He hears those words in his mind. Why was that? He wonders as he looks around, a name he had not thought of in hundreds of turns. Had that really been his name so long ago? Was it something he had just seen, or something he had just walked by that sparked this memory? Another moment went by and the name was gone. No, not gone, it just did not matter. His mind was onto something else. It would probably be hundreds of turns before he thought of that name again.
Now the name his enemies gave him was the Druids Bane, the Black Druid or the Black Sorcerer. His followers called him their Dark Lord. His slaves and sacrifices called him the Master. Even those names he forgot as soon as he heard them. His mind, as always, was focused on life ending, then regenerating and then beginning again. He thrived only on the power he had over life every time he took one.
He walked through the slave pens, glancing over the new groups of prisoners his acolytes had brought him tonight. Dirty, filthy souls, some crying in terror, some numb, frozen in fear and some with that look of defiance in a hopeless situation. Those were the ones that drew him, those would feed his hunger.
Again his old name comes to him. What was it? Why, after so long? And then he sees why. A small child, a girl, coming in and out of his view as he walks through the group of cowering wretches.
He stops and stares at this little girl. Memories come flooding back to him of a time a thousand turns ago before he began this journey of blood and death. He did not remember them as good times, happy or sad times, it was just something he went through, in another time.
He is curious. He picks up the little girl much to the horror of what must be her mother and father. He holds her close staring into her eyes. She is afraid but does a good job of hiding her fear. She stares back into his soulless eyes with a brave face.
He sees now why his mind has gone back to that time so long ago. This little girl has the face of his sister, Genovefa. A face he never thought he would see again, whenever he thought of her at all. He indulges himself as he stares into the face of his long lost sister and lets his mind go back to over a thousand turns ago.
Part One 3500 BC ‘The Beginning’ (A Thousand Turns Ago)
Arthfael has never been happier in all his thirteen summers. He is a man today and his right of passage celebration is being held at the High King’s stronghold of Tara, in the land of Eire. It is a personal favor to his father and mother, the High Druid Priest and Priestess of the realm.
He had never seen nor tasted such wonderful foods before. Tables full of sweetmeats, fruits and breads from all over the country were brought to the feast for his special day. He had even tasted different wines and ales the High King’s guards had passed to him, out of the sight of his father and mother of course. It was truly a wonderful day!
And it wasn’t just the food and drink that made the day so special. There were ax throwing contests, archery contests and horse races. There was even a melee in the middle of the day that some of the finest warriors in the land fought in. All of this in honor of his name day. The High King presented him with a fine new staff made of oak and trimmed in bronze. The Queen gave him a strong, swift pony. All of this being done with his closest friends and family present to enjoy in his celebration.
As the evening sets in and all of the coming of age celebrations come to a close Arthfael and his friends steal away to explore the High King’s stronghold. The marshlands and hills behind the stronghold hold a special interest for Arthfael because they contained the ancient burial places and resting grounds of the High Kings and High Druids of the past. So while the merriment and drinking went on the boys broke away for a once in a lifetime chance to look about.
Arthfael was accompanied by four of his closest friends. They were boys he had known his whole life and all had fathers who were Druid Priests. All five were following in their father’s footsteps and studying to learn the Druid ways. Two of them, Judoc and Drest, were a turn younger than he. The other two, Morcant and Haerviu, were each a turn older. Since Arthfael’s father was the High Druid Priest of Tara it was only natural that he was the leader of the little group. They also had a pesky little follower, a boy of nine winters old whose name was Cynwrig. No one wanted him to come along, but he was the son of the High King and they worried he would tell his father if they made him stay behind.
All of the young boys, except for Cynwrig, were Ovates learning the first stages of the Druid priesthood. It was assumed Arthfael would take his fathers place as High Druid Priest someday. All began their education turns ago and were presently students of nature and the teachings of Mother Earth. Yet Arthfael kept finding his interests being pulled from these studies and in another direction, one leading to the Druid magick of invocations and spells. He was most curious about the Cauldron, the symbolic womb of the Mother Goddess in which all life begins, ends and regenerates.
With Arthfael in the lead the boys ran through the standing stones behind the King’s stronghold and down to the bogs. Beyond the bogs were the hills of Tara, the kingdom’s ancient burial grounds, and that was where Arthfael wanted to go. He felt as if something was calling to him, pulling on him, to go that way. More than anything he wanted to explore the ancient barrows at the base of the hills and find the Cave of Cruachan, the Gateway to Hell, and explore the underworld. This was his chance to learn more about the Druid magick that always occupied his mind.
