Saturday, 26 July 2008

Nostalgia Trip #18: THE BARROW

Originally published in KINGS OF THE NIGHT anthology from Cyber Pulp, Editor G.W. Thomas, and later by G.W.'s own imprint, R A G E Machine.

The storm came suddenly out of the southeast, bringing with it darkness and monstrous waves that crashed over the galley and threatened to send her to the sea bottom.  The oarsmen pulled for all they were worth, but could make little headway against the storm's savage, unrelenting fury.  Ranald of Skyree knew that their only chance of survival rested in reaching the safety of the sheltered harbor that lay somewhere ahead, obscured by the blinding rain.

Ranald held his course and prayed the winds wouldn't drive them onto the rocks.  He'd lashed himself to the tiller to stop himself from being washed overboard.  He wiped stinging salt water from his eyes and peered at the tall figure who stood at the bows, acting as lookout, risking his life by thus exposing himself to the elements.  But Ranald expected no less of Dughal, High King of the Caledon tribes.  Dughal would not cower from the storm and let another man take his place.  It was not his way.

Dughal signaled frantically.  Ranald saw why:  up ahead, two points off their port bow, a light shone.  The twin signal fires, marking the entrance to the safe harbor they so desperately sought.  Dughal bared his teeth in a triumphant grin, and Ranald grinned back at him.  They had endured the worst of the storm and survived.  Ranald shook off his relief and took the galley in toward the signal fires, the constantly burning beacons that lit their way to safety.

The great blow turned the galley over onto its side, throwing screaming men into the boiling sea.  Ranald lost his footing and his head struck the tiller.  He blacked out for a moment.  When he opened his eyes again and looked to the bows, King Dughal was gone.  Ranald couldn't understand what had happened.  He could still see the signal fires, dead ahead.  They couldn't have struck the rocks.  Couldn't have.

The waves smashed into the galley with pitiless cruelty.  The ship disintegrated, its timbers unable to withstand the pounding.  Ranald tried to untie himself so he could look for Dughal but the soaked, knotted ropes binding him to the tiller would not unravel, and Ranald's scabbard was empty.  The broken stern slid down into the foaming sea, which parted briefly to reveal jagged black rocks.  The steersman took his confusion with him to his watery grave.


A persistent banging at the door dragged Dulnain from a deep sleep and sent his hand questing for his shortsword.  He rose from his cot, draped his blanket about his shoulders and staggered to the door.  The floorboards were freezing cold beneath his bare feet.

"Who's there?" he demanded.

Incoherent words reached him.  He recognized Grigor's voice, opened the door and peered outside.  The balding innkeeper stood there with his wife and his two daughters.  Dulnain had noticed the girls when he'd arrived.  The younger, red-haired girl was pretty but too slim, while the older, dark-haired one had wider hips but rivaled the cows in Grigor's byre for beauty.  Small wonder Grigor hadn't been able to marry her off yet.

"What is it, man?" Dulnain growled.  "It's the middle of the night."

"Nordlanders," Grigor said.  "Padraig says they're coming this way."  Padraig was Grigor's stable hand.  The dark-haired girl glanced nervously at the stairs, as if she expected the Nordlanders to appear there at any moment.  They were all afraid, and small wonder.  Nordlanders slew men and womenfolk alike to appease their blood god, Fel.  What was it the priests of Daras had written before they were slaughtered in their sanctuary on Skyree?  Save us, Oh Daras, from the fury of the Nord.  Their prayers hadn't worked; Daras the Charitable had looked the other way, as He usually did.  The Nordlanders had slaughtered the priests in the worst ways imaginable.

Dulnain had come here to sell his father's cattle at tomorrow's market.  The coin would purchase supplies to help take his family through the harsh mountain winter.  He wasn't here to fight Nordlanders or defend Grigor's womenfolk.

"You must help us," the wife said, perhaps seeing his hesitation.  "You are a Caledon warrior.  You have a sword."

Dulnain glanced down at the iron shortsword his father had given him, remembering his advice:  Never involve yourself in someone else's battles.  Always be your own man.  He didn't want them to think him a coward, but he'd little choice in the matter.  "This is none of my business," he said gruffly.  He noted the wife's surprise, and the dark-haired daughter's disappointment.

But Grigor gave Dulnain a reason for involvement:  "They'll steal your animals as well as ours.  You think they care who owns which beast?"

