At Glen Ferran, where the air was lightly misted with grey fog, the king called out the name of the witch woman, but the only answer he received was the touch of the fog, like a cold dead hand upon his face. The wind moaned like old women by a graveside, then sighed like the dead replying. But many minutes passed and there was no sign anyone had heard him. Bran Coruruc wheeled his horse and made to gallop off. But just then a dark figure appeared in the fog and strode toward him.
“So Bran Coruruc himself honors this old witch,” said the dark figure in a voice that was strong yet rich with years. She stopped not far away and considered him in her strange manner. “The same Bran Coruruc who has but a single battle between himself and sovereignty over all this land.”
The king turned his horse so he could gaze on this strange woman. “I have come to have you read the fires, witch woman,” said he. “And if I am told how to win that battle with the shedding of little blood, and how I might serve the people of this land as a good and noble king, the saying will be paid for in good, pure gold.”
“Spoken with the haughty manner of all men who think the world is theirs,” said the witch, and laughed.
Morn Connacht’s hand flashed to the stallion-headed hilt at his waist and he said,
“Watch your tongue, old woman. You speak to the king here.”
“Hold your anger, good friend,” said Bran Coruruc, sharply. Morn Connacht’s hand hesitated but an instant before it slipped off the dagger’s handle.
“A wise move, good king,” said the witch woman. “And of you also, friend of the king, to obey.” She turned back to Bran Coruruc and said, “I have no advice for you or any other. “The fire shows only the future and tells what will be. And once the words written in the fire have been heard, neither you nor I can change the happenings they foretell. Do you still choose to hear them?”
“It’s a long ride to this place to go back with nothing for my pains,” said Bran Coruruc, sliding off his horse. Morn Connacht took the reins and the king followed the witch into the fog.
he led him to a place where a mound rose up in the ground, and there was an opening in it, as of a cave. The king felt it could not be big inside that cave, but when the witch had built her wizard’s fire, its flames showed neither sides nor roof to the chamber. Even with the fire it was as cold and wet in here as it was outside.
The witch sat herself down and peered into the flames. The king seated himself on the other side of the fire from her and stared just as avidly as she, but he saw only the licking tongues of the flames and the brightness of it hurt his eyes and made him look away.
When the witch spoke at last, she said, “You will win tomorrow’s battle and be king over all the tribes at last, for so the fire proclaims, Bran Coruruc. Your reign shall last beyond a score of years and though the years be not without hardship, as kings go, you shall be a better one than most, and considerate of the welfare of your people. And yet …”
The old woman stopped. It seemed to the king, as certain as it was possible to be in that cave before the flickering fire, that her face was briefly touched with strange, unfathomable emotion. But that passed as swiftly as a May breeze and left her expression blank again.
“Why do you hesitate?” asked he.
She looked up from the fire and into the face of Bran Coruruc. The flames, reflected in her eyes, burned hotly.
“I see,” she said slowly, “the most loyal of all the brave warriors of your kingdom slain by the hand of the king himself.”
“But I am the king.”
The flames gave a flicker as if touched by a wind Bran Coruruc could not feel. They died out, leaving the cave in darkness.
Bran Coruruc got to his feet. “You lie, old woman. The hand of the king slays only traitors. None loyal to my throne have anything to fear from me.”
“The flames speak truth,” came her voice from the darkness. “Your future is sealed. But the flames tell more. They tell me you will slay a man without good cause but that his loyalty will prevail.”
“I slay none but traitors,” the king repeated fiercely. “Traitors – and liars!”
His sword flashed out and pierced the old woman to the heart, so that she gave but a single sigh. He heard her body fall to the dirt floor of the cave.
For a moment he stood there, his body heaving with the effort to breathe. Then he bent down and with a handful of dirt he cleaned the woman’s blood from his sword.
When he had his temper under control again, he went outside and found Morn Connacht waiting with the horses.
“Did the witch tell you that which is useful?” said he.
“She is a fraud,” said the king, taking the reigns from Morn Connacht. He got up on his horse and the two men rode off together toward their camp.
At break of the following day Bran Coruruc launched his army against the remnants of his opponent’s forces, and as the flames foretold, he won. In triumph he returned to his city and proclaimed a celebration that would last a score of days.
t was during this celebration that for the first time Bran Coruruc laid eyes on the fair Etain, the daughter of Fer Lonna. He had heard the stories of her, and how she was the loveliest woman in all the land, but these he had dismissed as a wise man dismisses almost all he hears but does not see with his own eyes. But now he saw her with his own eyes and lovely she was indeed, with hair of a flaxen color unlike any he had ever seen before, and eyes as blue as the sky was blue.
