The dying embers of the fire fizzled and cracked and resonated through the cave. The sounds of birds chirping arrogantly outside petered in and rang in the druidess’ pained ears as she lay flat on the cave floor.
She forced one eye open and moved her face off the ground, rocks and debris sticking to it. Her face covered in red indentations from the rubble she lay prone on all night. The light that came through the tunnel was unwelcome and unkind and drove sharp slivers of pain to her head and neck.
Something dawned on her suddenly; she clutched at her side and felt it wanting. The sword was gone, what little money she had, her wrist too was bare, her magical torque swindled by that damn shape shifter and the ogreous dead man.
She rose to a sitting position and thanked the goddess that she was at least still dressed and felt undisturbed. Having thankfully not been violated in her sleep by those vile miscreants she had the bad luck to encounter.
The druidess sitting rubbed all the parts of her head that pained her which seemed like all of them. Her head feeling like a pig’s stomach full of broken clay pot that someone had violently shaken.
Her senses returned and she could smell the fire and hear a distant soft humming, her feet scraping on the cave floor as she labored to her feet.
The old man was still there pottering about, he blinked as he saw the young girl and smiled, she couldn’t tell if that meant he remembered her or not.
“Those men that were here?”
“Men?” He aped absentmindedly as if the word were foreign to him and lacked all meaning.
“The shape shifter and the dead man.”
“The Firbolg” She felt silly even saying it, as if she was playing in to some sort of delusion, the firbolg didn’t exist anymore.
“Oh yes” The old man nodded “I remember them; things were peaceful for a time after they were done killing each other.” He laughed. “But that was a long time ago, I’m three thousand years old, did I mention that?” He said ditheringly.
She brushed it off again having no time for his fantasy “Do you remember the sword I had?”
“Yes, the singing sword of the lesser demon”
“Lesser demon what are you talking about?”
“Tethra, I think his name was” The old man mused.
The girl shook her head sick of playing the old man’s silly games. “Do you know where they went?” She motioned with her hands as she described them. “The tall man and the man with the red hair”
“The man who can turn into a dog”
“Oh the young lad, he came later, his people didn’t last long but they were before even the Firbolg. I was the first on this island though, me and my wife, until I turned into a fish” He waffled on.
“Do you know where they went?” She said through tight lips.
“Aren’t you some kind of a witch or something? You don’t have a magic potion you can use to find him” The old man laughed.
“Hmm I could try scrying for them if I had something of theirs and I knew where I was on a map.” She pinched her chin.
“That can be arranged” The old man laughed.
“I greet you noble assassin, you may know me. Gwenton assistant of Abartach of Slaverghty, Abertach is very sorry he couldn’t meet you in person, but I have been sent in his stead.
Cur and the messenger met at a traveller’s camp off the road to Banagher near Lough Derg. A heavily wooded area that sung with the sickly sweet sound of birds chirping and woodpeckers pecking. They sat across from each other, an unkindled fire pit black with the warm ashes of the previous night and stinking with the smell of rotten game.
The messenger was a young looking half-blood elf with a ridiculous haircut. The sides of his head shaved but for a floppy quaff of hair that fell in front of his face. His features more rounded than an elf’s but he was taller than that of a dwarf. Thin but trying to compensate by wearing the thick leather armor of a thief weighed down with pockets. He carried the vomitus arrogance of a noble dabbling at thuggery.
“I’m no assassin” Cur spat “Assassins kill for pay, I would kill an elf for a hot meal” He grinned wickedly staring at the half elf hungrily.
The elf gulped loudly and shrunk behind his leather armor. “Quite” He said trying to laugh it off. “I bring you your reward in silver” He said hoping it would cool tensions that suddenly flared. He reached out his hand with which a large hide pouch dangling from it. The dog at Cur’s side barked at him and Cur ground his teeth.
“The woman” Cur growled not looking at the purse.
“Ah yes well, Abartach needs you to do one last jo-!” Cur caught him by the wrist and yanked him off his feet and through the fire pit, the bag of silver split and poured out all over the ground. Cur stepped on his chest and pulled his arm up uncomfortably as if he might rip it out of its socket. The last embers of the night before felt through his leathers.
The elf completely overpowered groaned vacantly as he lay dazed his head swimming. Silver coins marked with the ulster symbol of the hand on the shield as his pillow, the dog by his ear growling a steady heat rising at his back.
“The one before and the one before that were also ‘the last’.” Cur applied more pressure with his foot and the half elf groaned. “I played your games because they amused me, I grow weary of them.”
“Abartach!” The half elf gasped as he tried to get more air in his lungs than Cur’s heavy foot would allow “He lied- to you!”
“I know” Cur laughed. “What do dwarves do but lie and count coin? And now he sends a boy to meet me.” He held the young man’s hand to his face. “But there’s more?”
“Yes, there’s someone who might know!”
