Morfyð’s Adventures in Ireland: The Hungry Abbot

The day started clear, and standing on the rocky shores of the Rhins of Galloway, Morfyð looked across the undulating Straits of Moyle to the gray and green shores of Ireland. She had hired a fisherman from the nearby village to ferry her across the Straits, but he balked at the job when he saw her crew. The bare-footed Saint Peter wasn’t an issue, and the fisherman has seen enough severed heads in his time to ignore the one hanging from Morfyð’s belt, but the 700-pound boar presented a challenge. The boat was a large currach, a wooden-framed boat covered in stretched hides, and while it might hold the beast’s weight, it’s fragile fabric would shred under its hooves.

“I’ll swim along side the craft,” Tusker said, but Morfyð denied his request, saying that even he, as proud and as virile a member of the animal kingdom as he was would surely drown from the 20-mile swim. The boar reluctantly agreed to have his hooves and tusks bound in multiple folds of cloth so to not puncture the vessel’s membranous skin. The fisherman wanted to bind Tusker’s mouth as well, so his sharp teeth wouldn’t accidentally slash the boat’s sides. Morfyð said that Tusker did not need to be gagged and that covering his feet and tusks was enough. It was a cramped voyage; Tusker took up more room than initially thought and Saint Peter was forced to sit on the boar’s shoulders.

Halfway through the ride the sky turned angry and the waves choppy. Saint Peter said he’d seen worse, and the fisherman suggested jettisoning the boar, but Morfyð told them both to shut their holes. With her witch-sight she saw the angry air spirit named Aoife shooting through the black clouds above, grinding her teeth and churning the waves with her baleful stare. Long ago Aoife had tried to kill her nieces and nephews, the four children of Lir, but losing her nerve changed them instead into swans. Bodb Derg, her brother and the king of the island’s faeries, changed his malicious sister into an air demon and cursed her to forever haunt the Straits of Molye.

“Do not pester us, Aoife sister of Bodb. I am Morfyð, the Witch of Erechwydd. I am powerful and stronger than you.”

“You are small and insignificant, a leaf on the whirlpool of time, and you are nothing to me!” the spirit said.

Morfyð scooped some white funerary paint from a small pouch tied to her belt and lathered her face and hair with it, a necessity for her spell casting. Intoning harsh syllables and making nigromantic gestures, she started to grow, and withing a few seconds was twice, thrice, four-times her size. As she continued enlarging she stepped out of the boat and into the sea, and kept growing until the Straits were only waist-deep on her giant form.

“I am no leaf, Spirit Aoife. I am terrible and shall eat you and in the morning pass you like a fart.” Morfyð took a swipe at the air spirit, who frantically dodged the attack. Cursing and swearing, promising eternal sorrow and revenge, Aoife took to the horizon, dragging the dark clouds and steep waves with her. Morfyð returned to her regular size and climbed back in the boat. The fisherman and the saint thanked her profusely. Tusker was less enthusiastic.

“If you could do that to start with, why didn’t you just walk across the sea and carry us?”

“Maybe we should have gagged you,” said Morfyð.

As the sun neared the western horizon, the boat slid against the gray shingle of the Irish coast. Morfyð offered to let the fisherman stay and spend the night at their campsite, but the man courteously excused himself and returned to the sea. Saint Peter worried that he’d lose his way on the journey home.

“Don’t fret about him,” said Tusker. “He is likely a pirate as well as a fisherman, and can find his way home in the dark as easily as a serpent returns to its lair.”

“There aren’t any snakes in Ireland,” said Saint Peter.

“There are plenty of pirates, though,” said Morfyð. “So lets make camp away from the shore.” They found a suitable spot on a nearby grassy hill and spent the night. In the morning they asked the head of the druid Gwogan which way they should go.

“We’re likely south of the Dál Riata, the kingdom north of Rheged that spans both sides of the Straits of Moyle. We’ll need to go north,” said Gwogan.

“Should we walk along the coast or travel inland first?” asked Morfyð.

“Dangerous either way. Any clansmen we meet will treat us as their enemy, as will the Dál Riata.”

“You have a plan, of course.” Tusker said. “You are not simply walking north and hoping to bump into a friendly Irishman.” Morfyð turned and walked north along the beach, taking Gwogan by the hair and securing the druid’s head to her belt. Saint Peter followed.

“I see that is exactly your plan,” said Tusker, bringing up the rear.

The coast proved too difficult to traverse, and the group headed into the countryside, following a rocky stream bed before heading in a mostly northern direction. Cautious of war parties, they found only shepherds tending grass-fat sheep. Saint Peter opted to keep walking – “We’ll find our way” – but Morfyð made the group stop and ask for directions. As the sun set on their second day, Morfyð led the group to settlement, a monastery surrounded by a wooden palisade wall. Similar to many such settlements found in Rheged, the difference was a tall, slender stone tower rising from the compound’s center. Used as a secure shelter from raiders and a lookout post, the monastic brothers on top of the tower saw Morfyð’s group long before they reached the gate and provided a small welcoming party for the witch and her entourage. She was warmly received and systematically shuffled off to the abbot, who met them next to the hen house.

Father Finbarr was a large, soft man with a double chin and small, half-lidded eyes. As he scattered stale bread and kitchen scraps to the chickens, he asked his guests their business and how he cold assist them.

“We are looking for the Ollamh Érenn, the chief druid of Ireland. We have a request for him,” said Morfyð.

“Why do you think an abbot would know where a heathen druid would be?”

“He tells me that the priests and heathens get along fine on this island,” Morfyð said, thumbing her fist at Saint Peter.

“Better than most,” said Father Finbarr. “Who is your friend?”

“I’m Saint Peter,” said Saint Peter. “Good friends with your man Saint Patrick, I might add.”

“Bless me,” Father Finbarr genuflected, spilling his load of scraps and delighting his chickens. Saint Peter bent and helped the abbot back to his feet. The flock squawked and flittered off to a safe distance.

“Please, no need for all that. I’m delighted to visit.”

“The Ollamh Érenn,” pressed Morfyð.

“Of course, honored guests,” said Father Finbarr. “The chief druid of the Ulaid is Donn Dónall, and he lives in a thatched hut on an island in the middle of Lough Beg. Please, spend the night with us, and in the morning one of the brothers will lead you to the lough.”

“We accept your hospitality,” Morfyð said. The three (with the head of Gwogan) were led to a small cottage where they could rest and prepare themselves for dinner. Morfyð sat by the door and sharpened her spear, Kingkiller, while Tusker and Saint Peter sat on woven mats thrown on the dirt floor. Saint Peter poured water from a pitcher into bowl for Tusker.

“All seems well and good,” said Tusker between slurps.

“Dangerous place for a druid to live,” said Gwogan from under Morfyð’s cloak. She untied the head from her belt and set it next to Saint Peter. “Lough Beg sits on the border between the Dál Riata and the Cenel Oeghain, and there is no love lost between the two tribes.”

“He’s the druid of the Ulaid, the abbot said,” said Tusker. “Who are they?”

“A collection of tribes who claim the same legendary descendent,” said Gwogan, “one of whom is not the Cenel Oeghain. Odd that Donn Dónall makes his home on the border of two warring tribes.”

“Wouldn’t be odd for Morfyð,” Tusker said.

After dark, a brother bearing a candle arrived and led the group to the abbot’s hut, the largest thatched roof building in the establishment. Inside it’s smoky confines sat a table heavy with food, surrounded by the monastery’s brothers and their wives and children. Father Finbarr sat at the head of the table, and on his right sat a visiting deacon from Gaul. A small group of warriors with spears stood in the back of the room, partially obscured by the smoke. Morfyð and Saint Peter were led to the abbot’s left, but Tusker was refused entrance and had to wait outside. Having seen the piles of smoked bacon and roasted pork on the table, Tusker was happy to sit out the dinner.

Introductions were made. The deacon was named Bolgios and had been staying at the monastery since last winter, having decided to extend his visit after meeting Finbarr’s sister. He and Saint Peter chatted about the monasteries in Gaul and the decline of efficient administration now that the Roman Empire has withdrawn to the east. Morfyð ate sparingly, taking only a small portion of roasted beef and a single cup of beer. Father Finbarr ate like it was his last meal, hunkering over his silver plate like a warlord huddled over a map of his kingdom and devouring fistfuls of butter, ropes of linked sausages, and stacks of salted bacon. After an hour of feasting, with no apparent end in sight, Morfyð asked Finbarr why his druid lived between his people and their enemy.

“He’s not my druid,” Finbarr said, barely lifting his face from his plate. “Your heathen ways are strange to me and I don’t pretend to understand them.”

“I hear that Lough Beg is dangerous and the journey there hazardous.”

“Who told you the way was dangerous?” Finbarr paused eating, but with a moment’s thought waved his hand and dismissed the question. “It might be dangerous, depending on what the headmen of the Dál Riata are up to at the moment. Regardless of their machinations, it would be ungodly of me to send you there unaccompanied.” He motioned to the warriors in the back of the room, and the foremost stepped forward into the light. “These six will lead you. They know the area and have agreed to the task.”

“And return us.”

“Huh?”

“And return us here so that we may find our way to the shore and back to Rheged,” said Morfyð.

“Of course,” said Finbarr and buried himself back in his meal.

Later, after excusing herself and her saint and collecting her boar, Morfyð lay on her straw pallet in the hut provided by the monks. Saint Peter was instantly asleep, snoring away without a care, and Tusker was curled in a ball, his breathing like the steady grumble of a bellows. The witch chewed her thoughts and spent more of the night ruminating than slumbering.

In the morning she met the group of warriors who would lead her north. Six young men, barely more than boys, with willow-thin arms and cracking voices. They left before the abbot awoke and walked through the gray morning, the threat of a steady drizzle hovering above them. At lunchtime they stopped on a hilly overlook rising before a marshy bog.

“Do we have to cross that?” asked Morfyð.

“Yes,” the lead warrior replied, not looking at her. Rather than waiting, he motioned the group forward and continued toward the bog. His followers hurried after and Saint Peter did the best he could to keep up. Tusker drew abreast of Morfyð.

“He’s afraid of you.”

“Not surprising,” Morfyð said. “He’s but a boy.”

“The abbot certainly didn’t spare any experienced guides, did he.”

“I don’t think they are Dál Riata,” Gwogan said.

“Why not?” said Morfyð, and at the same time Tusker asked, “So what?”

“They don’t seem part of the monastery. They stood aloof. Didn’t interact with people. How were they at the feast?”

“Removed,” said Morfyð. “Stayed in the shadows until called.”

“Something is not right,” Gwogan said. “It’s an odd place for a druid to live and this is an odd entourage to lead us.”

“What should we do?” asked Tusker.

“Easy enough,” said Morfyð. She hurried past the group of warriors to its leader, grabbed his arm and spun him to face her. “Where are you taking us?”

The young man yanked his shoulder free from her grasp. “To Lough Beg, as Father Finbarr asked.” The other warriors formed a wide circle around Morfyð.

“Does the druid live at the lake?”

The man looked nervously at his companions. “We are doing as Father Finbarr asked us.”

Morfyð thrust her spear into the air and said, “I am the witch of Erechwydd! Power and might is mine!” Dark clouds rushed from the horizon and knotted above her head, like black rats scurrying to mob a corpse. She pointed her spear at the leader. “Do you take us to Donn Dónall?”

“We do as asked by Father Finbarr!” the man said. Morfyð screeched a guttural word of power and an arc of lightning sprang from Kingkiller and exploded in the man’s chest, throwing his body several feet backwards. As the stench of burnt flesh slapped the air, she turned to the next nearest warrior and repeated her question: “Do you take us to the druid?”

The warrior leveled his spear and screamed an angry war cry, but before he could move Morfyð hurled a second lightning bolt at him and destroyed him. Tusker sprang forward and gored a warrior from behind, laying open his back and exposing his spine. A forth warrior stood paralyzed in fright, a fifth fled, but the last warrior hopped forward and thrust at Morfyð, missing her as she dodged but snagging his spear in her cloak of raven feathers. Dropping to a crouch Morfyð stabbed up into the warrior’s belly, slamming Kingkiller through his torso. A whisper of surprise escaped his lips as he sank to his knees. Morfyð savagely ripped her spear from his stomach and he fell over on his side. Tusker chased down and mauled the fleeing warrior. Morfyð turned to the remaining warrior, who stood frozen.

“Do you take us to Donn Dónall?”

He dropped his spear. “No. We were instructed to lose you at the border, hopefully in front of a Cenel Oeghain raiding party.”

“Why?”

“We hoped to join his tribe. We were banished from the Dál nAraidi for thievery. Father Finbarr offered to accept us if we accomplished this task.”

“Do you know where the Ollamh Érenn is?”

“No, I do not.” Morfyð speared him in the throat. Tusker pulled the warrior he had slain back to the group and piled him on the others. Morfyð pulled her knife and began sawing away at a warrior’s neck. Saint Peter turned white.

“We have to give these men decent burials,” he said.

“You can do whatever you want with the bodies, once I’ve taken the heads,” said Morfyð.

“What do we do now?” asked Tusker.

“Return to Father Finbarr.”

“Swinging six heads on a string? I’m sure he’ll let us in the monastery.”

“We’ll get in and we’ll ask him where the druid is. He’ll tell us this time.”

“I doubt it,” said Saint Peter, “not with that demon hanging from his palate-knocker.”

“What?” asked Morfyð pausing in her trophy collecting.

“I said I doubt he’ll tell us the truth as long as he has a demon hanging from his pallet-knocker, his uvula,” the saint said.

Morfyð grabbed him by the collar and the saint winced. “How do you know he has a demon in his mouth?”

“I saw it during the feast, reaching out and snatching food from Finbarr’s plate.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this?”

“The Gwogan Head told me to keep my observations to myself. Not to bother you with details.”

