The executioner's song
Cur awoke with a bucket of water in his face, locked in a pig pen for a day and a half, stinking as he was. They only let him out once to torture him but too little avail. The pigs snorted and snuffled him as he sat shirtless and dirty as one of them. His head down, suspended by his one arm tightly wrapped with a piece of fibrous twine to the thicket fence.
The dwarves cut him loose and he grinned at them as they shuddered, shrinking behind their pikes at the sight of him.
They lifted him to his feet but he could stand on his own well and they walked him at pike point to the large round house on the hill.
The chieftain of Killaloe sat cross legged on a beautifully decorated hide rug. An ash wood tray with clay pots on it and a large ornately decorated axe at his feet. The hut itself was not anymore grand than the one used as a tavern but it smelled less of piss and old mead.
“Leave us” He said waving his hand.
“I know, I said leave us”
The chieftain was a wide portly clean shaven dwarf, only a few tufts of hair on his face he’d missed. He was wearing a gold trimmed tunic that still smelt of smoke and pig shit like everything in this village did. A gold torque around his neck and a conical cap made of birch bark on his head symbolized his status. “Please sit” He said pointing at the rug on the floor.
Cur sat crossed legged with one knee raised.
“Do you know me?” The dwarf’s face was sallow and looked slick to the touch, bouncing up and down as he spoke and dropping when he stopped.
Cur looked through him with a set of icy blue eyes. “I know your name” He hissed.
“Good” He had a pot of some liquid in front of him that he poured out into round clay mugs. “Are you really of the Firbolg?” He said without looking up.
“The Firbolg are dead”.
“I see.” He handed one of the cups to Cur. His down turned face unchanged and grim.
Cur batted it out of his hand letting it roll around on the deer hide rug. The chieftain’s face didn’t move, it stayed perfectly still as if numbed by snake venom.
He cleared his throat.
“We hear many rumors here as you may imagine, a small village like this, all we have are rumors” He tried to smile shyly but his face seemed almost too heavy. “Two in particular interest me, one of a strange series of attacks by blood suckers or ‘Dearg due’ as they call it. Whole villages are slaughtered for not adhering to some elder god or some such triviality. And another about a wandering mercenary that kills for coin and cheaply at that who lacks the good grace to die.” The dwarf managed a pinching at the side of his mouth that might have been a smile.
“Perhaps those rumors are much the same” Cur grinned speaking from his throat.
“We face hard times, some love Bres for his beauty, the fools, women mostly, others.” He paused and breathed out letting his face sag even further “Loathe him for the unfair taxes he levies. A third of our corn and of our milk, its extortion, I and a few others outright refuse to pay it.”
“This doesn’t concern me”
“You’re right of course, but I’m a farmer, it concerns me and that’s why I didn’t deliver you directly to the gallows.”
“Very well, you’re very skilled and are attached to no clan as no clan alive would have you because of- well look at you.” He scratched his sagging jowl and tipped his head as if to speak to his own round gut. “Kill Abartach of Slaverghty. Do this and you walk free.”
“I walk free now”
“Hard times make desperate men Firbolg.” He sighed deeply and lifted his eyes a little looking for mercy in the man before him and found none. “I see a deadly pattern emerging, the Offaly villages of Annally and Lusmagh were hit first. Formally parts of Connacht as I remember.” His sharp eyes darted to the Firbolg for confirmation and found none. “All their people scattered or dead never heard from again.”
“Then how do you know it?”
“Travellers pass through, say the villages are deserted, all their livestock taken or dead. Not a man woman or child alive, almost no signs of struggle at all, no weapons, no survivors, no witnesses.” He narrowed his eyes to scrutinize the stranger yet again and found only a scornful calm.
“He is the one profiting from their deaths.”
“Abartach moves illicit goods from ports in Munster up and down the Shannon river from Slaverghty. Forbidden items smuggled out of the cities of knowledge and other such places. all the villages along the river know of this as it’s safer to transport them by water. Bandits can’t swim. As those villages are aware of this practice they expect tribute for silence. I suspect Annally and Lusmagh got too greedy.”
“How does he do it?”
“That’s what I hope you will find out for me, your freedom and a weight silver.”
“Petty squabbles between dwarves don’t interest me.”
“Well surely your freedom and your life interest you.” He tone shifted became faster and more breathy. This is more than just petty squabbles this is conspiracy, this fratricide.” His face was red and his eyes began to bulge out of their socket, spitting as he spoke. He may well be working for Bres himself!” His face was hot, a bead of sweat trickled down his cheek and then he paused for a moment “How did you know he was a dwarf?” He said as his blood rain cold.
Cur smirked wickedly.
The chieftain’s face became drawn and white and he coughed. “You’re an assassin then?”
The chieftain’s face drained of color as he looked at the ghostly white visage of the man before him. “Then the scene in the tavern, just so you could be before me - How much is he paying you? I’ll double it, triple it!”
“He offers me more than mere silver.” He croaked ominously in his gravelly voice.
“What then? Land? His ugly daughter? Spit it out!”
