His tasks completed, Gwri now is only left to face his dead and those upon who he would seek their revenge.
omething felt wrong. Gwri sensed it before he stepped onto the plateau where Fin’s home stood. A silence greater than the norm, even here where birds rarely roosted. Even the stable appeared empty. Again he wished for a sword or spear in hand as he carefully crept forward to look inside. He saw no horses, nor did it appear to have recently housed any within.
From the stable, he made for the hut, finding it empty. Though not unusual, Gwri suspected something was not right and searched for a weapon. However, the wall against which Fin leaned his spears was bare. He exchanged his basket for a knife from the table, good for little more than cutting bread or cheese, before he stepped through the blanket covered opening. As he crept downwards to the forge he hoped to hear the sounds of Fin working. Yet no noise rose to greet him, for it too was empty.
Nobody was there.
Not the smith, nor any of Gwri’s three friends. He did not even see the reeds upon which they had slept the long sleep of the fae. But why? What mischief were the Goban Saor and his minion up to now? What had they done to his friends?
With no clues as to the men’s whereabouts in the forge, Gwri returned above ground. Unlike moments earlier, this time he noticed the contents of the room not just the lack of occupants. It seemed different. Though everything appeared in place, with nothing new, it somehow felt more lived in. While pondering this mystery, a flash of green at the corner of his eye drew his attention. There, upon the pallet that he had claimed as his own, lay the green dress that once belonged to Queen Donella. Beside it lay the golden belt and white shift, all ready for someone to don.
In that moment all mystery disappeared. Gwri remembered the terms of his punishment meant he would serve Donn until Bealtaine. And during Bealtaine he long had expected to masquerade as the day’s fairest queen, bait to draw the attention of Brarn. Hopefully to be taken by him and when alone, utilizing surprise and relying upon the chink in the armour offered by the geis Morrigu had placed upon Brarn, claim revenge for all of the reaver’s victims. But a Bealtaine queen could not exist by herself, so Gwri had ventured to Tech Duinn. She also needed her village, so while Gwri sought its inhabitants, Fin’s assignment required him to build a village in which they would wait for the crew of the Díoltas. Doubtlessly, the others were drafted to complete the building in time for Gwri’s return.
Had he finally reached the end?
It never had seemed impossible that he would even get this far, yet chance and fortune had led him to a point unreachable if he relied only upon skill and forethought. Still with all he had experienced, he had only reached the end of the preparation. Now was the time to determine if those preparations had been wasted, to see if he succeeded, and if that lead to happiness? Clearing away those thoughts, Gwri remembered his lessons of Tech Duinn. Too easily could the importance of now shrink when compared to the past that lurked in one’s mind or the future that beckoned one into the murky unknown.
Taking off his trousers and tunic of a better quality and fit than those he had worn when caught by the Dark One, he changed into the green dress, wrapping the golden belt about his small waist. He found the comb from his first adventure, removed the butterflies, and brushed his long honey coloured hair until it gleamed. Finished, he swept the hair out of his face and pinned the strands into place with the ornaments, ensuring they would not snag if given the chance to use them for their intended purpose. All of this he did without thought, for Gwri had not only learned to live in the now while serving as a Maiden of the Phoenix, in time he adopted the habits and learned the mannerisms that made him a match for any. With this had come acceptance, even pride of his place amongst the other beauties. As a result, his being had been molded to better match the molding of his form.
Ready for his performance, Gwri waited outside for the arrival of Fin or Con or either of the brothers. But none of them appeared, causing him to wonder if he had misread the purpose of the clothing upon the pallet. As the sun set, he spotted flames in the distance and realized that the fires of Bealtaine waited. Collecting his basket of souls from inside he set foot, one final time, upon the trail that had guided his steps for so long, an eager readiness infusing his thoughts. His pace quickened as he neared the fires and saw a figure highlighted by the flames.
The smith turned at the call, staring in shock. No less than Gwri’s own. Despite the grey in his hair, Fin always seemed to have an ageless quality about him. A solidness that placed the smith in the prime of his life. No more was this the case. Grey hair had turned to white, sturdy muscles had shrunk, and a straight back had bent.
“Gwri, is it really you? I had almost lost hope. You were gone so long.”
As the awful truth, behind the strange flow of time on the Island of the Dead, filled his thoughts, Gwri asked, “How long have I been gone?”
