Dragon Lord

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

by David Drake

Chapter Four

In the morning Mael told Veleda their real destination, the wide slough of the Shannon that was Lough Ree. The roads were crooked and narrow, frequently muddy ruts where their course followed a creek. Mael and Veleda moved as fast as the well-being of the horses allowed, but Mael knew it would be at least an honest three days’ travel to the wayside shrine that was his goal.

Though travelers were rare, the two of them attracted little attention. Veleda generally rode with her cowl up to hide her striking hair. They were both too simply dressed to arouse greed. Mael, though not heavily armed, had a killer’s look about him that twice turned casual bullies to look for other prey. All around were signs of an unsettled land. Men tilled their fields with spears lashed to their plows where they could be seized at need. Women called their children sharply out of the road when the strangers appeared. But two riders who gave no trouble and looked able to defend themselves were safe enough anywhere.

Veleda traded brass armlets for boiled mutton and porridge along the way, bargaining with the householders while Mael stood back with just enough of a frown to encourage a quick resolution. They dipped water from springs when there was no house nearby to barter them beer.

And each night the two of them slept on the ground, close enough together that Mael could feel the heat from the woman’s body—or thought he could. Mael’s knee had swollen where Dubtach’s tooth had cut it, but the pain and swelling had disappeared when Veleda applied a poultice of leaves and spider silk. Mael’s only pain was that of his groin which was as tight as an inflated bladder. It ached, especially when his mind wandered back to times past. Mael talked incessantly as they rode.

Late in the afternoon of the third day, Mael and Veleda topped the wooded ridge that overlooked the black waters of Lough Ree a quarter mile away. There had to be some current, but the surface seemed still for as far as the watchers could see. Reeds grew so thickly in the shallows that the shoreline was hard to determine. The western slope of the ridge on which Mael stood was covered with rhododendrons that linked themselves impassably to either side of the path. From the water’s edge at the end of the path, a rickety pier thrust out beyond the reeds.

Halfway down the hill, between the crest and the pier, stood a tiny stone chapel whose peaked roof made it look taller than it was long. "The shrine of the Unknown Hero," said Mael in satisfaction. "They say a traveler jumped into the lough with nothing but a sword and beheaded the monster there. Quite a hero tale about it—as there are about lots of things, of course. More to the point, there was a shrine built at the spot—here—and the monster’s skull inside it. I saw it once."

"And you’re going to kill a monster yourself?" Veleda asked mildly.

Mael snorted. "I won’t go swimming with fish that size," he said, "not when somebody did the work for me already. Besides, there aren’t any of the beasts around, not any more."

He felt Veleda’s cool eyes on him. He turned to her, frowning. "Look," Mael said, "it happened a long time ago. There’s stories that the hero was Niall, but that’s not true—the skull was old even when he was the High King. Maybe it really was Lugh or some other god that killed the thing—that’s what the oldest songs say. I don’t know. But I don’t have years to spend out there in a rowboat, proving that the skull in the shrine was the last one there was to be had, either. I don’t care to rob a shrine, and if your voices tell you to go—go. I didn’t plan to drag anybody here anyway.

"But the gods can take care of their own. I’ve got a friend depending on me."

"A man does what he must," Veleda said.

"A man does what he can, you mean," Mael said, and he faced back to the shrine. But of course it was not what Veleda meant, and it galled Mael more than any open condemnation could have.

The chapel was of ashlar-cut limestone. The roof was formed by heavy timbers because its slope was too sharp for slates. There was a suggestion of a wooden lean-to built against the far side, but the angle made it hard to see for sure. On the uphill side toward Mael was a wooden door and a slit window. The latter was unshuttered but too narrow to pass a man or even a boy. A yard of sorts had been cleared of rhododendrons. A solid oak bench sat in the clearing against the wall of the building. It was a moment before Mael noticed the stone cross that now stood at the northern peak of the roof.

"Christian?" he blurted incredulously.

"Many of the old places are now," Veleda replied. "It’s coming, you know, all over Ireland."

Mael shook his head. "I’ve been away too long," he said. He grinned and added, "Or maybe not long enough. Well, this may change things, but we won’t know till we check." He clucked to his horse, leading the way down the narrow path through the twisted shrubs.

Chance or the thud of hooves on the peaty soil brought motion at the window. Then the door flew back and a short man stepped out of the building to await them. He was a priest—or a monk, perhaps; there was a difference but Mael did not know quite what it was. The man was old and wore a cassock of black wool in startling contrast to his white beard and hair. His face was more shrunken together than lined, its expression bitter and proud and inflexible. He could have been fifty years old or eighty, but he still moved like a bird.

