I haven’t posted to my blog in some time. Every time I would try to write a post, I would fall back in to writing a short story, a few lines at a time. So I decided I would post it the same way. A few lines at a time each day. Hopefully you will come along for the ride.
The first time Iasan jumped from the roof he broke his ankle. He was only a boy and his screams of agony had woken his grandfather and half the house. Despite the pain and biting cold, he had stayed lucid enough to steal snippets of memory, all of which stayed with him still. He remembered the smell of tobacco from Daideo’s cloak as the old man had cradled him close. The pain had torn through him, dulling and distorting his vision to tiny pin pricks of light. Yet he remembered the glow of the moon peeping through the torn fabric of the night sky. He had felt the warmth wash over him as they passed across the threshold, the Sealgaire wolf drawing his gaze as it always had. Carved by a kinsman so many, many years before – he had given up counting the ‘greats’ – but he had never felt pride in having it’s name. It scared him, as if the great wolf knew he had never belonged.
The assessment of his mangled ankle was peppered with his grandfather’s dim view of Iasan’s common sense. In between insults the old man barked orders at any servant in his line of sight. None took umbrage for it was, and always had been, his way. Bluster and boom, his voice would carry through the house on even his quietest days. “For someone with such a quick mouth, sure you can be dumber than mud. Did you think frozen sod would break your fall? I would likely wager you were dropped on your head as a baby, if I wasn’t the one who reared ya.” The old goat was perceptive as well, he knew Iasan hadn’t been completely truthful about why he was out there that night. But Daideo also knew when to pick his moments, and this was not one of them. “Did you forget we had a flamin’ front door? Mrs Halligan, you didn’t happen to move the front door while you were cleaning today did you? The boy probably thought he had no other option than to use his window. IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT!” Mrs Halligan knew better than to laugh in front of Daideo, her face was impassive as she mumbled her response. These days he often caught Daideo bellowing at servants, even though they had long since left. He often wondered if Daideo was filling the now silent pockets of the once great home, to mask the absences that had made it so.
He remembered feeling sorry for himself as he lay in bed, tangled in covers that were better than any restraints. He had thought nothing could be worse than the agony he was enduring. It would have made quite the tale to tell, with just the right embellishments. The Healer, Muldune, was fetched by Fiachra who had been none too pleased at riding a horse in the dark of night in the wintery conditions. Iasan had sworn Muldune to secrecy about the truth of his adventure, assuming a man of medicine would disapprove of a Werebeast or two being added to the story. When he woke the next morning, despite the intense pain, he reckoned he could spin this very much to his advantage.
That all crumbled to dust in the days that followed, when the news of Nedhean’s fate came to light. Any torment Iasan had endured was nothing compared to his friend’s demise. Like every day since Iasan wished he had gone out the front door that night instead of the window. He may have met the same end, but at least Nedhean wouldn’t have been alone in his last moments. Poor little Ned deserved better. He had been touched by the darkness before it swallowed him whole.
A rustling behind him wrenched him back to the present. A single crow had landed on the roof indifferent to Iasan’s presence. The bird’s plumage seemed to swallow the light around it, a shadow save for the reflection in his eyes, staring through Iasan and irate at his trespass. Some believe crows are a symbol of death or change, or even a new beginning. Iasan hoped for all of them as he took tight grip of the precious parcel. He knew only one of the three fates awaited him. He leaped to the soft grass below and rolled as he landed. Years of practice, coupled with the common sense to use the front door in winter, had made him an expert. His eyes darted to the house, searching for any sign of change but it remained nestled in its slumber.
Daideo slept heavier these days, his age slowing everything but time itself. His mind still danced and weaved, besting his grandson on the topic of that day more often than not. Even if sometimes, Iasan let him win. Daideo trusted little in the medicines of today, preferring the old ways and their superstitions. He wasn’t naive enough to forego his Healer’s advice but he would be damned if they got any credit! Healer’s were no more than butchers in Daideo’s day and not enough progress had been made to make him think otherwise. He had made Iasan promise to burn his body in a ‘rare auld fire’ when he passed on. He wanted none of those tinkerers to dig him up for their warped practices.
