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The tale of Nuada Part I

“Your early Trials have gone well, young one,” said the grizzled instructor, wiping the sweat from his face with his glittering silver hand. “For the training you have, you’re the best I’ve seen in many decades. Be proud of yourself.”

The trainee smiled broadly at this hard-won praise, and leaned on his sword, sweating. “I think I will be ready soon.”

“But not too proud,” cautioned the instructor, “For an excess of pride leads even the most honored heroes to a terrible destiny.” The old teacher lowered himself to the ground and rested his back against the base of an ancient oak, letting out a grateful sigh. “This is a good time for another lesson. Recite the tale for me, as you have been taught.”

The trainee slid his blade into the rack, releasing it regretfully from his two flesh hands. The lad looked more nervous than he had during his first Trials, and the teacher had to smile to encourage him. The young man scratched his face and began to declaim the rhythmic lines.

I tell you a tale of the old times, a story of the suffering of the Tuatha Dé Danann. I tell you a tale of trouble, when the land was dark with swarms of enemies, when the world was burning, and all hope for life seemed lost. I speak now for the land, the trees and hills that make our home, and I remember the days of torment, beset by horrors within and without. I speak now the story of Nuada, he of the first silver hand.

In that time, when the greatness of the Tuatha Dé Danann dwindled in the upheavals of the First Breaking, two mighty warriors arose. One was called Nuada, and the other Bres. They were the bright sons of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and their families were closely tied to the throne.

Growing up together, they trained often in friendly bouts that always ended with smiles and laughter, neither able to completely defeat the other. Perfectly matched, a powerful bond strengthened between them.

Nuada pushed himself ever harder, learning a warrior’s way of quenching his emotions in the thrill of battle. His sire had gifted him a magic sword, and Nuada treasured the weapon above all else. He practiced with it from the barest inkling of dawn’s light until it became so dark that moonlight reflected off the blade.

His obsessive training, coupled with his natural gifts, slowly caused him to start to overtake Bres in strength and skill. Bres began to fall for Nuada’s tricks. Try as he might, he could not see Nuada’s attacks coming. The imbalance in their skills increased as Bres grew frustrated, spending more and more of his time training alone. He spoke to Nuada less often, and though he made an appearance at Nuada’s coronation with a smile, his joy for his friend was hollow.

Early one morning, Bres left the lands of the Tuatha Dé Danann to seek his fortune in far-off places. Nuada missed his friend for a while, but he was a warrior and a king above all else. With the kingdom suffering many troubles, his thoughts turned to other matters.

Nuada was proud of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and he wished to be a good king for them, a great king, to rouse his people with feats of courage that could bring them out of those dark times. But this led him to look outward for vindication of his greatness, to wish for fame.

Filled with an intense longing for greater skill, he relished any opportunity to test his prowess. The young man sought out and challenged the strongest warriors in the known lands. Sometimes he felt guilty for the blood and destruction that accompanied these fights, but he told himself that it would be worth it for his growing legend, which could inspire his people for generations to come.

He became Sword Brother and united his Realm as king, which is an epic tale for another time. Even then, Nuada always took the lead in battle, never relinquishing his place at the head of his army. His victories fed his confidence, and as our lands swelled, so too did his glory and his pride. Though he had begun with the desire to increase the greatness of our people, he became more and more focused on increasing his own.

Many years passed, many great events came and went. Late one summer’s day, word came to Nuada that a large and mysterious force of warriors was traveling to the shores of the Tuatha Dé Danann. He rushed home, abandoning his responsibilities at the One True City. With only a few day’s warning, their numbers might well prove a menace to the beautiful capital city of our people, Tír Na nÓg.

The king pretended to be angry that they should waste his time, but secretly he was glad for the chance to build his legend by defeating a great army. At the hastily gathered High Court meeting, Nuada declared that he would meet the enemy in battle himself.

