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Brude and the Picts Part II

After the ceremony of tattoos, images, and discussion with the tribe had ended, when the Picts, Goblins, and other friends beneath the hill had filed out of the meeting place, Brude remained behind in the stone circle. As the glow of the shapes on the stones slowly faded, he sat for a long time in the dark hall, thinking. He did not know how to conduct a war; and the elders would not know either. It was for this reason he needed to harden his resolve, and find the determination to drive out the invading Tuatha Dé Danann; he and all of his people needed to learn. The decision had been made by the whole tribe. The king stood and left the hall to begin the many necessary preparations.

One busy week later, there came a clear day with a pale blue sky, disturbed by a gusting breeze; one of those windy days that often bodes rougher weather. Brude was motionless in the middle of the village, though his hair whipped about, along with his rippling tattoos. He was taking the measure of a man that stood before him, shouting. A braggart, a middle-aged warrior who had more pride than skill.

Accosted by one of his loyal – or so he had thought – subjects, Brude had been interrupted in his work, preparing his weapons and armor. Others looked on as the braggart, a large, hairy Pict with a crooked nose, continued his tirade.

“It’s no good, king Bridei! You’re letting the other tribes put one over on us. We may have agreed to war, but not to be wiped out in the first wave!”

Shaking his head at the rudeness and familiarity that he knew most kings would not allow, Brude Bridei Mac Billi set down the whetstone and blade he had been carrying, and leaned his hands on his waist, staring down at the shorter Pict. “Well, I’m glad you feel you can talk to me man-to-man this way, Nechtan. It just so happens I agree… we do not wish to be wiped out in the first wave. And that, I think, is why we must be among the first of our peoples to fight, and learn the ways of war.”

Nechtan frowned angrily, snarling like a dog. “Do you see that!?” The man pointed at the southern horizon, where dark clouds gathered in angry scuds, visibly shredded by high-up winds. “A storm approaches! It will surely be here by tomorrow night. Do you really want us to be caught out in the open with no shelter?”

Troubled, Brude shielded his eyes from the sun and looked to the south. He had been so focused on his work, the many concerns of a king and warlord, with supplies, weapons, and training, that he had not paid much attention to the sky. Watching the distant sky-shapes, which looked suspiciously like Vellsign, he said nothing for a moment, and Nechtan continued the tirade.

“The last time the sky looked this way, it brought destruction and doom to all in the land. Can we not wait and hide a little longer? It is not a question of bravery, but of skill; you of all people should know the tendency of young kings to overreach, to try and prove themselves too soon.” Nechtan’s voice was quieter now, cajoling. He confidence was evident: he had embarrassed the king with his arguments, and now brought in what he appeared to think was the capstone of his point. “Let one of the other tribes try to repel the invaders, first. With time, you will see I am right.”

“There is no time to lose,” Brude raised his voice so that the weavers and shield-makers looked up, listening. “Not if we are to regain our skills. Not if we are to become the warrior people we once were.”

Brude cleared his throat, and spoke with bold assurance so that onlookers could hear, craning their necks in the stiff breeze that swelled from the nearby forest. “I have heard your words, and will consider them, Nechtan. But remember this: it is given to me to wear these tattoos of prophecy, and it was decided by all of our tribe, coming together as one: We chose war!”

Surprised by the sudden vehemence and sound, Nechtan shrank back a bit, looking to see if any nearby would show him support. Only one face was turned toward him: the sour-mouthed Mael, a skilled healer who had long been Nechtan’s partner in disagreement.

Brude did not wait to see if any further cracks in his authority would appear. “Now I shall go and consult with my scout to see what news there may be of enemy movements, and of the weather. See to your bow and spear, Nechtan! You may have need of them very soon.”

With that, he made a gesture of farewell and turned away. Brude didn’t want his people to see his reddening face, or how his tattoos were shifting, irritated. Such insubordination was not a good sign. Certainly, he’d learned to endure it well enough growing up, and it was up to him to deal with the fears and uncertainties of a people unused to all-out war. However, this problem would not cease, he would not be respected, until he had truly proven himself as a commander.

