Chapter One

Ireland, the year 845

Amaurus the Moor tightened his grip on the reins. "Hold, Zuberi. Pull up, I say."

At his command, the galloping Arabian stallion slid to an obedient halt. Initially a volley of loosened rock and dirt obscured Amaurus's view of his immediate surroundings. Only when the gritty cloud settled did he spy the spiny creature crossing the riding path directly in front of him. One more step taken and his steed would have trampled the hedgehog to death. Hardly a catastrophe. After all, ‘twas only a beastie and an ugly-tempered one at that, with a prickly nature and spiked barbs that kept enemies at bay...

Hmm. A fine defense strategy, Amaurus mused leaning forward in his warrior's high cantled saddle to sooth his startled mount with a pat. "Strike a hedgehog, Zuberi, and risk calling forth a vexed witch. Or so say local superstitions. Though no believer in sorcery am I, caution does have its place in the grand scheme of things."

Amaurus allowed his gauntlet-covered hand to linger on his stallion's sleek roan coat whilst he watched the uninjured hedgehog wiggle out of harm's way. Wholly amused by the beastie's antics -- the creature scampered beneath a hedgerow, its round bottom bouncing -- he laughed out loud. Once the animal had disappeared from sight, he eased up on his charger's bridle.

Immediately Zuberi snapped to attention, eager to follow his rider's next directive. With a goodly distance to travel before reaching his destination and scores of sea pirates to slay upon his arrival, Amaurus knew he should leave.

And yet...and yet...something prevented him from kneeing his warhorse onward. Rather than do as sound sense bade him, he tarried atop the ordinary hillock overlooking an inconsequential hamlet. Casting his gaze over the herd of woolly sheep grazing on the rocky slope, he harkened to the sounds of music floating upward from the festival below.

"Witless Irish tribe!" Amaurus shook his head until his helm's metal shield clunked the crooked bridge of his nose. "Look at those fools down there, Zuberi, singing and dancing in celebration of Lughnasadh. Whilst Vikings attack their shores, peasants and nobility alike make merry."

Zuberi whinnied in disgust, and Amaurus rolled his eyes for the same reason. "Paying homage to their Celtic solar god, Lugh. Bah! More like an excuse for the pious to turn heathen on the first full moon of each new season."

All manner of excess and gluttony went on at these festivals. And the games. Allah be praised! The Irish did so love their games. Equestrian races, naturally, but they also played carnal games that brought a rosy blush to even his dark-skinned cheeks.

He clucked his tongue. Why did these people practice such perplexing customs? Their stubborn adherence to pagan and druid rituals alongside Christian rites created naught but chaos in the land.

And too many damnable rulers to count. High and low chieftains. An assortment of kings. A vast hierarchy of clerics…

Enough witches, goblins, demons, and elves to sink this small country to the bottom of the ocean.

The amount of faeries alone gave him the megrims. Then there were the changelings, banshees, leprechauns, shape-shifting púcas, and so on and so forth. How could anyone keep track of them all?

To complicate matters further, each ruling body kept its own council. The sheer quantity of hot air expelled in Ireland made his head spin. Little wonder maintaining order here was a Herculean feat.

In the name of peace and harmony…and his pounding head...he proposed that the populace adhere to one way of life or the other. Civilized or barbaric. Christian or pagan. Scholarly or ignorant. Optimistic or melancholy.

As to the concept of loyalty -- in defiance of all logic and explanation, clan allegiance hinged on how the winds blew. And on this stormy isle, sea breezes shifted daily. Consequently he never knew which side would next lease his lance or at whom to shoot his arrows. Enemies one day became fast allies the next.

In such a warring clime as this, he prospered either way.

A yen for adventure had brought him across the waters to Ireland as an orphan lad, but a full coin pouch kept him here as a grown man. How else to explain why a displaced Ethiopian such as himself, who practiced no religion, followed the dictates of no leader, and longed to feel the sun's warmth on his face, would live in a land of gloom and doom among such quarrelsome and complicated people?

'Twas most definitely the money. There was no other reason for him to stay. And that was why he should not tarry here on the hillock. For the sake of replenishing his coin pouch, he should continue his journey to the monastery of Clonmacnoise.

So many Vikings to slaughter, so many silver pieces to make.

And yet...and yet...something compelled him to dismount, tie his trusty steed to the stout trunk of a hawthorn bush, and race down the hill toward the Lughnasadh celebration, where Irish peasants and nobility alike made merry.

Not even a well-paid mercenary like himself could live by bloodletting alone. 'Twas past time for him to make merry too