Swinging from the witch’s belt by his hair, the head laughed. “What’s the matter, Morfyð?” said Gwogan. “Following the wrong track? Perhaps you are not as smart as you think you are.”

Morfyð untied Gwogan, swung him around her head by his hair and launched him into the bog. She turned on the saint and jabbed an angry finger in his face.

“We’re going back to that monastery. You are going to tell me how to get the demon out of the abbot. You are also going to tell me whenever you see anything suspicious, and you are going to ignore any advice you might get from that miserable druid. Now go find his head and we’ll get going.” Saint Peter trotted off after Gwogan, tears in his eyes from Morfyð’s reprimand. She returned to removing the slain warriors’ heads. Once done, she tied them together by their youthful hair and hung them on either side of Tusker’s neck.

“As if Finbarr won’t be happy enough to see us,” said Tusker, “this will certainly open his arms in a warm welcome.” Morfyð shrugged and climbed aboard the boar’s back. Saint Peter came rushing up, holding Gwogan’s wet and muddy head.

“You carry it,” said Morfyð. “You are so chummy with it.” Tusker took off at a brisk trot and Saint Peter hustled after him.

They timed their return so that they arrived at the gates right before supper time. Brushing aside the perfunctory guards, Morfyð led the group through the yard and into the abbot’s hut, where a feast had been set for Finbarr and his guest, Deacon Bolgios. The pair had just sat down at the table when Morfyð burst in. Both reacted poorly and tried to escape, but Saint Peter and Morfyð grabbed Finbarr by the arms and Tusker sat on the deacon. The saint and the witch dragged the abbot back to the table and forced him into his chair.

“Bring on the food,” said Morfyð to the servants, “All of it. Spare nothing. Not a drop of porridge, not a rasher of bacon, not a drip of beef grease. Bring it all!”

They complied, piling the boards high with sizzling roast pork, steaming broiled beef, and ham steaks cooked in garlic and cloves. Glazed onions, braised peasant, and slices of fried goose. Thick tubs of golden butter and deep bowls of honey-brown porridge and Morfyð crying, “More, More”, all the while firmly grasping Finbarr’s head and shoulders. Between her and the saint they barely held him still as he thrashed and thumped and pleaded for mercy.

“No more, I beg you, no more!”

Yet the pair did not cease, nor did the food stop coming, until the vast collection of pots and plates, serving dishes and bowls, and tankers of mead and ale threatened to collapse the table. Tusker thought its poor legs would burst into splinters before the job was done, when all at once, in the midst of Finbarr’s wildly swinging head, a thin black arm shot out from the abbot’s mouth and tried to grab a piece of bacon. Ready for the move, Morfyð grabbed the arm and yanked, and as Finbarr thrust himself away from the table, she pulled a small demon from his gullet and tossed it on the table.

It sat on its rump, naked as the day and black as the night, about six inches high if standing, with a goat head and backward-facing feet. It cast fast glances at the victuals before Morfyð grabbed it by its neck. Finbarr hugged Saint Peter, crying woefully and begging the saint’s forgiveness, while the deacon from Gaul quietly mewled for his release. Morfyð drew her knife.

“This will end this.”

“Wait mistress,” cried the demon, shifting to his knees. “Spare thy blade, we beseech thee. ‘Tis merely our humble profession to lead questioners astray. Hold no grudge that we sent you in the wrong direction!”

Morfyð hesitated. “Why shouldn’t I kill you?”

“Because we know what you seek, and we know where it is hid.”

“You can’t be seriously contemplating believing him,” said Tusker. “What stops him from lying twice, especially to save his scrawny ass?”

“We did not lie,” said the demon, inching toward the witch on his knees and wringing his black hands together as if in earnest prayer. “We merely encouraged the abbot’s more selfish decision to rid his kingdom of two foul birds at the same time, you and the unwelcome men of the Dál nAraide. We did not lie!”

“Demons lie all the time,” said Saint Peter, soothing the sobbing abbot, now sunk beneath the table. “They can’t help but lie. It is their nature. Why, one time in the deserts of Ethiopia . . . “

“No time for tales.” Said Morfyð. She kicked the abbot, who groaned. “Do you know where Donn Dónall is?”

“No, Witch of Erechwydd. The Ollamh Érenn travels. If he has a home, I don’t know it.”

“You don’t need him,” said the demon. He pointed to his chest. “We can help you find the cauldron.”

“What cauldron?” said Saint Peter.

“Help me,” groaned the deacon, “this beast must weigh 50 stones.”

“Shut it. All of you,” said Morfyð. “Demon, you will lead us to the cauldron. One false step and I’ll cut your tiny nuts off and feed them to my boar.”

“Don’t do me any favors,” said Tusker, and shifted his weight a little to antagonize the deacon.

“We leave immediately. Saint, fill a sack with some of this foot. Tusker, get off that idiot and don’t lose those heads. Demon . . .” she paused, “What is your name, demon?”

“We have many names, but in these lands we are called ‘Devon’.”

“Devon, I’ve a special place for you.” Grabbing him by the waist she pulled open her cloak and said, “Gwogan, open your mouth.”

“No way,” said the head, but as he pronounced the second syllable the witch rammed the demon in the druid’s mouth. He reflexively clamped it tightly shut.

“A fitting reward for your advice to our saint. Open your mouth and let that demon out and I’ll leave you sitting in the sun for a year.”

Gwogan mumbled a reply that was better off not heard anyway.

Looking around the room, satisfied, Morfyð said, “Let’s go.”

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Hen Ogledd

Ever since undergrad, when I stumbled across translations of the variously colored medieval Welsh books in the campus library, there is one place in time and space that has been firmly lodged in my imagination: Britain, between the departure of the Romans and the domination of the English. It’s partly because of the legendary aspects of the poetry and prose in the books. But mostly it’s because of the scantiness of the amount of historical information on this period, which leaves a lot of room for an imagination to fill in the blanks. There are also certain themes among the old texts that strike a particular resonance with me. Themes like the tragic loss of heroic lives and homelands to an outside force, like the avoidable doom of a golden age through human mistakes, and like the health benefits of bloodletting and urinalysis. Wait, not that last one. I am also intrigued by the genealogies – simple lists of names, in reverse order of birth. Sometimes a name among the lists crops up in a chronology or in a poem, usually in the context of a lost battle or a key victory, giving some insight into what that individual did with their life. Still, I wonder what were these people like and what actions did they take in response to the circumstances they found themselves in? What would I have done if I were in their place and had the same decisions to make?

These questions, along with the mythical aspects of Britain at that time, prompt me to think about setting an Ars saga there. The saga would be for the standard company of magi, companions and grogs. But it would take place before the founding of the Order, in 545 AD perhaps, and so there would be some tinkering with the canonical setting required. Firstly, no Order means no Oath and no Code. Players would have free reign to follow the moral inclinations of their magi. There could be some mild constraints on these inclinations, if when needed, imposed by a second group of mostly-friendly Gifted (druids probably, modeled as a mystery cult) and possibly a third (bards perhaps, in the form of a societate), along with a second modification to canon: no Parma, since it had not yet been invented, just Form resistances. A third change I would make is to do away with the covenant. How would I contrive for the PCs to be thrown together, in the same sinking boat? I would make them members of the same extended family. And instead of giving the players a covenant to run, I would give them a kingdom.

The particular family that I have in mind is that of Coel Hen, who ruled in the Hen Ogledd, or Old North of Britain, during the period when the Romans evacuated this region. As Dux Britanniarum, a military leader, he oversaw the highlighted regions in the map below. Both the map and the family tree are based on information available here. For a second opinion, there is another site here that gives a slightly different reconstruction. Kind of a nice coincidence for making the Coel family Gifted are the sobriquets that a few of them have. There is Cynfarch Oer (the cold or unwelcoming) and Gorust Lledlwm (the ragged), which sound like they could be understatements of the social side-effects of the Gift. Maybe Morgant Bwlc (thunderbolt) was an Auram specialist. And perhaps Mar Pendragon (chief dragon) had a focus in controlling magical animals. Coel’s descendants, following the Celtic custom of distributing a king’s land among his progeny, ruled over diminishing fractions of the original kingdom. The rulers of these fractions are listed in the family tree – I’ve left out the non-ruling descendants, so the family is really much larger and would give plenty of room for creativity in character generation. You want to be a Giant Blooded maga with a Diabolic Past, Palsied Hands and a Short Attention Span? Sure, no problem: Eliffer Gosgorddfawr (of the mighty/large retinue), your da, wedded a giantess from Wales, had you and your brother Peredyr Arueu Dur (steel arms), and then he shipped you off to be raised by your uncle Ceidyaw who makes deals with demons, and one of them gave you your afflictions. I would also give the players the choice of which kingdom to protect, from the assorted smaller kingdoms available in 545 AD. These kingdoms included Bernaccia, Ebrauc, Elmet, Dunoting, The Peak, North Rheged and South Rheged. The family also added Caer Guenddolew, Galwyddel, Gododdin, and Cynwidion to their holdings, as the opportunities to do so arose. But by about 620 AD, they’d lost all of them. Cynwidion is of particular note, since it survived well past the time when the Anglo-Saxons took over regions that are further west, effectively cutting off that kingdom from the rest of the Britons. How did they manage to keep the kingdom afloat? 

Coel

Enough about the protagonists for now. Who would the antagonists be? There are the Saxons and Angles of course. As auxiliaries to the mundane members, each group of invaders could have its own traditions of Germanic-themed rune slingers and shape changers. The chieftains would be interesting to flesh out – what where their motives for moving their people across the sea? Were they the obvious ones of greed and a love of brutality? Or were they more subtle, or even altruistic from their own perspective? Then there are the Picts and Dal Riadan Scots who also plagued the Britons in this time period, with raids and ambushes. Finally, and just as dangerous as these foreigners, other family members could become enemies of the PCs. As an historical example, the old Welsh chronicles relate that after an alliance between Urien of Rheged, Morgant Bulc, Gwallog of Elmet and Ridderch Hael of Alt Clut was so successful in fighting the Angles that they were all but driven from Britain, Morgant had Urien assassinated for fear of his growing power. Who needs invading barbarians when you have family members like this guy?

So, with usurpers from abroad and treachery at home, the Coel family has plenty to keep them busy. Will they be able to stave off the Anglo-Saxon take over? Or will the saga follow the paths described in the Welsh chronicles and result in the loss of all lands? That will be determined by the players and what inventive solutions they come up with. As a continuation to the saga, and provided that there are enough survivors after the invasion dust has settled, it might be fun to fast forward to the founding of the Order. Considering all that supposedly happened in the preceding 200 years, I imagine that tempers were still running hot between the Britons and the English in the mid-700s. Will this lingering hatred dictate the course of how the magi of Britain join the Order? How will the Coel family respond to Trianoma’s recruitment? Will they take the lead in joining the Order, or resist because English magi join first? And how does House Diedne come into the picture? More questions for which I would enjoy coming up with answers.

Map of the Order

Each Tribunal book has great maps to show where covenants are located, roughly. I was curious where these locations mapped out in the real world, and what the Order as a whole looks like, in 5th edition. So I made a google map that has markers for each covenant. To place these markers, I interpolated rough locations between cities noted on the Tribunal book maps, and when possible, used details in the Setting and Description section to find likely features in the landscape on which the particular covenant could be built.

Clicking on each marker brings up a caption that states the dominant House at that covenant and the year it was founded (and destroyed), if known.

Since this is a Diedne blog, the ruins of House Diedne covenants (green markers) are in their own category. White markers indicate ruins of non-Diedne covenants. White stars are places of note, though at the moment there are only two; more will appear in the future.

Hope you find it useful.

The Lament of Dubnoregos (Part II)

I set off to the south the next morning, for my host told me that the Diedne could be found on the continent. To get there, I eventually had to cross the sea. But before I looked for the Diedne, I wanted go to the former lands of my people, along the coast on the south-facing side of what I learned is now called Brittany. So my goal was to find a ship that would take me there, to see what I might find. I was afoot, and set out at a brisk pace. My excitement at the journey seemed at odds with the dull grey sky and the silent hills around me. I followed the road that led to Legeceaster, where I hoped I might find an undermanned ship that would take me aboard. I had no money to pay my way, and planned to offer my skilled sailing hands to work in return for my transport. At mid day, as I came to the top of a crest in the road, I looked back the way I’d come. A darkly-clad rider on a white horse rode toward me in the distance. I kept going as if I hadn’t seen anyone, but was wary about who might be coming. When the rider overtook me, I was surprised to see that it was my host. I was also surprised that he was riding a horse, for there was no stable near the turf hovel where he lived and his circumstances showed no signs of the wealth required to own a horse.

“Is that a stolen horse, Fintan?” I called to him.

“No lad, of course not,” he replied, approaching closer. He called me lad often , even though I was a grown man. To one so old, most others must seem young. Then he said, “Here, have one yourself,” followed by some odd combination of words. A boulder beside me grew four hoofed legs, a tail, and a horse’s head. Once the reshaping was complete, a grey coat of horse hair emerged from beneath the rough surface. I touched it and it felt real. But it gave the impression of being unnaturally perfect, much like Fintan did himself. I grabbed hold of the mane.

“I advise you to dismount before the sun sinks below the horizon,” said Fintan. “Or you’ll wind up with a sore bottom.”

This was the most blatant display of his magic that I had seen. Of any magic that I had seen for that matter. I remembered there were some druids who were supposed to be able to change into animals, but I never met one that did so. Once mounted, I thanked Fintan and he said he would be coming with me, that he had business on the continent. I asked what that business was, but he grew distracted and did not answer. We set off together.

When we reached Legeceaster a few evenings later, Fintan brought me through the crowded streets to a weaponsmith and bought me a sword. I tried to refuse, saying I had no money to repay him with. He told me not to worry about it, that I am a noble and should have something to indicate it. I didn’t argue with him, since he was right, and since I wanted the sword. It looked so well-made and the weight of it in my hand felt so right; I couldn’t put it down. I promised to pay him back when I was able to. I was now even more in his debt.

