Fionn looked back at the snaking line of warriors.
They were riding through the foothills of the Cualu mountains, fidgeting in their saddles, and moaning in whispers, vainly trying to keep their pain to themselves. Although one of those without wounds, he felt a despondency bubbling under his shirt, ants of sweat crawling over his skin. With another night of soulless fires and tight belts, his warriors would start to drift away, start looking for a captain who could feed them; provide them with mead and silver.
‘If we hurry, we’ll make Ráth Droma before sunset,’ he called. ‘We’ll demand succour from the chief, Mathaman.’
‘And what makes you think he’ll welcome us, this Mathaman?’ Eoghan, asked.
Fionn looked at his lieutenant and sighed. Another warrior without wounds, Eoghan made his war horse look like a pony. He was a good fighter, and a good leader, his bulk demanding obedience, but his incessant questions and less than average intelligence, grated.
‘We go way back,’ Fionn said, while looking into the forest.
‘Aye, so you said, more ‘n once. Said you hanged a usurper. But that happened years back, before they routed us at Gáirech. You think this cúl an tí chief will remember?’
‘Like you said, a back of the roundhouse bogman, so, if he’s even heard of the battle, he won’t show no favour. He’s no love for the Ulaid neither. Besides, the Witch claims victory. Says she got the bull and Mac Nessa ran. She could be right. At the least, The Deceiver’s kingship is over. The Ulaid might have forgiven his figaries before the battle, they won’t forgive running like a kicked cat.’
‘Won, did we? Good of the lady to forget The Hound cutting swathes through us like we was errant flies.’
‘You can’t hold that against her, Eoghan. Them as rule think different to us.’
‘None of that fills our bellies,’ Eoghan said, frowning at him.
Fionn stood in his stirrups and turned to look at the mounted warriors riding in his wake, his Fianna. Twenty-two fénnid light, there was none of the usual banter as they rode towards the ráth of Mathaman; just a stench of blood and a profusion of dirty, rag wrapped wounds. They were tired. War weary and poor. Captain Bréannin was meant to pay the contract price with spoils from the raid on Cooley, but the Ulaid took all the loot during the battle, along with most of Fionn’s best warriors. It was always the best who died, being first in the shield wall. Each battle meant having to start again, and he hated it. This time, there were no spoils to pay for the rebuild. He would have to grab some young’uns. Bring them up to be fighters. Fill their heads with tales of gold and glory. It would be a long and slow road to push back his buying a dun where he could raise some cattle and a baby or two. Get himself a beautiful redheaded seeress like the one who predicted the outcome of the battle.
‘He’ll give us our traveller rights. I’m sure.’
‘And if he doesn’t?’
‘We’ll take them. From what I remember, he’s four guards, different generations of the same family. Rusty shirts. Blunt swords. Big guts from lots of ale and no fights. Grainne could take them on her own, one arm tied behind her back.’
‘Did you hear that Grainne, you’re to be the razer of Ráth Droma,’ Eoghan called, raising a laugh for the first time since the nervous laughter on the eve of battle, those close enough punching her until she threatened to drawer her sword.
‘Hush. We near the gates. I know the gatekeep is older than The Dagda, but he might have a hearing horn,’ Fionn said, those who heard, laughed again.
‘Never mind the talk, Fionn. We take our rights by force and Bréannin will be after us with a company of Lagin’s best?’
‘The army of Lagin ran from Gáirech like a chicken with its head off, leaving Bréannin sat on his horse looking like a dog turd on the doorstep of a royal roundhouse. I doubt he’s still a captain. We’ve no need to worry about Lagin’s best, nor anyone else’s. The Kingdoms are in a mess, none more so than Lagin.’ Fionn hesitated, thinking. ‘Well, maybe Mumu. The kings’ fortunes were dragging behind Mac Nessa’s horse as he galloped for Emain Macha. They were always going to be weak without him. Never understood why they fell for the Witch’s wiles. Defeat means they can’t rely on her. She’ll be too busy licking her own wounds. The Five Kingdoms might as well be a roofless warrior in a storm of hail.’
‘You think Lagin defenceless?’
‘They have much to deal with before they can worry about the likes of one small Fianna.’
‘So, we’re free to reave?’ Eoghan asked with a smile, obvious by the movement of his beard.
‘We are free to reave,’ Fionn nodded.
As the sun dropped below the treeline, they turned off Slíghe Chualann and arrived at the closed gates of the settlement of Ráth Droma, nestled in a valley of the Cualu mountains.
‘Whoa, there,’ Fionn said, pulling on the reins and patting his horse’s neck before swinging from his saddle. He looked back at the surly faces, staring at him as though bewitched by the cailleach of Crúachain. He forced a smile and said, ‘Why so glum, soon be supper time,’ which raised a slight chuckle.
Turning back to the gate, he banged on the hatch with his fist and waited, looking over his shoulder, shrugging when there was no response. He was about to bang again, this time using the pommel of his sword, when the hatch opened and a grizzled, rheumy face appeared, ‘What?’
‘I am Fionn, with my Fianna, requesting succour from Mathaman, as is our right.’
‘Your right, you say. It’s the right of my lord to refuse you, as well, so it is.’
‘It is. Will you tell your lord we are here, or do I have to shout for him to come?’
‘We’re not accepting no guests today,’ the gatekeep said, slamming the hatch shut.
Fionn turned back to the Fianna and shrugged again, exaggeratedly, grinning. They grinned back, wounds and humiliation momentarily forgotten. Drawing his sword, he banged on the hatch with the pommel. He continued to do so until he heard the sound of the bolt. The rheumy face reappeared in the hole, grimacing, anger staring from his eyes, as if ready to open the gate and scrape Fionn off the threshold with a stick and a curse.
‘What is the meaning…’
Fionn did not let him continue, but grabbed the guard by the hair, dragged his head through the hatch, plunging his sword into the man’s throat, swapping the intended flow of invective with blood.
‘Now look what you’ve done,’ he said, swiping at the blood splashing down the front of his leather armour. The warriors laughed at the gatekeep as he vainly tried to stem the flow of blood pulsing between his fingers.
‘Grainne,’ Fionn called, waving at the gate as he pushed the unfortunate keeper back through his hole. She rode her horse side on to the palisade, stood on her saddle, and hoisted herself over. After a few moments, the gates swung open and she walked out, grinning, sword in hand. ‘Not sure where the guards are. Place is dead.’
‘They will be in the blockhouse getting drunk. Whole ráth will be in the blockhouse getting drunk. Let us go and ask Mathaman where he keeps the silver,’ Fionn said, waving the Fianna through without cleaning or sheathing his sword.