Dragon Lord

Copyright 1998
ISBN: 0-671-87890-5
September 1998

by David Drake

Chapter Two

The horsemen wheeled and rode out of the arena. Gawain set a pace that brought Mael and Starkad immediately to a jog. Beyond the gateway the Companions formed two lines abreast. With the recruits sandwiched between them—as much escorted as under guard, but under guard beyond doubt—they rode back through the darkened countryside toward the villa that was Arthur’s main base and headquarters. The nearest town, Moridunum, the market place for the region, was five miles southward. There were no civilians closer than that except for dependents.

The route to the villa took the company past the recruit lines near the arena. They were of wattle and daub with thatched roofs, recently built and broken up internally into tiny one- and two-man cubicles. There were a hundred units in blocks of ten with common walls. Each had a door in front facing the latrine, a window in the back, and barely enough floor space for beds and the personal effects of the occupants. Only transients and trainees were quartered there; veterans had billets attached to the main building. The semi-private rooms were not intended as benefits to the recruits. There was no enclosure in the area in which more than a dozen men could gather and conspire because of the separation. When the trainees assembled, it was either under the eyes of the cadre or during meals in the huge mess hall in the main building. Then the new men were mixed with no less than equal numbers of hard-bitten veterans.

Arthur was under no illusions as to how his discipline would be received by mercenary recruits, and had the recruits not been bloody-handed killers already, they would have been of no use to the king. His control measures were as carefully considered as every other part of the training.

Mael jogged along with the horses easily, holding his shield close to keep it from battering him at the end of its neck strap. His legs were long, his chest large, and if the Irishman had not deliberately trained for running in the decade since he left the Ard Ri’s Guard, then still he was not a man to be concerned about a half-mile jog. He looked over at Starkad. The Dane had dropped back two steps and caught the nearest horseman’s quiver in his left hand. Using the horse to smooth his own pace, a psychic rather than physical crutch but no less real for that, Starkad was pounding along without evident concern. He and the horseman had exchanged brief glances when he attached himself. Sensibly, the Companion had made no protest. The Dane was ignoring the light shield, letting it flop against his breast. In his right hand he carried his axe at its balance near the head. Its shaft worked up and down behind him like a pump handle as he ran. Mael grinned and stopped worrying about his friend.

The villa they approached was a two-story building of stone and stucco. A taller block of apartments had been recently constructed of lath and plaster along the back. The kernel of the villa had been raised in the time of Trajan and expanded piece by piece over the centuries following. At the villa’s zenith and that of Roman Britain in the early fourth century, the building had been filled by slaves who lived in its rambling halls and turned raw wool into fine woven cloth under awnings in the central courtyard. With the change from sheep to wheat, the surrounding country had been broken into tenant holdings and the slave gangs had disappeared. Rooms were closed. In earlier ages the owners had been occasional visitors from London or the Continent; now they became permanent residents.

Then the Irish came. Though they did not burn the building, for the next century it was occupied only by travelers and the bandits and deserters who were an increasing feature of the times. When Arthur grasped power, he found in the villa his safe base in the center of what remained British in the face of the Saxon onrush.

Gawain drew up at the front entrance. Once a portico had led to it, but the columns had been wood and long since burned in cooking fires. The high oak doors had been replaced. They stood open, displaying the lamplit hall and the remainder of the squad on guard duty that night.

"Pass on through," Gawain said to Mael with a sardonic smile. Turning a little further he added to Starkad, "You’ll have to leave your axe."

"I’d as soon die holding it," the Dane replied. His chest was heaving and his face was flushed from the run.

"Well, that’s the choice," Gawain agreed without emotion.

"Give me the axe, lunk," Mael said. He reached out, touching the shaft with his fingertips but not trying to grasp the weapon. "Indeed, they may kill us. Assuredly they will if you insist on posturing."

Mael spoke in Danish, softly enough and more quickly then he thought the Companions could follow. "This one doesn’t posture, my friend. He’d as soon kill us as not. And that’d be a damned foolish way to die." The Irishman closed his hand over the axe. "If they attack us, I’ll let you use my rocky head for a club." He lifted the weapon from Starkad and handed it to Gawain.

