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Gathered in a hollow below a hill, deep in the forests of a land known by many names, a group of Pictish men and women were practicing the various arts that their people were known for throughout the Realms. These men and women, human by all outward appearances, were much more than that now, as were all people of the Three Realms. Like many, they had traveled a long, strange road.
The short, wizened old man sat by himself in a strange grove at the flat top of the hill. All around him, the hill swept down, its slopes made up of rocks, trees, and other objects, that seemed almost placed there by design rather than by chance. His legs rested to one side as he leaned back on a chair crudely hewn from rock. He sat without moving for many minutes, and as a howling wind came off the nearby sea, he started to count to himself, minute by minute, as the winds swirled around him.
His periodic count of the minutes passed quietly, until a strange thing happened: A nearby stone started to move on its own. As the old man continued to count, part of the rock started to resemble a child crouched over a small boulder, hugging it with both arms. The winds continued to blow, and the old man saw that one of the nearest tree’s branches had begun to look more like a mass of hair than a branch. As his count reached ten, more seemingly inanimate objects were suddenly revealed to be attached to other children. When the slow count of minutes reached fifteen, the once-empty grove was full of young Picts whose painted bodies resembled the objects that they once stood, sat on, or held, just moments before.
“Well done, young ones,” said the old man, “but I think one of our brood hasn’t revealed himself yet.”
All the children looked around, but they could not see anyone hidden among the rocks, trees, nor bushes of this sacred grove.
“None of you can see him?”
The children all shook their heads in unison.
“Remember your lessons. Sometimes the best place to hide is right out in the open,” said the man, who then pointed down below his chair. Smiling, he straightened one leg and brought it back down in a swift kick to the young Pict that had been hidden there all the time. The Pict jumped up with a boisterous laugh and a smile.
“I did well, didn’t I?” said the child.
“Yes you did, Talorc, quite well as usual,” said the old man with more than a little pride in his voice, no matter how much he wanted to hide it.
With that admission, Talorc smiled all over and briefly lost control of the colorful pattern that was etched into his skin. The tattoos began to swirl around in an incoherent pattern, clearly visible through his “second skin,” the thin, nearly diaphanous cloth he and the other children wore.
The old man coughed to cover his pride. He glanced around at the children, adding “And to think they call us naked savages!”
“Naked savages indeed!” thought Talorc to himself, anger welling up inside him. This anger caused Talorc’s control of his tattoos to waver even more, and they swirled faster and more unpredictably.
The old man smiled inwardly. This was a good opportunity to remind the youth that he still had a lot of growing up ahead of him.
“Talorc!” the old man said in mock anger. “Since you have obviously lost control of your second skin, maybe you should have a real practice. Stand before the group and change your skin to match that nearby tree. Hold your position while you recite the tale of our race’s birth, and don’t lose control this time!”
The boy wasn’t angered by this rebuke, for he knew that he deserved it. Loss of control of his second skin was a shaming offense for his people, almost akin to damaging the tattoos of other Picts. Not equal to failing to heed the Cloak of Shame, but still considered a personal failure. He walked over to the tree where the old man had pointed, grabbed some leaves and dead branches from the ground and held them next to his body. His tattoos began their work instantly, and his skin started to resemble that of the tree. Within seconds, he couldn’t be distinguished from it. Then he began to recite the tale.
Before the First Breaking of the world, those whose hearts were not full of charity and sharing called us pirates, raiders, and savages. Even then, our lineage was determined through our mothers, and it is said that even back in those long-ago days the women of the Picts were both warriors and mothers, leaders and caregivers, just as they are today. However, the stories tell that our kings in those days were men, and led us through the darkest days both above and below this land when the Veilstorms came.
No king was greater than Brude Bridei Mac Billi, also known as Brude Mac Bile. Brude was a fearsome warrior and wise leader, and it was under his rule that our people emerged from hidden homes under the hills and mountains that protected us after the coming of the terrible Veilstorms.
One fall day, Brude stretched his legs, walking through the underground holdings that had sheltered his people for many generations. He was restless this morning; his tattoos were moving in a strange pattern that he had yet to understand. He felt that they were trying to tell him something important, as they had in the past, but he could not divine their meaning. This frustrated and worried him, for a king of the Picts was expected to understand the strange magic behind these markings better than any other, and to help guide his people through them and his own wisdom. Failure to understand would result in losing the confidence of his people, and his right to govern through their support.
Brude was a good man, and many would say a great young king, but he was always restless, looking for more out of life than his people’s quiet life in these sheltering hills and mountains. Some said that Brude longed for the old days, long forgotten by many, of battles against invaders from across the sea. Others said that Brude was simply too young for this responsibility, that a more seasoned individual should have been chosen by the circle for kingship. All that truly mattered now was that Brude was king of the Picts. In his opinion, whether that would be for good or ill was yet to be revealed.
As the sun rose higher on this shining fall day, Brude ventured out onto one of the high “falcon’s nests”. These allowed his people to watch the land below as well as the sky above for Veilsign, not to mention incursions by their enemies.
The forest was beautiful at this time of year. The colors of the trees were at their peak, and with the harvests safely in, there would be plenty of food for the coming winter. He took a moment to enjoy the mixing of hues as the sun rose in the sky.
As he looked down on a nearby loch, with its ruined keep gleaming in the dawn, he heard a familiar cry. Brude extended his arm, and his pet falcon Drest settled comfortably onto it, his claws digging in just a little. Brude extended his senses to the falcon, and reaching into its mind he saw what Drest had seen during his latest travels above the world.