I found it interesting how people reacted to Fintan when he approached them. I had awakened in his hut, after my ordeal, and only after many months in his company had I grown accustomed to his demeanor, or at least able to ignore it. But the people in Legeceaster had never seen him before, I assume, and they shied from his regard and tried to escape interactions with him. Fintan was not frustrated by this rudeness, and he treated people with a cordial respect. All except for the portly Saxon who likely owned the first inn at which we stopped. When we stepped off the street, into the main room of the inn, he said something hostile that I did not understand. We stood there, growing used to the dim light, and he stepped out from behind his counter. Then he waddled toward us, shouting and threatening us with a cleaver he had grabbed. I fumbled at my new sword, trying to draw it from the unfamiliar scabbard, but Fintan used his magic and the man convulsed and dropped his weapon. Another spell and the cleaver crumpled. We left to avoid the stares and further confrontations. The man was still convulsing as I stepped outside.

“What was that about?” I asked Fintan, as we walked away quickly. “He seemed ready to strike at me, though I had done nothing.”

“That man is not accepting of those who are different.”

“Different how?”

Before he could answer, an alarming, sonorous tone began ringing.

“What is that?” I yelled over the din.

“It’s a church bell. At this time of day, the Christians are probably ringing it to announce that a worship will begin soon.”

“May we go and see what they worship? Will there be sacrifices?”

“It’s best if we don’t. The Church does not always look kindly upon us either.”

“What do you mean, us? Your tribe?”

“You’ll see, lad, you’ll see.” Another vague answer, and no subsequent elaboration. I was growing weary of it.

We found a different inn and stayed there. The next morning, we went to the harbor and found passage on a cog. Fintan paid again. I was discomfited, but what could I do? The ship left soon and the voyage to Brittany went smoothly, for the most part. There was a day of rough seas, but I enjoyed it, being back in my element. The ship’s cat gave me problems though. It clawed my face one night as I lay sleeping. I grabbed it by the neck and hurled it from my berth, and against a crate. The next night, it took its revenge by defecating on my boot. After that it stayed away, along with the sailors, who went out of their way to ignore us completely. It didn’t bother me though, since their language was unintelligible to me anyway. But my hands itched for the tiller and my gestured requests were not entertained. To be honest, I would have done the same if I our places were reversed. I hoped to have better luck on the next ship.

Our cog sailed to Vannes, which was where I lived, though it had a different name then. The town is also not far from where I died. Hardly able to sleep the night before we were to arrive, I was up long before daybreak, waiting to see the sights I had seen so often from the sea. When the sun finally rose, I faced the blinding brightness, trying make out the familiar landmarks of home. Slowly they emerged from the radiance, one by one. But sadly, as the sun climbed higher and revealed more detail, my recognition melted away. There were too many changes. My chest tightened and I turned away from the ship’s rail. I must have had an odd look on my face, because Fintan stepped closer and asked me what was wrong.

“It’s home, but then again it’s not,” I answered. “No matter how much I wish for it, I don’t belong here any more.”

“It’s okay, lad. You’ll make a new place for yourself in this world. And the next, if you do things right.” I didn’t respond, as I tried to parse his last comment. As usual, I couldn’t. Was he talking about the Otherworld? Also as usual, the conversation went dead when I asked him to clarify.

We disembarked and Fintan asked me to follow him, said he had something to show me outside of the town. Of course I went with him. I felt vulnerable at the time, being home but not home, and not understanding the words said by those around me. I began to realize how useless Latin was. As we left the town, I remarked on this to Fintan,

“Why did you teach me Latin when it seems that you and I are the only two who speak it? Clearly you know other languages that are more useful.”

“Oh, there are others who speak it. The Christian priests do, for example, or at least some of them; many just mimic its sounds in their sermons. Besides, you will soon find use for it.”

Again a vague answer that left more questions. Questions I knew wouldn’t be answered. I kept silent and decided that either Fintan was simply not a good conversationalist, or that he was having fun at my expense. Or maybe I ask too many questions.

As luck would have it, we encountered another speaker of Latin on the road, about a league from the town. We were heading southwest, in the direction of the Stones of Carnac. He rode a horse, heading in the opposite direction, and was wearing a shirt of mail with sword and shield at his side. He observed us intently as he approached and his dark eyes locked on mine for an insultingly-long time. Then he turned his horse so that it blocked our path, slipped on his shield, drew his sword and said, in Latin,

“You are clearly not from here. Where do you go and what is your purpose?”

Fintan said softly to me, “Be ready, lad. You must kill him, for he means to kill us if he can.”

He then called to the rider, “We go where we will and we do as we please. You hold no say over either.”

“Is that so?” he smirked. “My lord says otherwise. State your name.”

“I am Fintan, and no man is my lord. Now state your own.”

“I am Hugh de Pirou and I have heard of you, witch man.”

“You are far from your lands Hugh de Pirou. Best scamper back before you find more trouble than you can handle.”

“It is my duty to deal with trouble like you. By the decree of my lord and with this holy blade, I will put an end to your schemes!”

Hugh kicked his horse toward us. I drew my sword smoothly (I had practiced while aboard the ship) and stepped between Hugh and Fintan. I stopped and stood at apparent ease, sword held low at my side, as the horse trotted closer.

“You should know my name too, if you insist on fighting,” I shouted.

“It matters not, fool!”

I seethed at this response, letting the all-consuming anger flow from my chest into my arms and legs, making them strong and fast. The horse kept coming, as eager as its master for the fight. Hugh kept his shield in front of him, giving me no opening for attack, and raised his sword arm to strike down at me, his face contorted in an ugly grimace. Just as the horse was about to collide with me, I rolled to my left, leaving the sword trailing behind me to slice into its right foreleg. The horse reared up, with Hugh cursing and trying desperately to keep control. My roll had placed me beside the horse, clear of its flailing forelegs and in reach of its right hind leg. With a quick, hard chop, I cut the tendons of that leg, and the horse came down on its side. Hugh threw himself clear, to avoid having his leg pinned by the thrashing animal. I let him stand up. Then I shouted the war-cry that makes my enemies weak with fear and ran at him. So began a test of skill that would end only with death. Hugh was well-armed and good with the sword. But I was much faster. His slow swipes were either met by my blade or by the air I left behind. My first several strikes, stopped by his shield or chainmail, were just as ineffective. I began using two hands. My blows now shook him, and bit into the metal rings with bruising force, or left furrows behind in his shield. He redoubled his own attack, trying to push me off balance and then to skewer my gut with a lunge. But I was expecting this move, and it gave me an opening to bring down my blade hard on his forearm. Bone snapped and Hugh grunted. I looked him in the eye and saw the battle fury drain. Now only I had it. The joy of slaughter tore a scream from my throat as I battered aside his shield with one swing and took his life with another. My sword cut deep into his neck and warm blood sprayed over me. I smelled the iron of victory. Hugh fell to his knees and then onto his side. The fight was done.

Afterward, Fintan told me to kill the horse and then to retrieve the amulet that was around Hugh’s neck. I had no idea how he had seen it, but it was there sure enough, slick with blood. I finished cutting off Hugh’s head to make removing the amulet easier and then wiped both it and my sword clean with grass. The chain was made of gold, but the amulet itself was a worn silver coin. It was oddly warm to the touch and smelled foul, reminding me of the hot springs of Grannus in the lands of the Eburones. I told Fintan of the smell and he asked if I could bear it. I could, so he told me to keep the amulet, claiming he had a sensitive nose.

“Why did Hugh want to die so urgently? And where is Pirou?” I asked Fintan.

“Pirou is to the northeast, in Normandy. I think you would remember the area as the lands of the Venellii. That land is now ruled by Normans and Hugh was one of them. He was also a member of a powerful, well-connected order of warriors that rides the length of France, rooting out evil-doers. Once they find someone they deem evil, they kill them and then scurry back to their masters in the church, who absolve the murderers on behalf of the Christian god. Thus they pride themselves for being penitent, and call themselves the Ordo Cilicio, after the hairshirt worn by those who repent.”

I paused to take this information in, and to marvel at the amount provided. Fintan was feeling generous. So I kept asking questions.

“We are evil-doers then?”

“Their interpretation of evil is oversimplified and is often defined as people who prevent them from attaining what they desire.”

“It sounds to me that this order is a source of evil. Would you agree?”

“Some of them are evil, or can be. Others are merely swept up in the fame and glory that membership bestows. Yet others do not have the wits to think for themselves. Few, if any, question the motives of their leadership, who are extraordinarily influential. Even kings look to the Ordo Cilicio for guidance and support in their affairs, heaping riches upon it in return.”

“Why didn’t you use your magic to stop him, like you did the innkeeper?”

“That amulet protected him from the spells I cast. A miscalculation on my part. But your prowess made up for it. Well done, lad. Now, let’s get going.”

We left dead Hugh of the Hairshirts and his horse by the side of the road and kept walking.

Fintan led me to the bay. Approaching the shore, we found a two-oared boat placed hull up on a bed of rocks. The oars were underneath, along with a rather hefty stone anchor tied to a length of rope. I noted that the other end of the rope was not made fast to the boat, and resolved to remember this fact before throwing the stone into the water, if we needed it. The surf was low, so we had no troubles pushing out. I rowed and Fintan sat in the stern and told me what course to make. The clear afternoon was now giving way to a grey evening, with low, dark clouds streaming overhead. To the west, in the distance, I saw fog coming in. But where we were, there was hardly any wind at all, so the water was quite flat and mirrored the grey sky. I enjoyed the rowing. It was easy with no wind and no swell, and I focused on the rhythm and put my back into it, to skim us across the water.

“Dubnoregos,” said Fintan at one point, “Stop and take a look around.”

I did so. Westward, to my left I saw the open ocean, and that the fog was even closer now. Northward, behind Fintan, I saw that the beach we had launched from was surprisingly far away. A fire was now lit on the headland above it. Eastward, to my right and less than half a mile away, I saw cliffs. Cliffs, I remembered, that had been crowned with the red and metal of Rome’s legionaries, who cheered on their ship-borne comrades as they tore a Venetic fleet to pieces. And then I knew where we were. I looked over the edge of the boat, but couldn’t see very far below the surface of the dark water. Fintan had been waiting for me to make the connection.

“Now that you know where I’ve brought you, I give you a warning for what comes next: steel yourself and do what comes naturally.”

With that, the loose end of the anchor rope snaked around my ankles and formed a knot. Then I heard a splash behind me and the rope began playing out quickly. I looked up from the knot at Fintan, who tried desperately but unsuccessfully to suppress a giggle. I had time to say one word, “What,” and then I was pulled overboard and into the water, for the anchor had become astoundingly heavy. The stone pulled me down, toward the bottom of the bay. As I sank deeper into the gloomy water, I looked up at the surface and I knew I was in exactly the same place where I sank the first time. With no chance to take a deep breath before my plunge, my lungs soon burned. I tried to undo the knot, but it held firm. I tried to cut the rope with my sword, but the rope would not part. I could no longer fight the urge to breathe. I steeled myself, as Fintan had said, wondering why he had gone through all this trouble just to drown me. Resolved to the fact that I had no other choice but to end my short second life below the water, as I had the first, I inhaled. Cold water rushed into my lungs. And I was fine. I exhaled slowly and took a few more tentative breaths. I was still fine. A thought occurred to me and I probed my neck with my fingers to check for gills. There were none. It was as if I simply could not drown.

With the need to breathe relieved, my attention snapped back to my predicament. I was still stuck underwater. I realized I had stopped sinking. The water at this depth was murky and I could see nothing around me. Above me, I could still make out a slight luminosity, from the surface. At some distance below me, I could see mobile, dark shapes that never quite resolved themselves enough for me to tell what they were. I reached down, to try to untie the knot again, for I had dropped my sword. Again, it was too firm for my fingers, which were also now starting to go numb. Doggedly, I kept at it, trying to work the rope loose, until I noticed a brightening of the water in front of me. Pausing my struggles with the rope, I straightened and peered ahead, but could see nothing within the light. The brightness drew closer and closer. Then, within a pace of my own, the face of a woman slowly appeared. I first saw her nose, and then her face, followed by the rest of her head with its long black hair, as if she were emerging from a frozen waterfall.  She drifted closer, her entire form now before me, until the tip of her nose was just a finger length from mine. Her eyes were a brilliant light blue. I held absolutely still, for I thought this woman must have been a goddess, she was so beautiful. And she had materializing underwater, which non-goddesses typically don’t do. Then she said, directly into my mind,

“Dubnoregos. You were returned for a purpose. There is a duty you must fulfill, and in doing so you must choose the correct path.”

“What is my duty, my lady? And what path should I choose?” I asked internally.

“You will know your duty when you find it. The path will be less obvious, for there are those who would divert you, to suit their own objectives. To aid you in your search, I give you this gift.”

She brought her hand up, so I could see it, and it held the pommel of a sword, the tip pointing down. Not a sword like the one Fintan had bought for me. A sword like the one I used to possess, when I fought the Romans. A warrior’s sword, forged in the old way and imbued with strength and flexibility by the souls it had taken. I grasped the hilt and when I did, the brightness flashed so bright, it turned the water the same blue as the woman’s eyes. I felt suffused with warmth, and with a sensation I had never felt before. It was as if a chord was struck within me, as if my being had just been brought into harmony with the energy of the world around me. It tingled for a bit and then subsided. When the light dimmed so that I was able to see again, she was gone. The knot around my ankles unraveled, but still I floated in place for a bit, stunned. Then I figured I’d better swim back up to the surface. After I climbed back into the boat, Fintan asked,

“How did it go?”

“Good, I guess,” I said. “I met someone down there, and she gave me this sword.” I was about to hold out the sword to show him, but I realized that my hand no longer held it. I cursed, thinking I’d dropped it, and was about to jump back in the bay to retrieve it. But Fintan stayed me.

