Spears of Clontarf
The Word of War
"War is in the wind - the ravens are gathering."
Conn the thrall let fall a huge armload of logs before the cavernous fire-place and faced about to meet the gaze of his sombre master. Conn was tall and massively yet rangily built, with broad sloping shoulders, a mighty, hairy chest, and long heavily muscled arms. His features were in keeping with his bodily aspect - a strong stubborn jaw, low slanting forehead topped by a shock of tawny tousled hair which added to the wildness of his appearance, as did his cold blue eyes. Garments he wore none, except a loin cloth; his own wolfish ruggedness was protection enough against the weather, ordinarily. For he was a slave in an age when even the masters lived lives ferociously hard and hardening.
Now Conn faced his master, and flexing his mighty arms absently, asked: "What was it that the farers in the longship shouted to us this morning, when we were out in the fishing boat?"
"You heard them, did you not, fool?" harshly asked Wolfgar Snorri's son. "Can you not understand human speech? As the dragon-ship swept past the point, the Vikings shouted to me that there was a gathering of eagles on the east coast of that cursed Ireland - Brian Boru is moving against King Sitric of Dublin, and the word has gone to all the sea-farers to gather for the slaughter. This time the sea-kings will crush that doddering old fool and his naked kerns, once and for all. It shall be as it was in the days of Thorgils the Conqueror. Too long have the kings of Dublin borne the insolence of the western Gaels."
Conn nodded, slowly. "It was in my mind that that was the word the sea- wolves shouted, but I wished to hear it from your lips, because I am slow of comprehension sometimes."
Wolfgar Snorri's son scowled. Like the slave, the Norseman was a typical figure of his age - tall, massive, with fierce intolerant eyes and a heavy golden beard. A son of those fierce Vikings who conquered and settled in the Orkneys, he was a slayer and a plunderer, who lived like a petty king in his own steading and recognized no authority save his own. Even as he sat in the comparative safety of his own skalli- hall, he wore a pliant shirt of scale mail and was girt with a broad metal-buckled belt from which hung a long straight sword in a leather scabbard.
The thrall's eyes strayed covetously to the blade; he said: "There will be a noble splintering of spears when the Ard-righ of Erin meets the sea-kings. I should be among his weapon-men."
Wolfgar snorted in high disdain. "Your life would soon be parted from your body. The Vikings will take the heads of the Dalcassians to adorn their serpent-prows. As for you - why, you fool, Brian Boru would hang you to an oak limb were you to venture into his kingdom."
"He was wrathful when I broke the truce with Melaghlin and slew a man of Meath, it is true," admitted the big Gael frankly. "But though I was forced to flee from the land of my birth, I have no reason to love the Viking-folk. Thorwald Raven took me when I was weak from hunger and wounds - for the life of an outlaw is hard - and put this collar on my neck." The thrall touched a heavy copper ring which encircled his corded throat. "Then he sold me to you - "
"And cheated me," snarled the Norseman. "Why I have not cut the blood- eagle on your stubborn back long ago, I cannot understand."
"I've done the work of three men," answered the thrall boldly. "I have not been backward when the swords were singing. I have stood at your back and mowed down carles like wheat when you warred with your neighbors. And in return you have given me - crusts from your board, a bare earth floor to sleep upon, and deep scars in my back because I would not call you master or fight for you against my own people."
"Well, dog," growled the Norseman, angrily tugging at his golden beard, "do you want to be petted like a Saxon girl?"
"I want to be free," answered the thrall calmly. "I was not born into slavery - that's why you've never broken me. No man ever broke a kern born in the western hills. We are brothers to the eagle.
"Well, I've borne your abuse and waited because each time I was minded to take your throat between my fingers and crush out your black heart, the thought came to me that the time was not yet. If I escaped from you I would still be an outlaw. But now that the Gaels are gathering to war upon the foreigners, I see my way clearly enough. King Brian will need all the weapon-men he can muster; it is not likely he will hang me when I come to strike a blow for the clan. The time has come; I will kill you and take that sword - which was once the sword of King Murkertagh - and I will fare forth. I will go in your strongest fishing boat; it is no short voyage from Orkneyar to Erin and the sea is wild with the storms of spring, but better drown in a good effort than die under the lash of a pirate."