“I don’t know. Years? You left so long ago. What happened to you? We thought you had failed.”
“I was at Tech Duinn, serving Donn. It did not seem to be years to me? But you said we, where are the others; Con, Tanguy, and Sloan?”
“They’ve been gone for years as well. When last you left, the Goban Saor came and awoke them. Lucky for me, because they directed their wrath at him rather than me. He told them that they needed to help me build a village for your return. We did, over there.”
Looking out into the darkness at which Fin pointed, Gwri saw nothing. Instead he asked, “Will they be joining us?”
“When you did not come that first year, they returned to your village. For a time, at each Bealtaine, they would appear. Then one year, only the brothers came, saying Con was too sick to travel. But they never believed, they didn’t need to believe. Since then I have conducted these vigils alone.”
Gwri took a moment to understand what Fin did not say. His head lowered, his gaze going to the interior of the basket, as he wondered who he had claimed.
“Did you succeed?” Fin asked, a hint of excitement entering his voice, warring with the confusion of moment’s past.
The question served as a welcome distraction. It gave Gwri a chance to ignore his building grief, to focus on another that had never grown stale. So he reached into the basket for the pouch Donn had offered as his final act and held it out to the smith. Barely able to see the hopeful look on the man’s face, because of his own building tears, Gwri said, “I succeeded.”
Fin stared at the pouch, wondering if it truly held the long sought answer to the demon’s that almost drove him mad. Looking from it to Gwri, seeing a nod of a lovely head, he slowly reached out, gently taking the pouch, and holding it to his chest. Yet though his heart demanded he look inside, he did not. He waited.
“Go, Fin. We each have our own past we need to face. Better to do it on our own.”
No more words did the share, though Gwri watched the smith’s back until it disappeared up the trail. He momentarily wondered what the man would learn, but his own past beckoned. Again he reached into the basket, his hand unerringly finding the egg that marked his freedom from Tech Duinn. Cupping it in a hand he hesitated, then with a deep breath Gwri tossed it into the fire at his right.
It never landed. As the egg flew, the fire`s flames reached out in caress. The shell glowed, cracked, and burst. Allowing the smoke inside to roll out and dance with that from the Bealtaine fire. And when the smoke from the fire of life coupled with that of death, the two birthed a ghostly figure who quickly became real.
Sloan landed on the far side of the fire, almost as if he had just completed a jump made many times during Bealtaine festivals. Hale, younger than when he had journeyed from Mullinglas, though not the youth who had escaped Brarn’s net, he turned a smile unlike his normal glower towards Gwri. Who in turn found himself smiling back and reaching for more eggs. One went into the left fire, then into the right, again to the left, and finally to the right. Beside Sloan now stood Tanguy and Nareene and Con and his grandmother, Keelin.
Though more eggs remained, Gwri stopped. Their time would come, but these five were his own, while the rest were theirs. He needed his moment, which started when Keelin wrapped her arms around him and allowed him to cry on her shoulder.
oo long had he been alone. Even when with others, be it Fin or Ann or Aife or any of Donn’s court, he had not been with those he loved and who loved him in turn. And though his heart threatened to break, because after this night that would never again be possible, Gwri smiled. He laughed at the jokes of the ghosts with whom he celebrated Bealtaine Eve, he joined in their songs, he blushed at praises to his beauty, and accepted offers of dance from those who gave the praise. And in moments of silence, he sat with friends and shared. He met his mother, he met his father, and when he saw how much they loved each other he took little of the time they would share with the other.
Yet in that time together he learned if he had been born a girl, they would have named him Oriana. In that moment he was reborn. Always he would be Gwri, but now he accepted, just as all his loved ones seemed to accept, that he was no longer only Gwri. An acceptance born from their knowledge about the journey he had traveled, even though he did not speak of it.
In truth, it was Oriana that left the burnt out fires in the morning with the villagers on the trip towards the buildings that would temporarily be their home. It was Oriana who walked beside Berta, each with an arm around the other’s waist. It was Oriana’s head upon which Kentigem placed a crown he had weaved from spring flowers. And it was Oriana who waited in the village centre, with five other lovely maidens, all the others surrounding them in a protective cocoon that everybody expected to soon be sundered.
It was Gwri who saw six strangers appear in the distance, walking unhurriedly forward.