He walked away, feeling the thoughtful eyes of his people on his back. He had done well as a young king so far, but that did not mean the tribe could fully trust his decisions in battle. They had chosen war: now he would have to show them that their choice was right. And that their tribe of Picts would not prove weaker than the others.

He climbed up to the rocky promontory, the falcon’s-nest where he had often gone to meditate and interpret the shapes of his tattoos. Now, they were forming strange, indeterminate whorls on his chest and arms, odd half-images that indicated uncertainty and a murky future.

Raising one hand high, Brude whistled piercingly, and sought out his falcon with his mind. Drest was nearby; returning from another long flight south to scout out the land for enemies. The winged shape appeared as a shadow overhead, circling down from a great height. Swooping, the grey-and-brown feathered figure came to rest on Brude’s outstretched arm. Fierce eye boring into his master, Drest eased the penetrating grip of his talons so that Brude barely felt them.

His mind forming the connection, Brude experienced Drest’s memories. He saw the broad, sweeping view of the world, each leaf of the many-colored forest fluttering beneath the falcon’s keen eye; he saw the green meadows and great grey stones that had lain there since time immemorial; he saw the dark shadows in between the rolling hills of the domain controlled by his tribe, and the streams that marked the border with the lands of another tribe. At last, he came to the telltale marks of a small camp, deep in the pleasant forest; tents hidden expertly among the trees, and bows leaning on tree trunks, along with quivers bristling with arrows. Well-hidden indeed, but not to the clear eyes of a falcon.

In memory, catching a glimpse of movement, Drest circled lower, wind rushing past his feathers, to get a closer look. The leafy canopy appeared to sweep up toward him, then closed around with welcoming branches. As the falcon fluttered to rest in the top of a tree, he saw the soldiers at last. Camouflaged in colorful armor, the Tuathan warriors communicated in low voices or gestures that Drest couldn’t understand. The falcon simply watched and listened for a few moments.

Then, one of them made a gesture Drest could understand very clearly indeed: Angry-faced, one of the heavily armed soldiers pointed up toward the tree where the falcon perched, and snatched up a bow and quiver. Without waiting any longer, the bird took to the air once more, putting plenty of foliage between himself and the enemy.

Then it was a straight flight back to his master, calling on the wind from his stony outcropping on the hill above the village.

Brude shook himself, both his body and his tattoos shivering as he came out of the trance that let him share the falcon’s memories. Drest, annoyed, fluttered off to a nearby tree stump and glared.

“Thank you, my friend,” Brude said quietly, his heart thudding with the realization that the invaders had truly arrived in force. “Now I must go and tell my warriors that we are to march tonight.”

They spent the evening making their warpaints and applying them: Shapes and sigils bright blue on the skin of warrior men and women who intended to fight for their homeland. Most of the tribe would go, for their king wished to blood them in battle and teach them the ways of war.

Briefly, the ceremony of war was held, drummers beating out the slow, powerful rhythm as the fierce images were painted on. Brude readied his own weapons, and looked to the supplies that they would carry with them. Hearts began to beat in time with the deep-voiced drums, awakening to thoughts of blood and wrath.

Brude’s tattoos, which had been shifting and uncertain all day, finally settled into a definite shape: Sharp angles and eyelike whorls and lines, speaking of the battle to come. He felt ready, knowing the enemy’s position and approximate number. He felt confident, thinking of the path they would have to take through the woods to come at them from downwind. It would mean a circuitous journey, and would take his warriors through lands controlled by another Pictish tribe; but they should come upon the enemy camp unexpected in the earliest morning hours, when the mist would give his people all the advantages.

