The warrior opened his eyes, slowly, grimacing. It was dark, as quiet as an old barrow of the Elder Race. He blinked his eyes several times. The darkness was a surprise. The last he remembered, it had been just after dawn when the noise of battle began to lessen. The stillness was strange. Before oblivion, the moans of the wounded had been audible; the noise of the dying, providing a backdrop to the relative quiet inside the hostel in the vale of Glencree, where they had taken refuge. Now there was no sound, not even the pleas for mercy and the screams of those being assisted into the mound of Donn by victors with sharp blades and no mercy.
“What of the king?” he asked of the still. It did not answer. There was no sound. Nothing. Am I in the Otherworld? he wondered. Excluded from Donn’s mound? Sidhe forbid such an unfitting end.
“Conaire, are you there?” Again, there was no answer. Nothing but the dark and the stillness. He tried to lift his head and immediately cursed, as it struck something unforgiving.
“Bull’s balls!” Lights flashed before his eyes.
His head span, nearly causing him to vomit. As he laid back down, he felt a wetness under his nape. Gingerly, he lifted his right hand, and probed the area. There was stickiness, but he could not feel any fresh welling, so knew the bleeding to have stopped.
“Boar’s ball sack,” he hissed, “but that hurts.”
He took several deep breaths, trying to ease the throbbing. It seemed to work. The queasiness abated a little, so he edged himself to the side and lifted his head for a second time, slowly, more cautious. This time, there was no obstruction and the darkness was replaced by a limited light. He realized he had been under a bench.
“Not dead then. Thank the Sidhe,” he said, before feeling shame at the sentiment. He should be dead. When a battle is lost, death is the reward. Those still alive did not merit the name warrior.
The nausea was there, nagging, but the gagging was not as adamant as the first time. He turned slightly. The light was coming from the open maw of the hostel, where the battle had raged, where the battle should be raging still.
The warrior took hold of the bench and pulled himself up, so he was kneeling. The nausea threatened again. Almost as fiercely as the first time. He took several more gulps of air, head close to his knees, fighting back the bile. The air tasted of charred wood and made him realize he had a terrible thirst. He climbed to his feet and staggered to where the butts were stored at the rear of the common room.
They were empty.
He remembered the king’s bodyguard had left in search of water. The water had been used to douse the flames engulfing the hostel. As he turned towards the gaping maw where the doors used to be, his eye caught a glint. He leant closer and saw his sword and shield, hidden behind one of the butts. He rubbed his face in confusion. Who would hide a warrior’s sword and shield? Even more strangely than the who, was the why? Why would any sane man hide tools of war in the middle of a battle?
Finding no answer in the murkiness, the warrior sheathed his sword, the copper sheathe still on his belt. He picked up his shield and made his way towards the hole, where the light was showing the brightness of a clear autumn noon. He approached warily. The reavers might be there, quiet, relaxing after a hard-fought battle.
When he made the doors, he saw the desolation.
He stood in the hole and shielded his eyes from the watery glare. Although weak, the sun made his head hurt. He looked at the scene between the throbs. The reavers had gone. The vultures of war had not yet arrived. The dead were lying where they had fallen. It seemed, they had not even been looted by the victors, which was strange to the warrior. Almost as strange as the hidden weapons. The doors were smoking, blackened, resting where they had been torn down.
He shielded his eyes and scanned more slowly. He saw the cairn with its grisly trophy as he scanned. He did not need to approach to know the head would be that of Conaire. No other would be so exalted after the battle, unless it were the pirate, Ingcél. The warrior knew there was little chance of the reaver’s death. The battle had been all but lost when oblivion had taken him.
“He did right by you, then,” he said as he approached the head. The body of the high king was beside the cairn. It showed no signs of mutilation.
“I will bury you, King Conaire, overlooking the place where you fell,” the warrior said as he gathered the torso in his arms.
It was approaching mid-afternoon by the time the warrior placed the last stone atop the cairn. He looked from the dingle over the vale. It seemed a fitting place. He knew there was some urgency, but a nagging tiredness was weighing him down. He supposed it was the headwound. Although superficial, he guessed he had lost blood and by the stickiness, much of it.
“I will sit against this tree and get my breath. Just a quick rest before I get after the cow’s udder and his rag tag warband.”
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