As they approached, he studied them. Each was larger than the largest man he had ever met, but none moved with his awkwardness. They owned a grace that made a mockery of his own deadly dance with Aife at Leitergort and they knew it. Their handsome faces showed uncaring confidence, as if what they approached a herd of cattle meant for slaughter. Nor did the waiting villagers, each holding a weapon found within the otherwise empty huts, give them pause.
Parley was not part of Díoltas crew’s vocabulary. They took what they wanted, leaving death and destruction in their wake. Yet never had they fought the dead, who had nothing to lose and nothing to gain. Not caring about defense, the dead rushed forward to their doom, seeking with number to pull down one of the reavers. At first the six were stunned by a ferocious counter-attack and soon each bled from a cuts; however, their skill, forged during many battles, and their fearsome weapons proved the difference. Villagers collapsed to the ground, meeting their deaths in the same manner as years before, until only Tanguy and Sloan remained. Soon they too dropped and the six moved forward to capture the six girls.
Hands tied in front , the prisoners marched with their grim captors until they arrived at a shore that should not exist, a large boat pulled onto the beach. There they were lifted aboard, after which they dealt with their wounds before pushing Díoltas out into the seas, three taking hold of the oars to the right and three the oars to the left. With these they propelled their vessel over the calm seas.
Their silence is what Gwri noticed. No words were spoken, complaints uttered, or prideful boasts proclaimed. Barely did they look at each other or towards the captives. They seemed less lifelike than the girls with whom he was held captive.
At some point he slept and when he opened his eyes he saw dark skies overhead, stars flickering through clouds that floated out of sight. Still they silently rowed.
His next awakening came after the sun had returned to the sky. Rubbing sleep from his eyes, Gwri rose to look over the edge, drawing only a glance from one of the men. On the horizon he spotted a town, a blockish tower looming overhead, marked with numerous piers thrust out into the water, the largest of which proved to be the Dioltas’ destination.
For the first time, the warriors appeared human, slumping in their seats in exhaustion. But only for a moment, as other people appeared with horses in tow, their posture and face turned again to stone. One one of their number tossed a rope to a man on the dock, who tied their boat in place, which allowed five to climb overboard. The largest remained and he turned towards the waiting captives. One at a time he scooped each them his arms, ignoring protests or squeaks of surprise, and pitched them upwards to be caught by the second largest of his brothers.
First to be so manhandled, Gwri’s face tried to hide his embarrassment at this treatment and the squeak he had allowed to escape. Set upon his feet, he watched his crown, fallen from his head to the bottom of the boat, get crushed beneath the sole of the man’s boot as he finished unloading their prizes from the boat. Joining his brothers, all the reavers finally turned their attention upon the captives.
Almost Gwri wished they leered, like the men with the horses. Instead their eyes roamed over curvaceous forms and beautiful faces in appraisal little different than a trader looking over a potential purchase.
In that moment a horrifying thought entered his mind. What if Brarn did not choose him? To have come so far and not be given a chance to succeed would be worse than having died before he reached this point. So he too studied the men, remembering the story of their naming and trying to determine who was Brarn. Maccus and Calum, the largest and the smallest, were the first he recognized. Then Fiacre and Dewain, the fairest and the darkest. But the two who remained could have blood brothers, rather than only in spirit. Brarn and Brasil, who was who?
Gwri held his breath as one of those two stepped forward and clutched the red haired girl by her upper arm. However, before disappointment could overwhelm he saw the war hammer, strapped to the man’s back, stretching above his head. Four more time he chanced failure until he nearly slumped in relief when the last man, Brarn, stepped forward, took his arm, and led him towards the horses.
With a heave the warrior settled Gwri atop the horse, before climbing behind his prize. Taking reins in one hand, he wrapped the other arm around his Gwri’s waist and held his captive against his chest. He must have felt the tremor this induced, for in a deep voice, he said, “Worry not, Pretty Lady, I am not always a monster.”
No answer formed in Gwri’s mind, so he said nothing. Nor did Brarn speak again before they arrived at the tower.
The tower matched what Gwri had expected of Tech Duinn. Built of dark stone, it perched above the village like a watching crow, an iron clad door of barring entry to anyone who Morrigu’s son wished to keep out. Through this door twelve entered, conquerors and captives, the other men having returned to the village. Dark and foreboding though the outside had appeared, the interior offered little more comfort. They found themselves in a square room meant for cooking, with a blocky table in the middle, a large fireplace, currently unlit, on the far wall, and foodstuff stored along the right wall.
