Only one of them remained silent. Sitting at the edge of the table, somber and reticent, he did not seem to pay attention to anything around him. His eyes fixed on the faint flame of the candle in front of him as he drank. In spite of his silence, the arguing continued.
“Calm down, Einarr! Your anger will not help us.” Cormac of Leinster tried to pacify the man. However, his attempt failed.
“You must have lost your mind,” Einarr shouted. “I know almost everyone here and I know that if someone gathered us all in the same place, it wasn’t for a good reason.”
“It could be an ambush!” Bronagh interjected, while Cennec, a wild-eyed man, let out a nervous laugh.
“That’s right!” added Einarr. “The pay is too good for the job. Many are the chieftains who want our heads for our crimes!” A trickle of saliva ran down his red beard as he yelled, giving him the look of a madman. Under suspicious glances, he resumed his raging speech. “I know all of you, except for one!” He pointed at the man who was sitting in silence at the end of the table. “Why don’t you say anything? What are you hiding?”
The somber man laid his cup on the table and stared at Einarr with dark and ruthless eyes. With unshakable calm, he leaned back on the chair and broke his silence.
“When a man doesn’t have anything important to say, he should keep his mouth shut.”
Einarr didn’t like the answer and muttered angrily. Across the room, Cormac intervened. “Don’t you think there’s something strange in this whole situation?” He questioned the man. “Why is our alleged contractor so late?
“All I know is that a messenger promised me work and a good payment at the end of it.”
“I see... You don’t know anything, right?” Einarr continued arguing. “Well, I say you are too calm!” The bearded man punched the table. “You must be part of the trap! Who are you after all?”
“He is Anrath,” Cormac answered. “And if you value that hot head of yours, Einarr, I think it would be better for you to be more careful.”
“Anrath? You mean he is the…” said a surprised Cennec.
Anrath unsheathed the sword and, unperturbed, laid it on the table. Then he looked at Einarr, expecting some angry reaction from him. The man, however, controlled himself.
“So you are the Black Hound of Clontarf...” Einarr said. “You don’t have to worry, we are all brothers in arms. Mercenaries. Since when do wolves eat wolves?”
Cormac took a seat beside Anrath, putting an end to the argument. Einarr turned his back on them and went to the other side of the tavern, joining Bronagh and Cennec at a table. The landlord entered the hall of his almost forsaken tavern, bringing new jars of ale and mead. Afraid of his unwelcome customers, he left the jars on the tables and scampered out. Cormac filled a mug for himself and said to Anrath, “I was also at Clontarf. We fought on the same side.”
“Then you must have been a warrior of King Máel Mórda.”
“Aye. I was one of the rebels from Leinster. To this day, I still don’t understand how I survived. Clontarf was a big mistake. It left Éirinn leaderless.”
“That battle would have happened sooner or later. At Clontarf or somewhere else. But no one could have predicted such an atrocious outcome.”
“You’re right. The armies from Leinster and the Norsemen were wiped out, the power of the Kingdom of Dublin shattered. High King Brian Boru and many chieftains of Éirinn perished. Now, the small kingdoms are massacring each other in the power struggle. It was nobody’s victory… On the other hand, it’s a great time to be a mercenary, is it not?” Cormac said laughing.
Anrath didn’t respond. The countless years of tragedies had worn away his sense of humor. He drank all the ale from the mug, then wiped his lips on the back of his hand.
Cormac realized that his companion had no intention of continuing the conversation. Even so, he insisted a little longer. “And what do you think of this venture? Is it possible that our angry fellows over there are right?”
“A messenger found me and told me that the King of Osraige was gathering men in secret to attack the Southern Uí Néill. The leaders were to meet at this tavern. Not so different from any other job. The only difference is our leader’s delay in presenting himself. He should have been here waiting for us.”
Anrath noticed the unfriendly glances coming from Cennec at the other table. The name of the Black Hound, considered a traitor by Norsemen and Gaels alike, was enough to arouse such hatred. Anrath took advantage of Cormac’s company to get information. “Einarr said he knew us all. What do you know about our fellow mercenaries?”
“They are great warriors. We fought side by side in the Kingdom of Elba. Einarr, the Ogre of Orkney, is a bloodthirsty, hot-headed Norse pirate. Bronagh, the Dirty One, comes from the north of Éirinn, and Cennec…” Cormac pointed at him with his mug “is a Dalcassian, as you may have noticed. But he didn’t fight at Clontarf because he was too young.”
“What are you pointing at?” asked a furious Cennec as he rose from another table. Bronagh and Einarr startled and went for their weapons.
“I’m just talking about you men to Anrath, our companion.”
“And what does it matter to that worm?” Cennec said while drawing his sword. Then, hesitantly, he addressed Anrath. “You’re lucky that, for the payment promised me, I can stand to have you by my side, traitor!”
“I also fought the Dalcassians at Clontarf,” it was Cormac’s turn to speak, “and yet, you didn’t seem to mind that when we were in the same army.”
“At least in Clontarf you were with the Irishmen from Leinster, and not with the Norse scum like Anrath.”
“Norse scum? Watch your mouth, boy!” Einarr fumed.
“Take it easy, friends! Save your strength for your mission!” said a voice coming from the entrance of the tavern.
All the men turned toward the source of the sound. Standing beneath the doorway there was a tall man, still young and delicate-looking, with long blond hair and a grim smile on his face. The flared tempers of the men seemed to amuse him. He entered the tavern hall and, taking a long brown cloak from his shoulders, explained his presence. “I am Devin, my friends, Prince of Munster and your employer. I am very sorry about my delay, but in the current situation I must be cautious while travelling.”
