The dragon ships took the little sailing vessel by surprise, sweeping like monstrous sea creatures from the thick fog to strike their prey. Their long, sleek hulls slid up on either side of it, trapping it between. Their serpentine figureheads, eyes baleful, teeth bared in ferocious snarls, loomed high above its tiny deck.
From behind bulwarks lined with brightly painted shields, warriors leapt across onto their victim, shrieking their battle cries. They were burly men clad in coats of mail and pointed, iron caps. Some carried massive broadswords. Others wielded axes with wide, curved blades.
On the deck of the entrapped ship, a much smaller company of warriors prepared to challenge them. These men were taller, but more lean of build. They were elegantly dressed in fine cloaks of bright-dyed wool and silken tunics edged in golden trim. They were helmetless, sporting long and elaborately dressed hair. They set themselves to fight with slim-bladed swords and slender javelins as their attackers swarmed upon them from two sides.
The boarding warriors struck with ferocity. But, amazingly the small band of defenders was not overwhelmed. For all their delicate look, they fought with skill and savagery, falling back into a tight ring and holding their snarling foes at bay. Bodies began to form a mound about them. Hot blood, steaming in the coolness of the fog, poured across the deck.
Then a new figure appeared amongst the attackers. A wide, powerfully formed man, he pushed through his warriors, towering nearly a head above them. But it was his dress that made his aspect the most terrible.
His body was clothed in shimmering coat and trousers of silver mail. His head was fully hidden by a gleaming helmet of several skillfully joined pieces. A cap with golden crest covered the skull. A wide, flaring piece guarded the back of his neck. Hinged side-flaps shielded cheeks, ears, and jaws. The face itself was protected by a mask that had fierce human features. Above a stern mouth curled a mustache extravagantly worked in gold, while a long, sharp jut of nose ran upward to meet arching eyebrows crafted in bronze. Beneath these brows were the dark caverns of eyeholes. From these shone glinting eyes that seemed like polished iron.
With no hesitation, he drove into the knot of defenders alone, sweeping around him with a great war ax. Its haft was the thickness of a man’s forearm, its blade a broad fan of iron, wider than a man’s waist at its cutting edge.
He slashed down the first to face him with a single, sweeping cut and pressed on into the others. One of his adversaries wheeled to strike at him as he passed, swinging down a sword in a hard blow against his exposed shoulder. The blade hit the mail, then turned and slid away as if it had struck solid iron. It left no mark. The astonished warrior was still staring at the useless weapon in his hand when the ax swept back to slash away his head.
The other defenders were helpless against this force. Their formation was ripped open. The rest of their foes rushed in to surround them, and they had no more chance to fight.
They expected to be killed. Instead they were only disarmed, their hands bound behind them. Muscular warriors lifted them and slung them across to their fellows in the larger of the two dragon ships. They were herded together in an open spot in the center of the wide deck. Here the helmeted giant moved out from his warriors to stand before them.
He handed his gore-clotted ax to a nearby warrior. With great care he pulled huge, mailed gloves from his massive hands and passed them over too. The curious gazes of the captives were fixed upon him as he raised his hands to the helmet and slowly, slowly lifted it from his head.
The features he revealed were swarthy and crudely handsome, with wide mouth, broad nostrils, and a strong chin, deeply cleft. Cheekbones were prominent and eyes wideset beneath heavy, dark brows. A broad forehead was emphasized by shiny, black hair cut short and combed straight back over a large, high-domed head.
He tossed the helmet to the waiting man and stepped closer to the prisoners. His expression was one of arrogance, of command, of ruthlessness. The cold eyes moved from man to man, their sharp gaze probing, evaluating each.
At one man they paused. Clearly this warrior was older than the rest, his spare face marked by lines about the eyes and mouth, gray strands salting his dark blond hair. The mailed giant studied him for a time, then nodded, a smile tugging up just the corners of his mouth.
"Very good," he announced in a slow, deep voice of satisfaction. "You are what I have sought."
The older prisoner strode forward to confront his captor boldly, his tones angry and indignant.
"You pirates must be mad! It’s a great mistake you’ve made in stopping us." He drew himself up proudly. "I am an emissary of the high king of Ireland, returning from a mission to Alban!"
"I know very well who you are, Glas MacDremen," the other said softly but quite distinctly. Each word was savored as if he enjoyed the dramatic sound of his own voice. "It is precisely for that reason we have followed you since you left Alban. We were waiting for just such a chance as this fog to come upon you by surprise. You see... " he smiled again, "... I wanted you alive!"
MacDremen’s anger changed to astonishment at these words.
"Alive?" he repeated. "Why? For ransom?"
The armored giant gave a low chuckle of amusement. "No, my friend. What I seek is very much greater than that. It is for the conquering of Ireland that I need your help."
Now it was Glas who laughed, but scoffingly. "Conquer Ireland! Now I’m certain you’re mad. What, you and this lot of brigands?"
The man before him abruptly ceased to smile. The mouth drew taut and cruel. The voice took on a chilling note.
