This novel was originally serialized in four installments in All-Story Weekly magazine from December 30, 1916, to January 20, 1917. The original breaks in the serial have been retained, but summaries of previous events preceding the second, third, and fourth installments have been moved to the end of this e-book. The Table of Contents which follows the introduction was created for this electronic edition.
VOL. LXVI NUMBER 2
SATURDAY, DECEMBER 30, 1916
Author of "Malay Gold," "The Ghost Hill," "John Solomon, Supercargo," etc.
This is a stirring, entrancing story of Erin when Cromwell was campaigning, and when the fighting heritage that is every Irishman's found vent through sword and ax and fire. You meet Brian Buidh, Brian of the Yellow Hair, more thrilling than even your favorite movie hero; and as for Nuala herself—well, just wait till you meet her!—THE EDITOR.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
I. THE BLACK WOMAN. 177 II. THE BEGINNING OF THE STORM. 179 III. THE DARK MASTER. 182 IV. BRIAN LEANS ON HIS SWORD. 186 V. YELLOW BRIAN RIDES SOUTH. 191 VI. BRIAN TAKES CAPTIVES. 196 VII. THE BIRD DAUGHTER. 201
VIII. HOW BRIAN WAS NETTED. 419 IX. THE NAILING OF BRIAN. 424 X. IN BERTRAGH CASTLE. 429 XI. THE BAITING OF CATHBARR. 434 XII. HOW THE DARK MASTER WAS RUINED. 438
XIII. BRIAN RIDES TO VENGEANCE. 659 XIV. HOW THE STORM FARED NORTH. 664 XV. WHAT HAPPENED AT THE TARN. 670 XVI. BRIAN GETS HIS SWORD AGAIN. 674 XVII. BRIAN GOES A CRUISING. 679
XVIII. BRIAN YIELDS BERTRAGH. 137 XIX. BRIAN MEETS THE BLACK WOMAN. 142 XX. THE STORM BURSTS. 147 XXI. CATHBARR YIELDS UP HIS AX. 151 XXII. THE STORM OF MEN COMES TO REST. 155
THE BLACK WOMAN.
The horseman reined in as his jaded steed scrambled up the shelving bank, and for a space sat there motionless, for which the horse gave mute thanks. The moon was struggling to heave through fleecy clouds, as it was hard on midnight; in the half obscurity the rider gazed around suspiciously.
There was nothing in sight to cause any man fear. Behind him rippled the Dee, and all around was desolation. Ardee itself lay a good two miles in the rear, burned and laid waste six weeks before, and ten miles to the south lay Drogheda. Indeed, as the horseman gazed about, he caught sight of a faint glare on the horizon that drew a bitter word from his lips.
Dismounting with some difficulty, owing to his cloak and Spanish hat, he examined a long, raking gash in his horse's flank; then flung off hat and cloak and calmly proceeded to bind up his own naked shoulder beneath.
His was a strange figure, indeed, now that he stood revealed. He wore no clothing save breeches and high riding-boots; an enormous sword without a sheath was girt about his waist, and the caked blood on his shoulder and cheek made his fair skin stand out with startling contrast.
About his shoulders fell long hair of ruddy yellow, while his face was young and yet very bitter, tortured by both physical and mental anguish, as it seemed. He bound up the deep slash in his shoulder with a strip of cloth torn from his cloak, felt his wealed cheek tenderly, then flung the cloak about him again and drew down his broad-brimmed hat as he turned to his weary horse.
"Well, my friend," and his voice sounded whimsical for all its rich tone, "you've had a change of masters to-day, eh? I'd like to spare you, but man's life is first, though Heaven knows it's worth little in Ireland this day!" With that he reeled and caught at the saddle for support, put down his head, and sobbed unrestrainedly.
"Oh, my God!" he groaned at length, straightening himself to shake a clenched and blood-splashed fist at the sky. "Where were You this day? God! God! The blood of men on Thine altars—"
"Faith, you must be new come to Ireland, then!"
At the shrill, mocking voice the man whirled about and his huge blade was out like a flash. But only a cackling laugh answered him, as down from the bank above slipped a perfect hag of a creature, and he drew back in alarm. At that instant the moon flooded out; his sudden motion had flung off his wide hat, and he stood staring at the wrinkled creature whose scanty garments and thin-shredded gray locks were pierced by a pair of weird brown eyes.
Then he quivered indeed, and even the poor horse took a step backward, for the old woman had flung up her arms with a shrill cry as she gazed on the yellow-haired young man.
"The O'Neill!" The words seemed to burst from her involuntarily. She craned forward, her hands twisting at her ragged shawl, and a flood of Gaelic poured from her lips as she stared at the awe-struck man.
"Are you, then, the earl, come back from the dead? Ghost of Tyr-owen, why stand you here idle in the gap of Ulster, where once Cuculain fought against the host of Meave? Do you also stand here to fight as he fought—"
"Peace, mad-woman!" exclaimed the young man, stooping after his hat. "Peace, and be off out of my way, for I have far to ride."
The Gaelic words came roughly and brokenly from him, but the old hag took no heed. Instead, she advanced swiftly and laid her hand on his arm, still gazing into his face with a great wonder on her wrinkled features.
"Who are you?" she whispered. "Tell the Black Woman your name, if you are no ghost! For even as you stand now, once did these eyes see the great earl himself."
"I am from Drogheda," answered the man, something very like fear stamped on his powerful and bitter-touched young face. "My name is Brian Buidh, and I ride to join Owen Ruadh—"
"Liar!" The old woman spat forth the word with a cackle of laughter. "Oh, you cannot fool the Black Woman, Yellow Brian! Listen—Brian your name is, and Yellow Brian your name shall be indeed, since this is your will. Owen Ruadh O'Neill lies at the O'Reilly stead at Lough Oughter, but you shall never ride to war behind him, Brian Buidh! No—the Black Woman tells you, and the Black Woman knows. Instead, you shall ride into the west, and there shall be a storm of men—a storm of men behind you and before you—"
"For the love of Heaven, have done!" cried Yellow Brian, shrinking before her, and yet with anger in his face. "Are you crazed, woman? Drogheda has fallen; O'Neill must join with the royalists, and never shall I ride into the west. Be off, for I have no money."
He turned to mount, but again she stopped him. It seemed to him that there was strange power in that withered hand which rested so lightly on his arm.
"The Black Woman needs no money, Yellow Brian," she cackled merrily. "You shall meet me once again, on a black day for you; and when you meet with Cathbarr of the Ax you shall remember me, Brian Buidh; and when you ride into the west and meet with the Bird Daughter you shall remember me.
"So go, Yellow Brian, upon whose heart is stamped the red hand of the O'Neills! Beannacht leath!"
"Beannacht leath," repeated the man thickly.
There was a rustle of bushes, and he was alone, wiping the cold sweat from his face.
"Woman or fiend!" he muttered hoarsely. "How did she know that last? Yes, she was crazed, no doubt. I suppose that I do look like the earl—since he was my grandfather!"
And with a bitter laugh he climbed into the saddle and pushed his horse up the bank. The bushes closed behind him, the night closed over him, but it was long ere the weird words of the old hag who called herself the Black Woman were closed from his mind.
For, after all, Yellow Brian was of right not alone an O'Neill, but The O'Neill.
THE BEGINNING OF THE STORM.
The people of every nation—that is, the tillers of the soil, the people who form the backbone of their race—are in continual expectancy of a Man and a Day. Theirs is always the, perhaps, dumb hope, but still the hope, that in their future lie these two things, a Man and a Day. Sometimes the Man has come and the Day has failed; sometimes the Day has come and there has been no Man to use it; but now all Ireland had swept up in a wild roar, knowing that the Man and the Day had come together.
And so, in truth, they had. Owen, the Ruadh, or red, O'Neill, had fought a desperate struggle against the royalists. Little by little he had cemented his own people together, his personal qualities and his splendid generalship had overborne all else, and the victory of Benburb had crowned the whole. Then Owen Ruadh was stricken down with sickness, Cromwell landed and stormed Drogheda, and Yellow Brian had fought clear and fled away to the kinsman he had never seen.
Now, standing on the castle ramparts overlooking Lough Oughter, Yellow Brian stared moodily out at the lake. His identity had been revealed to none, and the name of Brian Buidh had little meaning to any in Ireland. Years since he who was The O'Neill, the same whom the English called Earl of Tyr-owen, had fled with his family from the land. His eldest son John had settled at the Spanish court.
John was a spineless man, unworthy son of a great father, content to idle away his life in ease and quiet. And it was in the court of Spain that Brian O'Neill had been born, with only an old Irishwoman to nurse him and teach him the tongue and tidings of Ireland which his father cared nothing for.
Yellow Brian had written out these things, sending the letter to the sick general who lay within the castle. His terrible news of Drogheda had created consternation, but already O'Neill's forces had been sent to join the royalists against the common foe. All Ireland was distraught by war. Royalist, patriot, and Parliament man fought each against the other, and the only man who could have faced Cromwell lay sick unto death.
The Day was passing, the Man was passing, and shadow lay upon all the land.
A man came up and touched Yellow Brian's arm, with word that Owen Ruadh would see him at once. Brian nodded, following. He was well garbed now, and a steel jack glittered from beneath his dark-red cloak as he strode along. Upon his strong-set face brooded bitterness, but his eyes were young for all their cold blue, and his ruddy hair shone like spun gold in the sunlight; while his firm mouth and chin, his erect figure, and his massive shoulders gained him more than one look of appreciation from the clustered O'Reillys.
He followed the attendant to a large room, whose huge mantel was carven with the red hand and supporting lions of the clan Reilly, and passed over to the bed beside the window. He had requested to see O'Neill alone, and the attendant withdrew silently. Brian approached the bed, and stood looking down at the man who was passing from Ireland.
Sharp and bright were the eyes as ever, but the red beard was grayed and the face was waxen; a spark of color came to it, as Owen Ruadh stretched forth a hand to take that of his visitor.
"Brian O'Neill!" he exclaimed, in a voice singularly like that of Brian himself. "Welcome, kinsman! But why the silence you enjoined in your letter?"
"My name is Yellow Brian," answered the younger man somberly. "I have none other, general. You know the gist of my story, and here is the rest. I broke with my father, for he would hear nothing of my coming to Ireland. So I cast off his name and left him to his cursed idleness, reaching Drogheda barely in time to take part in the siege. I managed to cut through, as you know, and meant to take service with you—"
He paused, for words did not come easily to him, as with all his race. A low groan broke from the crippled warrior.