Dulnain imagined the consequences of coming home without coin or supplies.  "Give me a moment," he said, trying desperately to think.  He pushed the door shut, shrugged off the blanket and dressed quickly, pulling on his trews and his shirt, and the sheepskin jerkin his mother had given him.  Next, he sat on the edge of the cot and pulled on his woolen socks and leather boots.  Feeling considerably warmer, he picked up his sword again and strode to the door.

"Have you a weapon?" he said to Grigor as he stepped out onto the landing.

"He was a bowman once," the wife said.  "He fought with King Dughal's army at Blood Moor, against the Nordlanders.  But a Nordlander ax split his shoulder.  He cannot pull the string any more."

Dulnain recalled seeing the great longbow hanging above the stone fireplace in the common room downstairs, but he was no more an archer than he was a swordsman, so the bow was useless to him.

"How many Nordlanders are there?" he said.

"Padraig counted six," Grigor said.  "But there must surely be more.  Their dragon ships can hold ten times that number."

Sixty Nordlanders!  The odds were against Dulnain, but he'd no choice.  Tonight he must be a warrior instead of a farmer, if he wanted to keep his father's cattle.  "Stay here," he said, heading for the stairs.

"What will you do?" said the wife.

Dulnain frowned.  Did she expect him to have a plan of battle?  "I will see what is to be seen," he said, hoping that was a good enough answer.

He descended to the inn's darkened common room.  The smell of stale pipeweed smoke still hung in the air, but the tables had been cleaned and the floor brushed.  Grigor's womenfolk kept a tidy house.  Dulnain crept to a window and peered outside.  Nothing was moving out there.  He wondered whether the dozy stable hand might have been dreaming.  Nordlanders, indeed!

A dark, tall figure stepped out of the house opposite the inn, clad in fur and leather and carrying a longsword that gleamed in the pale moonlight.  He looked left and right as he crossed the ground between the house and the inn.  Behind him, orange fire took hold inside the house, spreading up the walls to the thatched roof.

Dulnain experienced a pang of fear for whoever dwelled in the house—then realized they were probably dead already.  He drew back the locking bar so the Nordlander would have no trouble opening the door, and stepped away from the door.

"What are you doing?  Are you mad?"

Dulnain spun, surprised.  The older daughter had followed him.  He wanted to shout at her to go back upstairs, but the Nordlander would hear him.  He put a finger to his lips instead, warning her to silence, and turned back to face the door.

The Nordlander kicked the door open and Dulnain threw himself at the huge shadow, sinking the iron blade deep into the warrior's guts.  The Nordlander glared at him, eyes wide, lips drawn back to expose uneven teeth.  Then his longsword slipped from his hand and he collapsed, dead.  Dulnain stumbled back, hardly able to believe he'd killed the warrior so easily.

"Watch out!" the girl shouted.

A second Nordlander leapt over the body of his comrade and struck at Dulnain, sending his shortsword spinning from his numbed hand.  Caught off-balance, Dulnain sprawled on his back on the floor, gasping for breath.  The grinning Nordlander stood over him, his longsword raised.  Dulnain tensed himself to receive the fatal blow, but it didn't come.  Instead the Nordlander slowly sank to his knees, then pitched forward onto his face.  Grigor's daughter stood over him, holding the splintered remains of the three-legged stool she'd broken over his head.

Dulnain shakily pushed himself up and recovered his shortsword, relieved to still be alive.  "What's your name, girl?"

"And who are you to ask me that?" she said.

He clamped his mouth shut.  He'd only asked her name, he hadn't asked her to share his cot.  These coastal people were touchy, he decided.  He went to the door.  There were no other Nordlanders to be seen.  The house opposite burned fiercely, the wind carrying showers of burning sparks into the night.

A moaning sound made Dulnain glance back over his shoulder.  The second Nordlander was still alive, trying to get up.  Grigor's daughter picked up his fallen longsword.  She put her weight upon the weapon, pushing the point down into the warrior's back.  The Nordlander shuddered, and then lay still.  Bile rose in Dulnain's throat.  He saw the sense in what she'd done, but this was no way for a warrior to die.  Heimdal would deny the man entry to Valhalla, nothing was more certain.

The girl pointed behind Dulnain, her eyes wide.  Dulnain turned around, expecting to come under attack from another wild foeman.  But it was far worse than that.  A mist was rising from the body of the warrior he'd slain.  The air in the common room turned chill.  The mist swirled, then became a ghostly outline of the dead warrior.  The specter's terrible gaze swept the common room and came to rest upon Dulnain.  It nodded, acknowledging Dulnain as the victor in their combat. Then it turned its back on him and walked through the wall.

