All of Rathúnas was gathering for the celebration. It has been fifty years since this peaceful and prosperous kingdom had come to be. The outer walls of the city beheld streaming banners of azure, emerald, gold, and crimson. The market was full of endless chatter, as locals bartered with traders sporting goods from beyond the great Forest of Beathail, from which not many have ventured.-
Beathail was not only the largest forest in the kingdom of Rathúnas, but it has been revered since time began as the source of life for the people of the kingdom. Its flowing rivers provide the essential fluid of life to all the land, and its trees and herbs provided food and medicine in times of need. One cannot spend but a moment there without being serenaded by a chorus of songbirds proclaiming to the world that all is well. It is here that it is said that the spirits of the land reside. They tend the great trees, bring forth water from the springs of the earth, and lead the wild hunt. Yet there was a time in which there was no song, the wild beast grew weak and few of number, the plants and trees had begun to wither, and the flowing rivers were dried up to mere trickling streams. These were the days of darkness, in which the whole kingdom was being strangled by the hand of a ruthless and tyrannical leader.
In this land, the spirits have been called the Càr-Aingel, or ‘Guardians’, in the old tongue. The people of Rathúnas have come to revere these spirits, and hold a festival every year to mark the return of the Càr-Aingel after the defeat of the dreaded ‘Demon King,’ Droch-Spirod by the hand of Buaidh. It was he who once led the rebellion against the evil king. When Buaidh slew the foul beast, the blood of Droch-Spirod ran down the steps of his great citadel, as the waters of Beathail once had. Buaidh was so loved by the people that they demanded that he become king, and with his stewardship, life returned to the great Forest of Beathail, and the kingdom flourished.
-The Old Goat was the favorite place in all of Rathúnas to come and rest, eat, drink, and enjoy good company and much jocularity. As far as taverns go, it was rather unremarkable. The bar and tables were made of simple wood that showed years of scuffs, cracks, and the occasional splinter, and the plates and tankards were often chipped and dented as well. This was surely the sign of much use. What The Old Goat lacked in style, it more than made up for it in its food and drink. The homely looking old woman in the kitchen had been known to make some of the most delicious meat pies around, but it was the mead that kept their patrons coming. Ainbheach, the owner, had been known to make some of the best mead around. He harvested the honey from his own hives, amongst the most fragrant wildflowers at the edge of Beathail, which gave his mead a characteristic taste that none have been able to match. On this particular day, the Càr-Aingel Festival was in full-swing, and Ainbheach had already gone through a dozen large casks of his famous mead.
“Another round for everybody!” shouted the old soldier sitting at the end of a long table filled with men and woman laughing, eating, and drinking. “Today we celebrate when our great King Buaidh stormed the walls of this, our fair city, and overthrew the wicked Droch-Spirod!”
“Aye Captain! And he took the head of that rotten son-of-a…” came a voice from the group of soldiers mingled amongst the other people.
“Hold your tongue, boy! We have women-folk around.” the old captain said with a wink, and all of The Goat joined in laughter. “As I was saying. I can’t believe that it has already been fifty years since I stood with our beloved king in that final battle against the Demon King, when I was but a mere whelp like the rest of you.” He jested while giving a nudge in the ribs to the young soldier sitting next to him. “Yes it was his great love for his people, and his prowess with a blade that saved this land, and returned the Càr-Aingel to our beloved Beathail. It was his leadership that has made this land prosperous, and thus it was given the name Rathúnas, which means ‘to prosper’ in the old tongue. Ladies and gentlemen. Let us stand and raise a tankard to our wonderful leader, for whom we owe our very lives. Hail King Buaidh!”
“Hail!” came forth the reply from the whole room.
“What a quaint little speech, but you missed the most important part of the story.” From the far corner of the tavern, sitting next to the hearth smoking his pipe and taking a long draught from his tankard until it was empty, was an old man with a wide smile under his bushy beard.