"Too late, kinsman, too late! Cromwell is come, and I will never sit a horse again—ah, no protests, lad! How old are you?"
"By my faith, you look thirty! Lad, my heart is sore for you. I am wasted and broken. I have no money, and Cromwell will shatter all before him; I can do naught save give you advice."
"I want naught," broke in Brian quickly, a little glint as of ice in his blue eyes. "Not for that did I cast off my name and come to—"
"Tut, tut, lad!" O'Neill reproved him gently. "I understand, so say no more of that matter. You are Brian Buidh, but to me you are my kinsman, the rightful head of my house. You can do two things, Yellow Brian—either follow my advice, or go down to ruin with all Ireland. Now say, which shall it be?"
Brian gazed at him with thoughtful face. What was the meaning of this dark speech? As he looked into the keen, death-smitten eyes of the man who might have saved Ireland, he smiled a little.
"I see naught but ruin, Owen Ruadh," he replied slowly. "I care little for my life, having no ties left on this earth—"
"Oh, nonsense!" broke in the other impatiently. "You are young, lad—the bitterness will soon pass, trust me. Now see, here is my advice, such advice as I would give no other man alive. I am dying, Yellow Brian. Well, I know that Cromwell will break down all I have built up, and I can see no brightness for my country. But for you I can see much. You are young, powerful, the last of the old race; you look strangely like the old earl, Brian!"
The younger man started. For the first time in many days he remembered that crazed hag he had met by the Dee water the night of Drogheda.
"Now, harken well. I tell you that our house lies in the dust, Brian; there is no hope for it or for any O'Neill. But for Yellow Brian there is hope. You must carve out a holding for yourself, for you are a ruler of men by your face, lad. Go into Galway, and there, where Cromwell's men will have hardest fighting of all, gather a force and make head. I have heard strange tales of a man who has done this very thing—they say he has seized on a castle somewhere near Bertraghboy Bay, in Galway, and— But I am getting weak, Brian lad. Hearken well—Ireland is lost; carve out now for your own hand, for the Red Hand of the old house, lad! And take this for my sake."
Almost whispering the last words, Owen Ruadh took from his finger a signet graven deeply with the Red Hand of Tyr-owen. Brian accepted it gravely, kissed the hand that gave it, and with tears choking his throat, left the chamber of the man who was passing from Ireland.
He had been there a brief fifteen minutes, yet it seemed that an age had passed. Both he and the sick man had said much in few words, for they were both men who spared speech and did much. But Brian had received a great wrench.
As he had said, he had cast off his father, for the grandfather's blood ran riot within him, and had kindled to burning rage against the sluggard who had made his name a thing of reproach in all lands. With the overstrong bitterness of youth he had meant to die sword in hand, fighting for Ireland. The few burning words of Owen Ruadh had stripped all this false heroism from him, however, and had sent a flame of sanity into his brain.
Brian returned slowly to the round tower, and stood looking out over the waters, for the castle was built on an island in the lake a mile from shore. It was nearing sunset, and snow was in the air—the first snow, for this was the end of September.
"Ruin—the storm of men!" He repeated unconsciously the words of the hag who had stopped him by the Dee water. "What shall I do? Which is the part of a man, after all; to fall for Ireland or to hew out new lands and found a new house in the west? By my hilt! That old hag told me truly after all!"
At that thought he stood silent, his eyes troubled. What was this fate which seemed to drive him into the west, instead of leading him to the flame of swords as he had so long hoped and dreamed? Death meant little to him; honor meant much. All his life he had lived in Spain, yet it had been a double life. He had ridden and hunted and learned arms with the young nobles of the court, but he had talked and sorrowed and dreamed with the old Irishwoman who had nursed him.
After all, it is often the dreams of the youth which determine the career of the man, he reflected.
Which path should he take? As he stood there struggling with himself, his hand went unconsciously to his long, powerful jaw; it was a gesture habitual with him when in deep thought—which he seldom was, however. Now the youth in him spoke for death, now the sanity which had flashed into his brain from that of the sick man spoke for the life of deeds and renown which lay in the west.
An incident might turn him either way—and the incident came in the shape of a very tall old man who wore the Irish garb of belted, long-sleeved tunic and woolen hose, with iron-soled shoes. The old man's face was cunning, but his eyes were bright and keen and deep gray; his gray hair hung low to conceal his lopped ears, and there hung about him an indescribable air of shrewdness faced with apparent openness of heart.
Brian glanced at him, remembered that he had heard him called Turlough Wolf, and looked away carelessly, absorbed in his own thought. But the old man halted abruptly with an exclamation:
"Corp na diaoul! Where got you that face and that gesture, Drogheda man?"
Brian looked at him, frowning.
"What mean you, Turlough Wolf?"
The other stared, his thin jaw fallen.
"Why—why," he stammered, "I thought it had been The O'Neill come to life again! When I was a boy I have seen the earl hold his hand to his chin—often, often! And—and you look like him, Brian Buidh—-"
"Nonsense!" Brian forced a laugh, but as he folded his arms again the glitter of O'Neill's ring on his finger caught the sharp gray eyes.
Turlough Wolf started.
"Listen!" he said, coming forward insinuatingly. "Yellow Brian, no man knows who you are, nor do I ask. But Turlough Wolf knows a man when he sees one, a chieftain among men. I owe no man service; but if you will need a swift brain, a cunning hand, and an eye that can read the hearts of men, I will serve you."
Brian looked down into the shrewd face in wonder, then waved an impatient hand.
"No use, Turlough Wolf. I have no money to pay for service, and to-night I must ride out to seek I know not what—nay, whether I ride west or east or south, I know not!"
He turned abruptly, wishing to close the matter, but the old man laid a restraining hand on his shoulder.
"I seek no money, Yellow Brian. I seek only a master such as yourself; a man who is a master among men, and whom I can set higher still if he will heed my counsels. I am old, you are young; I know all parts of the land by heart, from the Mayo shore to Youghal, and I am skilled at many things. Take my service and you will not regret it."
Brian hesitated. After all, he considered, the thing came close to being uncanny. The Black Woman by Dee water; Owen Ruadh himself, and now this Ulysseslike Turlough Wolf—whither was fate driving him? Was he really to meet such persons as the Bird Daughter and Cathbarr of the Ax, or were they only the figment of a crazed old woman's brain?
So he hesitated, gazing down into those clear gray eyes. And as he looked it seemed to him that he found strange things in them, strange urgings that touched the chords of his soul. After all, adventure lay in the west, and he was young!
"Good!" he said, gravely extending his hand. "To-night we ride to the west, you and I. Come; let us see O'Reilly about horses."
And this was the beginning of the storm of men that came upon the west.
THE DARK MASTER.
"There are two things, Yellow Brian, for you to mind. First, you must have men at your back who know you for their master; second, you must stand alone, giving and receiving aid from no man or party in the land."
Brian nodded and stored away the words in his heart, for in their three weeks of wandering he had learned that Turlough Wolf was better aid than many men. It was his doing that, when they had chanced on a party of ravagers beyond Carrick, Yellow Brian had been led into strife with their leader. The upshot of that matter was that there was a dead rover; Yellow Brian had a dozen horsemen behind him and money in his purse, and of the dozen none but feared utterly this silent man who fought like a fiend.
To the dozen had been added others—four Scotch plunderers strayed from Hamilton's horse and half a dozen Breffnians from Ormond's army, who had been driven out of Munster by the rising of the Parliament men there. They were a sadly mixed score, of all races and creeds, but were fighting ruffians to a man, and were bound together by Brian's solemn pledge that he himself would slay any who quarreled. The result was peace.
So now, with a good score of men behind him, Yellow Brian had ridden down into Galway, was past Lough Corrib and Iar Connaught, and was hard upon Connemara.
There was a thin snow upon the hills, and the bleak wind presaged more; but the score of men sang lustily as they rode. Two days before they had come upon a dozen strayed Royalist plunderers, and had gained great store of food and drink—particularly drink. So all were well content for the time being.
"Turlough," asked Brian suddenly, as they rode side by side, "did you ever hear of one called the Black Woman?"
The Wolf crossed himself and grimaced.
"That I have, Yellow Brian, but dimly. They say she deals in magic and sorcery, and no good comes of meeting with her. But stop—there are horsemen on the road! Scatter the men, and quickly; let us two bide here."
There was cunning in the advice, for the two had come to a bend in the road and the men were a hundred yards behind them. Brian drew rein at sight of a score of men a scant quarter-mile away and riding up the hill toward them. He knew that they must also have been seen, but his men would still be out of sight, so he turned with a quick word:
"Off into the rocks, men! If I raise my sword, come and strike. Off!"
As he spoke he bared that same huge cut-or-thrust brand he had borne from Drogheda and set the point on his boot. Instantly the men scattered on either side the road, where black rocks thrust up from the snow, and within two minutes they and their horses had disappeared.
The riders below came steadily forward in a clump, and Brian saw old Turlough staring with bulging eyes. Then the Wolf half caught at his bridle, as if minded to fly, and his hands were trembling.
"What ails you, man?" smiled Brian. "Are they magicians and sorcerers, then?"
"No, fareer gair—worse luck!" blurted out the other. "Look at the little man who rides first, Yellow Brian!"
Brian squinted against the snow-glare, and saw that the leader of the approaching party seemed indeed to be a little man with hunched shoulders and head that glinted steel.
"A hunchback!" he exclaimed. "Well, who is he?"
"The Dark Master—O'Donnell More himself! It is in my mind that this is a black day, Brian Buidh. O'Donnell More is the master of all men at craft, and the match of most men at weapons. Beware of him, master, beware! I had thought that he was still under siege at Bertragh Castle, else I had never taken this road."
"Nonsense!" laughed out Brian joyously, drinking in the clear afternoon air. "So much the more honor if we slay him, Turlough Wolf! Let him match me at weapons, or you at wits, if he can!"
Turlough muttered something and drew back behind Brian's steed with pallid face. Yellow Brian, however, having a sure trust in his own right arm and his hidden men, scanned the approaching O'Donnell curiously, seeking what had inspired such unwonted fear in the old gray Wolf.
He could find nothing ominous in that hunched figure, save its mail-coat and steel helm. Yet the face was peculiar. Over a drooping mustache of black flared forth two intense black eyes. Brian noted this, and the thin, curved nose and prominent chin, and laughed again.
