Chapter One - Sample
It was low tide. The dank smell of the ocean receding across the flats told them that, for the fog gripped them like a giant fist and they were powerless to move within its grasp. Their ship lay at anchor in a small estuary along the east coast of Eire. On board, the men cursed the fog, they had been long at sea and now waited impatiently for the mist to lift before they went in to shore. The ship’s master had slid them in ahead of the darkness last night only to find all the shore lights and fires estinguished by the heavy mist, forcing them to anchor off shore and wait for dawn. Through the fog, floating to them eerily over the water like a siren’s song of lament, came the sound of women keening, as if some loved one or great man had died.
When the fog lifted enough for them to see, they could make out a procession of women in black cloaks following a maiden clothed in brilliant white. Their wailing cries cut through the stillness of the morning, disturbing all aboard, seasoned warriors and rough fishermen alike.
“What is that crying and lamenting from the women?” asked Cu Chulain, who had been straining to see through the mists from his perch on the bowsprit of the ship.
“It is Samhain, the season of taxes and tribute,” answered Durst, son of Derb, who was the old master of the ship.
“Well does he know that!” laughed Ferdiad. “Where it not Samhain and him recalled home, he would still be in the arms of Aoife instead of on this stinking fishing boat.”
“Thy tongue cuts like a northman’s sword Ferdiad,” Chulain said quietly. He slid easily down the bowsprit onto the deck to face his companion.
“I meant no harm my friend,” Ferdiad answered, retreating from Cu Chulain whose eyes had suddenly grown gray, and icy cold. “But I agree, why the keening at Samhain?”
“The under- king, Ruad, is king of these isles and coasts. He must pay tribute at Samhain. It is his own daughter who will be given this season,” said Serb, his hand on his son’s shoulder. “It be a tragedy long festuring among Ruad’s people of Rechrainn, but there is little they can do.”
“They are still Conchobar’s people. Ruad can use the Ard-Ri’s power to rid them of this tribute,” Chulain said.
“Conchobar? Aye, he is their king surely, yet he demands his own taxes each year. Ruad pays him in fish, some cattle and a little silver and gold,” the old man replied.
“It’s the sea pirates that rape them each year!” cried Durst, pointing at two long ships that swung into the river’s mouth. They were single sailed, low, narrow ships with sweeping bows and sterns.
“Danes.” Derb spat over the side. “Sea pirates, led by Ingcel himself. Come to claim their tribute. Ruad pays king and pirate both, for his people are poor and no warriors walk among them.”
“Row me into shore,” demanded Cu Chulain. He buckled on his two swords and took up his blackshafted ash spear.
“What would ye do?” asked Derb, grabbing him by the arm.
“Today a warrior will walk among Ruad’s people. Then let us see what tribute Ingcel gets.”
“Have ye not had your fill of maidens Cu? Or is the hound still on the scent?” Ferdiad shook his head at Chulain’s eagerness to be away as he buckled on his own sword. “For a man betrothed to another ye act strangely. Is Emer not to your liking?”
“She is.” Chulain leaped into a small boat. “And she is my affair, not yours.”
Durst rowed the two warriors toward the strand. Ferdiad was silent, staring across the river and the sandbank at the solid land of Eire.
It was good to be back. Alba had been a learning ground for him and he had gained a name for himself among its warriors and men at arms. But his deeds, his name were but a shadow beside the great light that shone around the name Cu Chulain. The aura surrounding the youth was such that no man could stand beside him except in an ethereal manner, and Ferdiad was determined not to live like that. There were other coices beside Ulster who would honor him and champion his deeds. Some under-king would be his liege, he had sworn no fealty to Conchobar mac Nessa and was free to go where he should choose. His father might be the High King’s liegeman, but not his son.
Chulain hummed a song of the ancients, a song of the Da Derga and a great battle, of the hero Mac Cecht and his deeds. It was not half finished when they ran up on the gravel of the strand and Chulain splashed through the water.
“Go to the maiden Cu Chulain. I will present us in the name of Conchobar mac Nessa to Ruad, King of Rechrainn,” said Ferdiad, but he spoke to Chulain’s back. He was already striding across the sand toward the wailing women who stood in a circle around the maid.
Snorting in disgust, Ferdiad hurried to the rath of King Ruad, his eyes picking out the shaggy haired northern pirates that were rowing their longboats into the river. Mayhap the young hound has met his match this day, he thought as he distanced himself from the raiders.
