Spirit is willing
“Why have we stopped?” Bres called out to the stone coloured sky as he tilted the visor on his helmet back. His armour was gaudy and extravagant, hints of white gold and gold leaf burdened a chestnut mare.
Ogma rode silently at his side aloft his dappled grey, his visor down.
“Sire, a swineherder blocks our path and wishes to speak to our captain.” A young knights errant said, hiking his hauberk up as it seemed a little too big for him.
Bres sighed and made his way to the front of the convoy with Ogmar trailing behind him in a terse canter.
The path they were on was a narrow dipping one lined on both sides with stones separating an embankment of rocky crags. The stones demarked a break in the fields used for grazing from the sacred groves of Newgrange. The village folk liked to have their livestock feast on the grass on those groves. They thought the grasses there imbued with some mystical properties. Producing milk and meat sweeter and heartier and wool hewn softer and stronger.
To turn back they would have to climb the embanked and loop around by crossing open farm land. Adding annoyance and further time to their journey.
Bres beheld the man with raised eyebrow and a sneering condescension as if expecting to witness a pig rolling around in the mud at his feet.
The swindeherder was deshevelled and appeared hobbled with a large white branch cane. Despite his deformities he had the broadback of a farmhand. His dark cloak covering most of his face and body, with one sleeve hanging loose at his side. A placid shaggy dog panting at his feet.
“What is it you want swineherd?” Bres said with the listlessness of a court maid.
The man rolled one stoney eye towards Bres and Bres was taken with a queer feeling as if someone were scything grass to make a grave. He swallowed it down and scoffed as the swineherder took some time to answer.
“Well out with it, I haven’t got all day, you stand before the king of Inish Veil” He said softly, as a light spattering of rain began to fall.
“Is that so?” The swineherder said in an almost mocking colloquial tone, his posture not changing at all.
“What is it you want peasant, speak now or be run down!” Bres said idly, trying not to look at the vagabond.
“I wish to issue a challenge” the old swineherd said his voice low gritted.
Bres sighed “We don’t have time for games or riddles old man and we wouldn’t waste the coin now out of our way!”
“I wish to challenge the strongest amongst ye to single combat” The old man said as if he was asking for a sip of water.
The men all laughed after a moment and Bres too could help but chuckle.
All but Ogma laughed, he instead bristled with a cool anticipation. There was something not quite right. Some drive or pull, some whispering in the back of his head that told him something was padding the earth downwind. Something waiting to see the soft side of a belly to slash. Some great battle lay over the horizon just waiting to cast his legend in bronze, his death in history.
“Do you hear this Ogma?” Bres said still chuckling “This swineherd challenges you to duel, do you accept?” Bres grinned.
Ogma said nothing and dismounted his horse.
He approached the stranger slowly tracing a wide semi-circle. Drawing the steel club from his belt.
“Draw your weapon stranger.” Ogma said cautiously.
“I have no weapon” The old swineheard said.
“A weapon!” Ogma called.
Another steel club was thrown at the swineherd’s feet but he seemed not to notice. Only after a moment stoopping slowly to drag it off the ground leaning over his cane awkwardly to do so. It was revealed he was a cripple. He only had one arm.
“Tis a brave cripple” Bres jested “P’haps he seeks an honourable felling?” Bres laughed, tugging at the reigns of his horse trying to keep her straight.
Ogma gritted his teeth as he felt a low ebb of malice coming from the stranger. An aura of hate kept at bay by a slow flowing of misery and disgrace at his pitiable appearance. His chest nevertheless swelling as he could hear trumpets of battle ringing in his ears but couldn’t explain why. The hair on his arms bristling. He could almost see the blood stained grass swaying as he looked upon the stranger, hear the thunder. He could feel the static air but he dare not make his feelings known.
“Come on Ogma take pity on the poor wretch, his swines have turned fowl!” Bres joked “He wants you to put him out of his misery, but it hardly does your honor any good to thwought such a wretch”. Bres laughed and rested his chin on his gauntlet as if to pounder.
“The knight could tie his good hand” The stranger said at once in a low drawling tone from unseen lips.
“What a good idea!” Bres said, his armor jangling as he slapped his thigh. “Tie your good arm and then fight the swine herd on fair terms and keep your honor, there we’ve settled it.” Bres smiled, pleased with his idea.
