Thick as thieves
Hear- could hear nothing but the sound of the lapping sea and the gulls circling overhead with their monotonous chatter. The sea roared at his feet, the sky swirling with black and grey clouds. His mouth was open and dry and he could feel the sand under him but nothing else and he couldn’t move, couldn’t think.
He stared up at the clouds unable to move his head or close his eyes or feel any of his extremities whatsoever. Not the cold of the wind, nor the spray of the sea, only the sand below him shifting and the little things crawling beneath it.
There was no pain, or pleasure, or sense at all, just the sea’s endless roar.
Underneath him and he could feel his hair knotting in the sand, damp and being pulled by something. His feet too were being tugged by something out of his line of sight.
“We want the dead one’s boots” A little guttural voice said.
“We wants his eyes” The harsh voice tugging at his hair said. “Whats you need boots for under the waters anyways?”
“To trade” The affronted one said.
“You already have your trophy for the king of the deep, begone with you!”
The two figures continued to bicker and pull at the dead man lying on the beach.
“What’s that?” One of them said.
“Leg it!” The other said accompanied by the sound of skittering little feet.
And then by his feet a splashing sploshing noise as the waves swallowed one of the little things pulling at him and the other darted into a bush.
“What do we have here?” A new voice said, one that sounded like a bear and a bird talking at once. “There is life left in this one yet”
Time passed as the dead man watched the sky roll over him without care. The sun seen through the clouds turning orange as he felt himself being dragged on what sounded like wooden plank along the ground.
The sounds of the waves then replaced with the sound of a campfire and the blanket of clouds replaced by the blanket of night. The stars like pin pricks in the roof of the sky beaming down on his lifeless inert form. Only remnants of his consciousness left to stare out of a blank face for eternity as the rest fell away.
Cur awoke from his dream, his neck feeling stiff after being trampled by the black mare. He hushed himself as he heard quiet conversation and the melodious playing of a harp and the light of another fire.
“It’s quite alright, I’d probably rob me too if I met me” The druidess laughed.
“Our time on the road has hardened us, I beg forgiveness my lady” Tuan tittered like a bard.
“And the other one?”
“He fell out of his mother hard as a rock” Tuan chuckled.
The druidess giggled “However did you meet him?”
“It’s a long and very embarrassing story.” Tuan said.
“Well? Do tell shapeshifter” She fawned
“You see I was caught short, let’s say, a mating ritual -interrupted.” He smiled and waited for a response.
“I was, how do you say, conducting myself in an indecent manor when some loutish fishermen caught me with my trousers around my ankles should we say. They bound me before I could change into something more formidable. There was nothing I could do, I was at a loss” Tuan said with a waiffish arrogance.
“Fisherman, in their nets, I’m sorry I’m not following.” The druidess balked as she talked into her cup.
“Forgive me, I forgot to mention I was transformed into a salmon at the time.” Tuan said absentmindedly staring off into space.
“Oh I see, Oh I see” She giggled.
“Yes, so these idiots were planning on cooking and eating me, I tried to talk to them but they wouldn’t have any of it. I tried to tell them I wasn’t a fish but that just made it worse. You see they were convinced for some damned reason that eating me would give them all the knowledge in the world. I have no idea why.” He said as he took a sip from his cup.
“Why didn’t you change into a Wyvern or a crocodile?” Birog said wide eyed, listening intently.
“I was already confined in the pot, and I couldn’t think of anything, I get terrible stage fright, all animals fall out of my head when pressed.”
“So what happened then?” She said shaking her as if the drink was getting to her a little bit.
“Well all the noise of me shouting and arguing with the fishermen drew out the ogre. Who I suspect was trying to take a shit in the woods at the time and he came out and scared them off.”
The druidess burst into laughter spilling her wine over her shoulder.
“I only suggest that as his trousers were around his ankles as he chased them.”
She tried to catch her breath and sputtered “What happened after that?”
“Well I pledged my life to him as he inadvertently saved it. But of course sour one as he is, he didn’t take kindly to it at first but I was sure to follow him to one day return the favor. But as you might have guessed saving the life of a dead man is quite impossible.”