“Hold, lad. I think it is still with you. It’s just in another form. I hoped this would happen when I brought you back here.”

“What is it then? What did she give me?”

“She gave you the Gift.”

Thus began my apprenticeship with Fintan, magus of the Order of Hermes.

The Prodigy

This week we leave our fearless explorers, Morfyð’s party of four who squat and clutch the hide-covered sides of a peasant’s currach as the small boat pitches and dives its way over the turbulent waves of the Irish Sea, and instead hie to France, crossing oceans and islands with swiftness and purpose, and at the same moment spanning centuries, leaping from the Kingdom of Rheged in the mid-sixth century to land in the Duchy of Normandy in the first years of the ninth century.

In her three lives, Diedne trained many apprentices, took many lovers, and bore several children. In each incarnation, she taught the dark arts of magic to those of her children so inclined. Once her ragged assembly of converted druids and trained apprentices were incorporated into a House, naturally named after her, her children found their place within House Diedne’s wide embrace. Those gifted in arcane studies acquired roles of importance and political significance. Children better suited for other work – the House Diedne needs ditch diggers too – still received a place, but one more in line with their talents and efforts.

 

Denis was thrilled to be chosen for the raid. Two of the wizards of House Diedne, the House named after and led by his mother, were going to attack a rival group of wizards from House Tremere. He knew he wasn’t as good a shot with the crossbow as Geoffrey, or as handy in the woods as Timm, but he was strong and he was smart and it was about time that he was recognized for his contributions. Potential contributions, he reminded himself, for though he had trained as hard as he could he hadn’t actually been on any missions yet. Like the other crossbowmen at Branugurix, House Diedne’s main compound, Denis’ purpose was to protect the wizards. He’d stood guard at night before, but that was more protecting the compound than anything else. He’d done a pretty good job of that, and had only been caught asleep once.

The more prestigious work was to protect the wizards when they went on one of their missions, as one of the two “shield grogs” that each departing wizard was assigned. This was Denis’ first time as a shield grog, and to make it even better, the mission was a raid. He would be accompanying the wizard deep into enemy territory – he wasn’t exactly sure where that was – and keep the wizard safe from harm. He might even get to shoot one of the Tremere enemy! Whoever they were.

He stood on the parade ground with Geoffrey and Timm and Jasper the Wicked as the two wizards looked them over. Crwban was short and frugal with his movements, his stare as unblinking as a snapping turtle’s. Nerfus was taller and had huge hands. Both wizards stared at Denis, two spine-chilling stares that he was sure would kill him if they kept it up long enough.

“I’ll take him,” Nerfus said, after several minutes of silence. “Him and Jasper. You take Geoffrey and Timm.” Crwban grunted and kept staring. Denis assumed the grunt meant that the short wizard was sorry his taller fellow had picked Denis, for surely he wanted the Founder’s son as his protector.

As the group prepared to depart, Jasper said, “If you screw up, I’ll kill you.” Denis didn’t say anything. Was Jasper still mad about the time he accidentally fired his crossbow in the barracks? Denis had already apologized for that repeatedly. Some people never let go of a grudge.

Clad in a shirt of chainmail and a wide-brimmed steel helmet, Denis carried his crossbow and a quiver of bolts, and wore a pack full of camping equipment and food on his back. Geoffrey led the group through the forests of Avranchin. Denis bringing up the rear. On the first day he fell too far behind and almost lost the others, but caught up with the group as they made camp. He did not feel that he needed the verbal drubbing Geoffrey administered, another case of a jealous co-worker berating him just because of who his mother was. Geoffrey decided that Denis had to take first and last watch, and even though Denis protested such unfair treatment, the wizards left group discipline up to Geoffrey and ignored the issue.

The squad marched north for almost a week. Crwban could change his shape, and at points in the march he would turn into different animals to scout ahead. The shield grogs continued with Nerfus until Crwban rejoined them, often with news of the upcoming terrain. On the sixth day they came to the Thar River. Following the river east, Crwban cast a spell of silence on the group, so that they wouldn’t make noise as they moved through the forest. The other crossbowmen had worked with Crwban before, and had developed a few simple gestures to communicate basic commands. Denis didn’t think it important enough to learn them all. At midday Crwban signaled for a halt, passing the sign to the front and back of the line. Denis almost walked into Jasper before stopping, which caused Jasper to take a nasty swipe with his crossbow at Denis’ head. Did Denis not see the sign or did Jasper not deliver it? It would be just like Jasper to do whatever he could to make Denis look bad in front of the wizards. Nerfus signaled for lunch, but despite his repeated performance of touching his mouth and pretending to chew, Denis stood dumbfounded. Nerfus came to the back of the line and pulled Denis’ pack from his back and rummaged through it until he found the strips of dried meat. He kicked Denis in the thigh before walking up the line and handing out the food. Denis sat on the ground and rubbed his sore leg, dipping his head to hide his eyes from the other crossbowmen. They marched until nightfall and Geoffrey again demanded that Denis take the first and last watches.

During the first watch, the wizards sat by the small campfire and talked quietly. Denis was close enough to overhear them.

“Go through the plan again,” Nerfus said.

“We follow the Thar until we hit the old Roman arches, where we cross into Cotentin. That should be sometime around noon if we keep this pace.”

“Is that safe?”

“Of course. Our challenge won’t even be delivered until tonight. The Tremere don’t know that we are planning anything. The Redcap Daniel promised that he would deliver our declaration of war at sundown on the Kalends of October. That’s tomorrow.”

“So we need to be in position before sundown.”

“Yes, that’s right. We’ve done well. We’ll be in position by suppertime.”

“And how long do we have to wait until we attack?”

“Until the full moon, the day before the Ides.”

“How many days?”

“Thirteen days, Nerfus. Easy. An easy wait.”

“What if they ride and get help?”

“They won’t. They are too proud. And, we’ll see it if they do. That’s the reason we are hiding outside their tower for two weeks. To see what they do.”

“I thought it was to attack immediately on the full moon.”

“That too. Now relax.”

Nerfus smiled. “It’s not in my nature.”

Denis didn’t understand why Nerfus was so anxious. It seemed pretty simple to him. Go to the tower, watch and see what the Tremere do, which probably won’t be anything, then attack them in two weeks. Denis figured that the wizards were powerful enough to kill the Tremere, and that he and the other crossbowmen were just there to shoot any stragglers. He wasn’t worried at all.

The next day they continued along the river until they found the two Roman arches, whose carved scenes of chariots and marching soldiers were hidden by moss and green creeper ivy. Again under the magical silence of Crwban’s spell, they crossed the river noiselessly. Denis found it so fun to move in the water without making any sound that he took a few extra jumps and lunges. On the last leap he slipped and fell on his back. It took him several minutes to regain his footing, by which point the river had carried him fifty yards downstream. Soaked, he slogged his way back upstream to the group. Jasper started to strangle him and had to be pulled off by Geoffrey and Timm. Geoffrey called Denis an imbecile and rebuked him for losing his helmet. When Denis pointed out that he had retained his crossbow, Geoffrey cuffed him on the side of the head.

Crwban watched the episode wordlessly and Nerfus anxiously watched the woods.

The area on the other side of the river was called the Cotentin. Denis knew that, and he also knew that the raid’s eventual target was the Tremere wizards’ tower called the Ravens’ Aerie, or Nid de Corbeaux. He did not know how many wizards lived in the tower, nor how many soldiers they had, but didn’t worry that he and the wizards could handle it. Mother would never organized the raid otherwise. No trail existed from the river to the tower, and it took most of the remaining daylight for the group to approached Nid de Corbeaux, a stone tower standing alone in a clearing.

A trail led from the tower through the woods to the east. Positioned to the south, the men spread out and waited, each watching intently for a messenger to arrive. At sundown Crwban’s spell of silence ended, but the troop had been warned and continued to sit quietly in the brush. Night crept through the woods, sneaking around beech trees and oaks. Torchlight flickered from a few of the tower’s arrow slits, narrow windows built for protection. Denis lost sight of Jasper, hiding somewhere to his left.

Denis sat on the far right of the ambushers, furthest from the tower and closest to the trail. He decide this was intentional, who else would the wizards want overseeing the farthest reaches of the trail? He’d be the first to see the messenger, and the first to tell the wizards. He slipped off his heavy pack and settled in for a long wait. Perhaps the wizards would realize his importance once he saw the messenger and treat him better. Despite a few mistakes, which anyone could make, Denis really should be the shield grogs’ leader. It was only a matter of time before the wizards rightfully promoted him.

There was a noise to the left, a sudden rustling that startled Denis. How far away had Jasper been from him? Too dark to see anything more than silhouettes. Denis crawled on his hands and knees to Jasper’s position, but Jasper was gone. Was this where Jasper had been waiting? Did he leave and not tell Denis? That would be just like him, trying to make Denis look bad in front of the wizards. Jasper might have left his post, but Denis wouldn’t. He crawled back to his spot, but when he got there his backpack was gone. Was this his spot? He stood up. He could see the tower in the clearing and the orange slits of light escaping from the narrow windows. Harder to see the trail, he thought he saw it to his right. Then something moved. A man stood on the trail, looking left and right. Denis dropped to a squat. The man didn’t have a red hat – wasn’t the messenger supposed to have a red hat? – Denis didn’t see a red hat. The man pivoted slightly and Denis saw the outline of a crossbow. No messenger. Must have been one of the Tremere men guarding the trail. Excitement flashed through Denis when he thought of how proud the magi would be when he brought back a slain enemy. He raised his crossbow, sighted on the figure, and fired.

That cry sounded a lot like Jasper, Denis thought, as did the following curses. Was he under attack too? The figure dropped to one knee and fired back, his bolt winging several meters to Denis’ left. Denis’ crossbow was magic and all he had to do to reload was say the magic word, “iterum”, which cocked the weapon and loaded a new bolt on the nut. He fired again, and again. The figure fired back just as fast, and two bolts went whizzing over Denis’ head. Did the Tremere soldiers have enchanted crossbows like the Diedne soldiers?

Someone jumped on Denis, flattening him to the ground. He resisted a bit, but settled down when his attacker told him to stop struggling, recognizing Timm’s voice. Pulled to his feet, Denis heard Jasper and Geoffrey arguing, the sounds coming from the same direction as the enemy figure. Timm led him away from the tower, walking through the dark woods. A hundred yards later Geoffrey and Jasper caught up, the latter limping, with an arm draped around the former’s shoulder. The four met in a small hollow.

“The idiot shot me,” said Jasper.

“Keep it quiet,” said Geoffrey.

“I’m going to kill him,” said Jasper.

“Shut it. The wizards will handle it,” Geoffrey said.

“Where are the wizards,” asked Jasper.

“They told us to set up the camp. Crwban will watch the tower and Nerfus will catch up with us soon.”

“We missed the messenger,” Timm said.

“How is your leg,” asked Geoffrey.

“You mean the leg that Idiot-Boy shot? It hurts like hell.”

“You’re lucky his aim is so bad,” Timm said.

“Everyone shut up,” Geoffrey said. “We’re going to head due south for about a mile and make camp. No one is going to talk. Timm, help Jasper. Denis, walk behind me. Pay attention. I don’t want to have to come find you if you get lost.”

“Okay,” said Denis.

“Where is your pack?”

“Um. I set it down.”

“He didn’t have it when I found him,” said Timm.

“When he was shooting at me, you mean,” said Jasper.

“So it’s in the woods someplace. We’ll find it tomorrow,” said Geoffrey. “Let’s go.”

It took half an hour for the troop to reach a desirable site, one distant and secluded enough from the Tremere tower for the group to make a camp fire. Denis was assigned first watch and entirely missed Nerfus’ entrance. After Geoffrey’s debriefing, the wizard magically healed Jasper’s leg. Crwban slithered into camp as a snake. Returning to his human form, he told Nerfus that he didn’t think the messenger arrived and hoped he would the next day. They decided to post a single guard to watch the trail. They also agreed that Denis shouldn’t be sent alone to find his pack, and that either Geoffrey or Timm should accompany him. Denis suffered their conference in silence, listening to their remarks as he sat alone and watched the shadows.

Geoffrey woke Denis up at dawn. Timm and Jasper had been sent to watch the trail. Crwban had changed into a bird and flown back to Branugurix. Nerfus still slept, wrapped in a heavy blanket. Geoffrey allowed Denis breakfast, a portion of the boiled oats cooked on the morning’s campfire, but wouldn’t let him fetch his pack. Denis asked if he could go with someone else later to get it. Geoffrey said yes, but then sent Timm once he’d come back from watching the trail. Denis wasn’t allowed to leave camp. At dusk Crwban returned. At dinner he told everyone that the messenger had come two days early and delivered their challenge, and that the mission was still on.

“It means two less days of waiting,” Crwban said.

“The men haven’t seen anyone enter or leave the tower,” Nerfus said.

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Crwban said. “We don’t know their regular routine. As far as we know, they are sticking to it. Why would they do anything? The war doesn’t begin until the full moon.”

“They think they have time to plan.”

“And we’ll be watching them as they do.”

“If they leave the tower.”

“And if they do leave the tower,” Geoffrey asked, “what do we do?”

“Nothing. No engagement,” said Crwban.

“Just watch them and report back to us,” Nerfus said.

“Did you find the missing pack?” Crwban changed the subject.

“No,” Geoffrey said. “We scanned the area and couldn’t find it.”

“It didn’t disappear.”

“No, sir. We’ll keep looking.”

“They wouldn’t let me go searching, sirs,” Denis blurted out. “I’m sure I could find it. I probably hid it a little so no one could find it.”

Five pairs of eyes burned back at Denis, five mouths sealed tight. Jasper’s right hand was balled in a fist and trembling. The wizards traded glances.