The British captain weighed the axe and tried its balance. "Sometimes I wish I had the size for one of these," he said to Mael with a grin as lethal as a wolf’s. Mael grinned back, knowing that if he had toyed with this man as he had with Lancelot, one or both of them would already be dead. Gawain would simply not have accepted any conclusion short of death in such a challenge.

Mael and Starkad passed through the doorway and its gauntlet of lounging guards. The roof of the hall was opened by an impluvium which funneled rainwater down into the decorative cistern in the center of the hall. The architectural design was normal in Italy, miserably uncomfortable during British winters. The concession that Mediterranean style had made to northern weather was to close the three doorways off the hall with solid panels instead of leaving them open.

One of the Companions tapped deferentially on the left-hand door, then opened it to an order grunted from within. Mael started through. Starkad touched his shoulder and said, only half in jest, "No, I lead and you cover my back. Just like any battle." He entered the room ahead of the Irishman.

There was no obvious danger inside, only two men reclining at the head and side of an intarsia table. Neither man was prepossessing, Mael thought. There was certainly nothing in the younger of them to make fighting men refer to him so naturally as Leader. And then the two looked up, and Mael felt their eyes on him. The Irishman grinned, because he had to do something with his face before these men, each in his own way as deadly as Gawain.

"Starkad Thurid’s son," Arthur said, not a question but a vocalization of notes jotted somewhere inside his skull. "Starkad Grettir."

The Dane nodded, stiff-backed and hostile. He had already measured the distance to the king. He knew he could leap it in time for a single skull-cracking blow, even if a spear from behind had gone through him.

"And Mael mac Ronan." Arthur was not the hulking bear of a man rumor on the Continent had him. The Saxons who returned from Britain needed an excuse for their fears, a snarling monster to lead their enemies, a beast with swords the length of flails and muscles that could lift an ox. This man, forty and slim except in the shoulders; more gray-haired than gray-bearded, but with much of gray in his beard as well; three or four inches less than Mael’s height, though the unclasped cloak over his lower legs hid the exact length they stretched—this was no creature for whom a Saxon warrior could articulate a terror that his fellows could understand.

Mael didn’t care who understood. He had seen the Companions and had now seen Arthur himself. Both the man and what he stood for were frightening.

"I need an Irishman to take a trip home for me," the king said. "Merlin here—" he nodded toward the older man on the side bench. The wizard’s lips had been working silently ever since Mael and Starkad had entered the room—"needs the skull of a water monster as lived once in your lakes. Have you heard of such?"

Very formally and carefully, Mael said, "I left Ireland for reasons that seemed good to me—and better yet to some who stayed home. I have no wish to die and less to return to Ireland—which may well be different ways to say the same thing"

The king took a swallow of ale and brushed foam from his moustache with the back of his hand. Merlin beside him continued to mutter, using the butt of his willow whip to divide a puddle of ale. The two dollops of thin fluid stayed separate after the wand passed instead of flowing back together. Arthur was saying, "You’re Irish, after all. You can blend in, not attract attention as Lancelot would or Gawain. Call yourself something—oh!" And the king broke off with a gleeful chuckle at his insight. "Of course, of course—you already do. It’s a matter of only a few days and back, you see, nothing to tax a disguise."

Merlin said something aloud and the puddles of ale rejoined with a pop of blue fire.

"Well?" Arthur demanded.

"Perfect," said the wizard. "Exactly what you wanted." The old man looked up at his king "None of my spells kept the two pools apart after I’d given the names of these two. Not women nor wealth—nor fear. They won’t abandon each other."

"And duty?" the king asked as if the two mercenaries were not in the room.

"Duty means standing by your friends," Starkad rumbled in German before Merlin answered.

Arthur laughed. "And trust means being sure of what a man will do," he said, "not thinking that he’s a friend and so he’ll back you. Sit down, Irishman—and you, too, Cruncher, though there’s no work for you in this except for waiting here until your friend returns. I’ll explain what it is we have in mind. . . ."