“Munster?” Asked Bronagh. “But our contact told us we were going to fight for Osraige.”
“Just a little ruse to hide my real identity and intentions,” answered Devin. “Before entering this tavern, I dismissed the landlord so we could talk more freely. I don’t want to waste any more time, so I'll cut to the chase. I have a dangerous problem, which is why I need the best cut-throats in all Éirinn.”
The young nobleman took four small leather sacks from a handbag and placed them on the table between Bronagh, Cennec and Einarr. He opened one of the sacks and emptied its contents over the table. The mercenaries’ eyes shone with the dazzling allure of gold, more money than they had ever received for a job. After savoring the warrior’s reactions, Devin continued. “All this gold will be yours, Cormac, Cennec, Bronagh and Einarr... if you kill, here and now, in front of me, the man known as the Black Hound of Clontarf.”
Merciless eyes, like those of fierce predators, fell over Anrath. Anrath rose instinctively, sword in hand. Cormac, stunned by the revelation, remained seated.
“What does this joke mean?” Anrath asked, anger in his voice.
“You don’t remember me, but I remember you very well.” Devin laughed. “I will never forget it, even after they place your head at my feet. I was very young when I saw you at Clontarf, standing over the corpse of my father with your bloodied axe. He was one of the chieftains of Munster; he could even have become High King, but you killed him. My uncle took his place and today I’m no more than a renegade among my own clan. You took everything I had from me, and everything I could have been.”
“I may have killed your father at Clontarf, that was a battle after all. But, how about you, how many fathers, sons and brothers did you kill at Clontarf? In war, one doesn’t choose his adversary.”
Devin answered nothing and the mercenaries fidgeted, eyes fixed on the gold. Cormac, in turn, arose and stepped between Anrath and the others. He addressed Devin. “You could have hired men to ambush Anrath without fuss on a backwoods trail or anywhere else. Why do it like this?”
Anrath answered for his enemy. “He likes to toy with people like pieces in a game.”
“I only seek justice, not pleasure.” Devin objected.
“How do you explain this play then?” Cormac continued.
“Bah, shut your mouth!” Einarr yelled. Surprising everyone, he went to Cormac and pierced the chest of the former Leinster rebel with his sword. Cormac kneeled under the impact, disbelief in his dying eyes. The Norseman set a foot on his victim’s shoulder and pulled back the sword, causing a squirt of blood that smeared his face bright red. Then, he advanced towards Anrath. “Leave this bastard to me, Devin. I can handle him by myself.”
“What happened with wolves don’t eat wolves, Einarr?” Anrath asked smiling, getting ready to fight.
“Gold can cut a lot of ties, Irishman!”
Einarr struck a violent blow. Anrath swerved, and the Norseman’s sword smashed the wooden table beside him. Einarr, infuriated, struck again. The blades of the two fighters crossed. Devin watched the spectacle with the appreciation of an ancient Roman Emperor watching gladiators in the Colosseum.
Attack and defense alternated, generating a deafening metallic clatter. Einarr had brute force and fury, but Anrath, besides vigor and dexterity, was a sagacious fighter. He anticipated Einarr’s every movement, defending and delivering strikes with precision. His technique, forged in dozens of battles, made him a perfect warrior.
Moving swiftly, Anrath pushed Einarr’s sword against the floor, then struck him in the forehead with the side of the blade. The impact threw Einarr away, and opened a hideous wound in his scalp, leaving a strip of skin hanging over one eye and exposing his skull. Einarr, bewildered, collapsed on his backside.
“Have you had enough fun, Devin?” Anrath asked.
Einarr, face wreathed in blood, gathered his remaining strength and arose from the floor. Before anyone could see, he hurled his tremendous bulk against Anrath. The Black Hound was thrown against the wall, but did not fall. Anrath swirled, pinning Einarr against the tavern wall, who, in turn, tried to strangle him. Anrath struggled to disentangle himself from the iron grip and managed to withdraw from his throat the mace-like hands. Taking the opportunity, Anrath struck a head blow to Einarr’s face. The Norseman tumbled senseless, his countenance disfigured by the blow that had broken nose and teeth.
Devin despaired before the outcome of the fight. “Come on, men! Attack!” he shouted to the remaining mercenaries.
“This play has gone too far, Devin.” Anrath said while wiping the blood of his fallen enemy from his face.
Silence fell over the tavern. Bronagh and Cennec, holding a defensive position, stared at Einarr’s deformed face on the floor. Anrath pointed his bloody sword at them.
“And now you two...” he said in a firm tone. “If it’s only money that you seek, and not vengeance...”
Cennec lowered his sword and nodded in silence. Bronagh remained on guard; however, he made no attempt to move. Anrath could see the fear on their faces.
“What are you doing?” Devin shouted. “Don’t listen to him, men. Attack!”
Nevertheless, the two mercenaries hesitated. Anrath continued. “There is only one man between you and the gold. You have to kill me, if you want Devin to pay you. But you can also kill Devin and take his money…”
Bronagh and Cennec aimed greedy eyes at their employer, who stepped back.
“Now,” Anrath concluded. “All you have to ask yourselves is: which of us would be easier to kill?”
© April, 2014 Cesar Alcazar
Cesar Alcazar is a Sword & Sorcery and Adventure writer from Brazil. He is the author of “Bazar Pulp – Historias de Fantasia, Aventura e Horror” and many anthologized short stories. He also edited the anthology “Cronicas de Espada e Magia”, and translated to Portuguese stories from authors Karl Edward Wagner, Robert E. Howard and George R. R. Martin. His first English language short story, "A Lonely Grave on the Hill", was published by Heroic Fantasy Quarterly in November, 2013.