“The boy stays at the camp,” Crwban said. Denis had half a mind to argue, but withered under Crwban’s cold stare.

He took the first watch, and again Geoffrey assigned him the last watch, the one right before dawn. Didn’t Geoffrey realize this made Denis extra sleepy, he thought? But he knew the punishment for falling asleep on watch and did his best to stay awake. During the day, when the camp was empty, he would take a quick cat nap. On the third day Jasper reported that a pair of horsemen had left the tower in the morning, and that a small team of Tremere soldiers had scouted the woods around the tower.

On the fourth morning, during his predawn watch, Denis crept off to look for the pack himself. He knew he had to hurry, for leaving his post was just as bad as falling asleep at it. He made good time moving through the woods, but lost his nerve once the morning birds started chirping and returned to camp. As he entered, Geoffrey was just waking up. Crwban was sitting by the fire, his back turned to the pair. Geoffrey stood, stretched, and looked over at Denis.

“What are you doing?”

“I was out taking a pee,” Denis said. “Everything is fine.” His heart thumbed so loudly in his ears that he was sure Geoffrey could hear it.

“Start a fire for breakfast,” Geoffrey said. Denis hurried forward and added kindling to the evening’s coals to coaxed them into a flame. Crwban stared at him the entire time, but if the wizard knew he’d left his post, Crwban didn’t say so. Denis calmed down by the time everyone was up and eating. He spent the day alone, in camp, gathering firewood and cleaning dishes. At dinner, everyone still grumbled about the missing pack, making Denis regret not pressing on for it that morning. He made up his mind to do so the next. There was more talk about the increased Tremere activity. Denis could tell that the other men were nervous, although he didn’t know why. Weren’t they perfectly safe? They had two wizards with them. Timm said that he met and hid from a squad of four Tremere troopers in the woods. Jasper said six horsemen rode to the tower and didn’t leave at dusk.

“They are readying themselves for the war,” said Crwban. “We suspected they would.”

“Maybe we should change our campsite,” said Nerfus.

“We could change strategies. Are you still capable of changing a man into a tree?”

“Yes. It is a simple spell.”

“Let’s change one of the men into a tree. We can position him near the tower, then we can simply read his mind from afar. We’ll do that in the morning and then move camp four or five miles further south.”

Nerfus thought about it. “Do we have to read his mind, or can we see through his eyes and hear through his ears?”

“We could do that. It’s harder, but not by much. I’d need to remove his eye and ear for the duration, but that is not difficult.”

“Let’s do that. Then we don’t need to worry about how alert our guard stays.” The four soldiers listening blanched. “Which one do we pick,” asked Nerfus. Jasper and Timm pointed at Denis, who in turn pointed at Jasper. Geoffrey sat rubbing his hands together. Since he was the leader of the shield grogs, Crwban asked him who he would choice.

“Since alertness isn’t a requirement, I’d pick Denis. He is the youngest and least experienced, and you’ll want experienced soldiers if we run into the Tremere.”

Denis thought he was going to faint. “You’re going to remove my ear and eye?”

“I’ll put them back when we’re done,” Crwban said.

“Will it hurt?”

“I hope so,” said Jasper.

“Enough,” said Geoffrey. “The wizards have decided. It’s late and we should turn in. Denis, take the first watch.” He kicked dirt into the fire to extinguish it. The men headed for their sleeping rolls and Denis moved just outside the camp, finding a familiar stump to sit on during sentry duty. His mind raced. How could Geoffrey say he was the least experienced, and that the wizards wouldn’t want him with them if they got in a fight? Heck, look how well he shot Jasper. He had nerves of steel, how could they not see that? Unless Geoffrey was picking him so that he wouldn’t make the others look bad if they got into combat. Ho, that would be swell, if Denis out shot, out fought, and out performed the other shield grogs. And why wouldn’t he? He was Diedne’s son, after all, and majestic deeds ran in his blood. He thought too that Geoffrey was still put out by Denis’ lost pack. He’d overheard Jasper and Timm complaining about it many times, with Geoffrey shaking his head yes every time they brought it up. He’d successfully sneaked away this morning; he’d do it again tomorrow.

He took his watch, then woke Timm for the second shift. Laying down he feel asleep quickly, despite the plans fluttering through his head. Timm woke Jasper, and in the early morning hours Jasper woke Denis, who was still assigned to double watch duty. Denis waited until Jasper was snoring before sneaking out of camp. He followed his steps from the day before, threading his way as best he could through the dark forest. He figured that he’d find the Tremere tower and the trail heading to it, and using the two as guideposts would easily find his lost pack. He faltered when he heard the morning birds’ predawn chirping, but pushed on. As the sun came up, the Tremere tower was no where to be seen. Denis was sure he’d been going the right way, trusting to his innate sense of direction to guide him due north. But then, shouldn’t the glare of the rising sun be to his right instead of directly ahead of him? So he was a little lost. A little course-correction and he’d be back on track.

An hour later, Denis didn’t recognize any of his surroundings, and reluctantly admitted that he was lost and nowhere near the tower. His absence would definitely be noticed. He’d probably be whipped for leaving his post. Well, the wizards were already planning on cutting off his ear and yanking out his eye, he couldn’t image a whipping would be worse. He didn’t hurry back, and arrived about an hour before noon. As he approached, he thought it odd that the others were still in their blankets, laying around the dead camp fire. Until he got closer and saw the crossbow bolts piercing each laying figure, saw the camp gear scattered across the clearing, saw Jasper’s unblinking eyes gaze up to the sky.

They had all been shot, many times, seeming at close range since they were all still in their blankets. Denis counted four bodies. Who was missing? Geoffrey, Timm, and Jasper each had a half dozen bolts sticking from their bodies. Nerfus had more, and Denis thought he looked like a stretched porcupine sleeping in the sun. Whoever had done this had not stayed, and after killing everyone had quickly searched the camp and left. Did the Tremere soldiers do this? Maybe a squad of killers who are even now rushing back to the tower to get their wizard masters? Denis couldn’t breathe. This would definitely be blamed on him.

A crow lighted on nearby tree limb, cawing once and then scanning the scene. Denis looked over at it, and the bird returned his stare. And continued staring, and Denis thought he recognized something in the cold, baleful look. Without a second thought he raised his crossbow and fired, sending a bolt into the crow’s leg. It sprung from the branch cawing and fell to the ground.

“Iterum!” Denis took two steps closer and fired again, sinking a bolt into the soft ground next to the crow, which hopped madly to its feet.

“Iterum!” The third shot hit the crow directly in the center of its chest and shoved it back two feet into the base of an oak tree.

“Iterum!” A perfect shot into the crow’s neck, pinning it to the tree. As the bird’s eyes glazed over, it changed from its waxy black feathered body into the naked shape of broad-shouldered Crwban.

“Iterum! Iterum! Iterum!”

By sundown, Denis was several miles from the camp, pack slung on his back and crossbow cradled under his left arm. He’d decided that Jasper’s pack was as good as his and that he didn’t need to spend any more time looking for it. He’d also decided that his crossbow’s bolts looked so similar to the other crossbow bolts that had killed his fellows that he didn’t need to remove his from Crwban’s body. Whoever killed Nerfus, Geoffrey, Timm, and Jasper had obviously killed Crwban, at least that was what he was going to tell his mother. And if he could blame it on the Tremere wizards – why couldn’t he? – then they would get in trouble, having acted before the war between them and the Diedne wizards had officially started. The more he thought about it, the more pleased he was. Folks at Branugurix would congratulate him for surviving, and they would beg him to lead the team formed to punish the Tremere wizards.

And of course he would. He was Diedne’s son, and great deeds ran in the bloodline.

The Mace of Manannan’s Embrace

This enchanted weapon is claimed to have belonged to the Irish sea god, Manannan mac Lir, who supposedly used it during the Tuatha de Danann invasion of Ireland. The mace is made from a dark blue-tinted iron and is quite large and heavy, making it is easy to infer that someone of great strength and stature used it (requires two hands and a Strength of at least +2 to wield). But the flanges at its head, a feature that was not built into maces until the 900s in the Middle East and that was not common in Europe until the 1100s, give away its more recent construction. The grip of the mace is wrapped in blackened leather, and from its pommel hang what appear to be yellow-green, glistening blades of fresh kelp, but are actually artfully cut and preserved leather strips.

The mace was commissioned by the giantess maga Ethnaid ex Diedne, who traveled often to Byzantium and Anatolia on hear searches for the magical remnants of the legendary Galatians. It was there that she came across the flanged design and that she had the mace crafted by a famous Byzantine metalsmith. She then brought the weapon to an unknown Verditius for enchanting the following magical effects, which she had devised:

Manannan’s Watery Embrace

CrAq 35

Requisite: Re

This effect creates a human-shaped, 10 m3 volume of water that rushes toward the intended target and smacks into it, doing no damage, but enveloping the target in a ~1 pace-thick shell. With no access to air, the target must make a deprivation check every 5 rounds (30 seconds) vs. an ease factor of 3 until the spell ends. The target may still move, but the Rego requisite ensures that the water moves with it.

(Base 4, +2 Voice, +1 Diameter, +1 Rego requisite, +10 for unlimited uses per day, +5 for 10 penetration)

Manannan’s Viscous Bile

CrAq 35

Requisite: Re

When the mace strikes a target, the wielder can choose to trigger this effect. It creates a viscous acid that spreads over the intended target, forming a 1 cm-thick encasing. The target takes +5 damage per round, 20 times before the spell ends.

(Base 5, +1 Touch, +1 Diameter, +1 Rego requisite, +10 for unlimited uses per day, +5 for 10 penetration)

Manannan’s Icy Grasp

ReAq 15

This effect changes a 10 m3 volume of water at range voice into solid ice. If cast on the shell of water created around a target by the Manannan’s Watery Embrace effect, the target is immobilized and loses a fatigue level each round for the duration of this effect, due to loss of body heat.

(Base 3, +2 Voice, +10 for unlimited uses per day)

The Company Assembles

More fiction detailing Diedne’s pre-Hermetic life. More of an exercise in dialog than anything else. Busy week here, so view this as a “work in progress”.

The spring rains had swollen the River Dee, turning its usual sluggish meanderings into a tumultuous charge of white-caps racing to the sea. As the morning mist crept back into rocky crevasses and steep-shouldered gorges, the Witch of Erechwydd quarreled with her magic boar.

“We should head north,” the witch said. “We have to go that way eventually, since Rerigonius Bay is on the Galloway’s north shore. We’ll find a place to cross upstream.”

“We won’t, Morfyð. We’ll find rockier banks and more rapid waters. We have to go south. We can cross at Kirkcudbright.”

“Kirkcudbright is on the coast. That takes us way out of our way. I’m already behind schedule.”

“Only because you spent most of the season mummifying the head of that druid you killed.”

“Don’t bring me into this,” spoke the head, embalmed in hardened mead and honey and hanging from Morfyð’s belt by its hair. “I was happily drinking mead with my ancestors in the afterlife until you summoned my ghost and affixed it to this corporeal shell.”

“Hush, Gwogan. Had you told me what I wanted to know when you were living you still would be. Besides, you are too curious for the afterlife and eventually would have found Donn’s underworld halls boring.”

Gwogan admitted she was right with a small sigh, but he had no opinion if the group should head north or south. Tusker remained adamant that they should head to Kirkcudbright.

“I don’t want to walk through a village to cross the Dee.”

“I wouldn’t either,” said Tusker, “walking with a huge boar, carrying that wicked spear, and having a human head tied to your belt. Might give the villagers the wrong idea.”

“Then you agree with me.”

“Not for a second.”

“I’m the head of this operation,” Morfyð said. “You are merely my familiar spirit and bound to follow my orders.”

“I thought I was the head,” said Gwogan.

Tusker told Morfyð that their magic bond and her imagined superiority did not supersede sound judgment and common sense. Never short a response, Morfyð’s return barb was cut short by a loud, frantic wailing, emanating from a floundering human form bobbing down the Dee. The person, clad in a long white dress, rushed into view, carried along by the swirling waters, and just as quickly passed out of sight as the Dee curled away from Morfyð and Tusker’s vantage point.

“Should we?”

“It may prove advantageous.”

Morfyð leaped on Tusker’s back and the boar ran down the rock slope that bordered the river. Sure-footed and swift, the two quickly came abreast of the struggling woman – no, struggling man – entangled in his clothing and spending more time underwater than above. Drawing her feet up beneath her haunches, Morfyð sprang from Tusker’s back just as the swine plunged into the brawling river, her dive carrying her almost to her sputtering target. A few deft strokes and she grabbed him, yelling in his face for him to loosely wrap his arms around her throat and she’d swim him to safety. An expert swimmer as well, Tusker aimed for the pair, betting that between the beast and the witch the boar was the stronger swimmer.

The man had presence of mind to hold on tight enough to stay attached but not tight enough to strangle Morfyð, who – Tusker cursed – swam for the far shore. Three quarters of the way there her strokes dogged and she faltered, but the boar was close enough for Morfyð to grab a handful of bristling mane and let Tusker tug her and her burden to shore.

On his hands and knees, the man coughed water onto the smooth gray pebbles that lined the Dee. He was dark-skinned, like a Pict, with a long, frizzy white beard. Long strands of white hair grew from the back of his head, but atop he was mostly bald except for a long, white forelock. His only raiment was a long white robe. Once his coughing fit was finished, he sat down on the bank and thanked both woman and beast.

“It would have carried me to the ocean, I’m sure of it.”

“Carried your corpse, at least. You were close to drowning.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t have drowned,” smiled the old man. “I’m Saint Peter. I can’t drown. But it surely would inconvenience my visit if I was carried all the way to the sea.”

“Saint what,” asked Tusker.

“Saint Peter. You know. The Rock of the Church. The First Pope. Holder of the Keys to Heaven. Ring any bells?”

“I’m not familiar, no,” said Morfyð.

