Iarraindorn is out today! (1 June 2021) Read on for the first of seven sample chapters, and if you like what you read then order the book in hardcover, paperback or e-reader format via the Universal Book Link.
The full moon called a hail of stars down from the sky on the night the devil came.
The wind blew with a force that made walking against it not unlike trying to push a boulder uphill. It sent the rain, sharp and cold, straight at you so that it stung where it hit bare flesh, almost as hard as if it were hail. This would have made it hard to see anything, even had the moon not already been buried by the thick, dark clouds. There was no clear divide between the sky and the land, the whole of it being draped in a shroud of black without end.
Two druids stood watch. The thick fur lining their robes were soaked through and clinging to their bodies, any warmth it may have provided substituted for weight which pulled their shoulders down and pushed their boots into the mud. Their thick beards were a mass of knots and tangles, while their long hair clung to their cheeks and foreheads, under cowls which may as well have not been there for all the protection they offered from the elements.
Each wore a knot of holly around the wrist of their right hand, and held a long staff topped by oil-soaked rags. The flames there fought bravely, constantly threatening to gutter out but still offering one tiny refuge of light and warmth against the fury of the elements. For all the good that it did.
Ahead of them, unseen in the unending veil of darkness, the river had broken its banks. The water crashed and swelled, foaming over the land, churning grass into mud and reaching out to drag the unwary away in the tide.
From behind them, a third robed druid passed through the line of four very old birch trees laden with mistletoe that marked the start of the village. He too carried a staff with a struggling flame at its head, but he was also leading a ram which struggled against its leash in protest at being dragged from the dry warmth of the barn.
“Will one be enough?” One of the two druids already standing watch said as the third came close enough for the weak flames to illuminate him.
“One is always enough.” The third snapped. “Judoc may be fond of needless extravagance, but the gods ask for a gift, not for the depletion of our livestock.”
Lightning flashed in the sky, making the rain appear to shine. Two seconds later, thunder rolled across the sky, a drawn-out rumble ending in an almighty crash. The ram bleated in panic and the three druids shared a dark look.
“With this weather, how are we to know when the signs present themselves?”
“We will know. Signs are meant to be seen. The gods would not hide them away.”
“Let’s get on with it then.”
The first two druids lifted their staffs up, with some effort since their limbs were cold and stiff. They chanted in unison, a prayer to the goddess of the flooded pool for her protection, though even at this close range all that the third druid could hear was a low muttering from which individual words were hard to distinguish. He watched, waiting for them to finish and lower their arms.
When they did, he raised his own staff and said his own prayer. This one was addressed to the god of the forest, and again to his two companions his words sounded like nothing more than a low mutter.
Their prayers were straightforward enough. For strength from the river, for protection from the forest, and for wisdom from both. Nothing too extravagant or out of the ordinary, but of course the gods’ price could not be paid in gold or favours. Blood was needed.
The ram kicked and cried out as the bronze blade was drawn across its throat. But the struggle didn’t last long. The blood poured out black onto the already sodden ground, but enough of it fell into cupped hands for the purposes of offering. A bloody handprint on the trunk of each birch in turn, and then two blood stained hands pressed into the mud to be washed clean by the river, and it was done. The gods had their blood, and a family would have a meal to celebrate the arrival of their newest member.
“We’ve done what we can.”
“Let’s hope it’s enough.”
Lightning split the sky once more. This time the thunderclap was almost immediate. The wind still threw it straight into their faces, but now the rain began to lessen, if only slightly. Looking up, the three men could see starlight breaking through gaps in the cloud cover. It was the closest they would come to a calm in the storm, but it was enough to see the sign that they had been waiting for.
A line of stars streaked across the sky, trailing fire in their wake. They made no sound, or at least none that reached human ears, rushing silently across the black and cutting the darkness to shreds. In the flashes of lightning, they had been able to make out the shape of the horizon and distinguish where the water ended and the land began, but everything had still been grey and shadow. Now, it was as though the sun was still only three quarters down and they could see their surroundings clearly. That was how they saw the newcomers.