“What an interesting story, I don’t think I’ve heard anything like it in all my life.” Birog gaped. “But can I ask- why is he so-?”
“I’m not sure that’s the right word for it, I’m not sure a word exists to describe what he is. He’s cold but inside burns something truly- monstrous, something I couldn’t envision even in my dreams”.
“I know little of him but of his people, I have seen much.”
“What have you seen?” She said intently as bit from a leg of succulent roast pork which turned on a spit over the fire.
“I have seen Connacht in ruins as a crow sees it.”
“I heard talk of that but they were promised Connacht in peace, now man of Tuatha blood would attack after such a truce.”
“Aye, no man of Tuatha blood alone, but stricken by a plague from whence no man can know.”
“What do you mean ‘no tuatha blood alone’ what other blood do you speak of?”
“I can’t rightly say, all I know is that he is the last of his people, that is for certain and he blames your kind and any that would stand in his way.”
“My kind? You say that as if you are not Tuatha de yourself but it behooves me that you could be anything else.”
The shapeshifter drank from his cup and pretended not to hear her.
“What is it he’s chasing then? Is there really no one else?”
“He believes so, he chases ghosts but he is one himself so it stands to reason that the dead seeks out the dead.”
“Who then? A child? A lover?”
Cur pierced the warm bubble of the fireside. Summonded out of the night drawn by the mysterious harp playing, the fine smells of roasted meat and stew that accompanied it. And those that would speak his name.
“Ah speak of the devil himself” Tuan remarked as he saw the Firbolg lumbering out of the darkness. “Sit, eat and be merry brother.”
Cur said nothing as he lifted a ladle from a bowl of spiced mead by the fireside and lifted it to his lips. He drank from it but instantly spat it out and was then taken aback by a slight stinging in his scar and his eyes drew to a mysterious figure sitting by the fire.
How he could have missed him was beyond anyone as the man was at least nine or ten feet tall and about as wide. The figure had a giant round belly for which the harp he played sat and a long brown and white beard and red rosey cheeks, his eyes closed. His lips too were rosey and wore a warm and inviting smile as he gently played the harp melodiously. He sat crossed legged and he wore an embroidered green tunic embossed with gold in the shape of trees and animals of the forest. His hair was wild and unkempt and adorned atop it a wreath of holly of which two branches sprouted as horns.
In front of him a huge pig turned on a spit with a similar smile on its face. Beside it another large pig sat idly waiting to take his turn on the spit listening to the fine music. A large ornate cauldron bubbled with the smell of cinnamon and mulled wine.
The harp playing stopped and the giant opened his eyes to look upon Cur and he smiled at him as if he knew him. The giant signaled for the Firbolg to take a seat next to the fire.
Cur looked at the druidess and Tuan in their drunken merriment with a scorn they didn’t register for a moment. They continued to laugh and covort as if childhood friends meeting again after a long journey.
“What mischief is this?” Cur snarled.
“The usual kind” The large man chuckled. “They’re the best of friends” He said with a pleased look on his face.
“Why bother, I should kill her come the morn” Cur said challenging the arrogant smile of the large man.
“Oh should you? Why wait til then?” The man smirked rising to his challenge.
Cur tightened his jaw and gnashed his teeth.
“Don’t make me ask you again” The giant said gesturing for him to sit. “The roast pork is divine.”
Cur looked at the sumptuous beast glistening as it roasted and his mouth filled with liquid.
He sat and the large man cut him a leg off the beast and passed it to Cur who snatched it up viciously. Taking long sucking bites as if trying to gnaw all the way to the bone with a single strike.
“Almost bit my hand off” The large man laughed.
Cur sat crossed legged devouring the leg.
“Here take a sip of this, it’ll better your mood” The large man said as he dipped a deep ladle into his cauldron and withdrew it and pushed it towards the Firbolg.
The Firbolg lifted his face, covered in grease and fat and chunks of hog flesh and batted the ladle away knocking it out of the large man’s hand.
“My mood doesn’t need bettering” He said sharply food flying out of his mouth as he spat.