Iasan cut through side fields sticking close to the ditches so as not to silhouette himself against the moon. The last thing he needed was to be seen, not tonight. The meager light did little to pierce the inky black, and he moved from memory rather than sight. He had farmed and hunted these lands since he was a boy. Even more so now with Daideo’s strength failing him. Iasan could still see the tall imposing man he had been. He would control a crowd by will and only fell back to the fist for those too stupid to heed him. He had been a man of stature and respect until that night. No one suspected him of anything but they blamed him, which amounted to the same outcome. Daideo was the God Eagna’s protector made flesh, his thunderous right arm, the deliverer of judgment and retribution.
A Druid held great sway over his people in matters of faith, and faith was demanded from all. Human nature rails against conformity and obedience. We look for cracks and weaknesses, our defiance seeping in to destroy that faith from within. Ned’s death blew a gaping hole in the believes of his people and shattered Daideo’s hold.
He heard the fleet water of the stream before he saw it. Careening through rocks and undulations, it appeared to be like any other. But he knew of no other stream that flowed up a hill defying the laws of nature. It was swallowed by the earth surrounding Eagna’s Oak, leaving it damp and springy. In truth they all were drawn to the hill, it held sway over all their destinies. He paused to dip his hand into the cold waters letting it numb his fingers.
The white of winter was still some way away, not that it made much difference to the swift tributary. It was too fast and nimble for winter’s grasp. Everything changed around it as the seasons passed, but it stuck resolutely to its path. Unyielding and absolute, nature had never cared for the passing of man and his troubles. He limped alongside the path of the stream aways before breaking south to an easier climb of the steep grassy slopes to the great Oak tree, Eagna. More than a tree to his people, its life spanned across many generations to before their time was recorded. His ruined ankle slowed him on the ascent but troubled him little. He was accustomed to being a cripple and was ashamed to say the taunting was worse than any physical hardship.
According to the elders Eagna was a God who was cast from the heavens to Crea with such force it caused the sky to go black for many moons. When men found the courage to approach the God’s landing they discovered a great crater still smoldering from the heat of the impact. Through a mist of smoke and ash, as dark as night, they searched until he was found. He was in a large cocoon nestled in the dirt, with a soft green glow pulsating beneath an outer layer as hard as rock. The men believed his form was taken from him in punishment for sins unknown. Some say his ambition outstripped that of his fellow Gods which led to his fall, others that he defied them to save our world and in retaliation they cast him down among the feeble life forms he so loved. The men were loathe to move the fallen deity in case they offended him, so they sent for the Druids. Even those wise old men were at a loss as to what to do, so they adhered to the laws of our land. Eagna was in a death of sorts, shapeless, and the Druids looked to honour him in the ways of their people. A small part of the God was removed, to be sculpted into a traditional offering, and safe guarded by the Druid Maester.
Many backs were broken in the labour needed to create the hill so that Eagna would have a view worthy of a God. He was interred at its apex, with an acorn from an Oak tree buried with him. The Druids believe no one ever dies, their essence evolves, and the seed symbolised that metamorphosis. None could know the will of the God would infuse with the acorn, to grow an even mightier tree than the Oak that gifted it life. It had stood unharmed through brutal wars and destructive weather brought to bear by the wrath of Eagna’s fellow Gods. It was eternal and unyielding. The legends say the trees roots go so deep it is connected to all the eye can see from Eagna’s hill. The great tree thrives from the land it inhabits and any who stray from the Rule of Earth bear the wrath of Eagna. The Rule of Earth forbade any from taking more from than the land than they needed. Iasan himself had seen fields side by side, were one had withered and fouled while the other flourished. The only difference being the farmer’s greed, marking the measure of the man.
Movement caught his eye on the edge of the clearing to the east. Men skulking through the trees, failing to keep out of sight. In truth none of them far from being men, but some closer than others. He took off towards them, making no secret this time of his approach. There was no need to, because they were the reason he had ventured into the night in the first place. His slow pace gave him to time to consider the path he was about to take and the consequences that would come with it. He thought of Ned and how his friend had met his demise. He increased his stride, ignoring the pain shooting through his lame ankle. In truth the choice was made for him long ago, fates are sealed by Gods not men.
“Ho Iasan, glad to see your balls are back where they belong and not in your grandfathers pouch!”. Laughter rippled from the others, the loudest from Feist himself who took great delight in his joke.
“And I see every thought you have still passes through your arse Feist.” He knew he shouldn’t goad him, but Iasan hated the swollen worm. It also silenced the sniveling weasels around him. He never questioned where his sharp tongue came from, or the quick wit that brought him more tribulation than good fortune. It wasn’t that he spoke before thinking, it was that he thought about it and said it anyway. It endeared him to few, but those it did Iasan had clung to. “Oh Iasan, quicker than a hunted hare that mouth of yours”. And there he was, Iasan’s walking nightmare.