"Who is this Dark Master, Turlough?"
The other shivered slightly. "He is an O'Donnell from the north, come here some ten years since—he seized on Bertragh even as we intend seizing on a stead, and has since done evil things in the land. Now hush, for they say the wind bears him idle talk."
Brian's thin lips curved a trifle scornfully, but he kept silence, watching the approaching men. At fifty yards' distance they halted. Their leader eyed the motionless pair for a moment and then slowly rode on alone, waving back his followers. And Yellow Brian made a strange figure, with his ruddy hair streaming from beneath his steel cap and the bright, naked sword rising up from toe to head beside him.
"Well?" O'Donnell More's voice was deep and harsh, though Brian afterward found that it could be changed to suit its owner's mood. "Who are you thus disputing my passage?"
"I am Brian Buidh," came Brian's curt reply. "As for dispute, that is as you will."
"Yellow Brian?" The black brows shot up in surprise. "A strange name. Whence come you, and seeking what?"
"I seek men, O'Donnell More." Brian swiftly determined that this was a man who might give him aid, a man after his own heart. "Whence I come is my affair. Give me men, and I will repay with gold."
"What need have you of men, Yellow Brian," came the sardonic answer, "when your own lie hidden among the rocks?"
Now indeed Brian started, whereat the other smiled grimly.
"How knew you that?"
"If you recognized me from afar, you had not stayed to meet me unless you had men," stated O'Donnell shrewdly enough.
"True," said Brian, and laughed out. "Well said, O'Donnell. I have a score, and want another score. I will match mine against yours, or make a pact, as you desire."
The Dark Master sat fingering his sword-hilt and considered. With the black brows down and the black eyes fixed on him, Brian suddenly began to like the man less.
"I will give you service," returned O'Donnell at last.
Brian smiled. "Men serve me, not I them."
At this curt answer O'Donnell looked black, then fell into thought, his shoulders hunched up and his head drawn in like the head of a turtle. Brian wished now that he had struck first and talked afterward.
Finally the Dark Master looked up with a slow smile.
"Welcome to you, Brian of the hard eyes and hollow cheeks," he said. "Slaintahut! I will not give you men, but I will give you the loan of men if you will do me one of two favors. Ten miles to the south of here there is an old tower on a cliff, and in the tower dwells a man with certain companions who sets me at naught. On an island out near Golam Head is a castle where a woman rules, who has also set me at naught. Go, reduce either of these twain, and I will lend you twoscore men for three months."
Brian sat his great horse and looked at the Dark Master. He would have sought advice from Turlough Wolf, save that he did not like to turn his back on those burning eyes. After all, the pact was not a bad one.
"These enemies of yours—who are they, and what force have they?"
The Dark Master chuckled, and his head shot out from between his shoulders.
"The man is called Cathbarr of the Ax, and he is a hard man to fight, for he has ten men like himself, axmen all. The woman cannot fight, but she has a swift mind, many men, and her name is Nuala O'Malley, of the O'Malleys of Erris."
"I had sooner fight a man than a woman," returned Brian slowly. "Also, this Cathbarr of the Ax has fewer men. I will do you this favor, O'Donnell Dubh."
He gave no sign of the wonder that had shot into his mind at the name of Cathbarr, except that his blue eyes seemed changed suddenly to cold ice. The Dark Master saw the change, and his smile withered. Brian, watching him, reflected that this malformed freebooter could be venomous-looking at times.
"I have passed my word," O'Donnell the Black made curt answer. "Fetch either of the twain to Bertragh, dead or alive, and you have the loan of twoscore men for three months, free. Is it a pact?"
"It is a pact," answered Brian, and at that the other galloped back to his men.
Brian swung his sword and flung it high into the air; before it had flashed down to nestle in his palm again, his men were scrambling into the road. He sheathed the sword, smiling a little, and turned to Turlough.
"Well? To your mind or not, Wolf?"
"My father saw the Brown Geraldine at Dublin," responded that worthy, scratching the gray beard which had begun to sprout. "They broke his bones with the back of an ax and swung him out in a cage until he died, and after. He made pacts too easily."
"Well?" asked Brian again, but a dull flush crossed his cheeks.
"I gave you my rede," said Turlough sullenly. "I said to stand alone, receiving aid from neither man nor faction. Now there is mischief to be repaired."
"Then my sword shall repair it," said Brian, and ordered the men to swing in after him. "Guide us to this tower of Cathbarr's, for my honor is in my own keeping."
They swung about and headed to the south and the sea.
The hill-paths, which Turlough Wolf seemed to know perfectly, were cruelly hard on the horses; none were as yet trodden down, for the snow was fresh, and all the west coast lay desolate. The plague had stricken Galway and Mayo heavily that year, smiting the mountains with death. Some few parties of Roundhead horse had come through, because they feared God and Ireton more than the plague, and some Royalists had fled up from the south for much the same reason.
In any case, Yellow Brian found all the land desolate, and liked it. The more wasted the land, he reflected, the more chance for that sword of his to find swinging-room. As he had ridden, news had come from the east—news of the Wexford killing and the curse that was come upon the land. Owen Ruadh O'Neill was not yet dead, but Brian knew that he had prophesied truly. Ireland's day was gloaming fast.
Despite the dismal tone of Turlough Wolf, Brian told himself that he had done a good day's work. O'Donnell Dubh would keep his word beyond any question. As for the man he was to slay, the only part of it which troubled Brian was the prediction of the Black Woman at the Dee water. She had known him, and had prophesied O'Neill's death, and had spoken of the west and this Cathbarr of the Ax. After all, however, she might have shot a chance shaft which had gone true. Brian had no faith in magic.
All that afternoon he rode on, Turlough Wolf ahead of him, the men behind. They feared and hated the old Wolf as much as they feared and loved Brian.
Progress was slow, owing to the bad paths, the snow, and sundry changes of direction, so that when night fell they had covered but eight miles of the ten. Turlough suggested that they push on and finish their business at a stroke, but Brian curtly refused. So the men made camp in lee of a cliff and proceeded to feast away the last of their provisions and wine, in confidence that on the morrow they would have more, or else would need none.
Brian and Turlough built a fire apart, and after their repast Brian broke silence with a request for information about Cathbarr. It was his first speech since the parting with the Dark Master.
"I never heard of him," responded Turlough. "No doubt he is some outlaw who has become a thorn in the Dark Master's flesh. With the woman it is different."
"Tell me of her," said Brian, gazing into the fire.
"She is an O'Malley, and, like all the clan, makes much of ships and seamen and little of horses and riders. When the Dark Master came, ten years ago, he slew her father and mother by treachery, and would have slain her but that her men carried her off. She was a child then. Now she is a woman, very bitter against O'Donnell Dubh, and is allied with the Parliament so that her ships may have the run of the seas, it is said. O'Donnell takes sides with no faction, but caters to all. He lays nets and snares, and men fall into them, and he laughs."
"Why is Nuala O'Malley called the Bird Daughter?" asked Brian quietly.
At this question old Turlough rose on his elbow, and in his wide, gray eyes was set mingled fear and wonder.
"M'anam an diaoul!" he spat out. "Who are you to know this thing?"
"Answer my question," returned Brian, hiding his own surprise.
"Seven years ago, master, I was at Sligo Bay with O'Dowda when Hamilton cut us to pieces. Nuala O'Malley had brought us some powder—she was but a slip of a girl then. In the evening I was down at the ship when I saw her come from below, a hooded pigeon in her hands. She whispered in the bird's ear, set off the hood, and the bird flew into the night. I named her Bird Daughter, but no other man knew the name."
"Then a woman did," chuckled Brian dryly. "It was but a carrier pigeon, Turlough; I have seen them used in Spain. Now listen to me."
With that he told him of the Black Woman and his weird meeting at Dee water. Old Turlough listened in no little amazement, for he was full of superstitious fancies, but Brian said nothing of his own name. The uncanny prophecies, however, which now seemed on the road to fulfilment were enough to give any man pause.
When he had finished, a very subdued Turlough Wolf stated that the Black Woman was an old hag who wandered all over the land, that some called her crazy and others thought her inspired, and that his own belief was that she was a banshee, no less.
At this Brian saw the thing in a more rational light. The old woman knew of this nook in the west, and, attracted to him by his resemblance to the long-dead earl, she had endeavored to steer him thither. After all, it was quite simple.
Of course, old Turlough swore that he had never breathed his name of Bird Daughter to a living soul, and that it was but a name he had used in his own mind for the slim girl who had fetched powder from the south. Brian chuckled, guessing that Turlough was not the only one who had seen carrier pigeons used, and who had ascribed the thing to higher powers.
The incident served the purpose of establishing a firmer intimacy between Brian and the old man, however, and convinced Turlough that his master was destined to fly high. Nor through all the storm of men that befell after did Turlough again breathe reproof as he had dared that day.
"I begin to see that your advice was good, Turlough Wolf," said Brian the next morning, as he rode shivering from camp. "As to making my men know me for their master, that troubles me little; but I think it will be a hard matter to avoid making pacts, and to stand alone."
"Lean on your sword," grunted old Turlough. "To my notion, such friendship as that huge blade of yours can give is better than good. Order men ahead."
Brian nodded and sent two of the men ahead as scouts, with the Wolf himself. For the better part of an hour they made slow headway among the rocks, and then emerged suddenly on the slope leading down to the cliffs and sea. Turlough pointed to the left.
"There lies the tower, if I mistake not."
Drawing rein, Brian saw at once why he had been sent on this errand. Cathbarr's tower was an old ruin at the end of a long and narrow headland—indeed, at high tide most of the headland would be covered, for it was low and yet beyond shot of the cliffs. Except from the water, it was almost impregnable; cannon might have reached it from shore, but two axmen could have held the narrow way against an army.
Brian laughed softly and ordered the men to remain where they were.
"What are you going to do, master?" queried old Turlough anxiously.
"I am going to lean on my sword, as you advised me," chuckled Brian, and rode on alone.
BRIAN LEANS ON HIS SWORD.
As he had foreseen, Brian was allowed to ride across the narrow neck of land where his men would have had to battle for progress. It was from no mere bravado that he had gone forward alone to the tower, but because men were worth saving, and he believed that his own sword was a match for any ax. If this ruffian Cathbarr was a freebooting outlaw, he would be willing enough to stake his ten men on his prowess, and Yellow Brian was very anxious to have those ten axmen behind him.
