Oathkeeper, Part One - Uaine Dachaig
Rushing along the wall toward the castle, Sophia and Storm saw the five pegasi pass overhead and land somewhere within. By the time they reached the castle gates, Tector and Tegan were soaring over the battlements above them.
In the courtyard beyond, the pegasi stood, their riders dismounted and awestruck grooms stepping forward to take their reins, only to realise that they had none. Fortunately their confusion was quickly resolved, as the intelligent mounts trotted off into the nearby stables of their own accord.
The doors at the base of the keep opened and de Glanvill and de Puiset strode out, followed by a number of soldiers and priests. The Chief Justiciar welcomed the elves, thanking them for their intervention with the Dracolich, before inviting them into the castle. The companions followed, Sophia and Storm close to collapsing from their wounds and needing support from Tector to make it up the stairs.
At the top of the keep the two groups, elves and men, entered a large chamber with a rectangular table. The door was left open, with two soldiers standing guard outside. The three friends chose to stand off to one side of the door, which was promptly closed. One of the soldiers on guard noticed Lady Sophia’s condition and brought her a chair to sit on.
After a few minutes a soldier opened the door, and one of de Puiset’s priests emerged. Seeing the group he said “Ah, you are still here. Good. You are wanted within.”
Entering the chamber, they found Dienwe and Myrddin seated on one side of the table, with the four other elves, including Sian and Tegan, standing behind. Opposite them sat de Glanvill and de Puiset, with an equal number of soldiers and priests standing watch.
The Chief Justiciar was speaking to Queen Dienwe. “We are of course very grateful for your intervention, but this request…” he broke off as the group entered, and bid them stand at the end of the table. “We are in no-man’s land,” thought Storm to himself.
De Glanvill glanced at the elves seated opposite him before addressing the companions. “Our elven friends tell us that their homeland is under dire and immediate threat, and they have requested our aid … or rather, your aid. While we are grateful to the elves for their help against the Dracolich, the Bishop and I are loath to part with your services at this key moment in the defence of the city. However, Queen Dienwe believes that you are the best hope they have, based on an ancient prophecy. She has offered to recite this for us, but has insisted that you be present. Queen Dienwe,” he said, turning to her and nodding.
Myrddin responded. “May I first remind you of our position. We have come to your aid many times in this war against the forces of the Witches. We intervened at Newcastle, and played a decisive part, alongside these three heroes, in repelling the forces of Morgana. We stood shoulder to shoulder with men and danagrim at Vindolanda, and our kin died in its defence, but we were unable to prevail against the personal involvement of Morgana herself.”
“We have intervened again here at Durham, saving hundreds of lives, if not the city itself, by bringing down the undead dragon Arachéag, and have opposed the enemy in hundreds of other places across the North, of which you are unaware, in defence of your lands. Now, our lands face a terrible threat, and we seek your aid in return, to enable us to fight on in this war and not be overwhelmed.”
Queen Dienwe spoke in her quiet, musical tones. “ Morrigan the Black has expended great power to summon a terrible and ancient evil. Even now, it approaches the borders of Uaine Dachaigh, our forest homeland, and it will be upon us within hours. It is named the Baelrauch, a huge demon of vast power, one that we are unable to stand against.”
“A prophecy foretells that a saviour will arise in this, our hour of need. I believe it refers to you, Sophia.” The young lady’s eyes widened, and her companions looked at her in surprise and admiration, as Dienwe continued to speak.
“The prophecy is ancient, spoken by Ogma himself and set to verse by Cairpre, bard of the Tuatha de Dannan. It forms but a small part of a great saga, the Lay of the Tuatha, passed down through generations of the bardic tradition. The beauty of the verse in our language is so intense that many are moved to tears when first they hear it. But those words would mean little to the ear of man. In English, then, will I recite the fateful lines.”
