Birog prodded the fire with a blackened birch branch and stared into it trying to think of no one and nothing. The night had fallen and the woods were alive with sounds of predators and prey and she didn’t feel like being either. It was misting with rain slightly and clouds were building overhead. She didn’t feel wet but it was seeping into the horse blanket she was using to keep warm.
The fire she made was strong enough but nomatter how close she got to it she still felt a chill. The darkness clung to the trees and surrounded her and she felt alone, truly alone.
She didn’t know why the Firbolg chose to come with her anymore than she knew why he chose to stay behind now. Surely she hadn’t fooled herself into thinking he was in love with her. Was there a chance that there was valor in him afterall? Did she bring it out in him? Was he the hero she needed all along, a hero in waiting, waiting for her to come along and give his death meaning, had he sacrificed himself for her?
She felt silly for thinking such thoughts, she wanted to laugh but the thought of laughter let cold and melancholia slip in. The more she thought about it, the colder she got. Nomatter how hard she clung to herself that chill would not out and the loneliness and fear would not abate
The night was calm and the steady metronome of light rain made her head bob in and out of sleep but something kept her awake, her thoughts wandering. Where was he now? What of the shapeshifter Tuan? he said he would watch over her but she’d seen hide nor hair of him, telling herself that he was in every owl hoot and wolf howl. She knew she was alone and although her mission was almost to an end and in the morning she would walk among gilded halls. Sleep in beds of the finest linen and eat of foods fit for a king and would be greeted as a hero, she could not sleep.
Just gazing endlessly into the fire, listening to the stillness of the night.
Then suddenly, a chime of thunder rumbling overhead. Then a horse’s nay cut over the steady beat of the night. At first she thought it a waking dream but then again, the thunder rolling overhead, the horse naying.
She shook herself from her dozing and as she became more conscious, the hairs on her arms stood and the blood in her veins froze.
Can’t be. It can’t be him. Not here, not now. That black night is surely dead.
She stood shaking off the horse blanket and quickly stamped out the fire.
He’s found me.
She waited still in the dark, waiting for her eyes to adjust, holding herself, not breathing, just listening to the night and the horse, trying to follow it.
Slowly she could see the outlines of the trees by moonlight. She crouched to tip toe gingerly towards the sound of the horse naying between bouts of thunder.
As the sound got closer she could hear a stream. Then see the shimmering moonlight hitting the water and reflecting back against the treeline.
She followed along the stream staying shrouded by the night but with the stream as a glittering path to guide her.
Then the thunder stopped and the horse stopped naying. She stopped then, listening to her own breathing. Listening for the breath of another but hearing but a rustling in front of her and the clopping of hooves.
She halted her breathe once more and cautiously followed the noise further downstream and then by the light of the of the water she saw it’s dipped head.
Her heart became lighter as she saw it was just one of the horses from her cart that had gotten loose somehow.
She breathed a sigh of relief as she watched it drinking from the stream.
The druidess approached it and gently stroked it’s main as he it drank.
“You must have been startled by the thunder.” She said smiling. “How did you get free I wonder?”
The horse nayed in response and forced it’s head harder under her hand. “You are a friendly one, perhaps I should give you a name, how does “Ronal” sound?”
The horse nayed and continued enjoying the druidess’s fingers through his maine, pushing for her to scratch harder.
“Come on” She said as she lead him back to the camp. The weather had improved slightly, it was still fairly cold but the thunder and the misting rain had stopped. She wrapped Ronal in the horse blanket and patted him on the head “Maybe now we’ll both get some sleep” She sighed.
The ground was soft from the rain. Moist with all manner of living things crawling through it. Worms could be felt wriggling through fingers and toes. The raw earth heavy and cold on flesh.
A wicked blade for a headstone, stabbed into the ground above a pile of rocks. Time taken to bury a monster, but only a foot deep, for they knew not what was laid below. These men were not like the villagers taken by superstition and not accustomed to fear.
Only the weak knew such caution in preparation to ensure their survival there was no other way but caution. Thus they knew how to bury a monster, to pile on their fear and caution. For with every foot they buried the monster and every prayer they uttered they increased their likelihood of survival if only by a fraction.
But the soldiers had long since abandoned such fears and replaced them with others, more pressing.
Thus the monster waked, the soft earth shifting and rising. There was pain, lots of pain but pain had become the monsters bread, misery its honey and hatred its milk.
