This story is directly related to Part 1: The Landing of the Fleet, so you might be lost if you haven't read that part. Also, name pronunciations are at the end of the post.
The militia was exhausted, irritated, and desperate.
The pirates had corralled them upriver for miles, relentless in their pursuit. The land should have been their safehaven, as pirates were known to stay close to the sea, but many soldiers had fallen already, leaving the already small militia sparse and unprepared.
Claíomh paced the deck of the small river-skimmer carrying what remained of his army. Almost a hundred soldiers, he thought, Men who raised me as their leader. All lost. And for what? Here they were, essentially leading the enemy right to their front doorstep, to new widows who'd soon meet the same fate as their loved ones. He knew he couldn't let the pirates get any closer, but he knew his measly band of poorly trained fighters wouldn't stand a chance if they stopped to fight. There was no way out--either way, they would all be dead by morning.
Soon he could see light in the distance, and as the water began to expand into a wide lake, Claíomh and his men peered around the treeline. There, upon a ridge at the water's edge, stood the sheer stone walls of the Claíomh's home: Glasdún, "the Green Keep," draped in emerald banners. The land at the base of the ridge was dotted with a few homes, and he knew looking at them that they'd soon be razed, burned to the ground, the soil salted and cursed with the taint of the sea.
"Claíomh!" came a shout from the bow. It was Dertháir, his second, tasked with guiding the helmsman while Claíomh scrambled to come up with something. "Come and look!"
Ahead was a small island, shrouded by trees, bushes, and tall grass. And atop the island stood a figure. A man, of average height and visage, but whose posture and movements seemed... unnatural. Not monstrous, but certainly inhuman. Though he looked young, his hair was grey; it hung loose, long and curled.
The man watched at first. Everyone stared back. After a moment, he nodded, and retreated into the brush.
Murmurs rippled through the crew. Who was that man? Why did he look so strange? And... was he looking right at Claíomh? Collectively, they turned to him for further orders.
Claíomh was not one to follow a vague beckoning. But something about the man struck him as one not to be ignored. Besides, if they were all going to die anyway, it was a better place than anywhere to turn and stand their ground. Perhaps the man might even fight with them, not that one extra sword would help their chances. Claíomh nodded to Dertháir, who shouted orders to the helmsman.
Their small boat drifted ashore, and the few soldiers scurried out onto the island, Claíomh in the lead. They broke through the foliage into a grassy clearing, faintly illuminated in partial moonlight through a wide opening through the canopy of trees. There, at the center, atop a small stone hump, was the silver-haired man. He sat unmoving, his hair untouched by the breeze slipping between the trees.
"Come," he said. "Come and sit with me, won't you?" His voice was normal and average-sounding, save for a strange quality Claíomh was unable to identify. He would only later realize that he was hearing the voice only in his head.
Claíomh paused, then turned to his men and motioned for them to go keep watch. He didn't want the pirates sneaking up on them while he spoke with this mysterious stranger. Finally, after taking all the precautions he could think of, Claíomh took a seat on the ground in front of the man.
"I have watched you and your people for some time now," he said. "My mother seems to favor you, and I do not believe she has misplaced her favor."
Claíomh frowned. "Your mother? Who is your mother, and who are you?"
"You know her," said the man, looking up to the sky. "And you know me. Perhaps you might think of us as neighbors. Brothers, even."
The sky was cloaked somewhat in fog and clouds, as it had been all night. But as the man spoke, and as he looked up, the veil of grey began to peel back. The light of the moon became brighter, and against the black night sky appeared dozens, hundreds of bright stars. Claíomh pondered for a moment.
"The Sky?" he posed. "The Sky is your mother?"
The man smiled. "She does not wish to see you fall. And she has already foreseen your victory."
"Indeed. One hundred and fifty years ago, your people came to this land. And on that day, my mother presented to them a prophecy."
Claíomh thought back. Yes, now that he thought of it, he did remember the story of his forefather's landing on the shores of this country. How the sky grew black, the stars grew bright, and the sun was swallowed in darkness. A little girl was said to speak forth strange words of events yet to come. But he'd always thought it to be just that: a story.
"What does that have to do with us? With this battle? How could we possibly survive this? I fear your prophecy may be incorrect."