The Voice of the High Court warned Nuada, shaking with age in his white robes. “The enemy must have found a deadly ally or weapon, for they wouldn’t be so brazen otherwise, great King! Stories have reached our ears of a place with no name, called only “The Depths.” Strange and powerful creatures lie therein. Scouts say that the enemies of the Children of Danu have visited that place and returned strangely empowered…”

Nuada smiled confidently at the wittering old man. “We should be unimpressed by such rumors. I vow to cleanse The Depths, once our foes relinquish their lives to my blade. Ever has your king kept his lands clear of abominations and other strange creatures; these Depths will be no exception.”

As the first night-frost of the season settled upon their land, an enemy force was spotted far offshore by the Realm’s scouts. Nuada summoned the Wild Hunt. They assembled in the grey morning light, horses stamping and filling the air with breathless streams of mist.

Before the stern faces of his warriors, Nuada rode up and down their ranks on his eager-eyed steed. “We shall descend upon them like the wrath of the heavens!” he vowed. “I shall find their leader and crush him in single combat. Then we shall show them the mercy of our people, and send the entire army back to their own lands. Well chastened, and with a warning!”

There was no chance for the Courts to talk any longer; Nuada wanted none of their deliberation and sage caution to dampen the fire of his troops. Singing and shouting, Nuada and the Hunt rode out. The Wild Hunt of those days was truly something to see. They raced to the coast, the fire-wreathed hooves of their steeds never appearing to touch the ground. After a day and night of hard riding, the warriors of the Tuatha Dé Danann reached a towering overlook. From there, they could watch the invaders come ashore with the dawn.

Helmets, spears, and blades glinted in the golden light as soldiers poured from the boats in wave after wave. Never before had the Tuatha Dé Danann faced such a force. The Hunt saw even Nuada taken aback, surprised and troubled by these numbers. The king’s eyes glinted as he shifted into his magic senses and stared at the mass of shifting auras below, the auras of living things. His unease increased when one aura tugged at his sight, an aura different from the rest. He sensed something odd within the camp of invaders…a Tuatha Dé Danann man was down there, though Nuada couldn’t pick him out from the crowd. A traitor.

What the king could see was a strange, one-eyed statue carted off a tall ship, then set to stand looming in the middle of the invaders’ camp. Nuada had heard rumors of this statue; it was called Balor, and was powerful and evil in some way.

Then he spotted Bres standing next to it, talking to the crowd of milling warriors. His boyhood friend ashore with the enemy. Nuada’s face grew dark with anger. Bres must die for this betrayal.
Straightening in his saddle, Nuada called upon the Wild Hunt. “The time has come to charge! Wipe this scum from the face of the Realm!” As a single warrior, his army raised their weapons and roared in unison.

Galloping down the steep slope with the Hunt at his back, Nuada called out a challenge. He dismounted with a leap, drawing his famous sword. “If there is a leader among you, I dare him to come out and face me! I shall show you the strength of the Tuatha Dé Danann in single combat!”

Much to the king’s surprise, Bres laughed as he answered the challenge.

Striding out of the armored ranks of the enemy, Bres was greatly changed from the youth Nuada had called friend, so long ago. His aura, which was once bright and true, now radiated a cold, evil light. In his right hand, Bres bore a black obsidian blade. Its shape shifted in the dawn light, as though the weapon were alive. At first, Nuada attributed the sword’s appearance to the flickering light thrown by the torches of the soldiers all around. Then he realized he could feel the sword’s aura, which was dark and malformed. It was alive.

Bres, seeing that Nuada had noticed his sword, smiled broadly. He spoke loud, so that the entirety of the Wild Hunt would hear. “Behold your doom, proud Children of Danu! I have gone far into The Depths, and I have emerged more powerful than anyone in your little kingdom. My sword is but one of the treasures that I possess, and any of them are more than a match for the pitiful trinkets of the Tuatha Dé Danann.” For a moment he paused, glancing at Nuada’s hereditary sword and licking his lips. “Including your magic blade!” And without the customary bow or honorifics to begin the battle, Bres raised his twisted weapon and charged Nuada.

