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Brude and the Picts Part III

Brude watched the woman in the moonlight. Her eyes darted about, never still, even as the light itself moved, leaves and branches overhead swaying in the wind and rain. She was like a creature of the land itself, he thought distractedly, moving the same way the moonlight moves in the storm.

She turned back to him as the thunder faded, her deep gaze piercing. “We must stop killing one another, for now. I can speak for my tribe. Can you for yours?”

In answer, Brude filled his lungs and hopped onto the fallen log behind him, raising his face to be tickled by the sky. “Hear me, my warriors! Brude Bridei Mac Billi now calls! To me, warriors, and cease your killing!” His shout rang out clearly above the rumble of the storm. Lowering his face, he watched in wonder as the woman simply made a series of gestures with her sword, the blade flashing in moonlight, and her own forces began to melt out of the storm-tossed shadows.

As his troops gathered in answer to his shout, Brude saw with a jolt in his chest that their numbers had diminished already. They had come upon their opponents unexpectedly, without ever reaching their true goal, and had fought in unfamiliar territory in terrible conditions.

As the two groups were revealed in another flash of lightning, Brude watched the glittering eyes of the other tribe’s leader as she looked about and whispered to her warriors. The initial surprise and sudden clash over, tradition and procedure were taking precedence. The young king must now adopt a conciliatory tone, trespassing as he was without intent to perform a raid.

The storm was only growing worse, however, and the pelting rain refused to let up. Brude shielded his eyes with his hand, and was about to sheathe his weapon when someone came up to him on his left. “Psst.”

Brude glanced down to see the insistent face of one of his warriors. It was not Nechtan, but one of his cronies: the heavyset, powerful woman named Mael. Her broad face was set with determined lines and painted in traditional shapes. She was bleeding from two cuts across her chest, and still carried her naked blade in her hand. Brude tried not to sigh as he leaned down to listen to the older Pict, who whispered in a scratchy voice, barely audible over the patter of the leaves. “My king, let us not be taken in by this ruse. We should attack now, while they are talking; they will not expect it, and we can crush them and take their lands for ourselves!”

Brude hushed her with a gesture, glancing across at the opposing Pictish warrior woman with alarm to see if she had heard. She was looking straight at them with an otherworldly, intense expression, waiting to see what he would do. Brude whispered back, “Don’t be a fool, Mael. Go and see to our wounded, and theirs as well; anyone you can find, save their lives, as it may help us.”

Mael’s face twisted with frustration and annoyance, but she was skilled as a healer. Brude knew her well: she would not betray his trust, though she might complain bitterly. Fortunately, Mael chose to back away as the leader of the opposing force stepped forward.

Her hands rested lightly on her hips, and she adopted the stance of a proud raid-leader, a noble of her tribe. “Brude Bridei Mac Billi, I heard you call yourself, otherwise called Brude Mac Bile. Known are you to us, you and your people. I am called Eithne, my father Cinad; I ask you now, why do you come into our forest, and raise arms against us?”

As the high winds tore away a strip of cloud, high above, the glade was illuminated in silver moonlight once more. Brude’s eyes widened as he saw Eithne’s tattoos shifting, changing. They leant force to her words, their shapes inscrutable to him in the moment but certainly allowing her to tap into ancient knowledge and power. A queen of a rival tribe of Picts. She was following the formal procedure now, using words that commanded a kingly response.

Brude nodded his head and spread his hands in the rain, which was falling more lightly now. It might seem as though the storm were ending; but he suspected worse weather was coming. “A mistake, Eithne Mac Cinad. It is unfortunate that we crossed weapons and drew blood, but we sought only the destruction of the invaders’ camp that lies near this place. Would that we had not trespassed, accidentally and in the dark, but it cannot be helped. Perhaps at another time and another place, we could have had a more pleasant exchange.”

This last he had added to the strict formalities of conduct, prompted by something within his own shifting tattoos. There was some power, some deep magic at play here he could not quite understand. Eithne gave him an odd look, not-quite-smiling as the wind in the trees increased still further in force, blowing wet branches and leaves across the open space between them.