Ogma breathed through his teeth as he gripped the haft of his club tightly. Feeling the sweat on his palm then releasing it again, then tightening it again.
One of Ogma’s men tied his arm behind his back and then stood back as Ogma stretched his now only arm with the club extended. He walked slowly crossing one leg over the other circling the swineherd as his men cleared an uneven circle with their bodies and erect pikes.
The stranger did not move or adjust his footing. Only seeming to exhale and rise slightly allowing the bleached branch he was using as a cane to fall on the ground.
Then suddenly a flash and the swineherd threw the club with a ferocious speed and vitriol. It caught the crowd by such surprise they had no reaction whatsoever but stunned silence. Ogma was a skilled warrior and his senses were keen and swift and with his own great strength he met the blow. Ogma deflected it with some difficulty. The force of it lifting him off one of his feet and making his hand ring with energy, sending sharp pains up his arms and down his back.
But he could not rest. The swineherd was relentless and vicious taken by the spirit of a wild boar himself he threw his cloak soon after not stopping for a beat. Never once thinking one attack would fell the champion of the Tuatha de’. The cloak was heavy and sodden with the beast’s sweat hitting heavily and sticking. Ogma tried to bat it away but the cloak wrapped around his head. Without his other arm for support it drove his club back hitting him awkwardly around his shoulder just nicking the bottom of his helmet.
The swineherd was used to having one arm and all his movements compensated for it, never slowing or struggling.
Bres who had been laughing and smiling and geering jovially up to this point had grown silent and constipated. “That face” He whispered to himself as his own face drained of all colour and he took on the appearance of a ghoul. “Not possible” He laughed it off his mind playing tricks.
The man standing before them was not old nor infirmed but a man at his full height erect towered over them all. His face scarred and horrid, head bald, shaven awkwardly with scraps of hair missed dangling like that of a corpses. His skin pale and drawn and wet looking, clothes of mesh and leather, dark and fitted for speed. A sick sadistic smile on his twisted face. Eyes burning like coals with what seemed like a relentless savage rage, a fire that would consume all that touched it.
In an instant he’d picked his club back up and was on Ogma who was still struggling to remove the sodden heavy cloak from him with only one arm.
The swineherd laughed as he hit him in the stomach. Ogma doubling over, another blow sent Ogma’s helmet flying revealing his bonny face as he sprawled on his back like a wingless fly.
The swineherd pinned his other arm with his foot dropping the club carelessly by his head. Cur withdrew his strange blade from his belt, stooped swiftly and stopped to grin at no one. He sliced Ogma’s ear off as if he was cutting himself a piece of cheese. Ogma’s silver tongue wailed out in pain as he writhed under the heavy heel of the stranger.
Cur held the bloody ear in his hand and closed his fingers around it. he stooped again to put back on his cloak as the men around him said nothing. The sounds of their hauberks and plate mail jangling as they stood frozen said it all. Shaking, petrified from fear and shock and rage as they watched their hero, their champion defiled by one so pathetic.
Cur glanced around at them and laughed softly as they encircled him. Their breathing heavy as they tried to muster the courage to draw a blade, even one.
“Let him pass”
They turned to look at Bres as he sat atop his horse tapping nervously on his thigh.
“I said let him pass, would you besmurge your honor to kill a man for winning a duel mutually agreed?” His voice was strained and irritable as if the words tasted foul and burned his tongue. “An ear can mend, honor cannot, I said let him pass damn you!” He spat swatting at the air with his reigns, his mare swaying beneathe him.
Nothing but the sounds of straining jaws and clacking teeth and shaking mail knees and chausses. Fear and rage and a grotesque swallowing of all of it as they cleared a path for the beast before them.
Cur turned to smile at Bres, it could have been an acknowledgement of his nobility, a grateful smile. But it wasn’t, far from it. It was a wicked arrogant grin and it set Bres’s teeth on edge. He clutched angrily at his horse’s mane causing it to whiney and shake it’s head violently as he watched the familiar stranger walk away.
Birog awoke to an odd muffled tapping noise carried undoubtedly by the temples uncanny acoustics. She rose feeling a little stiffness. The druiddess looked down to see she had been lying on some kind of flat stone bed or altar. But it appeared more like a bed because it was seemingly carved into the wall and not central to the small doorless cave room.