Nathair stepped from the shadows a wide grin on his face, but nothing in his demeanor spoke to joy. He was dressed for socialising, not for stumbling through a field in the dark. But he could afford to ruin his clothes, he had plenty more where they came from. Public perception meant everything to Nathair, with only a select few allowed to endure the private. So best to ruin clothes worth a month’s income to a common farmer, than be seen as dressed poorly. “Hopefully you have brought what I asked”.
“Waste of a midnight stroll if I didn’t” Iasan replied. A shadow of annoyance flickered for a second before Nathair’s mask shifted back into place and he grinned at the other boys. They were as much in fear of him as they were in awe. It was safer to be in his wake than in his path, so they scampered around him, always eager to do his bidding. His gaze came back to rest on Iasan. “A curious choice” Nathair gestured to their surroundings. It was a question, not a statement, and Iasan ignored it. “Is must be painful to stand where your family’s reputation ended.” He was toying with Iasan.
“Ned was not to blame for my family’s woes” Iasan said. He tried not to think of how the elders had found his friend, but his discipline failed him. He turned away and willed himself to focus.
“Perhaps, but Simple Ned played a part none the less” said Nathair.
The boys sniggered at hearing the name used to taunt Nedhean. He was a simple boy but that wasn’t a fault. He had been gravely ill as a baby and no one thought he would last a week. All but his mother had given up hope of him seeing a second summer. He survived but not without cost. Nedhean was slow to comprehend the simplest things but it mattered none to him. He saw life in single colours, no complexities or shades of grey. Iasan often wondered if that was the secret to a happy life, simplicity. “What was that rhyme he loved to hear?” Nathair said. Aodhan saw his chance to impress his leader and pushed his large frame through the other boys.
“Ned, Ned, Simple Ned,
Mother dropped him on in his head,
Ned, Ned, Stinky Ned,
Smells as if he shit the bed.”
Even though Nedhean saw the good in everything those words always ripped through his very fabric. He couldn’t understand why they would say such things, nor could he fathom why words hurt him so. He couldn’t comprehend shame but he could feel it’s touch. He could see it on his mother’s face – not shame of him, but shame for him that he had to hear it. Truth was it was his mother’s pain that made him try to understand Nathair and his rabble. Her hurt that drew him to them.
Iasan ignored the laughter for fear he would say something and ruin what was to come. He answered Nathair’s question, more to deflect than inform. “We need a place of energy, good or bad. A death releases a surge of magic that permeates the earth around it. A violent death amplifies it more, so this is as good a place as any.”
“I am glad you agreed to my terms. Since your grandfather’s, demotion, we have seen little of the magical arts. I have always been curious as to how they are invoked. We were never allowed to watch as children, when the great man himself would call the power of Eagna.” Nathair said. “Can I see it?”
Iasan took a cloth bundle from under his coat. The fabric caught the moonlight giving it an ethereal glow. This of course was the intent and Druid’s were never afraid of a bit of showmanship, none more so than Daideo. He knew magic was reinforced by belief, faith and wonder. If some slight of hand and shiny trinkets helped to foster that, then he was all for it. People missed the simple everyday magic in their lives, the balance it brought to all living things. It flowed through the smallest seed in the earth, rising from the crops consumed by man and beast. Life was magic in it’s subtlest form, but where was the spectacle in that? Folk like Nathair needed to see it to believe in it’s existence.
The bundle was actually not cloth but finely weaved bark shaved from Eagna’s tree. The inner layer, protected from the harsh winds and nourished by the soil and waters that flowed all through the fertile land, had an almost brilliant white glean to it that caused the unusual glow. The effect of the moon only accented the illusion of a magical object. In truth it had purpose, something of Eagna was needed to contain the magic within lest a stray thought or desire became reality. Daideo had told him stories of Druids before him who had wished suffering on others. It allowed ill magic loose with horrible consequences. They had feared the object for more than a century before the realisation that man’s evil drove the object to act and not the other way round.