He called at once for an audience with Fer Lonna and asked that chieftain for his daughter’s hand in marriage. And Fer Lonna plainly saw the advantage of an alliance with the new king and agreed eagerly.
So it was that another occasion to celebrate was marked during those days of feasting when Bran Coruruc declared his wedding to Etain, daughter of Fer Lonna. The king of all the tribes proclaimed loudly that in all the world no other kind had a queen one half so beautiful as the Fair Etain, and that no warrior before him had taken so wonderful and loving a bride. Every chieftain, every champion, and many lesser men of the kingdom echoed the king’s sentiments in their toasts.
Months grew into a year and with the coming of spring the coasts of the kingdom were attacked by fierce men from the north who seemed to slay for slaughter’s sake only, and called upon strange, northern gods as they died. So bold were these warriors, so ruthless in their pillaging and rape that Bran Coruruc himself led his armies to repulse them.
here was a reason for this that had little to do with military needs. In the year since they wed, no child had been conceived of the union between Bran Coruruc and Etain, and this weighed heavily on the mind of the king. Frequently he accused Etain of being incapable of bearing him a son and though she tried every spell and potion suggested to her, and made sacrifice to every god or demon that might help her cause, no child was conceived and Etain grew more saddened and more desperate with the passing of each day.
So it was the king was pleased to have an opportunity to ride forth to the coasts of his kingdom for he argued bitterly so often of late that he did not feel peace at home. Leaving Morn Connacht to rule in his stead the king rode forth from his stronghold at the head of his mighty army.
Though the army scoured the coast in search of the Norsemen, it found no sign or them other than the smoldering ruins of a village. As the days grew on, however, and still the king searched without any sign of the enemy, discontent and growling spread among the army.
Now chief among the ranks of the discontent was a man named Gerinth who had been king of one of the tribes conquered by Bran Coruruc. He had sworn allegiance to his conqueror and served him in high appointment as a general of his army. He was not pleased as they spent more and longer days searching for an enemy who he believed had gone far away to the coasts of other lands to do their raiding,
Now Gerinth was a jealous man, resentful that the king had chosen Morn Connacht over him to rule while he was away. He had sworn allegiance to the king after his own armies were defeated, but that was prompted by ambition and the certainty that if he served Bran Coruruc he would also serve himself.
After a time he went to the king and told him that rumors were circulating that Morn Connacht and Etain were lovers.
ow it was the king’s practice to send riders back to his stronghold every day or so, to inform Morn Connacht of his whereabouts, and to return with whatever news they might acquire of home. There were indeed stories to the effect that Morn Connacht and the queen had grown too friendly. In any other state of mind, Bran Coruruc would have dismissed such gossip, but with his effort a failure, and the rumors being whispered throughout his army, he could not challenge Gerinth, even though he did not wholly trust the man.
Thus with no victory to sing of, no battle to celebrate, the army returned almost in shame. The king was scornful of his men. In counsel with his generals the day after his return, he complained of their incompetency.
But all the time he spoke of generals his eyes strayed to the figure of Morn Connacht, standing close by the side of the queen.
But still Bran Coruruc could not bring himself to openly accuse them of any infidelity. Yet the thought of it festered in his heart like a sore.
That night, while the stronghold slept, Bran Coruruc crept into Morn Connacht’s chambers and stood silently watching. Morn Connacht slept on the skins of wolves, and his weapons lay at his side.
The king bent down and took the stallion hilted knife and drove it into Morn Connacht’s breast.
The next day when the body of the slain warrior was found the king offered a large reward for the killer. But no man expected the murderer would be found, for the stories of Morn Connacht and Etain were widely whispered and each man there had an idea who the true killer was.
he queen was grief-stricken. That night when they were alone in their bedchamber and the last servant was dismissed until the morning, Bran Coruruc confronted Etain with the stories he had heard. With coldness the queen listened to his words and the hatred was plain in her eyes as she realized who had murdered Morn Connacht.
“We were never lovers,” said Etain when the king had finished his accusations. “I have not been unfaithful to you. There was no warrior in all your kingdom more loyal to you than Morn Connacht. You have murdered an innocent man, and the truest of all your subjects.”
But the king did not believe her. The next day the body of Morn Connacht was offered to the gods. The king himself placed across the chest of the fallen warrior the knife which he had given him so many years before, the knife whose handle was carved in the likeness of a stallion’s head; the knife which had taken Morn Connacht’s life.
Thus was Morn Connacht buried with honors the king did not think were due him. A lesser chieftain, one whose age insured his loyalty to the king, was left to serve as regent when Bran Coruruc once again led his forces to find the Norsemen.