* * *

The fishing village—six houses, each owner kin to the other five—had been built at the higher end of the rocky beach. Above, the long, rank grass stretched eastward over the Cambrian hills, furring the spine of the promontory so that there was no one place on which a man could stand and see why it had been named Octapitarum—Eight-headed.

To the inhabitants, the baylet was a separate thing and not merely one facet of the seven of the headland. Indeed, the village was part of the greater world only as it chose—in normal times. About once a month the villagers emptied their drying sheds of the fish stacked there, layered with salt baked from tidal pools by the sun. They loaded the fish on oxcarts which then creaked along rocky paths in an all-day journey to the nearest of the great farms. There the fisherfolk would barter their catch for cloth and metal-work and sometimes ale better than their own sour, salty brew.

Had the villagers wished, the magnates inland would as willingly have come for the fish themselves. The price would have been effectively greater, since then the fishermen need not have kept oxen. But little as they cared to leave their notch in the island’s wall, their home, the fishermen cared less to show visitors to it. Thus the arrival of King Muirchertach’s embassy had been almost as unpleasant a shock to the villagers as if the fifty strangers were hostile, as they thought at first.

Mael listened to Arthur’s account of the landing, grinning broadly. "What did they do?" he asked the king. Like Arthur, the Irishman had remained on his horse when the column halted. Starkad had dismounted as soon as the glittering sea announced they had reached their destination.

"Oh, they sent a boy running to the nearest villa," the king said also smiling. "They don’t run very well either, you know. The owner of the villa whipped off a messenger to me and ran along behind with all his household as quick as he could. He thought it was a raid, too, and he knew these hovels—" Arthur nodded to the drystone huts—"weren’t going to occupy the murdering Irish long. So . . . I took the half squadron I had on hand, rode thirty of the horses to death or to bonebreak, got lost twice pushing on at night. We got here at dawn, just in time to see these damned fishermen lugging their nets to their boats, pretending there wasn’t a curragh pulled up on the shore and fifty men trying to sleep around greenwood fires while the locals ignored them. If we’d been half an hour later I wouldn’t have seen the fishing boats. I’d probably have killed everybody on the shore." Arthur looked sidelong at Mael. "And then how would we have gotten you to Ireland, my dragon-snatcher?"

"Oh, you’d have found something," Mael said, his humor chilled at the thought of his mission. They were a huge company for this quiet opening to the sea. The Irish embassy had been loaned mounts for its return to the shore. Arthur accompanied Muirchertach’s men with two hundred of his cataphracts, fully equipped as he himself was. The king’s mail was silvered and the general sheen picked out by links washed in gold instead. A helmet with a long nose-guard covered his head. The helm had a faceted appearance because it was made of welded steel plates, carefully resilvered after each time dents had to be beaten out of it. To either side flared a gilded wing. Behind Arthur, a bearer raised the ancient war standard to snap and snarl in the wind.

"If this is such a peaceful embassy," Mael remarked, "why does it look like they’re being escorted back to the coast by a warband?"

Arthur chuckled. "Oh, just honor due a fellow monarch, perhaps. Muirchertach’s more than friendly, yes—to me. It seems there’s trouble in Ireland—" and again Arthur’s eyes darted unexpectedly at Mael—"and though he’s not king of the Laigin yet, Muirchertach has notions for the future. He needs help. For the time, I’ve sent him one sword as a gift by way of his war chief Dubtach there." Arthur nodded at the burly leader of the embassy. The chieftain’s red hair was bound back with a linen fillet and his chest was deliberately bare to display the battle scars on it. "Muirchertach hopes that one day I’ll send more swords—and men of my own to carry them."

"You want Ireland, too?" Mael asked bluntly.

"It’s part of the world, isn’t it?" the king replied, and his words were too offhand to be a joke. Arthur looked out over his accompanying troops. They had formed in a double row as soon as the terrain had opened enough to position a hundred men abreast. To the right, the ground hung in terraced pastures sufficient for the goats and oxen; goats ran loose beyond as well, supplementing the grass with mast from stunted hardwoods. The Irish, with Gawain alone of Arthur’s men riding along with them, were filing down the gentler slope toward the houses and the shoreline beyond on foot.

