Happy San Patricio’s – The Grey God Passes By Robert E. Howard

My earliest knowledge of Gaelic folklore was probably the same as anybody else’s, St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland, which we were taught in Catholic school.

But my first and fondest taste of Irish storytelling tradition probably came through one of its modern scions, and one of my most revered writing influences, Robert E. Howard.

At the age of thirteen or so, heavily into Conan and Solomon Kane, I was heading to my local used bookstore and combing the spinner racks and the ‘H’ section shelves for anything with his name on it. I took home this book, Marchers of Valhalla, whose first story, The Grey God Passes, is Howard’s fantastical take on the Battle of Clontarf, in which Irish High King Brian Boru died defeating a Norse-Irish force.

It centers mainly on Conn, a Gaelic slave/outlaw turning on his masters, and has some pretty stirring battle descriptions and an appearance by Odin himself. I recommend it if you’re looking for something to make you wanna swill (and I do mean swill) Guiness and put your knuckles up. It made me wanna, and I’m a Polack.

Conn reached Murrogh in the upheaval of slaughter. “Melaghin says he will charge when the time comes.”

“Hell to his soul!” cried Black Turlogh. “We are betrayed!”

Murrogh’s blue eyes flamed. “Then in the name of God!” he roared. “Let us charge and die!”

The struggling men were stirred at his shout. The blind passion of the Gael surged up, bred of desperation; the lines stiffened, and a great shout shook the field that made King Sitric on his castle wall whiten and grip the parapet. He had heard such shouting before.

Now, as Murrogh leaped forward, the Gaels awoke to red fury as in men who have no hope. The nearness of doom woke frenzy in them, and, like inspired madmen, they hurled their last charge and smote his wall of shields, which reeled at the blow. No human power could stay the onslaught. Murrogh and his chiefs no longer hoped to win, or even to live, but only to glut their fury as they died, and in their despair they fought like wounded tigers -severing limbs, splitting skulls, cleaving breasts and shoulder-bones. Close at Murrogh’s heels, flamed the ax of Black Turlogh and the swords of Dunlang and the chiefs; under that torrent of steal the iron line crumpled and gave, and through the breach the frenzied Gales poured. The shield formation melted away.

At the same moment the wild men of Connacht again hurled a desperate charge against the Dublin Danes. O’Hyne and Dubhgall fell together and the Dublin men were battered backward, disputing every foot. The whole field melted into a mingled mass of slashing battlers without rank or formation. Among a heap of torn Dalcassian dead, Murrogh came at last upon Jarl Sigurd. Behind the Jarl stood grim old Rane Asgrimm’s son, holding the raven banner. Murrough slew him with a single stroke. Sigurd turned, and his sword rent Murrogh’s tunic and gashed his chest, but the Irish prince smote so fiercely on the Norseman’s shield that Jarl Sigurd reeled backward.

Tholeif Hordi had picked up the banner, but scarce had he lifted it when Black Turlogh, his eyes glaring, broke through and split his skull to the teeth. Sigurd, seeing his banner fallen once more, struck Murrogh with such desperate fury that his sword bit through the prince’s morion and gashed his scalp. Blood jetted down Murrogh’s face, and he reeled, but before Sigurd could strike again, Black Turlogh’s ax licked out like a flicker of lightning. The Jarl’s warding shield fell shattered from his arm, and Sigurd gave back for an instant, daunted by the play of that deathly ax. Then a rush of warriors swept the ranging chiefs apart.

“Thorstein!” shouted Sigurd. “Take up the banner!”

“Touch it not!” cried Asmund. “Who bears it, dies!”

Even as he spoke, Dunlang’s sword crushed his skull.

“Hrafn!” cried Sigurd desperately. “Bear the banner!”

“Bear your own curse!” answered Hrafn. “This is the end of us all.

“Cowards!” roared the Jarl, snatching up the banner himself and striving to gather it under his cloak as Murrogh, face bloodied and eyes blazing, broke through to him. Sigurd flung up his sword – too late. The weapon in Murrogh’s right hand splintered on his helmet, bursting the straps that held it and ripping it from his head, and Murrogh’s left-hand sword, whistling in behind the first blow, shattered the Jarl’s skull and felled him dead in the bloody folds of the great banner that wrapped about him as he went down.

Now great roar went up, and the Gael’s redoubled their strokes. With the formation of shields torn apart, the mail of the Vikings could not save them; for the Dalcassian axes, flashing in the sun, hewed through chainmesh and iron plates alike, rending linden shield and horned helmet. Yet the Danes did not break.

On the high ramparts, King Sitric had turned pale, his hands trembling where he gripped the parapet. He knew that these wild men could not be beaten now, for they spilled their lives like water, hurling their naked bodies again and again into the fangs of spear and ax.

Kormlada was silent, but Sitric’s wife, King Brian’s daughter, cried out in joy, for her heart was with her own people.

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