Conor mac Ferghal welcomed death.
He pushed a dying raider from the point of his sword, moving closer to the thick of the fighting that centered on two giants on a mist-shrouded hill. Their dress and the wicked-looking battle-axes they wielded bespoke their Viking heritage. Even in the heat of battle, Conor admired the way the fair-haired warriors worked together, standing back to back and holding their own despite the odds against them.
And the odds were against them, Conor knew. His admiration of their skill would not stop him from vanquishing them. He would have vengeance, and he would give no quarter. He wasn’t known as the Devil of Dunlough because of his charity.
A shout cut through the screams and groans of the wounded and dying. “The Angel of Death! The Angel of Death comes!”
Everyone, friend and foe alike, seemed to halt as a form materialized from the cloying mist. A pale horse broke through, bearing a rider wrapped head to toe in bleached garments that seemed to make rider and horse more apparition than reality. The conical iron helmet and sword gleamed in the weak afternoon sunlight as the pale warrior drove the horse up the hill to the Northmen.
“Stand your ground, men,” the Devil called, crashing the hilt of his sword into a raider’s face. “Remember what befell our village. Leave the supposed Angel of Death to the Devil of Dunlough!”
The pale warrior now stood beside his companions, wielding the shimmering sword in graceful, deadly arcs. As he drew ever closer, Conor noticed how the taller two men protected the smaller. Their leader, perhaps? The Viking’s conical iron helmet, with nose and eye guards, concealed from Conor all but a pair of startling lavender eyes that blazed with hatred and a chin devoid of even the slightest beard.
Very few of the Northmen went without beards. A youth, then. Conor refused to feel compassion for him. Becoming a warrior meant preparing to fight and preparing to die. He had seen younger ones than this meet their end in battle, mere boys who did not deserve death. This one did. Pushing to the forefront of his men, the Devil engaged the enemy.
The young Viking moved with a lethal ease that belied his years, parrying the blow Conor dealt him. He smiled as the familiar bloodlust coursed through his veins. It was always thus, when he found an opponent worth his skill and concentration. The darkness would come later, after the blood had dried.
The two combatants matched each other blow for blow, neither uncovering a weakness in the other. This one would not go down easily. The thought had no more than crossed Conor’s mind when one of the Viking’s companions stumbled. The youth buckled, thrown off balance as the other Northman fell at their feet. When the young Viking turned to the fallen man, Conor seized the opportunity, slashing his adversary deep in the thigh.
The resulting cry of pain was so feminine that Conor checked the killing blow that would have bit deeply into the leather tunic and cleaved the man in two. It was a futile effort. The tip of his sword pierced the pale leather and embedded itself in the Viking’s side. He gave Conor a look of utter disbelief before slumping to the ground, his hand stretched toward his fallen companion.
Conor took a deep breath, seeking the freshness of the early spring breeze over the smell of blood and death as he scanned the field. His opponent had been the last to fall. Even now his men availed themselves of whatever riches they could glean from the fallen among their enemies, a curious mixture of Irish and Northmen. Satisfied that all was secure, he knelt beside his fallen enemy. With a sense of foreboding, he removed the iron helmet. What he saw stole his breath.
The Viking was not the untried youth he’d thought, but a woman, the most striking woman he had ever seen. The helmet had obscured a heart-shaped face with high, sharp cheekbones and near translucent skin. Hair so pale it was almost silver was pulled into a plait as thick as his wrist. Her brows were gossamer wings, as were the sooty lashes that fluttered against her cheeks. A blade-thin nose perched above full, pouty lips and a defiant chin that reduced her features from ethereal to fascinating. The skin was pulled taut across her cheekbones and throat, an indication of the unkind life a bandit led. Even in unconsciousness there was a guarded demeanor to her expression that gave her an air of otherworld mystery.
Conor glanced up. Ardan, his second, stood beside him, protecting him as always. Ardan was a hardened warrior with a ruddy, weathered face and red hair sprinkled with gray. He had the unswerving loyalty of one whose life had been saved many times by the man he gave allegiance to. A man of few words but great wisdom, Ardan had been Conor’s friend since the younger man’s days in fosterage, and one of the few people he trusted without question.
The surprise on Ardan’s face matched his own. “Yes, it is a woman.”
Ardan spat down the hill. “You’ve strange luck with women trying to kill you.”
“True.” Conor let the comment pass. If any other than Ardan had said the same to him, that man would not get home under his own power. “At least this one had the decency to meet me face to face on the field of battle, unlike my dear-departed wife.”
He fingered the scar that ran down the left side of his face, a gift from his late wife. “This land will fall into the sea before I let a woman put an end to me.”
Seeking a pulse, Conor touched the fallen woman’s neck, wondering at the frisson of awareness that coursed along his fingertips. He found her life-beat. It was there, but weak.
As he brought his hand away, his fingers brushed a neck-chain. He pulled it free of her tunic to discover an exquisite crafted cross hanging on a braided silver chain with a gilded Hammer of Thor. He grinned in spite of himself. ’Twas obvious the woman meant to be well prepared when she left this world.
Tucking the pendant back into the woman’s tunic, he lingered over the satiny feel of her skin. So delicate to be so deadly. He shook his head to clear it of such inane poetic thoughts and rose to his feet.
“Is she?” Ardan asked.
“Dead? No. The Angel of Death? I believe so.”
Ardan cursed under his breath, a long and colorful sentence that would have stunned Conor with its length in other circumstances. He felt the urge to curse himself.
The Angel of Death.