"In the meantime, I thought this would be a good time for a little . . . friendly demonstration," Arthur continued, obviously pleased at a chance to flaunt his abilities in front of a new listener. By now the king had to have heard about Mael’s destruction of Lancelot the night before, but he had made no reference to it on the ride to the coast—unless requesting that Mael and Starkad be placed beside him was in itself a comment. "Thanks to you Irish becoming Christians—"

"Some Irish becoming Christians," Mael cut in sharply.

"Most of you Irish becoming Christians," the king went on smoothly, "and Vitalis’ daughter marrying your High King . . . and most of all, I suppose, the Plague and the squabbles on your island that seem to have left fewer cutthroats to amuse and more at home to amuse them—" Arthur paused but Mael said nothing, only grinned across at the slender king. Arthur was baiting death as he dreamed of empire—"perhaps there wouldn’t have been many raids here even without my Companions to deal with them. But it can’t hurt to get word back that the Companions are here—and can deal with raiders—can it?"

Arthur nodded to his cornicine. That tallish Briton raised a coiled bronze horn to his lips and blew a single note. Downslope, close to the nearest outbuilding of the village, Gawain bent to speak briefly to Dubtach. Then the Companion cantered over to a smokehouse built of heavy timber. The building stood a score of yards to the right of the main path. Using the neck strap, Gawain hung from the ridgepole the plain shield he was carrying in place of his usual ornately studded one. He waved up the hill to Arthur, then rejoined the Irish. Dubtach challenged him, though the words of their argument were not intelligible at the distance. The Irish waited, bunched together, while Gawain and their leader spoke. Some of them watched the shield, their hands a little tighter than usual on their own weapons. The low, slate-roofed houses of the village had their shutters latched as if the visitors were a storm, but the boards trembled sideways and eyes within caught the light in stray reflections as the women looked on.

Arthur himself was in conversation with Cei, the two men leaning together so that their shoulders and helmets touched Their hands twitched in gestures that meant nothing except to each other. Starkad tapped Mael lightly on the right knee and used a tiny gesture of his head to indicate on the other side of Arthur the six riders who had moved up when the horn blew. Now they waited, talking among themselves in mild, high-pitched voices. They sounded from a short distance like the sing-song giggling of a girls’ school. Their horses had no reins or saddles. The riders held bows with nocked arrows in their hands.

"Oh, yes. . . ." Mael said quietly. He had not noticed these men on the march. Perhaps they had been used as outriders, scouting the line. It was the sort of work they gloried in.

"You know them?" Starkad asked.

"I know of them. Huns." Mael stared openly. They were little men with black, coiled hair and flat faces. One was bare-chested. His skin was hairless and almost of a color with his breeches of supple leather tanned from rabbits or other small mammals. Only in size and the ease in which they sat on their mounts, knees high and calves flexed sharply backward, were the Huns uniform. Two more wore leather corselets, black from being hardened in boiling vinegar. The ancient bronze medallions of a dead legionary, traded eastward over the centuries and so polished with age that the reliefs had been worn almost away, glittered against one corselet.

Two of the other Huns wore mail, but while one set was of the highest quality—each ring a double coil that left almost no interstices for a point to enter—the other shirt was of scales of a type almost unknown in the West. They were large, up to three inches across the base, and made of aurochs’ horn instead of metal. The scales were translucent gray and they shimmered as if still alive.

The sixth Hun wore no more armor than the first, only a linen tunic over his breeches, but despite the warm sun, he had a cape of marmot furs pinned at his shoulder. Its cowl was thrown back and the lustrous brown fur rippled down behind him.

"I fought them once with Hjalti’s army," Starkad said. He ran an index finger along the peen of his axe as he counted silently. "Fourteen, fifteen years ago, that would be. Maybe if I live another hundred years or so, I’ll want to fight Huns again."

Gawain shouted to the king from the midst of the Irishmen. The Companion waved his helmet as an all-clear signal.

