyars,” led by the recruit, Cael, result in astonishment and fear for all who see them. The captured Viking princess, Luta, is the cook and honorary “sister” to the squadron. To the surprise of the Irish, Luta turns out to be a devout Christian and matures into a golden-haired beauty.
King Brian and Wolf learn, through Aoife’s formidable intelligence apparatus, that King Sitric, Viking ruler of Dublin, and nominal vassal to Brian, is sending word across Scandinavia and the Baltic region to summon Norse warriors in their thousands to invade Ireland. Brian sends an emissary to Scotland to request the aid of the Celtic king there. Bearing gifts of sturdy ponies, the Irish party convinces the Scots of their mutual threat of annihilation. Hoping for an adventure, Cael asks to lead a small band to hunt down a mysterious “monster” that has been preying on Viking and Scot homesteads alike. He includes Luta, his love interest, and Mornak, the much admired Pictish laochra warrior, along with a few Scottish friends. They are stunned when they find the feared “demon” of the heather is just a young Pictish boy who has lived alone in the wild since Vikings killed his parents and burnt down his clan’s dwellings in the north. Back at the Scottish court, Wolf finally learns that Aoife has loved him since first laying eyes on him on the beach years ago.
King Sitric travels across northern Europe to persuade Vikings of all types to come to Ireland and share the booty and spoils. He visits the island realm of the pagan monastic order of Jomsvikings mercenaries. The Jomsvikings live only for war, riches and devotion to their god Odin. They are already sending forces against the Saxon English and find Sitric’s offer attractive. The Dublin king then convinces the Norwegian Vikings of the isles – Orkneys and Hebrides- to join his quest. Finally he arrives at the seat of the fiercest of all Norse, Brodir and his brother Ospak, rulers of the island of Man. The monstrous Brodir takes no convincing since he despises all Christians. Ospak, however, feels Brian is a good king and respects the Viking talent for business and commerce. Ospak, his family and followers desert and sail off to join with the Irish king against the oncoming invasion.
While his allies are making preparations to support him, Sitric and the treacherous Irish leader, Maelmora of Leinster, invade the center of Ireland, Meath. From his stronghold in Munster, King Brian sends warriors to aid Meath’s king and repel the invasion. For the first time, the full forces of the High King, including the “Spartans” and “Magyars” are employed. They push back the invasion and seal the Dublin Vikings and their Leinster allies inside the fortress city. Wolf and Aoife, along with the captains of the special Irish cavalry and heavy infantry unit use the time to make careful reconnaissance of the terrain around Dublin, making ready for the climactic battle they know is coming.
All of the “Foreigners of the World,” Norwegians, Danes, Jomsvikings, renegade Saxons and Beserkers pour into Dublin while Scots, Welsh and Ospak’s Christian Norse from Man and Iceland join the native Irish. The battle is joined as surprises occur on both sides and the day turns out to be one of the bloodiest of the middle ages. As the Vikings are slowly driven into the sea, Wolf unleashes the “Magyars” and savage war dogs to run down the fleeing foe. An enormous force of Beserkers reinforces but is met by the Spartan infantry and annihilated. At the point of victory, Brodir sneaks into King Brian’s tent while he is praying and murders him. Wolf hunts Brodir down and executes him in a grisly and now storied manner which has been legend over the ages.
With the battle over, the Vikings are virtually slaughtered to a man. Ironically, only Sitric survives, still safe in his fortress at Dublin. For the Irish, the victory is sour. King Brian and many of his family including Prince Murcha lay dead on the field. Several days later, Wolf and his closest friends and advisors, who have survived the battle, stand on the docks of Limerick preparing to board three sleek long ships. Brian’s grandson is now king.
With Wolf the Quarrelsome are Aoife, Cael and Luta, Pyrrhas, Fergus of the Spartans, Mornak and a selection of warriors from among the Irish and their allies, including Christian Vikings from Iceland. They depart westward still not sure of a destination. Pyrrhas suggest turning south to raid Muslim North Africa and sail with booty to Constantinople. The Icelanders talk of a mysterious shimmering land far to the west where some of their kin have told them riches abound. They still haven’t decided as the three ships disappear over the horizon into the descending sun.
About the Author
Thomas Joseph Howley, born in Boston to an Irish immigrant family, is a retired U.S. Army officer. He began in tanks in Armor branch and transferred later to Military Intelligence, spending the bulk of his career abroad, frequently supporting or leading counter-espionage and counter-terrorism operations.. Key tours of duty included U.S. Special Operations Command and as the only U.S. officer on the primary staff of the United Nations Protection Forces (UNPROFOR) in former Yugoslavia during the height of the civil wars there.
Earning a Master’s Degree in Management, after military retirement he was employed as a civilian operational intelligence analyst supporting U.S. Defense, Federal Law Enforcement and the Intelligence Community. In the course of his career, he has deployed to or supported security and intelligence operations in every continent except Antarctica.
With an extended Irish family on both sides of the Atlantic, and his training and experience in intelligence and military matters writing about Clontarf was a natural extension of a life-long interest. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife where he is struggling through his sixth year of Irish Gaelic language studies. When not working on a project or in the gym, he can be found making his way through the trails in the deep New Hampshire woodlands with an Irish wolfhound at his side.
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By Thomas J. Howley