The bogs were alive with the chirping of insects and the croaking of frogs but no matter how long they looked under the light of the full moon they could not find a way to cross. The boys walked for over an hour through the tall grass along the edge of the marsh. All they could see were the bright lights of the stars and the moon reflecting off of the still waters. As they looked between the old willows that grew along the waters edge they could see no dark trails of solid ground that would be their pathway.
Arthfael questioned Cynwrig as to where the trails lay, but the boy proved to be no help. He had only traveled through the bogs during the day in processions led by others. Everything looked different to him at night and he had no idea how to cross. Arthfael sat on the banks of the bog, looking across while he held his head in his hands. He chanted an old poem to the elements while he felt his chances of finding out something great this night slipping away. His chant took on an angry tone, one directed towards Cynwrig, feeling the King’s son was keeping the way across hidden from him on purpose. In the distance they could hear the singing, laughter and music of the celebration that the boy kept whining to return to, he had grown afraid of the dark.
Then his friend Drest yelled out to him in excitement patting Arthfael on the shoulder. As he looked up he saw a ghostly green light, about the size of a human head, burning steady off in the distance. He first thought this must be a Will O’the Wisp. But he had never seen one before and this one did not fit the description from any of the tales he had been told. It was said they burned blue and orange as they came up out of the ground and they were about the size of a man’s hand. This one burned with a cold green light and gave off no reflection as it floated silently above the still water. He could only think the old stories of the Wisps must be wrong.
As if in a trance Arthfael rose and walked straight towards it with Cynwrig and his friends following. To their surprise they found the water only to be ankle deep the whole way to it. As soon as they reached the Wisp it disappeared but then another took its place farther into the bog. The boys followed the ghastly green burning heads deeper into the waterways with only Cynwrig wondering how they were going to get home.
How long they followed the Will O’the Wisps Arthfael did not know. He was mesmerized and could not have even told you if his friends were following him or not. The Wisps were of the magick he desired and their sickly green flames kept him enthralled. They took the boys through twists and turns in the bog and then suddenly they were out of the water and into the burial grounds that Arthfael had been striving to get to since night had set in.
As the Wisp led them deeper into the grounds they passed grass covered mounds with large stones blocking their entrances. Next they walked past ancient stone Cairns, burial chambers made of large stones piled high. Some they went by must have entombed some very powerful and important people for they were protected by ghost dogs, Cairn terriers, that roared at them with teeth barred as they walked by. The hounds were fierce, but the boys felt protected for they would cower away whenever the Wisp came about. Arthfael could not say how many tombs they passed and at the time he did not care. He was under the spell of the Wisp and where it led.
Finally they walked up to the Wisp and it did not disappear. It stayed put in front of a small, disheveled ancient barrow far older than any they passed yet. It did not look like the barrow of a High King or High Druid compared to the Cairns they had seen. It looked more like a paupers grave.
The Will O’the Wisp moved to the top of the pile of stones and shown its ghastly light down on a small opening. It revealed a small cave framed by two standing stones with a cap stone going across the top. Ancient runes carved into the capstone looked familiar to Arthfael but they were so old he could not read their meaning. He looked back at his friends who were still following. Cynwrig was shaking his head sideways and mouthing a silent ‘no’ but his four friends were nodding yes. The boys walked into the small Cairn.
The entrance was crisscrossed with a mass of cobwebs and dust stirred with every step they took. No one had entered this tomb in hundreds of turns. From the light of the moon streaming in Judoc found three old torches stacked in the corner. He brought out his iron and flint and lit them giving one to Arthfael, one to Cynwrig to stop his sniveling and took one for himself. With the torches burning brightly Arthfael and Cynwrig led the boys into the small man-made cave while Judoc brought up the rear. Arthfael used his new staff to knock down the thick masses of cobwebs in the dusty tunnel as down into the bowels of the barrow they went.
Every noise was muffled by the thick coating of dust as the boys walked along. For such a small mound of stones on the outside they seemed to walk for miles through the twisting and turning tunnel underneath. They stumbled on dust covered bones, human skulls and the skulls of things they could not recognize as they went. Paintings of battles and death along with runes that they could not read covered the walls. All of this fueled Arthfael to continue on to see what he could find at the end.
