The Mother cried relentlessly, pleading for release, tears flowing freely, each one magnified on her mud-stained face. It was not as if she hadn’t been warned. For as long as people had walked Aileann’s lands blood sacrifice had reigned supreme. Today was no different. From the right Tadhg made his way across and swept the weeping woman aside. Dagda stepped wearily in front of the Standing Stone Circle, drawing his claíomh as he did so. Spinning the double-sided blade in a wide arc in warning, he watched warily as two burly men approached armed with a cudgel and a heavy-looking, well-worn sword. He recognized them, the father and younger brother.
No matter how lousy give some men a weapon and they think themselves killers. These were no killers. Just angry family made desperate by their kin’s inability to refrain from forcing himself on the local women.
“Easy now Fellas, you know what must be done.”
The two men glared, the older of the two, the man the villagers named Domhnaill, grimaced and made to move past.
“We refute the Druaidíis’ claim, let the God’s anger remain, my son will play no part in your dark unholy savage practices.”
His voice was strained but determined.
Dagda shrugged, it seemed there would be more blood spilled today than he had anticipated, though the Gods no doubt would be pleased. It used to be far simpler. When troubled times came the Druaidíi read the Gods will and their verdict was final. If that verdict meant blood sacrifice then so be it. The people should be thankful really, in times past a firstborn child was chosen at random from each village to honor and serve the Gods. Now though the practice remained it was only those already convicted of heinous crimes which were given to the Gods. A far reduced offering but a far easier sell to the Men and Women of Aileann.
However even that was now being disputed, lately, the Druadíi and their inherent ability to interpret the will of the Gods had been questioned by some, slowly at first, a grumbling here a passing remark there, but it had grown and continued to grow. Now stood two willing to outright challenge the authority of the Druaidíi. It could not be allowed. A renewed reminder of why the Druadíi held sway over such matters was needed.
Upon the center circle Ardgal looked on annoyed by the disturbances to his ritual. They shared a subtle glance which told Dagda all he needed to know.
As the father struck out his shoulder meaning to barge past and unstable him, Dagda made his move, first slowly sidestepping the intended blow then using his own weight against him pulling Domhnail’s arm whilst simultaneously tripping his unbalanced frame to the ground with an unceremonious thud. Angered by the casual dismissal of his father, the son, who appeared barely out of manhood, decided now was the time he must act. The youth appeared a head shorter than Dagda yet he was tall for a human, some six foot of height. Even though he tried to hide it, his fear was palpable, he knows it is pointless. Yet admirably the young man still charged, his blade lowered in anger. As he rushed forward Dagda smoothly ducked under his flailing sword, spinning to his unguarded left and swiftly but lightly striking just below his ribcage. Although a slight blow it still left a bloody impression on the son’s side as he writhed on the ground.
Both men now lay subdued on the ground, unperturbed by their protests Ardgal continued his chants:
“I call you on you, Sister of battle and sovereignty, I call on you Goddess of wisdom, of victory, and of death. I call on you Great Queen Morrigu, Lady Phantom, Be with us now and grant your favor down upon us-”
Once again however he was interrupted, this time from nameless shouts within the crowd.
“Goddamned Druaidíi, we don”t need you no more.”
“Times are changing, we don’t want nor desire your aid”.
“Stay in your forests with the other beasts and animals you call kin.”
Dagda stifled a smile to himself at the last one. To his left however Michaél grunted and also drew out his claíomh. Apparently he was not so appreciative.
The calls continued safe within the crowd’s anonymity.
“The Milesians don’t need us sacrifice our own,”
“What care have we for your dark rituals.”
Ardgal raised himself from the altar and turned to face the crowd with anger etched upon his face. When he spoke his voice seemed to wash over those assembled drowning out their voices with his own.
“Milesians? What do they know of our land, its people, they walk among us now spreading unrest and sowing discord wherever they please. They care none for your troubles, once they have power our ways, our laws, our practices will be revoked, new levies, taxes, imposed, and all over the land Milesia will have the final say. The old Way is our Way. Now and always. Does anyone dare refute the say of the Druaidíi, representatives of the Gods themselves? Who here stands against The Great Queen Morrigan. Speak now and let your civilised Milesian heart ring true”.
Ardgal’s speech seemed to have penetrated the crowd’s resistance. None spoke and naught could be heard bar the mother’s wails and the two men’s groans. Finally, it seemed they would be allowed proceed. At that moment however, Dagda noticed a man in the crowd pushing his way closer to the front. His eyes were narrowed, there was an air about the man, something that separated him from those bundled around him. Well built and clean-shaven he was not like the others, his face held in concentration and purpose his eyes never left Ardgal. He’s here for him. He hadn’t been spotted by the others yet.
Dagda plunged himself down and began to force his way through the crowd. “MOVE Dammit”
The people confused and already on edge remained gaping preventing Dagda reaching his target, cleverly the man was working on getting a clear view whilst maintaining enough villagers around him to act as a barrier. Clearly spurred on by the outcry he reached expertly behind his back to reveal an action bolt crossbow, small but deadly it was a perfect tool for any potential assassin. That was all he would be. Dagda watched as the man’s head was flung backward as the circular blade of the lann ciorcail embedded itself in his forehead before he could even take aim, his crossbow fell first followed soon after by his lifeless body. He didn’t even have time to look surprised.