“In the year of three crones destruction incarnate
The heart of Uaine Dachaigh shall penetrate
By an ancient foe conjured of one pure blood
The fleeing Tuatha reaping death’s embrace
Ancient Ard Tursa offering no defence
Relentless death engulfing every hope
A daughter of Eve shall arise in Iburacon
From twixt the twin waters of Fosse and Ouse
Wisdom made flesh, golden in bless’d raiment
A friend to Queens and mother to a Prince
By Fate’s wheel driven with her Hand of friends
Brings baleful rage to ebon-pointed end”
Dienwe’s cool gaze swept across the companions before returning to Sophia. “My lady, you are a daughter of Eve, meaning of men, not elves, and you hail from York, named Iburacon in our language, the land of the yew trees between the twin rivers of Fosse and Ouse. Your name, Sophia, means ‘wisdom’ in the ancient language of the Greeks, and your golden hair is your blessed raiment. And you are a friend to at least one Queen,” she said, smiling gently.
De Glanvill looked impressed. “That is a fine theory,” he said. “But the fact remains that we can hardly spare these three from the defence of Durham with an army of undead outside the gates.”
De Puiset frowned. “I agree. We need every defender we have.”
Myrddin fixed the Bishop with a steady gaze. “Morgana was here. I believe she intended to launch another personal assault, to ensure the fall of the city. But she was deterred from doing so by Dienwe’s presence, and the defeat of Arachéag. With both of those great powers out of the battle,” continued the Druid, pointing his finger at the two human lords, “you can hold.”
Queen Dienwe continued, addressing Sophia. “When we met in Uaine Dachaigh last year I felt your growing power, and I knew then that you were the subject of the prophecy. That is why I gave you my bow, and why I now call upon you to fulfil your promise and aid us in our hour of need.”
De Puiset frowned at Sophia, while de Glanvill looked at her speculatively. “Is this true? Are you oath-bound to the elven Queen?” Sophia nodded in response, and when questioned by de Glanville, she and Storm told the tale of their quest for the holy relic of St Thomas Beckett, including their encounter with Queen Dienwe and the promise they made in return for safe passage through elven lands.
De Glanville sat back in his cushioned chair, closing his eyes and tilting his head to the ceiling in thought. After a few moments he turned his gaze to the three friends. “An oath such as this is not to be taken lightly, and I would not wish to stand in the way of its fulfilment. Do you wish to aid the elves?”
The three companions replied in unison. “Yes.”
Myrddin leaned forward, addressing the Chief Justiciar and the Prince Bishop once again. “The Baelrauch will invade our lands in a matter of hours. It will reach the sacred heart of our home within two days at most. These are dire times, and we beg the aid of these three heroes, our best hope against the darkness. Give us this boon, and I offer you my word that we will aid you again in the fight against the evil of the Witches. We will not allow this city to fall, and we will come to your defence in York when the inevitable siege comes.”
De Glanvill glanced at the frowning Bishop, pausing for a few moments, before inclining his head. “Very well. I will not stand in the way of this.” Turning to the companions he said, “you have my leave.”
The elven delegation offered their thanks, and the group quickly took their leave, de Puiset offering God’s blessing and protection on their quest.
Out in the courtyard of Durham castle, the pegasi filed out of the stables in response to an unseen command. Myrddin turned to the companions. “Introductions are in order before our journey. You already know Sian and Tegan.” He gestured to the silver haired male elf wearing green robes and carrying a twisted oaken staff topped by a translucent golden crystal. “This is Hethwyn the Abjurer, one of the greatest sorcerers in Uaine Dachaig.” He turned to the fair-haired elf maid wearing mithril chainmail. “And this is Gwyneth Flameheart, Queen Dienwe’s sworn sword.”
Queen Dienwe smiled at Sophia. “Will you ride with me, my Lady?” she asked. Thrilled, the young enchantress mounted the pegasus, closely followed by her friends, who mounted up with Gwyneth and Hethwyn. The pegasi trotted out of the castle gates into the Cathedral Green, quickly speeding to a gallop before flexing their wings and soaring into the night sky.
Banking to the southeast, the pegasi flew high into the sky, Tegan following behind on wings of air. The silent, frozen landscape slipped beneath them at great speed, and they soon began to pass over the southern reaches of the great Northumbrian forests, wrapping their cloaks tightly against the chill night air.
Within two hours they began to descend, swooping down into a huge clearing in the forest. Dismounting, they were amazed to see more than a score of white pegasi grazing in the meadow. Myrddin smiled. “The Itealeachraidh. The flying cavalry of the Tuatha,” he said with pride. “Sadly we cannot tarry here. Come.”
