Letters from Ireland
Part 15

Dolmens are ancient, mysterious stone structures that appear all over the landscape of Ireland. Very little is known about them although some have stories or legends attached to them. We tend to take them for granted, but when anyone messes with one of them, all Hell ensues. Here I was again, with Hell being my lone option.

The Dubh Na`n dolmen is more like a wedge grave in shape, with two rectangular stones set deep in the earth sideways and another large rectangular stone set on top of them like a lid, forming a grave-like shape.

I kicked at the ground in the hollow under the top stone and a thin shell of earth crumbled away, sifting deep into a cavern. I took a turn round the structure and tested the strength of it; I tossed my duffel bag into the opening and leapt in after it, landing with a grunt.

I looked up, checking the depth of the stones. It would be blasphemous to disturb an ancient structure of Irish history, but at least it would be a party for the archeologists, not to mention saving the lives of a few tourists and locals if I was successful.

I strapped on my leather quivers of arrows, filled my pockets with stakes and slipped the broadsword into my belt. I took the empty duffel bag and began tucking it under the weaker of the base stones, pushing it deep into the crevice between earth and stone, with only the strap hanging down in the shadow. I tugged on it and a shower of earth came down; with any luck, I'd have as easy a time getting out as I had getting in.

I started off down the tunnel, which I instantly realized was much more than a tunnel; under the thin covering of dust and grime I was scuffing against stone. I stopped to brush the dirt away with my hand and paused in amazement. It was fine drystone work, stones fitted together without mortar of any kind, so tightly that a hair wouldn't have slipped between them. Miles and miles of the finest work in stone pavement. This wasn't the craft of ancient Romans, this was Irish work, or more accurately, the work of the Old Ones, the Tuatha De Danaan. They are legendary people who are said to live underground, the people some refer to as fairies. "The little people" is a nickname given to the first inhabitants of Ireland, who were wiped out by conquering Celtic tribes. They were superb craftsman, and contrary to popular cliché, they were a tall people; the ceiling was high, though the passage was narrow. I never had to duck my head. Curiosity made me pause again to brush dust from the walls, and here I found stone again, intricately carved with figures of Curranos, the horned wood god, images of the Sheela-na-gig, the goddess of fertility, and figures of snakes and birds and fish and flowering trees, images of lush springtime lovingly engraved. I wondered if it could be a story miles and miles long, the story of the oldest peoples of this island, and a part of me trembled at the thought of exploring it all, but I had work to do. There were many alcoves along the way, dips in the rock walls. Perhaps they had been shrines or places of meditation or simply paces to mount torches. They were man-sized, and this could be a great advantage.

It was a quick ten miles, and I saw the fork long before I reached it. Vampires have no need of light, but some like it for effect. It's a weakness of my own, but not to impress. I find light to be warm and comforting. For Midir, I was sure, it was used as an intimidation. Most new minions are shy of any brightness, and cower in it.

By this time they would be able to catch my scent. I caught sight of a nice deep alcove and marked it in my mind. I walked past it a ways, pulling back the sleeve of my coat and brushing my wrist along the stone wall to leave a very obvious scent, then I carefully backtracked past the alcove, and then back to it, pressing myself deep in and readying my crossbow.

Within five minutes the first scout came creeping fearfully along, following my mark, his entire body quivering with fear. They always sent out the newest and weakest first. He had the sun-bronzed look of an American tourist, captured undoubtedly by Fiona or one of her cloying little minions; I could imagine her camping up the Irish brogue and hiking up her skirt. How many college students never returned from these backpacking trips? He crept past me and down the passage. I waited until he was almost out of range, then I shot him through the back and he exploded in a shower of dust. There was a scuffling further up the passage as a group of minions panicked and ran for the lair. When they were gone I bolted into the passage and ran back the way I had come. I turned a corner and waited; here came, by the sound of them, about twenty. I rolled onto my stomach on the stones and fired carefully and methodically, dusting all but one. He headed back for the lair, screaming.

Now they would send real force. I secured my weaponry tightly and found footholds in the carvings on the walls, apologizing under my breath to the craftsman who had labored over them. I managed to position myself against the ceiling of the passage way, facing down. The narrow space enabled me to brace my legs against one wall and my shoulder against the other, leaving my hands, for the most part, free. The way was labored, but I started creeping sideways up the passage, shrugging my shoulder into a curve of stone and finding another place to brace my feet, my back pressed against the ceiling. I was happy for my boots, which gave me a better grip on the unsteady texture of the gritty walls, but I was also painstakingly careful not to dislodge any shower of dirt that would give me away. I inched closer and closer, beads of sweat gathering on my brow and trickling down my nose. My broadsword, poorly secured in my belt, dangled dangerously, and I was at a loss as to how I would be able to reload my crossbow with any speed, but again, this was the only option.

