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Two dozen pairs of feet flew silently over the dry packed earth near the open gate to the outpost. These warriors were well versed in the ways of clandestine warfare. Blades drawn, points held high, they took up their positions and waited for a word from their leader.
But Goll Mac Morna was in no hurry to begin the fight. He leaned against the unguarded gatepost and smiled a secret smile, savoring the scent of victory on the breeze.
Within the enemy's wooden enclosure no one stirred. All were sleeping soundly, even the sentries whose honor would surely be questioned if they managed to live through this night. In the distance a dog barked but the howling was far away. Too far away to wake anyone or betray the presence of the raiders.
As they waited, each of the intruders inwardly prepared for the conflict. Sweaty hands fumbled sword hilts. Nervous bowmen whispered love poems to their bows. One or two shared a private joke, laughing under their breath to relieve the nervous tension.
Suddenly clouds above the little outpost parted and the scene was drenched in the gorgeous silver glow of the full moon. The war-leader sighed, watching the changing hues of the night.
Deep blue-black turned to shining gray as the bright orb of evening cast her eye upon the scene. Goll glanced across at one woman who waited with the other warriors.
She was neither tall nor particularly striking. Her dark hair was matted and filthy from months living rough in the open. But she never failed to rouse intense emotions in him. And that was a miracle considering what a cold-hearted, ruthless, uncompromising blackguard he was generally considered to be.
While the war-leader indulged his lustful thoughts there was a sound from one of the timber houses. A figure emerged into the night, stumbling as she sang a bawdy verse under her breath.
The old woman was withered by the seasons. She was no longer capable of bearing a blade in anger, but Goll decided this old hag should be the first to fall. He cupped his hands to his mouth and produced a call that perfectly mimicked the cry of an owl.
His warriors gripped their blades a little tighter or kissed an arrow as they made ready to leap out into the attack. But a strange thing happened just at that instant. The old woman was no more than halfway across the broad courtyard when she stopped abruptly and sniffed at the wind.
The effects of whatever she'd been drinking suddenly lifted from her head and she stood up straight. She scanned the shadows carefully with squinted eyes that widened with each intake of breath as she tried to steady herself.
Again Goll smiled. He could almost hear her heart racing. So he made the owl call again, withdrawing the order to strike. He'd always reckoned there was a certain enjoyment to be had in observing fear take hold of an enemy.
Instances like these were pure gold to him. They had become the most satisfying moments in his life. And he was the sort of man who never let an opportunity for satisfaction slip by.
The female warrior stared across at Goll. She silently begged him with her eyes to give the command, but the war-leader held up his hand, signalling he preferred to tarry a little longer. He took careful note of her eagerness. And he reminded himself that Mughain was sometimes a little too keen for blood. She would have to be taught patience.
When Goll did not give assent to her plea, the warrior woman drew her bow anyway, the arrow point aimed at her target's heart. In a flash she was ready to loose the deadly missile. The war-leader noticed her readiness but he still held back.
Then the old stranger sniffed the breeze again, perhaps sensing Goll's malice in the air. The hag faltered for a second. Her chilled feet tripped on the uneven ground. Then her eyes rolled wildly.
She was in the grip of panic. So Goll chose that moment to step out of the shadows. The old woman saw him immediately and drew in a deep breath to cry out.
But whether it was shock or the effects of all the mead she'd consumed, the call never passed her lips. With both hands clasped tight to her chest she wheezed loudly and turned pale gray. And then, exhaling a muffled groan, the hag fell forward on her face, as cold as death and just as still.
Mac Morna could hardly restrain himself from laughing. The first of his enemies to fall in this fight had died of fear. He thought to himself that if only he could harness the power of fright he could conquer the Kingdom of the North with no more than the twenty or so warriors he had along with him now.
With that thought still sitting sweetly in his mind he spoke the first words he'd uttered since they'd left their encampment at dusk.
"Show no mercy."
He didn't need to raise his voice in the confined courtyard. He spoke with no more force than if he were having a casual conversation, but his words cut through the band of warriors like an icy wind. Immediately the raiders were skirting around the inner walls of the fort to take up new positions at the door to each house.
Goll yawned as he strode openly across the courtyard, daring the defenders to come out and strike him down. But no one stirred. All was silent. The brisk autumn air was chill but not unpleasant. All seemed at peace in the tranquil moonlit night.
No more than ten paces from the door of the main building an instinct struck the war-leader. Whatever it was that came to his mind it made him spin around on his heel to face the seemingly lifeless body of the old woman.
The hag was gone. Before he knew what was happening a cry rose up and a ghostly shadow flitted across his vision to the left.
"Arise!" the old woman screamed. "The enemy is upon us!"
Goll pointed his sword in the direction of the voice but the woman had melted into the shadows again. As he grunted in frustration the moon was being swallowed up behind a cloud. The war-leader glanced up at the sky just long enough to be momentarily blinded as the whole scene plunged into impenetrable darkness.
He heard a shuffle nearby, then the answered calls of the old woman's comrades. Goll swung his blade wildly at the sound of rushing footsteps, but the sword found no mark. In the next instant a torch was thrust out through the door of the main building and three men emerged.