"I have forged an army of the finest warriors from all the lands of the world," he said, lifting a hand and clenching it into a massive fist. "Already we have conquered more territories than could be filled by a score of your Irelands."
"By the gods!" one of the younger captives exclaimed in a voice that trembled with his sudden dread. "He must be Daire Donn!"
This seemed to please the tall man. Once more the smile returned.
"Well! I am pleased to discover that my fame has already spread so far! Yes, my friend, I am Daire Donn, High King of the Great World!"
Glas remained unimpressed.
"That is a title you have given to yourself," he said reprovingly. "You are the ruler of no lands. You have taken them only to plunder and destroy. You and your band are nothing more than common raiders!"
"And you think yourself better?" Donn hammered out, his voice rising nearly to a shout. "You, with your ancient lineage and your fine manners and your rich dress?"
He leaned down close to Glas, the muscles of his face so tense he seemed almost to vibrate with barely controlled rage.
"Well, I have ancestors too," he went on, now in a throaty rasp, "far more ancient than your own, and with a heritage so great you could not begin to conceive of it." He lifted a hand to lie heavily upon the shoulder of Glas. His voice grew more deliberate, more menacing. "So, hear me, my friend: I have long waited to take Ireland, and I mean to do so. I will allow nothing to hinder my success. My invasion will be a complete surprise to your countrymen. But, for it to be so, I must have a place where my warriors can land safely and unknown. It would take a man who has traveled widely, who knows his land well, to tell me of such a place. That man, Glas MacDremen, is you."
Undaunted by the big man’s intimidating manner, Glas angrily pushed away the hand.
"Do you really expect me to help you invade my own land? You can’t believe me such a fool!"
"Not a fool, Emissary," Donn said with earnestness, "but perhaps a man of some humanity. I think that there is a way you might be persuaded to help." He turned toward the warriors behind him, calling out, "Caisel! Come forward!"
A man moved out from the others, gliding toward Donn with a serpentine suppleness. He had a lean and wiry build, like that of a ferret, with a long body and very short limbs. His face, too, was more a ferret’s than a man’s. Tiny, reddish eyes were set close to a long, pointed nose. He was nearly hairless, save for a matted fringe about the top of a peaked, bony skull. His mouth was tiny, bowed, open in an avaricious leer that showed small, jagged, and very yellow teeth.
Unlike the others, he wore no helmet or chain mail. His only armament was a small, round shield upon his left arm. It was of a dull gray metal, and was unadorned except for a knob protruding from the center of its front. Set in the knob’s end was what appeared to be a gem of blue-white with a smooth and rounded surface.
He stepped up beside Donn, drawing himself to stiff attention.
"Yes, my king?" he asked in a brisk, eager tone. "I am ready to serve you!"
Donn looked back to Glas again.
"This man is Caisel," he explained, "a chieftain of the Lochlann warriors in my army."
Caisel gave a short, sharp bow in acknowledgment.
"He is one of my most loyal and most valuable captains," Donn went on. "Perhaps his greatest value you will see for yourself." He turned to his captain. "Caisel, you know what must be done to convince our emissary to change his mind. Would you show him what I mean?"
"A pleasure, my king," the man said. His tiny mouth stretched in a smile of anticipation as he looked over the captives. He was like a starving man seeing a banquet. "Which one, my king?"
Donn eyed the men of Ireland evaluatingly. His gaze came to rest on a fair and youthful-looking warrior with a braid of flame-red hair.
"That one," he said, pointing.
"What do you mean to do?" Glas demanded in alarm.
The chieftain stepped toward the lad and lifted his small shield. Caisel’s right hand tightened on a metal grip in its hollow. A hinged lever set into it was depressed. As it clicked closed, the blue-white stone leapt suddenly to life. A light rose within it and glowed out coldly, like sun reflecting from the ice. In an instant the glow rose to a blinding intensity. Then a beam of white light shot outward from it, streaking across the deck to explode against the young man’s chest.
The bolt came so swiftly that the youth had not even time to scream. He was only able to open his mouth before the light burst against him like a jet of water. It spread and enveloping him, playing over his body in waves. He writhed as the strange energy wrapped him. It flickered across his flesh, making a halo about him. It seemed to deflate him, sucking the essence, the substance, the very life, from him. He grew wasted, his skin withering, limbs shriveling away. The vitality in his eyes was replaced by the cold glow of the blue-white light.
Then, abruptly, the light vanished. Released from its grip, his lifeless body crumpled to the deck, a wasted pile of sagging skin and bones and clothing, no longer even recognizable as a man. The air was scented with the pungent odor of decay and also with that of electricity, as before a thunderstorm on a warm fall day.
Despite their courage, the captives were unable to conceal their terror. Even Glas, taken off guard by this sudden, horrible destruction, stared in open shock.
The killer pivoted smartly back toward his king, beaming in delight at his act.
