Children of Ben Dudlach

Toothy Shore

Rush Rush. With power to drown a giant. Rush.

Smash!

Careen on the teeth. White stone. Knives raised to the sky in defiance, daring the Morrigan to burst her raven breast on the razor tip.

Spray. Rise into the wind to be carried. Fly. And moisten the backs of the sleeping hills of Dearg. Wet like sweat. Like stinging tears for a world lost. A world of prowess and violence. Deep songs of dread sung now only in the dark under-earth or in the hearts of children at night.

The Red Isle breathes. Blood colored lichen pulses, heaves, with the rising and falling wind. A sighing of tide and weather that gives the place a restless atmosphere. An uneasy place where neither seals nor sea-fowl like to stop.

It rises out of the dark northern seas. A heap of sandstone carved by waves in elaborate whorls and dressed in vermillion flora. It ascends the height of twenty men to a plateau at the center of which is a darkened pit. A sinkhole that repels light and nature. A hole in this world. A wound. A reminder of what went before.

The hole is tantalizingly out of reach of the waves. So they rush rush. Smash! Into the toothy shore. Hoping to fly over the rim and run into that abyss and drop by drop fill it up again.

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Poor Grebble

It was raining the evening that Grebble MacRabh stumbled into the Mead Hall of Wurley, the seat of Clan Macrabh. No amount of rain would wash away the sting warts that pocked his back and thighs, or soften his bitter mood. Never had a few days journey been such a miserable month of suffering, or so Macrabh thought to himself when he was deep in his cups feeling sorry for himself.

A few lasses tried to comfort him with winks and kisses. One reminded him that he still had all his fingers and toes and the boils would hardly scar at all. He sent her running under a hail of wooden tankards and foam.

A young Eiranach man came and sat across from him and drank without speaking for a while. After a horn or two of mead he addressed Grebble, “You wouldn’t be the MacRabh bard I’ve heard tell of, would ye?”

Grebble didn’t look up, “You know I am, so don’t play coy. What are you doing so far from home?”

The man smiled, “I’ve come to fetch something back that belongs to the Bards of Eiranach, and maybe to get a bit of vengeance on the man who took it, but that’s my story. I’m asking about yours?”

Grebble grimaced, “My story is that my balls are on fire, I’m tired, thirsty, and have a terrible headache, because my last few days on the road were pure misery. I think I was had for a joke, and if I find out who was responsible, I’ll probably end his childbearing days.”

That got a laugh out of the Eiranach man which rubbed Grebble the wrong way, though even he was beginning to see the humor of his situation. The stranger replied, “That’s a tragedy fit for a Bretonach ballad! I’ll leave you to drink away your pain,” and began to rise.

“Wait,” Grebble interrupted, “You’re just one man in unfamiliar territory, how do you hope to find what you’re after?”

“I’ve had some good fortune. I’ve found a sponsor in these parts. It’s what I wanted to talk to you about. My sponsor’s very generous and might be able to help you reverse some of that bad luck you’ve been having.”

“Heh.” Grebble laughed and took a deep drink of his mead. “No one round here either rich or powerful enough to fix my being a fool. Who’s your sponsor anyway? Some Thane or other?”

“A Queen actually. And she’s looking for more smart men like you.”

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Svellson

“You what!?!”

Gancanagh squeezed the plum in his fist till red juice dribbled between his fingers. The confusion and anger was transparent on his face, a fact which amused the woman he was speaking with. Woman, in this case, being a loose descriptor for a figure made entirely of smoke hovering above the small fire which filled the pit in the center of the glade.

“I sent them to the Red Isle to pay an old debt.”

“But I told you, Leannan-Sidhe,” Gancanagh struggled to regain his composure, “we’re leaving him out of this.”

Leannan shrugged.

“Badb take you, but you are stubborn! Don’t you understand, he can’t be bargained with…”

The smoky figure cut him off, “Oh, I think there are things even Redtooth wants.”