But this room served not as their destination. Brarn, with Gwri in tow, led the five other couples to the bottom of a set of stairs, winding upwards, back and forth, against the wall to the left. Ugly and plain, the climb held nothing of the majesty imbued within the Tower of the Phoenix. But like that tower, the climb passed a number of landings, each holding a door into a single room. Stopped before each, the reavers would clench forearm to forearm with one of their companions, before he would open the door and step through with his bride, allowing the others to continue their climb. First Brasil, then Calum, then Dewain, then Fiacre, and finally Maccus. Only Brarn and Gwri climbed the last flight to find a last landing, entered the last door, and barred it from inside.
The room, slightly smaller than that at the bottom of the tower, proved sparsely furnished, which meant Gwri’s attention was immediately drawn to the bed. But Brarn did not move towards it as he removed his axe from his back and leaned it against the wall, before he sat in the lone chair and gazed at the figure in the green dress. Under this attention Gwri failed to keep himself from fidgeting. This brought something approaching a smile to the man’s face, who twirled his finger. Gwri glared in response, but spun in a slow circle.
As he turned, Gwri found himself wondering how to perform his assassination. Though slumped in the chair, the reaver still had a watchfulness in his eyes and the axe was within easy reach. Nor could Gwri do anything with his wrists still tied together. That he needed to rectify before anything else.
“Will you undo my hands, Lord?”
As Gwri approached, Brarn pulled a knife from his belt and looked at his captive’s outstretched hands. “And what will you offer in exchange for this favour, Pretty Lady?”
“I, I have nothing.”
“That is my price in exchange for freeing from your bindings.”
“I doubt it would fit you, Lord?”
Brarn did not react to this quip, he only arched a questioning brow. And as much as Gwri disliked where the offer implied to lead, it was a price he knew he must pay. He nodded his agreement. Taking both of Gwri’s hands in one his own, Brarn slid the blade between each slender wrist and leather thong, to release him. Gwri took a moment to rub his wrists, even though the bindings had left no marks, attempting to build his courage. Not until he saw the humour vacate Brarn’s eyes did he slowly removed his dress, left to stand only in his shift.
Immediately a flush came over the reaver’s face, his gaze leaving his captive’s face to hungrily stare at Gwri’s full breasts, now barely disguised by the thin material of the shift. With a voice more threatening than before, he said, “And the shift, that too.”
The time was now. Gwri found the ribbon at his neck, unknotted it, then pulled the opening wide to display creamy shoulders. Watching a bead of sweat form on the man’s forehead, he steeled his own nerves, and let go. With practiced speed, his hands reached for the combs that decorated his hair. However, he was not quick enough.
With a roar of anger, Brarn exploded from his seat and scooped up his axe to shout. “What foul trickery is this?”
Gwri was not given a chance to answer before that wicked axe hissed through the air to strike at a slender neck. No chance to dodge, yet he did not feel its slash, did not know if he lived or died. So as he watched Brarn wrench around due to the violence of the swing, he felt the wing points of the butterflies bite into his palms. And though Brarn stared for a time at the shards of metal that clanked to the stone floor, when he turned to gape at his expected victim, he saw Gwri waited. Quick as an adder, Gwri struck with his right hand and then with the left hand. Brarn dropped the handle of his axe, to join shards that remained of its shattered head, and clasped hands to sightless eyes as he howled his agony.
Yet it awoke no sympathy within Gwri`s heart. Dropping the dripping hair pins, he reached for the knife that had recently granted him freedom. With it, in turn, he granted Brarn freedom from his geis.
Revenge had been struck.
In wonder, Gwri reached to feel the delicate torc that had apparently saved his life. It had proved the only armour he needed.
His wonder proved short lived, for from the other side of the door came the sound of shouting and a hammer’s thunk against the thick wood. Victory would be short lived. As he accepted that trickery and chance would not save him this time, Gwri clothed himself and waited for Brarn`s brothers to break through the door.
An axe’s blade cut made the first hole, but then a great hammer widened it to allow faces to look through. Faces that grew angrier as they saw their leader dead upon the ground, his own dagger plunged into his chest. Yet just when it seemed the door could only withstand a few more strikes, a voice from behind them said, “What are we going to do? Kill her? Me, I’m glad he’s dead.”