Conor had dismissed the stories as colorful tales spun by bards at the royal court. The idea of a woman, Viking or Irish, garbed completely in white and riding into battle was impossible to believe. Yet the proof lay before him.
Ardan regained his composure. “Why would herself attack our village?”
“A good question.” Conor’s voice was flat. “The village has naught to offer but cottages of fishermen and the tenants who raise tribal cattle. Even the Irish riding with her and her Northmen should know that our treasures, such as they are, are kept close to the dun.”
He looked down at the unconscious woman. “The stories call the Angel a defender of the defenseless. Perhaps the stories are false. Unless someone sent her.”
If Ardan was surprised by Conor’s statement, he did not show it. And why should he, Conor thought. After all, someone was always after the Devil of Dunlough.
Ardan prodded one of the mail-clad Vikings with his foot. “Her man could be one of these two.”
For an inexplicable reason, the idea that the legendary Angel had followed her lover into battle made Conor’s jaw clench. He forced himself to calm. “You could be right, Ardan. They were defending each other.”
“This one lives yet.”
The Devil wiped his blade on the second Viking’s breeches, then sheathed it. “Bring them,” he ordered, calling for his horse. With an ease that belied his size, he swung astride. “Send for the priest to bless the dead and dying. If the Angel and her companion survive the journey, I will have Gwynna tend to their wounds.”
“You won’t execute them then?”
He shook his head, steadying his mount with a quiet word. “Someone sent the Angel of Death to slay me. I would have answers from her before she dies.”
Ardan issued orders, then swung aside his own mount as the famed warrior and her still-living companion were thrown over a horse without ceremony. “Where do you think she’s from?”
“I don’t know,” Conor replied. “There are Viking strongholds aplenty here. Sitric Silk-beard holds Dubh Linn, and more Northmen control Waterford, Wexford, Limerick and even Dun na Ghall to the north. She could be from any of those.”
A frown shaded Ardan’s features. “If she was, we would have heard of her before Clontarf.”
Clontarf. The word caused a chill deep in Conor’s soul, even two years later. Clontarf, where the tenuous peace that the High King Brian Boruma had forged through decades of warfare had been shattered with his death. Where Irish and Viking fought against Irish and Viking for the ultimate control of the island.
Where Conor had lost his soul and gained a kingdom.
“Have a care with our war-prizes,” he told a thin, red-haired youth as he secured the Vikings to the mount. He turned his own mount towards home and away from the mesmerizing figure. “We’ve a way to go, and more war bands could be about.”
Ardan drew alongside him. “Think you she was sent by Ulster?”
“It is probable,” Conor answered. “There’s little love lost between us, though you’d think with the other three kingdoms as well as Connacht fighting old Máel Sechnaill for the High Kingship, they’d have more sense than to send their men to sure death against us.”
“Who said that Ulstermen had sense?”
The men around them laughed at the joke, and Conor let them have their mirth. They’d had little to laugh at over the last two years that he’d been ruler of the tuath and chieftain of the tribe. He knew he was a prize worth catching for his many enemies. Near six and a half feet tall, he towered over his men. With his penchant for wearing black while his men wore the saffron yellow warrior’s leine, his dark brown hair that was almost black, and the ever-present scar, many thought him more demon than Irishman.
It did not bother him, the moniker that he’d acquired. Devil he was, through and through. And despite the name, despite the scar, men of the tribe flocked to Dunlough for the honor of serving the mac Ferghal. Flocked to fight beside the man who threw them into battle again and again, a man who made himself a target, the center of many battles. It was his duty, he told himself. He fought because he had to, and he fought with a zeal that went beyond the typical Gaelic zest for life.
No one knew what that zeal cost him.
He wrenched his thoughts back to the present as the dun came into view. Bards often said Dunlough was cradled in the bosom of Eire, and he agreed. Hidden in the northwest of Connacht, bounded by rugged, rocky hills to the north, crystal lakes and streams to the south, the mountain Slieve Torc to the east, and the ocean to the west, Dunlough was as wild and glorious as its people. The dun itself sat on a verdant hill surrounded by earthen walls. A stream ran around the base of the wall and cascaded down the hill where it joined a larger river on its way to the dark lough that gave the dun its name.
Oh, people had laughed when his father’s father and his father before him started adding stone to the timber and thatch. They stopped soon enough when they came to seek solace from raids by Vikings and Ulstermen alike.
The dun had grown to a considerable size over the last two centuries. Its solid construction ensured that the people of Dunlough were well protected. Indeed, the remoteness of the northern part of the kingdom protected it from the brunt of the trials and tribulations that encompassed the rest of the island.
Of late, the warriors of Dunlough were riding out to challenge raiders, not armies. Rumors spoke of the Gaill-Gaedhel, the “foreign Irish”, riding again. Mercenaries descended from the mixing of Irish and Viking blood, their ferociousness had caused them to be called “the sons of death”. They cared little for who they attacked as long as plunder was to be had.
That thought had Conor drawing sharp on his reins. Sons of death and the Angel of Death. Were they related? His village had been attacked. The Angel of Death was nearby.
Coincidences were not something that Conor had much faith in. If the woman was truly the notorious Angel of Death, why was she in Connacht? Why attack his poor village? Why look at him with such hatred in her eyes?
He would have been well within his rights had he slain the Angel in battle. But the Viking female had captured his curiosity. No, she would not die soon.
The Devil was a patient man. He would find the answers he sought. When he did, all the angels in heaven and hell would not keep this angel safe.