Celtic Junction Arts Review

The Tale of the Unknown Knight

Patrick O'Donnell

The Map-Maker’s Tales – a new collection of fantasy tales for young adults – portrays a young female map-maker, suffering from an unnamed psychological trauma, returning from Minnesota to undergo an apprenticeship under the tutelage of a mysterious old professor who is deeply learned in the esoteric lore of Old Dublin. This is the fourth tale in the series. Earlier tales appeared in Lughnasa 2018; Samhain 2018; and Imbolc 2019.

Every year the mapmaker returned with her parchment rolls to Dublin city. Every year she amended, revised, and improved her multilayered map, her soul map she called it, her multicolored story map of early to late medieval Dublin when it was still complete and whole. When it was a unified walled city. Every year the mapmaker would climb the weary steps up to the turreted chamber above Westmoreland Street where her fierce mentor, the great professor, the world’s scholarly authority on Dublin’s history, lived alone in a vellum-volumed library whose scaly, leathery covers crammed his floor-to-roof bookshelves like watchful vampire bats.

Snow-bearded and severe-eyed, the great professor slouched before an enormous stone-flagged fireplace smoking a swan-bellied pipe.

-Where were we, he growled, the flame of rage flickering beneath the words because of how slowly the mapmaker worked and no time would be wasted on greeting or welcoming her.

-The thirteenth century. A hundred years after the Normans had taken the city. You were to tell me about the Blackfriars church.

-Yes. Today only a fragment of granite wall remains beside the old vegetable market on the Liffey’s north side. There were twin monastic orders – only the Whitefriars church remains extant today containing the relics of Saint Valentine, patron saint of romantic love, and Saint Jude, patron saint of hopeless causes. The wiser citizens of Dublin light candles to both! The two orders – the Blackfriars and the Whitefriars – were once linked by a tunnel that went from beneath the sacristy of the Blackfriars chapel. The tunnel stretched all the way under the Liffey. There were in those days many tunnels and almost an underground city.

Now, he suddenly gestured upwards, “Hand me down that scabbard above the fireplace.”

The mapmaker had never noticed, but above the fireplace there hung a bloodred scabbard, snugly tucked into hooks shaped like hawk’s talons.

-Remove the sword, commanded the great professor.

Nervous as ever to further irritating her mentor, the mapmaker released the sword in one liquid sweep – it was a frozen ribbon of razor bright metal inlaid with mesmerizing tracings of golden books floating on a river of time. The bossed hilt was gold and shaped like a wolfhound.

-It was forged as a history maker. It was to carve its owner’s name onto the book of history and bring glory to the city of Dublin.

-Who was its owner?

-Nobody knows. Let it tell you its tale so that you can add it to your map.

The great professor surged out of his winged armchair and plunged the sword into the fire roaring:

-Speak, Ratbiter! Speak!

The mapmaker staggered back from the sudden uncharacteristic violence in the great professor’s voice while wondering to herself how such a beautiful object could have such a vile name. As fire coated the blade, its wolfhound eyes flicked open and its voice filled the room.

-I am Ratbiter. I have slept these 700 years after I was found under the River Liffey. That name my Master gave me. He had me forged at great cost to make his name immortal. What is it you wish to know?

Nervously glancing at the glowering professor, the mapmaker murmured:

-How did your master die?

-My Master was a noble warrior – one of Dublin’s ruling council of Knights – the lord of a great estate at Kiltiernan beside the foothills of Dublin – he also possessed large chambers in Dublin Castle. On this night he was attending his fiancé’s sister’s wedding in Blackfriars chapel. While he was away at council, his fiancĂ© would leave her estate to go horse riding every day with a neighboring knight. 

At first, he had not noticed, or even minded, but as it became a daily practice and she returned with face flushed and a dazzling glitter of mischief in her eyes, a gnawing spirit of jealousy and rage began to gather about his heart. All I could see of her from my scabbard was a whiteness, a purity, and innocence, but he would mutter: “Lucifer was bright and Lucifer fell.”

My Master took me into his castle’s armory and drew a chalk outline of his rival on a table, set it against the wall, and practiced driving me through his heart. Each day that she went riding, we splintered a chalk outline in the armory. But still, he would not confront her. She had eye magic. Her smile and eye magic were too sweet, intoxicating, innocent, and compelling. 

Now on the day of her sister’s wedding, she insisted on joining her sister early in Blackfriars chapel, but my Master climbed the castle’s highest tower and saw she met his rival on the other side of Foxrock Woods, and the two rode off to the city together.

I did not understand the lengthy curses my Master shouted as he whirled me over his head in the armory. All I know was that his heart was scorched with murdering rage. When we arrived in Blackfriars chapel, his fiancé was sitting with his rival.

He staggered up the aisle intent on slaying them both in front of the entire congregation. As he meant to do so, her sister in a white dress of trimmed lace approached him unaware of his intention and asked him if he would hold their family’s golden crucifix during the ceremony.

Ashamed at his rage, he agreed and withdrew to the sacristy. It was at that point that I thought he would turn me, his sword, against himself. Suddenly, a monk appeared to step out from the brick wall. Another monk appeared. It was a hidden door. They were bearing golden chalices. There was a tunnel below the sacristy where the chapel’s treasure was secured.

As the monks closed the secret door and ascended to the chapel, my Master thought he would put me away also amongst the chapel’s treasures so that his rage would not be tempted into action. My Master found the hidden door with careful fingers, and we descended with a torch wavering in the dank blackness. We passed an unlocked iron gate and a shelved recess where the monk’s kept their treasure. He walked on into the tunnel determined now to exhaust his rage before the wedding ceremony began.

The further he walked down the tunnel under the Liffey the more relief he felt. He noticed a sudden skitter of rats over his foot but dismissed them. Suddenly, he heard a loud metallic clang. One of the monks had locked the iron gate protecting the chapel’s treasure. We rushed back. We were locked out. We were locked in a tunnel under the Liffey. Nobody knew we were there. What could he do? The ceremony would be starting. He tried shouting, he tried banging his sword against the iron gates, he tried charging the gates, but all was useless. He looked at me and we began to hear the squealing of rats.

A year later a monk opened the iron gates to the secret Blackfriars treasure house. His torch revealed a strange sight: a knight in armor tenaciously clutching a sword with all of the flesh eaten off his face and surrounding him many hundreds of dead rats.

I am Ratbiter, declared the sword, so named by my Master. Better, said the Master, to be Ratbiter than Lovebatterer, Heartslicer, Soulcutter for if I killed my fiancé I would have made a rat fiend of my face, my heart, my soul, my love. Better to die with sword in hand than betray my soul.

My master fought the rats for weeks despite the absence of sustenance or water. That is Old Dublin’s spirit that you will find beneath the hidden tunnels, the lost treasure lairs of Old Dublin!

The sword fell silent and the great professor returned it to its slumber in the scabbard above the fireplace.

I am the guardian of the battling spirit of that sword’s master, murmured the great professor. I am the guardian of that warrior ferocity that. . .

The great professor waved an inarticulate hand at the universe as though it were a ploughed ridge being sown with a cascade of galaxies.

The mapmaker unrolled a parchment and with quick strokes inked a picture. After about an hour of serious effort she showed her artwork to the glowering professor. She had depicted a knight clutching a golden glorious sword. Over it, she had written the words: Immortal and Invincible Spirit.