At first, there was nothing out of the ordinary. Some small bands of people wandering the land, a missed meal or two by Drest (which frustrated the bird terribly). No sign of a coming storm, which was what Brude usually looked for. Brude always wondered what Drest thought of the images he received from him, and at times he thought he detected what could be best described as a smile coming from the bird’s mind over some of Brude’s more interesting nocturnal activities.
When he was about to relax and release the mind-share, the king saw something that concerned him greatly. Among the trees of a nearby forest, Drest saw someone slowly moving among the trees, carrying a bow. The archer was wearing the colors of the Fall Court of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
While the Picts had remained hidden for these many generations, they had established a very effective network of spies and friends, who kept them informed of the doings among the three Realms of this world. In exchange, the Picts provided shelter to many a lost people, including those known as Goblins, and shared some of the treasures from under their mountains. He quickly released Drest from the mind-share, but asked him to stay close in case he was needed. As Drest flew off looking for a tasty meal, Brude was left by himself on the top of mountain.
“Hmm”, Brude thought to himself, “What would they be a-doing this far west, I wonder?”
Concerned, Brude sat down, took a deep breath, and let the tattoos on his arms and face work themselves into a pattern that he hoped he could read. As the morning turned warm with the continued rise of the sun into the sky, Brude saw the colors of the forests reflected back in the tattoos. Soon the lines began to shift together, each changing as the sun and clouds in the sky changed the vista below him.
As the sun finally reached its zenith, Brude’s tattoos subtly and slowly changed their locations on his skin. Once the tattoos settled into their new home, the pattern that Brude was looking for became apparent to him. Truth be told, he wasn’t sorrowed by what he saw, though he knew the dire implications of his vision. The pattern could only mean one thing: War was coming, and it was time for his people to take a stand once again, to reemerge from their hiding places and help protect this land.
Brude was energized by his vision. He quickly summoned Drest, who was not the least bit happy about being called back so soon, and who expressed his displeasure by digging his talons into Brude’s arm with exceptional relish, drawing a little blood. With a sharp mental reminder to the bird about who was the master, Brude showed Drest where he wanted him to scout.
Satisfied that both his messages had gotten across, Brude began to head down into the mountain. Unfortunately for him, however, Drest had a little surprise. Just before Brude reached the well-disguised entrance, Drest released a little something for Brude to remember him by. The dropping struck Brude right in the head, and as the king shouted in anger, Drest responded with a sharp falcon’s cry and flew off to follow the wishes of his so-called master.
Wiping the bird’s mess from his head with an annoyed grunt, Brude quickly moved down the well-worn path that led from the top of the mountain to the gathering place of his people. He worked his way through the timeless town hewn from the rocks themselves with a slow, thoughtful stride. All of this was going to change very quickly.
He wasn’t sure how his people were going to take this sudden shift in their fates. Would they react as the warriors they once were, or as the farmers and gatherers that they had become over the decades? It was true that the education of the Pict’s children had always included a study of both the physical and magical arts, but that was a long way from fighting in an actual war. He and other kings had taken out raiding parties over the years, but fighting in pitched battles, especially in this new world where magic had become so important, was unknown to them.
As Brude passed, he looked at the faces of his people, those that looked to him for protection. He wondered whether he had interpreted the tattoo’s story properly. Could he have let his own desire for more from this life affect their telling? And if he had, was he a skilled enough leader to take his people out of their mountains and into the daylight and battle? He might be among the best fighters of the Picts, a trait that was still highly valued, but that was a long way from being a great war-chief.
He had studied hard as a child, listening to those that had fought before, and asking questions when they allowed such as him to take part in the discussions of grown men and women. And yes, many thought him a natural leader, with a strong understanding of tactics and strategy, especially for one so young. But still…this was going to be a war.
As Brude reached the meeting place, he saw that he had already gathered a small crowd of people. They must have followed him while he was lost in thought, making his way down from the nest above. Brude took a deep breath and sat down in his accustomed place in the stone circle, with his tattoos exposed to all around him.
Once again stilling his thoughts, Brude let the tattoos begin their dance. As they did, magic spread from his arms to the standing stones around him. His breathing slowed, and his eyes took on the faraway look that came when a Pict was at one with himself and the circle. Soon the stones began to sing, calling all within the mountain home to join them in the meeting place. As their song resonated throughout the caverns, patterns on the surface of each stone began to resemble the tattoos on Brude’s arm, so all could see Brude’s tattoos dance in the cavern light.
As the assembly saw the tattoos, Brude also shared the visions of Drest, which appeared up above their heads. The people saw the falcon’s flight through the land, and they too wondered at the presence of the Tuatha archer moving furtively through their woods. As the tattoos and the image continued their shifting forms, some of his people began playing a musical accompaniment to the images, moved as they were by what they saw.
As the music and images swelled toward a crescendo, the audience of Picts, Goblins, and other folk began to express their emotions through a shared keening. Some older people were saddened by what they saw, while among the young the common restlessness of youth found a channel for expression of their desire to leave the mountain and take up arms.
Just at the peak of this tidal wave of sound, visions, and music, the images stopped. It was like the ending of a Veilstorm, with the emotions of all those gathered descending into a valley, quiet and serene. The throng looked around at each other for a moment before all eyes focused on their king. Slowly, silently, and without further emotion, each member of the gathering walked up to Brude and touched him on his arm.
Those that agreed with him touched him on the right, those that disagreed with him touched him on the left. With each new touch, Brude shivered as the markings of his arms absorbed the emotions of those around him. When the ceremony was complete, Brude was left alone in the stone circle, his arm and face tattoos energized by the votes of his people. Looking up to the top of the cavern, Brude sat down and extended his arms into the air once again. The magic flowed from his arms and poured into the stone circle. And when this ceremony was complete, his people had expressed their wishes clearly and resoundingly.
Thus ends Part I.
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