the walls. A quartet of formidable warriors appeared. Their leader, a very large man with the mien of a cathedral gargoyle, spoke in Gaelic, most of which I understood.

‘I am Maedoc. My men are Oengus, Faelan and Mochan. From now on, you will do everything we say without hesitation. Remove your weapons and armour.’

As a trained soldier, I wavered. It was a mistake. A mailled glove hit me in the side of the face and I was sent sprawling across the floor. A heavy kick to my midriff followed, with two more landing in rapid succession. My weapons were confiscated and my armour ripped from me. Several more blows arrived, rendering me semi- conscious, and I was dragged along the stone floor of the hall, my limp body making a wave in the straw as we went.

I was thrown into a small, pitch-black cell, given a piece of stale bread and a jug of water and left for what seemed like an eternity.

I lost all track of time; I had no point of reference and no way of recording day or night. The cold and hunger were difficult to deal with, but they were nothing compared to the horror of the confined space, and the total lack of light and human contact.

My mind raced; more than once I panicked and began to shout and scream. There was no response, and that made matters even more unbearable. The fact that I had been told it was a ‘test’ did not make any difference after a while. My imagination created countless terrifying outcomes.

Relief came on what I later discovered was the fourth morning. The door to the cell suddenly opened and the darkness was transformed by what seemed like the midday sun, but in fact was only a candle.

There was a vague shape behind the light. It thrust a bowl of soup and another jug of fresh water in my direction. Then a voice emanated from the silhouette. It was a Gaelic voice, but with a tone far gentler than Maedoc’s.

‘If the examination is too much for you, you are free to go; you have a little time to decide.’

The shadowy figure then left and the cell door slammed shut behind the departing apparition. My instincts cried out to me, imploring me to shout, ‘Enough!’, ‘Let me go!’ Fortunately, my instinct to eat was stronger than my fear and I devoured the soup and the water, but too quickly; my stomach rebelled, punishing me with agonizing cramps and, only moments later, violent vomiting.

So horrendous was the pain, by the time the door opened once more – an hour or so later – and the mellow voice sought my response, I could hardly speak.

‘If you end the challenge now, you will be carried from here and given good care until you recover. There will be no shame attached to your decision.’

Had I been more in control of my senses and emotions, I may have accepted the sweet encroachments and capitulated to the rigours of my ordeal there and then. But there was something about the sudden warmth of the offer to concede that reminded me that, no matter how arduous, this was no more than a test, merely an examination of my courage and resolve. The thought ignited a spark of defiance in me and I managed to spit out a response.

‘Do your worst, I’m not finished yet!’

I regretted my boldness immediately as, once again, the door slammed shut and I was left in the bitterly cold darkness. I must have fallen asleep – for how long I was not sure – but by the time I was next fully awake I was being bound hand and foot and pulled from my tiny cell. Maedoc then hoisted me on to his broad shoulders and carried me up the narrow stairs to the castle battlements. I felt like a child being effortlessly carried by his father, except there was nothing paternal about Maedoc’s intentions. My head banged repeatedly against the stone wall of the narrow stairwell. When we reached the top, he just threw me on to the floor of the ramparts like a rag doll.

‘Can you swim?’ he bellowed at me.

Being certain that my answer would lead to unfortunate consequences, I hesitated and again paid the price as several kicks to my midriff ensued.

‘Can you swim?’ he yelled, even more vociferously.

My reply in the affirmative came quickly, but reluctantly.

My legs were unbound and Maedoc, in a single easy movement, lifted me up and hurled me from the castle walls. I prayed that Wolvesey’s moat awaited me at the end of my interminable plummet downwards. It did, thank God, but I hit the water awkwardly and my breath was shocked out of me. The water was pitch black and icy cold, and I lost all sense of direction. It was a dilemma that was only resolved when I felt the weeds at the bottom of the moat wrap themselves around my legs.

My foot touched the bottom of the moat and I tried to push myself upwards, only to feel myself beginning to sink into thick mud. I was fighting for air as the freezing water paralysed my chest and made my head feel as if it was held in a blacksmith’s vice.

Trying not to panic, I took a moment to compose myself. I knew not to use my other foot as a lever, as that would also become trapped. Summoning what strength I had left, I managed to prise my foot from the mire that held it by using my arms and upper body to push against the water. Once free, I kicked for the surface. I saw a bright light and used it as a beacon. When I broke the surface, my childhood by the sea came to my aid; I knew to turn on to my back and use my legs to propel me to the bank. Two of Maedoc’s men were waiting for me and Oengus grabbed my wrists and dragged me out of the water. He was the one with the mild voice. Once again, he spoke to me reassuringly.

‘The first part is over. You will have a day to recover.’

This time he was as good as his word. The rope around my wrists was cut and I was led away to a comfortable room in the building that housed Wolvesey’s garrison. Although the door was locked behind me, there was wholesome food and a pitcher of beer on the table, and the bed looked clean and comfortable.

I took care to eat cautiously this time and enjoyed what felt like one of the best meals I had ever eaten. Sleep came quickly and was long-lasting.

I woke just before dawn the next morning. My brief respite had been a great comfort, but I knew it would only herald more hardship to come.

My weapons and armour were returned to me and I was told to prepare as if for battle. I was then escorted to the castle stables. Maedoc and his men, already mounted on horseback, were waiting for me. As usual, he barked his instructions.

‘Oengus and I will ride in front, Faelan and Mochan will bring up the rear. You will be in between us and will match our pace. If you fall, or fail to keep up with us, you will be punished.’

Then, without a moment’s delay, he kicked on.

I was used to forced marches – they were part of our training – but none had ever been as demanding as this one. The first hour was at a reasonable pace, and I felt comfortable. But it was only a placid beginning. We were soon up on the Downs of Hampshire, where Maedoc began to vary the pace. He chose the steepest of hills to climb and led me through streams and ditches. By midday, when he stopped to rest the horses, I was exhausted. But unlike the horses, which were able to enjoy fodder and water, I was denied any comforts and had to stand rather than sit.

Maedoc, relaxing with a leg of chicken in one hand and a flask of wine in the other, took the opportunity to goad me.

‘You seem a bit skinny to be a king’s bodyguard. In Ireland, men like you guard nuns and monks.’

I chose not to respond, which led him to throw his chicken leg at me. It bounced off my forehead, producing hoots of delight from his men. Mochan then walked over to me and told me to pick up the chicken remnant. Again, I did not respond, which led Mochan to aim a fist in my direction.

I was ready for him. During my morning’s exertions I had decided that, although I would succumb to the tests, I was not prepared to submit to physical abuse. I blocked his blow with my forearm and landed a solid punch of my own, before twisting his arm against his elbow joint and locking it behind his back. I then pushed him to the ground.

Maedoc smirked at me, but I was determined to make my point.

‘I am prepared to endure whatever has been prepared for me to examine my suitability for the task that awaits me. But if I am struck, I will strike back.’

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