Iasan’s fingers worked to loosen the knots binding the object and he felt the circle around him close as the light of the moon dimmed. He let go of the folded pieces of weave and, as Daideo had showed him, he dropped and raised his arm quickly making causing the shroud to open like a flower to the sun. He knew they were in awe because, despite having seen it so many times before, it still had the same effect on him. The curved edges had been smoothed like glass with no imperfections in the grain to be found. The rounded top turned down to two large gaping holes, with a pronounced protrusion capping them. Two smaller teardrop indents sat centrally below, before a nightmarish mouth of etched razor sharp teeth completed the ‘skull’ of the God Eagna. Smaller than a full grown human skull, it had similarities in common with man but enough differences to unsettle. It had been carved from the piece of Eagna they originally removed. Spirit visions spoke to the . Visions so intense the Druid who carved it drove a knife through his temple trying to cut them out.
“This is not for us to tinker with Nathair”. Liamh was unusually intelligent for one of Nathair’s pack. He had been a playmate of Iasan’s and Ned’s when they were children, but they drifted apart. The truth was Liamh had a cruel streak in him that neither of the boys could abide. They had wandered on to Fear Athair’s land pursuing an all too clever hare that would have made a prize supper if they caught it. Liamh had wanted the killing shot and he was first to come upon the hare in the long grass. The growls had alerted them to his location. The hare would definitely have avoided them if not for Fear Athair’s hound being smarter than them all. One of the hare’s back legs was mangled were the huge dog must have clamped it’s jaws to catch it. It was crawling for the long grass, a last desperate hope of escape. Blood was seeping into the ground turning it an inky black, too much blood for such a small creature. The humane thing to do was kill it, end it’s suffering. We hunted for food not for pleasure. Respect for the balance of life was not wishful thinking, it was a necessity. If we upset that balance, the consequences were great.
Liamh hadn’t moved to kill the hare and Iasan thought he was in shock at the sight of blood. But then he saw his face. His eyes were locked to the creature, watching its desperation, reveling in his cries. He raised the bow for what Iasan hoped was a mercy kill but the arrow pierced the healthy back leg, causing the creature to scream like a small child as it was pinned to the earth. The sound seared through Iasan causing him to buckle over and vomit. Liamh had laughed at Iasan “Let’s see if this hound is made of stronger stuff then you Iasan”. From behind him came a sharp thud and Liamh turned to see Ned had taken the shot he hadn’t. Liamh flew into a rage raining blows down on the boy “You idiot, why did you do that. He was mine. Mine.”
Iasan kicked Liamh solidly in the ass and he fell forward onto his face in the dirt. Iasan drew his bow and aimed it straight at Liamh. “If you touch him again, I will kill you”. Iasan had since dismissed it as bravado, but deep down, in that moment, he knew he had meant it. Ned scrambled to his feet and stood behind Iasan. Liamh lay crumpled on the ground literally chewing on the dust. His face was a mask of hate as the boys backed slowly into the grass and ran.
Iasan heard Nathair’s voice drawing him to the present but he had missed the message. One glance around the group told him whatever had been said had ended all arguments about what they were about to do. “So how do we do this? Nathair said. Iasan moved to a flat, piece of dirt off to the side of where the boys stood. He felt minute trembles from the skull as he settled it in place on the small mound of earth he had shaped. He picked up a fallen branch and started etching lines in the dirt, taking care to make the shape as distinct as possible. Daideo had shown him how to draw it as a boy. It needed no adornments as long as it was formed in the earth of Eagna.
‘Go fetch a piece of wood each, about an arm’s length. Be careful to only pick fallen wood. The trees are not to be touched’. They each scattered into the inky darkness, with all the grace of an amorous bull. When each had found their piece of wood, Iasan instructed them to sit on the ground surrounding the skull. The symbol etched on the ground was a circle with overlapping lines forming smaller circles and squares breaking out to form a point at each corner. Each boy chose a quadrant and Iasan sat opposite Nathair who was staring at the symbol in the dirt with amusement and curiosity. Iasan felt irritation as he tried to settle himself for the ritual. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it and opened his eyes to see if anything was amiss. The symbol was perfect and the skull remained in place. He glanced to his right and Feist was looking at him with barely contained glee. In his hand was a branch which had been freshly ripped from a tree. Daideo’s words echoed in his head ‘Sometimes the choice is made for you’.
‘Place the sticks between us and make sure your hands are touching one on either side of you’ he said ignoring Feist. ‘Do you have a spirit you wish to summon?’ He looked at Nathair as he asked the question, no other voice mattered. ‘The obvious choice, given our splendid surroundings, would be your old friend Ned. But he was insufferable in life and who has time for him in death’ nervous laughter rippled from the other boys. ‘No, no not that simpleton. Someone a bit more exciting, a little more dangerous. What do you think Feist?’
