Robert Howard: Tigers Of The Sea

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Tigers Of The Sea


Robert E Howard

"Tigers of the sea! Men with the hearts of wolves and thews of fire and steel! Feeders of ravens whose only joy lies in slaying and dying! Giants to whom the death-song of the sword is sweeter than the love-song of a girl!"

The tired eyes of King Gerinth were shadowed.

"This is no new tale to me; for a score of years such men have assailed my people like hunger-maddened wolves."

"Take a page from Caesar's book," answered Donal the minstrel as he lifted a wine goblet and drank deep. "Have we not read in the Roman books how he pitted wolf against wolf? Aye-that way he conquered our ancestors, who in their day were wolves also."

"And now they are more like sheep," murmured the king, a quiet bitterness in his voice. "In the years of the peace of Rome, our people forgot the arts of war. Now Rome has fallen and we fight for our lives-and cannot even protect our women."

Donal set down the goblet and leaned across the finely carved oak table.

"Wolf against wolf!" he cried. "You have told me-as well I knew!-that no warriors could be spared from the borders to search for your sister, the princess Helen-even if you knew where she is to be found. Therefore, you must enlist the aid of other men-and these men I have just described to you are as superior in ferocity and barbarity to the savage Angles that assail us as the Angles themselves are superior to our softened peasantry."

"But would they serve under a Briton against their own blood?" demurred the king. "And would they keep faith with me?"

"They hate each other as much as we hate them both," answered the minstrel. "Moreover, you can promise them the reward-only when they return with the princess Helen."

"Tell me more of them," requested King Gerinth.

"Wulfhere the Skull-splitter, the chieftain, is a red-bearded giant like all his race. He is crafty in his way, but leads his Vikings mainly because of his fury in battle. He handles his heavy, long shafted axe as lightly as if it were a toy, and with it he shatters the swords, shields, helmets and skulls of all who oppose him. When Wulfhere crashes through the ranks, stained with blood, his crimson beard bristling and his terrible eyes blazing and his great axe clotted with blood and brains, few there are who dare face him.

"But it is on his righthand man that Wulfhere depends for advice and council. That one is crafty as a serpent and is known to us Britons of old-for he is no Viking at all by birth, but a Gael of Erin, by name Cormac Mac Art, called an Cliuin, or the Wolf. Of old he led a band of Irish reivers and harried the coasts of the British Isles and Gaul and Spain-aye, and he preyed also on the Vikings themselves, But civil war broke up his band and he joined the forces of Wulfhere-they are Danes and dwell in a land south of the people who are called Norsemen.

"Cormac Mac Art has all the guile and reckless valor of his race. He is tall and rangy, a tiger where Wulfhere is a wild bull. His weapon is the sword, and his skill is incredible. The Vikings rely little on the art of fencing; their manner of fighting is to deliver mighty blows with the full sweep of their arms. Well, the Gael can deal a full arm blow with the best of them, but he favors the point. In a world where the old-time skill of the Roman swordsman is almost forgotten, Cormac Mac Art is well-nigh invincible. He is cool and deadly as the wolf for which he is named, yet at times, in the fury of battle, a madness comes upon him that transcends the frenzy of the Berserk. At such times he is more terrible than Wulfhere, and men who would face the Dane flee before the blood-lust of the Gael."

King Gerinth nodded. "And could you find these men for me?"

"Lord King, even now they are within reach. In a lonely bay on the western coast, in a little-frequented region, they have beached their dragon-ship and are making sure that it is fully sea-worthy before moving against the Angles. Wulfhere is no sea-king; he has but one ship-but so swiftly he moves and so fierce is his crew that the Angles, Jutes and Saxons fear him more than any of their other foes. He revels in battle. He will do as you wish him, if the reward is great enough."

"Promise him anything you will, answered Gerinth. "It is more than a princess of the realm that has been stolen-it is my little sister."

His fine, deeply-lined face was strangely tender as he spoke.

"Let me attend to it," said Donal, refilling his goblet. "I know where these Vikings are to be found. I can pass among them-but I tell you before I start that it will take your Majesty's word, from your own lips, to convince Cormac Mac Art of-anything! Those Western Celts are more wary than the Vikings themselves."

Again King Gerinth nodded. He knew that the minstrel had walked strange paths and that though he was loquacious on most subjects, he was tight-lipped on others. Donal was blest or cursed with a strange and roving mind and his skill with the harp, opened many doors to him that axes could not open. Where a warrior had died, Donal of the Harp walked unscathed. He knew well many fierce sea-kings who were but grim legends and myths to most of the people of Britain, but Gerinth had never had cause to doubt the minstrel's loyalty.

II.

Wulfhere of the Danes fingered his crimson beard and scowled abstractedly. He was a giant; his breast muscles bulged like twin shields under his scale mail corselet. The horned helmet on his head added to his great height, and with his huge hand knotted about the long shaft of a great axe he made a picture of rampant barbarism not easily forgotten. But for all his evident savagery, the chief of the Danes seemed slightly bewildered and undecided. He turned and growled a question to a man who sat near.

This man was tall and rangy. He was big and powerful, and though he lacked the massive bulk of the Dane, he more than made up for it by the tigerish litheness that was apparent in his every move. He was dark, with a smooth-shaven face and square-cut black hair. He wore none of the golden armlets or ornaments of which the Vikings were so fond. His mail was of chain mesh and his helmet, which lay beside him, was crested with flowing horse-hair.

"Well, Cormac," growled the pirate chief, "what think you?"

Cormac Mac Art did not reply directly to his friend. His cold, narrow, grey eyes gazed full into the blue eyes of Donal the minstrel. Donal was a thin man of more than medium height. His wayward unruly hair was yellow. Now he bore neither harp nor sword and his dress was whimsically reminiscent of a court jester. His thin, patrician face was as inscrutable at the moment as the sinister, scarred features of the Gael.

"I trust you as much as I trust any man," said Cormac, "but I must have more than your mere word on the matter. How do I know that this is not some trick to send us on a wild goose chase, or mayhap into a nest of our enemies? We have business on the east coast of Britain-"

"The matter of which I speak will pay you better than the looting of some pirate's den," answered the minstrel. "If you will come with me, I will bring you to the man who may be able to convince you. But you must come alone, you and Wulfhere."

"A trap," grumbled the Dane. "Donal, I am disappointed in you-"

Cormac, looking deep into the minstrel's strange eyes, shook his head slowly.

"No, Wulfhere; if it be a trap, Donal too is duped and that I cannot believe."

"If you believe that," said Donal, "why can you not believe my mere word in regard to the other matter?"

"That is different," answered the reiver. "Here only my life and Wulfhere's is involved. The other concerns every member of our crew. It is my duty to them to require every proof. I do not think you lie; but you may have been lied to."

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