Taken aback by Bres’ lack of honor or respect, Nuada reacted slowly. He barely managed to block the deadly blow in time, and felt the shock of it all through his fingers.

However, the years of hard training pushed Nuada to regain his composure. He returned blow for blow, turning the fight back. Slowly but surely, Nuada got the upper hand on Bres, and began to drive him back toward the sea.

With each ringing strike, Nuada’s confidence grew, for he knew the battle was over before it began. Yet Bres looked as though he did not sense his doom. As each attack thudded home and forced Bres to retreat, he smiled wider and wider. The smile turned to boisterous laughter as Bres felt the foam lap his sandaled feet.

There, he stopped his retreat. The duel continued for what seemed like hours; Bres took each blow from Nuada, but yielded no further ground. Nuada could not find any gap in his enemy’s defense, despite landing a furious storm of attacks. Bres was totally immovable. His blocks were steady as one of the stout ironwood trees that ringed Tír na nÓg, and his counterblows as vicious as midwinter frost.

As dawn broke fully and spread its golden light over the sand and rocks, the two warriors still battled ferociously, sending sparks into the froth. Frustrated, Nuada put all his strength into a single terrible blow, trying to push Bres into the oncoming tide, but Bres’ block didn’t even waver. Carried with the momentum of his attack, Nuada slipped a little. He was finally weakening.

As if Bres had been waiting for this signal, he broke into maniacal laughter. “Hahaha! Come on, great king! Try a little harder! You almost got me that time. Surely you’re not tired; I’m not even sweating yet!”

As Bres’ taunts bit into his pride, Nuada fought all the more fiercely, but could not find an opening to strike a truly punishing blow. As the sun rose over the towering cliffs, Nuada’s fatigue became more evident. Bres took the offensive, driving Nuada back toward the cliffs with powerful attacks that the king couldn’t quite match any longer. With each swing of the strange sword that landed on his armor, Nuada felt a cold chill at the point of impact. Was that magic, or fear?

Within moments, Nuada found his back against the stony bluffs. He glanced at the loyal warriors of his Wild Hunt. Their faces were grim, hardened to battle and loss. They silently watched their leader fight for his life.

The grinning soldiers that had come ashore with Bres began to cheer wildly, beating weapons upon shields. “End the match! End the match!” they chanted. His breath heaving, Nuada thought he saw the single eye of the tall statue flicker, as if eager to see death. But it was probably just his fatigue.

Desperation set in. His training took over. Nuada felt his wrists flex, his legs tense for one last attempt. For a split second, Nuada prayed that Bres would fall prey to his skill just one more time.

However, as Nuada began his attack, Bres’ lips curled thin, forming something between a sneer and a smile. This was what he had been waiting for. As Nuada spun, his sword invisible in the bright flash of sunlight, Bres held out his hand where he knew Nuada’s sword would connect. The magic weapon cut through Bres’ armor, but instead of severing flesh and bone, the blade rang as though it struck solid stone. On impact, a jolt of bone-chilling pain surged through Nuada’s right arm, more intense than the numbing cold.

Bres swung his ugly weapon down at Nuada’s treasured sword. The king’s blade split into several large pieces, each one shimmering with frost. For a moment, Nuada stood stunned, frozen by the enormity of what had happened.

A shadow fell across Nuada’s face as Bres raised his dark, jagged weapon once more. He roared with victorious bloodlust as he brought it down, severing Nuada’s right arm at the elbow. He followed with a vicious kick to the legs, dropping Nuada to his knees.

“You have lost, oh mighty King. You put your lands and your people on the line with your challenge, the lands and people that are now mine to rule! Return to Tír na nÓg and tell our people that their true king has arrived!” Bres’ spittle struck Nuada’s cheek.