Following Myrddin and the Queen across the clearing, they walked into the woods. As they moved, they noticed dwellings, high in the larger trees, many of them lit by a warm golden glow from within. They began to see more and more such homes, seemingly crafted from or melded with the trees themselves, as they travelled further into the forest. Graceful bridges linking towering trees together also began to appear, along with the occasional building on the forest floor.
After perhaps a quarter of an hour, the group entered a clearing, or more accurately a chamber, the walls and roof formed from the boughs of dozens of ash trees which had grown in the shape of a perfect, living dome. A large, circular wooden table stood at the centre, around which stood a number of elves and another, massive figure.
As they approached, those already present bowed their heads in respect for the Queen. The companions however could not take their eyes from the hulking tarbhean standing before them. None of them had seen such a creature before, but all had heard legends of the creatures known to the ancient Greeks as minotaurs. Over seven feet tall, broader and more muscular than Tector, the bull-headed warrior wore a thigh-length coat of shimmering mithril scalemail.
Dienwe stood before him, and he kneeled. “Stand, Iáidreacht,” she said. “My greatest general has no need to kneel before me. Has the enemy crossed our borders?”
The massive tarbhean stood. “Yes, my Queen,” he rumbled. “The Baelrauch penetrated our perimeter wards several hours ago. Our druids, sorcerers and warriors have done their best to slow its advance, but to little avail. It is accompanied by a horde of lesser demons, which are spreading rapidly through the woods, and the Baelrauch itself seems unstoppable. Its gaze alone is enough to transfix a man in horror, it can unleash a burst of flame that burns to the bone at twenty paces, and those it touches crumble to ash in seconds.”
Dienwe nodded, her face grave. “We will face it on the morrow, my friend. Now, we must prepare.” With that, she turned, beckoning the group to follow and leading them out of the ash-bough chamber.
They walked for perhaps half an hour, although they had the sense that somehow they had travelled much further. The ground sloped upwards beneath their feet, and the trees gradually began to thin, giving way to coarse moorland bracken. After a final climb, they emerged onto the bare summit of a hill, crowned with the ancient Ard Tursa stones they had last seen months before, at the end of their quest to free Ice from Ben Nevis.
Dienwe led them to the centre of the stones, and turned to Sophia. “My Lady,” she said softly, “when first we met, I made you a gift of my bow. It is that weapon, and your fated skill, we now depend upon. May I have the bow?”
Sophia placed the golden bow in her hands, and she held it horizontally across her body, bidding Sophia and Myrddin to each grasp one end and then join hands with Storm and Hethwyn, forming a living pentagon of eldrich power.
Dienwe began to chant, softly, in the ancient gaelic language. Slowly, the faint starlight above the hilltop seemed to intensify, and faint glowing runes began to appear on the bow, spreading slowly along its entire length. As the chant continued, each of the five in the pentagon could feel their power being channelled into, and through, the Queen in a powerful ritual. Gradually, the starlight brightened in intensity, and the Ard Tursa stones began to glow.
The Queen’s voice grew in power, and the glow of the Ard Tursa stones with it, until the runes on the bow were almost blinding in intensity. As her chant reached its crescendo, the stones and the runes flashed brilliant white and the group were forced to close their eyes against the glare.
After a few seconds they opened their eyes. The starlight and the glow of the Ard Tursa stones had faded, but the runes on the bow remained, shimmering silver in the darkness. Dienwe took a deep breath, steadying herself, before smiling at Sophia and handing her the bow. “We have unlocked the power of this weapon in your hands. It, and you, are truly worthy of fulfilling Ogma’s prophecy and defending Uaine Dachaig.”
Sophia accepted the bow with thanks, before unslinging Jarleth’s black composite longbow from her back. She had been carrying it with her since escaping Lahm Sealguire near Hadrian’s wall months before, in anticipation of this very moment. “Queen Dienwe, I have a gift for you. It is a bow from a dark elf named Jarleth, who I believe stole it from you. I know it can only be used by an elf or a dark elf.”
Dienwe accepted the gift graciously. “My thanks for this fine bow. It will be a powerful weapon for one of our warriors, and I am sure it will be a treasured possession.” She smiled. “I know it is very late, but we have one more place we must visit before you rest.”