They were no more successful this time than before.
On the thirteenth day Bran Coruruc called his officers to council and ordered his forces divided into companies, each to be sent to a different portion of the coast, the better to search for the raiders.
The king himself led one company. After several fruitless days they camped on bluff above a coastal village. Taking but six men, the king rode off to scour the nearby countryside, hoping to hear word of the raiders’ whereabouts.
He led his men north along the beach. It was a dark night, and sky was clouded over. A sharp wind bit at the riders but Bran Coruruc seemed not to notice. In the days since the death of Morn Connacht the king had grown grim and silent. At last they reached a cove and found there a surprise awaiting them. For there in the cove was one of the dragon ships of the Norsemen.
Taking two men with him the king advanced through the brush and shadows toward the ship. There was a single guard on the beach and Bran Coruruc lay down his axe and cautiously made his way up behind the sentry to drive a knife into his back.
Then the king cautiously waded into the water and swam out to the ship. With no noise, he climbed over the side of the ship.
The king saw the sleeping forms of Norsemen. With a gesture of silence to the two soldiers who had come with him, the king edged toward the tiller with every intention of wrecking it and then jumping overside before the raiders could react. There was great risk in his plan, but if it worked it would buy them time for his army to gather and attack before the Norsemen could make their repairs and escape.
But before he could reach his goal, the king heard someone shouting in the barbaric tongue of the Norsemen. One of the raiders had awakened and was giving the warning to his fellows.
The king did not hesitate. With a sweep of his axe he took out three men before they could find their weapons. Fiercely he gave his cry of battle and waded into the fray. Before his two soldiers fell dead and the king himself was struck from behind to fall dazed upon the deck of the dragon ship, a full quarter of the ship’s crew lay dead or dying close at hand.
Unable to defend himself, the king stared up and saw a Norse blade poised overhead for the blow that would kill him.
ierce the look on the Norseman’s face as he looked down at his intended victim. Then the look of ferocity gave way to one of pain and anguish and the point of a spear protruded from his chest. Slowly, as in a dream, the Norseman fell dead to the deck of his ship as the others of his crew turned to see what mighty arm had hurled that spear.
The four men Bran Coruruc had left ashore now leaped over the side of the ship and with them was a tall man the king did not recognize in the darkness, for his face was hidden by his helm.
The king regained his feet and his axe. Now six men fought against the invaders. The deck of the dragon ship echoed with the war cry of Bran Coruruc and his men, and the Norseman’s cries to their gods.
No one, not even Bran Coruruc with his great axe, matched the fury of the tall, unknown newcomer. The Norseman fought savagely and had an edge in numbers, but they were no match for the king and his soldiers. The sword of the stranger cleaved the air as well as the brains and bowels of Norsemen, and the deck was awash with their blood. And the king knew it was this stranger who had hurled the spear that had saved his life, though who he was and where he came from was beyond his comprehension. Then, near the end of the battle, the stranger’s sword broke. Only one Norseman remained now, but before he could react, the tall stranger threw aside his broken sword and drew a dagger at his waist. He thrust the knife into the chest of the Norseman, who fell dead to the bloodstained deck, the knife still protruding from his chest.
The clouds had parted now and the dead man’s eyes stared up at the stars.
The king surveyed the scene of the slaughter. The Norsemen were dead or dying. Two of his four men were badly wounded, and a glance at one of them suggested to the king that he might not see the dawn. The other two were seemingly unhurt, though all breathed heavily from exertion.
Then he remembered how fiercely the stranger had laid upon the enemy, and he turned to offer him a king’s reward.
But when he turned there was no stranger there. The tall man was nowhere to be seen.
The four soldiers were as astonished as the king, for no one had seen the stranger leave. But then questioning revealed that no one had seen him arrive, either.
It was then the king felt a chill along his spine, like a cold December wind. What caused it he could not say. Nor why he did what he next did. But Bran Coruruc went to the body of the last Norseman to fall and knelt beside it and pulled the knife that had killed him from his chest.
He held it up to catch what light there was. As he saw the hilt, he felt the pounding of his heart.
It was an ornate hilt, carved in the likeness of a stallion’s head. In all the world there could be but one knife with such a hilt.
The words of the witch came back to him across the days, saying that he would slay the man most loyal to him; but that the man’s loyalty would prevail.
Slowly the king turned and went to the side of the ship. With all his strength he threw the knife as far across the water as he could. It splashed and sank.
And he stood there, numbly, until it came to him that he had also killed the prophetess.