Cynwrig walked behind him holding his torch with both hands and crying out every time he saw a skull or skeleton peering out at him through the dust and cobwebs. Every once in a while he would whisper “I wish’t to wend home now”. But he was too afraid to leave the group.
Finally they entered a large cavern hewn from the living stone. All around the bottom of the walls were piled skeletons and rune covered clay urns. On the walls were more of the ancient runes carved into the stone along with more paintings that may have been done in what looked to be old dried blood.
What was at the center of the chamber really drew the attention of the boys. Sitting on four heavy wood stumps was a large, thick rectangular table that looked to be chiseled from petrified oak. The ancient runes were carved all around its edges and underneath sat a large stone cauldron made of granite, but it was what was on top of the table that really had the boys mystified.
Laid out spread eagle with its hands and feet tied to the table laid a dried out skeletal corpse. The skin on the bones was patchy as most of it had turned to dust. From the smashed in ribcage protruded a stone knife with a rune carved oaken handle. The skull on the table, even with most of the skin missing, had a look of helplessness and terror. Arthfael realized to his great joy they had walked into a tumulus, a chamber where death rituals had taken place. Here he might find some answers he had been seeking on his quest for Druid magick.
The boys stepped up around the table and looked down on the old body. Arthfael handed his torch to one of his friends and reached for the stone knife. He pulled it out of the old bones and took a close look at the blade. It was made of flint, double edged and very thick in the middle. The edges were chipped down to a sharpness to match the finely honed edge of his bronze hunting knife. The oaken handle still had bark on parts of it that were worn smooth through much use. Both blade and handle were etched with finely carved runes, the same he had seen all throughout the barrow.
Arthfael felt an energy flow up his arm as he held the knife. He held it close trying to read the runes, trying to understand them and it was as if the knife started talking to his minds eye, compelling him. Arthfael looked at the skeletons all around the cavern and realized all the rib cages he could see were smashed in at the same place, over the heart.
“Crisp yon bones and dust off of thy table,” he commanded his friends. He felt as if he had slipped into a trance as power from the stone knife flowed through him.
They did as he ordered. When they touched the brittle ropes holding the old bones, they disintegrated into little piles of dust. They carried the skeleton that was barely holding together over to the wall and laid it on top of a heap of bones. Once they had taken the old body away they brushed the dust off the table and they could see that a pentagram had been carved into the top with runes at each point. A hole had been bored in the middle of the pentagram that was directly over the stone cauldron underneath.
“Taketh young Cynwrig and bind his body to yon table. Judoc, giveth more light throughout thy tumulus if’t be true thee wilt,” Arthfael commanded his four friends.
His friends did not hesitate and did as they were told as if in a trance themselves. Judoc took his lit torch and went around the chamber lighting old torches which were already sticking out of sconces spaced about the walls of the chamber. Soon the boys could see into every dark corner of the room as all shadows disappeared.
The other three boys quickly grabbed Cynwrig before he had a chance to realize what Arthfael was saying and threw him on top of the table. Morcant and Haerviu being much larger than the boy held him down while Drest pulled a coil of rope from his pack and cut off four pieces at arms length with his hunting knife. In no time the three boys tied Cynwrig to the table through holes where the old rope had been. He was spread eagle on top of the star with each foot and each hand at a point. His head was at the top point of the star. The boy cried and pleaded the whole time for them to stop but they proceeded as if they did not even hear him. When they were done Arthfael stood at the top of the table beside Cynwrig’s head while his friends stood at each point of the star.
As the five young Druids looked down at the squirming boy. Cynwrig went from crying and pleading to threatening and demanding. “I be thy King’s son, release me from these bonds or mine father wilt has’t thee flayed! I be thy High King’s son!” No amount of pleading or demanding had any effect on the five boys, they looked down on him as if he were not speaking.
Arthfael put his left hand on the boy’s head while holding the knife in his right. “Hold young Cynwrig,” he commanded to the others and they reached and grabbed a hand or a foot with both hands. Arthfael could hear chanting as if it were coming from the stone knife, the other boys could hear it too. They could not yet recognize the words that were being sung. The firelight in the tumulus seemed to dim as Arthfael looked down on the struggling Cynwrig. The runes covering the walls of the chamber and along the edge of the table started to take on the same ghastly green light as the Will O’the Wisp they had followed. The chanting grew louder as if coming from the table along with the knife and soon the boys were chanting along in the strange ancient language, even though they still did not yet know the meaning to the words. Cynwrig looked up into Arthfael’s eyes and screamed.
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