Several moments passed before Dulnain dared breath again.

"Did you see that?" he said, finding it difficult to believe his own senses.

"Aye, I saw it," she replied, her astonishment mirroring his own.  Then she gasped as the air in the room turned chill again.  A second specter rose from the body of the Nordlander she'd dispatched.  The ghost looked down at the body it had occupied and gave a terrible wail of despair.

"Give him his sword," Dulnain whispered.  "Without it, he cannot enter Valhalla."  His father had impressed upon Dulnain the awe-inspiring legends of Valhalla and Hel.  It was not the religion of the Caledon Druids, but even the Druids did not totally deny Nordlander beliefs.

The girl shook her head.  "I gladly deny him his place in Heaven.  A curse on him and all his kind."  She spat on the Nordlander's body.

For a moment Dulnain thought the ghost might snatch its sword from her, but this was not to be.  Instead the wraith stepped past her and walked through the solid fireplace wall as if through an open door.

Dulnain's hands shook.  His eyes had never beheld such terrible sights before.

"Where are they going?" Grigor's daughter asked.

"To Valhalla, or to Hel, whichever is fitting," he said.  Dulnain felt sorry for the warrior she'd killed.  Then again, the Nordlander would probably have taken pleasure in slaughtering everyone here, and deserved no one's pity.

"What if other Nordlanders see the ghosts?" she said.  "They'll come looking for us, knowing we slew them."

Dulnain cursed softly.  She was right.  The others would see the ghosts and seek out whoever had done the deed.  There could be no more hiding in the dark.  He stepped outside.  The ghosts were walking toward the flat hill that lay west of the village.  Clearly they had a purpose, but Dulnain could not fathom it.  Nor did he particularly wish to; he simply wanted them gone.

The burning house turned day into night.  Three Nordlanders stood not twenty paces away, their backs to Dulnain, watching the ghosts.  Dulnain picked up the first slain Nordlander's longsword, transferring his shortsword to his left hand.  He hefted the longsword, testing its weight and balance.  It was much lighter than a Caledon broadsword; Dulnain was sure he could use it one-handed.  Thus armed, he came silently upon the three men, hoping to kill or wound at least one of them before the others turned on him.  If he had to die this night then he'd at least take some of his enemies with him, and hopefully save the cattle.  His father would send someone to look for him—and the cattle—if Dulnain did not return.  Hopefully his family would learn of Dulnain's actions, and understand why he'd chosen this path.

"Follow them, Valtos," the largest of the Nordlanders said, pointing after the ghosts.  "See where they are going."

The warrior he'd named shook his head.  "Go after them yourself, Tolsta," he growled.  "Show us all how brave you are."

"Damn you, Valtos, if you were not my brother—"

Their speech shocked Dulnain.  He'd expected to hear strange foreign accents, but these men might well have originated from Caledon lands, so familiar was their tongue to his ears.  And they carried longswords, yet it was a known fact that Nordlanders fought with the terrible double-headed broadax, and regarded swords as lesser weapons fit only for boys and women.  King Dughal had showed them the error of their thinking at the Blood Moor, when Caledon sword had triumphed over Nordlander ax.

The warrior called Valtos either heard or sensed Dulnain's approach for he spun suddenly, lifting his sword to block the overhead stroke that Dulnain aimed at his skull.  Iron shrieked upon iron and Valtos cried out in alarm.  But Dulnain, instead of trying to renew his attack with the longsword, stabbed him through the heart with his shortsword instead.  Valtos fell dead without another sound uttered.

The other two warriors leapt back and faced Dulnain.  The larger one—Tolsta—grinned ferociously, his teeth shining in the firelight.  Scarred covered his face, as if a thousand angry birds had scratched him.  No, not birds—a woman's fingernails.  One of the villagers had raked Tolsta's face as he'd ravaged her.

"And who might you be, lad?  You're not one of these soft village cowards, by the look of you.  From the mountains, are you?"

"Come and find out," Dulnain invited, his words belying his fear.

Tolsta laughed.  "What think you, Badral?" he said to his comrade.  "Are we dealing with a wolf, or is he just a sheep howling at the Moon?"  He beckoned to Dulnain.  "Come on, lad.  Let's see what you're made of."

Dulnain attacked Badral instead, shifting rapidly so Badral stood between him and the larger, more dangerous Tolsta.  The Nordlander warrior, if such he was, snarled and swung at him but Dulnain crossed his swords above his head, catching Badral's blade between his two.  He slipped his shortsword free and brought the blade down upon the astonished warrior's neck.  Badral dropped to his knees, trying to staunch the leak, but the wound was mortal and he pitched forward, his lifeblood emptying into the earth.