Feist appeared deep in thought. But his lips moved as he counted the beats before he answered, betraying how genuine his response was going to be. ‘Yes Nathair, you are on to something there’. The words were spoken as if Feist had been hit in the head by a hammer. Several times. ‘What about that Captain?’ Feist lifted his gaze to Nathair sure he had performed his task perfectly only to see the look on Nathair’s face. ‘I think this imbecile goat fondler means Captain Murdoch’. Iasan let a look of fear cross his face. It was a lie but one he performed better than Feist. ‘The man was a monster, a butcher. How can you ask me to-?’
‘Every man has a price to pay Iasan and this is yours. You came to me, begging me to join because you know what it is to stand apart. You know the responsibility we have to educate those beneath us. No matter how harsh those lessons need to be. You asked to become one of us. Deliver on your promise or I can let Feist see if any of your ‘branches’ are torn off easily’. Iasan knew this wasn’t empty talk to impress his boys. Nathair would let Feist off his leash and revel in the brutality he uncaged. The darkness that resided in Nathair was far beyond the primal needs of his companions. Even as a child he was feared, not only because of his father, but what he could do before that protection was called upon. He had lived without consequence his whole life.
Iasan slumped to the ground and beckoned for them to join him. He grabbed the sticks either side of him and waited until the others had done the same. He gripped tightly against the bark letting it chafe the soft skin of his palm. He needed the pain to match his anger and take the edge off before he began. ‘I will recite the calling while you recite his name. Focus on only the name and keep your eyes closed’.
He could see their disdain for old magic not seen in many years. Thankfully nothing they did would matter. Slowly he began the chant, in a low and steady voice. The words were practiced, but in his mind he saw Daideo reciting them and all he did was mimic the old man. The image fell away and he felt himself shrinking within himself. Even so he could feel the air around him slow down, the tiny movement of the grass against his skin, the breathing of the boys became like horns until all noise died away. He was chanting in unison with the others now, the voices as one but his message different. The ritual called for a blood offering, an anchor point for the spirit to meet the realm of flesh. He opened his eyes as he finished chanting and took the serrated dagger in his hand and, without hesitation, plunged it into the side of Feist’s neck.
Nathair had been fascinated with Daideo since he was a little boy. The old man radiated strength and magical power yet never used it to take what he wanted. Why would a man with such dominion over others not make them quell and bow before him? He would watch him stride through the village, a sense of awe in those around him. He had the power to command yet he chose to serve; he could decide fates yet he chose not to interfere; he could make anything his, yet he only gave. It was galling that such elemental power was wasted on a man who had everything needed to wield it. Daideo’s weaknesses had caused his folly and that fall from grace was witnessed with no small pleasure by Father. He had hated the old man and his pious judgment, how he railed against the rich and their treatment of those beneath them. Well all that had ended for Daideo in this very spot. Now Nathair was going to finally take control of the power the old man never understood. To use his own grandson to do it only made it all the more special.
Nathair had lost track of the chanting and was trying to focus on the rhythm the fools around him had slipped into. Something was wrong, the words were not as one. He knew he should hear ‘Murdoch’ but someone was getting it wrong. No doubt Feist, the boy was a disgrace to halfwits. What the hell was he saying. Murdett? Murdirt? Murder? Murder. Why was he saying murder. The chant grew louder and Nathair realised it wasn’t Feist but Iasan. He opened his eyes to see Iasan plunging the blade into Feist. The dying boy gurgled, the blood leaked and sprayed as the knife was pulled free. Nathair thought this was a marvelous development. Iasan the killer would be so much more valuable than Iasan the whipped. Imagine what this will do to the old man. He began to speak but the words died on his lips. Feist had stayed upright despite the convulsions rippling through him. Then Nathair saw why. The ground around him was alive with motion. Snakes began to wrap themselves around his lower body. Not snakes, roots. Engulfing the still dying Feist like an outer shell, a gurgling scream escaping the boy as bones snapped and the shell began to come to its feet, taking the form of man. Nathair, always known for his intelligence and guile, displayed both in one single moment. He ran.