Cur breathed in deeply, his eyes wide and manic as he smiled like a ghoul. “A future!” He said stonily.
“Ahhhhhhh!” The chieftain wailed his flabby face rippled as his ornate axe leapt into his hand. He swung at Cur’s neck getting one good but shallow whack in it at the base of his neck.
No blood just a gaping wound like a notch in a tree. Cur’s head tilted to one side with that manic insane smile on his face still, laughing low and menacing like a demon.
The chieftain crying out pulled his hand back for another strike to free the monster’s head from its shoulders.
Cur caught the little man’s stubby hand in his gargantuan fist with a hard sapping sound. He squeezed the dwarf’s hand letting the heavy axe drop on the hide rug.
“What now dead ma- ahhhhh!” The chieftain cried as Cur pulled him by the arm like a tavern strumpet and lunged forward to rip out his throat with his front teeth.
“But Lady Birog this is much further than you usually go to collect herbs” Her coach driver whined. “You never usually like to go further than the Brosna river.” The whip of a lad said.
“Greener pastures” The elven maid smiled and tilted her head, a long silken gloved hand under her delicate pointed chin. A slight inflection in her voice as if it was a question.
The druiddess disembarked her carriage and took a deep breath of the fresh early morning air. She caste her purple eyes along the green pastoral landscape outstretched in front of her. She sighed and looked behind her and could still feel the shadow of Dun Bresse cast over her and she shuddered.
“Just wait for me here as usual, I shouldn’t be too long” She tipped a saccharine smile on her young pretty face. She looked to be a girl of no more than sixteen but her actual age was not known. Her hair a rich chestnut cropped closely to her jawline and covered by a black druid’s hood.
The carriage driver wiped his runny nose on his green sleeve “Very well my lady, I shan’t move from this spot til you return.”
Birog reached back into the cab of the carriage and carefully took out a long woven wicker basket. She used it to collect plants and herbs necessary for her rituals and elixirs. The carriage was on loan to her and was thus very ostentatious and beautiful. Not too dissimilar from its rightful owner she thought with a scornful grin.
Made of bare smooth wood gaudily trimmed in gold and silver, embossed as leaves.
She looped the handle of the basket over her arm and set off over the nearest hill in the opposite direction of Dun Bresse castle. She gave the coachman a triumphant wave as he failed to notice the unusual weight of the light wicker basket. She walked at a fast clip over the hill and out of sight towards a wooded area of holly and birch trees.
At the bottom of the hill rested a small ramshackle house that had been abandoned by its previous owner. It was now little more than a roof and three and a half walls, completely stripped by time and nature backed by a dense and daunting wood.
The druiddess made her way to the bottom of the hill cautiously. Watching her step on the slick dew covered slope, keeping her basket carefully level. Checking back over her shoulder in case the coachman had followed her. She saw only the grey morning clouds with a sliver of silver sunlight melting through.
She reached the side of the house and heard a distinct clapping knocking sound. A quick glance through the hole in the wall told her that there was no one waiting for her as she wasn’t expecting company.
She made her way into the small house and once inside amidst the cool dank quietus she was greeted by a familiar sound, the whinnying of a horse. The horse was evidently small enough to fit through the door. Her conspirators had fulfilled their end of the bargain and she’d come this far.
Birog placed the basket on the floor and slid aside the woolen cover revealing an ornate but ugly sword. The patterns of which were entirely alien and foreign to her. Some things she recognized, crude etchings of fish and crustaceans near the top end of the scabbard. But lower down the shapes seemed to become more abstract and strange and almost unfathomable in their aspect. She decided it would be best to wear the sword instead of carrying it around in a basket just for ease of carry. And if need be to defend herself from bandits or whomever else might want to accost a pretty young druiddess.
With the sword hanging from her waist under her druid’s garb she lead the horse out of the wide doorway.
Mounting the horse she set off north cutting through the wood intending to find and follow the Shannon river to the nearest town.
The druiddess knew she had a good half a day before anyone would know she was gone. As she usually spent more than that long searching for and collecting the ingredients she needed. All else she knew was that she would never return to Dun Bresse be it her choice.
She travelled along the road closely following the burbling of the Shannon. The sound of the gently flowing water and the melodic chirping of the birds in the trees were enlivening. The sun only blinking now and then through the thick grey clouds. But still it was a thousand fold better than the cold grey stone of the inner keep of Dun Bresse.
The horse trod steadily the soft wet ground only stopping briefly to whiney at a murder of crows cawing from an unseen perch high atop an alder tree.
They rode on like this for what seemed like an eternity before they came across an old washer woman hobbling along the road.
The druiddess thought it prudent to ask the old woman for directions as she was no doubt from a nearby settlement. Her dress plain and practical, a simple plaid smock that reached down past her ankles and trailed on the wet ground.
“Erm good day, I was wondering if you might tell me where it is you’re going?” The druiddess asked nervously not accustomed to talking to strangers.
The old woman seemed to not notice continuing to trudge with her head down. Her head rapped in a shawl hid all her features, only an outline of a bent back with a wide frame.