At the top of the tower men watched and steel glistened, and as Brian rode up to the low gateway, it was flung open and a man strode out. This man hardly came up to Brian's conception of an outlaw, except as to stature.
He was a good six feet four, reflected Brian as he drew rein and waited, and was built in proportion—or, rather, out of proportion. His shoulders and chest seemed tremendous, and a long mail-shirt reached to his knees; his hair was short-clipped and brown, and beneath his curly brown beard Brian made out a massive face, wide-set brown eyes, and an air not so much ruffianly as of cheerful good-humor.
Brian had no need to ask his name, however, for in one hand he carried a weapon such as had seldom seen the light since powder had come to Ireland. It was an ax, some five feet from haft to helve; double-bladed, each blade eight inches long, curved back slightly, and two inches thick by twice as much wide. The edges, which came down sharply from the thickness, were not overkeen, and were not meant to be so. When the thing struck, that was the end of what stood before it.
"Cead mile failte!" cried Cathbarr of the Ax in a deep, rumbling voice, his white teeth flashing through his beard in a smile. "A hundred thousand welcomes to you, swordsman! Are you come to capture my lordly castle?"
"No; your men," laughed Brian, liking this huge, merry giant on the instant. "I am come from O'Donnell Dubh to reduce you and fetch you to him."
The smile froze on the giant's face.
"I am sorry for that, yellow one! I like your face and your thews, and to find that you serve the black traitor of Bertragh is an ill thing."
"I serve no man," answered Brian easily. "I need men. If I conquer you, O'Donnell lends me twoscore men for three months; also, by conquering you I win your men to me, which makes fifty. With my seventy men, I shall fall to work."
"By my faith, a ready reckoner!" and Cathbarr grinned again. "Get down and fight."
Brian swung out of the saddle and led his horse to one side. They were not so badly matched, he reflected. Cathbarr's head was bared, while he had steel cap and jack; but for some reason he felt hesitant at thought of killing this merry giant.
"Not so bad," he said, baring his five-foot blade and holding it up against the huge ax. "Not so bad, eh?"
Cathbarr burst into a laugh.
"It will grieve me to crush your skull, dear man," he rumbled. "What a pair we would make, matched against that Dark Master! But enough. Ready?"
Brian nodded slightly, and the long ax flashed up.
Now, Brian O'Neill had served a stiff apprenticeship at weapons, and had faced many men whose eyes boded him death, but here, for the first time in all his life, he felt the self-confidence stricken out of him.
As Cathbarr heaved up his ax, he became a different man. All the good cheer fled out of his face; his curly brown beard seemed to stand out about his head like snakes, and the massiveness of his body was reflected in the battle-fury of his face. He needed no blows to rouse him into madness; but with the ax swinging like a reed about him, he came rushing at Brian, a giant come to earth from of old time. His men on the tower set up a wild yell of encouragement.
Brian leaped swiftly aside and, thinking to end the fight at a blow, brought down his sword against the descending ax-haft. Sparks flew—the haft was bound with iron; Brian only saved himself from falling by a miracle.
Then began a strange battle of feet against brawn, for Cathbarr rushed and rushed again, but ever Brian slipped away from the falling ax, nor was he able to strike back. The play of that ax was a marvel to behold; it was shield and weapon in one, and it seemed no heavier than a thing of wood as it whirled. Twice Brian got in his point against the mail-coat without effect, and twice the ax brushed his shoulder, so that he gave over thrusting. He knew that he was fighting for his life indeed.
An instant later he discovered that fact anew as a glancing touch of the ax drove off his steel cap and sent him staggering back a dozen paces, reeling and clutching at the air. To his amazement Cathbarr did not follow him, but stood waiting for him to recover; he had not looked for such courtesy on the west coast.
He sprang back into his defense, desperate now. Again the ax whirled, seeming a part of the giant himself, and Brian knew that he was lost if he waited for it. So, instead of waiting, he leaped under the blow, dropped his sword, and drove up his fist into the bearded chin, now flecked with foam.
It was a cruel blow. Cathbarr grunted, his head rocked back, and he swayed on his feet. Before he could recover, Brian had set his thigh against him, caught his arm, and sent him whirling to the ground, ax and all. Then he picked up his sword and stood leaning on it, panting.
Cathbarr sat up and gazed around blankly, until his gaze fell on the waiting figure. Brian looked at him, smiling slightly, and the eyes of the two men met and clinched. As if he had been a child caught doing wrong, the giant grinned and wiped the foam from his beard.
"Was that fair fighting, yellow man?" he asked.
"No," laughed Brian. "It was unfair, Cathbarr; but I think my fists can best your ax yet."
Slowly the giant got to his feet. To Brian's surprise he left his ax where it lay and came forward with extended hand.
"Had you claimed that blow as fair," he rumbled, "I would have slain you. Now I love you, yellow man. Let us make a pact together. What is your name?"
They struck hands, and Brian felt a great thrill of admiration for this man whose terrible strength enclosed the simple heart of a child. But he shook his head.
"I make no pacts, Cathbarr. My name is Brian Buidh. I made pact with the Dark Master, and now I am sorry for it; yet it must be held to, for I see no way out of it. But wait—I have a cunning man whose wit may help us here."
He turned and flung up his sword in the air. His men rode down to the narrow causeway, while from the tower came shouts warning Cathbarr against treachery. But the giant only grinned again, and Brian shouted to Turlough Wolf to come on alone.
Old Turlough obeyed in no little wonder. When he came up Brian told him what had chanced—that out of enmity had arisen friendship.
"But," he concluded, trouble in his heart, "you must find me a way out, Turlough. I have passed my word to O'Donness to reduce Cathbarr; to do that I must slay him, or he me. I see little honor either way."
"Few men find honor in their dealings with the Dark Master," grumbled Turlough, looking from Cathbarr to Brian. "Yet, if you want a way out, it is an easy matter. Cathbarr of the Ax, give service to my master. Thus, Brian Buidh, you shall reduce Cathbarr; yet the Dark Master said naught of giving up this man to him."
"Good!" cried Brian, eagerness in his blue eyes, and swung on the giant. "Will you give me your service, friend, and follow me? There shall be a storm of men—" He paused abruptly as the words fell from his lips, but he had said enough.
"I give you service, Yellow Brian," rumbled Cathbarr, taking his hand again, and his strong, white teeth flashed through his beard. "I will follow you, and my men, and there shall be firm friendship between us. Is it good?"
"It is good!" exclaimed Brian, his heart singing. But Turlough laughed harshly.
"So you have again broken my rede, Brian Buidh, for this man knows you not as his master, but names you his friend. I bade you take, not give."
"It was your own advice," retorted Brian, laughing.
"Aye, since you asked it, I found the way out. But you have not conquered him."
"He conquered me by not telling a lie," said Cathbarr simply. "I serve him."
Turlough eyed them keenly, heard how the fight had gone, and then suddenly comprehended what manner of man this huge, bearded fellow was. His face cleared, and without a word he clasped Cathbarr's hand, and asked Brian for orders.
"How far from here is Bertragh Castle?" questioned Brian.
"It overlooks Bertraghboy Bay," answered the giant. "Bide here till noon, while my men bring in their horses from the hills, and with the night we can arrive there."
To this Brian assented, well pleased that Cathbarr had horses. Turlough went back to bring up his men, and Brian entered the tower that served Cathbarr for castle. It was a small place, but strong; the ten men who took his hand and gave him service were cut after the pattern of their master—huge fellows all, O'Flahertys from the mountains who had followed Cathbarr down to loot the coast, with no ill success.
It was a strange tale that he heard, while he and his men ate and drank with their new comrades. For some months Cathbarr had maintained himself here, raiding O'Donnell's lands chiefly and making his ax feared through all the coast. In fact, the giant had attempted his own errand—to set himself up in power; but he had gone about it like a child.
The Dark Master had come against him with a hundred men, and after losing a score and more at the causeway, had tried to starve him out. At that Cathbarr had calmly stolen away by boat, raided O'Donnell's choicest farms overnight, and was back with his plunder before the Dark Master guessed his absence. After this O'Donnell had kept watch and ward upon his lands, with better results; Cathbarr occupied himself with raiding against the scattered parties of plunderers in the hills, and had won some booty.
Brian discovered many things during the hour or two he waited for the horses to be fetched in. Chief of these was that he had set himself a difficult nut to crack. The Dark Master held a strong castle, with rich farms around it, and could summon at need some three hundred men to his standard. In short, Brian found that O'Donnell held the very position he himself wanted to hold—and was like to keep it.
"Of course," he thought soberly, reflecting on his future course, "if I come off clear to-night I can ride with my seventy men to a better place. And yet—I don't know! What better place than this? It will be no long time before hoofs are in the land, for Royalist and Roundhead and Ulsterman will be storming through the hills; Galway will be the last to give in to Cromwell, of a certainty. When the hurricane falls, I want a roof to shelter me—and whom could I turn out better than this O'Donnell?"
Cathbarr's tower was too small to serve him as a fortalice, for it was barely large enough to shelter the eleven axmen. Suddenly an idea flashed across Brian's mind. Why not a union with this O'Malley woman against the Dark Master?
Upon the thought, he rose and went out to the ice-rimmed shore below the tower, where he paced up and down, considering the matter. After all, it would do no harm, and there were great possibilities in it. He returned to the tower at sound of shouts and clattering hoofs, and took Turlough aside.
"Turlough Wolf, in your advice you spoke against making pacts with men, but you said nothing of women. It is my purpose to send you to this O'Malley castle, to propose a pact with Nuala O'Malley against the Dark Master. You can tell her that I have a hundred horsemen behind me—for I will have them. Will you do this, bearing her word back to me?"
Turlough plucked moodily at his ragged beard.
"I see no harm in such a pact, master," he replied thoughtfully. "As to reaching the Bird Daughter, that is another matter. I think that I can do it, however. When shall I start, and where shall I find you again?"
Brian reflected a moment.
"Start now, Turlough. Cathbarr and I will have no need of advice this night, for we shall either fight our way clear, or else the Dark Master will keep to his word. When you return, you will find me here; if I am not here, I will leave a man here to give you word of me."
"I am to say that you have a hundred horsemen behind you?" Turlough's sharp eyes swept to Brian's half-questioningly.
"Say a hundred and a half," laughed out Brian, "and trust your silver tongue for the rest, old Wolf! Never fear, I will have the men. But mind this, Turlough. I will make no other pact with her than this, against the Dark Master. It may be that when I have driven him forth I may fly after other game."