"Now," said Arthur. His cornicine sucked a chestful of air, then blew a long note. The six Huns fanned forward at a gallop without noticeably directing their horses. The riders were shrieking like files on stone, each a different note and as bloodcurdling as the cries of the wounded when crows alight on their faces. The Huns shot as they rode, reloading in a single, natural motion with the draw and release. Their bows were short but heavy, recurved and stiffened with plates of horn and bone The staves averaged between a hundred and a hundred and twenty pounds of pull, so that only the flicker of points and white fletching was visible as the arrows slapped out at the target.

At the first shout and volley, half a dozen of the Irish dropped flat. But the Huns’ target was the shield and the men standing twenty yards from it were as safe as if they were in Ireland. Despite the range and the gallop, none of the Hunnish arrows was more than a hand’s breadth off the mark.

The shield wobbled. Arrows hitting it squarely made a double thunk as the shafts penetrated and struck the shed behind. Arrows that missed the shield sank to half their length in the heavy timbers. The target area was suddenly a deadly garden, the feathered ends of the arrows trembling like horizontal flowers in the sunlight.

As the riders yipped and thundered downslope, they opened gaps of about six feet between each man and his neighbor. For those on the ends of the line, the final volley was almost an edge-on shot at the shield as the charge swept around the smoke-house, three men to a side. The last arrows smacked into the target as surely as the first had.

In the gravel yard between two buildings, the Huns drew up and reformed. They cantered back around the shed, laughing and gibing among themselves. They utterly ignored the Irishmen who now clustered around the shield. There were over twenty arrows in or near the target. Dubtach tried to pull one out of the timber and found that the shaft splintered before the barbed head would release. There was awe in the faces of those who looked at the swarthy little men. Two of the Christian Irish surreptitiously crossed themselves.

"What do you think of my demonstration?" Arthur asked.

Mael jumped to realize that the king was again speaking to him. The Irishman smiled. His right hand rested on Starkad’s shoulder in an unconscious gesture of affection, and from his saddle he looked across the big Dane’s head toward Arthur. "Very nice," he said. "There’s not a man down there—" his thumb generally indicated the Irish—"but believes every one of your Companions can ride and shoot like that. At home they’ll spread the story and piece fable onto it—though by the Dagda’s club, the truth is enough! You’ll have an island defended by devils, here, and no place at all for a pirate to think of landing."

"But you aren’t fooled," said the king, his lips still curved in what was either good humor or the start of a snarl.

"I’ve heard of Huns—and I’ve seen your . . .desire for discipline," Mael replied. "If you could find anybody else to do the job they do, you’d never in hell let these Huns parade like a troupe of buffoons, would you?"

It was a smile. "Yes," Arthur said, "and when they’re drunk—which is generally—it is a devil’s job to keep them from cutting every throat in reach before raping the warm bodies. But they have their uses, as you say."

The king looked back at the beach where the Irish were gathering about the curragh, preparing to launch it. "Time for you to join your kinsmen," Arthur said. He drummed his fingers, thin and paler than the backs of his hands, on his pommels. "Bring me back what I need, Irishman. Bring me back the skull. . . ."

Mael swung off his borrowed horse. "I’ll walk, I think," he said.

Starkad echoed, "We’ll walk. To the boat."

Arthur made no response. His eyes were as unfocused as a drugged man’s, though his seat on his horse was firm.

Flints in the soil clacked beneath the hobnails in Mael’s sandals as the friends trudged toward the sea. Starkad’s huge feet were encased in boots sewn from single pieces of cowhide, supple and silent as he walked. They were laced around the outside. In colder weather the boots could be stuffed with rags for insulation and tied with one or two fewer wraps of the thongs.

Gawain rode past on his way back to Arthur, giving Mael a nod and a grin that could have meant anything. When they were beyond him but still long out of earshot of the Irish, Starkad said, "If we both got in the boat, friend, we could be well out to sea before any horsemen reached us. I’ve always wanted to see Ireland again."

"Umm," Mael said. "You watched that little archery practice just now?"

"They’d kill half the embassy if they started shooting at us in the middle of the boat," Starkad protested, starting to raise his voice.

"That’s going to bother Huns?" Mael asked. "Or Arthur?"

