"I will not allow you to leave Tara before the Samhain festival, Cumhal!" threatened Conn, high king of all Ireland.
"Thereís little you can do to stop my going!" came the heated reply from Cumhal MacTredhorn.
The angry voices echoed clearly, hollowly in the vast hall of Tara, rebounding from the circle of timber walls and the planks of the high peaked roof. Their violence drew the startled gazes of the servants working in the room to the two men arguing by the main doors.
Conn was of truly aristocratic bearing, lean and long-featured and fair, with ice-blue eyes and blond hair curling loosely about his shoulders. He glowed richly with the gold ornament of his station. His four folded dark red cloak was golden fringed. The enameled brooch that fastened it was of red gold, as were the torc about his neck and the wide bands at his elbows.
He was a wily and ruthless leader who had earned the title of Hundred Fighter in as many savage battles, but he had met his match in the man who faced him now.
Cumhal was both larger and darker than the king. His body was more massive and his features more broadly drawn. His eyes were the deep brown of Irelandís rich sod, and the long hair plaited loosely at his back was coarse and black. In dress he seemed only a common warrior, unornamented save for a simple iron pin to fasten his woolen cloak. In truth he was the captain of the famed Fianna. These were bands of professional soldiers tasked with serving and defending Irelandís ruling classes.
"It is unknown for any Fian chieftain to refuse to attend me here," Conn pointed out with towering indignation.
"Then I will be the first," Cumhal told him, unmoved by his kingís ire. "My wife will be giving birth to our first child very soon. No power-no power at all-will keep me from being with her."
With these words, he turned and strode through the open doorway, out of the hall.
Astonished by this insolence, Conn stood frozen a moment, staring after him. Then he noticed the servantsí curious eyes upon him. He cast a chilling glare about at them, then started in pursuit of the departing warrior.
He followed Cumhal across an earthen causeway that bridged a defensive ditch. It linked the hall to an encircling outer mound of earth. A steep slope took them down to the level of the fortress yard. This was an area of several acres in extent, enclosed by a high palisade of thick logs. It was now bustling with the inhabitants of Tara, busily making preparations for the Feast of Samhain.
This was a yearly six-day festival to mark the end of the growing season. It brought chieftains, territorial kings, and learned men from all over Ireland to the great fortress. One party of mounted warriors was even then riding in through the outer wallís main gates. They were closely bundled against the chill air of the fall day, the brightly checked cloaks of their clan making a brilliant flash of color against the brown countryside and the iron sky behind them.
As Cumhal started away from the base of the hallís mound, Conn came up close behind him.
"How dare you defy me before my own people!" the high king said in outrage. "You have forgotten yourself, MacTredhorn!"
The leader of the Fianna stopped and swung toward Conn. His expression was hard and his voice chill.
"Iíve forgotten nothing, High-King," he said, spitting out the title with contempt. "Every day Iím reminded that you are the Great Master of Ireland. But I know that itís the blood of my warriors thatís soaked into the sod. For all these years weíve fought to keep your power for you. And I never forget that, for all weíve done, weíre still treated with less kindness than you show your cattle and your hounds. Well, that time is ending!"
"Are you mad, speaking that way to me?" Conn asked in disbelief. "You are bound to me by the oaths of the Fianna. You must serve me!"
"Iíll serve you, as I should. But Iíll have everything thatís owed the Fian bands, and Iíll have respect for us as well. That, or you and your rich, pampered lords will find yourselves enforcing your laws and fighting your battles yourselves."
Conn choked off his angry reply. He knew well enough that no fighting force in Ireland, or possibly the world, could match the strength and courage of the Fianna warriors. And he knew that, for all their oaths of service to the king, their true loyalty lay with their own captain. He could not risk pushing Cumhal to open rebellion. By an effort of will, he remained silent.
"Now, I am leaving for Almhuin as soon as my warriors are ready," Cumhal went on, as if he were a teacher instructing a small child. "I mean to be there before my wife gives birth. And there I mean to stay for the winter. When Beltaine comes, Iíll return here and be at your service, as is proper. Iíll not return before. So, my high king, a fine Samhain to you."
Once more he turned away, crossing the yard to the stable buildings with a confident swagger. This time, Conn let him go, staring after him in hatred and frustration. Many more of his subjects about the yard had witnessed this second humiliation. He wanted no third confrontation with the Fian captain.