“What are you talking about old man?” said the captain as he looked in disbelief that someone would question his tale. “I fought and bled with our brave leader, as did many of my closest friends, and I don’t seem to ever see the likes of you shedding blood for the cause. How dare you, Sir!”
The old man took a long drag from his pipe, and let the smoke loose in the direction of the captain before placing it inside of his feathered cloak. “My good man, I mean no disrespect, but I am only implying that you do not know the whole story. The tale of what had to transpire in order for our king to make such a killing blow. As you can see, my tankard has run dry. Perhaps if you were to buy me another drink, I would be more than happy to share a truer and more interesting version of things.”
With a look of amusement, the captain signaled to the bartender for another mead as the old man began his tale.
‘Two score and ten has the wheel turned since the rule of the Demon King, and I was but a lad on the cusp of manhood. In fact, the place I called home from my earliest memory stood not ten feet from this very hearth. It was there that I lived with my father, mother, and two younger sisters. My father was one of those faithful and loyal to Droch-Spirod in the days before his mind became twisted and evil. At a time when things were much as today, and the blessed Beathail flourished. Yet like so many of those faithful servants of the king, they were arrested when Spirod started to change. His mad suspicions led him to make public examples of those that he thought were against him, and like many others, my father was flayed alive and hung from his own bowels at dawn one hot summer day. All of which was in full sight of the innocent eyes of my family and myself.
I loved my father very much, and to see him hanging, covered in his own blood and excrement, was enough to spark a hatred that I had never felt before. Not thinking in the least, I picked up a small stone, no larger than a robin’s egg, and hurled it at the evil man… No, the vile monster that had taken someone that I held so dear as my own father. The stone didn’t even make it halfway to the fiend before striking the ground, and with it came the gasps of the crowd in disbelief.
“Seize him!” shouted Droch, as at least a dozen armed soldiers circled ’round with weapons drawn, and pointing menacingly towards me. My poor mother, distraught with the loss of her beloved, and now facing the imminent destruction of her first born, ran towards me to somehow save me from what was about to be the end my short life. Her strides were cut short, though, by the spear of one of the Demon King’s men. As she fell to the blood-soaked ground beneath her, she stared at me with eyes waning of life.
“Your sisters… Get… Run!” These were the dying words of my mother, but they were too late. My sisters had already met their fate at the hands of the soldiers. I was now alone, and then I felt the grasp of one of the soldiers ’round my arm threatening to remove limb from place.
Now struggling in vain against a giant, compared to my meager stature, I saw my opportunity to escape glistening at the side of my assailant. I grabbed hold of his dagger and plunged it into the chink between coif and helm. His grasp released, and I managed to break free, and fled the city and into the dying forest. There I ran for hours, and far deeper into the wood than I had ever been, until my legs gave out beneath me, and I collapsed with exhaustion.
How long I was unconscious, I do not know, but when I awakened, night had already fallen, and I had much thirst. Before me was the remnants of one of Beathail’s mighty rivers, now a feted stream that was not safe for drink. It was then that I heard the owl. Such a haunting resonance had startled my fragile self, and I stumbled. Looking up I beheld a beautiful white owl perched on a stump not an arms distance away. Having never seen a bird of such beauty, I found myself lost in the gaze of such a creature until it took flight. Something about it spoke to me deep in my mind, and I found much need to follow.
We hadn’t traveled far until we came to a clearing in the trees with a clean pool of water glistening in the moonlight. In my desperate thirst, I thrust myself into the water and drank until my stomach was about to burst.
“Thirsty?” I quickly turned to see who had spoken, and was taken back when before me was an old crone with a look of amusement on her weathered face. “Well… Did you get your fill?” “Yes, ma’am.” I said. “Good. Now that you’re all wet, you can get out of my spring and head over to my fire.”