The Dane chuckled. He said, "Umm. Yeah, he is mad, isn’t he?" Then, "I wish I were leaving with you, friend. I really do wish that."

They were among the houses now, square, one-story buildings. Their east walls, away from the sea and the salt droplets the wind lashed from it during storms, were high and moss-furry. The doors and windows were there, now shuttered but able to be opened to the sun when it rose over the harsh ridge line. The roofs of the houses were slate, black stone frosted with the gray-green lichen despite the salt scouring. They sloped seaward more steeply than the hillside, so that the exposed western walls were only two or three feet high.

Mael glanced back at the seaward lines as they passed. The walls were blank, courses of limestone laid without mortar or even mud to fill the chinks. They were not relieved by windows or openings of any kind. Did the women of these fisher-folk not look up from their evening cooking, the eternal fish stew and bread baked in the coals from bartered flour, to see if their men were returning? To watch for the bobbing coracle that held father or brother or husband—or all three, perhaps, in the same man?

But the walls were as blind as the cliffs from which they were quarried, as expressionless as the sea they faced. And perhaps that was the explanation: the sea would have her way. To search her face for disaster was to multiply that certain disaster by as many days as she, laughing, withheld it. A stoic who ignored fate could be hurt only once—at a time.

"I wonder," Starkad said, wagging the axe on his shoulder just enough to call his friend’s attention to it, "why Arthur let me and this so close to him today? Last night it was our lives or our weapons before he’d let us come near. Does he think I love him now for making me a hostage?"

"I doubt he thinks anyone loves him," Mael said after brief reflection. "Mad, yes, but not stupid. . . . But you’ve noticed his foot?"

"He was whelped when the clay of his flesh was too wet," the Dane said. "Back home, a brat like that—well, the nights get cold on the kitchen middens, even in the summer. And there’s always something hungry prowling there for what might be thrown out of the back doors."

Mael touched his lips in what could have been distaste, but man differed from man, and customs differed among peoples. One individual and another could cross lines of race and tribe to find friendship—but that did not make the differences less real. "On his horse," Mael explained, "Arthur’s as steady as any other man with four legs under him. On his own feet, he—fears."

"He was born with more than his foot twisted," muttered Starkad.

The Irish had carried their curragh ashore rather than simply drawing it up on the beach at high tide. The crew had leaped into the surf when the boat grounded and put their shoulders to the hull while their hands found such purchase as they could on the slimy oxhides. When the men heaved upward the whole vessel came, dripping and lurching as the bearers lost their footing on the stones or a wave swept the legs from under several like a soft flail. Shouting and laughing, their steps quicker and more certain as they advanced beyond the slick buffeting of the sea, the Irish had carried their boat up to where the house walls announced safety from the waves of even the fiercest storm. As Mael and Starkad approached, the crew was launching the curragh again as easily by reversing the process.

The curragh was lightly built but not light. Its transport was a function of the fifty strong men beneath it, rather than an absolute lack of burden. There was no true keel or skeleton of ribs, only a wicker lattice anchored in the center to a thirty-foot sapling. The flexible ends of the tree had been bent up to mold the identical stern and prow. Over the framework were stretched oxhides, sewn to the lattice and to each other with linen cord. The seams and thread holes had been carefully tarred, leaving a shiny black pattern superimposed on the brown and black and white blotches of the hides. The seams still leaked, of course, but most of the water that would slap in the vessel’s interior would come over the low sides.

If the outside of the hull was simple, its interior was almost nonexistent. There were no oar benches or true thwarts, only withies crossing from gunwale to gunwale every yard or so. With luck, that flimsy bracing would keep the wicker frame from opening out at sea like a bud in springtime. There were no oarlocks or even oars; the curragh was paddled like a huge canoe, twisting and snaking across the waves. It was as limber as a sea serpent and as large. In its crew, the vessel carried a venom more lethal than anything with scales could match.

"Well, do as you please," Starkad said as he eyed the Irish who were beginning to load the curragh. It quivered in the surf. "You will, anyway. But I’d rather that if you have to throw yourself in with those fine ambassadors that you’d at least go armed."