Casting a burning gaze about him at people who hastily averted their eyes, he started back toward the hall, shaking with barely suppressed rage that had no outlet. As he came through the gate onto the causeway, he saw with some surprise that someone awaited him at the hallís threshold. It was Tadg, his courtís highest-ranking member of the druidic class, that learned body of men who served as advisors to Irelandís rulers. Known for their great wisdom and their proficiency in the magic arts, they were very powerful figures in the Irish hierarchy and very dangerous ones as well.
Like the high king, Tadg was a slender man, but his features were finer, almost to the point of frailty. He had a delicate beauty, like that of a winterís new frost, and he had its chill quality as well. His eyes were large, bright silver gray, his nose slender, his mouth small and finely shaped. His high-domed head was covered wispily with white-gold hair. His thin body was draped in the gleaming white robe that marked his status in the sacred order.
"Where did you come from, Tadg?" Conn asked, somewhat surprised by his unexpected appearance. "I didnít know you had arrived."
"Iíve been here for some time, High King," Tadg answered, his voice a soft, clear melodic sound. "Iíve watched your confrontation with Cumhal. Now do you agree with me?"
"Yes!" Conn tersely replied. "Cumhal has gone too far. Heís become dangerous."
Tadgís lips parted in a sweet, engaging smile. "Yes, High King. And he must be destroyed."
The stark pronouncement caused Conn to glance about him quickly. But there was no one nearby to hear them. He moved closer to the druid.
"How can I act against him?" he asked in a hoarse whisper. "It would bring the chieftains of all the Fians against me!"
"Ah, but youíve no need to worry," Tadg assured him in a soothing way. "The answer to your problem is arriving now. Look." He lifted a slim hand to point down into the yard. Conn turned to see another mounted band of warriors, in the green and yellow plaid of the Morna clan, riding in through the gates.
"It is others of the Fianna clans who will deal with Cumhal for you," said the druid. "All you must do is see that tonight, after the festival is under way, young Aed MacMorna is sent secretly to me."
Conn eyed the druid closely, seeing in that guileless, gently smiling face the real intent behind his words. He nodded, and then he quickly walked away.
After that eveningís feast, Aed MacMorna and his brother Conan slipped from the fortress into the night. They moved down the hillside toward the sacred enclosure of the druids.
Both of them were dark, thick-bodied men, their features similar enough to prove their blood relationship. But Aed MacMoma was the more pleasant looking of the two, his features coarsely handsome, his form solid, powerful, and moving with an aggressive sureness. His brother Conan was larger, inclining toward stoutness, his movements more ponderous. His round, soft face was marked by an enormous, spiky mustache that seemed to be vainly trying to make up for his balding head.
A chill, nagging wind tugged at their cloaks as it worried the fall-browned grasses of the surrounding fields. Aed strode along briskly, looking neither right nor left, intent only on his goal. Conan moved with an obvious reluctance. He cast nervous looks about at the dark countryside and gazed back often and longingly at the fortress fading away above them. He was yearning for the comforts of the hall, with its blazing fire, and for the companionship of his clansmen, now earnestly engaged in their late-night carousing. He had no wish at all to be out in the chill and blackness of a Samhain night, and especially on such a strange mission as this.
"Are you certain we have to go there, Aed?" he asked in a growl.
His brother cast an exasperated glance at him. "Conan, Iíll not warn you again. If the high king commands us, thereís nothing for us to do but obey!"
"I donít like this. Not at all, I donít!" Conan mumbled on. "Him pulling us away from the feasting like that and sending us out here. As if he didnít want the others to know of it. And this high-druid of his. Thereís a very unpleasant sort. Nasty sorts of powers Iíve heard he has. They even say heís of the Sidhe blood himself! That he... "
"I know the rumors as well as you," Aed said sharply. "Now will you please close your mouth and keep up with me?"
They reached the bottom of the hillside and skirted a small copse of trees. The moon made a sudden appearance, the clasped hands of the clouds opening, pulling back, to release it momentarily. Its stark white light turned the sky gray, throwing the bare tree branches into sharp relief, revealing the wood as a grove of oaks, the sacred trees of the druids.