“How can you say that, Brasil. He was our leader, our brother.”
“And his geis held us captive. No more. No longer must we follow the reaver’s road. Have we not already punished those who once held us in chains? Now the only chains that bind are of our own making?”
“But Morrigu, our mother, she...”
“Bah, Morrigu is no more our mother than an archer is to his arrow. She fired us at her target and forgot we existed. I no longer will be her arrow.”
Brasil’s words rang truly amongst his brothers. All of whom were tired of death, of each other, of life. As individuals, they turned from the damaged door and descended the stairs. Some stopped in their rooms, empty now that their newest brides had returned to Donn’s realm, to sleep or to be alone. Other continued to the bottom, out into the village, where waited a prior bride he had always loved.
itting cross-legged upon the bed, Gwri decided success felt empty. Too much of himself had he given for revenge that did not matter. It did not bring his parent`s back life, nor had his Grandmother lived to see it, instead they had only lost all their time together. And he had lost himself.
Who was he now? No longer was he Gwri, but neither could he be Oriana, for he did not know her.
What would he do? He had given up his past in the pursuit of this meaningless vengeance. And without a past, how could he make a future?
He found himself wondering if it would have been better to fail. To have convinced him to step over the edge of the cliff, to have not let what no longer existed stop his plunge.
It was from this contemplation that the sound of knocking distracted him. Expecting the return of one of Brarn’s brothers, Gwri was surprised to see the face of a handsome young man through the hole in the door, mischievous eyes twinkling at what he saw.
“Want to let me in?”
Gwri did not know whether to scream or to yank the knife from Brarn’s chest and attack the new arrival. But he felt too tired for either act, instead he stood and unbarred the door.
“I’m surprised that everything actually worked?” the Goban Saor said, as he entered.
“You thought I would fail?”
“Well you have to admit that it was rather an intricate plan, with many points where failure seemed natural. But I’m honest and vain enough to admit that I do incredibly good work. Besides you definitely held up your end of the heavy lifting.”
“Why the revenge? Or why you?”
“As to the first, well I can now admit my reasons are rather petty. See I built this tower for Brarn, but instead of the two hundred barrels of ale and one hundred cows he was to pay for my work, he only gave me one hundred and seventy five barrels and ninety cows. Looking about now, I likely didn’t even deserve that much. It’s rather a grim place.”
“You mean to say that you prepared all this and made me endure your insanity, all for a few barrels of ale and some cows?”
“I was younger when it happened. My pride had been stung and I wanted revenge. But somewhere along the way my revenged changed into this amazing project with a life of its own. It challenged me like nothing else before.”
Flopping onto the bed, Gwri covered his eyes with an arm, and asked, “And why me?”
“Well that’s your fault.”
“What!” Gwri shouted, snapping upright into a seated position.
Nodding his head, the Goban Saor said, “Yes, it was you who sought out some faerie to help you decide what to do with your life. Well that’s me.”
“You thought I wanted to be turned into a female vengeance seeker?”
“Don’t be silly, that was just part of becoming my apprentice.”
“Of course my apprentice. You`ve already proven your dedication to a task. There’s much I can teach and have friends who can teach you more. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“Look at me, do you think I wanted to look like this?”
“Of course not, change me back.” Gwri said in demand.
“I wouldn’t even know where to start. You wouldn’t believe how much thought and work I invested into your appearance, though I have to admit, seeing you, that it was well worth effort.”
“Although I do have an idea how to finish the job if you’re interested. That could our first project together.”
“Besides it would do me a world of good to have such a pretty companion.”
“I wouldn’t let me touch me, you lech.”
“I know.” the Goban Saor said, gesturing for Gwri to calm down. “But everybody will expect that you do. And if there’s one thing I`ve learned about women, it’s that they`re competitive. Surely some other lovely will try to still me away from you. Reluctantly, I will surely give in.”
The man’s grin seemed impregnable. All Gwri could do was to flop back onto the bed, recover his eyes, and mumble. “I don’t think I like you.”
“But that’s only because we’ve just met.”
If you liked this post, you can leave a comment and/or a kudo!
Click the Good Story! button above to leave the author a kudo:
And please, remember to comment, too! Thanks.