The dagger flashed downward. A sharp cry broke in a gasp. The form on the rough altar twitched convulsively and lay still. The jagged flint edge sawed at the crimsoned breast, and thin bony fingers, ...
The dagger flashed downward. A sharp cry broke in a gasp. The form
on the rough altar twitched convulsively and lay still. The jagged
flint edge sawed at the crimsoned breast, and thin bony fingers,
ghastly dyed, tore out the still-twitching heart. Under matted white
brows, sharp eyes gleamed with a ferocious intensity.
Besides the slayer, four men stood about the crude pile of stones
that formed the altar of the God of Shadows. One was of medium height,
lithely built, scantily clad, whose black hair was confined by a
narrow iron band in the center of which gleamed a single red jewel. Of
the others, two were dark like the first. But where he was lithe, they
were stocky and misshapen, with knotted limbs, and tangled hair
falling over sloping brows. His face denoted intelligence and
implacable will; theirs merely a beast-like ferocity. The fourth man
had little in common with the rest. Nearly a head taller, though his
hair was black as theirs, his skin was comparatively light and he was
gray-eyed. He eyed the proceedings with little favor.
And, in truth, Cormac of Connacht was little at ease. The Druids
of his own isle of Erin had strange dark rites of worship, but nothing
like this. Dark trees shut in this grim scene, lit by a single torch.
Through the branches moaned an eerie night-wind. Cormac was alone
among men of a strange race and he had just seen the heart of a man
ripped from his still-pulsing body. Now the ancient priest, who looked
scarcely human, was glaring at the throbbing thing. Cormac shuddered,
glancing at him who wore the jewel. Did Bran Mak Morn, king of the
Picts, believe that this white-bearded old butcher could foretell
events by scanning a bleeding human heart? The dark eyes of the king
were inscrutable. There were strange depths to the man that Cormac
could not fathom, nor any other man.
"The portents are good!" exclaimed the priest wildly, speaking
more to the two chieftains than to Bran. "Here from the pulsing heart
of a captive Roman I read--defeat for the arms of Rome! Triumph for
the sons of the heather!"
The two savages murmured beneath their breath, their fierce eyes
"Go and prepare your clans for battle," said the king, and they
lumbered away with the ape-like gait assumed by such stunted giants.
Paying no more heed to the priest who was examining the ghastly ruin
on the altar, Bran beckoned to Cormac. The Gael followed him with
alacrity. Once out of that grim grove, under the starlight, he
breathed more freely. They stood on an eminence, looking out over long
swelling undulations of gently waving heather. Near at hand a few
fires twinkled, their fewness giving scant evidence of the hordes of
tribesmen who lay close by. Beyond these were more fires and beyond
these still more, which last marked the camp of Cormac's own men,
hard-riding, hard-fighting Gaels, who were of that band which was just
beginning to get a foothold on the western coast of Caledonia--the
nucleus of what was later to become the kingdom of Dalriadia. To the
left of these, other fires gleamed.
And far away to the south were more fires--mere pinpoints of
light. But even at that distance the Pictish king and his Celtic ally
could see that these fires were laid out in regular order.
"The fires of the legions," muttered Bran. "The fires that have
lit a path around the world. The men who light those fires have
trampled the races under their iron heels. And now--we of the heather
have our backs at the wall. What will fall on the morrow?"
"Victory for us, says the priest," answered Cormac.
Bran made an impatient gesture. "Moonlight on the ocean. Wind in
the fir tops. Do you think that I put faith in such mummery? Or that I
enjoyed the butchery of a captive legionary? I must hearten my people;
it was for Gron and Bocah that I let old Gonar read the portents. The
warriors will fight better."