Their upper branches thrust like skeletal fingers toward the sky. The shifting breezes made them seem to clutch desperately for the sailing moon before it could drift into the sheltering banks of clouds again. And the wind made the trees wail mournfully like a discordant chorus of Bean-Sidhe keening for some heroís death, accompanied by the dry rustling of the few dead leaves still clinging stubbornly to their limbs.
Conan hurried by them in his brotherís wake, careful not to look into the blackness lurking deep within the grove. Past the oak trees, the two men reached the druidís sacred enclosure. It was another stockade of upright logs. But, unlike the fortress above, this one formed a long, narrow rectangle.
The walls were solid save at one end, where a single, narrow opening allowed entrance. Conan stopped some distance from it, staring at it with uncertainty. Aed paused by the opening and looked back at his brother, his face taut with impatience.
"Are you coming, then? Heíll be waiting for us."
"Yes. All right," the other said without enthusiasm. He moved on, following Aed into the enclosure, out of the windís punishing blast.
The interior was one long open space. Along either side, just within the wall, was set a row of stakes. Each was topped by a human skull that gleamed in the moonlight. Down this macabre avenue they passed, toward a small roofed structure at the farthest end.
Before this but there burned a fire in a circle of stones. The white smoke of it streamed upward until it reached above the sheltering walls. Here the harsh winds snatched it abruptly away. To one side of this fire yawned the black mouth of the druidís sacrificial pit. Behind the fire, just before the doorway of the hut, Tadg sat alone on a mound of piled furs.
His eyes remained closed until the two men stopped across the fire from him. Then they opened, and the gray eyes fixed on them. A gust of wind flicked down into the enclosure, whipping the smoke into a sudden wreath, striking cold through the visitors. Conan shivered.
"So, youíve come," Tadg said, the soft voice rustling like the night breeze through the dry leaves of the fall trees.
"Yes," Aed replied. "As the high king wished."
"And no one else knows of your coming here?"
"The way they were when we left them, theyíll not even know where they are come morning," Conan said, essaying a smile in an attempt to counter his nervousness.
The gray eyes shot a glance at him, its intense chill striking the smile dead at its birth. They shifted back to Aed.
"Very well. Then I can speak openly to you, MacMorna." The druidís gaze met and held Aedís. "Itís certain that you know what difficulty your high king has had with Cumhal MacTredhorn of late."
"Cumhal is leader of the Fianna," Aed replied. "It was the high king who gave him the captaincy, and we all agreed."
"Perhaps," the druid said in a meditative voice. "But the Fian bands were created to serve the will of the rulers of Ireland, not their own ends. Cumhal has taken too much power for himself!"
"He acts as he thinks he must to protect our rights," Aed responded defensively. "Heís seen we gained the pay and shelter due us for our service."
"His arrogance is too great!" Tadg said, the gentle tone sharpening with irritation. "He has challenged the authority of the high king. He has broken the Fian oath to serve.
"Then let the high king remove him," Aed suggested.
"You are no fool," Tadg retorted. "You know Conn does not dare to act. He is convinced Cumhal would defy him. It would spark open rebellion among the Fian clans. No. Cumhal must be removed another way."
"What do you mean?" Aed asked suspiciously.
"He must be killed." the druid said bluntly, his gray eyes flaring with the light of a polished blade.
"Why are you telling this to me? I am a Fian chieftain. My own loyalty is to Cumhal."
"And is this loyalty greater than the one you owe to your high king?" Tadg challenged.
"Itís a hard place youíre putting me into," the warrior protested. "Between the well-honed edges of two blades.
"Come now, Aed," Tadg cajoled, the fall chill of his voice warming like a spring breeze. "The Clanna Morna and the Clanna Baiscne have often been at odds for supremacy within the Fianna. You yourself are Cumhalís greatest rival. And you canít deny that you have long coveted the leadership for yourself."
"Heís right in that, Aed," Conan spoke up in a helpful, eager way. "You have wanted to be captain."
"Oh, Conan, please be quiet!" Aed told him impatiently. "I canít think!"
"There is nothing to think about," the druid said with finality. "It is for the good of Ireland that this must be done. The Fianna must be brought to serve the high king again, as they are pledged to do. They must have a loyal captain who will use them properly, without questioning our leaderís commands. You must challenge the Baiscne clan and win the leadership. Then the high king can proclaim you his captain rightfully."
"And just why is it that the high king isnít telling me this himself?" Aed wondered.