The women quieted at Chulain’s approach. Upon seeing him, the maiden bowed low and raised beautiful hazel eyes to meet his own. As one, the women dropped to their knees about him. Dressed as he was, with his weapons and great spear, they thought him a king.
Her eyes drank in his soft, tanned leather trews, cross gartered by doeskin laces dyed a forest green, the ankle high sandles of dark calveskin that covered his feet and his tunic of deep gold cloth. He carried a small bronze embossed hide shield on his back and a cloak of green wool hung from his shoulders. As he removed his helm of silver upon nearing them his fair, golden tangle of hair tumbled free to his wide shoulders. Across his lean waist was a leather belt that held two swords and another silver belt that held his dagger and drinking horn. Never had she seen such a beautiful man.
His gray eyes smiled at her with an amused flickering that showed flecks of blue, or green.
“Do not bow to me fair one. I am no king. Tell thy women to stand.” His hand lifted her up.
“Ye are a God then,” she said softly, her voice husky in wonder.
“Nay. No king or god. I am Setanta, called Cu Chulain. And ye?”
“I am Devorgil, daughter of Ruad, King of the Tonn Rechrainn coast and islands.”
“Then it is I who should bow to ye. Thy women lament. Has there been a death in the house of Ruad?”
“No. No one has died,” she said, shaking her soft blond hair slowly.
“Then what is thy plight? Are ye in distress?”
“I am tribute paid to men from a distant land. They are barbarians, pirates who plunder our coasts, who demand tribute, who enslave our women and young men. We are but a kingdom of fishermen and elders, we cannot fight them.”
“So the tribute is paid.”
“Every Samhain. In gold and in our catch that lies drying in the sun,” she replied, pointing to the racks of salted fish by the shore. “Among our people it has always been so. This season, we had nothing but fish to give, so I am their catch.”
“Who are these men?”
“Northmen. Danish pirates.” She pointed to the two longships that had pulled up on shore. The northmen tumbled out and started toward them. Her chin trembled, but she spoke firmly. “Remain not in the site of these barbarians. They will kill ye as easy as this,” she snapped her fingers, “and strip the clothes from thy body.”
“Ingcel himself. Worst still, his brother Brega. He is an animal! He has long since picked me for his bed and mayhaps his wife if I please him. They are both great warriors and feared pirates.”
The women drew behind Devorgil and Chulain as they watched the raiders split into two parties. The larger party strode off for the fortress of Ruad in the direction Ferdiad had taken. Three of them made their way toward Devorgil, her terrified women and Cu Chulain.
“Only three?” asked Cu Chulain.
“They are great warriors. They have no need of any others. Do not stay here! They will kill you!” Devorgil cried.
“This season they will need more than three, or else forfeit their tribute,” Chulain voice had grown cold and terribly quiet.
Devorgil gasped. The golden haired youth beside her seemed to have changed, his face was hard, his body seemed ready to burst from its clothing, his eyes were cold and focused. He pulled his helm over his head and gripped his spear, a tight grin spreading over his features like a great cat, just before it pounced to kill.
“Stay behind me with thy women. Do not fear.”
The women surrounded their mistress as the pirates came trooping across the strand. The largest of them, with a red beard and an enormous warhammer carried lightly on one shoulder stopped a few paces in front of Chulain, his men flanking him.
“Stand aside boy. We’ve come for the tribute, and I for my wife. I am Brega, great warrior of the Danes.”
“Great warrior? One who wars against fishermen and women? This season there will be no payment. The Ard Ri has decreed his people will no longer pay Northmen tribute, only him. He offers them all the protection they need.”
“This scrabble of fishermen is of no concern to Conchobar mac Nessa. We have heard no word of this,” Brega protested. He was speaking the common tongue, understood by all, whether northmen, dwarf, or men from Eire, Letha, Briton or Alba.
“It has only just been delivered to ye. I am his emissary.”
“And you are, who?”
“Cu Chulain, ward of Conchobar.”
“Ye are no army though. I see no protection from the Ard Ri here, save a boy with a man’s weapons hanging from him,” Brega growled, his gaze raking the scene. “I will take my woman, our tribute and your life if ye stand in our way.”
He pushed past Chulain and reached for Devorgil’s arm. She pulled back, shuddering in loathing and he stepped up to her, one paw descending on her shoulder and tearing her white gown.
The tip of Chulain’s spear thrust up under Brega’s chin and he let her go. Chulain stepped back, the tip forcing Brega to come with him, as he motioned the girl away.
“Now great warrior of the Danes, let us see what ye do in battle against a warrior, instead of fishermen and maids.”