“I thought I was the familiar,” said Tusker.

“He is definitely other-worldly,” said Gwogan. “Maybe he is an elf. Or one of the faerie Irish Sidhe, drunk and on the wrong side of the Irish Sea.” Saint Peter wrung water from the hem of his robe.

“What brings you to the Kingdom of Rheged,” Morfyð asked the saint.

Saint Peter said, “The king’s conversion, to be sure. In Heaven we’d heard of the good works the queen had done converting her husband and son and other notables of the court. Not knowing anything of the area, Jesus and I thought we’d come take a stroll. See what’s what and who’s who, you know, get the lay of the land.”

“Is Jesus another elf,” asked Tusker.

“Our Lord, no,” said Saint Peter. “He is the Son of God. The Savior of Mankind.”

“Morfyð is the granddaughter of King Arawn of Annwvyn, on her mother’s side.” Tusker tossed his head toward the witch. “You know, the kingdom of the elves? Although she doesn’t have any keys to it.”

“Jesus is another name for the Christ God,” said Gwogan, “and this buffoon is one of His godlings. I imagine one of the lesser demigods of the pantheon.”

“How delightful,” said Saint Peter. “A talking head. We’ve several saints whose detached heads continue to provide guidance and miracles. Without the amber glaze, of course, and generally more sweet smelling and congenial.”

“So is Jesus floundering in the Dee as well,” asked Morfyð.

“No. He’s not. He’s further north, on His way through Strathclyde. I should get going, if I’m going to catch up.”

Tusker asked, “How is it you fell in the river and not your pal?”

“It a simple story. Foolish pride on my part. There was a gap upstream, a tight gorge that the river rushed between. I bet Jesus I could leap it and He couldn’t. Never one to shy from a bet, Jesus took me up on it. We both jumped, and as soon as we did I saw it was too far for us. But Jesus, in his wisdom, summoned a dove to fly through the gap, and light as a feather He landed on the dove’s back and springboarded to the far side. Safe as a lamb on her mother’s teat! No dove for me, though. I plunged down into the misty swirl. That will show me to pull a fast one on the Son of God!”

“He dove off a dove?”

“Indeed He did.”

Morfyð said. “We go north as well, now that we are on this side of the river,” Tusker glared at her. “You may accompany us if you wish.” Saint Peter nodded acceptance. Morfyð hopped on Tusker’s back. When Saint Peter approached the boar, he snorted and trotted off. Hitching up his robe, the saint ran after the pair.

Galloway was a lesser kingdom to Rheged, lying to the northwest across the Solway Firth. The two were fair-weather friends at best, allying when it was advantageous but usually squabbling over cows and pastures. Bernicia, to the east, was larger than both kingdoms and had decided to attack the pair simultaneously. Bands of raiders tore into the area destroying villages, burning crops, and rustling cattle. Rheged and Galloway responded in kind, raiding Bernicia but generally avoiding Bernician raiders. Much easier to sack a monastery than meet armed horsemen in the field, and equally as easy to stay safe in a castle while the peasants suffered the brunt of the attacks. Not that the warriors were cowards, and when rival bands happened to meet they split each other’s skulls and hacked each other’s limbs with wild enthusiasm.

To escape meeting raiders, Morfyð led the group well off the beaten path, avoiding roads, villages, and any locations that might draw Bernician attention. Tusker easily moved through the dense forest that covered the rugged hills like a woody green blanket. He stopped frequently, so that Morfyð could compare directions with Gwogan and Saint Peter could catch up, the saint having considerable more trouble moving through the brush. He would arrive, panting and pulling thorns from his robe, just as Morfyð finished her consultations and urged Tusker forward.

That night they ate and made themselves comfortable around a small campfire. Tusker laid on his side, his back to the fire, and Morfyð leaned against him. She had placed Gwogan’s head on a nearby tree stump. Saint Peter, sitting across the campfire, asked her where she was going.

She said that she was making her way west and north, heading to a port on the coast of Galloway where she would find passage to Ireland. She asked if the saint had ever visited Ireland.

“Many times,” he said. “The folks are very nice, very devote, and I’m a good friend of Saint Patrick.”

“So you know your way around the island?”

“Oh yes. Quite well.”

“Some people say that Saint Patrick chased the druids out of Ireland,” Gwogan said, “and that he is no friend to the faerie folk that have lived on the island for thousands of years.”

“He can be quite ornery,” said Saint Peter.

Morfyð said, “He didn’t chase the faeries out. I’ve heard that the island is loaded with them.”

“And if he did chase the druids out he didn’t do a very good job,” said Gwogan. “Plenty of druids live in the north and west.”

Saint Peter shrugged. “He’s a bit of a tale-teller.”

Morfyð asked Gwogan if he had ever been to Ireland, and the druid replied that he hadn’t. “But the druid community regularly exchanges news,” Gwogan said. “I have meet several Irish druids, and while I haven’t visited them, they certainly know me.”

“I want to talk to any druid that might know where the Dagda’s Cauldron is,” Morfyð said, “and for that I need you.” She pointed at the head. “And to find my way in a country I’ve never been in and don’t wish to spend any more time than I need to, I need you.” She pointed at Saint Peter. “Sometime tomorrow we’ll arrive at Rerigonius Bay, where there are a number of small villages, any one of which can provide us passage across the Irish Sea. We’ll sail to Ireland, Gwogan here will tell us where one of his druids lives, you, Saint Peter, will guide us there, Gwogan will convince the druid to tell me where the Dagda’s Cauldron is, we’ll go get it, and return here.”

“Why am I going to convince a druid to tell you where the cauldron is,” Gwogan asked.

“Why am I going to guide you,” Saint Peter asked. “I’m supposed to be walking Strathclyde with Jesus.”

“Why doesn’t everyone shut up so we can get some sleep,” Tusker asked, his voice floating into the conversation like a disembodied spirit.

“Because if you don’t,” Morfyð said to Gwogan, “I’ll drop your head down a well. You think drinking in Donn’s hall forever is boring, imagine spending eternity bobbing at the bottom of some lonely well. You’ll guide me,” she said to Saint Peter, “because without my help you’ll never find Jesus in the hills of Galloway, and if you lead me across Christian Ireland I’ll in return guide you through heathen Galloway.”

“You also need someone to carry the cauldron,” Tusker said. “Isn’t it supposed to be cursed?”

Morfyð rammed her elbow into Tusker’s bristly hide. The boar flinched but wasn’t rousted further.

“Tusker is right. We should sleep. Tomorrow is a busy day.”

“I don’t need to sleep,” said Gwogan. “Thanks to you.”

“I don’t need to sleep either,” said the saint. “Jesus will miss me.”

“He hasn’t missed you yet, and I don’t see him poking around here looking for you. I’ll have you back here tout suite. Now shut up and let me sleep.”

Morfyð held her spear over the fire, spoke a few magic words, and the flames instantly snuffed out. Rolling on her side she covered herself with her black cloak. Gwogan remained on the tree stump. Saint Peter sat in the dark, his arms wrapped around his knees.

An hour later, Gwogan said, “I think she’s asleep. Come here, godling, we need to talk.”

A treatise on the importance of knowing your enemy and what can be accomplished with this information

By Llywarch Gwl filius Cynwyd ex Diedne of Caer Drwyn

My master has tasked me with writing this text. He claims that his magic is hindered when he writes or reads. I believe he has forgotten how to do either, for he is very old. Perhaps he never learned and fabricated the malediction to cover it. Regardless, my master has made a new discovery. What follows are mostly his words. He describes his discovery and how it may be implemented.

The discovery entails the execution of a particular head magic by Hermetic methods. As you have perhaps heard, the ancients thought that the essence and immortal soul of a person is seated in the head. By severing the head, our benighted forebearers believed that the soul was trapped therein, such that they might possess it and thereby attain more power. They would string the heads of slain enemies from their bridles and nail them to their houses. You may also be aware of the legends about severed heads that circulate today. The large head of Brân Fendigeid continued speaking and entertaining his followers for 87 years after it was severed from his body. The Irish heads of Mac Dathó and Conaire Mór also spoke post-severing, though for far less time than the Welsh head, naturally. And after Donn Bó, bard and warrior, was killed in battle, his severed head sang such plaintive melodies that all those who heard them could do naught but weep. All of these legends suggest that the ancients believed a severed head can be animated by retaining the soul of the individual who wore it. This is obviously a fantasy.

Modern medicine teaches us what actually occurs in the brain. In truth, the brain is an organ that combines the input of the senses with the natural faculty from the liver to create the sensitive faculty that guides and initiates the motion of the body. The brain also digests the input of the sense organs to produce memories. This digestion, depicted in the diagram, occurs in three ventricular cells situated in the brain. In the first cell, near the front of the skull, species of sight, sound, taste, and smell are united into the sensus communis. The fantasia and the imaginativa also reside in this cell and can contribute to or generate their own sensus communis. The sensus communis is transferred to the second cell, in the midsection of the brain where it is warmer, via the vermis, and processed by the cogitativa and the estimativa. Finally, what remains is passed into the third cell, at the rear of the skull, to create memoria that are then stored there. Why do we knit our brow and rub our forehead when we consider problems to a great depth and why do we hang our head down and rub the back of it when we try to recall something to mind? Clearly, it is because the imagination is in the fore part of the brain and the memories are in the hinder part*.

Once a head is severed, it is cut off from the natural faculty that is supplied by the liver (which in turn requires the vital faculty from the heart and lungs), and can thus no longer function. The discovery that my master has made is a means by which to use the Hermetic arts to encourage airy spirits to reside in a severed head. If coaxed properly, these spirits can provide a magical substitute for the natural faculty and thus operate the three cells of the brain. In particular, they can be asked to access the memories stored in the hinder part of the brain, and then to communicate those memories. The memories of some enemies can be especially lucrative and educational.

To perform this magic, the following is required:

I) A freshly severed head. Older heads that have started to decompose are typically not suitable compartments for most airy spirits, except for spirits of mold and fungi that may have already begun to grow within the head. These spirits are less useful than others, for they are typically so focused on consumption of the brain matter that they do not share memories before they eat them.

II) Cedar oil for preservation. The head must be embalmed in cedar oil. This preservation cannot be enhanced or replaced by Creo Corpus magic, for such spells would warp and inhibit the abilities of the airy spirits who would reside within.

III) Knowledge of the dominant humor of the individual to whom the head belonged. People have differing balances of the humors, some subtle, some readily apparent, such as the excess of choler in magi of House Flambeau. Each humor has one of the four elements associated with it. The head must be prepared using a ritual with the elemental form that corresponds to the primary humor. This ritual is described in detail in the companion tractatus to this text.

IV) A period of incubation in an environment inhabited by the type of airy spirit corresponding to the dominant humor.  After preparing the severed head with the appropriate Arts, incubation of the head in an environment with an abundance of the element that corresponds to the primary humor of the individual to whom the head belonged encourages the appropriate airy spirit to inhabit the cranial receptacle. For example, my master obtained the head of an individual with an abundance of the humor blood. He placed this head outside in a storm, atop a tall pole. Fortuitously, the head was struck by a lightning bolt, and the Auram airy spirit of this bolt was transferred into the head. The head was blackened by the blast and lost all its hair, but survived otherwise intact. The power of the environmental effects that impinge upon the head correlate to the Might of the spirit that will inhabit it, if it so chooses. In the example of the head struck by lightning, a relatively powerful spirit was associated with the bolt. Spirits of greater power are better able to access the memories stored within the head and to communicate the memories to those without. For the heads of fiery, choleric individuals, of which we have taken many, we have found that the cedar oil preservation is not compatible with placing the head in direct flame. Hot environments such as thermal springs and deserts are prefered. The cedar oil does, however, dissuade fish and other animals from consuming the head, which can be beneficial.

Additional notes: If the head of a Gifted individual is used, multiple spirits can potentially inhabit the head, presumably due to a greater capacity that is afforded by the Gift. This circumstance can result in some confusing conversations at first, but over time the spirits form a composite entity with greater ability to use the senses and the brain of the head. On one occasion, using the head of a particularly magically-adept adversary, and coaxing some of the relatively mighty spirits who inhabit the head of the River Severn into her severed head, my master was able to animate the head to the degree that it was sentient. This head developed a particular fondness for riddles, which was not terribly useful. However, it also divulged much information that the former adversary knew, especially since she had built an intricate magical memory palace in which she retained all of her laboratory work. With its greater sentience, the amalgam of spirits that inhabit this severed head, whom we call Bob, has also taught us much about the lore of magic that only spirits know – an unexpected benefit.

If this all seems over-complicated to you, as it did to me, I blame you not. I asked my master why one could not simply summon and interrogate the dead person’s ghost, using the head as an arcane connection. My master replied that ghosts are not complete representations of a person’s memories. They typically only recall that which happened to them right before or during their death, and are influenced so strongly by the emotions that fuel their existence as a spirit in the mortal plane that useful communication with them is almost always impossible. I humbly defer to his vastly greater experience in fiddling with the dead. Regardless, it can be said that intimate knowledge of thine enemy can be of value. With the above technique, information on the composition of the humors of an enemy can be exploited to reap their secrets posthumously. The more one accounts for the disposition of an enemy in the preparation of their severed head, the greater the likelihood that the head will become sufficiently sentient that it can be of use to you and that it can provide the satisfaction of understanding and responding appropriately to the subtlest of insults, for the relief of unvented ire after the death of the target.