"Oh, I’m armed," Mael laughed, tapping the dagger in his belt sheath. It was a serviceable weapon with a twelve-inch blade, unmarked but of good steel. Its thick tang ran the length of the sharkskin grip to the butt cap. The knife was not a toy, but neither was Starkad’s concern misplaced. Besides the dagger and the leather scrip balancing it on the other side of his belt, Mael wore only a tunic and breeches of dark wool, his sandals, and a cloak he carried rolled and slung under his arm. His sword and coat of ring mail, his shield and steel cap, all were back in the room he shared with Starkad in the recruits’ barracks. "After all," Mael said, "If I’m to be safe where I’m going, I’ve got to look harmless and Irish. In all my gear, I wouldn’t look either."

Dubtach, soaked to the waist, stepped out of the sea and noticed them. "You’re going with us?" he demanded. "They told us one. Gets damned crowded on one a’ these bitches, though I don’t suppose a land-lobster like your king up there’d know."

"I’d know, wouldn’t I?" said Mael speaking the liquid Irish of his youth. It was a tongue that already had more of a lilt and a bubble to it than the remainder of the Celtic language stream. "Haven’t I raided the coast south of here in a boat no bigger than this and with twice the crew?" And Mael had, of course, twelve years before, in a force led by Cearbhall, the High King’s brother. Cearbhall, a few years older than this Dubtach but with the same bright hair, the same muscular chest and arms . . . "The Dane is here only to see me off; I’ll be going back with you alone, and you’ll have no need to worry for my stomach."

"Irish, are you? I’d taken you for a Briton," said Dubtach. In his eyes was a glint that further increased his resemblance to the Ard Ri’s dead brother. Nor had the reference escaped the war chief—there had been few raids in recent years. "And you say you sailed with Cearbhall? He was the last real man Ireland raised so near the throne, Manannan knows. The day of his murder was an ill one for the country."

"He’s dead, then?" Mael asked in lying ignorance. The speech and the warriors around him were pulling his mind back to another beach, another curragh, and it was all the same except that now there was no blood. . . .

"Dead?" repeated Dubtach. "Of course he’s dead, throat cut in his own tent ten years—say, if you sailed with him, how is it you wouldn’t know that?"

Starkad stood a step to Mael’s right and a little to the rear, as inconspicuous as a 250-pound axeman could be. The Dane’s eyes were measuring the distance to Dubtach. Mael spread his hand, palm backward, as if just stretching the fingers, and told the war chief the first outright lie, the planned lie: "Oh, I didn’t come back from the raid, I took a block of stone on the head the night the Britons ambushed us. . . . You’ve heard about that?"

Dubtach’s nod was agreement, and the smile spreading across his horsy teeth was proof that he had heard the rest, too; the payment Cearbhall had drawn from the villagers who had dared defend their goods.

"For seven years I was a slave," Mael continued, "and for five more a freedman. Now the king is letting me go home." And the strangest thing about the lie, Mael realized, was that in a psychic way it was no lie at all. He had not been wounded on the raid, but something of him had stayed behind in the West Country. It had been nailed to the hut-walls like the villagers themselves—men, women, and children. The lucky ones had been dead. Of the rest, some were screaming and some were silent, but all of them screamed when Cearbhall gave the order and his men began thrusting torches into the roofs of the plundered huts. That screaming was a thing to which Mael could have grown hardened in time; he could have come to accept it as a necessity of life, like the shriek of a pig on the butchering ground or the grunt of a warrior who has just taken your point through his rib cage. Even twelve years ago, Mael had known he was no better a man than most of those around him. The shock, the realization of what he had been helping to accomplish, was just too sudden, that was all.

And as the flames rose, Cearbhall had turned so that Mael could see his eyes. There was nothing behind them but arrogance that would not brook the slightest hint of opposition. Mael had collapsed. His fellows thought it was a delayed reaction to a blow, but in reality Mael had been bludgeoned by an insight more damaging than a stone could have been.

Later he had dreamed about the empty eyes, nightmares that at first had ended in sweaty terror. Then, as months and a year went by, Mael woke in red killing rages instead. About two years later, the dreams and Cearbhall had ended together.