“Very well. However, you may not pass these woods at this time. Turn yourself around, Brude, and return to your own lands. It is not given to you to travel on to the camp of the invaders this night, blundering blindly as you are. Go, and we will see to the price of this trespass later.”

“That may not be needed,” Brude responded hopefully. “Even now, my best healer seeks for the wounded of both sides, and will return those that may be saved to their places.” The young king hoped deeply that in the short exchange, there might not have been many casualties, only cuts and bruises. It had been a furious few minutes, however.

Eithne nodded, and gestured gently but firmly back in the direction Brude had come. He looked up and down his line of warriors, and was pleased to see Mael helping two or three warriors through the trees, glistening in the moonlight. They were limping, and it would be some time before they were fit to fight again, but it seemed likely that no deaths would come of this accidental bloodshed.

“Come, warriors,” He said then, in a tone that brooked no further disagreements. They turned and faded back into the forest, knowing that Eithne’s tribe would follow at a respectful distance and stop at the border stream, but no farther. In the manner that befit their honorable retreat, they took up a column formation with the injured at the back, easiest for navigating the forest pathways and byways safely.

Once again, Brude tried to settle back into the running rhythm of the forest at night, pattering his way through the dripping leaves. It was unusually difficult, however. His tattoos were shifting again, trying to tell him something. He examined the pattern in brief pauses using the moonlight, but found the messages confusing and obscure. Perhaps the night’s adventures were not quite over.

There was still a sense of wrongness, strangeness in the forest. An increasing scent of dread, a different rhythm to the trees. Some other force was present, a knowledge of the woods with a different beat, a strange and otherworldly pattern that was coming to conquer the Picts. A very different sort of enemy from a rival tribe. They might squabble, but they shared many of the same values. They knew the ways of their people, and this tribe had struck him as noble. And led by such a woman…

He was jolted from these thoughts by a flash of lightning, which gave him a glimpse of a face through the trees. The king paused in his run, keenly aware of the positions that his warriors had taken, traveling through the forest in a tight column. The face had been grinning, and some distance outside the area currently filled with his running troops. It had seemed to have horns, and a distinct lack of war-paint or tattoos.

With a whistle and a quick series of gestures in the moonlight, Brude signalled down his column of warriors to turn and fight. They were spread out, but if this was no more than a few scouts from the Tuatha, they should be all right. The king drew his blade, dripping with rainwater, and his Picts matched the motion.

Brude blinked, blood from his brow mixing with the rain. He could feel a heaviness descend, a weight to the air. There was also a strange power thrumming in the wind, a vibration of change. The Veilstorm was coming; and with it, the enemy. Arrows hissed their deadly arcs through the air, aimed with great skill through the branches and leaves. One struck home, and in the strangely muted air, Brude heard one of his own let out an awful gurgle. He shouted, and his warriors charged forward, howling and screaming.

Brude, running, leapt to a nearby branch and looked along the battle lines. Spells and sharpened blades flashed as his own warriors turned, screaming defiance and rage at the invaders.

More arrows flew, hissing in the dark even as the winds picked up their pace in the tops of the trees. And still more arrows. Too many. Brude cursed as he jumped from the branch and landed heavily on a Tuatha Dé Danann soldier, stabbing down with his sword blade again and again. There were too many of them, and Brude’s forces were too disorganized. He had truly misjudged his abilities as a commander; this trained army had attacked at the worst possible moment, when his forces were unprepared.

Brude charged into the thick of the fighting to do what he could. His blade singing, he cut and hacked his way through their line. There were too many, far more than Drest had seen. Perhaps, if he had taken them unawares as he intended, his Picts could still have prevailed. But now, it seemed to Brude as he ducked a spear-strike and countered with a savage slash, things looked hopeless.

Another spear came out of nowhere, wielded by a tall, powerful Tuathan with a silver arm. Brude just barely had time to see the moonlight flash oh a broad, leaf-shaped speartip before it pierced his side, plunging six inches of hardened wood into his body.

Everything seemed to slow down and speed up at once. As the Tuathan soldier leaned into the blow, throwing Brude off balance, the pain struck him with blinding intensity. Stars crossed his vision brighter than the lightning flashes.