"Men have sought to drive the Dark Master forth," quoth Turlough, "and their heads have rotted above his gate. Take heed lest there be an empty spike there this night, Yellow Brian!"
But Brian only laughed shortly, and bade the old man affectionate farewell, for he knew that Turlough loved him. And when Turlough had ridden somberly away, Brian felt a strange sense of desertion, of loss, that was no whit inspired by Turlough's gloomy last words. He shook it off, however, at gripping hands again with Cathbarr. The axmen had gathered most of their loot and buried what was of value, for Brian had determined to return here from Bertragh and make use of the tower until he had heard from Turlough's errand.
So now, at the head of thirty men, he rode across the narrow causeway with Cathbarr of the Ax at his side for friend and guide. The giant did not yet quite comprehend exactly what plan had flashed across the brain of old Turlough, so as they rode Brian made the thing clearer to him. When the simple and straightforward Cathbarr grasped the matter, he smote his horse's neck with a bellow of laughter.
"Ho! So you bring me before the Dark Master ax in hand, reduced to your service instead of his, my men added to yours—oh, it is a jest, brother, a jest! I think that O'Donnell will slay us both on the spot!"
"Not if your axmen are true," retorted Brian.
Cathbarr laughed again. "They fear me and they love me, brother," he cried, gazing back at the file of horsemen. "Your own men fear you and love you also. Therefore we are men alike."
Brian began to love the man for his utter simplicity, save where there was killing in hand. Cathbarr seemed in reality to have the heart of a child, impulsive and passionate to an extreme, and there was always a certain rugged power in his bearing which bespoke him a true Flaherty of the mountains. His men were like himself in this respect, and after they had fraternized with Brian's men they began to feel the same unbounded surety in Yellow Brian as Cathbarr expressed. Their axes were the usual splay-bladed affairs that their grandfathers had used under Red Hugh at the Yellow Ford, nor indeed in all his life had Brian ever seen another ax like to that of Cathbarr's.
They rode through the afternoon while a light snow fell and a keen east wind cut down from the peaks of the Twelve Pins, until the shaggy horses slithered along with tails tucked tight beneath them. But there was good cheer in the company, for the news had spread of how Yellow Brian would have seventy men behind him that night. When the darkness began to fall, Bertragh Castle came in sight far below—a gray crag jutting up from the plain, scarped and embattled, the sea behind it and the watch-fires of men twinkling from its keep. All about lay farms and steads, and the lowing of byred cattle rose on the evening air when the snow ceased.
"Be careful not to drink or eat in that hall," warned Cathbarr blackly. "Ill comes of it to all who accept hospitality there."
Brian nodded and rode on in silence, for there were parties of horsemen and pikemen down below and the blare of horns shrilled up. Evidently the riders on the hills had been seen from afar.
As they reached the lower ground Brian was aware of a band of men riding to meet them, and halted. Through the dusk came a score of armed horsemen, and their leader inquired their business, shouting from a safe distance. Brian returned the shout.
"I am Yellow Brian, and I seek O'Donnell Dubh according to a pact made with him yesterday. I have reduced Cathbarr of the Ax, and am come in peace."
"You are expected," called the other, riding up with his men. "The Dark Master is waiting for you."
And Brian rode on to Bertragh, not without some forebodings.
YELLOW BRIAN RIDES SOUTH.
Outside the castle gates, where cressets flared over the snow, an old seneschal appeared and ordered Brian to leave his men outside. To this the men made some objection, but Brian laughed softly.
"Bide where you are," he said. "You shall not be slain unless I am slain inside."
The O'Donnells watched him and Cathbarr with no little wonder, and the two men made a fine pair as they marched across the creaking drawbridge. Though Cathbarr topped Brian by half a head, there was no doubt as to which was the nobler man; the giant gazed around him with amazed eyes, but Brian held his head high and strode in with a smile flickering on his lips. But his blue eyes were very sharp that night.
He saw the crowded men in the courtyard, many of them armed with muskets, their matches burning, and noted also that the Dark Master possessed some half-dozen bastards—immense, nine-foot pieces mounted on huge carriages, with their eight-pound balls piled beside them. In those days it was no small thing to own such cannon in the west of Ireland, and Brian eyed them approvingly as he passed through the courtyard. He was beginning to count them as his own.
Cathbarr had told him that the Dark Master had brought many O'Donnells down from the north to settle the farms and lands beyond the castle, but Brian saw that these were not all. The garrison was a riffraff of all the armies that had wasted Ireland, and they were fighting men fit for their work.
Brian entered the hall, with Cathbarr muttering oaths a pace behind him. The hall was high, lit with cressets, and beside a huge fireplace sat the Dark Master in a carved chair of black wood, an old harper sitting opposite. Behind Brian and Cathbarr flocked in men until the hall was well filled.
Brian found the penetrating eyes fixed on him as he advanced, but in them was no surprise or fear, and O'Donnell calmly stroked his drooping mustache as he watched. Cathbarr still followed behind, bearing that great ax of his, and Brian stopped a few paces from the hearth as the Dark Master spoke.
"Welcome to Bertragh, Yellow Brian. I had not looked for you so soon."
"No." Brian's voice rang out richly in the stillness. "But I am here, O'Donnell Dubh, to claim my two-score men. I have reduced Cathbarr of the Ax."
For the first time the hunched O'Donnell seemed to notice Cathbarr. His black eyes flickered curiously to the giant, then he smiled sourly.
"If he is reduced, why does he not kneel, Brian of the hard eyes?"
"Kneel," ordered Brian.
Cathbarr flushed and his beard began to stand out, but he obeyed. There was no great love in his face as he knelt, holding to his ax, and gazed at O'Donnell.
"Throw your ax into the fire," said the Dark Master, his voice smooth as silk.
"Do not," exclaimed Brian, and his eyes grew bitterly cold as they clinched with those of the Dark Master. Over the latter's pallid face crept a slow red fire, and his head drew back between his shoulders. Men held their breaths.
"O'Donnell," went on Brian slowly, "I have fulfilled my pact. I have reduced Cathbarr of the Ax—but he serves me and not you. Since I have conquered him as you bade, I call on you to carry out the pact and lend me two-score men for three months, scat-free."
If Brian had wanted any testimony as to O'Donnell's iron hand, he had it. His words, with all they implied, would have drawn a howl of rage from the retainers of any other chief in the land, but the men behind and around him only grew more silent.
As for the Dark Master, the red hue died slowly from his face, though his head remained drawn in, and still his eyes held those of Brian. When he spoke, it was as if he were musing aloud.
"So, Brian of the hard eyes, you have some courage, eh? Duar na Criosd! Little did I ever think that a man would come to me and borrow my own men that he might make war upon me! Is this your thought, Yellow Brian?"
"You have sharp ears, Dark Master," said Brian dryly, and a chuckle passed through the crowd. "In time I might take this castle, it is true. Just now I have other things in mind, however, and I shall not fall upon you until there has passed gage of battle between us."
"Thanks for so much," smiled the other slowly, though the red crept up to his cheek-bones faintly. Brian seemed perfectly at his ease, as indeed he was. "And what if I fell upon you first?"
"I am liker to offer battle than accept it, O'Donnell."
"Now, that is a good answer," said the Dark Master, while a whisper floated around the hall. "I would be glad to have you at my back, Yellow Brian, for men who ride behind me are like to win much."
Brian laughed a little.
"Some day I may be at your back, O'Donnell Dubh, and in that day I may win all that you have, from life to goods."
To his blank amazement, O'Donnell only threw out his head and chuckled; but it was an evil chuckle, and there was venom gleaming in his black eyes.
"I think that it were best for me to slay you here, Brian of the hard eyes, to slay you and this Cathbarr of the Ax. It seems to my mind that it is anything but good to turn you loose upon the land, for I hear a storm of hoofs in the air, and dead men are riding on the wind, and there is a whisper—"
He paused, drew his cloak about him, and gazed down at his foot. That pause was more dreadful than speech, for the crowded men moved not a finger, so that Brian all but thought that he and the Dark Master were alone. Then his face blanched a trifle. For, whether it were some uncanny play of mind or very truth, it seemed to him that from the wide fireplace there did indeed come a faint ring of hoofs and clash of steel; the long cressets over them suddenly flickered smokingly, though no draft crossed their faces.
Then indeed Brian knew that his fate hung upon the Dark Master's thoughts, and he drew himself up a little straighter, and his blue eyes glinted colder than any ice as his hand closed upon his sword-hilt. But at the slight motion O'Donnell looked up keenly.
"You have ridden hard, Brian. Pause and sup with me—"
"I did not come to eat or drink," said Brian sternly. "Also, I am weary of this talking. Now fulfil your pact, Dark Master, or be shamed before all your men."
"Are you for Royalist or Parliament?" asked O'Donnell, as if he had not heard.
"I am for Brian Buidh."
"Take two-score men and begone," and the other rose. To his surprise, Brian found that, despite the hunched back, O'Donnell was as tall as himself. The black eyes flamed out at him for an instant. "I will keep my honor, though I regret it later, Yellow Brian. Go, with your men. When next we meet your head shall grin over my gates."
"Thanks for so much," retorted Brian mockingly, though he drew a swift breath of relief. "My head serves me too well to render it easily. Slan leat, O'Donnell!"
"Slan leat," repeated the Dark Master and turned his back, gazing down at the fire.
Brian turned and strode down the hall, Cathbarr at his heels. When they reached the courtyard he found men saddling in haste, and an officer saluted him gravely.
"Two-score men are at your orders, Yellow Brian."
"Let them follow me," said Brian curtly. "And who quarrels with my men, dies."
To that there was no dispute. The drawbridge clanked down once more, Brian and Cathbarr mounted and rode out to where the thirty waited grimly, and after them came the forty men from the garrison. Cathbarr, who trusted the Dark Master little, set his ten axmen in the van, followed with Brian, and the sixty followed them into the night.
"I think we came out of that well, brother," said the giant softly. "Where do we ride?"
"To your tower, for the night. After that, in search of more men."
"Toward Galway or Slyne Head?"
"Wherever there are men."
After that they rode on in silence, while the men behind fraternized freely. All were of the same stamp, and indeed the two-score already were as willing to serve Brian as O'Donnell, since they had witnessed that scene in the castle hall.