Dulnain, surprised again by how easy it was to kill, now faced Tolsta.

"Very good, lad," Tolsta said.  He'd made no move to help Badral but had instead hung back and observed Dulnain, measuring him so that he might defeat him all the more easily.  "But you're up against old Tolsta now.  I know all the tricks.  Aye, and I've made up a few of my own, as you'll find out."

Tolsta took a step toward Dulnain—and leapt back in fright as Valtos's spirit rose from the slain warrior's corpse.  A heartbeat later, Badral's did likewise.  The ghost warriors stared at Dulnain, who wanted to throw down his swords and run away, but did not.  The ghosts turned away from him and, ignoring Tolsta completely, walked toward the low hill.

"What wizardry have you set upon them?" Tolsta demanded of Dulnain.  "How is it that we can see the spirits of the fallen?"

Dulnain couldn't answer his questions.  "I do not know, nor do I care.  It is enough for me that they are dead."

"Ah, lad, what a cruel thing—"

Tolsta leapt in mid-sentence, twisting in the air, his sword arcing toward Dulnain's neck—but Dulnain dived to one side, his longsword opening a deep cut in Tolsta's left thigh.  The larger man bellowed in pain and rage as Dulnain rolled to his feet, amazed he'd got the better of Tolsta so easily.  He was no swordsman—but he was young and fast, reared in the Caledon Mountains and hardened by the land from an early age.  His reflexes were a match for Tolsta's and the longsword fitted his hand comfortably, as if it were made for him.

Tolsta snarled and hacked at him, missed, limped after him and cut again.  Any of these stupendous blows would have slain Dulnain had they landed, but he used his speed and agility to avoid them, all the while gaining the measure of his enemy.

He saw the murderous light in Tolsta's eyes fade, to be replaced by something else.  The truth of it struck Dulnain like cold sleet on an icy winter's morn.  It was fear!  Tolsta had judged Dulnain to be easy prey, young and inexperienced, a callow youth who should have fallen to his first stroke.  Now Tolsta was slowing, while Dulnain remained fresh and strong.

"Ransay, Tirgmor, to me!" Tolsta bellowed at the top of his voice.  "Giuran, Eishkar, to me!"

Dulnain's heart sank as more warriors came running in response to Tolsta's call.  Tolsta retreated every time Dulnain pressed him, keeping him at sword's length while he waited for help to arrive.  "You've had your chance, lad," he said.  "Now I'll have mine.  You'll pay for what you've done, mark my words."

Four warriors joined Tolsta, two of them carrying burning torches, all four armed and ready for a fight.

Dulnain spat at Tolsta's feet.  "You are a coward who lets other men fight his battles," he said.

"Willingly," Tolsta said.  "I'll even let them die for me."  His smile broadened.  "As long as you die, too."

"He'll not die alone," a familiar voice called, surprising Dulnain.  It was Grigor's daughter.  She stepped forward to stand on Dulnain's right, armed with the sword she'd taken from the warrior she'd brained with the wooden stool.  Firelight caught the metal so it shone as if made from the stars themselves.

"You think you can stand against us?" Tolsta demanded as his warriors spread out to form a loose fighting line.  They were grim men, spattered with the blood of innocents and still eager to shed more.

"We can, and we will," Grigor said.  He moved to stand on Dulnain's left.  He'd brought his longbow with him from the inn and had already notched an arrow, though he hadn't yet drawn the string and taken aim.  Dulnain knew why; Tolsta did not.

Tolsta laughed.  "Five proven warriors against a boy, an old man and a girl," he said.  "Hardly fair odds."

"You've seen how this one fights," Grigor said, nodding toward Dulnain.  "The ghosts of three of your best warriors go to the King's barrow, cursing the day they met Dulnain of the Caledon.  The fourth was slain by my daughter Gela, who carries his sword.  As for me, I fought alongside King Dughal at the Blood Moor and I slew thirty Nordlanders before I ran out of arrows.  Which of you wants to die first?"

"Let us talk no more, Father," his daughter said.  Her voice was cold as ice, but the fire in her eyes touched Dulnain's soul.  "They have murdered and sullied our folk, and must now pay the price."