 

Diedne Head Magic

Diedne Head Magic is a Minor Mystery Virtue that requires initiation by a mystagogue to acquire. With this Virtue, a maga is able to properly harvest and prepare a head for inhabitation by airy spirits. Before the preparation can start, the appropriate Form must first be determined. Llywarch’s text lists only the elements, but spirits associated with other forms may also be appropriate, especially if the head belongs to a magus who specialized in a non-elemental Form. Knowledge of this specialization must be attained, either through direct interaction or through covert means. To determine the appropriate Form for a head based on the disposition of humors, the maga has several options: (1) perform a Perception + Folk Ken roll before the death of the head’s owner, versus an ease factor of +15. With storyguide approval, this roll can be augmented by collecting information on the personality traits of the head’s owner. (2) Perform a Perception + Medicine roll while examining the body of the head’s owner, versus an ease factor of +12. (3) Invent or learn an Intellego Corpus spell that provides information on the ratio of humors in the body. Such spells are probably more accurate when cast on the living, while the humors are still in their usual balance.

With the appropriate Form known, the preparation process may proceed. During this process, the head is embalmed to slow its decay and its capacity for housing spirits is made accessible. The process takes a season to complete. An additional season is required for the optional incubation of the head in an environment that contains objects or aspects of the appropriate Form. This incubation yields an Incubation Bonus that scales with the intensity or magnitude of the environmental object/aspect and that has a maximum value of 5 for the most intense environmental conditions imaginable. An additional Form Bonus is applicable if the head belonged to one who possessed the Gift; this bonus is equal to the owner’s score in the appropriate Form / 5, rounding down. At the end of the 2 seasons the maga calculates a Housing Total that determines the maximum total Might of the spirits that can be contained by the head.

Housing Total: (Rego + Form + Int + Magic Theory + Aura Modifier) / 2 + Incubation Bonus + Form Bonus

As the final step of the preparation process, the maga must then infuse a number of pawns of Form-corresponding vis into the head, equal to the Housing Total / 5. The head is now properly staged to entice spirit inhabitation.

Once inhabited, the head may be treated as a source of both information and study. The maga may ask it questions, the answers to which she must interpret according to her knowledge of the airy spirit(s) that provide them. Thus, to successfully obtain an answer to a question, provided that the answer is among the memoria in the brain, she must make an Int + Magic Lore stress roll versus an ease factor given in the tables below.

Interpretation Roll: Int + Magic Lore + Stress Die

A stress die is used to account for both potential brilliant insights gained from the interrogation and potential misinterpretations that yield dangerous consequences.

Over the course of an entire season, the maga may also ask the spirit to retrieve the memories of the brain that are related to a particular topic, such as a Hermetic Art or an ability. Doing so, again provided that the information is present in the brain and that she successfully interprets the answer, allows her to acquire experience in that Art or ability. The head is treated as having a source quality equal to the Housing Total / 3, rounding down, plus the Communication score, or the average Communication score, of the airy spirit(s) residing within.

Head Source Quality: Housing Total / 3 + Average Communication of spirit inhabitant(s).

Should the interpretation roll fail (but not botch) when studying from the head, the maga still gains 2 exposure XP in Magic Lore. Botches may result in learning false information, in learning an Art or ability incorrectly such that XP is subtracted from that Art or ability, or in learning nothing at all.

Note that habitation of the head is not forced upon the spirit; it can leave at any time.

Interpretation Guide for Non-Gifted Heads:

Query Ease Factor
Study Magic Lore +6
Learn Secret +6
Learn Valuable Secret +9
Study General Ability +9
Study Academic Ability +12
Study Supernatural Ability** +15

Interpretation Guide for Gifted Heads***:

Query Ease Factor
Study Form +9
Study Arcane Ability +12
Study Technique +12
Learn Spell +2 / Magnitude

 

 
*This sentence and the one before are a paraphrasing of a quotation by Andre du Laurens (ca. 1597), professor of medicine, chancellor of Montpellier University and physician to Henry IV. The cell theory that the quotation “supports” had already existed for ~1400 years. (http://www.princeton.edu/~cggross/BVM_Imhotep3.pdf)
 ** Character must already possess the Supernatural Ability to study it from the head
*** Interpretation guide for non-Gifted heads also applies

A Head for Morfyð

-1-

Morfyð walked up the old Roman Road that passed by the stronghold atop Stainmore Pass. A crosswind fluttered her black cloak like a pair of raven’s wings. In her right hand she gripped her enchanted spear, called Brenin Lladdwr or King Killer, and on her left trotted a giant wild boar named Tusker. Two hundred yards from the castle she shooed the boar aside, and the 500-pound beast obediently left the road and disappeared into the tangled overgrowth. One hundred yards from the fort she left the road and started up the trail that led to the open gate and its pair of sentries. Fifty yards later a sentry called for her to stop and state her business.

“I am Morfyð verch Uryens, daughter of your lord King Uryens and sister to Prince Owein.”

“And what are you doing here?”

“I come to talk with your druid, Gwogan.”

“Where is your retinue, princess?” The taller sentry asked, a long brown mustache covering most of his mouth. “Evil times to be traveling alone.”

“How do we know you are not a Bernician spy, come to sneak inside Maiden Castle?” The shorter man asked. His hands and spear shaft were stained red from eating gooseberries. Morfyð didn’t like being questioned, especially by frontier bumpkins.

“I am no spy. I am the king’s daughter. I have come to speak with Gwogan.”

“Gwogan isn’t here,” said Mustache. “Off with you.”

“Let me speak with your lord, Adaf ap Eynon, vassal to King Uryens.”

“Lord Adaf isn’t here either.” Mustache said.

“We hear that King Uryens’ daughter is a witch.” Gooseberry said. “Are you a witch, Morfyð verch Uryens?”

“We don’t want any trouble.” Mustache said. “We have enough already with the raiders from Bernicia. It would be best if you left.”

“Was that a dog walking with you?” Gooseberry asked.

“Who rules in Lord Adaf’s absence?” Asked Morfyð. “I want to speak with him.”

“Ugliest dog I’ve ever seen,” said Gooseberry.

“His son, Madoc, holds authority. He doesn’t want to see you.”

“Where did that ugly dog go? I might want to practice my spear throwing.”

“Do you speak for Madoc ap Adaf?” Morfyð asked. “Does he know you speak for him?”

“Bugger off, witch.” Gooseberry said. “Or I’ll spear you after I spear that ugly dog you brought with you.”

“Hold it.” Mustache said to Gooseberry. Then to Morfyð: “We don’t want any trouble. I’ll take you to Madoc. The druid isn’t here. You’ll see.”

“No good will come of this,” Gooseberry said.

Mustache led Morfyð through the gate and into the fort’s yard, past two women huddled over a cooking fire, around a clump of skinny brown cows, and through a knot of old men gumming their crusts of bread. Inside the stone keep the great hall was dark and musty. Two lean wolfhounds slunk across the dirty rushes strewn about the floor. A group of children near the back wall paused their game of tag. A man with one leg sat by the hearth sharpening a knife. Mustache told Morfyð to wait while he fetched Madoc. Several tables sat in the center of the room, surrounded by wooden chairs and stools. Morfyð chose a stool and sat down, laying King Killer across her lap. The one-legged man sneezed and wiped his nose across his sleeve. The children returned to their game, loudly rushing around the large room and then out another exit.

Mustache returned with Madoc and two other soldiers. Sixteen with a puffed-up chest, Madoc sauntered to the table and sat across from Morfyð, who did not rise to greet him. The two soldiers, one with pock-marked cheeks and the other with a lazy eye, stood behind Madoc, their hands resting on the hilts of their swords. Mustache stood behind Morfyð, holding his spear in both hands. Madoc slapped both palms on the table and smirked.

“Morfyð verch Uryens, I am Madoc ap Adaf. What brings you to Maiden Castle?”

Madoc beamed, enjoying his role as castle steward. Morfyð said nothing, and Madoc’s grin slipped. He looked at his guards. Mustache shrugged. Madoc’s face bloomed red.

“Did you not hear me? What brings you here?”

“You know why I am here.” Morfyð said. “I’m sure Mustache told you.”

” ‘Mustache?’,” Madoc laughed. “You mean Thomas?” He pointed at Mustache. “She called you “Mustache’.” Pock-Marked and Lazy-Eye laughed with Madoc.

“I’m sure ‘Mustache’ told you that Gwogan isn’t here.” Madoc said.

“Where is he?”

“How should we know? Druids have their own ways. Or have you forgotten now that your father has started worshiping the One Christ God?”

“Like our enemies from Bernicia,” said Pock-Marked.

Madoc nodded.

“We heard that your father and brother drove the druids out of the royal court at Erechwydd.” Lazy-Eye said. “Is that true?”

“Yes. Is that true?” Madoc asked.

“My father’s wife asked the One God priests to come. So did my brother’s wife. They convinced my father and brother to worship the One God. The priests wanted the druids gone. Not my father.” Morfyð said.

“And we heard that the king’s witch daughter is roaming the kingdom of Rheged looking for druids to kill.” Madoc said. “Kill all the druids in Rheged, yes? Is that why you want to find Gwogan?”

“No. As I said before, I want to talk to him.”

“Well, he’s not here.” Madoc stood. “Time for you to go.”

“Is he with your father?”

“My father?”

“Did he go raiding with your father?”

“Raiding?” Madoc shot stares at Pock-Marked and Lazy-Eye. “My father isn’t raiding.”

“All the frontier forts have been told to remain behind their walls to repel forays from Bernician soldiers. My brother, Prince Owein, rode to all the forts on the Old Road last month and told them so. I know some forts have already fallen. I have seen the remains. I think that some lords might use this opportunity to settle old grudges.”

Madoc blanched and looked to his guards for advice. Both Pock-Marked and Lazy-Eye stared at the sitting woman, their faces tightening. Morfyð heard Mustache take a step away from her, making room to use his spear if he had to.

“Has Lord Bleddyn repaid the cattle he stole from your father last year?”

“By the balls of Bel,” gulped Madoc. “She knows.”

“She doesn’t know anything.” Pock-Marked said. Lazy-Eye swept his sword from his scabbard. Madoc took a step backward.

Morfyð stood. “I should go.”

“She knows!” Madoc cried.

“You aren’t going anywhere.” Pock-Marked reached across the table.

Morfyð thrust King Killer into the air, squeezed her eyes shut, and yelled, “Camulus!” The spear’s blade flared a flash of brilliant white light, catching the eyes of Madoc and his three warriors, and momentarily blinding them. Pock-Marked crashed against the table, scooting it into Morfyð’s hip and bouncing her back against Mustache. Colliding with the taller man, Morfyð rolled to her left to keep her balance. Snapping her eyes open, she rammed King Killer’s butt into Mustache’s face, breaking his nose with a red burst of blood, then pivoted and jabbed the spear blade across the table into Pock-Marked’s armpit, beneath his chain mail tunic. He screamed, as did Madoc once he heard the warrior’s shrill cry. Lazy Eye blindly swung his sword back and forth, catching Madoc on the bicep with his back swing. Morfyð ran from the room. Passing into the yard, she could hear the yelling behind her, cries of help and demands that she be stopped. She sped past a bewildered warrior standing in the courtyard. The gate was still open, and she could see the Old Road a mere 100 yards away. She rushed through the gate, running to freedom, when a gooseberry-stained hand reached out and grabbed her long hair and yanked her off her feet to land heavily on her back.

From the thorny cover of the underbrush Tusker watched Morfyð fall. He saw the man who pulled her down start kicking her prone body, while a second guard appeared from the gate and joined in the booting. By the time he’d mounted the road and started up the trail two more guards had joined the tangle. One pointed at the boar, and he and a second leveled their spears. Two more guards joined the group, waving swords. Snorting, Tusker turned and trotted north, his hooves clacking off the road’s ancient cobblestones. The guards dragged the unconscious Morfyð inside Maiden Castle.

-2-

Morfyð woke, which she decided was a good thing, until she tried to move. Her body was sore and bruised and ached nearly everywhere. She was lying on a cold stone floor in a pitch dark room, and assumed she was jailed somewhere in the bowels of Maiden Castle. A slow search on hands and knees revealed an empty chamber pot, a small pallet of damp straw, and a rough wooden door, set in one of the four walls. Standing, she paced out the roughly square room, each wall approximately four yards long and made of rough-cut stones. She could not reach the ceiling, her hands finding only coarse granite blocks encrusted with dried bat guano. King Killer was gone, as was her heavy black cloak. She still wore her feather dress, a short tunic overlaid with hundreds of stripped-brown hawk feathers, and her silver torc hung around her neck. After a cursory exploration, she decided that though everything was sore, nothing was broken. Situated, she stood in the center of the room, facing the door. In the heavy quiet, she slowly counted to 100, then sat down on the straw pallet and started her count anew.

After a third round of counting, Morfyð arranged the pile of straw as best she could and laid down to sleep, which turned out to be easier than she imagined.

She had no idea how long she had slept, nor how long she had been awake. She was thirsty and hungry, but both could keep. From the far side of the door she heard footsteps, and presently saw a thin line of flickering touch light beneath it. She remained sitting on her pallet as the door was unlocked and swung open. Two men stood in the doorway, a warrior holding a torch and an old man with a stooped back and scraggly beard. The old man entered and sat cross-legged on the stone floor, facing Morfyð.

“This all could have been avoided,” he said.

“Yes.” Morfyð said. “If they had summoned you when I asked to speak with you.”

“They spoke true,” Gwogan said. “I wasn’t here. The boy had no idea what to do when you asked for me.”

“Adaf shouldn’t have left such a simpleton in charge.”

“He has to at some point, and Madoc’s only fault is that he is young and inexperienced. You shouldn’t have pushed him.”

“I’ll push if I want. I’m the king’s daughter.” Madoc had annoyed her, was the truth of it, sitting across from her and smirking.

“Why are you wandering the kingdom alone? Rheged is at war with Bernicia,” Gwogan said.

“I’ll come and go as I like. Was Adaf raiding his neighbor?”

Gwogan ignored her question. “We hear things, even though we are far from the royal court at Erechwydd. We hear that King Uryens exiled his daughter from court because she wouldn’t accept the new religion.” Morfyð wondered how much the old druid knew. Morfyð had been ejected, not exiled, but not because of religious differences.

