“She marked you.” A voice said above him, the voice was unlike any human voice and resonated as if a combination of bird tweets and bear growls mimicking human tongue. “I guess you think you’re special” The voice mocked.
The sound of real birds were happily chirping. He could feel moist and verdant foliage underneath him, a slight breeze and the shadow of a large tree. A break of bright beautiful daylight through a crack in the sky that was just his eyes opening anew.
Above him looking down the figure of a man’s head wearing a large ornate headdress with deer antlers protruding out covered in leaves and moss. And although his face could not be seen through the bright sunlight he blocked, he knew the man was smiling.
Cur awoke from his trance flailing wildly with a sharp inhale of breath. He grasped greedily and vociferously at the face leaning over him and he squeezed it.
“Would you stop that now?” An unfamiliar voice barked. “She saved your life and you’d treat her like?” The dog laughed.
“I’m already dead” Cur growled as he continued to squeeze the neck of the pretty young woman standing over him.
“You’re gonna break yer stitches and your head is just gonna roll off!” The old man said still with the needle in his hand.
“Who are you?” Cur asked the woman turning blue in his hand.
“She needs air to talk Firbolg” The dog said.
Cur took a moment and sneered into the face of the Tuatha woman and tossed her aside like a used rag.
Birog coughed and spluttered hungrily trying to force air into her lungs.
Cur felt at his neck and tugged at a loose piece of twine hanging from the stitching and ripped it off. His neck slowly healed over. He stood and went over to the young woman as she doubled over gasping for air.
He picked her up like a cruel toddler with a ragdoll, by the hair so he could get a good look at her face. Barely conscious the look in her eye was far away and glassy.
“Answer me” He growled.
“Birog, I’m just a druid.”
“Just a druid” Cur laughed low and menacing. “Then you can die”
“Now what cause do you have to do that?” The dog asked. “She dug you out herself.”
“She did your job for you mutt” Cur bellowed.
In an instant the dog took the form of a man of average height with light red hair and a dull pale complexion.
“Sure she has other assets you could get more than just the pleasure of killing her from” The man smirked.
Cur laughed. “I think she liked you more as a stinking dog, Tuan.”
Cur looked her up and down and found no fault. “So be it, she will be mine tonight and tomorrow, she may live.” He laughed and let her head loll back down on the ground.
“Wait” The girl strained to talk the dirt shifting under her. “I’ll give myself willingly if you’ll listen to my plea”
Cur took her by the nape of the neck, his hand large enough to wrap all the way around it. He picked her off the ground and looked into her eyes. “Talk if it amuses you.”
Her own feet under her now she shrugged off Cur’s hand defiantly and dusted herself off. “I helped you bec-“
“-You didn’t help me”
“Then you planned on being decapitated and buried upside down?” She sneered.
“No one looks for a dead man.” He croaked, a wicked smile crossing his cracked lips.
Tuan smiled as he span the chieftain’s gold torque on his finger. “You throw in a flashy execution and no one notices a little mouse or a cat scurrying into their houses and robbing them blind.” He laughed.
“You only saved this lazy dog a time digging and carrying.” Cur jabbed, a large wicked grin on his face.
She looked over at former dog Tuan who smiled shyly tipping his head. “I see, so you’re a shape shifter and a thief” She said scornfully.
“Something like that.” Tuan shrugged. “Tuan mac Cairill.” He said as he nodded “You’ve already met ‘Fintan the wise’” He said with a smirk bobbing his head towards the old man who sat silently. The old man was back to silently prodding the fire with the blackened branch and paying no mind to goings on.
“And you?” She said looking at Cur.
“I have no name” He growled as if that was somehow directly her fault.
“I just call him ‘The Firbolg’, but he hates that.” Tuan shrugged smiling. “But I have to call him something.”
The druidess swallowed as she looked at his hulking edifice and tried to remember what she was saying. “I need safe passage to the temple mound at Sí an Bhrú.” She said looking past Cur at Tuan.
“Hire an escort from the kings service, there are no wars I’m sure they’d love the exercise.” Tuan said.
“I can’t trust anyone loyal to Bres or anyone Tuatha de’ for that matter.”
“Well then we’re the perfect fit aren’t we” Tuan joked “A monster and a relic.”
“I just need help making it as far as the river, I can pay you.”
Tuan smirked and looked at Cur “She needs heroes Dead man, what say you?”
“At your service” He sneered. Cur forced her against the wall. His huge hand against her neck he positioned himself behind her laughing his mad deep mocking laughter.
The girl kept her hands in front of her trying to keep her face from the jagged cave wall. In desperation she dropped her hands and reached for the sword hilt on her belt. Her face grazed against the stone cave wall and she cried out as she drew a length of the sword. Her face pressed against the ragged damp stone.