Wolfgar, during this speech, which the thrall had spoken as calmly as though discussing the crops or the weather, had sat gaping in dumbfounded amazement. Now he exclaimed: "You addle-witted fool! Are you yet to be taught I am not a man with whom to jest?"
"Here is no jest," answered Conn and Wolfgar suddenly read the fixed intent in the thrall's cold eyes.
"You Irish dog!" roared the Norseman, leaping in frantic haste from his bench. His sword flashed from its scabbard but in the same instant Conn, quick as a leaping tiger, snatched up a log of fire-wood and struck with all the ferocious power of his iron muscles. The crude weapon crushed Wolfgar Snorri's son's head like an egg-shell and the master of the steading fell like a slaughtered ox in a pool of his own blood.
Swiftly Conn bent and caught up the sword which had fallen from the nerveless hand; he tore off the belt that encircled the dead man's waist and buckled it about his own body. A quick glance about showed him the vast hall was empty; no one had seen the deed. Conn caught up a bear-skin at random, to serve as a cloak, and fled the skalli.
The big thrall knew his limitations; he realized that if anyone stopped him and questioned him concerning his possession of his master's sword and the blood on his hands, he could not reply with subtlety enough to allay suspicion. His only safety lay in swift flight, before the body was discovered.
Luck, so long a stranger to the giant Gael, at last favored him. No one saw him emerge from the skalli and run swiftly between the store- houses and stables, heading for the shore of the small bay on which the steading was situated. There was peace between the wolves of the Orkneys; vigilance was relaxed as the carles and their masters busied themselves at their various occupations.
Conn was beyond the cluster of log-built houses before someone spied and hailed him, in swift suspicion at his haste. When he did not stop, the carle who had hailed him shouted for his fellows and pursuit began, though they did not yet know the reason for his flight.
But his start was long; bent low in fear of arrows, he raced down the slight slope to the beach where lay the fishing boats. A single carle gaped at him stupidly as with swift strokes he stove in all but one.
"Aside, Hrut!" gasped the Gael, casting free the painter of the remaining boat and preparing to shove off. The pursuers were nearing fast.
"But you cannot put to sea now," protested the slow-witted carle. "A storm is brewing - and why do they shout at you - ? - "
He dropped like a log under the impact of Conn's left fist against his temple. Working with frantic haste the Gael pushed off and plied the oars mightily, as the yelling Orkneymen gained the beach. Arrows hissed about him and one ripped the skin on his shoulder, spattering blood. Then the rising wind caught the small sail and the tiny boat leaped like a spurred horse and went dancing swiftly across the white- capped waves.
"Aye," muttered Conn grimly, as he steered without a backward glance at his erstwhile masters who brandished their swords along the beach and howled fearful threats. "Aye - a storm is rising on Erin and red will be the spray of the gale!"
The Weregirl of Craglea
The spring gale had blown itself out. The sky smiled blue overhead and the sea lay placid as a pool, with only a few scattered bits of drift- wood along the beaches to give mute evidence of her treachery. Along the strand rode a lone horseman, his saffron cloak whipping out behind him, his yellow hair blowing about his face in the breeze. He was a young man, tall, fair and comely, and his garments and weapons were those of a chief.
And now he suddenly reined up so short that his spirited steed reared and snorted. From among the sand dunes had risen a man, tall and powerful, of wild shock-headed aspect, and naked but for a loin-cloth.
"Who are you to thus accost me?" demanded the horseman. "You who bear the sword of a chief, yet have the appearance of a masterless man, and wear the collar of a serf withal?"
"I am Conn, young sir," answered the wanderer. "Once an outlaw - once a thrall - always a man of King Brian's, whether he will or no. And I know you - you are Dunlang O'Hartigan, friend and companion-in-arms to Murrogh, son of Brian, prince of the Dalcassians."
"What do you here?"