The enemy smiled a little, his flashing teeth beneath his wooden helmet. Brude was conscious of the falling warriors nearby; tired, already bloody and surprised, they were quickly losing heart and hope.

He stumbled backward, holding a hand over the vicious wound. It was deep; he could feel the pain in his core.

The enemy followed, eyes alight with a desire to kill Brude. As he drew back his spear for the killing thrust, another figure flashed into Brude’s view. Blood spurted and there was a flash of blades and blue paint on skin.

Straining to catch his breath, Brude watched as Eithne pulled her short blade from the enemy’s chest, the metal dripping crimson as the man coughed and struggled. Her teeth flashed again, smiling at Brude as the Tuathan soldier collapsed, gasping his last breath in the mud.

“Thank you,” Brude tried not to wince as speaking made his wound throb, leaking his blood down his side, a red streak against his tattoos. He pulled a bandage from his satchel and began tying up the wound as best he could. “Now you venture forth from your own territory to aid us?”

“And a good thing we did, else it would be you lying here.” She toed the dying man, wiping her blade on a patch of moss and listening to the sounds of chaotic battle all around. Her face darkened, a grim expression Brude could barely see in the moonlight. “But it is not enough. We could see their column moving through the forest as we followed you out of our lands. There are many Tuatha Dé Danann, and many more are coming. Even with our tribes fighting together, we are far outnumbered, Brude Bridei Mac Bile.”

“You come to our aid even against such odds, Eithne?” Brude finished tying off his bandage, already soaked by the rain and his blood. He would have to find a healer like Mael soon. If she hadn’t already been cut down herself.

The Pictish woman laughed, though the sound was overwhelmed by a rolling rumble of thunder. The storm seemed to be gathering its strength for greater and more terrible violence. Without offering him a hand, Eithne nodded her head and gestured with her bloody weapon for Brude to follow. “Come, there is a clear glade where we can gather our warriors and make a stand.”

Brude grunted, hopping over the tangled roots and rain-dripping branches in her wake. “Ugh. Yes, best to gather them all and see if we can pierce through to strike for better ground.”

“I think all we can do now is try to stop them before they reach your village.” This, Brude heard muttered over her shoulder just before she dove through the leaves and into the next fight.

A pair of soldiers turned, spears at the ready, and Brude found himself protecting her back as Eithne slashed and cut her way through, her movements little more than flickers of reflected moonlight in the storm.

As his blade sang, Brude ignored the stabbing pain of his injury, and whistled piercingly through his teeth. The sound cut through the storm, the clatter of his sword on hardened wood, and the grunts and groans of the wounded and dying in the dark forest. He altered the tone, summoning his warriors to him, and sought another ally with his mind. If nothing else, his efforts could give the rest of the village time to escape the invasion. He was dimly aware of his tattoos shifting, rippling into lightning zigzags and other angry, fearful symbols. Something was coming.

He managed to break free of the melee, leaving the more heavily armed soldiers struggling to chase him through the mud and roots while he sprinted to catch up with Eithne.

The young king was panting with exertion and pain when he found the Pictish queen standing in the center of a glade atop a low knoll, directing warriors with commanding motions of her bloody blade. As rain blew and pelted down in spurts and false starts, a white flash lit up the chaotic fight. All around the edges of the clearing, weapons gleamed and warriors spun, as the fight raged on. Brude could see his own warriors fighting shoulder to shoulder with the other tribe, their tactics and styles meshing easily for the moment.

However, Brude could also see a pair of warriors gesticulating wildly, standing just before Eithne and attempting to argue. They were injured, but in the bright flash, Brude recognized them through the water and blood streaking their faces: Mael and Nechtan, wearing angry expressions.

Grinding his teeth, he limped up the slight rise, getting close enough to hear their talk over the thunder.

“You have no authority to command!” Nechtan shouted hoarsely, grasping the soaked hilt of his sword and swinging his shield for emphasis. “You cannot tell warriors of our tribe what to do!”

Mael joined in, her healer’s hands busy repairing the wounds of those nearby. “My king commanded me to save your injured, but you are not the queen of my tribe. No more orders. We need not fight and die at the side of strangers!”