The sword launched out of its scabbard as if possessed and slashed Cur about the midriff. He laughed and let his tongue loll out of his mouth like a lizard to taunt her and savagely batted the sword away. It clinked off into the darkness of the cave and he was on her again with one giant hand ripping at her clothes.
Then there was a strange sound and a light, like a whistling, a building bubbling murmuring echoed by the acoustics of the cave. A guttural noise like an animal trying to talk, a viscous quality to the alien syllables.
“That sound” Tuan swallowed, his eyes suddenly hollow and his face long and emotionless.
He went into the darkness and picked up the sword off the ground and walked back into the light of the campfire regarding the blade curiously. “Where did you get this?” He asked, his face turning even more pale.
She struggled out of Cur’s grip once more “I took it from Bres the Beautiful.”
“Bres, that bastard!” Tuan said.
“What does it mean, what does that sound mean?”
“It not a sound, it’s a language, an ancient one, older than this isle.”
“What is it?”
“Femori” Tuan’s voice bristled with a primal fear.
The girl laughed “You mean from the old legends, the sea monsters who scattered the people of Nemed thousands of years ago. Those are just stories told to frighten children.” She looked around at the faces in the room for reassurance and found nothing but stony silence.
“Old man!” Tuan shouted.
Cur said nothing, watching on with a cold indifference as Tuan took the sword over to the old coot by the fire.
“Do you know this tongue? Listen” He put the sword up to the old man and he cupped his ear to listen.
The lines on his face tightened and became solemn telling a completely different story than before. “Three times nine tones of wood, three times nine tones of earth, two thirds of corn, two thirds of milk.” The old man paused as if to shiver as he listened to the last part “This part I don’t understand”
“It’s a list?” The girl said. “A message recorded in a sword, how strange, to go to such lengths to hide it, but why?”
“Bres had this sword? You’re sure of it?” Tuan asked.
“Sure as I took it from his bedside as he slept.”
“You are his then?” Cur said grinning, with a wicked intention to his gravelly voice.
“No, I took it and I escaped Dun Bresse, I have to get to Sí an Bhrú and meet with my contact there and give him the sword.”
“You were going to give him the sword before you even knew what it was?” Tuan prodded.
“No I was always planning to escape; there are certain people who seek sanctuary in Sí an Bhrú. People who were close to Nuada, they hide there because they fear or dislike Bres. The sword is my way in, when I heard him talking to it, listening to it, in that strange tongue, I knew I had to escape.”
“And what is it you plan to do when you get there?”
“There are those still loyal to Nuada there, with their help we could take Bres off the throne and crown a new king.”
Tuan chuckled “If they were capable of that they would have done it already.”
“The council of high druids cares not for the people. Bres can tax them as he sees fit in their eyes as long as there’s relative peace. People starving are just part of nature as far as they’re concerned. The physical regarded trite and unimportant. But if I can prove he consorts with a foreign power or your ‘sea demons’ that could change everything.”
“And who would take the place of ‘Bres the beautiful bastard’, you?” Tuan bristled.
“If not Bres anyone would suffice. Ogma or the Dagba would serve just as well, save them digging ditches and chopping firewood. What’s important is that we have a chance to free Inish Veil from the tyranny of Bres who strangles the life out of this isle.”
Tuan smirked and looked over at Cur who had said nothing. “What say you dead man, do we take up this honorable quest as noble adventurers to save the kingdom of Inish Veil so fair?” He said in a mocking tone, taking a parody of a noble pose.
Cur grunted and spat on the floor of the cave “I tire of her words.” He said as he hit her in the back of the head with the bottom of his balled fist.
She fell, her knees suddenly giving way beneath her, as her head tumbled into the darkness below consciousness.
“You would send that accursed rider to find a girl?” A voice travelled over the flickering of torches in sconces as a harsh cutting draft travelled through the keep.
“I would see the job done and nothing more Ogma. Better that thing goes than one of our men.” Bres smiled politely as he rested in his high backed chair, a feast laid before him untouched in his dimly lit chambers in fort Dun Bresse. The room elegantly decorated in rich red and gold but barely visible in the darkened room.
The champion Ogma stood shining in all his armor including a richly detailed helmet that glinted as the flames licked it. Glinted a little too much as if polished over and over without use. His metal club on his belt readied for a battle that was already over. He stood taller and more fearsome than any of his kind. “That creature would sooner bring her head back as a trophy than the whole thing.”
“You’re too eager my brother, do you doubt the expertise of the once and future physician of the Tuatha de’? Did he not kiss you on the elbow when you yourself slackened?” Bres smiled and narrowed his beautiful eyes behind his hand. His face framed by his long golden hair of which he was famed.
“I doubt not Dian Cecht’s skill with magic or healing but I doubt the loyalty of his pet creations.” Ogma’s face twisted in disgust. His eyes shone through the slits in his ornate helmet and his voice was strong but also melodious, commanding of presence. “And now considering his exile, you still believe it serves you?”
