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Peter Tremayne

Dancing With Demons

PROLOGUE

Erc the Speckled, the guard at the entrance of Ráth na Riogh, the royal enclosure of the great Palace of Tara, knew the man whom he had challenged in the darkness. He knew him and therefore he let him pass inside without any suspicion; pass freely into the fortified sanctuary of the High Kings of Éireann. Erc, while an imperturbable warrior in a crisis, was also unimaginative. It did not occur to him that even people who were known to the palace guards should be asked what had brought them hither when they sought to gain entrance to the royal enclosure in the early hours of the morning. That he recognised the man, who presented himself in the light of the burning torches that lit the main portals to the enclosure, was enough for Erc. He allowed him entrance without further thought and question as to his purpose. After all, this chieftain had often been admitted to the High King’s presence during daylight hours. At least, that’s what he would eventually tell the examining Brehon — but by then it was too late.

In his defence, one could argue that there was good reason to believe all was secure. It was well-known that no enemy could penetrate the large complex that made up the buildings of Tara. It was too large and well- defened, both in the number of guards and in the physical structure, to allow any serious threat. The hills over which the royal centre spread had been built upon for countless centuries, dominating the luscious valley whose great river was called after the ancient goddess, Bóinn. It was said that the palace complex itself had been called after Téa, the wife of Eremon who, with his brother Eber, had led the children of the Gael into this land and settled it at the dawn of time. But Erc the Speckled was not interested in ancient legends. He knew only that the royal enclosure was impossible for any enemy to attack and he added complacency to the folly of being unimaginative.

The celebrated High King, Cormac Mac Art, three centuries before, had ordered the construction of the interior royal enclosure with its large rectangular house still called Tech Cormaic, Cormac’s House, in which the High Kings dwelled. It was opposite the Forradh or Royal Seat, to its east, from where the High Kings dispensed the duties of governing the five kingdoms. Even the colossal Tech Miodhchuarta, the banqueting hall, owed its existence to Cormac. And he had built fortifications to protect this inner sanctum of the kings. High walls and ditches, great oval earth-works, protected the buildings, with guards at all the entrances.

Tara was impregnable and so Erc the Speckled was not one whit concerned when the noble, whom he recognised, came walking to the gate that he guarded, in the darkness before dawn. He merely raised his spear in salute and went down the wooden stairway to the immdorus, the small door set in the now closed and bolted great gate of the fortress, released the lock and swung it open. He then motioned the man to the royal enclosure. The man did so with a smile and brief nod to Erc.

Once beyond the gate, and across the bridge over the defensive ditch, in which three tall men could stand on each other’s shoulders from its bottom to its top, the man’s attitude seemed to tense. He began to hurry with long loping strides, his head bent forward, his shoulders hunched, keeping to the semi-gloom beyond the pathways. He made his way between the great banqueting hall, towering up in the darkness to his right, and the fortified building known as the Ráth of Synods, where the High Kings summoned their assemblies, to his left. He turned left at the end and moved quickly towards the burial mound, which had been old even before the coming of the children of the Gael to the land. Then he moved past the Forradh and turned to face the great building of Tech Cormaic, the residence of the High King.

He halted in the shadow of some trees and bushes, designed to give privacy to the building, and stood surveying it for a moment. It was mainly in darkness except for two burning brand torches, stuck out in their iron braziers, which protruded on each side of the central dark oak doors, causing a faint light and countless dancing shadows to obscure the portal.

A movement caught his eye and he drew back further into the shadows, his hand sliding to the hilt of his sword, eyes narrowing as if the action would help him see more clearly in the darkness.

A warrior with drawn sword, whose blade rested easily against hisshoulder, moved with an almost lazy gait around the edge of the building and paused before the oak doors. A moment later, a second warrior joined him.

One spoke in a low voice, but on such a still night as this, the watcher could clearly make out what he said.

‘The night passes slowly, Cuan, my friend.’

‘Too slowly,’ the other replied with a yawn. ‘How long until dawn, Lugna?’

His companion glanced at the sky. It was almost cloudless but the clouds that were fleeting in the high winds were obscuring the pale gibbous moon. The man quickly assessed the position of the stars.

‘A while yet.’

‘Perhaps a small libation will keep the early-morning chill at bay until the sun rises? There is a jug in the kitchens.’

The second man seemed to hesitate. ‘It is wrong to leave the doors unguarded. What if Irél comes to inspect the guard?’

Cuan chuckled. ‘Our good commander has retired to his chamber. He will not come to inspect the guard until it is time to change it at dawn. Come, a drop of corma will keep out the night chill.’

The warrior addressed as Lugna made as if to protest. Then, in a tone of resignation, he said: ‘I cannot argue. Lead the way.’

The two guards moved off along the side of the High King’s house into the darkness towards the ircha, or kitchen, which was situated at the back of the building and entered by a separate door.

In the shadows, the waiting man smiled in satisfaction, glanced swiftly around and then, assuring himself that there was no one else in the vicinity, crossed quickly to the heavy doors. His hand did not tremble as he turned the iron handle. One of the double doors opened with ease and he passed into the hallway of the large building. With the two guards in the kitchen, he knew that there were no other guards inside the royal house. He eased the door quietly shut behind him. A few spluttering oil lamps caused shadows to dance over the wood- panelled walls of red yew. Thus far, thus good, he thought.

If his information was correct, the High King slept alone that night. His wife had gone, in the company of her daughters, to Finnian’s abbey at Cluain Ioraird to offer prayers for the repose of the soul of her mother, who had but recently succumbed to the Yellow Plague. In any case, the intruder also knew that the High King never slept with his wife, the ladyGormflaith, these days. So now, unless the High King had invited someone else to his bed, he would be found alone.

The man knew his way to the High King’s bedchamber. With a calm deliberation, he moved up the single flight of broad wooden stairs and into the deserted upper corridor, where he halted, head to one side, listening. All was quiet. Now he just had to hope that the others had played their part. A few seconds passed before he heard the slight creak of a door swinging gently open to his right. He pressed back against the panelled wall, as a shadow appeared. It was the dark figure of a woman. He had been expecting her.

No greeting was exchanged between them. Instead, the woman held out a hand and his own closed on the cold bronze eochuir or key.

‘The lock is well-oiled,’ the woman whispered. ‘I saw to that.’

‘And he is alone?’

‘I am fairly certain of it,’ came the soft reply. ‘The Old One has been watching the steps leading to the privy door at the back and has seen no one go up since he retired for the night.’

‘That is good. Return to your chamber and if I am successful I shall call you. You know what it is you must

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