Dyed in the wool
They fled Slaghtaverty before daybreak, taking a steep path out of the valley. Cur walked silent and solemn in front of the cart with Tuan at his heels in the form of a dog once again. Birog trailed behind on the cart her side lighter without the sword but her heart heavy. She looked back at Slaghtaverty and over the other side she saw smoke coming from Newgrange.
The streets of Slaghtaverty were bare and made a hollow ringing sound as the horses hooves struck the cobbles.
“Where is everyone?”
It was midday now and the streets were barren and silent as the grave. The only sound heard was the occasional shutter slamming as presumably a dweller locked their house up tighter than before.
“Some kind of peasant holiday perhaps” Bres joked atop his elegant horse. His men laughing nervously as their eyes darted here and there.
“I smell magic in the air” Dian said led along as their prisoner on the back of Ogma’s horse.
Ogma himself had a bandage over his ear that Dian Cecht saw fit to administer with a sly grin at the corner of his mouth.
Their procession continued through the empty streets slowly. Cautiously looking at every window and door frame until they came upon a stream that flowed adjacent the outer wall.
At that stream was an old washer woman on her knees furiously scrubbing something in the water.
Their processions stopped with a clattering of hooves and chainmail hauberks. Bres motioned to one of his men to approach the hag by the stream.
He did so with an air of caution which seemed puzzling even to him. Everyone felt it, a sense of distinct and terrible foreboding, they could smell it.
The old woman began to hum over the sound of her thrashing the clothes in the water.
Bres and his men approached her but she didn’t seem to notice, continuing to wash her clothes in the stream unburdened by their presence.
The soldier approached close enough almost to touch her rags and then he saw the water, red and thick with blood. “Hag, who’s clothes do you wash?”
Her humming sank low and then stopped. “I wash the clothes of those fallen in battle.” She muttered flatly.
“What battle? Who’s clothes?” The soldier craned his neck to try and see the clothes and stood stunned and frozen at the sight of the crest emblazoned on them. For it was their own.
“I wash your clothes sir knight” She said. “The one you seek, the broken king, he waits for you in the glade- blood and bone and death he wears as his mantle.”
The hag turned, her face hideous, ravaged by age and twisted by evil. She let out an ear piercing shriek which made all clutch their ears in pain.
Ogma acting quickly covered his remaining ear and with his free hand clubbed the hag from his saddle. With a sickly thudding crunching sound felled her in one blow.
The soldier fell back gripped by fear “It’s an evil spirit, a tide of ill omen sire! We must abandon this quest!” He screamed. “We shouldn’t have burned the newgrange! We’re damned!”
“Silence, superstitious nonsense, some mad old woman means nothing of our luck, now away with you!” Bres realigned himself in his saddle and spoke softly “We’ll find somewhere to recoup, a bit of rest will do us all good.” His words felt practised and empty, his eyes fearing to rest on any of his men.
Despite the initial summation, the town was not empty but sealed and covetous. Bres and his men stole away to an inn of which they made up the majority patron.
The inn was dark and cold and squalid and smelled of ash and dried blood. The barkeep a skinny potmarked man with a round gut greeted them sheepishly. His hands shaking and his skin ashen.
“We seek food and drink for me and my men” Bres stated.
“Oh” He said shakily. “And how will sire be paying may I ask?”
“You speak to the king of Inish veil, that is payment enough.” Bres bellowed.
“You’re pulling my leg, Bres, the king of inish veil would never set foot in-.” The man took aside the events of the past evening and gazed at their crest and at the visage of Bres the beautiful himself. “R-right away my lord, forgive me my king, I should’ve known by the crest, by your face, your noble voice alone! It’s just we’ve had somewhat of an upset here-“ The barkeep as if forgetting something paused and darted into the back to prepare viddels for the troop.
He returned shortly with a caske of ale, some bread and cheese and dried meats of which the men took of without hesitation.
Bres approached the cleanest looking bench and prepared to sit when a strange man slipped into his path.
“Good day sire” The man said calmly.
“Good day” Bres said with a puzzled indifference.
The stranger was slight and had a flowery way about him with brightly coloured clothes, wearing a goose feather cap.