Mael smiled and waved his right hand, empty, in greeting. The priest nodded stiffly in reply. He stepped to the side of the door. A balding giant seven feet tall walked out of the shrine behind the priest, ducking to clear the lintel.

Mael was not small himself, and he had been around even bigger men for most of his life. This fellow would be, he thought, the biggest man he had ever seen. The giant was barefoot and clad in a plain linen tunic with a wide sash. He seemed to taper toward both ends like a skein of wool. Mael’s first thought was that the giant was fat, since his smooth limbs seemed stuffed like sausages and his torso a tun of lard. Then the fellow moved in front of the black-garbed priest. His flesh rippled and bulged instead of dimpling as fat does. The giant was muscular, and there was an awesome bulk of those muscles.

"Fergus!" snapped the priest. "Did you finish your prayers?"

The giant stopped. He opened his mouth and drooled slightly on his tunic. Mael could see that the cloth was already damp. "I forgot," Fergus rumbled, looking at the ground instead of the small man questioning him.

"And do you want the Lord Almighty to forget you in the day of your need? Is that what you want, Fergus?" the priest demanded.

The giant began to twist his right index finger into his left palm. He concentrated wholly on the process and did not speak.

The priest sighed. He wiped spittle from the giant’s chin with the end of the sash, then said, "Oh, go sit down. But you must be more careful." Obediently Fergus walked to the bench and sat. The oak creaked loudly. The giant’s round face was as expressionless as his bare pate.

The giant’s appearance had startled Mael out of his original plan of tying the priest, stealing the skull, and fleeing before a chance wayfarer stopped by the shrine. Instead, the exile reined up at the edge of the clearing and said, "Ah, sir . . ." but he could not think of a way to continue.

The little priest nodded. "Yes, yes, I’m Father Diarmid. And you’re pilgrims to the shrine, I see—since this path doesn’t lead anywhere else."

Mael dismounted, still trying to frame a useful opening. His body no longer blocked Diarmid’s view of Veleda. The priest’s breath hissed in. His wizened face took on the look of a man who has caught his wife making love to the potboy. "Witch!" he cried with loathing.

Mael blinked in surprise and looked back at Veleda. She was calm, not even frowning. There was nothing unusual about her except her hair—and that, if unusual, was no certain witch-mark.

But the priest was right.

Diarmid pointed at the woman and his voice, never pleasant, rasped like a corn mill as he shouted, "You! God seared Ireland over the coals of his wrath for your sort, witches and druids! He brought the Plague on us as upon the heathen Egyptians, that all this land should know His name and follow Him. Your gods are false, dead and stinking with the corruption of their falsehood. How dare you try to enter this holy place wrapped in sin and error?"

"Men will do as they wish, think as they wish, pray as they wish," said Veleda. She leaned a little toward the old man and added, with a distinctness as forceful as his own shouted polemic, "and god is still the same in all his aspects. For myself, I don’t worship a god who died on a tree, and my god doesn’t drown the earth with the blood of innocents to fill his churches—and his coffers!"

"Get away from here," Diarmid said, almost calmly. The leash on his tongue snapped and he screamed, "Get away from here, whore of Satan! Cease defiling ground blessed by the feet of the Holy Padraic!"

"Now wait a minute . . ." Mael began. He stepped forward with his left hand raised as much for attention as a sign of peaceful intent.

Fergus moved also. He reached under the bench on which he sat and twitched out what Mael had thought was a loose building block. It was a forty-pound wedge of soapstone, a small boat anchor. A three-inch hole had been bored in the center to reeve through a line. Fergus had fitted the stone with an oak shaft as long as Mael’s arm. The streaked, gray mace head was utterly steady though Fergus held it one-handed.

The giant stood. Mael smiled and brought his left hand around in a slow arc to the side, nothing threatening, just an easy motion to draw eyes away from his right hand and the dagger in his belt. He could slip the knife out and throw it point first, knowing that at seven feet he could bury it to the hilt in Fergus’ chest. Mael knew also that while the dagger would kill the giant, it would assuredly not stop him. The sweeping counter-blow of the mace would literally tear Mael’s head off if it connected. His fingers poised—

"Wait! " Veleda cried. Mael froze, turned his head toward her. She was white with the same fury that was shaking Diarmid, but the command in her voice was certain. "This isn’t a fight between men," she said, "and I’ll not stay to make it one. But I’ve one last thing to say before I leave, priest: men get the sort of gods they deserve." She wheeled her horse. "Mael," she added, "I’ll wait for you at the top of the hill."

Mael and Diarmid both watched her ride off. Fergus simply grunted and flicked his mace back under the bench as easily as he had taken it out. "Wipe your mouth, Fergus," the priest said. Fergus stared at him blankly. Diarmid muttered, then daubed spittle from the slack chin. Then the giant sat down again.