“Excuse me, could you tell me where it is you’re headed” The druiddess asked again a little louder.
The old woman stopped and turned and then seeing the horse looked up at its rider narrowing her eyes. A nose not unlike the beak of a crow itself protruded from a weathered face. The lines and crags akin to the surface of a root vegetable with a thick coating of light colored hair that was just visible when light hit it. Which it rarely did.
“Oh I didn’t see you there dearie” The old woman croaked, her lips barely moving as she spoke. Her face instead seemed to move all at once as if it was a mask of flesh. “I’m just on my way into town, there be an execution today, people say it’s a Dearg Due they be putting to death.” Her tone morbidly chipper.
“A Dearg Due?”
“Some kind of monster, I saw it with me own eyes, couldn’t nothing kill it.” She cackled, her throat sounded as raw and weathered as her face. “They damn near splayed ’is guts on the floor of the tavern and it wouldn’t yet lie down and die.”
Her eyes scanning down the old woman’s smock, Birog noticed dried spots of chicken blood and a hand print.
“Then how do they plan on executing it?”
“That’s what I aim to find out dearie” The old hag cackled.
Birog followed the old woman into what she assumed was her village. A simple quaint hamlet by the river surrounded by a low thatched fence covered in a foul smelling daub. A single street separated small round houses with two larger stone based structures at the top and bottom. Smoke and distinct smell of animal dropping permeated the surrounding areas. Birog covered her mouth and nose with the side of her hood and tried to fight off the rising sense of dizziness brought on by the stench.
A crowd had gathered around an incline of land within the wall that formed a hump or a hillock. Atop it stood two dwarves with long pikes either side of a large kneeling half naked man.
Birog rode behind the crowd staying aloft her horse allowing her to see above them. The old woman who accompanied her unable to do the same melted into the crowd and disappeared in a sea of unremarkable faces and woolen clothing.
“For the crimes of murder and vampirism. The wanderer known only as ‘Cur’ of the clan Firbolg is sentenced to beheading.” A man stood at the base of the hillock reading from a piece of drawn lambskin, his face as red as beetroot in the crisp morning air. “His heart skewered with a branch from a yew tree and he will then be buried in the field over the hill upside down. A heavy stone at his feet so he may not so easily rise again.” When the man was finished reading he turned to the accused.
The man was notably odd looking but his grotesque features. Namely his size and scars missing arm and shaven head belayed a certain beauty that wasn’t readily apparent. He appeared like a prized cock that was mistakenly plucked for the pot. Covered in a feint shroud of dried white blood. The blood of the Tuathe de’
“Do you have any last words before you face judgment and eternal damnation?” The herald asked.
The man was tied with his one hand bound to his leg and had kept his head down through the reading. Seemingly sleeping as he bobbed his head up as if waking from a pleasant dream. Making a yawning growling sound in his throat as a pike bearer rudely prodded him in the side with the haft of his pike.
“What?” A harsh gravelly low voice said.
“I said do you have any last words before you are to die?” The whined.
“I have something to say” The man said. A wide wicked grin spread across his face as he lifted his head and rose to his monstrous height. Which even on his knees brought him to head height with the dwarves guarding him. His head was large and oblong shaped and smoothly shaven and white. His grin that of a lizard regarding a nest of unguarded ren eggs as he scanned the crowd of simple farmers. “Ashes to ashes dust to dust. If you don’t take it out and use it, it’s going to rust” He sneered lasciviously thrusting with his crotch at the crowd and laughing wildly.
Half of the women in the crowd burst into a fit of giggling behind their hands and handkerchiefs. The others looked almost pale and about to feint where they stood clinging to their menfolk. Who glared at the beast as if he were about to grow bat wings and fly away belching fire as it went.
His laughing died down and he regarded the headsman with a nod and an evil grin as he approached “Let’s get on with it, I don’t have all day” He laughed.
The headsman approached, one elected among them, a skeletal thin man. He wore a grain sack on his head with one eye hole cut into it and then only a plaid woolen kilt and hide shoes. He held a large ceremonial axe in both hands. As the pike men pushed the stranger’s head down against a wood chopping block he still fought to laugh like one afflicted.
The headsman paused to take a breath. His shoulders slumping as one aggrieved with the indignity of mucking out a cowshed. Then holding his breath to raise the axe overhead and take aim.
He swung feebly and missed the mark only marginally. The blade heavy axe pulling him in another direction. He lifted the axe again this time letting the weight of the head lead it he dropped blade like a boulder onto the Firbolg. The chop was just off center cutting him deeply and almost all the way through on one side.
But the Firbolg continued to laugh as the Headsman raised the axe overhead again. A fresh blot of hot red blood on his grain sack mask sending screaming fears of contamination into his thoughts. He let the heavy blade fall again but again the strike wasn’t enough to separate the large head from the broad shoulders and still the monster laughed.
A third strike and a visceral boyish cry from the headsman knocked the head off with a dull thud as if the blade wasn’t sharp at all.
The crowd and the headsman froze as the sound of the laughing carried still and then finally ceased.
The crowd was then dispersed and the body promptly buried.