“Very well” The large man tutted “You could have just said no, didn’t need to bat it away like a common ruffian.”
“You didn’t need to bewitch these fools into jabbering fishwives.” Cur sneered.
The man smirked “You know me then?”
“Not in this form” Cur said stonily staring across the fire into the darkness clinging to the hog leg bone.
“Quite right, I took it to appease the young one, something akin to her father god, I thought it might put her at ease. Perhaps the horns and fur may have frightened her” He smiled.
Cur took another large bite “Who knows, she might have liked it” He said with his mouth full smirking.
The large man laughed heartily shaking his huge gelatinous belly.
“Why have you come horned one?” Cur said grimly.
“Does a god of the forest need a reason for being in the forest?” The man laughed.
“Checking up on me Cernunnos?” Cur grinned.
“Don’t I have a right to, you were trapped in that body before I found you. I gave your dead limbs, like the felled limbs of tree life once more. You would have lain on that beach for eternity if not for me. You would have witnessed first person crabs eating your eyes unable to even scream. For life was your curse and a cruel one at that. Your existence is my responsibility, your fate and mine are inseparably intertwined, whether you wish it or not”
“Why not let me rot?” Cur spat.
“Why should I, when fate itself would not let you expire, not fully. You meant to die on that beach like the many times before stretching back in an infinite loop.”
“What is this drivel?”
“Time for mortals is a straight line, not so for us. To us time is a circle, constantly repeating and in that circle you died over and over and over on that same beach. But this one last time, a spark remained and I kindled that spark out of curiosity alone.”
“Why then do you haunt me?” Cur said as he angrily through the picked clean bone down by the fire.
“I cannot say. Immortals too fear death, more profoundly even than mortals, one might say. As they’re sure a heaven waits for them, all that awaits us is nothingness, a death of a god is a vacuum not another beginning. It creates a morbid fascination, fear and longing. I suspect that’s why she intervened all those times.”
“-The one that struck you down.” Cernnunos said.
“And who would that be?” Cur said continuing to stare straight ahead as if he didn’t care at all.
“Tell me Firbolg, did you find your woman?” Cernnunos said as he stirred his cooking pot leaning over his large belly.
Cur tightened his jaw and said nothing.
“What will you do when you find her?” He said as he took a sip of his strong smelling stew.
“Kill her” Cur spat.
“You think she betrayed you, betrayed your people.” He said setting the ladle down.
Cur swallowed and his eyes shook with rage “She left us to die of that damned plague”.
“The one that struck you down was one like me but much older, older than the people of Nemed or even the earth your kind brought on their back to this land. The Morrigu, in your tongue; The Morrigan, spirit of death and war.”
Cur said nothing, not turning his head, merely letting out a low menacing growl.
“She sees this world as a spinning cartwheel traversing a smooth road and you as a stone that could break the cycle. Bring about a time of uncertainty and chaos. To her you are an errant piece of hair on quaffed fringe, an edge that must be sanded away, you scare her because there are no men like you in this world.”
“Men like me?” Cur asked staring into the fire.
“Men outside of destiny, you don’t understand, you can’t understand but you frighten her. All mortal lives are bound by destiny, they follow a certain path that they repeat over and over and over again never being aware of it. But you follow your own path, your destiny is in your own hands. She can’t see it and neither can I, it stretches beyond us both, outlives us. It brings her fear and doubt, the most terrible fear, the fear of the unknown. And to a god not knowing is horrifying. But in me it stokes strange wonder. The thought of my own demise seeming inevitable and exciting.
In you she sees the chain of fate being undone. She fears you would breed an age of men without magic or gods. All writing their own destiny and with it the destruction of all life. But I see possibility, my curiosity drove me to save you on that beach as it drove her to pick up that shovel headed spear and dig.” He said as he gestured at the druid who was snoring loudly with her head on Tuan’s shoulder.
Cur grinned his devil grin as he leaned in close to the large forrest spirit. “What do you fear?”
“I fear never knowing” The god laughed sadly.
“What is it you want of me? God’s always want something.”
