Dragon Lord

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

by David Drake

Chapter Three

It was a normal voyage by curragh: wet, cramped, and queasy. Without a sail—the vessel was too flimsy for a mast to be stepped, much less to take the strain of a filled sail—the crew had to paddle constantly in shifts to make way. In theory, the men not paddling could have slept. In practice, the chill sea sloshed across the open belly of the craft and made sleep both unlikely and dangerous. Part of the crew bailed at all times. If the water within rose too high, the curragh would sink like a stone. It was lightly built but not of positive buoyancy.

"I had a piece there in Arthur’s camp, one of his captains’ wives," Dubtach began when they were out of the surf. "So blond she looked white as an old lady. But when she threw her cloak back she hadn’t a stitch on under it and there wasn’t a wrinkle in her skin. I swear by the MacLir . . ." The rest of the story was a paradigm of the conversation for the whole of the voyage. It was, indeed, the conversation of every group of soldiers since war began. Only the languages change.

Muirchertach’s men were a relic of older times, still normal in Ireland. Their shields were light, generally of oxhide strapped with bronze or iron. Almost none of them wore body armor. In the ancient past, battle nudity had been of magical significance, an ultimate sign of faith that the gods would save the man who trusted in them. Now even in Ireland it was more conservatism and braggadocio, acceptable enough on an island whose only contact with other peoples was at the islanders’ choice. Niall’s reavers, for all their savagery and their king’s reputation, would have fared no better arrayed against a legion than had Boudicca’s naked warriors three centuries before. But the reavers had proven quite adequate for murdering civilians while Rome’s sparse troops marched from the site of one raid to another.

When Mael fled Ireland, he had considered armor and made his own decision about it. If he were to earn his living by war, he would arm himself so that he could fight at the front of any battle on earth. That meant weapons which would cut without breaking or bending, a shield that could last an afternoon of strong men and hard blows—and a good coat of mail, for in the midst of war no man could avoid all blows from his blind side. But now, looking at the naked warriors around him, a fierce surge of freedom shook the exile. He grinned in its throes, and the grin was unpleasant.

The voyage took half a day, lasting from daylight to dusk and then three miserable hours of pitch darkness besides. Dubtach tried to make sense out of the stars. Finally the shore loomed up, richly odorous and—for all its dangers—still home to Mael.

Dubtach and his chiefs held a lengthy, querulous conversation as they tried to decide where the curragh was about to fetch up. Most of the other crewmen joined in. Even the hounds, smelling land and a chance to run, began to whine loudly until a frustrated warrior booted them to whimpers.

"We’ll land," Dubtach said finally. "If it’s not Muirtaig’s reach, it’s Eoghan’s, and we’ve no foes so great in the Laigin we need fear to camp on their beach for a night."

They drew in, the men in the stern paddling while those in the bow poised to leap into the grumbling surf at the least tremor from the bottom. To the right was a headland jutting high enough that a clump of three stunted junipers could grow in despite of the salt spray. One of the crewmen called out, pointing to the landmark. Dubtach cawed in triumph, "Who says I can’t navigate, hey? Not fifty feet from where we put her in the sea, are we?"

No one contradicted the war chief, least of all Mael. Having listened to Dubtach wrangling about their bearings with men equally ignorant, Mael knew the curragh might as easily have made landfall in the Hebrides.

Mael joined in the quick dash for the beach with the hull of the curragh flexing over his shoulder like a silent drum. Laughing in relief at their safe return, the crew carried the vessel high up on the beach to where the grass displaced the pebbles. The night was warm and friendly, lighted by the silver moon just edging up over the sea. A trio of wattle huts in a palisade were within a hundred yards of the beached curragh. No one came to a door despite the halloos of some of the men. Well, thought Mael, he wouldn’t have come out himself to meet such a mob. At least not until dawn or an attack required it. The exile smiled, thinking of the householders tremblingly alert, each with a fish spear or a gutting knife clenched in his hand. This time the residents would be lucky.

