Thursday, March 24, 2016

Story: "Duinn"

A willow tree stood near the ford. Its branches shrouded a boy from the grey fungus-light. He lay there, tartan sopping with blood. The wound was mortal. An arrow to the gut killed men as it killed deer—slow but certain. But while he lived, the ford belonged to clan Drugaine. Drugaine, last of the high clans. Long may it last through the lightless years. The barrow-folk could not prevail while Drugaine stood.

In the half-light of morning, a barrow-folk raiding party attempted to ford. Clan Drugaine drove them back. Crows stooping upon worms. Last night, he was a cowherd. This night, a corpse. But for an hour in the bleak spring, he felt the glory of the old days before the pall: The cattle-raids, the great battles, the clan-feuds. Petty rivalries which blinked out with the first star. Now the sun shone like the moon, and the moon like a ghost’s dream.

A dream it had seemed when the arrow pierced. Barrow-folk tipped their arrows with black stone to trap and enslave the souls of their foes. One so killed could not pass on, to bless Duinn and walk into the shadows. So it was said.

His comrades left him, for he could not walk. Until death he would guard the ford. Roaming barrow-folk might skulk out in a battle's wake and creep along behind the retreating defenders, wrapping dirty paws around unwary throats. Already he heard corpse-eaters glibbering across the ford. Some quality of the monstrous near-speech brought to mind his infant brother, still learning to toddle. Would the child remember rides on a great dun cow? Fresh milk when mother wasn't looking? Or would those times fade into the deep shadows cast by a dying sun?

Sun. The cowherd had no son. Even for this harsh age, he was too young. Though he'd kissed the smith's daughter once... Twelve mornings ago as he left for ford-watch, she clasped his hand in parting. A gift she gave him, and he examined it now with a detachment which grew stronger each minute.

The smith's daughter's gift lacked any forge-craft. Her gift, little more than a sharpened length of iron, formed a weapon not meant for any foe. A message, more than anything: Come back alive, not as a fiend in the night. He’d hoped to return as a man, blooded in battle.

Not for the first time, but for the last, he wondered what purpose their fighting held. Year by year, inch by inch, the barrow-folk waxed stronger. Their loathsome kind drew vigor from the endless twilight of grey fungus glow, even while clans withered for lack of the sun.

Soon enough Clan Drugaine, and what other clans remained, would fade out of the world. Their path followed the Tuatha De Danann, vanishing into the mounds and raths. Perhaps the barrow-folk descended from the Danann.

The boy did not know. He heard the barrow-folk again. On his side of the ford now. He cried out in a great voice, “Never let it be said that Clan Drugaine’s hospitality faltered! Will you not come and eat?”

The barrow-folk came to the table, but they found it not to their liking. When Drugaine men came again to the ford, they found the boy, dead in the midst of the slain. Around his head was the hero-light, which may never be seen again.