“Only that you follow your own path, I cannot change that I only suggest you stick close to this one” He said pointing at the dozing Druiddess. “And make sure no harm comes to her, she is the key that will open many doors for you Firbold, of that you can be sure.” Cernunnos said knowlingly.
Cur grunted. “If I must.”
“She may even help you find the one you lost, the one you love but try to hate.” He laughed scornfully. “Hate is so much easier than love isn’t it?” He sighed. “Mortals, what would I do without you?”
“You’ll take your leave then” Cur croaked as he stared fixedly at the dozing young girl.
“Yes, although the hour growing late has no sway on me as it does you, I grow tired of merriment, but before I go, I issue a warning.” He said raising a large fat finger. “I may not see your future but I see hers and his” He said pointing at Tuan and the Druiddess. “And there’s something coming for them and this whole kingdom that can’t be stopped with the swing of a sword or well placed bite.” He laughed.
“You are the only one who can change their fate, if you wish to do so. You are the one aberrant factor, an unpredictable anomaly, the rock that hits a shield and bounces or passes right through” He laughed.
The large man continued to laugh as he spryly stood as if he weighed almost nothing.
“Fare thee well Firbolg” He said smiling as he became one with the forest and simply wasn’t there anymore.
Only silence and the flickering of lit sconces resounded through Bres’ chamber in Dun Bresse. Bres sat at his long table, his chisselled chin resting on his fist as he stared out at the overcast night.
“It appears your hunter has run afoul” Brigid said lyrically as if she was starting a ballad. “What will you do now ‘husband’?” Her tone an obvious challenge.
Ogma as silent as a golem, his eyes hidden behind the visor of his decorative and imposing helmet. His towering frame bent on one knee before the king who was silenced taken by a great tumult. His breathing fast and short as he tried not to show any emotion. Betrayed by the small movements of his fingers under his chin and his lips quivering angrily, his refusal to look at anyone or anything.
“You say the Dullahan’s horse was seen with no rider heading towards the temple mound at Sí an Bhrú?”
“The rider had no head but rode nonetheless north to Sí an Bhrú.”
“Dian Cecht” He hissed quietly. “That rodent-“ He breathed in and squeezed his fist and released. “Ready my horse for the morn”
“Where is it we ride sire?”
“To Sí an Bhrú of course, if the Dullahan rides in that direction that means the girl is close. Where else could she be going but the only place I’m forbidden to touch her?”
“Very well sire”
“If we can make it there before her we can cut her off at the pass.” He slammed his fist on the table and turned his head to glower angrily at the wall, the flickering sconce in the corner of his eye. “Maybe that bastard Dian Cecht will step outside to take a piss so I can split him from ear to arsehole and be done with it.”
“How fitting, I’m sure the bard’s would love finding a rhyme for that.” Brigid teased stepping into the corner of his eye as if it were a stage.
“Give it a rest Brigid, it’s too late an hour to bear your ‘wit’” Bres hissed not looking at her.
“Forgive me, I seem to have hit a bum note.” She smirked and turned back towards the open door to the bed chamber.
“Sire what if she’s made it to Sí an Bhrú already?” Ogma asked softly.
“That bridge we’ll cross when we come to it won’t we?” His smile fake and full of malice and sharp small teeth. “Ogma, round up a garrison of your finest men and talk to them for me.”
“What should I tell them sire?”
“Tell them that this a mission of great importance to the land of Inish Veil and their king. Your honeyed words and silver tongue must carry me through this troubling time, you will see to it they know their mission is of great importance.”
“Sire I could tell them we seek a cat in a tree and they would jump to get out of the castle and slash a sword at the stump.” He laughed.
“Well, I’ll be glad of it, you’re dismissed Ogma, get a good nights sleep.” He waved his hand and turned to look away.
“Yes my lord.” He said as he rose and swiftly, his armor rattling loudly as he went.
“And you think his honor will allow you to slaughter this girl in front of his men?”
Bres tapped his fingers on his lips and pursed them pausing to look up at his side at Brigid who draped herself on the side of his chair smirking down at him. “His honor will allow whatever I say”. Bres said softly.