"These are Muirchertach’s lands?" Mael asked, stretching his arms high to ease the cramped muscles of his back.

"King Muirtaig’s," Dubtach corrected him. "He sends his tribute to the Laigin as we do not. But we have no coast, so we borrowed this curragh from Muirtaig against a dozen horses pledged for its return."

"Can you show me the road for Lough Conn?" Mael asked, naming a lake in the shadow of the Ox Mountains, far beyond where he intended to go. He wanted to be clear of Dubtach and his troupe as quickly as possible. With them Mael was an outsider—always dangerous when among armed men. Besides, he was sure to attract comment as "the man from Britain" so long as he accompanied those who had brought him over.

"We’ll be heading west tomorrow," Dubtach said. "Travel with us."

"Umm, I’ll be back when I’ve done the business I need to do," Mael replied mildly. "For now—well, I’ve been gone twelve years, and I’d not add another hour to them for choice."

The war chief shrugged. "I’ll point you to the road, then," he said. "It’s past the orchard, is all."

They walked together between the rows of apple trees on the high ground west of the shore. The trees were well kept but as gnarled and ingrown as only old fruit trees become. In the flat moonlight they looked more mineral than alive. The air among them was a little warmer, a little sweeter, than that of the shore. The trilling of katydids in the branches washed away the raucous jollity of the warriors below.

"Right there’s the track," said Dubtach, pointing to a dirt path bounded on the far side by hedgerows. "Go left here and just follow whichever branch seems western at a fork if you can’t get better directions. Now, I think there’s a spring here if—umm, hel-lo!"

Figures moved, two horses and a woman standing in the shadow of the hedge to the right. Dubtach shrugged as if to loosen clothing from about his bare torso. Mael touched his tongue to his lips, darting his eyes about the darkness and silently cursing the katydids. Their sound, so welcome a moment before, would cloak the rustle of bandits creeping to attack. The woman’s presence made sense only if she were a decoy.

The woman walked closer while the horses stood where they were on their dropped reins. She was not tall, perhaps a little over five feet, nor was she heavy. Her slim fingers were loosely intertwined in front of her. She wore a gray cloak pinned at the right shoulder. The shift beneath it was of linen, but it was bleached and silver-gilt by the moon so that it showed as a gleaming wedge. Then the woman shrugged her cowl back and Mael could see the shift was no brighter than her hair. Her face was perfect and unlined. Glancing at the contrast, Mael was reminded of Dubtach’s tale of his ash-blonde conquest in Britain. Mael was surprised at the sudden hatred for the war chief that boiled through him at the thought.

Dubtach stood, arms akimbo, and said to the woman, "And what would you be doing here, lady?" Mael was behind him, but even there he could feel the tooth-baring smile in Dubtach’s voice.

"Waiting for a man," she said, looking at Dubtach and looking away to Mael. Her voice was full without being either deep or loud. "I’ve found him now."

"That you have!" brayed Dubtach. He reached out his long, thick-muscled arm and drew the woman closer by the shoulder. "Two of us, indeed."

"No." The woman nodded at Mael. "I’m waiting for him." she squirmed, which should have made no difference to Dubtach’s heavy grip, but the cloak rippled under his fingers, leaving the woman free and a yard away, staring coolly at the war chief’s fury.

Dubtach’s left hand toyed with his sword hilt, raising it an inch or two to free the blade in the scabbard before dropping it back. The gesture was unconscious and a suggestive one. Dubtach reached out again with his right hand. Mael touched his elbow. "Wait a minute," the exile said quietly.

The red-haired warrior snapped around like a released spring. "You’re going to tell me she’s kin to you?" he shouted at Mael. "That she knew you were coming here when I didn’t myself?"