The effect of their words upon the four warriors quickly became apparent.  The men exchanged wary looks—and glanced at the wounded Tolsta, then at the bodies of their dead comrades lying about them.  Dulnain was unwounded and ready to fight, as was Grigor's daughter—Gela, her father had named her.  Dulnain regretted comparing her to the cattle in the byre.  She wasn't the prettiest he'd ever seen, but she was handsome in her own way, standing there with her hair streaming in the wind, ready to die protecting her village.

"It takes more than words to frighten warriors, old man," Tolsta said, trying to put on a bold mask but making no move against them.

"Warriors?  The lad called you coward to your face but still you would not fight him, man against man."  Grigor spat loudly, giving his opinion of Tolsta.  "You are not Nordlanders.  You are outlaws pretending to be Nordlanders, scum who have forgotten your oath of service to your own King."

"Talk not to me of oaths," Tolsta snarled.  "Dughal broke his oath to me before I broke mine to him.  The gods bear witness to this."

Tolsta's words puzzled Dulnain, but he was wise to Tolsta's trick of attacking in the middle of a sentence.  As if reading his mind, a warrior leapt just as Tolsta finished speaking, intending to slay Grigor.  Dulnain met his attack, turning the man's longsword with his own and gutting him with the shortsword.  The warrior screamed and fell.  His death prompted the others to charge.  A scarred warrior hurled himself at Dulnain.  Instead of trying to stab him, as Dulnain expected, he cunningly swept Dulnain's swords aside.  The warrior's head snapped forward and his studded iron helm struck Dulnain full in the face.

Dulnain reeled, off-balance and blinded, his nose surely broken.  The warrior slammed into him, sending him sprawling in the dirt.  Grigor cried out and, a moment later, Gela screamed.  Dulnain's crimson pain was nothing against the knowledge he'd failed them.  His vision cleared just in time for him to see the warrior standing over him, framed against a background of stars, his teeth bared and his longsword ready to cleave Dulnain in half.

A biting chill touched Dulnain.  The warrior looked up, his surprise turning to terror in the space of a heartbeat.  And then he died as a glowing sword swept completely through his body.  He toppled backward and crashed to the ground like a felled tree.

Dulnain heaved himself up onto his knees and blinked until his vision cleared.  Grigor stood a short distance away, clutching his shoulder, his face contorted in pain.  Tolsta lay on the ground before him, a black-feathered shaft sticking out of his stomach.  Grigor had launched his arrow as Tolsta bore down upon him.  At that range the archer couldn't have missed, even with a partial pull of the bowstring.  The deed had caused Grigor great suffering but he was still alive, while Tolsta was dying.  And so were Tolsta's men.  The ghosts were murdering them.  The shades of the warriors Dulnain and Gela had killed had returned to slay those who still lived.

Gela moved to stand beside him.  Blood covered one side of her face, streaming from a gash on her forehead.  They watched in frightened silence as the ghosts drew back from those they'd killed.  It was not long before the spirits of the newly slain rose from their bodies.  Dulnain could hardly bear to look at them; their wounds were hideous.  They joined their former comrades and together they stood waiting.  For what?

"I remember you now," Grigor said, and Dulnain and Gela looked at him.  The innkeeper was speaking to Tolsta.  "You are the traitor, Tolsta the Raven, who was banished by King Dughal."

Dulnain also remembered.  The story of Tolsta the Raven's treachery had reached even the far corners of the Caledon Mountains.  Tolsta had conspired to murder his friend Dughal, but had himself been betrayed and forced to flee into exile.

Tolsta chuckled, then winced in pain, clutching the arrow in his belly.  "Aye, Innkeeper, you saw me the night Dughal's ship was wrecked," he said, hissing the words.  "We doused your signal fires, and lit other fires further up the coast.  His ship broke its back upon the rocks.  The fishes feasted upon his body.  I die happy, knowing that Dughal's death was my doing.  When I reach Valhalla, I'll seek out his rotted shade and laugh at him."

Grigor slowly shook his head.  Dulnain thought at first that he was saddened by Tolsta's news, but then the innkeeper pointed past the gathered ghosts, at the flat-topped hill that lay between the village and the ocean.

"Dughal's body was pulled from the sea, unspoiled and whole," Grigor said.  "We built yonder barrow so that our High King might have a fitting grave—and to remind ourselves of our part in his doom.  We thought we'd failed to keep the beacon fires lit, thus causing his death.  But now we know the truth of it."

Dulnain stared at the ghosts and slowly began to understand.  They weren't here to exact vengeance upon Dulnain for slaying them.  They were waiting for Tolsta the Raven to die.