I didn’t know what she meant, since we were standing in a circle of withering trees with no fire to be seen. “But there’s no…” “SRAD TEINE!!!” shouted the crone, and a large fire appeared in front of us. “How did you do that?” I asked. She stared at me in the same manner as the owl before. “In time, and if you’re willing, you will learn. For now, I must ask you something very important. What do you know of my forest?” “Nothing more than the stories that my m…” I began to cry as the reality of never hearing my mother tell me those tales again set in. Fighting back my tears I continued. “Sorry. My mother told me of the Càr-Aingel that guard and protect it, and it is they who make it flourish.” “That’s correct, and as you can see, my forest is dying. The Càr-Aingel have begun to die and so goes the land. In their realm, the world between worlds, there is a temple in which the source of the power of the Càr is held. A beautiful stone of no other like. Clach-Rong. The Lifestone. However, the stone has been stolen, and with it the life-force of the Càr-Aingel.”
Who was this woman, and what did all this have to do with me? I looked puzzled at her, and before I could say anything, it was as if she already knew what I was going to say. “The one who stole Clach-Rong has a power that surpasses even my own, and my days are but few. For you see, my fate is tied to that of my forest.” “You’re dying?” I asked. She looked at me with the same sweet smile that my mother used to look at me with when I asked her something silly. “Aren’t we all? But please, I must finish. The one who stole Clach-Rong is none other than the Demon King, Droch-Spirod, or at least the demon that possesses him.”
My blood boiled as I heard this. “That devil! He will pay for this! I will see him…” “You will see him standing over you laughing if you think you can challenge him now!” I went silent and she continued. “Right now you are too weak. He would see you to the same fate as your father!” How could she know about that? Was my blinding hatred for the wicked ruler so obvious as to give away every aspect of my history? “Look here,” she said as she guided my eyes toward the spring of which I had so recently made my bath.
As I gazed, I could see the gruesome spectacle of my father’s murder, and I could see King Spirod for what he truly was. I saw a beast of shadow consuming the life-force of my father and the other’s that shared his fate. His wicked face laughing as he gorged himself on his victims. The anger within me only grew as I beheld this terrible revelation. The image began to change, and before me was the image of Clach-Rong. It shined with a brilliance of which I had never seen before that was slowly getting dimmer and dimmer, and its power seemed to beckon me through the glistening water. It was held on a pedestal and it appeared that its power was being drained. The watery image rippled and then there was nothing. Lifting my eyes from the pool, I was surprised to find that I was no longer in the circle of trees, but standing in a ransacked temple. The pool was still at my feet, but everything else had changed. I turned to find the old woman collapsed on the ground before a pedestal. I rushed to her side praying that she was still alive. I had no idea where I was, and had no idea what I was supposed to do. As I rolled her over, I could see that she was still alive, but only barely.
“I have brought you to the world between worlds.” said the woman with fading vitality. “With my last bit of strength I have done this. Now the fate of your home lies within your hands. They will rebel against the Demon King, but their efforts will be in vain if you cannot reclaim Clach-Rong. It is being held in the base of his citadel. It is a dark and twisted version of the one from which you had made such a daring escape. Droch is attempting to consume the stone’s power and make it his own, and he will succeed in draining all the life out of this land if you fail in your quest. There are few Càr-Aingel left, but they will guide you back through Beathail. Be warned though. This realm is fraught with much peril, and you will need to look deep into yourself to survive.”
I stood there unable to believe what she was asking me to do. My heart bore the need for vengeance, but I was nothing compared to such power. I looked at her with tears streaming. “You’re asking me to go to my death!” I shouted. “If he was so powerful as to slaughter my family in his mortal coil, I stand no chance against his true form!”
She looked at me with that smirk of hers again. “Fear not child, for I have but one more gift to give you.” She removed the feathered cloak from around her, and gently placed it on my small frame. “This cloak will protect you; so much as Clach-Rong still has strength. I’m afraid that for me it will no longer serve purpose. When Droch stormed this place, he set upon me a curse, and this vessel shall empty soon. Have courage, for if you succeed, you will have to take my place. Clach-Rong must always have a guardian.” And with that her body went limp. She was gone.