“There’s a woman who lives in the woods of Tallaght, it might be her.” Cur pressed harder on his chest, the heat at his back now slowly searing and a smell like overcooked beef filled his nostrils. “-Or else she might know where your woman is”
“Tallaght?” Cur said it as if he’d said it before.
The dog barked and growled at hearing the name.
“It’s not far from here, a half a day’s walk no further. You don’t remember it, Abertach sent you there before now. Damn near slaughtered half the village, a plague gripped it after you left and narry a soul remains. As if overnight, only bones now. Some say it’s some bloodsucker’s curse but its utter nonsense. A single monster couldn’t devour a whole village, with no one to tell the tale, it’s not possible. Maybe you did it” The elf spat defiantly.
Cur pressed his back harder into the hot ash and he cried out like a branded calf and foamed at the mouth.
“Is that all? Cur asked, the dog teeth flashed in his vision
“Yes I swear it!”
Cur pulled him still clutching jealously at the envoys hand pulling him closer and breathing heavily into his face. Smiling that malevolent smile.
“You are a messenger yes?”
“Yes” the messenger replied reticent.
“You will take a message back to your master.” Cur grinned wide.
Cur opened his mouth wide and with a vicious speed he bit off all the messengers’ fingers on one hand.
He screamed as jets of white blood sprayed out of the sides of Curs grinning devil mouth.
The messenger told no lies, within no more than a few hours Cur had crossed the river and approached a still and maudlin hamlet not unlike Killaloe. A high stone and daub thatched wall surrounded a circular settlement. Wider and larger than Killaloe with an old standing stone near the entrance. The stone older than even the Firbolg but still familiar to one.
The village dated back to a time before Nemed.
“Dog, tell me no lies” Cur said “You know of this place?”
“Ay, it is ancient place, a resting place, for the people of Partholon from a time before Nemed and the Firbolg. They say it was a grave for those affected by a magical plague. Damn Tuatha built right over it, the fools, drawn by the hum of magic no doubt; they feed on it like it was honey from a bees arse.” The dog cursed. “I’ll see if I can get a better look” Tuan changed his shape quickly to that of a crow and took to the air.
Cur grunted and walked past the standing stone regarding the swirling shapes engraved onto it. The village was larger and more developed, with a more diverse set of buildings methods employed. The standard round houses with thatched roof were present but also gave way to square buildings made purely out of stone. More than one story rising up as possibly a lookout or a fort.
The village then in the walls felt more claustrophobic. The muddy streets tighter with less room to move and no sound but that of dripping water and the flutter and incessant cawing of unseen crows.
The village smelled of peat and burnt wood and of old bone meal.
He walked the streets, it was without a doubt deserted, feed in the pig pens rotten and sprouting. Moss growing on the buildings and the deafening silence.
There was something eerily reminiscent about it. But he couldn’t place it, something in the corner of his eye he just couldn’t focus on, a memory locked away. He saw the streets as they were before him and then suddenly a completely different vista stretched out around him.
A village all the same but larger and wider, no not a village, a town, a kingdom. Hundreds of smoke stacks dying, a silence a thousand dead mouths thick, the faint smell of death and disease. Carrion crows endlessly circling, the skies crying with blood and smoke.
Then suddenly his day dream was pierced by the sound of whispering and dry cracking wood. Cur bounded after the noise without hesitation. Squeezing his huge body through streets not made for him, funneled as such to lead to the center of the village.
Oblivious a young couple sat squat inside a wooden parapet surrounding a raised section of wooden planking. Probably used for public execution. The couple harshly whispering at each other, arguing over something.
“Look I’m the oldest now, everyone else is gone, you’ll listen to me, I’m the leader” The lad said.
“I didn’t listen to you before all this why should I start now.” The girl said defiantly.
“You will or I’ll have you!”
“Oh you will, will you?”
“Boy!” Cur called out to him.
They both turned, the girl was slim with wild raven hair holy branches sticking out of it. Cur grabbed the lad by the throat before he could shout. The girl turned and ran noiselessly around a nearby house. He was some kind forest elf; his face was dirty, hair and teeth looking almost feral, bits of grass and twigs in his hair indicating he was sleeping outside.
“Ere let go of me!” He cried.
“Tell me!” Cur growled looking in the dirty young man’s face.
“Tell you what?” He groaned.
“A woman lives in these woods”
“Yeah here she comes now” The young man smirked arrogantly.
Cur looked over his shoulder at the windows and the alcoves. The girl who ran had brought others like her. Rapscallions with bows drawn coming out of every hole and gap that would allow.
“You call this place home?” Cur groaned.
“It was, not anymore, it’s cursed so we don’t like to spend the night. We just come to see if there was any treasure and then we found you and we’ll see if your dead body has any treasure on it after we kill you.” The bandit chuckled.
