A LONELY GRAVE ON THE HILL, by Cesar Alcazar:
Anrath yanked the reins of his horse as a piercing scream broke the silence of the night and startled the animal. After regaining control of the steed, the mercenary from Connacht examined the darkness in an attempt to find the source of the noise. Travelling at night did not please him at all. On the other hand, he was eager to join the men of Niall mac Eochada, King of Ulaid. Niall was gathering troops to plunder Dublin, and offering a payment he couldn’t ignore.
The horse stirred again. Not far from there, Anrath spotted a shadowy figure running among the trees. Barks and snarls could be clearly heard. Moments later, the warrior realized it was a man being chased by wolves. The fierce creatures would catch up to him at any time.
With a swift movement, the mercenary’s sword tore the icy air of early winter as it was removed from its sheath. He spurred his horse and it advanced reluctantly. Then, the wolves jumped over the prey who, to Anrath’s astonishment, was a very old man.
Realizing the horse would not approach the scene, the warrior leaped to the ground, sword in hand. The animals noticed him, and attacked. Sharp and ravenous jaws tried to reach his flesh. Striking precise blows, Anrath eliminated two of the beasts. The remainder of the pack split: three wolves continued to attack the original victim, while three others faced the mercenary. Lying on the ground, the old man fought for his life in despair.
The largest of the wolves stuck its teeth into Anrath’s arm, which was luckily protected by the chainmail. The animal made him lose his balance and spin; such was the ferocity of the attack. Struggling to stand, Anrath shook off the wolf, but the beast rushed towards him once more. An instinctive blow interrupted the assault, and the head of the wolf spun in the air before touching the ground.
Perceiving the pack leader’s defeat, the remaining wolves receded. They looked at the mercenary with lowered heads, snarling in threat. Anrath, in turn, stared at the animals in the eyes without fear. He lifted the sword, which reflected the eyes of the beasts, and prepared himself for another combat. However, the wolves fell back a few steps, only to disappear among the trees seconds later.
The old man remained lying down and groaning in pain, his clothes bathed in blood. It had been a heinous struggle. One minute longer and the wolves would have torn the old man apart. Anrath wasted no more time and rushed to help him. The warrior, whose long dark hair almost covered his melancholic face, kneeled down beside the old man, who said between sobs:
“Thank you, my friend…”
Anrath examined the man’s injuries: the thigh was torn and bleeding abundantly, among other minor wounds. There was no way of saving him, because the artery had been severed.
“Don’t thank me,” said the desolate mercenary while tying a tourniquet above the ghastly wound to stop the bleeding, “I didn’t arrive on time.”
“I know that my condition is serious, don’t worry. At least I may still live long enough to do what I must; and I owe it to you. My name is Fearghal mac Artie.”
“Anrath of Connacht.”
“Well, I thank you, Anrath. If it wasn’t for you, those wolves would have eaten me for sure!”
“Why is a man of your age walking by yourself at night in these woods?”
Fearghal’s eyes filled with tears, and he answered with difficulty in a mixture of emotion and pain:
“I wanted to see the battle…”
“Battle? As far as I know there is no war going on around these parts.”
“I refer to the Battle of Tara, my friend.”
“But that battle happened a long time ago!” exclaimed the mercenary.
“Yes. More than forty springs ago.”
“Then, what did you expect to see?” Anrath asked, wondering if the old man wasn’t delirious.
Fearghal gazed at the mercenary. The old man’s countenance was overwhelmed by a nostalgic expression. Then, in a gentle tone, he began to explain:
“Our heathen ancestors used to say that, during Samhain, the boundary between the world of the living and the Otherworld became tenuous, thin. Following the arrival of winter, plants and animals died in abundance, opening a gate for the dead to walk the earth again. I never wanted to believe this, because I am a Christian.”
Old Fearghal paused, and the wind blew a sad melody. The night fog seemed thicker. Anrath finished tying the dying man’s wounds and listened to him sigh deeply before continuing:
“Listen, young man, I fought in the great battle at Tara. Now, every single man who fought by my side on that glorious day is already dead. I am the last one, but I will never forget our victory. The King Máel Sechnaill, of the Uí Néill, had just risen to power of the Kingdom of Mide and managed to secure the support of Leinster and Ulster. Only then we were able to face the Norsemen of Olaf Cuaran, King of Dublin. The armies clashed not far from here, on the Hill of Tara. I can still feel the excitement of combat. I can still hear the screams and the thunder from the clashing of steel against steel.”
Fearghal looked at the fog shrouded sky and sighed again. Anrath stood there in reverent silence. Then, the old man asked:
“Do you have an idea of what a great battle is like?”
“Yes, old man, I fought in the Battle of Clontarf years ago.”
“You? But of course, that’s why I know your name. You are Anrath, the Black Hound! However, I cannot believe. The Black Hound I heard of is a cruel and bloodthirsty traitor, not a man who would help someone like me!”