"Thank you, Caisel," Donn told him, then looked to Glas. "As you see, Emissary, it is not pleasant and, I assure you, it is as painful as it looks. The fate of this poor lad will be that of all the others, one-by-one, unless you choose to aid us."
The older man had now recovered himself. He faced the mailed warrior with an expression of determination.
"I have never seen greater cruelty or greater lack of a warrior’s honor in any man," he told Donn icily. "Nothing-no torture you could inflict on these brave men of Ireland or on me-could bring me to help such a monster as yourself enter our country."
"You sound very noble," Donn answered lightly. "But we’ll see how long nobility lasts when your warriors are pleading with you for their lives." He lifted a hand to signal his captain. "Caisel, you may go on."
Again Caisel stepped forward, the shield slowly rising. The captives stiffened, awaiting the beam. The captain’s hand began to tighten on the grip.
But, before the weapon could be fired again, there was an interruption.
The sounds of a struggle arose upon the captured Irish ship. The attention of all aboard Donn’s vessel went toward it. Soon, a group of the king’s mail-clad warriors appeared at the smaller ship’s side, two of them carrying a madly struggling figure between them.
It was a very small, very slim figure in contrast to their bulk, yet they still seemed barely able to keep a grip upon it. With great difficulty they got their burden across the bulwarks into Donn’s ship and carried it to the waiting king.
As they approached, the figure was seen to be that of a young woman. She was dressed in an elaborately embroidered gown of silk that clung to her, revealing a lithe and slender form. A thick mane of red-brown hair, shaken from its braiding by her struggles, swung wildly about her.
"Look... what we discovered... below decks... my King," one of the warriors got out, finding it difficult to hold on to her and speak at the same time. "We was searchin’ for goods and, we found her hidden there. A real she-wolf she is!"
Finally exhausted by her hard fight, she now ceased struggling and hung limply, panting, between the men. Donn approached her. The rust-colored hair was thrown forward across her face, forming a heavy screen that hid her features. He slipped his huge hand beneath her chin and lifted her head. The hair fell aside, revealing a youthful face.
It was boldly featured, more boyish than feminine, with strong jaw and long, straight nose. Not a beautiful face, but clean-lined and definitely pleasing, even twisted as it now was by anger.
Large eyes of a warm brown color lifted to fix on the man who stood over her. No fear showed in them, only the smoldering fire of her rage.
"Animal!" she spat out, and shook her head violently to force his hand away. "Don’t you be touching me!"
But Donn kept his grip upon her, voicing a deep roll of laughter.
"Well, a she-wolf she certainly is!" he agreed. "But a comely enough one."
His powerful hand tightened on her chin, holding her head immobile in its vise while he examined her face more closely. As he did, his smile slipped away, replaced by a frown of concentration.
"This face is more than comely," he at last said thoughtfully. "It is... familiar!" He turned his head and cast his gaze toward Glas. "It is much like your own, Emissary!"
The face of Glas had been frozen in an expressionless mask since the girl had been brought aboard. At these ominous words, however, there came a flicker of fear.
"Ah. I see I’m right," said Donn with satisfaction. "You meant to hide her. You mean to protect her now. She is of your own blood. Your daughter?"
Glas did not reply, returning only a stony glare.
"Never mind," Donn said easily. "I see that I am right." He signaled to her guards. "Put the girl down!"
The warriors lowered her onto the deck. She pulled away from them and stood stiffly, proudly, sweeping a contemptuous eye about at her captors.
Donn moved back across the deck, stopping close to Caisel.
"She will be next," he told the chieftain flatly.
Caisel stepped toward her. But so did Glas.
"Wait!" he said.
Donn fixed him with a hard look.
"You have decided to help me, then?" he demanded sharply. "Speak quickly!"
The eyes of the emissary went from Donn to the face of the girl. She grasped quickly what was happening.
"No, Father!’ she protested. "Don’t give in to them! It doesn’t matter what they do to me!"
"I’m sorry, Cuillen, he told her sadly. His proud spirit seemed broken. His body sagged in defeat. "I cannot see my only child die." He turned to Donn. "All right. I will show you where your warriors may land."
Donn nodded, his wide mouth stretching this time into a broad grin.
"I thought that might be so," he said, his voice thick with the sweet pleasure of his victory
The gloating tone reawakened a certain defiance to Glas. He pulled himself back erect, his own voice taking on a challenging note.
"Don’t be thinking that my showing you a place to invade my country will make you its conqueror! You will still have to defeat the Fianna to become that!"
"The Fianna?" Donn repeated in puzzlement. "And who are they?"
"I have heard something of them, my King," offered Caisel. "They are bands of professional warriors. For a fee they have pledged to fight the battles of the lords of Ireland."
"Mercenaries?" Donn said with scorn. "They are the instruments of a people grown too soft and too weak to defend themselves. Ireland is truly ripe. It needs only my hand to pluck it!"
"You are wrong!" Glas countered heatedly. it is your match that you’ll be facing now, Donn. In all the world there are no better fighting men that those of the Fianna, and there is no fiercer leader than their captain, Finn MacCumhal!"