It rose from the earth, a hand covered in filth, then a familiar face, her own, the face of Birog the druiddess gasping for air, rising from a shallow grave.
The druiddess awoke from her dream, the smoke from the fire assailing her and the chirping of the birds rattling around her head in her confusion.
She gasped for air and then looking around could not tell if what she saw were the past, present or future. Indeed it didn’t matter for her journey was almost over. At the foot of the mountains of Sliabh an Iarainn in the west of Ulster she will find her destination.
The druidess packed up her cart, feeling lighter now. The sun was shining and even though there were still grey clouds in the sky like there always were, they seemed to glow. She could feel her destination calling now, her mission coming to an end and she knew this land would soon change for the better.
The druidess packed up her cart, taking special care to secure the box Dian Cecht had given her. Although she did not open it and had not since newgrange she made sure it was hidden and still secured under the footwell of the cart. When she was sure it had not been tampered with she patted her horses, the one she named and the one she didn’t and made her way through the valley.
It seemed oddly tranquil, as if she could already feel a change if only in her mood. It felt like the quest was almost already over and some sadness then crept in, but no fear or anxiousness. She could see clear in all directions in the valley and there was no one for miles now. Whatever the barbarian had done, it had worked. Now there only lingered the melancholy of seeing this all ending, and thinking about what she would do after this was all over.
Her thoughts carried her through the valley until she came to the edge of another wood at the foot of the mountain. On the other side, undoubtedly lay the end of her journey. The one who would claim the box as their own and use it to reshape this island.
The forest too was peaceful and full of happy chattering birds and rabbits bounding around as if it were spring. But as she got further in she could smell rot and it got darker as the sun hid behind the clouds as it was so want to do on this dim island of destiny.
Then in the dulling twilight of it, she saw the end of the forest and behind it the grey walls.
The walls of a mighty stone keep.
Still and quiet, without light or guard, the portcullis firmly sealed.
She caught her breath in her throat and swallowed, for she didn’t expect this. It almost looked abandoned, some of it reclaimed by the forest, creeping vines stretching up almost as high as the turrets.
Although the keep should have been new, built after the settlement, after the battles but here it was nonetheless lying in semi ruin it seemed. The stone looking chipped and falling apart.
Nevertheless the castle was vast and the walls still held in place. The stone milled by dwarven stone masons into squares that locked into place without use of daub or any such binding material. Far superior to any older form of construction but why had it fallen into disrepair.
The fort was quite squat and backed up to the mountain on a slight incline. The turrets tracing the curve of the mountains itself and the front turrets sticking up almost like the horns of a ram.
Hesitantly she approached the portcullis, there was dust all around the edges but not on the irons of the portcullis itself. Which meant it had been used recently. There was some relief there, for a moment she thought it might have been abandoned for truth. Dian Cecht had resided in Newgrange for some time after his expulsion from Dun Bresse many years ago. There’s no telling what might have transpired here if Dian Cecht was forced into sanctuary.
Nevertheless she approached and decided after some hesitation to make her presence known. There was no turning back now, thanks to the barbarian; Bres wasn’t breathing down her neck but that wouldn’t be the case forever.
The druidess stepped back from the portcullis and down a set of dilapidated stone steps. She turned looking to the fort bay windows and arrow slits but observed no movement.
“I AM BIROG DRUIDDESS AND SEER, FORMERLY OF DUN BRESSE – I WISH AN AUDIENCE WITH YOUR MASTER. I HAVE SOMETHING THAT BELONGS TO HIM, SOMETHING OF GRAVE IMPORTANCE TO THE KINGDOM!” She shouted to the two ram horn turrets.
Still there was no movement, only a ghastly quietus. Birog swallowed and for a moment was too afraid to take her eyes away from the bay windows and arrow slits. Nomatter how much she wanted to look back at the forest.
Then suddenly, the portcullis jolted into life like a dog dreaming kicking its leg as if to run. It rose slowly and deliberately after that, it must have been on some sort of mechanism.
As it rose, only darkness unveiled itself to her. Sitting in the rain and the cold of night by the fire she had pictured that she would be greeted like a returning hero with fanfare and adulation. But it was never quite like that, never like you’d imagine.
She approached the barbican cautiously. Sniffing and smelling only dust and cobwebs and unlit dank wet sconces on the inside that had been burnt out and gone unreplaced long ago.