Liamh was not as sharp as Nathair but he still judged the situation quickly. The beast was now at it’s full height, standing stock still beside Iasan. He crawled backwards until he could summon the courage to run. Getting to his feet he started to run only to fall flat on his face again as he tripped over an exposed rock. The wind knocked out of him, he got to his feet panting and dared to look back. He saw Iasan raising the skull to the creatures head. Roots extended like fingers grasping the skull and swallowing it into the mass of tangled wood. A glow emanated from the head and a final crack of bone split through the shell. Red began to seep into the glow and a low rumble built from the creature. Liamh turned and made for the sanctuary of the dark wood.
A beastial roar erupted from the clearing just as the trees enveloped him. That thing was Feist, or what was left of him. He had no love for the boy and normally he would have enjoyed his end. But that creature was of magic and he wasn’t the one who conjured him. He heard the beast moving through the trees way off to his right and he hunkered down behind a fallen tree. He tried to control his breathing, deep breathes having no effect. Suddenly he stopped breathing altogether because all was ghostly silent in the forest. Out of the darkness floated Iasan’s voice.
‘You believe that every man has a price to pay but fail to understand the cost of that price. The old ways are seen as archaic and savage, but they had a dark logic. If a man steals, then take from him. If a man is quick with his fists, teach him first hand the results of his actions. If a man forces a woman to his will, take away his capacity to do so again. If a man murders, he should lose the very thing he extinguished. This was the way, this was Eagna’s Way’.
Liamh broke from cover and ran through the darkness praying he stayed on his feet. Iasan had sunk into madness and he needed to get as far away from his as he could. Likely Iasan was as dangerous as the beast now, armed with that dagger and a purpose. He had wanted to bring his bow but Nathair laughed. ‘What good is a bow against magic my friend? We have snivelling little Iasan to protect us. Although I doubt the boy could raise his prick if a whore came up and grabbed it, so no doubt tonight will be a waste’. They had all doubted little Iasan and his ‘magic’. But Liamh was damned if he was going to suffer the consequences of it. If he could just make it out of this wretched forest alive then they would have the Watch arrest the boy and he could have the pleasure of seeing Iasan die.
‘Nedhean was a simple boy, but one who understood life more than most’ Iasan walked with purpose through the forest, raising his voice to let it carry through the dense wood. Any pain from his crippled ankle ignored.‘You see life as toy, something to be played with and discarded when your interest wanes. A trinket that can always be replaced. On the day he died he told me he had a secret. That we could see Eagan himself, in all his glory, and no one would ever know. I was to meet him at the tree but I never made it. But you boys did’.
Little Iasan knew. Liamh could hear his voice coming from the west and he kept low moving off in an arc towards the east. If he could skirt round behind the madman he might have a chance. No doubt he had the creature close by as protection, but if Liamh could get close to Iasan maybe the magic would die with him. He could feel branches clawing at him as he moved as swiftly as he dared through the black of night. Each time he thought the creature was reaching for him and it was all he could do not to scream out. After several minutes of dodging through the dark he came upon a clearing where moonlight broke through the foliage above. He quickly dived to the ground as Iasan came upon the clearing. He must have gotten off course in the dark and almost gave his position away. He crawled slowly away finding a large fallen trunk blocking his path. From behind him came a crunching sound, something heavy moving close by. He wriggled under the dead tree and stopped breathing.
‘I still don’t know how you lured him there. He was private in his ways and little Ned could be quite stubborn if pushed. I agreed to go despite knowing what he wanted wasn’t possible. A night of adventure with your best friend, I could indulge him that. When they found him he was pinned to the ground with an arrow through each ankle. Two more through his wrists. It must have been agony trying to tear through skin, as well as bone. Trapped like a desperate animal. Just the way you like them Liamh’.
Liamh heard his name and started shaking, there is no way he could know where he was. The darkness blinded them all equally and he had not made a sound. Even now as every crawling inhabitant of the forest floor slinked and slimed across his exposed skin. The trunk suddenly sank towards the ground as a thunderous weight landed on it. Sharp wooden tendrils pierced skin all along his arms and legs. He screamed out in horror and pain, burying his face in the dirt as he did. Even through the agony he could feel the tendrils wrapping around him. He turned his head to see Iasan’s face in front of his. The boy had crouched down to look him in the eye. “Let’s see if this hound is made of stronger stuff then me Liamh”. More tendrils appeared and wrapped around his legs and arms. He felt the pressure as their grip tightened but his mind couldn’t comprehend it.
The pressure increased and the snap of bone in each limb almost made him blackout from the pain. The whole trunk began to rotate and he caught site of one of his ruined arms. Liamh screamed and the light was extinguished like a candle as all around him a writhing darkness took him. He felt something wet and soft against face. He couldn’t pull away and he realised the ruins of Feist were being pressed against him. He didn’t hear the final crunching pop as true darkness came to him.