A volley of arrows fell like rain and the bandit leader cried out as he ducked behind the parapet “Ere wait til I give the signal and I’m out of the way!”
The light arrows struck Cur as he made no attempt to move only raising his one hefty arm to block his eyes. Lowering his muscular appendage now bristling with thin wooden spikes to glower at the ragamuffins.
“He’s too big, he won’t go down!” A foppish voice said.
“Who wishes to meet their god?” Cur growled.
One fool rushed from a darkened door with a club in both hands raised to strike. He strode too far expecting the stranger to take a step back allowing him to strike his head. But Cur did no such thing. He was rooted like a statue out of time with the bandit’s strike he took him by the throat with his one veiny hand and snapped his neck like a chickens.
He let the bandit’s lifeless body drop the two foot he’d lifted him off the ground and started to pluck arrows out of his body one by one.
“Another” Cur called to them smiling his smooth bone white face glinting in the dim twilight.
“The arrows are tipped with poison he’ll be dead soon”
“We need only wait”
“Poison doesn’t work on dead men” Cur grinned.
Another this time a pair of faceless dirty young fools came at him at once firing their arrows pointlessly. The arrows hit the monster barely flinching as they punctured him. Then drawing small daggers they traced a quick semi-circle coming from either side perfectly in time. Cur expected them to strike at the same time but one broke sequence and came low slashing both daggers at once. Coming from the left and the right slashing at Cur’s hips and getting little purchase. Doing little more than making red lines appear and holes in his cloak.
Quickly almost without think Cur kicked him in the chest knocking him off his feet. Following up righteously laughing stomped on the poor bandit’s head cracking it open like ripe fruit and splattering white matter up his leg.
He could hear the other elf’s hesitation now, his heart beating, breath caught in his throat. He could feel the veins in his hands throbbing against the hands of the dagger, the layer of sweat building. One moment of hesitation had cost his brother his life. Taken cruelly and quickly and jovially. He swallowed his fear and went to his death screaming. Slashing wildly as the oversized human held him at arm’s length his massive hand holding his head in place and slowly squeezing. Milky white blood dripping from his ears, eyes and nose as the pressure built.
A sudden bright pulsing light in the corner of the Firbolg’s eye and a blade came down from behind him; he met it and held it there with his own odd blade. The girl from before spitting and hissing as she tried to force her lithe sword closer to the monster’s head. He laughed as she feebly fought against his might.
She cursed him and he laughed turning his blade over to parry and knock her small sword out of hand with one fluid movement. The sword landing on the ground with a shaking rattled noise and just as fluidly impaled her on his javelin head.
He turned around to her compatriots, holding her aloft as a trophy. Her white blood running down his arm and trailing the ground as he walked and turned so they all could see the life slowly drain from her. So they could see what death looked like up close, see her vomit her own blood.
Their reactions pleased the Firbolg as they turned without word and scattered like leaves just as they came. Returning to the refuse of the woods.
The only one remaining was the po-faced lad behind the parapet. He gaped soundlessly as he watched Cur push his woman off the head of the javelin, landing in a crumpled mess of white gore.
The bandit attempted to scramble to his feet, his mouth perpetually open like a hooked fish. The barbarian put his blooded blade between his teeth and plucked the welp from the parapet by his collar. He threw him onto the ground next to corpse of his woman.
His eyes wide and bulging as he stared into her face.
“Be grateful I didn’t take her in front of you first” He laughed.
The bandit leader swallowed and made a queer noise in his mouth like he’d forgotten how to breathe.
He went for her sword which looked bent and nicked lying amongst her blood and debris.
Cur planted his foot on the bandit’s wrist and lopped all his fingers off. He screamed and cried.
The Firbolg struck now higher at his hand with a wet chopping noise like a butcher hacking a side of beef against a solid wooden chopping board.
The bandits hand came off just as easily and savagely.
The bandit gasped, his mind reeling, looking for anything that would keep him alive. His eyes rolled around in his head and he screamed, his mouth dry and thick.
“The woman- “He gasped “You want to know about the woman in the woods” He said.
Cur raised the blade again, the corners of his wicked mouth turning up.
“Wait, please, I beg you”
Cur’s smile widened.
“She told us you were coming”
Cur made a low growling in his throat.
“She said to wait for you” He swallowed, his pupils shrinking and his voice sinking lower. “This was our home” He gasped, his eyes lolled back in his head and then back again. “We snuck out, when it happened. We were looking for night mushrooms” He said dreamily. “When we heard it and we saw that blue mist.”
“The sound of the children crying. They came for them at night; we survived because we were hiding in the woods when it happened.” He seemed to fall out and into consciousness as he spoke. “When we came back, when that strange mist had gone, and the screaming stopped, there was nothing left but blood and bones.” His voice was light and fading now as the blood drained from him pooling around his slain woman.
“Her house is not far from here, she’s expecting you.” His eyes now fixed and glassy staring at nothing.