The smile faded from the man's face, replaced with an expression of thought--curiosity, even. "I understand your lack of optimism. Alas, the odds of victory seem slim this night. But it seems the first verse of the prophecy is to be written soon. Do you remember its words?"
Of course he did. Claíomh had been told and retold the prophecy many times in his upbringing. He nodded.
"Then you'll be familiar with the portion regarding the first of the three figures."
"Yes. A soldier, a leader, who fights 'the foe of the cloud.'"
"Have you never," probed the man, "considered the strange parallels this figure has with yourself? Are you not a soldier, a leader by appointment, a defender of the cloud? Do you not fight for this land, the land under the Sky?"
Claíomh considered this silently. It was true--he was a warrior, a defender of the River-Lands. And according to this stranger, he had been enlisted to fight on behalf of the Sky without ever knowing it.
"You said we are neighbors," he recalled. "And brothers. Brothers under the Sky? Who, or what, does that make you?"
The silver-haired man placed his hands on the ground, softly feeling the stone beneath him. "I have watched this place since its birth," he said. "Since long before the arrival of your ancestors. I have seen nature wilt and bloom in this place. I have seen ancient magics and bloody wars. I know all who called the land here home, including you. Like you, I am nourished by the waters my mother carries here. I hold it so the life here can benefit from it, including you."
These strange words came over Claíomh, and he began to construct what the man was talking about. Finally, he came to a conclusion.
"You're the lake. The spirit of these waters."
Another smile spread across the face of the stranger, who no longer seemed so strange. "It's as I said. You know me as I have known your ancestors. And I know you are the figure of the prophecy, for I was present at your birth, just near my shores. 'Marked with golden rings.' So says the prophecy. Can you guess what event occurred the day of your birth, Claíomh?"
Claíomh shook his head.
"An eclipse. A total eclipse. The moon and the sun aligned in the sky, and all that was left against the black was a ring of golden fire. The first figure of the prophecy is you, Claíomh. What happens tonight will dictate the future of your people and the future of this land."
It sounded preposterous. But Claíomh knew at least one thing was true: tonight was life or death. If these pirates managed to defeat him and his army, his people were doomed.
"What must we do? What can we do?"
The spirit perked up. "It appears the first thing you're going to have to do is draw your sword."
Without warning, a roaring crowd burst through the brush into the clearing--several dozen pirates, armed to the teeth, with crazed looks in their eyes. Claíomh recognized the Salt of the Sea in them; their eyes were bloodshot, their skin pruned. The Sea, even this far inland, had total control.
Several of the pirates tossed Claíomh's men, bound and gagged, unto the ground.
An ambush. How they'd managed it without making noise, he was unsure. But now things looked as hopeless as ever.
Claíomh turned to the lake spirit, hoping for a second sword to help him take out as many pirates as he could. But the spot upon which the spirit sat was now void.
Reluctantly, he drew his sword. But none of the pirates made a move toward him. Instead, they parted, creating an opening. And through the opening stepped a man more tainted with the Salt than any Claíomh had ever had the misfortune of meeting.
He was tall, wide, and muscular. His clothes were not so much torn as they were slowly rotting away from his skin, which was pasty and hairless. He smiled dangerously, revealing blackened and missing teeth. The man looked absolutely feral. Claíomh surmised he was the leader.
He spoke, The voice was primal, ancient, booming. "Your ancestors escaped my wrath once 150 years ago. You kept safe in these lands. But my power grows, and you shall not escape me this time."
Claíomh didn't know what to say. Instead, he let his instincts take over and lunged.
The pirate parried the strike and retaliated, but Claíomh was quick on his feet. He ducked out of the way and went in for another blow. But as many times as he attacked, his opponent blocked and struck back, coming ever closer to connecting. The pirate's eyes gleamed with malice, and he let out a threatening chuckle. Like the chase, Claíomh knew it was a matter of time before this battle wore him down and he was caught.
He retreated, leaping back to where he'd sat with the lake spirit before. He tossed his blade on the ground at his feet
"Alright," said Claíomh, bending his knee. "I don't believe I stand much of a chance here. Make it a quick death."
The crowd of pirates broke into hysterical laughter. Their leader, still grinning menacingly, slowly approached Claíomh at the center of the clearing. He lifted his own blade and nonchalantly pointed it at Claíomh's bared neck. The muted soldiers struggled against their bindings, writhing on the ground in desperation, but it seemed over. Their fearless leader had abandoned the cause and given up.