Michaél moved quickly to retrieve his lann ciorcail as the panic and shock sent the crowd running, their cries and howls however were immediately drowned out by the sudden eruption of War horns as if from all around. Out of the nearby homes rushed soldiers without colors, Dagda numbered them of at least thirty, if not more. All were armed with spear and shield and dressed in full armor. With a speed which any commander would have been proud of they united in an iron tight circumference around the Druaidíi, shields down and spears out they began a measured advance from all sides. If their fine-crafted armor and weaponry were not enough then their formation and discipline all but confirmed it, these were no common soldiers. Wordlessly and instinctively Dagda and the others too gathered in a circle, though theirs was loose leaving ample room between each for their long-reaching claoímh.
“On my word.”
Ardgal had remained at his position upon the altar and stood in the centre of the circle both hands-free and raised. The soldiers moved efficiently and steadily as they circled systematically closer. As they came within striking distance Dagda heard the whispers of Ardgal as he spoke the words.
From both his free hands’ great streams of lightning erupted into the oncoming shields of the attackers, the shock and force of the blow sent many stumbling backwards but their shields held up admirably. That’s new, the surprised expressions on both Ardgal and Michaél’s faces confirmed the fact to Dagda. The soldiers showed no reaction to the attack and held their nerve. Whoever they were they were here with a purpose, the elemental Omen Powers of the Druaidíi were likely no surprise to them. Yet it is one thing to be warned quite another to experience it first hand. As the first eager spear struck forward, Dagda whispered to himself.
From his right hand a sharp burst of flame burst forth running down the spear’s shaft and down upon its owner, instantly setting him alight. The gap created gave Dagda opportunity to push forward and reacting quicker than any of his adversaries he spun catching the now aflame soldier on his exposed right flank. As one dropped his counterpart to his left made to strike but Dagda swivelled underneath before coming up hard smashing the top of his claíomh into the man’s jaw, cracking it into painful pieces. With the breach in the Men’s number the others saw their opening and made their move. Alongside him Michaél rushed into the gap using his long-reaching claíomh to full effect. Now the fighting began in earnest, yet despite their numbers, once their formation had been broken and their organization dismantled the men folded. Even as they scrambled to regain composure and formation they were assaulted by Omen as fire, ice, and lightning bolts reigned down creating chaos in their ranks.
Sensing that the situation was escaping them the soldiers began their retreat. Slowly at first but as the distance grew so too did their retreat. Dagda made to follow but the strong arm of Ardgal came across him halting him in his tracks, “Let them come again”, Ardgal motioned to the others and instinctively they gathered around him, “this time they will fight blind.”
Knowing immediately his plans Dagda joined in as they summoned their Omen and felt the waves collide as he joined his force to his brothers, as one they uttered the words.
The combined Omen force cracked in the air and within moments a heavy fog thick as volcanic ash moved above them hovering just over their position.
The men, by now regrouped at the end of the village, again showed their nerve and marched forward, the lack of movement from any Druaidíi giving them a renewed sense of hope and urgency. Either too focused on their target or seeing the lack of movement as a sign they rushed forward side by side unknowingly charging into their doom. As they reached once more within striking distance they pushed and the combined Omen might of five Druaidíi fell upon them.
Almost as if from within their souls it came and engulfed them all in its misty, smothering blanket. In seconds the soldier’s formation was blinded, suffocatingly surrounded by the dense fog. As they scrambled blindly, Dagda unaffected darted in and out phantomlike, slashing and striking down any unlucky enough to be in his path. Realising their situation dire and hopeless the men once more began to retreat, this time without order, moving aimlessly to avoid the silent blades.
The fog disappeared as quickly as it had appeared and Dagda noted the many bodies lay strewn out on the trampled ground. Seemed like the Gods would indeed be paid, with interest. As for his brothers though some had minor cuts none were badly hurt. Ardgal placed a hand on Dagda’s shoulder as he went to examine the bodies.
“It seems the Milesians have decided to make their move, and a bold one at that. We must venture to Gorias at once. King Breogan must know of this. If there is to be war then we must all be prepared, Partholon and Druaidíi alike. We’ve driven them back once before, it appears we may have to do so again.”
Dagda nodded, he was too young to have fought in the first Empire War but he knew all that had happened and if war was to come again he would not be an idle watcher this time around.
“And what of him?” Dagda motioned to the still bound rapist as he lay terrified upon the altar floor.
Ardgal didn’t look back, “What of him?”
Dagda nodded understanding, there would be no ritual today, he made his way over to the man and plunged his blade deep into his stomach without ceremony. He deserved nothing more.
Sheathing his claoímh he returned to follow the others stepping over one of his kills as he did so. He wiped away the blood-splatters upon his hand, his hands were clean again once more. For now.