He threw the squished plum into the fire sending sparks into the air, the smoke dispersed momentarily, before coalescing again into the figure of the woman – shapely even as an apparition. “Maybe, but I refuse to find out what, and now you’ve jeopardized everything. He eats his children. Eats them!”

The woman’s eyebrow shot up. “So one of these precious budding warriors is Redtooth’s blood. You might have said so.”

Gancanagh licked the plum juice from his hands and shook his head, “And give away everything? I know you better. You were only in this in the first place because you were curious. Not that it matters now. You’ve probably sunk the whole plan.”

Silence passed between them for a few moments.

“Or maybe not,” said a fiery colored fox with embers for eyes.

Gancanagh and Leannan both jumped as the newcomer slid out of the bushes and into the glade, “Svellson!” they hissed.

The fox grinned at them, “Come now, aren’t you even a teensy bit interested in what I have to say?”

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Bog Witch

Curran took a good long whiff of the air. Peat, rot, snow, silt… something else. He ran surefooted along the berm enjoying the feel of the cold mud between his toes. A slip to either side and he’d be neck deep in icy cold water, tangled plants, and sucking glop, but Curran rarely slipped.

He stopped near the base of an old stone tree and dug his fingers into the black wet soil, uncovering a bit of twine that led to a trap. In the trap he found a drowned rat. Not as good as a fox or a ferret, but good enough. He quickly unwrapped the twine from the latch and pulled out his bounty.

In the distance he heard the splash of horse legs through shallow water. A man shouted. Angry sounds and the howling of dogs followed. They were getting closer.

Curran scurried around the tree, hopping over exposed petrified roots. He jetted up a rocky hillock and slid down the other side into a slippery gully shaded by tall overhanging stone trees. The dogs heard his grunt as he scraped his foot on a thorn. They would catch up fast now so Curran bolted south down the gully, racing ahead of the barking.

A fallen tree lay over two boulders on the path ahead. Vines hung from the dead trunk like a curtain which Curran batted aside as he scrambled to the left up a set of rocks set into the earth like stairs. As he crested the rise he saw her hut. A rotted, oozing thing of peat bricks, bundles of sticks, and vines like a part of the bog itself it rose on three stilts, leaning precariously over the muck beneath.

Curran leapt from the hilltop, plugging his now and pulling his knees in close. He plunged under the water disappearing from sight (and scent) completely in the brackish fluid. His heart pounded in his chest. He wouldn’t be able to hold his breath long this way, but he wouldn’t have long to wait.

Above there was muffled thrashing and the baying of hounds. A horse’s hoof splashed through the water, alarmingly close to his legs. He strained to keep his breath in, his chest beginning soft involuntary convulsions, and his ears thrumming. He wrapped his fingers in some grass willing himself to stay still.

Suddenly… silence.

Unable to chain his breath any longer Curran burst up out of the water gasping, prepared to bolt for safety. He quickly dropped his arms and relaxed. No need to run. All around him in the water dead dogs floated, blood trickling from their snouts. Ten strides away a mare was still, chest deep in mud, head bobbing lifeless on the surface of the water. Her rider was gone: fled or… Curran didn’t like to contemplate the other possibilities.

“The bog isn’t safe these days,” Curran whispered. “Old Maggie Bones is mad.”

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Spitting Bile

He spit and black flecks sprayed the stone at his feet. It had been doing that all of yesterday, through the night, and still continued this morning. His mouth tasted like rot. He could keep no sustenance down. At least he had recovered his wits.

He was clear-minded enough now to see what should have been obvious when they left Stormhome: they’re doomed. Whether because of a capricious act of the Gods or merely the ending of a noble saga, Koll was now certain they would never find respite or security until all of them were dead. It was time to quit clinging to life and instead to embrace a glorious death.

He’d examined every angle he could think of.

Build a ship? With what resources? The woods were infested with demon Gaels and their sole shipwright had died in the initial raid of this pathetic village. Even were a ship to mysteriously arrive heading back out to sea only invited Hel’s wrath after the clear message delivered by the Skalds of Stormhome.