There were ten of them, just as sodden with rain as the druids, their tunics and trousers clinging heavy to them and the short spikes of their hair flattened under the weight of water. But if they felt the chill of the cold, they did not show it. Indeed, it wouldn’t be clear how they could when their faces weren’t human.
Their eyes glowed red and their skin was drawn and grey. Their lips peeled back from their gums, revealing teeth that were pointed like arrowheads. The skin around their nails had receded where the nails had grown into sharp claws. Yet for their monstrous appearance, they stood like men. They wore swords on their hips and most had one clawed hand at their side, ready to draw their weapon.
The druids drew closer together, but if they were afraid, they did not show it. Instead, they reached out with the arms bearing the knot of holly and spoke in unison.
“You are not welcome here, dark creatures. Be gone from this place. In the name of Brigantia, in the name of the goddess of the flooded pool and the god of the forest, we implore you. Be gone from this place. For the high ones and the old ones, we expel you. Be gone!”
The creatures looked at one another and then back at the druids. After a moment’s pause, they burst out laughing. The sound wouldn’t have been out of place in a long hall, where somebody had told a bawdy joke and all the listeners had drunk too many horns of ale, except for the added measure of threat behind the creatures’ mirth.
The show in the skies ended, and with the disappearance of the falling stars the entire landscape was plunged into darkness. Within moments, screams rose in the night air.
The village wasn’t particularly big. There were twenty houses, round walls topped by conical thatched roofs, the smallest walled with wooden poles and the largest with stone. Fires burned inside them all, where people huddled in furs against the biting cold outside. But the lights in the sky had brought people to their doors to gawk at the strange signs.
“Caiside!” A voice called from inside one of the houses, the voice sharp, both angry and pained.
Caiside turned from the doorway, shamefaced, to look at his wife. Genovefa sat on a pile of furs close to the fire, sweating, red faced and clutching at her massively swollen belly. Two of the elder women gathered around her supported her back while a third was in front of her with water and blankets. All of them had the same look of disdain on their faces. With one last look at the sky, he made his way back over to the fire.
The labour had so far been a slow and painful one, and the baby hadn’t yet even begun to crown. It had been light when Genovefa had first doubled over in pain, and Caiside had sought out the elders to tend to her. He had been beset by panic then, not really knowing what to do, and though that had subsided it had only left him feeling useless; unable to do anything to help, unable to even try without getting a stern telling off from whichever woman he had gotten in the way of, but unable to leave because his wife wanted him by her side. He hadn’t the slightest idea why, since he had no role whatsoever, but she was a ferocious woman at the best of times and the pregnancy had hardly tempered that. Especially as it wore on.
For her part, her husband’s feelings of uselessness were the least of Genovefa’s worries. She was panting heavily, building herself up to the next push and the agony that would come with it. She had felt nothing like it before. Her friends who had given birth had said that the only comparable combination of exertion and pain would be on a battlefield, and now she knew exactly what they meant. She pushed, and with the pushing gave an almighty cry.
She heard the screams just as her own cries died down. They were faint and distant, but it was clear enough what they were. She shared a look with Caiside, and it was clear that he had heard them as well.
“Well?” She snapped. “See what it is!”
With that, he hurried back to the doorway and looked out once more. There wasn’t much to see now, since the lights in the sky had gone and left only darkness in their wake. But the people who had been looking up from the doorways had now stepped out into the open air. Several of the warriors had gathered outside the long hall, with swords drawn, while the farmers and fishermen wielded their sickles and harpoons.
Following the screams, though, silence fell. A minute or so passed in darkness as everybody waited, tense. Then lightning struck over the river and the deep boom of the thunder made everybody jump, provoking some nervous laughter.
Something flew through the air and landed with a soft splat in the mud in the middle of the village. Caiside couldn’t see what it was, just a small round shape in the near distance, but when two more shapes landed with their own splat sounds, his imagination filled in the gaps in his knowledge.
“Who goes there?” Elisedd, the town chief, called. “Show yourself!” He thrust his sword at the empty air as though to underline his command.
Flames erupted on the four trees at the entrance to the village, in moments turning the ancient birch into great torches that threw the darkness back. The rain had reduced to almost nothing now, so that the fire held its ground easily. But no sooner had everybody turned to look at the burning trees than their eyes were drawn back to the three objects that had landed in the mud.