Anrath frowned. His past would never cease to haunt him. Born a Gael, he grew up among the Vikings. Even his garbs were an amalgam of both cultures: wolf hides, typical of the wild men of Connacht, blended with the chainmail wore by the Norse warriors. Fate made him a renegade, a man condemned to wander between two cultures without belonging to either.
“I have never refused help to anyone. I did things in my past I judged as correct. I fought alongside the Vikings at Clontarf because they were my family. I am a murderer, yes, but I’m not the monster of the drunken stories they tell in the taverns.”
The old man looked at the dark countenance of his benefactor, a face of harsh features like an axe carved image, and said:
“Then… Would you fulfill the last wish of an old man who is about to die?”
“What are you talking about?”
“The inhabitants of this region say that, during the first night of Samhain, it is possible to see the dead of Tara, warring throughout eternity in the Otherworld. I wanted to see the magnificence of that battle once more. That’s why I came here. Now, I ask you: take me to the Hill of Tara, Anrath.”
“How I am going to take you there in your condition? You will die on the way…”
“I beg you, Anrath! I want to relive that glory. The seasons pass, great feats pale, men forget. At least I want to remember. Please, let me see the Battle of Tara again.”
“But this is madness!”
Given the mercenary’s reaction, Fearghal stammered through tears:
“In a few hours a new day will rise, and I will not be in this world anymore. What happened at Tara will be lost forever. Before I die, I want to be with my companions.”
Anrath thought for a moment. He could not put the old man on the horse, because the gallop would kill him in no time. He could not risk it, even if the Hill of Tara wasn’t far away from there. He punched the ground and sheathed the sword, muttering under his breath. Then he made his decision and said:
“Old man, don’t be afraid. I will take you to Tara.”
The mercenary tied his horse to a tree. After that, he held the old man in his arms and lifted him off the ground. He was careful not to cause Fearghal more pain. In this manner, Anrath took the first steps towards Tara. Fearghal, despite the intense pain showing upon his face, remained silent.
Anrath walked through the forest at a leisurely pace, observed only by occasional nocturnal animals. After about half an hour, they reached a glade. Not very far from there, Anrath sighted the Lia Fáil, known as the Stone of Destiny, where the High Kings of Ireland used to be crowned on days long passed. The mercenary placed Fearghal carefully on the ground and said:
“We have arrived, old man! Look yonder; there is the Hill of Tara!”
Fearghal looked at the vast undulated terrain. The green fields were shrouded by the mists of the night, which flared with a blue luminescence due to the brightness of the moon. Everything was quiet in that landscape. There was no sign of life. Even the wind wasn’t blowing anymore. The two men stood there, watching the bucolic scenery.
From the moment the mercenary had raised him from the soil, the old man had not said a word. He didn’t let the soaring pain make him sob or moan either. He bravely endured every step taken by his new friend while he was led to his final destination. Now, the emptiness of the green hills afflicted his heart. Would it have been all in vain? Would he die without seeing again the glorious image of the past which he craved?
The old man felt his life slipping from his body like the sands of an hourglass. Then, something awakened him. A dark shadow moved in front of him and soon transformed itself into something magnificent. Fearghal finally exclaimed:
“There they are! It’s wonderful… Can you see them, Anrath?”
A flash of lightning lit up the hill and, just for a moment, the mercenary was able to see thousands of fierce men fighting under the dense fog. The clamor of the clash of arms resounded through the winds. Swords, shields and helmets emanated a spectral radiance in the dark night. Amid the chaos of combat, Anrath spotted a man who closely resembled the old man who now lay in his arms. The resemblance was astonishing, although the warrior from the ghostly vision was much younger.
Within seconds, the apparition faded, and silence fell again over the Hill of Tara. Anrath looked down at old Fearghal. A slight smile marked the old man’s still face and his gaze was fixed on the horizon. He was now in the Otherworld.
“Rest now, Fearghal… May Macha, Morrígan and Badb receive you!”
The mercenary rested the old combatant’s head on the ground. He stood up and begun to gather stones for a cairn. Fearghal deserved to be buried at the site where the most important moment of his existence took place. The one moment he didn’t want to forget. Over time, that land and Fearghal would become one.
It was dawn and the mists were dissipating when the task of covering the body was completed. Dew droplets accumulated on the cairn shone like crystals at the first rays of sunlight. To Anrath’s eyes, it was a resting place fit for a warrior. A monument for generations to come.
Fearghal feared that which Anrath desired the most: oblivion. The mercenary who lived under the stigma of being the Black Hound of Clontarf, traitor of two races, glanced once more at the pile of stones before leaving. Men are no more than shadows passing through time, he thought. Yesterday, this place was the stage for the greatest of battles, a battle even greater than mine. Now, all that is left of it is a lonely grave on the hill.
Cesar Alcazar is a Sword & Sorcery and Adventure writer from Brazil. He is the author of “Bazar Pulp – Historias de Fantasia, Aventura e Horror” and many anthologized short stories. He also edited the anthology “Cronicas de Espada e Magia”, and translated to Portuguese stories from authors Karl Edward Wagner, Robert E. Howard and George R. R. Martin. To know more about him, visit sonorazao.blogspot.com.br (in Portuguese).