Hold the village? Even if they survived this winter and the further treachery and cowardice of the Gaels camped in the woods, come Spring how would they sow the fields without dying to a hidden archer? Would not an army arrive from the fort at the mouth of the fjord or some other place? Against concerted attacks no group of heroes could hold this forsaken hamlet long.

Flee into the wilderness? Would he really consider venturing into dark lands where who knows what foul beasts roam? By trade he and his men were sailors and warriors, not foresters. They would not survive long by themselves in a blizzard or sinking without a sound into the bog.

All roads to safety were cutoff. Only one course of action remained. Provoke bloody violence. Wreak vengeance. Die standing while your enemy’s blood pools up with your own.

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Pipe and Coals

For a small fire it put out a lot of smoke. The cursed woman must have put some wet gorse or heather in there with the peat and wood. Gancanagh tried to carefully position himself in the one corner of the cave that wasn’t more ash than air, while Leannan kept sadistically stirring the embers.

“Are you about done making your guest miserable?” he spoke in the old tongue because her Gaidhlig had a few gaps.

She flashed him a predatory smile “I know better than to let you get comfortable. A bit of safe distance between us is what allows us to play nice with one another.”

Outside the little cave-dwelling, some distance into the woods, an animal squealed in agony: Leannan’s feral “children” having a bit of fun at the expense of the local wildlife, no doubt. There were several things about this woman that gave Gancanagh the creeps, but he did approve of the manner in which her tunic hung loosely on her frame, shifting so you could get just a glimpse of nipple here or there. All intentional no doubt.

“Well, what do your coals say tonight?” You never got anything useful out of her unless you asked a straight question.

“That we haven’t got a very good chance.”

“What scheme does these days?”

“This is different. We’re going against the Stag Lord.”

Gancanagh flinched. Leannan had a habit of tossing around the names of the greater Spirits with a bit too much ease for his taste. “True, but he needs the children just as much as we do. More. For the moment he can’t afford to harm us. We’ve planted the seeds. They’ll listen.”

“That’s what the Morrigan thought too. They didn’t listen to her.”

“Why would they? She offered only death?”

“And power. And glory.”

He shrugged, “Besides maybe they did exactly what she wanted them to do after all. You never can tell with her. She could be planning some mischief we haven’t foreseen.”

“My coals see.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” he covered his face with a lovely embroidered piece of linen. He had to take his pipe out from between his teeth to do it, which made him grumpy. “So what do your coals see of the others?”

“The Ghillie Dubh are stirred up. They have smelled you moving through the wood.”

“Of course they have. I talked to them.”

She didn’t react other than to wait patiently for the rest of the story. She never showed surprise, another black mark in his book. Surprise was one of his favorite emotions.

“They’re against us. They haven’t forgiven you for the Ashwood,” he waited for some sign of guilt or regret but she only set her jaw firmly and waited for him to go on. “Sreng will probably go with them. He muttered something about honor bla bla tradition bla bla keeping promises etc… Truth be told I’m glad not to have to deal with him. He bores me.”

“Sreng will be a formidable opponent if it comes to that.”

“The future’s your thing. I’ll let you worry about it.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes. She idly stirred her coals and he looked out the doorway at the night sky wondering if he’d hitched his chariot to the right star. She broke the silence.

“There is always Redtooth…”

“No,” his voice was low, but iron hard.

“Perhaps with the Aesir…”

“No.”

“There is much we don’t understand…”

“I know you don’t remember everything that happened in that valley so I’ll forgive your persistence on this. The answer is still no. We have other options.”

She stared down into the fire and gave it a vigorous stir which sent much more smoke billowing into the air.

Gancanagh rolled his eyes, “That’ll be my cue to take my leave.”

She nodded and stood flashing all sorts of tantalizing patches of skin, “safe journeys merry wanderer.”

He held out his hand with a flourish, “May I kiss your hand farewell?”

“You’ll do no such thing,” she snapped, but she was smiling.

