Birds in the forest tittered and fluttered through the trees. The sound of which made Tuan’s head feel like an hourglass turned on it’s side.
The campfire from the night before was dying. Cur put it out of it’s misery stamping down on it with his heavy boots, the warm embers crashing around it.
One of which flew close to Birog’s face as she lay sleeping. She opened her eyes cautiously to look at it as it smouldered on the ground in front of her. She turned her eyes up to look at him. Her expression that of a fawn looking up at a great mountain that might fall on her head at any moment.
“We ride out” Cur grunted almost as if he was talking to himself.
“We?” The girl said coyly.
Cur grimaced slightly, hearing her slight.
Tuan groaned and held his head and hissed. “He doesn’t like repeating himself” He paused. “Where are we going again?” The shapeshifter said squinting.
They set off to Sí an Bhrú, the druidess on her horse, the shape shifter accompanied her in the form of a bird flying over top surveying the roads and fields. The barbarian preferred to walk than to ride.
Within a few hours of travelling they were in eye shot of the temple mound known as Sí an Bhrú. The mound and cairns of inish vale were so old that not even the Firbolg knew their true origin or original purpose.
The mound was located on the north side of the river Boyne. It lay in an open field surrounded only by hedgerows and a series of standing stone circles moving out. The mound itself was an enormous structure, round and grassy like a manmade hillock. A retaining wall at the front, made of white quartz cobblestones at its entrance. Forty foot high at its tallest point and two hundred and fifty wide and there was no telling how deep it went into the earth if it stopped at all.
The Tuatha de, recognizing it as a holy site of some power made use of it as a temple to Danu. Honoring it by placing the stone of destiny on the nearby hill of Tara where Bres himself was crowned king of Inish veil.
They approached the enormous retaining wall and as they got closer they could now see all the engravings in the stone. Deeply set swirls and circular patterns swirling outward around the entrance. The entrance itself was a very small rectangular slot walled in by large megalithic stones with similar carvings. The temple had no door and there was no activity or guards posted anywhere around the outside.
Standing at the entrance looking in they could see it was lit. What little sunlight got in from the outside was accompanied by braziers on the ground every ten or twenty feet. as well as hundreds of candles affixed directly to the stone. Years of wax drippings coating them making them slick and appear almost like the inside of a throat. The flames of the candles lapped at the irregular stone that made up the inner construction. It resembled that of a manmade cave formed from rocks no tuatha de could hope to move.
The stones inside and the clay roof gave off a strange resonance the druidess could feel in her torque. Cur too could feel it buzzing at his scars like a mosquito.
Cur swept past her squeezing into the cramped entrance and listening for footsteps or any sign of occupance. He traversed a very narrow hallway with entrances onto a pair of small altar rooms on each side, little more than caves and holes in the ground. Some of which could have been a very meager sleeping quarters or an anti-room.
He heard then the sound of whispering carried on a draft and he followed it to another identical room. The entrance made of two bowing stones making a triangular shape.
Inside it seemed much larger with a high ceiling that echoed with his heavy footfalls. The whispering carried by the strange acoustics of the structure. Something about it bothered him, as if every breath gave him away. It felt as if someone at the heart was listening or even watching him indifferently, waiting.
The room was a hollow and the floor sloped into the centre where a basin lay. The basin formed of descending slates of stone circling each other making a shallow pit which appeared to have water in it.
Kneeling at the pit was a skinny welp wearing a moth eaten grey cloak.
Without saying anything Cur crossed the room and picked the old man up by the collar of his cloak and stood him up on his two feet.
“Dian Cecht?” He growled low.
“Wwwhat?” The man said, his breath stinking of mouldy bread and cheese. His balding head and shining flat face angered Cur with it’s oblivious sincerity. Cur spat on the floor.
“Firbolg?” The druidess said behind him “What are you doing?”
“Yes, what are you doing?” A disembodied disinterested voice said. “And better yet, who are you and why have you come” The voice said coming as if from all around them.
Cur looked around the room his eyes harsh and searching. He dropped the thin wretch and he fell like a bundle of twigs on the floor cooeing like a chamber maid.