The guardhouse too was empty and looked abandoned. Despite this, the curious druidess tiptoed inside, sure that this was the place. She stopped short for a moment forgetting exactly why she came. Then turning back to get her cart. She lead the horses and the cart through the portcullis and into the barbican. She used the cart to shield her from the eyes of the bay windows in the overhanging inner turrets.
This barbican was layed out into a small court yard with a balcony overhanging in case anyone breached the portcullis. They’d have no cover and be met with a hail of arrows from the overhang completely out in the open. But thankfully the arrow slits were empty and dark.
Birog froze as if she could feel a spiders leg tickling her neck and was too afraid to look, almost hoping the noise came from one of the horse’s arses.
“You there girl, come this way will you” The unseen voice whispered.
Birog resisted the urge to cower and say ‘who me’ pointing to herself like a dolt.
And instead turned to look upon the figure shining her torque on him.
The figure shunned the unnatural light for a moment and returned to normal.
The man was older with grey hair and a sort of puffed out face and hunched back. He wore slightly moth eaten finery and a ruffed collar that made him look a little silly with his sagging jowels. Despite that the man carried himself with an air of dignity that ignored his slightly shabby appearance and bowed posture. For it looked like his bowed posture was one created by constantly bowing as he did as he greeted the druiddess. As he did so tipping his candelabra in his hand, the other of which was behind his back.
“I am Farrengoth, steward of this fort, how may I assist you?”
“I seek an audience with your master, it’s of grave importance, I have a boon for him”.
“A boon, you say? A gift? How lovely” He said looking at the cart.
“It’s for his eyes only.”
His face sagged slightly “How delightful” He said unconvincingly. “This way”
The gaunt old man turned and lead the druidess through small doorway that opened up into what she could only assume was the main courtyard.
“As you might expect he doesn’t hold court much anymore so he spends most of his waking hours either in his study or his bed chambers.”
The main courtyard was wide and empty and echoing with silence and absence. No guards stationed and the grounds looked untended and overgrown.
He noticed her forlorn expression as she took it all in, the ruin the savior of Inish veil resided in. “Yes, we’ve been a little bit short staffed these for years, our lord’s fortune’s have dwindled, the new tax reforms saw to that” He snorted bitterly. “But some still cling to him out of fielty, or habit, like myself” He smiled sadly. Come along. Oh you may leave your cart horses tied up here.”
“Alright” She said looking back at him and then at the cart, quickly ferreting for the box hidden under the footwell. Scrambling frantically for a moment as it seemed like it wasn’t there. Then sighing with relief and feeling like a fool as it had only shifted slightly in transit.
Clasping the box to her breast, Farngoth lead her up some stone steps built like a pyramid up to a grand entrance. The door flaked with traces of gold leaf trim which it seemed had mostly been pilfered long ago. Only tiny fleks of gold remained sparkling, like the teeth of a merchant thief.
He opened the door with some difficulty as it seemed heavy and cumbersome. Birog in her goodwill approached trying to help but the old man shooed her attempts away and struggled alone. Finally the door gave way and Farngorth’s face turned the shade of a ripe beetroot.
“This way” He panted.
He lead her through an ornate anti-room of sorts. Decorated with moulding tapestries that made the room smell of rotting lambs wool. Evidently Farngorth was used to the smell. On the tapestries was depicted the battle of Moytura, in it the death of the dread high king Eoichid mac Erc. Slain at the hand of the king of the Tuatha de himself. In the image the hand of the goddess Danan is wrapped around Nuada’s in his final killing strike.
On the other end of the room was a doorway.
“Right this way” He said standing aside it ready to open it for the lady.
She approached the door and straightened her clothing. She felt a sudden sinking dreadful feeling squeezing the box. Only now noticing how empty her stomach felt and how weak her knees were and how heavy the box was becoming.
Farngoth smiled and said “Don’t you worry now” and began to open the door formally. “You wait here and I’ll arrange some wine and meat. It’s not often we get guests up here and to get two in one day, that is a treat.”
The druidess smiled and nodded not really listening to what the page said, lost in her total nervousness and then suddenly it dawned.
The door opened fully and she gasped.
Who was sitting casually at the corner of a red couch eating dried fruit and glaring mockingly at her but the king of all Inish Veil himself; Bres Eochaid.