Thinking through his strategy, Brude set off into the woods at the head of his troops in a dreamlike state, the drums of war still pumping through his blood. The forest had its own beat, its own rhythm, which he attuned to as he ran through it; formed of the wind in the trees, the pattern of his feet pounding on the fallen leaves, and the nearly silent leaps over fallen logs and underbrush. His soldiers, painted in their wild warpaint, followed after almost as quietly, putting their lives in his hands. Though the Tuatha Dé Danann were renowned for their woodcraft, masters of moving in the woods and wild lands, yet this was Pictish territory. Brude felt certain that no one, not even these wily stalkers from foreign lands, could move as swiftly or as surely, and never as stealthily as Brude’s tribe in their own familiar home.

As the Picts settled into the loping run that would eat up the distance, they began to sense a change in the woods. Brude was leading them in a new direction, one that circled around the enemy to attack at a different angle. They leapt over a new stream and thought this strangeness came from that. But there was something else, a wrongness, something other, an outside presence in this place.

Trees, wind, perhaps the scent on the wind. Then again, it could have been simple changes in the forest they were entering. This was a different part of the wild lands, controlled by a different tribe of Picts. Their ways are our ways, but we are different, Brude reminded himself. Hopefully, their passage would go unnoticed this night.

It was often dark enough, at least. The clouds were gathering, blowing across the moon and stars from the southern horizon. There was a tension in the air beyond mere trepidation for the coming fight: a presage of the coming storm.

All these thoughts ran through his head, beating their musical staccato notation out in time with his footprints in the night.

What was this unfamiliar presence, this strange pattern to the forest? Had the enemy come upon them? How? No, it must be the other tribe. They were out this night, as well. Brude had not seen them coming, hidden in their woods with their own warpaint and gleaming wet weapons.

With a rumble of release, the storm broke upon them, pouring down rain in waves. Thankfully, it did not yet have the force of a Veilstorm: No changing magics, no earth-rending forces were at play. It was simply a storm, wrathful but not utterly destructive.

It was dark, and the fight was quiet in the raging storm. Still, the hush of the rain was broken by yells, the clashing of blades, and the occasional pained scream.

Few could stand against king Brude Bridei Mac Billi, mighty warrior that he was. He cut his way past one fighter after another, narrow misses in the dark with little real resistance, for all seemed as surprised as he was. That is, until he crossed blades with a short but powerful warrior of great skill, who threw back his assault with a deadly force at least equal to his own. So fast was this warrior that the rain seemed to barely touch skin or steel as the fight spun on.

All was confusion, and he had to parry by the flicker of blades in moonlight or simple guesswork from brief lightning flashes.

They fought with increasing eagerness, chasing through the forest, leaping off of fallen logs and battering one another with their Pictish blades as the storm battered them with wind and rain. Brude quickly lost track of his warriors in the chaotic battle, seeing only vague figures slashing and cutting all around. The short warrior came at him again, teeth flashing in a grin, and as lightning struck in a long bolt not far away, all was laid bare in stark brightness for a moment. It was a woman, muscular and lithe, painted in blazing streaks across her shoulders and face. He ducked her blow, but felt the tip of her blade slide through his skin in a shallow cut on his forehead just above the eye. His blood pumping hard, it poured down his face with the rain, but Brude was quick enough to lash out, his reactive instincts jerking his sword up. The tip pierced her shoulder.

Snarling in pain like a wild wolf, she leaped back, pulling free of his blade and spraying blood of her own. Her foot slipped on a slick root, but she thrashed about and caught herself on the nearby tree trunk.

For a moment, they just stood there panting heavily and bleeding. Brude was half-kneeling in the muddy leaves, while she leaned against the damp tree trunk, her chest heaving in the moonlight that shone down once more as the wild winds tore the clouds apart high above.

His breath as ragged as the stormclouds, Brude rose to his feet and pointed his bloody weapon at her. “We did not come to raid or take you captive. We seek the intruders upon Pictish lands, who make their hidden camp in our hiding places.”

The other warrior eyed him darkly, her teeth pulling back in a smile. “We, too, make war. But for this storm, we would have already been crossing blades with these Tuatha Dé Danann spies. Now that you’ve stumbled blindly into our war-troop, we shed blood too soon.”

There was a pause as thunder rumbled all around them, drowning out the sounds of swift and deadly fighting in the dark.

Read more in part III

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