I saw the first guards, standing and holding torches as a show of bravado and authority, and the rancid smoke from them floated into my eyes. I kept moving, inch by inch, feeling my way along, until I had full view of the lair of Midir. Here the ceiling widened and arched; I pressed myself into a high, dark corner of the arch at the entryway, balancing awkwardly in an almost spread-eagle position, securing my broadsword close to my body and readying my crossbow in my right arm.

Midir's lair was a magnificent collection of stolen treasures. If I could manage to empty this place of undead the archeologists would have a field day. All the furnishings were gilded, gleaming brilliantly in the torch light, many set with semiprecious stones, the gold worked with ancient designs of spirals and intricate woodland scenes. There were medieval seats, tables and a variety of wine jugs and bowls, all worked in precious metals. Positioned about the chamber were fifty or so solid guardsman, vampires old enough to be strong and steady, and several dozen cowering minions, newly made and gaping helplessly at the arrogant, bristling Midir, who strutted and bellowed,

"Bring him NOW! He is here! He is tricking us! Do not underestimate him, the drinker of the Slayer! Know the power of him! We must send a greater force! Eamon, take twenty more!"

Twenty armored vampires lined up like Romans and marched away down the passage. I almost laughed. It's within the power of any undead who's older than fifty to walk without sound, but this was a sign of Midir's trademark arrogance. Midir was strong and old, however stupid, and arrows wouldn't be enough kill him; I would have to take off his head. To do it with his own family blade would be the ultimate humiliation and I looked foreword to it, but I would have to wait long enough for him to dispatch as many of his army as possible, to improve my chances. If I could take out the guards and leave him surrounded only by minions, I had a better odds of success. Also, by this time my entire body was shaking with fatigue from the effort of keeping myself plastered against the ceiling, and I needed to act before my legs gave out.

I was contemplating this, and considering the best timing, when there was a commotion in the passage. I heard the despairing howls of several vampires being dusted, and then I smelled the newcomers: freshly fed, old, and strong. Ailil's army. He was the second Ancient on my list, and he was being delivered to me directly. It was convenient, but I gulped, hard; defeating Ailil was an entirely different proposition than defeating Midir. Ailil was crafty, intelligent, and very powerful, and I found myself closing my eyes and speaking to Birog in my mind, asking for a little assistance.

Midir stood from his gold throne and folded his arms to hide the fact that he was shaking in his boots at the sight of Ailil. Ailil was gigantic; he'd had to duck his head along the passageways. His head had come inches from my chest as he passed through the arch. Now in the cavern of the lair he shook his head, glad to have the space to move; I was ready to fire, but he didn't yet look up. He glared at Midir.

"Lost him, have you?"

"He will be found,"

"Idiot," snickered Ailil, which with a strong brogue sounds more like "eejut", "He's outsmarted you again. Did you really think Fiona had the charms to sway him? He's been given power, but the wrong kind. He's full of feckin' light. It's his head you need,"

"His skull will grace my doorway,"

"Your doorway is rented," said Ailil calmly, "From me. We followed him here; it's been nigh on an hour and you haven't found him in one simple passageway,"

"He will be-"

"Will ya wisht," said Ailil gently, an expression that means something like, 'quiet, please,'. He tilted his enormous head at Midir, then glanced back at one of his army, "There's good eatin', there,"

Midir had time to widen his eyes in shock before he was seized by the throat. Ailil held him as easily as a fisherman holds a squirming lobster.

"Where's the pot?"

Midir growled a strangled curse. Ailil grasped him by his wrist and twisted; the sound of bones splintering echoed delicately off the stone walls. Midir screamed and twisted, but didn't offer an answer. Ailil shrugged, making a sound like a sigh. He took a long knife from his belt and slipped it under Midir's ear, fixing his lips to the fountain of blood that spurted from his throat, and drinking sloppily. Minions in the chamber tried to scurry away, but a bloodbath ensued; Ailil's superior forces made a feast of Midir's army, minions and soldiers included. Screams bounced along the passageway and through the chamber, screams as alarming and annoying as those of squalling children.

Ailil drained Midir and tossed his body aside. He emitted a large, wet belch, and then took a seat on his new golden throne. He toyed with his large dagger, twisting it on a fingertip, then tossed it with perfect aim upward and into my right shoulder. He looked up at me and laughed.

"Don't suppose you've seen the cauldron, have you, Aingeal?"