“It is I Coirpre, I was on my way to Dun Bresse but as you yourself reside here, noble King Bres. I see no point in making the journey, I ask only the price of an ale and a good meal”
Bres tired from his journey, royal arse aching from the saddle sneered at the welp and moved him aside from where he had decided to sit. “Out of my way beggar” He said idly. “You’ll pay for your own drinks and warble on as you wish, I have no time for you.” Bres said as he sat with his back turned to the bard.
The barkeep returned with an ale in an ornate flagon and placed it before Bres. Bres with a mouthful of some cheese and bread took hold of the barkeep’s sweaty pallid forearm waiting while he chewed and swallowed.
“You said you had an upset here? You wouldn’t happened to have seen a comely lass with raven hair wearing a cloak?” His eyes narrowed as he studied the barkeep’s nervous demeanor.
“Aye” He blurted out. “a-and she was with a couple of knaves to be sure, one broad of shoulder and back the other lithe with the eyes of fox” He sputtered.
Bres bit into a piece of smoked pork and said “Really? What trouble did they get up to?” He prodded casually sipping from the flagon. His eyes stoney and sharp.
“Murder sire!” the peasant gaped.
“Am I to believe these ‘knaves’ killed all your patrons?” He said with an air of cool disinterest, taking another sip of ale.
“No well, yes but. I can’t make much sense of it myself.” His lack of answer seemed to make him look even more slick and uncomfortable.
“Explain it as best suits you, don’t sugarcoat it on my account.” Bres looked at him through half lidded eyes. His gaze suddenly taken by a queer desire to a darkened corner where a figure slowly took shape.
“Well there was a fight upstairs and then the streets filled with this fog.” He rambled on almost breathlessly as Bres looked past him listening nevertheless. “and there was something in the fog and when it’was morning there were bodies in the streets, bodies of children sire.”
“Children? Of this village?” Bres turned his eyes back to the barkeep, his voice rising sharply with his attention.
“No that’s what’s so puzzling about it sire, twas children not known to any of us.” The nervous man puzzled looking down at the stone floor as it might hold the answer in a crumb in a rat’s mouth. He swallowed and went on rubbing his hands nervously trying not to look at his king. “Some think they were run-aways from another town sire, but why would they come here and why would that bastard slay them so?”
“Which bastard?” Bres asked looking over the flagon raised to his eyeline.
“The one armed man, it was him, I was sure of it, I saw him leave the tavern and into the fog, everyone else was too terrified to go outside. Just like they are now, they’re sure the town is cursed, half the town’s already packed up and left for Leinster. The other half has nowhere else to go, I’ve lived my whole life here-“
Bres’s attention trailed off and he felt as if the figure was beckoning him. Without a word of acknowledgement he stood up and gently pushed past the barkeep who was still rambling to himself.
“Please sit, king of Inish veil” The figure said as Bres reached the edge of the small round table.
“What are you doing here?” The king asked incredulous but with a biting shrinking calm.
“I could ask you the same question” The figure spoke in a woman’s voice.
The bard turned over a bucket to stand on and cleared his throat loudly so all could hear. “Good day gentlemen, in honor of our regal guest and his accompaniment I would like to read a poem of my own creation. One I wrote for Bres himself.”
“Tethra, it matters not which face you choose, you are a vile slithering thing.” Bres spat, his rage measured and caged through clenched teeth and a liars smile.
“And how would your stolen woman feel to know her husband is half ‘vile slithering thing’ himself, your men? Your whole kingdom? They’ll know soon enough.” Tethra prodded. “Or that your mother, a wench that would spread her legs for a tentacled monstrosity- oh that’s right, you’ve never met your father, quite the catch I assure you.” Tethra giggled.
“What do you want Tethra?” Bres spat.
“To finish what I started” Tethra smirked, her girlish face flashing sharklike teeth.
“So it was you- the children” Bres said sullenly.
“Come now, you must have known it was us” The beast wearing the woman’s face grinned.
“We had an agreement” Bres said it almost to himself, know it was a joke all along.
“Agreements change” Tethra stated.
Bres slammed his fist against the table and then he shrunk under himself and sighed, saying nothing for a moment. “Children” His heart grew heavier as he said it. “Is this the price of peace, feeding our innocents to your vile mouths?” He asked looking down at the stale crumbs and ale stains on the small table.
“You think we eat them?” Tethra laughed purposefully missing the metaphor. He paused and took a loud and heavy breathe through his nose “It is-the price of peace.”
“And what guarantee do I have you won’t alter it further?” Bres swallowed and breathed steady.