“Not even one?” He raised an eyebrow.

“Not even one,” and she shooed him out the door with smoke billowing behind.

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Taking Stock

The bodies were laid on the snow in front of Erlend. Six. They removed their helmets to identify them: Gudmund, Tufi, Ingrid, Bardi, Dotta, Bjorn. When they took Dotta’s helmet off she moaned, but her wounds were too serious to even consider bandaging. Without a word a quick knife moved and sent Dotta into glory. It lacked ceremony or dignity, but the bodies were thrown into the burning drekar which was pushed out into the water. It did not make it far before sinking.

Of his remaining twenty three, four were injured. Without a Skald or a wisewoman even small injuries could be deadly. The cold here would be less than in Stormhome, and they had stumbled into a village that was well provisioned for much more than twenty three mouths. That had been a mercy. Perhaps not all the gods had abandoned them.

Erlend knew better than to relax, though. Whatever clan called this village home would be sure to seek revenge, and they would know the territory. They would rest tonight, but tomorrow they would go to work fortifying their new home.

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Final Landing
A desperate call in a hostile port...

Erlend’s grip on the drekar’s prow never slackened though his left hand was missing two fingers, an old injury. The salt spray sailed high over the horned serpent carved into the front of the ship, saturating his beard and rolling in beads off of his well oiled scale. The drum beat the fastest cadence the rowers could stand, but Erlend’s heart outran it. No wind would be hard enough. No crew would be stout enough. If they failed to make a landing soon they would all die in these foreign waters.

Either way they would all die without seeing Stormhome again.

Seventy two Dragonships, some drekars like his own, some the more formidable skei-ships with thirty benches, had launched from Stormhome. Their goal: to outrun the nightmare dawning in the north. A most ignoble flight for a Stormhir captain, but one which most accepted as necessary. No axe could defeat a plague. No shield could ward off death itself. No glory was to be had in the starless night of total annihilation. Women, children, entire villages – erased. The earth salted. The livestock poisoned. The end.

But even ships will not save a people the Gods have doomed. Erlend knew not where the majority of the seventy two were now. He and his men were alone. Running over white-capped swells with a desperation they’d never before known. Fearing to look over their shoulder to see if Hel rode the sea behind them with her army of Draugr.

Erlend and his men would have laughed in the face of any mortal enemy. They would have died with a smile under any other circumstances. Tonight they rowed up a narrow bay their tears freezing on their cheeks as Erlend scanned the horizon for light. A village, a fort, a hostile port. Any place to make landing and forever leave the sea behind.

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Blackbeak
Blackbeak caws

Tooth and claw. The feathers fall.
Flutter.

Stabbing black flags in the crisp white snow.

Winter broods. The antlers crowned. The prince sleeps in his blood.

Blackbeak should be sleeping too, but she flies. The heath and bog are slick with ice and all should be awaiting the thaw, but darkness stirs in the mountain’s root: the work of tooth and claw. Fly tender muscle, sinew strong. Fly heart that beats with heat, and veins that flood with reddened life. You have seen the icy organ pumping death, and smelt the salt breath of the inevitable. Now is not a time for napping.

But napping are the children of the beautiful ones. Sleeping deep are the descendents of heroes that once stepped from mountain peak to mountain peak and lived for a death to remember. Their wands are inert. Their blades are buried, or pitted and crumbling. Their valor so much peat smoke drifting over a placid ocean. The songs they sing today are mournful and nostalgic.

The wind whistles her fury as Blackbeak dives.

Alighting on the quiet places where none walk but once in seven, she crosses the threshold. Therein, beyond, and most profoundly here, she tells her tale to the trees who haven’t forgotten how to listen. Be ready. They come. The last. The burdened. The misled. Ascending frozen slopes, and braving the womb, they return at last to the tortured man’s tomb.

Tooth and claw. Blackbeak caws.
The song of spirits and mortals, courage and war.
The song of laws to be broken, of plots in full-bloom.
The song of worlds colliding for victory and gore.
The song of fear in the battle, and frostbitten doom.
She will sing them once more. Once more.