Red-haired, scar-chested Dubtach clapped Mael on the shoulder. "Ireland needs more of the old breed," he said. "Come and see me after you’ve looked about your homeplace long enough to satisfy kinship. Muirchertach’s an open-handed man, and he’ll have a need for men to follow him soon. Real men."

"Gear’s stowed," shouted one of the crewmen standing in the curragh while a dozen others held the hull parallel to the shore and steady. The boat bobbed in the shallows, waiting for the burden of men to fill its mottled sleekness.

"Then start boarding," Dubtach called back. "You too," he said to Mael. He turned to supervise the boarding.

Mael looked at Starkad, then up the slope toward the cataphracts. The sheen of their points and armor would, by Arthur’s design, be the last image the Irish carried away from Britain. Mael rapped Starkad in the middle of the chest and said, "See you soon."

The Dane caught the outstretched wrist and squeezed it. "Make sure you come back," he said quietly.

"I wouldn’t leave you," replied Mael, hurt that Starkad thought he might abandon his friend to Arthur’s whimsy.

Starkad snorted, nodding his head contemptuously toward Arthur and his troops. "Think I care what they’ll do to me if you don’t show up? Don’t worry about that. But I’ve gotten used to having you around." The big man squeezed Mael’s wrist again, then used its leverage to turn the Irishman toward the sea and the waiting curragh.

The vessel was riding thirty yards from the line of wet gravel. Waves staggered Mael twice as he strode outward. The second time the water rose mid-thigh and almost threw Mael down with its purchase on his tunic. Out of practice, he thought, not that he cared. Reaving in skin boats was, like plucking hens, a skill with which Mael had some acquaintance but no desire for proficiency. Besides, half the men trying to restrain the curragh had gone down in the last wave, too.

Most of the crew was aboard by the time Mael gripped the flexible gunwales and let the men to either side of his handhold pull him in. It was not a hard pull since the loaded vessel showed only a foot of freeboard. Last within were the two wolf-hounds who until then had paddled around the curragh in happy circles. The dogs launched themselves out of the water like hairy porpoises, buffeting men aside as they landed. Somehow they managed to avoid impaling themselves on spear points. One hound shook itself and turned around three times before flopping down with its head across Mael’s feet. Its tongue lolled. The grizzled paddler beside Mael glanced over and said apologetically, "Blood and old Terror, here, they can’t bear for a boat to put out without they’re aboard. Even though we aren’t raiding."

Mael nodded and grinned back at the rangy dog. He knew why the beasts accompanied raiders. The long, toothy jaws were not to kill but to hold ransomable fugitives. The dogs’ masters would do the killing if whim and economics required.

"Stroke, damn you, stroke!" Dubtach was shouting from the stern. There was no rudder or steering oar on the curragh, but stern or bow were the natural places for the captain to seat himself anyway. Loaded with fifty men and their gear, the vessel drew considerably more water than it had empty. Furious paddling thrust the curragh forward, but the next wave cost all of the gains. The bottom scraped. Every man aboard knew what the shore would do to the oxhide hull if it caught them fully.

Up the slope, Arthur’s warhorn sang. Mael looked back, saw the six dark-skinned riders detach themselves from the group around the standard and ride for the beach. Mael saw Starkad, too, his axe-helve slung through the double loops on his back and the ocean hammering his chest with foam from about the curragh’s stern. The curved stern-post slipped backward despite all that fifty straining paddlers could do. Then the Dane’s great hands blocked it. The supple wood gave a little but Starkad did not, despite the weight surging against him. The sea turned and the curragh shot outward beyond the shelf of the shore. The next swell only lifted it. Starkad turned and the Huns drew up, even before the horn ordered them to recase their bows.

Mael let his breath out very slowly. Dubtach kinked forward again, still shaking his head in amazement. "A strong man, your friend." he said.

"He’s that, all right," Mael agreed. "One day he’s going to decide he’s strong enough to live with a dozen arrows through his chest, though. I’ll be sorry for that day." And for the men who kill that foolish blond bear, Mael added bleakly, but that was to himself and unspoken.

Copyright 1998 by David Drake

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Baen Books 03/08/02