As Caiside had feared, they were heads. The last expressions marked on the druids’ faces were of fear, which was now mirrored on the faces of all the other villagers, including the warriors.
Elisedd was the first to school his expression and stepped forward boldly. “You mean to scare us with your gesture?” He roared. “It is clearly you who are scared, hiding in the shadows and confronting us with tricks rather than with iron! Show yourselves!”
Whatever came at Elisedd moved too fast to see clearly. Caiside heard a growl, a sound he would attribute to a wolf or a wild dog, full of hunger and menace. But the shape that came into the open was too big to be either. He could have sworn that it was a man, not only from its size and stride but because even as a blur it looked as though it was clothed. But it moved far too fast, charging straight at Elisedd and goring him so that both he and his attacker landed several feet back from the long hall.
That first attacker wasn’t alone, and his companions gave the village no time to take in what they had seen. Elisedd’s landing was immediately followed by cries and screams as more attackers came. Caiside couldn’t see from where. They seemed able to take impossible leaps as well as charge as fast as wild animals, and shortly the middle of the village was overtaken by a pitched battle. Men ran this way and that, wrestled on the ground, or swung their swords. The enemy seemed to be everywhere, and they had swords of their own. Cries of anger and fear and pain sang out over the crash of iron against iron, and Caiside knew that he was far out of his depth.
He stumbled back inside his house, where Genovefa was pushing again and along with the women attending her seemed oblivious to the carnage outside. The baby’s head was visible now, he saw, pink and covered in blood. He should have been proud, becoming a father, but this only made the situation even more impossible.
“The village is under attack!” He cried, as if it made any difference when they were in no position to move.
“The Cornovii?” One of the attending women asked.
He shook his head. “I don’t know who they are. They’re not… they’re…” He shook his head again.
Between pushes, panting heavily, Genovefa said, “Arm yourself. Watch the door.”
He nodded, not knowing what else to do. Part of him suspected that right now his wife presented a more fearsome threat to any potential invader than he did. Still, he grabbed a scythe and made for the door.
As he looked outside, he saw Elisedd swing his sword and take the head of one of the attackers. He caught the chief’s eye as the severed head fell to the ground, and in that instant felt more confident about the situation. That confidence evaporated in an instant when another attacker landed on the chief’s back, his weight driving Elisedd down to his knees, and sunk sharp teeth into his neck.
Seeing blood, bright and visceral under the orange glow of the flames, Caiside felt bile rise in his throat. He swallowed it down when he saw the creature’s face, that of a corpse and a monster all at once. His heart stopped and his legs felt weak under him. Every instinct was crying out at him to flee for his life, but he swallowed them down and raised the scythe, ready to strike if the thing came at him.
This turned out to be unnecessary, as Elisedd head butted the creature, which tore a chunk from his neck as it fell backwards. The chief turned his cry of pain into a battle cry as he forced himself up and stabbed it in the heart.
This didn’t stop the creature growling and squirming, so Elisedd drew his sword out of the thing’s chest and brought it down sharply on its neck.
“Take their heads!” He cried to the other warriors. “That’s the only way to kill them! Take their heads!”
Looking around, Caiside could see that the monsters were on the back foot now. Despite their fearsome appearance, and whatever abilities they possessed, the warriors were routing them and only six of them still stood – they were outnumbered and would soon enough be finished.
Or so he thought, until he saw their leader.
It emerged from the shadows, and it was unclear how long it had been there as he was sure that he would have noticed it before now. It stood well over eight-foot-tall, with eyes that glowed red and long, curved horns protruding from the sides of its head. A pair of leathery wings protruded from its back, as broad as the creature was tall. It carried no weapons, and even as it stepped out into the light cast by the fire on the trees shadow wreathed its form so that Caiside could make out no features on its face or body.
A warrior, fresh from decapitating one of the lesser monsters, turned and swung his sword at the beast. It caught the blade easily with one hand and then, with a flick of its wrist, snapped it in half as if it were made of wood. With another flick of its wrist, it sent the warrior flying and carried on walking as though the interruption had never occurred.