“You are known for your skilled tongue Ogma, but not in your ability to hold it. I would ask you to defer to my judgment and let the Dullahan handle it.”
“I’d sooner go myself sire that let the black one unbuckle the saddle from my horse”
“I know what you’d sooner do Ogma, but you have duties here that need your attention.”
“What is that my liege? Gathering firewood? Digging a ditch with Dagba?”
“I can’t risk you leaving the fortress. Who would lead my men if attacked?”
“Attacked by whom? What phantom enemy assails us? The slavers of the south? The giants of the north? Perhaps the monsters of the deep from the old legend.” He chuckled mirthlessly. “You know as well as I no one would dare attack now that the stone of destiny lies on the hill of Tara. He paused but not take a breath, talking was something Ogma was very skilled at. “So what would you have me do collect taxes perhaps, cows as tribute? Bundling sacks of corn on a boat to Tory Isle?”
Bres’s porcelain skin twisted as he chewed the inside of his cheek feeling an icy finger behind his ear.
“Oh you thought I knew not of that, where the taxes go. You say I have a silver tongue but I have ears also and warriors with no war like to drink more and they like to talk more than that.”
“What is it they like to talk about” Bres asked with an icy tone in his voice.
“They say the boat has no crew, they launch it with supplies and it sails itself to misted isle of Tory. Then it comes back empty where its holds were bursting with tribute, cows and pigs and chickens and corn and milk, firewood and earth.” He paused reading Bres’ face.
“You’ve said enough and my decision is final, you’re dismissed”
“As you wish my king” Ogma turned to leave. His mirror polished armor clanking and clinking as he marched out of the room, the heavy oak door shutting behind him.
“He’s more trouble than he’s worth that one” A woman’s voice said. “Surely you can get someone less well spoken to fetch your firewood.”
“Brigid, how long have you been eavesdropping?”
“Eavesdropping, it’s not eavesdropping; it’s the concerned ear of a wife for her husband.” She smiled as she slunk out of his bed chamber wearing a see through red robe. She sat on the edge of the table in front of Bres who regarded her slender body through her robe and then at her bright purple eyes. “You wish to see this girl druid dead then?”
“She knows too much” Bres cursed.
“What does she know?” She tilted her head “She stole a sword that makes funny noises, what more of it. Are you even sure it was her?”
“Who else could it be? Everyone else is accounted for. Am I supposed to believe it a coincidence that the sword disappears on the same day my seer decides to wonder off while picking flowers?” He said in a dull flat tone his eyes unmoved. “You speak so lightly of something that could cause a full scale revolt of the peasantry, my love”
“You take a third of their grain and milk and yet they do nothing, what does this change? What danger is there?”
“They ask for more”
“’They’ always ask for more” She smiled.
“They ask too much.”
“What can be done?”
Bres swiped his arm across the table and knocked a platter of suckling pig onto the stone floor. He didn’t watch the thing as it crashed and slid on to the carpet. He stood as if operated mechanically and walked over to the window and looked out at the blackness of the keep.
“What a mess, what would your mother Eriu think?” Brigid cooed looking at the discarded platter tutting.
“My mother?” He said dreamily staring at nothing. “Do you know why she put me up to rule? Why she petitioned the council of Druids to elect me over Ogma or Dagba or even Dian Cecht?”
“None of those fools could be king”
“She thought it might grant us peace.” He smiled sadly not looking at her.
“And she was right; peace is about all we have in abundance.”
“But there is a price to peace.” He shivered as he said it.
“Much more, more than I can give. But I fear they’ll take it if I don’t relent.”
“I shudder to think” he paused and inhaled “Death, chaos, madness”.
“What of the sword she took?”
He turned to look at her, his hands fixed behind his back. “Nothing, it’s useless to her, no one but a handful could understand it and even then who would believe her? And what would they do even if they did? They have no substitute. They have no idea that I alone protect this isle from its destruction and subjugation from powers they could never begin to understand. I alone keep the tides of chaos at bay; I alone bear that burden, the one handed down from my mother.” He sighed heavily and went back to staring out the window at the darkened woods, the treetops swaying in the wind.
“Did she ever tell you who your father was?”
“She did, he was a seafarer on a silver ship. Their love of passing ships in the night. But she knew that one day I would create peace between our people and the ones who dwell below.”
“You fear this girl will upset that peace, if they found out about why you were crowned king and who you truly serve?”
“I don’t serve them!” He snapped. “I serve no one but I can’t take the risk, too much is at stake!” He crossed the room with a vicious swiftness and slammed his fist into the table next to Brigid. “I don’t care about that sword, but the little druid must die for Inish Vale to live!”
He swallowed and started to breathe deeply and slowly calming himself, his eyes becoming moist and his fist shaking. Brigid ran her hand along his back as he leant over the table. His voice raspy and tired now “This is my sword duty as king, I’ll before I let her destroy that”