Goll sensed danger behind him and stabbed his sword out with a low growled challenge. A brief orange flash of steel reflected brightly in the torchlight was all the answer he received. But he'd chanced his arm and the old woman had slipped under his guard.
Sharp stinging pain stabbed at his forearm and his blade dropped with a dull thud to the ground. Just for an instant Goll thought all his ambitions would surely end here in this little outpost at the hands of a goat-keeper's grandmother.
In determination he focused his eyesight as he spun around once more on his heel. Then a familiar sound met his ears. It was the whispered hush of an arrow shaft cutting through the air. The war-leader drew a sharp breath, waiting for the painful point to bury itself deep in his chest.
But it never came.
Beside him a body slumped down with a groan and a knife fell to the earth. Goll shuddered as he always did when he witnessed a death. It was not a shudder of fright. It was an expression of exhilaration. In the next breath the warrior-woman called Mughain was at her war-leader's side.
"Are you hurt?"
"No," Goll grunted indignantly, gingerly touching his arm where he'd been cut.
"Didn't you see her?"
"No!" he bellowed. Then the war-leader softened a little, realizing he owed this woman a debt of gratitude. "Thank you, Mughain," he stated coldly as he put a firm hand on her shoulder.
She smiled with admiration and touched his fingers lightly. Then she drew another arrow from her quiver, put it to the bowstring and went to help her comrades.
Goll Mac Morna retrieved his sword and held it for a few moments before his face. To his surprise he noticed his hand was shaking. So he quickly passed the blade into his left. But the shivering was just as noticeable.
"Fool!" he berated himself under his breath. "You're becoming too arrogant. You very nearly lost your life to an old woman."
The courtyard echoed now with the exultant shouts of warriors going about their bloody work. A few of the enemy emerged from their houses but were quickly cut down before they had a chance to offer any resistance. By the time Goll recovered his breath, the first of the buildings was already ablaze. He turned to the body of the old woman lying on the cobbles nearby and gave the lifeless form a heavy, well-aimed kick.
He knew the gesture was futile but it was also very satisfying and strangely seemed to ease the pain in his arm a little. That done the war-leader raised his voice above the din.
"Death to the Gaedhals of the north!" he bellowed. "Death to the followers of éremon!"
Dark shapes flitted between the burning houses, echoing his call. The nightmare scene was lit brightly now by orange flames and glowing red smoke. Black forms sprawled all about where they had fallen in defense of their homes. The fight was already finished, with only a few drops of southern blood spilled in the struggle.
Though victory had been swift, the war-leader curled his lip in contempt. This was not warfare. This was raiding. It was a cowardly and dishonorable way to face the enemy. And he'd had enough of it.
"I am Goll, Champion of King Eber Finn of the South!" he shrieked, as if this simple declaration might somehow restore his honor.
Then he swore to himself. "A curse on my king for sending me off to do this dirty work. Eber is not fit to rule. But bide your time, war-leader. The day will dawn when you will rule this land both north and south."
The words had no sooner left his mouth when Mughain dragged a captive before him. She threw the boy on the ground and he lay there groveling at the champion's feet.
"Will this one suit your purpose?" she asked.
Goll nodded. "He seems harmless enough."
"My lord," the lad begged, "have mercy. I'm not a warrior. I'm a farmer's son. I was sent here by my family to help tend the livestock for this outpost. I'm not a fighter."
"Have no fear," the war-leader replied in an uncharacteristically soothing tone. "You'll not be harmed. I have other plans for you."
"You don't really mean to let him go, do you?" Mughain gasped in disbelief. "He'll run straight to éremon with the news of this raid. Then we'll have all the Fian of the North on our backs."
"And about time we brought this war out into the open," Goll answered sharply. "I'm tired of sneaking around in the shadows, striking here and there like a ghostly visitor. I'm a warrior. I seek a fair fight."
"But can we hope to defeat all the assembled warriors of the north alone?"
Goll turned to the boy. "Remember all you see here tonight. I want you to report every detail to your king. Do you know my name?"
"Goll Mac Morna," the lad stuttered.
"That's right," the war-leader smiled. "In days to come you'll look back and recall how I spared your life so that you could bear news of my deeds to every settlement in the north. I'll be High-King of the Gaedhals one day. Do you understand?"
The boy nodded, frightened now by the determined light in the warrior's eyes.
"We'll be outnumbered," Mughain pressed. "éremon will hunt us down and slay us one by one."
"We'll not be beaten," Goll assured her without taking his eyes from the boy.
The war-leader sheathed his sword and faced the woman. "Are we finished here?"
Goll turned back to the boy. "Do you know the woods at the far end of this valley? Where the stream is broached by a roughly built ford?"
"There is a round hill there that was once a Danaan fort," the frightened youth replied meekly.
"Tell King éremon I'll wait for him there. I wish to speak with the King of the North. Make sure he understands that he is to bring only two dozen warriors. We'll meet on the top of that hill above the ford in three days time."
The lad gave a hesitant nod and the war-leader put a hand on his head. "May the gods who bless you bless your task and guide you safely to King éremon."
Goll lifted his head, dropped his hand to his side and spoke one last command to his warriors. "Take him to the river and see that he is safely on his way."
Copyright © 2001 by Caiseal Mór