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The Way is Closing
Balfour considers his charges

“That’s one mother of a splinter,” Balfour turned the sliver of wood over in his hands. Sharp as a boar tusk and almost as long it still wore the rusty stains of Nessa’s misadventure.

Settling in by a sizzling peat fire on a cold winter night, the hulking ironsmith considered his charges. Young and untried it is true, but still, merry and game to test themselves at challenges well beyond their abilities. He chuckled to himself at the various cruelties he had inflicted on them over the past year. If it were a gesa to laugh at your own jokes then Balfour would have been flayed apart by redcaps long ago.

The giant lad, Morwynne, would no doubt make a fierce warrior. Only 8 and already as tall as some of the men in Dachaigh. Yes, that boy would strike terror into enemies with half an ounce of sense. To top it off he had a madness for the forge like Balfour had never seen before. Any chance he got he was underfoot asking questions about this or that tool, burning his fingers on the tongs, or stealing a glimpse of molten iron coming out of the crucible.

By contrast Ceildh was a bleeding nuisance. Always disappeared when you wanted her, frolicking with some shepherds flock coming into town, or teaching the cats in Dachaigh to leap from the thatching and catch birds. Teaching cats! How do you even do that? And when you didn’t want her then you couldn’t escape her sharp wit or her collection of small vermin. One night Balfour found a tamed vole in his bed. He had a lot of work to do with that one unless she turned out like one of the fair folk in the stories leading an army of wild creatures into battle like the tide of fur before a forest fire.

Tormey and Tierman were like two halves of a walnut. You never saw those two apart from each other. They swore to the whole village that they were twins taken from the same mother though anyone with one eye could plainly tell this was a fantasy. Tormey was short and ginger and covered in freckles. Tierman was gangly and fair with raven hair. It was no sense spoiling their fun, though. “The Twins” as everyone had taken to calling them were not possessed of any outstanding talent except their fierce loyalty to each other and willingness to keep trying at whatever task was set them. Once in a while Balfour would set them an impossible task just for his own amusement.

Of all the children Meric was the one Balfour knew to be most dangerous. A congenial boy, already a hearty drinker, and a fun lad to have on a hunt, Meric could make you like him easy. Behind all that charm though was a mind like a razor cutting to the heart of any problem, finding your weakness, applying pressure… Meric seemed to know things he had no right to, like details of private conversations, but Balfour never caught him snooping. One day he’d be a good man to have on your side, and a disaster to have pitted against you.

Surly little Iain amused Balfour with his perpetual glower and impertinent tongue. Poor boy never met a joke he could master though he was the butt of more than a few. None of it fazed him though. He was lost in his own world – which sometimes included getting lost in this world. Balfour had yet to figure out where the boy was wandering off to, which was hardly the only mystery to wee Iain. One morning before dawn Balfour stepped outside to piss and caught the lad crossing a rope strung between the ridgepoles of two huts. Foot over foot like a squirrel. Balfour never told the boy he’d seen him. He just pondered this while trying to find some way to get him to crack a smile.

Lastly, Nessa, she of the giant splinter. Was there ever a girl destined to crush more egos than that one? She never turned down a dare, and she rarely failed to pull off a stupid stunt that she attempted; even if it meant dragging her bloody limbs back for Cerridwen or Cathmor to tend. Nessa could already knock the air out of Balfour with a punch. She could hurl a spear or an axe and when one of the fourteeners while sparring called her a sow in heat she cracked him over the skull with her wooden sword so hard it snapped like a twig under a heavy snow.

Each one warmed Balfour’s guts like a good mead. They were hard kids like only Clan Brus could grow, but noble ones. They would learn to love the land, to love their people, and they would fight with the ferocity of starving wolves against whatever threatened the safety of the Northern clans. He had no doubt he’d be proud of who they became. His only doubt came from something Cathmor had whispered to him at the festivities of Samhain.

“The way is closing. They will open it again, or they will be the last.”

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