It then struck her that she had no recollection of going to sleep or changing into the strange but lovely garments she was now wearing. It seemed to be some sort of robe not to dissimilar from the ones the monks before were wearing. The cut specifically to her size and shape but with a slit along the thigh to allow for more leg movement and an added plunging neckline. Although she saw no utility in that.
She wasn’t worried but for the tapping which had seemed to fade into the background. As she had been on a long journey and she must have been exahausted and just forgotten it all. Blacked out listening to the sound of the tapping which seemed almost as regular as a drip of water in a cave.
The druidess told herself this but did not believe it. The tappings sounds were too quick and irregular and they resonated with an eerie quality she couldn’t put her finger on.
She stretched out her aching limbs. Noiselessly and gingerly she approached the opening to her room to peer out into the main hall. The noise seeming to come from lower down in the chamber. It was night now, as there was no natural light seeping through the opening in the ceiling. Just the glow of the moon and the series of sconces and candles gently melting on any haphazard stone that would lend itself to being a shelf.
The druidess made her way down the hall cautiously drawn by the sound. Passing rooms similar to the one she found herself, she could see monks lying as she was on the stone seemingly asleep. Finding herself again in the main central chamber with that peculiar stone dish. She had noted it before but had not given further thought to it until now as the sounds seemed to coming from behind it or perhaps below it? She approached the stone basin regarding light scratches on the floor from where it had been moved in the dim candle light. The torque on her wrist pulsed slightly indicating some form of magic.
It was a rather inconspicuous but behind the basin was the opening to a staircase in the floor that meandered down and to the right. To look it at you’d hardly believe it were there as the similarity of the rocks seemed to camouflage it.
Perhaps the dish was over the opening and it had been moved or it had just been there all along hidden by the angle.
With some mild trepidation she cautiously descended the stairs, taken aback suddenly by her own nature. What was this feeling? Why did she feel this anxiety? Were these people not the very people she had journeyed to meet? Were they not her allies? Then why this fear? Why did that sound make her skin crawl? Why did the torque pulse so strangely? Why did it only now occur to her that she forgot the sword in her room?
She couldn’t answer but she feared the answer was at the bottom of these stairs and she daren’t find out but nevertheless her feet decided for her. Curious as they were.
The druidess slid her body down the wall. The cold stone pressed against her back slowly making her way down one foot step at a time. Ever so lightly so the only noises she could hear were the sounds of her breathing and the strange tapping noise that drew her into this stygian abyss.
It seemed to get much colder as she descended, so much so she could see her own breath.
It was much darker too as there were no candles in the stairway. She moved only by the light that was emanating from the room below and the light from the hall above. Fearing activating the glow of her circlet might expose her. But now she traversed the darkness in between drawn by the distant light below and the tapping sound getting louder.
It seemed almost like a dream, like she was floating. The druiddess couldn’t see her arms and legs and the stairs seemed to go on forever or maybe she wanted them to, the light never getting closer.
But as if a dream The druidess closed her eyes and opened them again and she was standing before the opening where the light was coming from and she froze. She couldn’t see directly inside due to the angle of the stairs she could just see the light and a square foot or so of the floor. But The druiddess could hear the tapping still and a voice, a whisper or a murmur as if made to oneself and a shuffling of feet.
Birog edged her way along wall and wrapped her fingers around the lip of the doorway. She moved her body prone against the wall which was cold and slick to peek out. It was very dark lit only by a few candles and hanging sconces. It was some kind of library or laboratory, the walls lined with books. But it smelled strongly of chemicals, the mixing of magical herbs to create potions and elixirs.
Dian Cecht was shuffling about, murmuring to himself. Walking back and forth and regarding something on a large stone slab not too dissimilar from the one above ground but much larger. He seemed pleased with himself but also angry about something all at once.
It was then the druiddess’ eye was caught by the slab itself and what she saw froze the blood in her veins. Because on that table lay the body of a man. A man in black armor.
Strange tubes running in and out of his body and his head at his feet in a glass jar, suspended in some alien liquid. Then she saw it, the source of the abominable noise. The dead man’s fingers tapping on the stone slab.
She could feel it now coming from her abdomen, a scream coming as if to stop from vomiting alone. She could feel it rising up inside her wanting release. She had no control of it at all but a gracious filthy hand stinking of muck and leaves covered her mouth and pulled her away from the light of the doorway.