“Who goes there?” Cur roared.
“You come into my house and you ask me who is there?”
“Honorable Dian Cecht, it is I Birog the seer, I request an audi-“
“Birog? Of castle Dun Bresse? Why didn’t you say so, I would have had someone come to meet you, come to the main chamber at once, we’ve been expecting you!” The voice said, it’s tone completely changed from icy indifference to one expecting a warm golden goose egg to fall into their lap. “Don’t try to follow the sound of my voice, keep to the main passage until you reach the inner chamber and I will meet you there.”
Cur looked at Birog who tried to smile but Cur said nothing and waited for her to walk on.
She tiptoed to the inner chamber as if ashamed of the echoed tapping of her shoes through the hallowed place.
The inner chamber of Newgrange was not much bigger than the room they were in previously. But, it was surrounded on all sides by entrances leading off in all directions. A distinct feeling of unease and distaste filled Cur as he knew someone was attempting to unbalance him. The intention to make him believe that someone could come from any direction. Each identical entrance like the mirror of the other was disorientating and a quick turn made you forget from which path you entered.
In the centre of the room a large irregular shaped stone dish lay. It was about the size of a small person but of what it was used for couldn’t be speculated as it looked dry and dusty.
“What news of Dun Bresse do you carry that berefts you of it’s confines and relative safety young one?”
“I was but a prisoner there” Birog said turning to try and meet the invisible voice.
“Show yourself trickster” Cur spat.
“Who are you?” The man said as he entered the small round roved room.
A diminutive scholarly looking man with a long nose and ears and wrinkles all about them with grey tufts of hair spouting from them. His manor was odd as although he looked aged, his voice and manner and eyes seemed youthful as if through ungodly process he was aged beyond his years.
Yet he stooped, his hands clasped behind his back, his dress that of a simple monk. Although Cur could smell the blood on him, dry and old and already dead but blood all the same. Mixed with the stench of alien compounds he could not identify.
The strange man eyed Cur curiously. “Do I know you?” The old man said. At once the room filled from all direction with cloaked monks, their faces obscured by strange silken masks.
None of them reached for weapons or took up an aggressive stance, but each must have been carrying a dagger. And in these tight confines, a dagger in the dark was enough, fifteen was plenty.
“He’s just a travelling companion I met on the road” Birog said.
“On the road? He seems familiar somehow, but I’m sure I’d remember a face like that.” The old man mused.
“Yes, he saved me from one of Bres’ assassins.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes, a black rider on horseback”
“I see, well then I owe you a debt of gratitude.” Cur said nothing and this seemed to urk Dian Cecht greatly.
“Is he dumb?”
“No, well he- he’s embarrassed”
“I see, well there’s no good standing around here, I have something of grave importance to impart to you and you alone. Unfortunately your associate must be dealt with.”
Cur smiled lazily, his head rolled back grinning as he scanned the room of frail quivering monks. With their flaccid hidden blades cowering amongst themselves from his gaze.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Birog asked softly.
“You’re new ‘friend’ can’t be trusted I’m afraid and his demeanor is most disconcerting” Dian’s aged face tightened.
“Surely you don’t mean to-?”
“One of the lay brothers out collecting medicinal herbs saw on the hill a convoy carrying the colours of Dun Bresse. Although they were far away this morning, he swears that Bres’ own crest was emblazoned on the banner.”
“Bres is here?” Birog whispered, the hairs on the back of her neck bristling.
“Fear not child, he is forbidden by his oath to enter these grounds under ill will. Even if he were to camp outside there are many ways to exit this barrow unseen.” The mysterious old man gave a crooked smile.
“A test?” Cur grinned, the corners of his mouth peeling up into grotesque points.
Dian looked down his nose at the barbarian “Of fealty. I would not have you strike at Bres himself because I’d like to see his face when his throne is taken from him.” The old man sneered.
“Then who?” Cur growled low.
“If he rides then Ogma, his champion rides at his side- But you may not kill him”
Cur chewed the inside of his cheek breathing deeply.