From all ’round me swirled beings of light in beautiful shades of azure, crimson, gold, and emerald. I stepped back as they approached the old woman. They covered every inch of her until she herself became a bright white light. She and the other sprites danced together in great spirals and patterns. Then it happened, they seized their dance and turned their attention toward me. “Don’t be afraid.” I could hear in my mind. “We shall give you what you need.” They flew right at me and began to fill me with their very essences. The Càr-Aingel, who until now were just characters in stories my mother told, were now joining with one such as I. I could feel within me new vigor, as if the reality of existence quickened within my very breast. I was the land, the land was me, and with the remaining strength of those whose very lives existed to protect it, I would finally have my vengeance.
The image of the snowy white owl came to my mind and I could feel what it was to be such a creature. As if the transformation was nothing at all, I had realized that my whole body was as feathered as the cloak I had recently donned. I felt the urge to take flight, so I opened my arms, now great feathered wings, and I lifted myself toward the sky. With this new body came a new sense of vision. Everything was sharper, and I could see on for miles, but it was the faintest trail of light that drew me towards it. The light intensified as I traveled along it, and it was as if the light was drawing itself into me. I could feel this was no mere path, but it was the essence of Clach-Rong itself! It too was joining its power to mine, and it only got stronger as I drew neigh, as if the very stone itself was entreating me with its liberation.
Finally emerging from the great woodland, with what seemed to be no time at all, I took to the ground. As my talons sank into the loamy earth, I felt myself return to my natural form. Before me lay the great walls of the citadel, and with it loomed a great evil I had never thought could exist, but the light drove me on. The portcullis before me was made of blackened iron with the image of a great demon. Its likeness was much to that of the shadow beast I saw before. Surly this was the image of Droch-Spirod.
The fires of vengeance emblazoned my very soul as I stared at this ghastly image. I wanted nothing more than to destroy it. For the very image of the monster was offensive to me. From deep within me came words that I had heard spoken once before. As I drew breath, it was as if I was drawing into me the very essence of flame and destruction. With a might shout, the words formed on my tongue. “SRAD TEINE!!!” The great iron doors before me were at once set ablaze from the fire that sprang forth from my will. As the flames grew, the iron glowed white hot before it ran free of its hardened form. My path was now opened save the pool of very hot liquid that was coming ever closer. Seeing the molten mass approaching, I took notice of how it flowed like water, and my mind formed words once again. “EAS-UISGE!” From out of the ground sprang great geysers covering the iron, and quenching it into a harden path to which the destiny of all laid beyond it.
As I entered the courtyard, my memories of my family plagued my mind. I wanted nothing more than to see to it that the Demon King would pay for every life he had claimed. The light that guided me was stronger here, but I could feel it fading fast. I had no time to lose. Just beyond the doors ahead of me lay the chamber from my vision. I ran as fast as I could only to find that the doors were not locked, but ajar ever so slightly. Pulling them open, I squeezed myself between them and ran into the open chamber.
There it was! Not nearly as brilliant as in the vision, but it was there nonetheless. I rushed to possess the precious treasure only to find myself frozen in place. A dark shadow consumed the Lifestone from my sight, and as if from everywhere came the sound of laughter.
“Ah, so the little whelp has come to take my little trinket from me. Bwahaha!” That voice. It was the voice that had commanded the death of my family, and it was the same voice intending to do the same to me. “I see the old witch must no longer be of this world. Such a pity. I was so looking forward to seeing her face as I drained the last of Clach-Rong’s power. Hahaha! Oh well. I guess I’ll have to seek pleasure in yours. See now the symbol of your death!” The shadows that were looming over the chamber merged together in a single spot, and there stood the very presence of evil, and in his hand was Clach-Rong.
The brilliant light that once shone was now fading to nothing. Had I lost? Was everything I had been through for nothing? It couldn’t be. The Demon King grabbed me with his one free hand and thrust the stone in my face as if to make me bear witness to its final transference of power. I struggled hard to escape his powerful grasp, but he only held tighter. The light from the stone was now very dim and the burden of despair began to set in. But despair soon turn to anger. I no longer cared what happened to me, or anything. The only desire of my very being was to send this foul creature into oblivion.