“Shhh” The man said. “No need for that eh”
“Tuan? Where have you been?”
“I was watching over the cripple” He whispered, the corners of his whiskered mouth curling into a devilish smile in the dark.
“He returns now, and your friends, they’ve made you comfortable?”
“I, I don’t know, I think they drugged me, and that thing in there.” She turned back to look at the opening and make sure Dian was still shuffling around unaware of them.
“It returned to it’s master after all.” Tuan said regarding the boots of the black one lying on the slab.
“He sent it, the horseman, but why? No it couldn’t be otherwise he’d have killed me the moment the Firbolg left if not before.” She whispered.
“Forget that, we leave tonight, go back to your room and wait for the Firbolg to return, I’ll watch over you until then.” Tuan turned into a mouse and disappeared into a crack in the stone.
The druiddess did as she was told. She returned to the room and pretended to sleep on the stone slab unable to forget what she knew was slumbering below her. Her ears pricking up at the slightest sound, her eyes rolling behind her lids.
There was no way of knowing how long she lay there in the dark listening to the wind and the light smattering of rain outside. But after a time there came the sound of heavy foot falls and commotion. From the corner of her eye she could see the light of candles bobbing through the hall. Then there was disconcerting whispering coming from her chamber door.
“Girl! Birog! Bres has come for you! You must away!”
She arouse immediately to see Dian Cecht lit by a single candle looking as if he just rose from his bed chamber. The druiddess goggled at him briefly.
“We have no time, take the box and follow me into the tunnels.” He said motioning with pale hands for her to join him.
“What of my guardian?” She asked, her voice squeaking like a mouse.
“There’s no time, if Bres encircles us you might not be able to escape, the tunnels stretch only to the next valley and no further. You must go now!” He shouted emphatically almost shaking.
She joined him gingerly but not knowing what else to do. Dian Cecht shoved the box in her hands and took her forcibly by the wrist turning in the direction of the main chamber.
“But…!” She called looking back at the flurry of candle and torch light.
“Come you foolish girl, we cannot dawdle!” He said sternly pulling her by the wrist looking straight ahead.
Dian Cecht felt a cold stare and turned to see the Firbolg waiting for him in the hall like an off balanced statue waiting to fall.
“You’re alive?” He was stunned for a moment and then his gaunt sallow face fluttered with disdain “You brought Bres right to our doorstep!” He snapped.
Cur grinned like the devil, wide and toothy and tossed the bloody ear of Ogma on the stone floor laughing. A deep disturbing belly laugh that filled the halls.
Dian Cecht let the light of his candle fall on it at first in disgust. His mouth not moving but in his eyes flashed with excitement and astonishment. He bent to pick it up regarding it fondly.
“Both of you must follow me” He said flatly as if addressing no one in particular, still staring at the ear between his finger. Then without saying anything more he turned and lead them swiftly to the main altar room. Beckoning that they come around the stone slab revealing the same stone staircase Birog had stolen upon what could have been a few hours prior.
He led them briskly down the stone steps, much more briskly than someone of his age seemed likely of. As Birog followed approaching the morbid laboratory she’d spied before, her pulse quickened but there was no turning back. She clutched the box tightly to her breast and stared unwaveringly at the Firbolg’s broad back in front of her.
“Through here quickly” He said motioning with the candle.
He bustled them through the lab quickly. Birog tried not to look but her curious nature got the best of her and her eyes darted to the stone slab, but mercifully it was unoccupied. Allowing her then to attribute it to a bad dream or a mistake.
The old man motioned to a spot in the cave wall that looked no different from the rest. “Through here I said, it’s an optical illusion pass through this point, it’s tight but you’ll fit.”
On closer inspection and with the light of the candle they could make it out. The stones all looking the same and the passage itself made of the same stone and tapering here and there made it appear not like a gap at all. And in the darkened room would never be found unless you knew what you were looking for.
Cur went first, Birog followed after.
Dian grabbed her wrist as she entered and whispered.
“The box doesn’t open until it reaches him, do you understand?”
“I do” The druiddess said whincing at the stench of his foul breath.
He released her, his eyes becoming hollow as if a sudden feeling of regret washed over him.
“Good”. he muttered to himself.