Despite shock and grave injury, Nuada was not ready to lose. Pushing up with the last of his strength, he tried to butt Bres like an angry bull. But once again, Bres was ready for him, smoothly stepping aside with a mad smile. As Nuada flew past, Bres hacked off the rest of his arm with the impossibly keen blade. Blood and chunks of ice spurted from his shoulder onto the sand. Nuada finally felt the pain as he crashed back to the ground.

“I can keep this up longer than you can, brother. It seems you want a reminder of who is now King.” Bres sneered as he turned to face his troops. “Kill them all but for the cripple!”

Shocked and saddened at the humiliation of their greatest hero, the Wild Hunt was unprepared for the onslaught. The invaders fell eagerly upon the Tuatha Dé Danann, destroying them with frightening ease. Bres’ troops continued their butchery until the last of the Tuatha Dé Danann and all their horses lay dead, bodies scattered piecemeal on the bloodstained sand.

Bleeding, weakened, and ashamed, Nuada watched through a haze of pain. He could do nothing. His legend was shattered, stolen along with his people by the traitor who knew all his moves before he made them, and seemed to have an unnatural energy that drove him relentlessly onward to greater betrayals.

Bres ordered his men to collect all the heads of the slain soldiers. He put these bloody trophies in a sack made of human skin.

Lighting a torch, Bres set his teeth in the same morbid grin. He grabbed Nuada and thrust the burning brand into the stump at his shoulder. Nuada shook, barely conscious of the pain as his wound was sealed. When Bres released him, the mutilated former king slumped over, eyes rolling back in his head.

Bres tied Nuada’s ankles to the saddle of his own Phouka, and threw the dripping sack of heads over its back. Mounting up himself, he pointed out a direction with his twisting sword. “Noble steed, ride now for me, your king. Ride to our old home in Tír na nÓg, unload your burden, and then return to the fleet. And there is no need to be gentle with your passengers.” This last elicited a snort of laughter from his followers. Bres turned from his vanquished friend and strode toward the idol of Balor, the awful, bulbous statue that loomed over all.

The Phouka was weirdly delighted, winking its bloodshot eyes at these orders. The mare sped off, determined to made quite a job of it. She sought out the most uneven terrain on the long run, crossed freezing streams, leaped through gullies, and found ingenious ways to batter Nuada’s body as it dragged behind. Sharing a twisted idea of success with Bres’ sick mind, the horse delighted in the moans that came from her weakened victim.

It was a long and painful journey to the capital city of Tír na nÓg. There, where the ancient stone walkway swept up to ornate golden gates, the Phouka finally paused. Rearing up on her hind legs, she dropped the leathery sack of heads on the stone walkway, where it hit with an unpleasant squelch and thud. Its form shimmered and shifted, and the Phouka became an attractive woman, dark hair knotted and thick with sweat and blood. She loosed the rope that bound her to Nuada’s unconscious body, then spread her arms in a gesture of greeting.

The woman proceeded to the gate and announced, in a high, discordant voice: “Hear me, oh great city! Your new king is on his way. You have seven passings of the sun to prepare a suitable welcome!”

Not waiting for a response from the baffled gate guards, she spun on her heel and strode haughtily away from the city, as if daring those within to shoot her in the back.

When they found their fallen hero Nuada and the sack of heads, all that was left of the Wild Hunt, the folk of the city crumpled to their knees and wept, felled in place as if struck dead. Their hero fallen, all the Children of Danu would soon follow.

A Hamadryad healer carried Nuada inside the city and tended to his many injuries, though he did not awaken for a full day. When he finally regained consciousness, he found himself at the High Courts, relating his sorry tale. His face grew hot with shame at his failure.

The speaker of the High Courts publically rebuked and chastised him as no one had ever dared before. “You should have listened to our advice and used caution! Now your foolish eagerness has weakened us and taken many brave soldiers to defiled graves.”