Nathair could hear someone whimpering as he exploded through the undergrowth. Aodhan had no doubt shit himself by now. The boy was a coward but he had proved useful over the years. ‘Aodhan you idiot, keep it down’ Nathair hissed. Aodhan must have heard him because the racket began to move towards Nathair. Aodhan had quietened it down from a herd of bulls crashing through the trees to just one single drunken one. A small mercy none the less. He scanned the trees frantically, all this noise would wake the dead never mind bring that creature upon them. Did it even have ears? Aodhan fell to the ground beside him. ‘Please Nathair, please get us out of here’.
‘Shut up you cretin, you will get us killed. I need to listen’. Looking into the gloom all manner of shadows were formed by hanging branches and long grass. Imagined enemies crouched all round them, silent sentries. Aodhan’s panicked breathing was enough to cover any approach, so Nathair clamped his hand over the boy’s mouth and pinched his nose. His eyes bulged out and he started to struggle. Nathair leaned his weight on him and listened. A great crash came from far off to the south, followed by a terrifying screaming not long after. Nathair fell backwards in shock breaking his grip on Aodhan. The boy lay gasping for air, wheezing loudly and mewing. ‘We’re going to die Nathair. We are going to die’.
‘To kill for food is part of life’s cycle, to kill for pleasure is unnatural. Against Eagna’s sacred creed. The doctor couldn’t tell if Ned died from loss of blood or choking on the dirt you fed him. His throat swollen from it. I like to think it was his way out but you know better. Did you take his eyes before or after you pinned him down? Cowards everyone of you, so I would guess after. He was afraid of the dark little Ned, he thought it consumed the light. How could something have so much hunger he would ask. He wouldn’t listen to any reasoning on it, he was stubborn as I said. Believing the light found a way to escape each day, tear through the smothering fabric of darkness.’
Nathair and Aodhan had run from Iasan’s voice as fast as they dared. They couldn’t be far from the edge of his lands. The dense forest finished a short distance from the east gate and safety. A short run of thigh length grass was all that stood between survival and death. Crouching low to avoid being seen Nathair signaled for Aodhan to stop. He knelt behind the boy, for all his use he could at least be a decent shield. Aodhan swiveled to face him just as a plan fully formed. ‘Aodhan I need you to tell me if you see any movement from there’ Nathair pointed in the direction they had last heard Iasan’s voice.
Aodhan scanned the darkness without hesitation, a loyal soldier to his leader, the best kind – a dumb one. Nathair clamped his hand to Aodhan’s mouth just as his blade sliced through the soft tendons at the base of the boy’s ankle. Aodhan tried to scream. “Not yet my friend, wait until I am on my feet. You have done me one last great service, proving the saying every fool has his day. Maybe he will be merciful.” With those last words Nathair sprinted for the gate. Behind him came an almighty crash as if the trees had torn themselves from the earth in pursuit. Wood snapped and a swarm of birds shadowed him like a dark cloud before they left him to his faith. He heard the screams of Aodhan, repeating his name again and again and he thanked Eagna for giving the boy such voice. Unless that creature was Eagna and he was thanking death itself.
The gate was unlocked as he had left it. The whine of the rusty hinges like a whisper after the creature and it’s rampage. He slammed it shut behind him. What a story this would make, the crazy Druid’s grandson a murderer with only courageous Nathair surviving his onslaught. They would seize their lands, not that they were worth much these days. It was the skull he wanted and he would make Iasan show him how to use it. Glorious day, but he had ridden his luck to the brink. No more running, time to go on the hunt – with a very large troop of men of course. He glanced at his father’s house and decided it was time it was his. As quickly as he assumed victory, it was all taken just as swiftly. As if death itself found voice, guttural and primitive he heard familiar words float from the darkness behind him.