Brian wondered dully what the outcome of all this was to be. The strain of facing O'Donnell and bearding him in his own den had been no light one, but he knew that Cathbarr had spoken truth in saying that they were well out of it. The Dark Master, he thought, was a man well worth fighting. To take his castle was not like turning out a chieftain of some ancient family, with his clan about him for miles around; O'Donnell had seized upon the place himself, his men were reavers and outlaws, and the castle was a strong one.
Then there was the O'Malley alliance. Brian had it in mind to beset the Dark Master by sea and land at once, for all the O'Malley clan had been seamen and rovers from time immemorial, while he himself preferred men and horses at his back. In calmer mood now, he reflected that Turlough might not return for a week, and there was food and fodder for seventy men and horses to be obtained.
If he rode toward Galway he would have to plunder the patriots, which went against the grain. But in lower Galway and Clare things were different. That winter no army held to winter quarters save that of Cromwell, and between Limerick and Galway there was a wild rout of men out of half a dozen armies, the plague had swept off all but the seafaring folk, and men held only what their swords could guard.
So Brian determined that he would ride toward the south.
He realized well that his men must be drawn together by fighting, that they must learn a perfect confidence in him, and that they must earn their sustenance for the time being. Cathbarr already knew of old Turlough's mission, and of course approved, since in his eyes Brian could do no wrong. What was more, reflected Brian, he could not make this alliance empty-handed. He must get men and spare horses, stores and powder, and some muskets or pistols if possible, for few of his men carried more than sword or perhaps a sorry pistolet or ancient bombardule out of date a generation since.
"A storm of men!" he muttered as he gazed at the stars. "A storm of men! Did that Black Woman speak truly, I wonder? And what dark magic was that which passed to-night?"
But no answer came to his questions save that the cold stars chilled him to the bone. Since they had no better place to seek, they returned to Cathbarr's tower, but it was long past midnight when they reached it, and the men were nodding in their saddles. As barely a dozen could crowd into the place, the rest were forced to camp outside in the snow, but roaring fires and some little food put them in good humor and it was no hardship to any of them.
"It has been a strange two days for us twain," said Brian as he and Cathbarr divided a scorched bannock one of the Scots had hastily turned out over the coals.
"Yes," smiled the giant into his beard, his deep-throated bull's voice rumbling through their tiny room. "But it is in my mind that there are stranger days ahead of us, Brian Buidh. A witch-woman once told me that I would meet my death from water and fire together, brother, in a cause not mine own."
"You are not bound to my service," replied Brian.
"But I am bound to you, for I like you," answered Cathbarr, and his hand crushed down on Brian's. That night they slept together beneath the same blanket, and though after that they spoke few words of love or friendship, the two men drew ever closer each to the other in all things.
It had indeed been a strange two days for him, thought Brian as he roused up the camp late the next morning and set out sentries in the hills. He had met the Dark Master on the first, and on the second he had met Cathbarr, then had forced the Dark Master into lending him men against his will. Now, after a scant three days beyond Lough Corrib, he had twined his fate with that of other men, had set his heart upon winning Bertragh Castle, and had won both a stout friend and a stout enemy.
For he counted O'Donnell as a foe, in which he was not far wrong.
However, there was no time to be wasted, for fodder was exceeding scanty, and Brian himself had no heart for idleness. As he had resolved on his course during that return ride the night before, he gathered his men together and briefly ordered them to be ready to ride at noon, and to Cathbarr alone he outlined his plan. Then he picked two of the axmen who knew the country roundabout, and ten from among those O'Donnell had loaned him, and took them aside and told them of Turlough Wolf, who would come before long.
"You will bide here," he concluded, "and bid him wait for me. I shall return this side of ten days. And mind you, if there is feud or treachery among you so that one man's blood is let, then I will exact a tenfold vengeance from both men."
The twelve, who were sturdy ruffians and well able to hold the place against any sudden attack by the Dark Master, looked into the ice-blue eyes for an instant, and straightway vowed that there would be neither treachery nor quarreling among them. And Brian guessed shrewdly that he had inspired some little fear in their hearts.
So that at high noon they rode away to the east, threescore strong, with Brian and Cathbarr and the remaining eight axmen in the van. Brian did not spare either man or horse that day, for there was little food left them; when midnight came they had slipped past Galway and were ready to ride south, though they all went to rest supperless.
With the morning Brian found that two of the men had slipped off and were busy plundering a hill-farm a mile away, where an old woman lived alone. He promptly had them brought before him, and bade them take up their weapons.
"I am no executioner," he said as he bared his huge sword. "I am a teacher of lessons, and my lessons must be learned."
When they rode away from that place, leaving the two men buried under cairns, Brian was well assured that there would be no more ravaging by his men, though they died of hunger.
However, it proved that there was no great chance of this, for Brian drove such a storm past Slieve Aughty as had not been heard of in generations. Of all that chanced in those seven days ere he set his face to the north again, not much has survived, for there were greater storms to come afterward, and more talked-of fighting. But certain things were done which had a sequel.
By the fifth day Brian had swept past Gort toward Lough Graney, and turned west by Crusheen, which he passed through with a hundred horsemen at his heels. Two days before he had struck upon fifty Ulstermen who were working north from Munster, and what were left of them after the meeting took service with him. From them he learned that O'Neill was dying or dead, and that the Royalists and Confederacy men were paralyzed through the south.
They had left Crusheen ten miles behind them on the fifth day, when Cathbarr laid his hand on Brian's knee and pointed to the left, where a hill rose against the sky.
"Look there, boucal—when the birds fly from the ceanabhan, seek for snakes!"
Brian drew rein. Gazing at the long slopes of moor-grass that rose across the hill, he saw a sudden flight of blackbirds from over the crest; they flew toward him, then swerved swiftly and darted to the right. Brian called up two of his men who knew the country, and asked them what lay over the hill.
"The Ennis road to Mal Bay," they replied, and he sent them ahead to scout.
Before he reached the hill-crest they were back with word that an "army" was on the road, and Brian pushed forward with Cathbarr to see for himself. Slipping from their horses, they gained the hilltop and looked over on the winding road beyond. Neither of them spoke, but Brian's eyes glinted suddenly, for he beheld a train of four wagons convoyed by some two hundred troopers. He touched Cathbarr and they returned.
"A party of Ormond's Scottish troopers," he said quietly when they had rejoined the men. "Cathbarr, take thirty men and work around them. When you strike, I will lead over the hill and flank them."
The giant nodded, picked his men, and rode away. Brian led his seventy closer to the rise of ground, and as they waited they could hear the creaking of wagons and the snap of whips. It was a Royalist convoy, and since there was no love between the Scots and the Irish of any party, Brian's men were hungry for the fight.
They got their fill that day.
A rippling shout, a scattering of shots, and Brian spurred forward. The road wound a hundred yards below, and Cathbarr had already fallen on the vanguard. The Scots were riding forward to whelm him when Brian's men drove down with a wild yell and smote the length of their flank.
Brian hewed his way to the side of Cathbarr, and then the sword and ax flashed side by side. The captain in command of the troopers pistoled Cathbarr's horse, but the huge ax met his steel cap and Cathbarr was mounted again. Meanwhile, Brian was engaged with a cornet who had great skill at fencing, and his huge Spanish blade touched the young officer lightly until the Scot pulled forth a pistol, and at that Brian smote with the edge.
The muskets and pistols of the troopers worked sad havoc among Brian's men at first, but there was no chance to reload, and when the officers had gone down the Scots lost heart. They would have trusted to no Gaelic oaths, for men got no quarter in the west, but when Brian shouted at them in English they listened to him right willingly. A score broke away and galloped breakneck for the south again, and perhaps fifty had gone down; the rest gathered about the wagons stared at Brian and Cathbarr in superstitious awe as the two lowered bloody ax and sword and offered terms.
"I offer service to you," said Brian. "I am Brian Buidh, and if you will ride with me you shall find war. Those who wish may return to Ennis."
Now, at the most Brian had some seventy-five men left, and those clustered at the wagons were over a hundred and a score, with muskets. But their officers were down, they had received no pay for a year and more, and they were for the most part Macdonalds of the Isles, who loved freebooting better than army work. So out of them all only ten men chose to ride to Ennis again, and Cathbarr shook his head as they departed.
"It seems to me that ill shall come of this," he said, and wiped his ax clean.
Brian laughed shortly and dismounted. He found that the wagons contained powder, stores, and muskets; so after placing the wounded in them, he rode north to Corrofin that day with close to two hundred men at his back. Staying that night at Corrofin, he hanged ten of the Scots for plundering, rested his horses for two days, and set his face homeward with the surety that his men knew him for master.
The storm of men was gathering fast.
BRIAN TAKES CAPTIVES.
"Failte abhaile! Welcome, Yellow Brian!"
"So you won back before me, eh?" Brian swung down from his horse and gripped hands with old Turlough Wolf. "Get the men camped, Cathbarr, then join us."
Turlough's cunning eyes rested on the wagons and weary horsemen, and he nodded approvingly as Brian told him of what had chanced.
"Said I not that you were a master of men?" he chuckled quietly, as he turned to follow into Cathbarr's tower. "But it is easier to master men than women, Brian. I bear you a bitter rede from the Bird Daughter, master."
"Hard words fare ill on empty stomachs," quoth Brian. "Keep it till I have eaten."
When Cathbarr had joined them and they had dined well on Royalist stores and wine, Turlough made report on his mission. It seemed that he had met with a party of the O'Malleys at the head of Kilkieran Bay at the close of his first day's ride, and after hearing his errand they had taken him in their ship out to Gorumna Isle, where stood the hold of Nuala, the Bird Daughter. And somewhat to his own amazement, Turlough had found that by this same name she was known along the whole coast.
He reported that it was a strong place, for the castle had been built by her father; that she had two large ships and five small ones, and that both ships and castle were defended by all manner of "shot"—meaning cannon. She had just returned from Kinsale, where she had been aiding Blake hold Prince Rupert's fleet in the bay. Now Rupert had slipped away, and after plundering a French ship with wines, she had come home again.
"She seems a woman of heart," smiled Brian. "What of her looks?"
"I did not see her." Turlough shook his head. "She ordered my message written out, so she has some clerkly learning. She took an hour to ponder it, master, then set me ashore with this message.
"'Tell Yellow Brian,' she ordered, 'that I claim tribute from Golam Head to Slyne. I will make no pact with him until he pay me tribute; and if I find him on my land I will set him in chains above my water-gate.'"