None of their censures hurt him quite so much as his beloved granddaughter Morrigan. Rather than speak, she simply changed her form to that of a crow and flew over his head three times, before disappearing into the trees outside the court. It was a symbol, hearkening back to an old omen of doom. Nuada felt what remained of his pride melt like snow in a hot fire.

Over the remaining days, the members of the Courts met over and over, debating endlessly. Everyone thought they knew how best to react to the sudden change in the fate of their people. Some argued for resistance, ignoring the pact that Nuada made by challenging Bres to that fateful duel. They argued that Bres had broken many traditions, and besides, Nuada hadn’t received the blessing of the Courts beforehand. Other members of the Courts argued for the importance of their honor, and urged surrender.

Nuada could not attend every gathering; he was in and out of consciousness, his battered body barely holding together. While the healer was able to speed the overall healing process, she could not restore Nuada’s arm. Nuada rarely spoke to her, seeking solace in sleep. But he found that even there he could not escape, for his dreams were torturous.

As he was healing, Nuada saw many things. He saw his people failing, their bright lives cut short. He saw darkness deep in the heart of chasms that went on forever. He saw the disturbing architecture and caves of The Depths, and he saw the foul creatures that dwelt within, twisted and cruelly malformed things that made him shudder in his sleep.

Each night ended with the same nightmare: His arm flew from his shoulder and landed on the sand. His blood poured from it, forming a crimson river. The blood flowed past him, bubbling and oozing, then sank through the sand and vanished. His limb lay twitching, surrounded by the broken pieces of his father’s sword.

On the sixth day, Nuada managed to stay awake longer. He felt empty and brittle, like an eggshell that had been drained of its yolk. The king’s confidence had been replaced by humiliation and a seething anger. But his anger did not burn in his belly for those he’d let down; there was nothing he could direct at the enemies of his people. He was not angry because he’d lost the kingdom, or even for his friends in the Hunt, but simply because he had lost the fight. Try as he might, Nuada found he could not care for anything else; his glory was shattered, stolen from him like his arm by a superior foe, and that was all that mattered.

Disgusted with himself, Nuada decided to flee the city and seek the place where Bres had gone, that place of unknown power called The Depths. Grabbing the broken pieces of his sword, Nuada left without a word to anyone. Glancing back at the tree-ringed city, he swore he would never return unless it was to kill the traitor Bres.

As the old king set off on his quest, Bres’ army descended upon the unguarded city, which swiftly surrendered to its new master. Though he had abandoned them, Nuada was disappointed when he looked over his mangled shoulder at the white flags waving on the walls. They could have at least tried to defend his city.

But he spared the people he’d let down only a few thoughts. Nuada turned his mind to the quest ahead, and trudged on.

For years, the crownless king travelled the Realm, searching for the entrance to The Depths. He went everywhere but to his Brothers in Camelot: He could not bear to let them see his shame.

Many folk had heard of the mysterious place in fable, but none could even guess at the location of the entrance. Nuada was often forced to take petty jobs to earn money for his travels. However, he never stopped searching for hints of his quarry in legends or dark rumors.

Nuada resumed his training, bitter at the changes he had to make to accommodate missing an arm and his father’s sword. He had to recover his confidence, find himself again. He had to find a way to make the blade sing again, to make it play the air with its deadly song once more. He had to abandon tricks and weak attempts at victory, to find new strength and power. He would need to be ready to fight once he found The Depths.

Nuada practiced fighting with his left arm. He learned new balance and footwork, and though all he possessed was a mundane one-handed sword, he pushed himself to reach the point where that would be all he needed.

But every time he practiced, he was reminded of his mutilation at Bres’ mad whim. Every time he couldn’t hold more than one thing at once, every time he had to fight with his off hand, every time he couldn’t lift as much weight as he used to, Nuada renewed his vow to kill Bres. It became his sole obsession.

Read more in Part II

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