"You aren’t Christian, either," Diarmid said, "but you’re not a witch. What brought you here?"

"I came to see the skull of the monster," Mael said. "The one the Unknown Hero slew."

"The monster which God Almighty slew at the behest of the Holy Padraic," the priest corrected him, sharply though without rancor.

Mael blinked. "Padraic killed one of the water monsters, too?" he asked in perplexity.

"There was only one of the creatures," snapped Diarmid, "a child of Satan—as all things heathen are. It pursued one of the followers of the Holy Padraic as he swam toward a coracle." The priest gestured vaguely toward the peat-black waters in which his own skiff bobbed at the end of the pier. "The Apostle prayed to God to save his disciple, and the hand of God struck down the monster in answer to the saint’s prayer."

"I hadn’t heard the story," Mael said mildly. Nor had his father, who had seen the relic before Padraic had returned to Ireland to preach in the year Mael was born. The year Loeghaire was born, that was, but he must not think of that . . . "Father," Mael said aloud to the stern-faced priest, "I’ve traveled a long way to see this skull."

"You’ll find your journey to Hell much shorter unless you repent," the older man gibed, but he motioned his visitor to follow as he stepped into the shrine. Fergus stood also.

Diarmid crossed himself at the threshold. He looked at the giant. "Fergus," he said.

"I forgot, Father," Fergus said. He crossed himself carefully.

With Fergus’ huge body blocking the doorway behind him, Mael’s eyes took a moment to adjust. There was little enough to see. A wooden crucifix had been added above the altar. It was of rustic workmanship but was carven with surprising vigor. The Christ’s eyes bulged as he writhed against the nails. Mael could almost hear the scream from his open mouth. The altar itself was of plain stone, the same slab that had been there when Mael had seen it as a boy. The casket on the altar was the same also. It was a foot and a half long and about a foot in width and depth, constructed of bronze-bound wood. It was so obviously ancient that Mael shot a quick glance to Diarmid to surprise signs of embarrassment at his lie about it being a relic of Padraic. There were no such signs. The priest was obviously sincere, even though his claim for Padraic being the monster-slayer was untrue on its face. Religion, Mael thought sourly. He grinned.

The design on the casket was a rendering of the monster. Its head formed the latch which opened from pressure on the plate set cunningly between its open jaws. The head of the beast was oval, with a blackish-green patina that even looked wet. Around it was a circular fringe like a stylized lion’s mane or a gorgon’s frill of snakes. The neck writhed around the edge of the casket to the left, while the pointed tail rejoined the head from the right side. Presumably, the creature’s torso and limbs, if any, were inlaid on the back where they were out of sight for the moment.

Diarmid murmured a prayer, then reverently touched the latch. He lifted the lid of the chest.

The interior was padded with heavy scarlet wool—a trophy itself, cut from the cloak of a high Roman officer in the days when the conquest of Britain was still in doubt. The skull within was flat, about a foot long and nine inches broad. The brain case was small, no more than the size of a clenched fist. Mael realized that what he had originally taken for large eye sockets were only sinuses in the bone to lighten it. The real eyes had been set far back and to either side of the head. The sockets were smaller than a man’s.

Most of the skull, in fact, was jaw, or attachment for the jaw muscles. The maxillaries were set with a pincushion of teeth, conical and rear-slanting. The longest—and they varied little from the mean—were only about half an inch long. Fish-eater, Mael thought. He suddenly remembered the big salamander he had once plucked from beneath a rock in a stream so cold it numbed his fingers. That one had been black, slimy, and almost blind, a squirming monster in its way, though only eight inches long. A beast of that sort and this size—well, it would be nothing to meet in the water, whatever its choice of diet.

"Behold the power of the hand of God," the priest was saying.

Mael nodded. There were three vertebrae in the casket along with the skull. Two of them were notched and the third was half-missing where a blade had severed it. That bone had other blade nicks in it. The hand of God should have sharpened its sword, Mael thought to himself, but that was unfair. The drag of the water would prevent a proper stroke, and the thick sheath of muscles and cartilage would dull any edge before it reached the bone.

"Thank you," Mael said aloud. Diarmid’s deep eyes burned him as if the priest knew what his visitor was planning . . . but no, that was only Diarmid’s normal expression. Men get the gods they deserve. . . . "A man beholds the relics of ancient heroes that he may follow in their footsteps," Mael added sententiously.

"Follow in the path of God,’’ Diarmid corrected, but with a hint of approval in his voice. The priest gestured. The room brightened as Fergus moved away from the door. Mael stepped back into the sunlight, hearing the latch click as the priest closed the casket behind him. Blinking with the light, the exile mounted his horse which was nibbling such grass as it could find at the edge of the rhododendrons.