“Indeed, you must.” Brude’s command was quiet, but penetrated the little group with assurance. Nechtan and Mael both glanced up, surprised, and Brude was gratified to see relief on their faces, not guilt. “It is time to set quarrels aside. The village is in danger, as are all our lands. We have to show our mettle and halt the enemy here. The invaders have used the confusion of the storm to pull a few tricks on us, and their woodcraft has proved impressive; but let us now show them how the Picts can stand and fight!”

The vehemence of his words was punctuated by another flash and rumble. The storm was picking up force again, and he could feel the weight of its magic pressing down on him, full of power and unstoppable intention. Nechtan opened his mouth to object, but was silenced as an arrow flew through the wind and rain, striking his shield with a hiss and a thwock.

Eithne nodded in acknowledgement, and returned to shouting orders. Brude turned to do the same, taking up a position atop the small rise. He saw knots of his warriors burst from the trees, fighting off the advancing Tuatha Dé Danann. The difference was stark; as they emerged into the clearing, the enemy seamlessly formed solid, organized ranks, as each soldier knew their proper place and position. While the Picts fought fiercely, even joining forces as two tribes, they were scattered, confused. Their whirling, flashing blades did not cut in harmony, or with the precision and confidence that fighting off a larger force would require.

The battle was intense. Brude quickly grew hoarse from shouting over the storm’s fury as he tried to organize a defense from warriors unused to working together. Eithne and he both were covered in mud and blood, as they had to run into battle over and over. Brude began to lose track of how many soldiers he’d cut down beneath his blade, or that Eithne had tackled and beaten.

All the while the Veilstorm swirled, forming a Malevolence. The clouds had come up fast, as if intentionally seeking them out. The flashes of lightning and crackling magic seemed malicious, as if adding to the chaos of the fight on purpose.

No matter where he turned, there were more and more enemies. About to charge down the hill once more, Brude jerked as he heard Eithne cry out; he saw her leg punctured, run through by a spear. Another soldier hurried up the grassy slope to the hill between the two Pictish monarchs, eager to cut off her head.

Brude ran, but knew he would be too late. He called out desperately, seeking help. Fortunately, one swifter than he was listening.

Drest dove out of the sky like a bolt of lightning himself, slashing with beak and talon. Shouting, the Tuathan soldier struck back, knocking the bird away with a vicious blow. Wobbling but still in flight, the falcon took off into the darkness. Shaking his head, the man turned back to where Eithne lay fallen, trying to recover.

Loyal Drest had given Brude the delay he needed. He leapt onto the man’s back, heedless of his own wounds. There was a short, furious struggle as the enemy tried to wrestle the Pict off of him. Finally, Brude’s fingers caught their practiced hold on the edges and cracks of the wooden armor. The king heaved, and tossed the soldier away, to slip and tumble down the hill. At the same moment, he saw Eithne twist and wriggle off the spear that had pinned her leg to the ground, only to counterattack with a swift cut that left her enemy reeling. Her eyes were wild, bloodshot; Brude felt a strange twinge in his tattoos.

And still the Tuatha Dé Danann army kept coming. There were dead littering the battlefield, now. Brude briefly saw Mael bending over some of them, but her power and skill were nearly expended.

The young king rushed to Eithne’s side, and was struck by an arrow at the same moment. He felt the force of it all through his body, pain lancing him. Brude choked, falling to a knee, barely aware of the oncoming enemy as he bent over the rival queen. “Can you stand?” he shouted, desperate. “Can you fight?” Each word made the arrow-wound in his hip throb with pain, but he ignored it.

The queen looked up at him, rainwater and blood reflecting off her face in the moonlight that still struggled through the howling storm. Her eyes still burned with energy, and she showed her teeth as she panted. He could smell her blood, the thick odor of iron mixing with the scent of rain, mud, sweat, and magic; yet her voice was strangely calm. “Bones break, warpaint runs, wounds gush blood. It is the end, Brude; it is the end.” She reached toward her dropped sword, but Brude clutched her strong hand in his. Both their palms were cold, and slick with wet.

His tattoos flickered, shifting under the power of her words. As the storm’s force reached a crescendo, he roared without thinking, letting the ancient magic speak through him. “And yet, the Picts fight on until the end! Tribes! To me, painted ones! To me, and fight for us!”