"I’ll tell you damn-all but the truth," Mael said, his own voice controlled and as tight as the muscles of his rectum. They were drawing up and chilling his whole body with the fear of death. "She’s no kin, she’s no acquaintance—by the Dagda’s dick, she’s not even Irish, you can hear that in her voice." Which was true; the syllables were perfect but too flat for a native speaker’s. "But this I will say, I’ll not be a part to a rape in a stranger king’s territory, not with me not an hour landed in Ireland again."

"You just hold her bloody arms and leave me to worry about Muirtaig," Dubtach snarled. He turned back to the woman.

Mael caught him again by the arm. Dubtach cursed as he jerked his hand down to his sword hilt. Mael kicked him in the groin, his hand locking Dubtach’s down so that the war chief could not draw. Dubtach’s gasp as he doubled over choked the call for assistance that was already halfway up his throat. Mael hit him on the back of the head and cursed as Dubtach ignored the blow and tried to rise. Mael kneed him in the face, then drew his own dagger and chopped the red-haired man with the butt of it twice behind the ear. This time Dubtach sagged all the way to the ground.

Mael spun, crouching, his dagger out to take the charge and the life of anyone who might have followed him and Dubtach through the orchard. Breeze and the terrain blocked all sound of the men at the beach. Mael prayed that all sound of Dubtach’s struggles had been masked as well.

He turned again, both fearful and threatening. The woman with white hair had not moved, nor had the hedges spilled her suspected companions. Mael was breathing heavily. "I need one of your horses," he said, pointing his dagger downward. He did not sheath it, not yet. "I’ll pay you for it, a fair price."

"I brought it for you," said the woman. "I’ve been watching for you to come."

"That was a fine story the first time, " Mael snapped sarcastically. "It nearly got me killed and you raped by a boatload instead of the chief only. But it’s no good with me, you see. You don’t know me and you can’t have been expecting me."

"I’ve been waiting for Loeghaire o’—"

 

"Don’t say that name!" Mael shouted. For the instant he forgot the men on the shore and the others a cry might bring to find him over the bludgeoned Dubtach. He forgot everything but the far past and the icy fear of discovery. Mael had convinced himself that it would not happen on a brief return. After all, there had been a decade for men and memories to age.

"Come," said the woman, "we have to ride."

That was good advice. Besides, Mael was beyond planning for himself, not then. He sheathed his dagger as he followed her, two quick steps and a vault that took him astride the larger of the two horses. The woman mounted the bay mare as easily. Mael’s stallion walked, then trotted to quick heel pressure. They were following the path westward as Dubtach had directed.

"Where are we going?" the woman asked, keeping station to Mael’s right and half a pace behind.

"Don’t you know that, too?" Mael retorted. The measured gait of the horse was a comfort to the exile’s mind, especially after the greasy smoothness of the curragh in the waves.

"I was told to meet a man," the woman said, her tone quiet and certain. She sounded like a mother drawing an answer out of an unruly boy. "And if you don’t want me to call you by the name you were born with, you have to tell me what you go by now. I’m Veleda."

"Mael mac Ronan," Mael said unwillingly. Veleda was not an Irish name, but that was no surprise. German, perhaps? But not really that, either. There was no accent at all in her speech; rather, she had a suspicious lack of accent. And—but Mael broke into his own thoughts to add, "I’m riding to Lough Conn," repeating his lie to Dubtach.

They went on in silence for almost a mile, through a landscape of small fields and occasional small turf houses. Most of the dwellings were surrounded by fences that served both as corrals and for protection from attack. Once a horse whinnied as Mael and Veleda passed, but their own mounts made no reply.

They reached the first fork in the road. Veleda pointed to the right without hesitation. They continued on. "What are you?" Mael demanded abruptly without looking at his companion.

"A woman," she replied.

He turned in his saddle and her eyes were on him already, her face shadowed by the silver frame of her hair. "There’s ten thousand women in Ireland," Mael said, "and not one of them but you knew where I’d be landing—any more than I myself did. What are you?"