“The new religion calls what we do sinning,” Morfyð said. “Do you understand that? It means we err by practicing magic and insult their One God.”

“The gods can stand a few insults. Maybe someone else can’t.” He did know. He had somehow heard about her quarrel with her father’s wife. “Why did you want to speak with me? I have no influence at court.”

“Nor do I, it seems. I did not come because I needed help with my father. I came because you know where the Cauldron of the Dagda is hidden.” Gwogan chewed the inside of his cheek, and the guard waiting in the hallway sneezed. Morfyð imagined springing up and killing them both, keeping Gwogan’s head for later interrogation. He did not need to be alive for her to pry out his secrets.

“Do you know how long you’ve been here?” No response except for her brooding eyes beneath tightening eyebrows. “Two days. I returned yesterday and heard about you killing David ap Einoin and wounding Madoc.” Killing? That wasn’t good. Pock-Marked must have died. “I waited a night and a day and wondered why the Witch of Erechwydd, who we have heard is very mighty, did not use her magic to escape. I thought perhaps you were simply waiting for me, knowing I would visit you at some point. But hearing about your meeting with Madoc, you didn’t sound like a patient woman. You sound like a hot-headed. Why would a hot-headed witch wait in a dungeon cell?” This was not going well, and Morfyð promised herself and her gods that Gwogan’s head would leave his shoulders.

“Where is the cauldron? Tell me and I will leave.”

“I decided it is because you cannot use magic. You must need something. Some device or fetish, some charm. It can’t be your spear. We all know Llywd Mór carried it before you took it from him. So what could it be? I searched your cloak.” The old druid was crafty, his thinking as swift as a sparrow.

“I am not going to die here, Gwogan, we both know my fate. My wyrd has been foretold. Your future is not so apparent, nor as secure as you might think.”

Gwogan laughed. “We all die, princess. And though you are foretold to slay your father and break the kingdom’s spine, fate has many ways of unraveling.” Gwogan stood. “Is it the white funerary paint I found, in a jar sewn into a hidden fold of your cloak, that you need to cast magic? Is that why you paint your face and hair white? Because without it you cannot summon the dead, or call up the forest beasts, or rain lightning storms on your foes? I thought it was just to scare your enemies. But it is not, is it? It’s vital for your witchcraft.”

Morfyð told Gwogan that he was definitely her enemy and his head would sit atop her door frame, whether or not he told here where the cauldron was hidden. Gwogan laughed and got up to leave. He told the guard to bring her food and water. “Adaf ap Eynon will return in two days, at which point he will judge you for the murder of David ap Einoin and the assault on his son.” He pushed the door closed and slammed the room into darkness. Morfyð listen to their retreating footsteps, and did not lay back onto her straw pallet until they were gone.

-3-

Tusker wondered if the boar roasting on the spit over Prince Owein’s camp fire was intentional or coincidental, then decided that it didn’t make a difference. Insult or not, he didn’t like the prince and knew the prince didn’t like him. It had taken a day and a half to find Prince Owein’s hosting – the collection of warriors called up from their villages to defend the kingdom – and most of the afternoon to convince the scouts that he wasn’t wild game but the prince’s sister’s familiar. That his hide was magically impervious to spears helped greatly in that convincing. He let the first few scouts throw at him, their spears harmlessly bouncing off him, then told them that he was Princess Morfyð’s boar and wanted to talk to the prince. It took a bit for the astonishment of a talking boar to wear off, but a few friendly nips to the calves prompted the scouts through it and within the hour Tusker stood in Prince Owein’s camp.

“Maybe they killed her,” the prince said, “Maybe she’s dead and they dragged her corpse inside to bury it.”

“Maybe, but no. I’d know.”

“You are linked to her, right?”

“In a fashion.”

“I’m linked to her too, by blood. It’s not a comfortable connection.”

“Our connection is not always enjoyable, either, but I am bonded to her, like it or not. As are you.”

“She told my step-mother to get stuffed.”

“With all due respect, my prince,” said Tusker, “Who cares? We both know she is not going to win any congeniality contests. She is not a nice person, we are agreed. And she is still held captive in Maiden Castle on Stainmore Pass.”

Prince Owein strolled over to the camp fire, where his cook was sawing chunks of meat from the roasted pig. He handed a piece to his prince, who gingerly tossed it back and forth in his hands until it had cooled enough to eat. The rest of the camp was eating and drinking mead. Ten or so warriors kept watch on Tusker, but as long as they held only spears they weren’t a threat.

“What if I say no and don’t run to Stainmore Pass? What will you do?” The prince asked around a mouthful of pork.

He’d have liked to disembowel the prince, regardless if Owein helped Morfyð or not, but Tusker said, “I will leave and look to others for help.”

“What others?”

“I imagine your father is in the field, probably closer to Carduel and the Wall. It will take three or four days to find him, then a like amount of time to return to Maiden Castle. I’m sure Morfyð has the resources to postpone her execution for nine or ten days.”

“Execution? You think Lord Adaf will execute her?”

“Prince, you know what kind of a guest Morfyð can be. If she was in your dungeon, what would you do with her?”

The prince swore, wiped the grease from his chin, then swore again. He summoned a few sergeants and told them that in the morning most of the troops would continue west, but that he and a select few needed to head south, and that they would be back in two or three days. As the group faded off to their duties, Owein regarded Tusker, standing in the crackling light, and asked him if he wanted something to eat. Was it a kindness? Did he mean boar?

“I’ll fend for myself,” said Tusker. “I’ll see you at first light and lead you to Maiden Castle.” The boar trotted out of the camp and into the night.

-4-

The red and yellow pennants flying above Maiden Castle’s battlements snapped in the mountain wind. Lord Adaf, Gwogan the druid, and a dozen warriors stood before the castle, waiting to greet the approaching Prince Owein, Tusker, and six royal warriors. The cold air clung to the men like a second skin.

“Greetings Prince,” Adaf said and gave a brief bow. “Are you sure you do not have time to meet inside my warm hall, and drink my mead and eat my beef in hospitality?”

“Greetings Lord Adaf,” Owein said and nodded back. “I would enjoy your table heartily, but I am moving a group of soldiers to the front and do not have time for a proper visit. I apologize for my haste and appreciate this impromptu meeting.”

“Given the situation, it is advisable, and I understand the need for speed and the delicacy of the negotiations.”

“My messenger said she killed one of your men.”

“Yes, that is true. A free man, but not of much honor.” Social rank was measured in honor. A slave had no honor, a king had much. Everyone else was measured between the two.

“And wounded your son, I am told.”

Adaf exchanged glances with Gwogan and scowled. Owein wondered if a prior conversation provoked the lord’s ire, or because the druid held Morfyð’s black cloak and long spear.

“The matter of my son’s wounding is confused and I will not press that harm in this suit.”

“I yield to your lord’s judgment. I also acknowledge your suit and allow you to set compensation for your dead man.”

“Two pounds of gold as an honor price for the man.” Adaf said. “And the spear. The druid fancies it and I would give it to him.”

“No good will come of keeping Morfyð’s cursed spear. I accept your judgment. The gold will be delivered during the autumn harvest.” Owein removed one of the heavy gold rings from his bicep and gave it to Adaf. “Here is my token.” Adaf accepted the armband and Gwogan gave the prince Morfyð’s cloak. Adaf told one of his warriors to go free the prince’s sister and bring her to the meeting. He sped inside Maiden Castle. Prince Owein flexed his fingers in a frustrated attempt to warm his hands.

The warrior returned in obvious alarm. “She is gone,” he panted. “Her cell was empty.”

“How could this be,” asked Lord Adaf, “She was there last night for her dinner.”

“She was, lord,” the warrior said. “But now she is gone. We opened her cell and it was empty.”

“Is this some trick, Lord Adaf?” Prince Owein asked.

“This is no trick of mine,” said Adaf.

“Did you close the door when you left the cell or leave it open,” Gwogan asked the warrior.

“I did not take the time to close the door,” the guard said. “I ran straight back here.” Gwogan muttered a quiet expletive.

Tusker spun and looked off the trail. An angry gust of wind sprang up and pelted the men with twigs and dust, from which they shielded their eyes. When the wind stopped as suddenly as it had began, all eyes fell on Morfyð, standing in her feather dress, her face and hair streaked with white.

“How,” asked Gwogan.

“It is a simple trick to cloud a guard’s eyes and silently follow him from a room.” She pointed at the warrior who had just been charged with retrieving her.

“Not the escape, the magic. How did you get the funerary paint?”

“It is not paint. Bat guano, when crushed and mixed with a small amount of urine, becomes a white paste.”

“Sister,” said Owein,”I have paid the honor price for the man you killed. We can go.” Prince Owein gave Morfyð her cloak, and if he hesitated walking towards his sister no man there would admit it. Morfyð drew the cloak around her shoulders.

“And my spear?”

“The compensation included the spear,” said Owein. “It is Lord Adaf’s now.”

“And I have given it to Gwogan,” Lord Adaf quickly added. Adaf reflexively stepped away from the druid.

“My spear has been given to Gwogan?” Morfyð narrowed her eyes at the old man. “Give me my spear, Gwogan.”

“The spear is now mine,” said Gwogan, wrapping his arms around King Killer. “It was part of David ap Einoin’s honor price and it now belongs to me.”

“What is the honor price for a druid,” said Morfyð. She raised her hands towards the sky and screamed out an invective string of arcane curses. Prince Owein shouted for her to cease and Lord Adaf stood wide-eyed in shock. Gwogan clutched the spear and scampered toward the castle gate, but the summoned bolt of lightning seared down from the gray clouds and struck him full on the back with an ear-splitting boom. In the silence that followed, Morfyð pulled Owein’s dagger from his belt, walked to Gwogan’s smoldering body, accompanied by Tusker who turned tusk and teeth towards anyone who thought about intervening, bent down and started to saw Gwogan’s head from his shoulders.

Lord Adaf, having not twitched a muscle during the entire exchange, held a hand up to caution his men, then asked the prince what they should do now.

Owein drew a breath and exhaled slowly. “When Morfyð slew the druid Llywd Mór, my father set an honor price of fifty pounds of gold and ten head of cattle.”

“That sounds good.” Lord Adaf said.

“Llywed Mór was ambushed by my sister. I have a feeling Gwogan might have caused some insult that provoked his death. You should suggest a different settlement.”

Morfyð lifted Gwogan’s bloody head and said to it: “Your secrets will be mine, old fool. I will conjure your ghost from the black hell of Donn and torture your rotting brain-holder until you tell me where the cauldron lies, then I will mummify your head in honey and set it atop my door lintel.”

“You know,” Owein said, “fifty pounds of gold sounds fine. I’ve got a war to get to.”

“Take your sister,” Adaf said. “Please.” The negotiation settled, the prince left with his troop and Lord Adaf returned to his castle. Morfyð tucked Gwogan’s head under her arm and she and Tusker continued south down the Old Road. Gwogan’s body lay unattended for the afternoon, but at dusk two men came and, after chasing away the crows, took it inside Maiden Castle for burial.

-1-

The Lament of Dubnoregos (Part I)

A keening from snow-capped mountains,

Down clear streams flowing.

A keening from deep and dark woods,

Through green glens growing.

A keening from beneath rich fields,

Midst the tribe sowing.

A keening from us for Dubnoregos:

Wealth giver,

Art crafter,

Grove tender,

Herd bringer,

Tribe raiser.

A keening from dew-dusted vales,

With cool winds blowing.

A keening from blood-reddened shores,

From black birds crowing.

A keening from life-taking seas,

To lands unknowing.

A keening from us for Dubnoregos:

Legion fighter,

Death dealer,

Sword dancer,

Fame winner,

Tribe protector.

They sang this song for me. Someone must have remembered. Remembered it and passed it on, father to son, mother to daughter, until a time when it was written down. Written down by some monk of Christ, who thought it quaint enough to add to the compilation of heathen legends he was collecting. He wrote it down in Latin, the letters of my enemy, that I have learned to read. For I have read, reread and re-copied this song now. This song about me, that was written down who knows when. That was composed before the birth of Christ. And that has now caused me to remember who I am: Dubnoregos of the Veneti. How can I be him? He who died so long ago? I don’t know. But I am certain I am. As certain as the sun’s travel from east to west and that a low tide follows a high. I have his memories, of his life and of his death. The song has returned them to me.

I died in the water, fire and splintered wood above me on the surface. The Romans attacked our ocean forts, one by one. We fled from them, using our boats to move from one fort to the next, one step ahead of Caesar and his minions. Until they built a fleet of their own, each boat with a hook that ripped down our sails and we were caught. Then they boarded us and chopped us down. I don’t remember the face of the man who killed me. That doesn’t matter now. I do remember sinking, slowly, blood in the water around me. And then nothing.

Until I awoke, on a cold shore at night. I sat up and looked around. There was nothing, just bleak dunes and wind-swept foam to either side. And then I realized I had no clothes. Numbing-cold water lapped at my legs with each wave. I stood, stumbled, and then set off to … to where? I stopped. Where was home? Who were my people? Who was I? I could not recall. I panicked. And then I think my mind broke. I was told by the man who found me that I had been living like an animal in a cave by the ocean, eating whatever carcasses washed ashore. How degrading. With his help, my mind healed. I don’t know how long it took, but I have been his guest for 15 months since I have had the faculty to keep track. It was this man who taught me to read and who gave me the page on which my song was written. He has taught me much. I am almost accustomed to his strange ways and his intensely disturbing demeanor. It was also he who suggested I start to write my thoughts down, once my memories had returned. I have decided to do so, for it would be a shame should I forget who I am again. Perhaps I will still remember how to read and will be able to rekindle my identity from these pages.

With my new memories, I have a greater sense of purpose – to find out what happened to me. My host suggests I seek out a woman called the Diedne. He seems fairly certain that she can help me. Perhaps it is as good a place to start as any. I will leave tomorrow.

To be continued…

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