Abandoning their scattered fights, the remainder of the two tribes came, some leaping and bounding, most limping and weak, to cluster near the top of the low hill. For a moment, the Tuatha Dé Danann did not pursue, instead gathering their ranks together once more for the final push. There were not a great many Picts left standing, and most of them were injured and weary. Still, they gathered on the hill and encircled the leaders of their two tribes, swordpoints outward, to defend them to the last.

With their ranks gathered, the enemy charged up the hill, long spears reaching out with death on their tips. Eithne grinned up at Brude. “A good end, though not the one I would have chosen. You make a noble king, Brude Bridei mac Billi. Farewell.”

Hardened wood met steel as the final combat was joined. Covered in blood, dirt, and sweat, Brude felt his tattoos lose all semblance of control, flickering over his body in complete chaos, covering him in color and shapes, swirls within swirls. Brude raised his face to the storm and screamed his last challenge, pain and suffering and hopes for himself and his people all expiring in one climactic moment. He stood, pulling Eithne up with him, grasping the nearest shoulder of a Pictish warrior for support. Whether from pain or emotion, she shouted as well, howling upward.

Something came down to meet them, the kiss of the Malevolence on their bodies, covered in the marks of war. The power burst down from the heavens, leaping from one warrior to the next like lightning, yet not lightning, a magic not quite of this world. Pain spread through the Picts, and their painted skin glowed, burning through the night in a conflagration of change.

They screamed, their voices mixing with the great pain and anger of the living storm. The glow of their painted skin burned brighter and brighter, while the invaders stumbled back, shielding their faces from the light and the chaotic magic.

All the Picts atop the hill changed. Their warpaint and the mud and the gore and the sweat fused upon them, burning with the power of the Veil. Their second skins were forming, as Brude howled into the storm, his lungs refusing to give out.

The enemy blinked as the glow vanished, leaving darkness and moonlight. The Tuatha Dé Danann forces were left alone in the storm-tossed glade, clutching their swords and spears as they peered through the rain. Brude, Eithne, and all the Picts were gone. Their second skins, transformed by the storm, had shifted to match their background perfectly. They had faded, melting into the background like so many ghosts.

Fear spread through the invaders’ ranks. The Picts had truly learned their own way of war; they had become one with their land.

Talorc coughed and cleared his throat, finding himself dry as he neared the end of the long recitation. Seated atop the old hill, his elder nodded approvingly. The young Pict had done well, and it was a good lesson for all the gathered children in the control of the second skin, as well as the history of their people.

Spotted with age as well as designs, he smiled and added in his hoarse voice, “Yes, indeed. The invaders, confused, would push on toward Brude’s village, only to be set on from the rear by an enemy they could not see nor sense coming. Such was the potency of their power.” Amused, the ancient man scratched his white-bristled chin and glanced around at the rapt faces all around. “As I said before, sometimes the best place to hide is right out in the open. And so, the vengeance we wrought upon them was terrible indeed.”

“But… but that can’t be the end of the story!” cried one girl, her form melting from the tree trunk she had practiced mimicking. “What happened to Brude and Eithne?”

The old man smiled knowingly. “Their love was forged forever in the fires of that battle. They brought the tribes together, and won over all their people through many objections and arguments. Nechtan, in particular, had to wear the Cloak of Shame for a very long time.” He punctuated that comment with a knowing wink. “Their first child was a daughter, and she was born with the whorls and marks of her people upon her skin; the first true-born Painted One of the Picts.”

Talorc cleared his throat, recovering his voice at last, and looked inquiringly at his elder. Receiving a nod, the boy declaimed an end to the history. “They settled down, and despite further wars and adventures, ruled wisely and well. More and more tribes eventually flocked to their banner, as the Picts became more and more united. Years later, they befriended Arthur. We were among the first folk to pledge loyalty to the great king, and became one of the foremost races in his Realm. But that is another tale, for another time.” Talorc smiled, proud that he had maintained control of his second skin through the entire story. “One I should be proud to tell sometime, grandfather.”

Thus ends the Becoming story of Brude and the Picts.

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