Before the ghastly pirate leader could attack, however, Claíomh lunged forward. Grabbing the man's legs, he threw him to the ground. Then, in a swift and dexterous maneuver, he spun, grabbed his sword, and pinned the pirate against the stone, sword against his chest.
Several pirates jolted forward with a start, but Claíomh's grip tensed against his own captor. "Nobody make a move! Or your leader dies here and now!"
At first this seemed to work, but many of the pirates simply laughed and continued their approach.
A man of his word, Claíomh drove the blade into the leader's chest. But as he did so, he felt a blinding pain in his abdomen. Had he managed to stab himself on accident?
No. In the commotion, he'd neglected to realize that his opponent was stilled armed. The two leaders had in fact pierced each other.
Claíomh stumbled away, the pirate's blade still buried in his gut. He became dizzy and hit the ground hard. He recognized his fate, but at least he'd taken care of the leader.
Meanwhile, the leader was still pinned to the ground--no longer by Claíomh, but by his sword. The blade had actually passed all the way through the pirate's chest and into the stone beneath him. He struggled to pull it out, to free himself, but he seemed securely stuck.
As the pirate leader pulled at the blade, it suddenly began to glow a dim blue. He recoiled in pain, steam rising from his now burned hands, and from the point at which the sword had pierced his body. The glow grew brighter, and the pirate writhed harder, before his body simply evaporated away, leaving nothing but a patch of salt and the glowing blue sword in the stone.
Everyone, pirates and soldiers alike, looked on in awe and fear.
The wind picked up. The pirates all chattered anxiously. Claíomh collapsed on the ground, almost unconscious. Suddenly, his eyes opened and he spoke--not in his own voice, but in the voice of the lake spirit. It boomed throughout the clearing and across the lake.
"This is not a prophecy, but a promise. There will be a king in this land. This will be their sword, and it will hold within it our powers and our spirits. So long as the sun and the stars shine, the Sea will not have this land. Begone."
With that, Claíomh fell totally unconscious. His breathing finally came to a stop, and he moved no longer.
The pirates, as it turned out, did not notice this. For upon the final word, they too began to hiss as steam rose from their flesh. Within seconds, they had met the same fate as their leader, and evaporated.
By the time the bound soldiers managed to free themselves, the sun had begun to rise. They gathered around Claíomh's body and silently mourned the loss of their leader.
Dertháir, now the leader in Claíomh's absence, was first to speak. His voice was soft and broken with grief. "We should bury him. Right here. This, the site of his sacrifice, will hold the memory of his bravery forever."
As the men set to work, one of them walked over to the sword, still piercing the stone. It no longer glowed, but it radiated a powerful energy. None dared to retrieve it, but they got the distinct feeling that they couldn't if they tried. This king the spirit spoke of, they guessed, would be the one to draw and wield this sacred blade.
By noon, the soldiers had made it home. They told the story, and everyone paid their silent respects to Claíomh. Some wept openly, others retreated to their homes. But one, an elderly man, stepped forward: Claíomh's grandfather.
"Yes..." he said. "It is unfortunate, but I feared this may be the outcome of the prophecy. For I knew, when the eclipse occurred on his birth, that Claíomh was no mere man. He was a pawn of fate." He paused, deep in thought. "This spirit he spoke to. It would be good to thank him somehow. A shrine, perhaps, on the island. It is clearly a place of importance and of great power."
And so it was done. A shrine, seven pillars of stone in a circle, was constructed. Claíomh's grave, and the sword buried in the stone, sat at its center. Some took up the role of tending to the shrine, providing gifts for the lake spirit and the spirits of the forests, and studying the magics of nature. These people, who would become the druids, also made a significant effort to decode the rest of the prophecy and identify the second figure, though no one knew when they may arise. Such is the curse of a prophecy.
The shrine still stands centuries later. Many come to bring gifts of food and coin in exchange for guidance from the divine. And they pay their respects to Claíomh, for their very existence is thanks to his sacrifice.
- Claíomh (pronounced [klah-yove])
- Dertháir (pronounced like dare-tie-ear)
- Glasdún (pronounced [glaz-doon])