The Queen led them from Ard Tursa and down through the hills. For a time they followed a stream, babbling along in the moonlight, before it fell away in a waterfall and they descended rock-cut steps nearby. At the base of the cliff, the waterfall formed a pool, and as the companions reached the base they heard a light giggle of female laughter. Glancing around, they spied three female figures, naked, with long silver hair, green-tinged skin, and features similar to elves but somehow different. One of them looked across at the group, startled, let out a small cry of surprise, and dove under the water. Her companions quickly followed suit.
Dienwe smiled. “Our naiad cousins are shy at the best of times, particularly of outsiders. Come, our destination is drawing close.”
After a few more minutes of walking, the companions emerged into a clearing. At its centre stood an extraordinary sight. A huge ash tree towered above them, glowing and translucent in the moonlight. “Anam Craob,” breathed Dienwe. “The spirit tree. Descended from the legendary ash of Tortu in Meath, Bile Tortan. Your bow, Sophia, was crafted from its heartwood.”
As the three friends marvelled at the huge ghostly tree, Myrddin reached into his robes and withdrew an arrow. Its shaft was darkest ebony, fletched with swan feathers of purest white, and bearing a sharp mithril tip. He stepped forward, holding it with reverence. To the companions he said: “This is Saiget, the ‘ebon-pointed end’ of which Ogma’s prophecy speaks. Another group of brave heroes completed a dangerous quest to recover it for us. This is what you will shoot from Dienwe’s bow on the morrow, Sophia, to bring down the Baelrauch!”
The elven Queen took Saiget gently from Myrddin’s hands. “I will call on Anam Craob to bless this arrow. The power of ancient celtic ash will enhance the exotic strength of the ebony from Makassar.”
“What is Makassar?” asked Sophia.
“A distant island on the far side of the world. It is hot, humid and covered in jungles,” replied the Queen. “The finest ebony trees grow there.” Dienwe turned and advanced toward the spirit tree, holding Saiget before her. She spoke in a low, reverent voice, and the tree began to glow more brightly. She held out Saiget, passing it through the translucent form of the ghostly ash, holding it there as her chant continued. After several minutes, she withdrew the arrow from Anam Craob, and the companions saw that moonlight shimmered along the edges of Saiget’s white fletching, and flickered along its ebony shaft.
The Queen turned, and handed the arrow to Sophia. “We have given Saiget every opportunity to strike true. Keep it safe now. It is time for you to rest. A dwelling has been prepared for you.”
They walked from the clearing, leaving the shimming tree behind, and moved quickly through the forest. After some time, Sophia noticed a flash of movement from the corner of her eye and turned to see a unicorn moving through the trees! Its white coat shimmered in the moonlight, and its horn seemed to shine with an inner light as it moved gracefully toward them.
“Oh,” breathed Dienwe, “this is Áilleacht, timeless wanderer of this forest.” The whole group stopped to watch as the beautiful creature walked up to Sophia and nuzzled at her hands. She felt a subtle enchantment flow into them from the unicorn, and stroked its silky white mane. After a few moments it stepped back, seeming to bow its head to the young lady, before trotting off into the forest.
Everyone in the small party was smiling broadly, their spirits lifted by the sight of such a creature. “It is rare to see Áilleacht, and unheard of for her to approach an outsider. You are blessed indeed, Lady Sophia. It is a good omen.”
With that, they continued on their way. After a few more minutes they came to a fork in the track. Dienwe and Hethwyn took their leave, bidding the companions a restful sleep, and Myrddin led them down a forest path and into a clearing. They saw the faint glow of light from several dwellings high in the trees, and the Druid led them to the base of a great oak. He climbed rapidly up a rope ladder and onto the front porch of the treehouse. They entered a large circular chamber, with the bole of the living tree at its centre. It was lit by a faint glow, emanating from the berries of mistletoe plants growing on the branches that made up the rafters of the chamber’s ceiling. Three sleeping pallets were arranged around the walls, with soft woollen blankets over beds of springy moorland heather. “Rest well, my friends,” said Myrddin. “You will need all your strength on the morrow.”
The companions were exhausted after such a long and eventful day, and of course still carrying some wounds from the battle of Durham, and they quickly fell into a deep sleep.