It was heading straight towards Caiside.
Elisedd put himself between Caiside and the beast, sword at the ready, but this was scant comfort given what it had just done. As it stepped closer, with no urgency whatsoever as though it were simply out on a mid-afternoon stroll, Caiside’s heartbeat grew faster and thundered through his ears.
The shout came from over by the burning trees. When Caiside turned, he was sure that he was seeing things, even with the enormous monster approaching his house. For he was looking at a woman with two enormous, feathery white wings on her back. She had golden brown hair that hung to her shoulders and brown skin that glowed slightly, unnaturally, in the darkness. She wore light plate armour over tunic and trousers and was wielding a longsword.
“Anael.” The creature said, simply, as it turned to face her. “How nice of you to join us.”
“You won’t have him.” Anael said, advancing upon the creature. “Leave this place.”
The beast’s laughter was a deep and terrible sound, like thunder. “And you will stop me, archangel? Please do try.”
“Did you think I wouldn’t have prepared for your arrival?”
She pressed the blade of her sword against her opposite palm and drew blood. In one quick motion she pulled her cut hand away and thrust it in the air towards the monster. Her blood flew from her wrist and hit the ground, whereupon the churned-up mud bubbled and smoked, before erupting in green flames. The unnatural fire rushed in a straight line towards the enormous winged monster, whereupon it encircled him, trapping him where he stood.
This drew a snarl from the monster.
Anael responded with a smirk. “You are not welcome here, father of evil. You are unwanted. I cast you out and I ward this place against you so that you may never set foot here again. On behalf of the entire host and in the name of Our Father, I cast you out. Ahriman, you are expelled. Be gone!”
She raised and clenched her fist, and the circle of green flame drew tighter around the beast, like a noose. Before it could engulf the creature, however, it vanished as though it had never stood there. But as it vanished its voice echoed all around.
“You cannot stop me. Eventually, the Champion’s life will be mine and the seals will be broken.”
For several moments, Caiside forgot to breathe. He wasn’t the only one. All around, villagers stared with mouths open and eyes wide, and no idea how to comprehend what they had just seen. Even the remaining other monsters had been forgotten, except by the warriors who had been fighting them, and in the stunned silence following the defeat of their master the four surviving creatures fled the village.
Then cheers erupted, and Caiside found himself waving his scythe in the air and bellowing in relief and joy.
As Anael made her way through the raucous villagers to Caiside’s house, Caiside showered her with thanks. “You have saved our village! My life – those men, that creature, such darkness! I don’t know how to thank you…”
As he babbled at her, she made her way into his house, where she found Genovefa sitting holding his new-born son, while the attending women looked on. The baby was wrapped in furs and gurgling as she rocked him gently in her arms and sang at him. Genovefa looked up and met Caiside’s eyes with a tired smile, before looking at the winged woman.
“You’ll have to forgive my husband.” She said. “He is overcome with excitement. From what I heard, you saved the village, and so our son. You have our thanks.”
Anael smiled and knelt at the side of the new mother and child. She wiggled her fingers in the baby’s face and he giggled.
“Your son is very important.” Anael said to Genovefa. “Your village was attacked because The Great Adversary wants him dead, to stop him from fulfilling his destiny. I am here to protect him and train him, so that he will fulfil it. My name is Anael.”
Genovefa looked at Caiside, who was as bewildered by what had happened as anybody and could only shrug. Then she looked back at Anael. “My father used to say that destiny was just a word some men used to justify their domination and murder of other men.”
“Your father was a wise man.” Anael lifted the baby’s hand and turned it so they could all see the red mark on his thumb in the shape of a dagger. “But your son will be a Champion of Man.”
Genovefa didn’t look convinced, but she nodded. “If you being here means that my son will be safe from whatever attacked our village, then I can worry about destinies at some later date. But – if you are to live here in our village as one of us,” she gestured at Anael’s wings, “you will have to look less…conspicuous.”
“I think I can manage that.” Anael said, laughing. “Then you should meet your Champion.” Genovefa lifted the baby up and presented him to Anael. “His name will be Nuadhu.”