"Our High King still protects his folk as best he can," Grigor said softly.  "He has taken your dead into his service.  You shall join him in his chambers beneath the barrow instead of journeying to Valhalla.  It is fitting."

"No," Tolsta groaned.  His head fell back and his eyes closed.  His breath came in short gasps.  "Not that.  I am a warrior.  I have earned my place in Wotan's Feasting Hall."

"You are a traitor and a coward," Grigor told him.  "And worse, a murderer of your own people, driven by hatred and animal blood lust.  You will serve the High King you betrayed, which is more honor than you deserve."

Grigor turned and walked back toward his inn.  Dulnain wanted to remain and see what happened next, but Gela pulled him around and followed her father.  Dulnain was too dizzy and too weak to resist.  She was strong and bore his weight upon her shoulder with ease.  Dulnain felt sure his father would approve of his bringing such a woman home.  It was time Dulnain built his own house and reared his own cattle and had a wife to cook his meals and raise his many sons.

A terrible scream pierced the night.  Dulnain stopped and looked back.  The ghost warriors were dragging a kicking, struggling shade toward the High King's barrow.  Tolsta the Raven did not go willingly.


Five villagers had been killed, three men and two women.  Others were injured but they bore their wounds without complaint, as Dulnain's folk would have done.  The villagers buried their dead with due ceremony, while the bodies of their attackers were cast into a crab-filled pit and forgotten.

The next day, traders began arriving in the village, which was host to this month's market.  Grigor, his arm in a sling, introduced Dulnain to his cousin, who liked the look of Dulnain's strong, mountain-bred beasts with their shaggy coats and long horns.  Dulnain received fair coin and was able to purchase the supplies his family needed for the winter.  Padraig would help him convey the supplies home on Grigor's pony-cart.  Grigor refused to accept payment for the use of the cart.  His longbow again hung above the fireplace, with Tolsta's sword beneath.  He would have a tale to tell any customer who asked why.

Before he left the village, Dulnain searched for Gela.  He found her in the inn's kitchen, preparing food for the traders who now occupied the upstairs rooms.  She saw him standing at the door, and took off her apron and came outside to speak with him.  Her mother and her younger sister looked on curiously.

"I am Dulnain of the Caledon," he said, beginning the formal ritual.  "I intend to ask your father for your hand.  Know that my father will give us one-quarter of his herd and good grazing land as wedding gifts.  I will build up a herd of my own and be a rich man."

"I have often wondered what it is like up in the mountains," Gela said.  "But, tell me this, Dulnain of the Caledon.  If my father agrees to your proposal—which I think he might, since he is fed up with three women nagging him all his waking hours—what do I gain?"

Dulnain was taken aback, but tried not to show it.  "Aside from a handsome husband, a good house and a sizeable herd of cattle, you mean?" he said, pleased with the wit of his reply.

"Is the house built yet?" she said.

"No," he admitted.

She pursed her lips.  "Even if you started building now, you'd be unlikely to finish it and gather enough supplies before the winter set in.  I'm curious about the mountains, but I've no wish to die up there, frozen like a lump of ice.  And cattle are hardly a reliable source of income.  There are good seasons and bad."

He sighed.  He hadn't realized she had this side to her.  "I cannot deny any of what you say," he said.  "But I will build a house and I will breed a herd."

"I believe you, Dulnain of the Caledon.  When your house is built, come back and fetch me, if you're still interested.  I'll be here next Spring, same as usual.  But perhaps some pretty Caledon filly will catch your eye between now and then?  Someone who doesn't look like a cow's backside?"  The corners of her lips curled upward.  "Oh aye, I know my own faults.  You needn't think I don't.  We fought Tolsta the Raven and you're smitten with me because of that.  But will you be just as smitten when the Winter snows melt next year?"

"Would you wish me to be?"

She looked at him thoughtfully, her head cocked to one side, appraising him as if he were some bull in the market place.  He felt himself blushing and wished his nose wasn't broken and his face wasn't bruised, so she could see him at his best.

"I think so, aye," she said.  "You have rocks in your head, but that's because you're still young and daft.  I'll knock some sense into you, Caledon, if you dare come calling again."

With this she turned and went back into the kitchen, closing the door behind her with her foot.

Dulnain smiled, then lifted his longsword, his war trophy, and rested it upon his shoulder.  He'd show it to his father when he got home, and tell him the tale of Tolsta the Raven, and the High King beneath the barrow.

He went off to find Padraig and the pony cart, whistling as he walked, and looking forward to the Spring thaw.

The End

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