"We’re all of us together in the world," Veleda said, "all of us a part of it and of each other. Some are born a little more aware of that togetherness than others. I hear things, I’m told things. I was told that I should meet you, and where I should and when . . . and I did. I don’t know who or what it was that told me, or why—not really. If all that makes me wise, then I’m a wise woman, as some have called me. But they’ve called me a demon, too, and a goddess—and I’m none of those things. I’m a woman."

She smiled and tossed her head. The road jogged south at the same moment, and the thin moon lit Veleda’s face like a still pool in the sunlight. Mael grinned back, then laughed aloud as he found himself believing her. A pressure lifted from him. "I won’t complain that you hear voices," he said, "if they’ve saved me a hike I was dreading."

For a while Mael’s face sobered, but it did not fall into the grim lines it had worn at the beginning of the ride. He held his horse for the half step that brought Veleda abreast of him, then asked, "What are you going to do, then?"

"There’s something very important and very near," Veleda said. "Very . . ."

"A king rising?" interjected Mael into the pause with his mind on mad, brilliant Arthur and his boasting. "An empire?"

"No," said Veleda with the curtness of one who understands something completely for one who never would. "Not men, not anything of men. That’s like saying the sun sends down its light to warm us. We’re not that important. But whatever is about to happen, you’re a part of it. I want to stay with you, at least until I understand more than I do now." she smiled again. "That’s a fault of mine. I like to know things."

"Umm," murmured Mael as he considered. Indeed she was a woman. An attractive one who had done him a favor. Clearly it was not safe for her to wander alone in a country as unsettled as Ireland now. Even the leaders, unless Dubtach was the exception, seemed to think it no disgrace to rape in peacetime as if they were at war. . . . "We’ll see, then," Mael said. "Do you have any relatives around here?"

"None at all."

"Well, we’ll see then," Mael repeated. "For now, I think we’re far enough from Dubtach and his friends for safety, and I, at least, could use a soft place to sleep in. Though I doubt we’ll do better than a haystack. It’s damned late, and nobody with good sense is going to open his house to strangers."

"I’ve slept in haystacks before," said Veleda. "There’s one a quarter mile ahead on the right—near the path and far enough from the house that we won’t trouble the owners. Or they us."

"Oh, you’ve been this way—" Mael began. He stopped himself when he realized that if the answer were "No" he would not want to have heard it.

The haystack was where Veleda said it would be. It was a six-foot dome notched by use to half that height on one side. The two of them unsaddled their horses. Mael stripped the reins off his mount and started to use them as a makeshift hobble, but the woman said, "No need—they won’t stray." She had already unpinned her cloak and was wrapping it around her in place of a blanket.

Mael shook out his own cloak, a thick, gray-white rectangle of wool. It had not been either bleached or dyed. The lanolin still in the wool made the garment almost waterproof. He eyed Veleda as he worked, fascinated by her grace and the economy of her movements. Odd—generally he liked his women tall, with a little more bone showing than was most men’s ideal. Mael’s mind flashed him a memory of a tanned, rangy woman, her eyes and hair black and welcoming. He shivered with the force of the thought, shaking his head as if to free cobwebs from his hair.

This woman, Veleda. Was it her hair that drew him? It fell in silky perfection to the small of her back when she shook it from beneath her cloak. Or again, the attraction might be her face; serene and smooth, its youthfulness was a stunning contrast to the white tresses around it. Veleda’s lips were thin—thinner than those other lips—though not cruel. But a knife blade is not cruel either, only lethal, and there was a quality of lethal determination in the blonde woman’s lips and face. Veleda’s hands were small and gentle, as delicate as filigree brooches. They clasped the cloak about her in the moonlight.

Mael grunted and rolled himself down in the yielding hay. He found the woman interesting as a person, and the fact concerned him. Interest in women as people was a practice Mael thought he had given up ten years before, in a bloodstained bedchamber. That was not a scene he ever wanted to repeat.

Sleep was a longer time coming than it should have been.

Copyright 1998 by David Drake

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