Brian felt no little dismay at this, for he had counted strongly on alliance with this Bird Daughter.
However, Turlough proceeded to set forth the reasons for such a message, as he had conceived them within his shrewd mind. First, it seemed that the pestilence had visited Gorumna in the absence of its mistress, and that the Dark Master had caught a score of the O'Malleys who had been wrecked in Bertraghboy Bay, promptly hanging them all. Between the plague and the hanging Nuala had a bare fourscore men left within the castle, and she counted Brian's offer as a ruse on the part of O'Donnell, for she was strongly afraid of treachery.
"There is more pride than power in that message," commented Cathbarr easily. "The Dark Master has stripped away all her lands along the coast, and save for Kilkieran Bay she has little left. Let us fall on her, brother, and take what is left."
Brian laughed at this naive counsel, looking at Turlough. But the old Wolf said nothing, brooding over the fire, and Brian reflected within himself.
He had come into a merciless feud, that he knew well. If he was to enter upon it he must banish all pity from his heart, which was no easy thing for him; but Turlough related things he had heard which speedily changed his mind. There were tales of O'Donnell's ridings through the land, of men slaughtered and women carried off to people his castle; of treachery, and worse.
It was also whispered that the Dark Master had made alliance with certain pirates from the north coast.
However, Brian knew that he must reach some decision regarding his own men, and that speedily. The three talked long that night, setting aside the question of the O'Malley alliance for the time being. Brian had some two hundred men to house and horses to feed; he had good store of provision and powder, but Cathbarr's little tower was utterly useless to house the tenth of them all, while the stores would have to be sheltered. Then O'Donnell might fling his men on them at any moment, which would mean disaster in their present position.
Cathbarr suggested an attack on Bertragh castle, but Turlough dissented.
"When we strike, we must strike to win," he said shrewdly. "The Dark Master has more men than we, and the sea is at his back, and they say he is a warlock to boot."
The giant stared and crossed himself at talk of warlocks, but Brian laughed out.
"I have a plan," he said, fingering his sword. "O'Donnell watches all the hill-paths like a hawk, even now in winter. Those wagons are of no great use to us, and we can store the goods here in the tower for the present. Get it done to-night, Cathbarr, and get the accouterments from two of those largest Scots for yourself and me."
Turlough Wolf chuckled suddenly, and Brian knew that the old man had pierced to something of his plan. But not all.
"Turlough," he went on as the scheme came to him more clearly, "at dawn ride out with a hundred men to that hill-road where first we met the Dark Master. Hide the men in the hills, and be ready to ride hard when the time comes. Cathbarr, before the dawn breaks have the wagons start out with twenty of the Scots troopers as escort. Bid as many more as can lie down in the wagons and cover up close with their muskets. Send a man or two with them to guide to that hill-road of which I spoke. We will ride after and catch them up shortly after sunrise."
"Good!" roared out the giant, whose brains lay all in his ax. "And the Dark Master will swoop down to the feast, eh?"
"He will not," returned Brian dryly. "He will send two or threescore men upon us, and it is my purpose to take as many of these prisoner as may be."
Cathbarr stared, and Turlough's gray eyes squinted up at Brian.
"How is this, master?" he asked inquiringly. "It is too good a trap to waste on prisoners—"
"My plan is my plan," said Brian briefly. "I am not making war on O'Donnell, but I intend to pay tribute to the Bird Daughter, and that right soon. While we are gone have a score of men remain here and build huts on the cliffs, Cathbarr."
Turlough fell to staring into the fire, divining the plan at length, and Cathbarr went out to fulfil his orders. Brian knew well that there was danger in the scheme, but he determined to deal with one thing at a time, and thoroughly. Just at present he was intent on forming an alliance with Nuala O'Malley, for ships and cannon were needful before he could nip the Dark Master in his hold. It was going to cost the lives of men, and he made up his mind not to pause for that. If he was to live and make head it must be by the strong hand alone—the Red Hand of Tyr-owen; and he looked down at the ring of Owen Ruadh and took it for a symbol, as his ancestors had taken it.
Before they went to rest Turlough pointed out that if the hills were watched he and his hundred would be noted, so Brian bade him hit back toward Lough Corrib and then to come straight down upon the main road. It might be that he could overcome the Dark Master's men of himself, and if not, he would hold them until Turlough came up.
With this plan arranged, then, the four wagons set forth under the cold stars, with thirty Scots lying hidden and twenty riding before and behind. With the first gleam of dawn Turlough and his hundred cantered off to the northeast, and an hour later Brian and Cathbarr put on the buff coats and steel jacks of the troopers, with the wide morions; took a pair of loaded pistols, and galloped after the slow-moving wagons. Brian wore his Spanish blade, but Cathbarr had sent his ax ahead with the troopers.
They caught up with the wagons when the latter were entering upon the road proper out of the hill-track they had followed. The first snows had vanished for the most part, leaving bleak, gaunt hills and rugged crags that twisted with soft fog. The sun struck the fog away, however, and as Brian rode on he gazed up at the purple mountains on his right, and down at the purple bog to his left, and caught the gleam of the Bertraghboy water out beyond. He laughed as he drank in the keen air of morning.
"Best get your edge ready, Cathbarr of the Ax!"
Cathbarr grunted, and slung the heavy hammer-ax at his saddlebow. One of the guides, who were from the Dark Master's twoscore men, pointed to a twisted peak on their right, whence an almost invisible spiral of gray smoke wound up.
"The signal, Yellow Brian," he grinned, cheerfully giving away his secrets. In fact, all those twoscore men rather hoped that their old master would be crushed by Brian, for so long as there was booty in sight they cared not whom they served.
Half an hour later Brian saw ahead of him that same bend of road where first he and Turlough had met O'Donnell Dubh. But there was no sign of Turlough, and he cantered ahead to see if the O'Donnell men were below. As he did so a bullet sang past his ear, and he whirled to see half a dozen of his men go down beneath a storm of lead from the hillsides; at the same instant some three-score men came scrambling down from among the rocks—those same rocks where he had first laid ambush for the Dark Master.
And riders were coming up on the road below!
He was caught very neatly, and caught by more men than he had looked for. The remainder of the twenty gathered behind him and Cathbarr, and the thirty rose among the wagons and for a moment stopped the assault with their musketry; but before the smoke had cleared away two-score horsemen came thundering up the road from behind the curve, and struck.
The wild yells shrilled up, and the Scots troopers knew that they were fighting without quarter in sight, for the "Albanach," as they were termed in Gaelic, gave and got little mercy in Ireland. The saddles of the fallen were filled from the men in the wagons, and leaving the musketeers to hold off the unmounted men, Brian plunged into the swirl of fighting horsemen and joined Cathbarr.
The odds were heavy, but the big claymores of the Scots were heavier still. Side by side, Brian and Cathbarr plunged through the ranks, sword biting and ax smiting, until they stood almost alone among the O'Donnells, for their men had been borne back. Then the giant bellowed and his ax crushed down a man stabbing at Brian's horse; Brian pistoled one who struck at Cathbarr's back, and pressing their horses head to tail they faced the circle of men, while behind them roared the battle.
For a moment the O'Donnells held off, recognizing the pair, then one of them spurred forward with a howl of delight.
"Dhar mo lamh, Yellow Brian—your head to our gates!"
Brian thrust unexpectedly, and the man went over his horse's tail as the ring closed in. So far Cathbarr had forgotten his pistols, but now he used them, and took a bullet-crease across his neck in return; then the ax and sword heaved up together, and the ring surged back. A skean went home in Cathbarr's horse, however, and the giant plunged down, but with that Brian spurred and went at the O'Donnells with the point of his blade. This sort of fighting was new to them, and when Brian had spitted three of them he heard Cathbarr's ax crunch down once more.
They were still cut off from the wagons, but there came a wild drumming of hoofs, and wilder yells from the men on the hillside. Like a thunder-burst, Turlough and his hundred broke on the battle. The O'Donnells were swallowed up, stamped flat; the unmounted men fled among the rocks, Turlough's men after them, and a dozen horsemen went streaming down the road.
It was hard to make the maddened Scots take prisoners, but Brian did it, and when Turlough's men came back he found that they had in all thirty captives. Some forty of the attackers had fallen and the rest had fled.
Since all his captives expected no less than a quick death, Brian ordered ten of them bound on spare horses, of which there were plenty. He himself had lost twenty-three of his Scots, and the remaining score of captives cheerfully took service under him. Then, picking out one of them, he gave the man a horse and told him to ride home.
"Tell your master, O'Donnell Dubh," he said, "that his men made this attack on me, and therefore there is war between us."
The man grinned and departed at a gallop, and word passed through the men that the Dark Master had found his match at last. As to this, however, they were fated to change their opinion later.
"Now," said Brian to old Turlough, as between them they bound up a slash in Cathbarr's thigh, "do you put the wounded in the wagons and begone home again. Set out sentries against an attack from O'Donnell, and scatter a score of men out along the roads to watch for other parties. You might pick up another score of recruits, Turlough Wolf."
Turlough shook his head and tugged at his beard.
"Best take me with you, master, instead of this overgrown ox. You may need brains in dealing with the Bird Daughter, and he has no more brains than strew his ax-edge. Also he is wounded."
Brian pondered this, while Cathbarr furtively shook a fist at Turlough. There was wisdom in the advice, but on the other hand Brian did not like to leave his precious two hundred men in care of Cathbarr. If the Dark Master attacked suddenly, as he was like to do, brains would be more needed than brawn.
On the other hand, he counted on Cathbarr's open face removing the evident suspicion that the smooth-tongued Turlough had raised in Gorumna Isle. It had been a mistake, he saw plainly, to send such an emissary on his mission. Picturing this woman who led her own ships to war, he limned her in his mind as a large-boned, flat-breasted, wide-hipped creature—and with good reason. He had seen women fighting at Drogheda and he had seen them in other places as he rode to the rest, for in those days many a woman took her slain lord's skean fada and drew blood for Ireland before she was cut down. And when women rode to battle there was no mercy asked or given, from Royalist or Confederate or Parliament man.
Nuala O'Malley was a woman of blood, said Brian to himself, and he would give her blood for her help.
So he curtly refused Turlough's advice, saw that the ten bridles of his bound and mounted captives were lined together, and beckoned to Cathbarr. Before they rode off, however, they doffed their Scot accouterments and took back their own garments, after which Cathbarr led the way over the hills to Kilkieran Bay, and Turlough took command of the force in sullen ill-humor.