My hatred swelled, as scenes of my slaughtered family flooded my mind. I saw the death of the old woman in my arms, and the great Beathail withering to nothing. Forth from the fount of my mind came the words as before, so numerous were they that they could not be counted. It was if every last spirit of Beathail was crying out through me for vengeance. “TEINE-DOINEANN-MÌ-RIAN-BRÀTH!!!” The words poured from my lips, and everything was as if a great cataclysm. The earth shook, causing the room around us to threaten its collapse. Great winds blew swirling together in small cyclones. Fires raged all ’round as if ferocious beasts, hungry to consume all. The Demon King loosened his hold on me to shield himself from the debris. I fell to the ground only to see him being swept up in a firestorm of confusion and destruction. The ceiling began to collapse, and I saw Spirod lose hold of the stone. I dashed for the prize, and I managed to procure it. With a great shout from the Demon King, all the citadel was as if in a great explosion. The force blew me clear past the walls of the citadel, but I held tight to Clach-Rong. I could see the demon coming toward me from where his citadel once stood, and his pace quickened. Recovering from the shock of such a display of raw power, I fled to the wood.
Needing much speed, I turned myself back into an owl, and I flew with much haste. Behind me encroached a terrible evil that was destroying everything in its wake. Its sole-purpose was to see me long from this world. The air was beginning to become thick with smoke from the burning trees behind me, and the tailwind was both a blessing and curse. Finally hope was in sight. I was approaching the temple when I was stricken to the ground. I returned to my original form, but I lost hold of the stone as it rolled into the temple. I had been hit in the wing by a falling limb, and thus my arm was now broken. In much pain, I gathered myself and sprinted for the temple. Making my way inside I looked all over for a sign of the stone, and suddenly I saw its light beginning to shine brighter. Running with every last bit of my strength, I picked it up. I could feel it growing stronger, and with it so was I. Making my way to the pedestal the doorway blew out from behind me, but it didn’t seem to faze me. The evil king had made his way inside, and he was beginning his attempt to make a final death blow when I finally retuned the stone to its rightful place.
A brilliant blinding light shined forth from Clach-Rong, and I could hear cries of anguish coming from Droch-Spirod. Turning my gaze toward him, I could feel the power that he once tried to claim as his own coursing through me. Clach-Rong was channeling its very essence through me to end this evil once and for all. With a great shout came words of much power, “SOLAS FAIRTLICH, IS FAIRTLICH BÀS, BEATHAIL!!!” This in the old tongue means, “Light over Darkness, and over death, life.” With this simple incantation, and Clach-Rong in its place, the shadows of the Demon King were overcome by the brilliance of Clach-Rong, and he vanished without a trace.
With the presence of the Demon King removed from Beathail, life was restored. From every corner of the forest came the return of the Càr-Aingel, and once again the rivers flowed, the plants and trees became bountiful, and the birds sang that all was well. With my newfound strength, I was able to rebuild the temple as before, and it was there that I would make my home. From my reflecting pool, I learned of the severance of the head of Droch-Spirod’s mortal host, and the ascent of our beloved King Buaidh. I knew that as long as Clach-Rong remained safe, all would be well. I, therefore, took my place as its guardian, and now watch over this prosperous kingdom. As did the old woman before me.’
The old captain looked at the old man as he finished his mead. “Ha! A fine tale, sir, but that’s all it was. Do you honestly expect us to believe such a wild-eyed tale from a crazy old man? Why I have half a mind to throw you in the dungeon for such treasonous boasts!”
The old man looked at the captain with a gentle smile of amusement, much like the one given to him by the old woman and his mother. He reached into the folds of his feathered cloak and pulled out his pipe. Raising it to his mouth, he softly uttered the words, “Srad-Teine.” With a flash, and a gasp from the patrons, his pipe was lit. Taking a long drag and letting out a large puff of smoke, he stood up, walked past the captain, and flew out the window.
By Emrys O’Math