“You have none, don’t delude yourself. It is we, the deep ones that hold the true power over life and death, you are a puppet, nothing more.” Tethra smirked again “You think we hate your people? We think nothing of them. They are the wood we put in our fires and you, you are hated, a halfbreed, bastard child of Dun Bresse.”
“What would stop me cutting you down where you stand?” Bres said as he chewed a morsel of tough bread. “Silenced that forked tongue for good.” He whispered breathing in sharply.
“That would truly be a stone letter, you think your father’s love could sustain such a betrayal?” Tethra smirked. “I’m here to help you, call it hard feeling from misplacing a sword that I entrusted to one upheld as trustworthy”
“That girl stole it from” He sighed. “The druiddess whore”
“Your druiddess is before you” Tethra whispered laying his hands flat on the table and tilting his hooded head forward.
“You saw her heading?” Bres asked sharply.
“She goes north towards the mountains beyond the forest” Tethra dusted the crumbs from the table as he spoke.
Bres stared at the cloaked figure, at his or hers glossy cold eyes, like the eyes of a fish and he continued to chew.
“Bres the Bastard” Coipre said proudly.
The reactions of the men were mixed, some hushed whispers other bursting out into fits of snickering. But all listened and none heckled as these were not common peasants but soldiers and knights and nobles. And they knew the respect for a bard was reserved for that of a prince. The terrible magic and curses upon those who would harm or anger a bard could last a lifetime or even more so. After your death songs could be past down through generations telling of your misdeeds, be they true or not it did not matter.
“Fair of face and noble birth,
None the wiser of his worth,
His guests they gather with tale-
Knives un-greased, tongues await ale.”
The men sat listening looking at eachother and moving awkwardly but could not summon protest.
“Find his Father nor his stock,
Whereforth come those golden locks?
In his hold he’ll bare no bard.
Nor gold shared, as times hence hard.”
Tethra snickered and although Bres had turned to regard this lute pluck, with tight bow string jaw and dagger eyes. He could yet feel Tethra’s grin slithering about the back of his head and neck.
“Our champions collect wood,
Where a worldly battle once stood.
We pay his levvies and fines.
You may your piece, and me mine;”
The men uttered a silent agreement, a muttering acknowledgement and none could meet Bres’ gaze.
“Without promptly a full plate,
Without cows milk a calf sate.
Without hearth in darkest night,
Without mirth’s coin for my plight.
- Let that be Bres’s condition.”
Bres’ face flared red, his eyes bulged and his cheeks puffed. He tongued a boil or blister on his lip that was not there a moment ago. But he could not raise a hand to the bard, not here, not in front of his men. Dian was different, he was a traitor. A cowardly bottom feeder living in a shell painted with some mystic significance. He was kept around as long as he was useful but to slay this bard would solidify this curse.
He looked at Dian now as he ate and drank with his men slipping comfortably into his role as the good captive. He did not smile with his mouth but with his eyes it could not be hid and it made Bres’ blood boil.
It seemed a daunting task to overcome the superstitions of his men and lodge in the town proper. Bres and his men set out before nightfall to erect a temporary camp on the hill overlooking Slaghtaverty.
The sun was beginning to set as they approached the lip of the steep hill overlooking the town. The air was cool and crisp accented by the smell of soot from the many fire pits below them, also the slight tinge of a coppery scent. There seemed to be a hanging static on the hill as all the men despite their full bellies and merry state seemed irritable. Pricked by unseen thorns at the back of their necks and under their hauberks.
The lack of noises from the town below put their teeth to chattering and frayed their nerves, none spoke to one another, just the wind spoke.
The green grass shifting and wailing before it, the forest thick before them, stretching on for miles without end.
They marched as the light wained into twilight. The wind rushing through the trees creating a ghostly whistle, birds belching forth into the darkening red sky.
They trudged looking down at their feet which felt much heavier. Their bones feeling the breeze as it swept through the trees, the mocking tittering of the birds flocking above them.
A creeping whisper on the wind telling them they marched unto certain death, the words of the wretched old woman by the stream in their heads.
And then they saw him through the trees. Standing tall and lean and still as if one of them.
He’d been waiting for them like the old woman told them.
Waiting to take their lives.
The procession halted in dead silence, only the sound of horses kneying and the slight rattling of mail.
He walked out of the forest and into the clearing.
Before them stood the one armed man.