“You must bring me back his ear and nothing more, if you are to kill him you have failed the test and will not be allowed to go on your way with the Druidess.”
“And who would stop me? You?” Cur grinned.
“The lady herself would forbid it” Dian scowled at Birog.
Cur laughed menacingly, his laughter making the monks quiver.
“I will go and take my prize, but not because you ask me old man.”
“Is that so?” Dian said, his eyes tight slits in his eggshell white face.
“I go because it pleases me” He said.
“Then go if it pleases you.”
Cur’s eyes rolled in his head like stones regarding all the monks with a mocking derision. His face frozen in a grimace like gargoyle smile as he listened to their quickening rabbit heart beats. He laughed and cut through them as if they were brush and left the room, his mocking blasphemous laughter echoing through the holy place.
“You send him to his death Dian Cecht, but why?” Birog whispered scornfully.
“Better he should die than go at your side untested, what do you know of this stranger other than his grotesque and fearsome appearance?” He whispered bowing his head.
Birog said nothing but her face slackened and worry lines appeared around her eyes and forehead.
“Yes, your face says enough of his pedrigree, but now that he is gone, we may speak of your real task.”
“But Master Dian Cecht, I must speak first. I have grave news to impart of Bres’s betrayal of our people.” She excitedly reached for the sword and monks seemed to ruffle like the pages of a book taken by a sudden gust.
Dian quickly waved his hands to calm them.
“Bres contacts a foreign power with use of this” She handed him the sword and he looked at it at arms length. “If we were to bring this to the council of high druids we-“
“My dear girl, we’re far beyond that now. We need no further reason to remove Bres and what does this prove? How could anyone know the provenance of this sword other than you yourself?” He opened it and listened to the noises it made. “And this meaningless jabbering?” He said as he shut the blade dismissively.
Birog paused “There’s more, I’ve had visions, a man in a dark cloak stalks the houses of the common folk. He marks them, marks them for slaughter, I see a dark time, a time of conquest, a time of blood, a time of misery, a time of invasions” She said shuddering.
Dian Cecht regarded her skeptically “This sword and your visions are of no use to us. I helped you escape Dun Bresse so you may serve me, a horse is not worth a life but freedom is everything.” He smiled wickedly watching her face change. “You thought your mission was over when you came here, I tell you it begins now.”
“As night falls, you will leave here through the tunnels going north towards the Cuilcagh mountains. I will not tell you your task nor the manner of it as the item you are about to look upon shall make it all as clear as day to you.” As he spoke a wooden box about the size and depth of a short sword emerged from the sea of black clothe and was handed to him. Without looking at her he held it in his hands and unlatched it. “You will not speak of this to anyone, nor shall this box open again except for the rightful owner of it’s contents, do you understand?”
Birog nodded curiously as she studied the simple wooden box.
“Forged by Tuireann of Gorias himself, and his sons Creidhne, Luchtaine, and Giobhniu. Forced to flee with him after Bres took their mother and his wife Brigid as his own prize. Now in hiding they have crafted a weapon that will change the tides of destiny forever”.
Dian Cecht studied her face and when he believed her ready to behold it he slowly eased the lid of the case open.
Birog’s face shone with a silver glow as her eyes widened taking in all the splendour of what she saw in the box. The brilliance of its craft and design and the simplicity of the plan it conceived. In that box magic and technology overlapped and became a beautiful whole. The thing inside seemed to hum with an uncontrollable magic kept at bay by the beating of a mechanical heart. Dian was right, in that instant she knew what she was to do and who she was to meet and how she would do it.
And in the instant she had taken in thought Dian snapped the case shut never for it to open again until she reached her destination. Her eyes fluttered longing for the image and the hope it stoked in her but the memory of the thing seemed to be chased from her head.
“You know your task now yes?”
Birog blinked twice “..Yes.. yes! I know it, I will take it at once.”
“You will wait til night fall, if this box were to fall into Bres’ hands our conspiracy would be revealed and all hope would be lost”.
“And what of the Firbolg?” She seemed to trip over those words.
Dian Cecht laughed and said “Is that what he thinks he is, how amusing, well, we can let fate decide.”