The morning was still young, for the attack had taken place a short two hours after sunrise and had soon been quelled. Beyond a slashed thigh and a red-creased neck, Cathbarr of the Ax was unhurt, and Brian had received no scratch. If the ten captives wondered why they were bound and their comrades freed, they said nothing of it.
Even after seeing what he had of the merciless war in Ireland, Brian had much ado in making up his mind to hold to the plan he had formed on the previous evening. These ten ruffians were scoundrels enough, to judge by looks, and yet they were men; and he had been raised in no such school of war as this, where surrender meant slaughter without pity. However, he determined to do what he could for them, and he would have held to this determination had it not been for what chanced when they rode down to the little fishing village where Turlough had met the O'Malley men.
They arrived just as the evening was darkling, after a hard day's ride.
As they came within sight of the place, which lay at the head of Kilkieran water, Brian made out that a small galley was pulled up on shore, and there were a number of men about the huts. Upon the approach of the two chiefs with their file of captives there was an instant scurry of figures; women ran to the huts, and a dozen or more roughly clad men appeared with pikes and muskets. Brian held up his hand in sign of peace and rode slowly onward, Cathbarr at his side, to within a dozen paces of the huts.
"Who are you?" cried out one of the musketeers. "Be off!"
"Bark less, dog," said Brian, scorn in his eye. "We seek Nuala O'Malley. Take us out to Gorumna Isle in your boat."
"What seek ye with the Bird Daughter?" queried the other suspiciously.
"Her business, not yours."
The seamen gazed at them doubtfully, then a number of other men came from the huts, well-armed. One of these set up a cry, pointing at the captives, and a burst of yells answered him from the rest. Next instant Brian and Cathbarr had their weapons out and were facing an excited crowd of men.
"Be silent, dogs!" bellowed Cathbarr, and his voice quelled the uproar. "What means this attack? Would you have the Bird Daughter strip you with whips, fools?"
The spokesman stood out, his dark face quivering with fury as he pointed.
"That is as it may be, axman, but first those bound men shall die. One is the man who slew my brother, nailing him to his own door till he died; another is he who burned Lame Art's wife and child last Whit-Sunday—"
"There is he who lopped my husband's hands and nose! Slay him!" shrieked out a hag as she burst forward. Brian held out his sword and she drew back, but instantly others had taken up the cry.
"And the devil who hung Blind Ulick!"
"There is he who—"
In that brief moment Brian heard things too horrible for speech. The ten bound men had grouped together, some pale as death, others laughing defiantly. But as the crowd surged forward Brian held up his sword, and they paused to listen; he knew now that there was no more pity in his heart for these black ruffians of O'Donnell's.
"Let the Bird Daughter render judgment upon them," he shouted. "Friends, take us to the Bird Daughter and let her do as she will, for I bear these men to her alone."
At that the crowd fell silent, but their leader gave a rapid order, and half a dozen men ran down to the strand. Another order, and the maddened villagers gave back as the seamen closed about Brian and Cathbarr and their captives.
"Come," said the leader roughly. "You shall go to Gorumna Isle with us, strange men, but I do not think that you shall ever come back again."
"Nor do I," grinned Cathbarr in the ear of Brian, as they left their horses to the fishermen, unbound the prisoners from their steeds, and made their way down to the galley. Brian looked at his friend, and they both smiled grimly.
THE BIRD DAUGHTER.
"Now, there is a castle worth the taking, Yellow Brian!" said Cathbarr.
Brian nodded, his eyes shining in the starlight. After a pull of a long seven miles down the bay, the galley had rounded into the northern end of Gorumna Isle, guided by a high beacon set among the stars. As they drew nearer Brian made out that this beacon was set on the tower of a high pile of masonry black against the sky, lit here and there by cressets, and it was plain that the Bird Daughter kept good watch since they had more than once been hailed in passing the islands.
Once turned into the harbor, Brian found suddenly that they were among ships, many of them small galleys, but two of good size which bore riding-lights. Again they responded to hails, and without warning a few torches blazed out ahead of them. Then it was seen that the castle was built with its lower part close on the water, and its upper part rising on the crag. In reality, as he found later, it was two castles in one, as of necessity it had to be. Were the opposite isles held by an enemy, and hostile ships in the little harbor, the higher towers running up the crag could dominate all, and the lower castle could be abandoned without danger.
Even in the starlight Brian's trained soldier's eye made out something of this. Then the leader of the seamen came and stood beside them, for during the two-hours' trip he had talked somewhat with Cathbarr and had come to look with more respect on Brian himself. That was only natural, for seamen ever like those men who talk least.
"Strangers," he said with rough courtesy, "a word in your ear. If you would gain speech with the Lady Nuala, deal not with her as with me. Send in your names and your business, and you may perchance get to see her in the morning, or a week hence, as she may choose."
"Thanks," answered Brian. "But my will is not like to hang upon hers."
The seaman shrugged his shoulders, the oars were put in, and they floated up to where the torches flared. Here there was a landing-place of hewn stone, with a gate lying open beyond it, and armed men waiting. One of these, from his bunch of huge keys and air of authority, Brian knew for the seneschal.
"M'anam go'n Dhia!" he growled, peering down into the boat as it ground on the stone, "what fish have you there?"
"Two salmon and ten herring, Muiertach," laughed one of the men. Brian and his friend stepped out while the ten prisoners were prodded after them, and Brian found the seneschal looking him over with some wonder, hands on hips.
"Well! A giant with a devil's ax, and Cuculain, the Royal Hound, come to life again! Who are you, yellow man, and who is this axman, and who are these ten bound men?"
Brian was minded to answer curtly enough, but he looked at the seneschal and remembered the seaman's kindly warning. Under his eye the laugh withered suddenly on the seneschal's lips.
"These ten men belong to me, Muiertach. Go, tell the Bird Daughter that Brian Buidh and Cathbarr of the Ax have come to her, bringing tribute as she demanded."
Now it was that Cathbarr, who had asked no questions all that day, perceived for the first time the reason of their fighting and hard riding, and what the manner of that tribute was. He broke into a great bellow of laughter so that the rough-clad seamen stared at him in wonder, but at a word from Brian he quieted instantly.
"In the morning the message shall be delivered, Brian Buidh," returned burly Muiertach with a glimmer of respect in his voice. "And now render up your weapons, so that we may treat you as guests—"
"So you sea-rovers are afraid of two men, lest they capture your hold?"
Brian's biting words brought a deep flush to Muiertach's face.
"No weapons do we render," he went on, his voice cold as his eyes. "We come as guests, seneschal, and our business is not with you. Take these ten men to your dungeons, take us to guest chambers and give us to eat, and see that we have speech with the Bird Daughter before to-morrow's sun is high."
At this Muiertach growled something into his beard, but turned with a gesture of assent. His men closed around the captives, while Brian and Cathbarr followed him into the castle, the giant still chuckling to himself with great rumbles of laughter.
"Let strict watch be kept over these two," said Muiertach in English to one of the torchmen who accompanied them, thinking he would not be understood.
"You may yet get a touch of the whip for that order," said Brian in the same tongue.
Stricken with amazement, Muiertach turned and stared at him, jaw dropping, while Cathbarr glanced from one to the other in perplexity. Brian smiled.
"Lead on, and talk less."
With tenfold respect, the seneschal obeyed. Now Brian saw that this castle was indeed a stronghold, and might easily be defended by fewer men than it had. The inner walls of the lower castle were well lined with falcons and falconets, while on the towers above peered out heavier cannon, which he took for culverins from their length of nose. Crossing the courtyard, they entered the building itself, and Muiertach led them through upward-winding corridors, studded with cressets and with here and there a recessed prie-dieu in the wall.
From the snatches of talk behind the doors they passed, Brian guessed that this lower castle was occupied by the garrison. In this he was right, for with torchmen before and behind them they emerged into the cold night air again and climbed upward, coming to a gate in the wall of the upper castle. This stood open, but it clanged shut behind them, and after crossing a steep courtyard they entered a second and broader corridor.
Muiertach led them up a long flight of stairs, then another, and finally flung open a heavy door. It was evident that they were lodged in one of the towers.
"Rest sound and fear not to eat our food," said the seneschal. "Beannacht leath!"
"Blessing on you," responded Brian and Cathbarr together, and entered.
For a wonder, Brian found that the chamber was lighted with candles, which Cathbarr examined with no little awe. Also, it contained a very good bed, on which the giant looked with suspicion. The hard stone walls were hung with tattered tapestries, and before they had settled well into their chairs two men entered with food and wine of the best.
"Not so bad," smiled Brian as they ate. "How come your wounds, brother?"
"Those scratches? Bah!" And the giant gurgled down half a quart of Canary at a stretch. "You are not going to sleep on that bed of cloths?"
"That I am," laughed Brian, "and soon, for I am overweary with riding. Try it, Cathbarr, and you will be glad of it."
"Not I! Since there is no bracken here the floor is good enough for me. Eh, but this sea-woman will have a thought in her mind over your message, brother!"
Brian chuckled, but he was too weary with that day's work to talk or think, and when the remnants of their meal had been removed and their door shut, he gratefully sought the first bed he had known for weeks. After some laughing persuasion he prevailed on the suspicious Cathbarr to blow out the candles, and upon that he fell asleep.
When he wakened it was broad daylight, and Cathbarr was still snoring with his ax looped about his wrist as usual. Brian, feeling like a new man, went to the open casement and looked out.
He found himself gazing through a three-foot stone wall, and as he was doubtless in one of the towers, this argued that the lower walls were twelve feet thick or more. The lower castle was hid from him, but his view was toward the upper bay and included the harbor. The two larger ships, which were small caracks, but large for the west coast in that day, bore six guns on a side, and Brian saw that they were being scrubbed and made shipshape. The Bird Daughter must be a woman of some scrupulousness, he reflected. Beyond the brown sails of two fishing-boats, and low, storm-boding clouds over the farther hills, there was nothing more in sight.
As Cathbarr still wore his long mail-shirt, Brian kicked him awake, and after his first bellowing yawn their door opened and men brought in jars of water. When the giant's wounds had been dressed, under protest, and they had broken their fast, the seneschal appeared.
"Chieftains," he said respectfully, "the Lady Nuala has received your message and will have speech with you this afternoon. Until then she wishes that you keep your chamber, since she knows not your mind in this visit."