"I came from Torka in the Orkneys in an open boat, flung down as a chip is thrown upon the tide. The gale took me in her fangs last night - by Crom, I know not why or how I am alive today! I only know that I fought the sea in the boat until the boat sank under my feet, and then fought her in her naked waves until I lost all consciousness. None could have been more surprized than I when I came to myself this dawn lying on the beach like a piece of driftwood, more dead than alive. I have lain in the sun since, trying to warm the cold tang of the sea out of my bones."
"By the saints, Conn," said Dunlang, "I like your spirit."
"I hope King Brian likes it as well," grunted the kern. "He has sworn to hang me on sight for a matter of blood-feud."
"Attach yourself to my train," answered Dunlang. "I will speak for you. King Brian has weightier matters upon his mind than a single man- killing. This very day the opposing hosts lie drawn up for the death- grip."
"Good," grunted Conn. "I feared I would not arrive in time - think you the spear-shattering will fall on the morrow?"
"Not by King Brian's will," said Dunlang. "He is loath to shed blood on Good Friday. But who knows but the heathen will come down on us?"
Conn laid a hand on Dunlang's stirrup-leather and strode beside him as the steed moved leisurely along.
"There is a notable gathering of weapon-men?"
"More than twenty thousand warriors on each side; the bay of Dublin is dark with the dragonships from the mouth of the Liffey to Edar. From the Orkneys comes Jarl Sigurd with his raven banner. From the Isle of Man comes Broder with twenty longships. From the Danelagh in England comes Prince Amlaff, son of the king of Norway, with two thousand armed men. From all lands held by the Gall, the hosts have gathered - from the Orkneys, the Shetlands, the Hebrides - from Scotland and England and Germany, as well as from Scandinavia.
"There are among them, our spies say, a thousand men armed in steel mail from crown to heel - Sigurd's men, and Broder's; these fight in a solid wedge and the Dalcassians may be hard put to break that iron wall. Yet, God willing, we shall prevail. Then among the chiefs there are, besides those I have named, Anrad, Hrafn the Red, Platt of Danemark, Thorstein and his comrade-in-arms, Asmund, and Thorwald Raven who calls himself Jarl of the Hebrides."
At that name Conn grinned savagely and fingered his copper collar.
"It is a great gathering if Sigurd and Broder come together."
"That was the doing of Gormlaith," answered Dunlang.
"Word had come to the Orkneys that Brian had divorced Kormlada," said Conn, unconsciously giving the queen her Norse name.
"Aye - and her heart is black with hate against him. Strange it is that a woman so fair of form and countenance should have the soul of a devil."
"That's God's truth, my lord. And what of her brother, Mailmora?"
"Who but he is the instigator of the whole war?" cried Dunlang angrily. "The hatred between him and Murrogh, so long smoldering, has at last burst into flame, firing the whole kingdom. Both were in the wrong; Murrogh perhaps more than Mailmora. Gormlaith goaded her brother on. I did not believe King Brian acted wisely when he gave honors to those he had once warred against. It was not well when he married Gormlaith and gave his daughter to Gormlaith's son, Sitric of Dublin. When he took Gormlaith into his palace, he took in the seeds of strife and hatred. She is a wanton; once she was the wife of Amlaff Cuaran, king of Dublin; then she was the wife of King Malachi of Meath, and he put her aside because of her wickedness."
"What of Melaghlin?" asked Conn.
"He seems to have forgotten the struggle in which Brian wrested the crown of Ireland from him," said Dunlang. "Together the two kings move against the Danes and the king of Leinster."
As they had conversed they had passed along the bare coast until they had come into a rough broken stretch of cliffs and boulders; and there they halted suddenly. On a boulder sat a girl, clad in a shimmering green garment whose pattern was so much like scales that for a bewildered instant Conn thought himself to be gazing on a mermaid come out of the deep.
"Eevin!" Dunlang swung down from his horse, tossing the reins to Conn, and advancing, took her small hands in his. "You sent for me and I have come - you have been weeping!"
Excerpted from Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures by Robert E. Howard. Copyright © 2011 by Robert E. Howard. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.