"Thank you," Mael repeated. As he rode back up the slope, he could hear Diarmid scolding Fergus again for missing a prayer. For some reason, the scene chilled him.

* * *

Veleda had built a small fire on the far side of the ridge, out of sight of the shrine. Mael unsaddled his horse without saying a great deal. He began to knead ash cakes from the barley flour they had bartered that morning. Veleda used her small knife to prepare a chicken for roasting. She skinned the bird instead of trying to pluck it without a pot in which to scald it first.

"He’s crazy, isn’t he?" Mael said at last. "Not the big one, he’s just lack-witted . . . but that priest, that Diarmid, he—what he’s saying is like he said the sun shines here at midnight. But he really believes it."

"Why does that bother you?" the woman asked, her hands still for the moment as she looked over at Mael.

He opened his palms. "I’ve never been much for gods," he said. "They may be, they may rule me and everything else—I don’t know and I don’t much care. I don’t care much about Christians, either, in a way . . . but even when I, ah, left Ireland, they were turning everybody to them. Now this. They don’t just convert the men, they convert the holy places that have been there as long as there’ve been men at all on the island. And they tell lies, and they believe their own lies!" Mael clenched his fists in frustration. "Why is everybody going crazy?" he demanded. "Or am I?"

Veleda smiled. She spitted the chicken on a twig. "Men don’t want to die," she said quietly. "People don’t want to die."

"Nobody wants to die!" Mael blazed. "And everybody dies anyway. What does that have to do with it? Padraic didn’t bring all this about by threatening to slit all the throats of those who wouldn’t pray to his god."

"No, though that may come later," Veleda agreed. She laid her hands over Mael’s, her fingertips touching his wrists. "Do you remember the Plague?"

"Yes," Mael said. The Plague had wracked Ireland only a few years after Mael was born. Limbs blackened and began to decay even before death; abscessed lungs filled with fluid and drowned sufferers; high fevers cooked brains and left behind inhuman things that died later as the rest of their systems disintegrated. Isolation had preserved Ireland for centuries from the diseases which ripped the Mediterranean Basin, but past safety was cold comfort when death began to ricochet back and forth between the narrow shores. "Yea." Mael repeated, "I don’t think I’ll forget that soon."

"Nobody will," Veleda said. "Most people come to religion for comfort, not truth. There are truths, but they’re not for most people to know. Whole villages died then, from the Plague. Half the people on the island died, and the bodies rotted in the fields because there were too few hands left to bury them. The idea that cycles are infinite and that souls are reborn in other bodies—doesn’t have any appeal after so much pain. Even though it’s true. Especially because it’s true."

Veleda began turning the chicken over the coals while her left hand still touched Mael, sending prickles up and down his arm. "The old faith could handle death in people’s minds, but not death on that scale. You know that the emperors of Rome were worshiped as gods?" Veleda continued.

Mael nodded.

"That didn’t start in Rome for a political reason," she said; "it started in Gaul, men bowing to the power that had slaughtered their kinsmen by tens of millions. And that would have happened here, people praying to death and disease because there was no other power in the land. Except that the Christians had come at the same time."

"Padraic didn’t make the Plague stop," Mael argued. "Hell, he died himself just last year. A sailor in Massilia told me that when I asked for news from home."

"But death doesn’t matter to Christians," Veleda explained. "They learn that this world is only a doorway to the real existence in their heaven. I don’t know where that heaven is or what it is—but people don’t need truth. They need a way out of a charnel house, and that Padraic and his teachings promised them."

Mael swore in frustration. He prodded at the coals to scatter fat that had dripped and flared up. The sky above them was growing dim as the sun set making the orange flames brighter. "You mean their god Christ is false," Mael said flatly.

"No." Frowning again, Mael looked up at Veleda. "No," she repeated, "I don’t mean that at all. Padraic’s truth wasn’t my truth, but he had a power. His vision was beyond that of all but a few of the men who have ever lived. Even the little man here, Diarmid . . . Mad? Of course. But he has a window to truth of a sort. He knew me for what I am, though his twisted mind put twisted labels on what he saw.

"So I won’t say their Christ is false. But sometimes I wonder at minds that can take comfort in a truth of death and torture and misery in this world."

Mael chuckled grimly. He shifted his seat a little so that he could lean back against the pine tree beside which they sheltered. "I always wanted to come home," he said. "Oh, I knew I didn’t dare, but . . . I was looking for an excuse like this one that Arthur offered me. But now that I’ve seen Ireland again, I—well, I’ll be glad enough to leave it to its Christians."

Copyright 1998 by David Drake

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