“Nnnned….. Nnnnned… ccchhimple Nnnned.” He had always prided himself on his bravery but in the end that lie was laid bare. In truth he thought his wealth and privilege protected him; from the jilted lovers, the beaten, the buggered, the cheated, the broken, the scarred and the dead. That fragile facade cracked and shattered with four simple words, and he felt the betrayal of his own body dribbling down his immobile legs. He felt fear, terror, desperation and abject despair. He didn’t even have enough courage to run, falling to his knees as he felt the roots surround him, a long scream making its escape. Gone was the violence and speed as the creature took him in with a gentle touch, like one reserved for a new born. Mercy. Something he could never give was to be afforded to him. This creature was showing him how death could have honor. As his body was encased by the writhing mass, he felt himself descending and closed his eyes to his last moments. Then all went quiet. And nothing happened. Confusion rippled through him. He had expected his end but the creature was dormant. He could barely move and panic began to take hold. Muffled voices called out his name but the dense earth drowned out his replies. He was breathing harder and tearing at the roots around him but they stood resolute. He felt light headed, slumping against the prison that held him. His breathing came in short, sharp gasps and he realised this was no mercy at all. The air around him grew thinner and he bashed his head against his wooden prison to no avail. Staccato breaths the only sound in his make shift coffin before true darkness came to take him.
Daideo sat at the kitchen table, the food in front of him untouched. He had made the imposing table himself, skills gained from apprenticing to a carpenter in his youth. He quickly found that manual labour was not for him. But he enjoyed the repetition and the time it gave him to reflect. His fingertips ran along the grain of the wood and memories flooded back. There had been so much time to finish it after the boy had been killed. Reflection he had never asked for thoughts and that would never leave him. ‘Did you know?’ Iasan’s voice floated from the doorway. Anger and pain etched in three simple words. Daideo sighed not looking at his grandson ‘I suspected’. ‘I asked did you know.’ Daideo flicked his eyes up and saw anger was inadequate – rage was threatening to engulf the boy. ‘Yes, I knew. The Golem could not be raised without a spirit to imbue ‘life’. When you chose the spot I knew it would be that boy.’
‘I could feel a spirit trying to break free but I held it there. I am no better than they are.’ His voice broke as the full weight of what he had done hit him. Daideo wanted to reach for him but he knew this was not the time. ‘You did what we agreed. You did what was right and took revenge for our family. The boy was no great loss, apart from what it did to me.’ Daideo knew the words were a mistake as soon as he spoke them. Iasan’s fury blotted out his grief ‘Our family! There is no family, just a broken down old man and a cripple. Two walking dead trapped in a past they can never get back. Our family. A boy died because of his innocence and now I have taken that from him.’ He turned and stumbled into the night.
Daideo scrambled after him, tripping on the doorstep in the darkness. He barely managed to extend his arms before he hit the ground. It was not enough to stop his head cracking against something solid. He could feel warmth trickling down his forehead but all that mattered was stopping Iasan. ‘Iasan, please….’ His grandson stopped and looked at the old man sprawled in the dirt. ‘…the skull’. Iasan stood up straight and pulled his arms around himself. ‘I’m sorry’. Daideo thought those words were meant for him. Then the night came alive all around Iasan and he watched in horror as his grandson was engulfed by the Golem. It was enormous, bigger than any bear he had ever seen. The creature locked eyes with him and roared.
In the end Daideo always thought he would welcome death, but like all men poisoned by pride he was weak. Courage didn’t find him in his last moments, but the void did.
Titbit #1: The story idea came from a memory of me sneaking out of a friend’s house one night during a sleepover. It was summer, but an Irish one, so mild to say the least. He and I had climbed from his second story window and shimmied our way over, and down, on to the roof of the single story extension. The roof was peaked and precarious after some light rain and I remember thinking if I slipped I would break my ankle. As to why we were sneaking out, well that’s another tale altogether.
Titbit #2: As an Irishman I was used my native tongue (in which I am not fluent unfortunately) to inspire my choice of names. Eagna means ‘Wisdom’; Iasan is derived from ‘Healer’; Nathair is derived from ‘snake’ and Sealgaire means ‘Hunter’.
Titbit #3: Feist is based on my childhood bully. You can speculate what it means, psychologically, that he was the first to die – but it’s just a story. Right!?
Titbit #4: The original story was set in modern day and involved a Ouija board, a homeless man and was more movie like in vision. The Ouija board idea came from a real incident that happened when I was a kid.
Titbit #5: I wanted to use an elemental creature tied to a forest. This was because when I was in school many years ago a teacher said that if Ireland was abandoned that it would turn in to one big forest. Trees, not grass, are the native to Ireland which sort of distorts the ‘Emerald Isle’ nickname.
Titbit #6: The story took me 3 months to write but 6 weeks of that time I didn’t write a single word. I have depression and it had convinced me the story was complete rubbish i.e. it amplified the usual writer’s doubt.