Iarraindorn was released on 1 June 2021. Read on for the latest sample chapter, and if you like what you read then order the book in hardcover, paperback or e-reader format via the Universal Book Link.
The only sounds to be heard in the early morning as the sun rose over Liuerpwl were the light rustling of the trees in the breeze, a few birds singing and occasionally a dog barking in excitement as its master rose. As the villagers finished breaking their fasts and prepared to start the day’s work, soon the quiet would be overtaken, but for now Anael took the opportunity to enjoy it.
The war cry was followed by cheers and giggles as Nuadhu led a small horde of children stamping through the village. Several loose chickens scattered in their wake, clucking in alarm. The children all carried branches or sticks, which they waved about ahead of them as they ran, and several of the very youngest kept stumbling in the charge.
Once they reached the open grassland just past the blackened husks of the four birches that had marked the start of the village, they turned and started to fight among themselves. Nearly all of them swung at their opponents’ sticks rather than at their opponents themselves, shouting and laughing as their weapons clashed. The older ones had the sense not to fight with the younger ones, and a couple of boys no older than four moved around and swung their small sticks at the backs of the older children.
One of these younger boys was Nuadhu’s brother Pwyll. The two of them looked alike, with matching green eyes and wild shocks of red hair on their heads, Nuadhu’s hanging to his shoulders and Pwyll’s sticking out in all directions as though he had been struck by lightning. But where Pwyll was still small, with a round face and soft belly, already at ten Nuadhu was tall for his age. He had a strong jaw and broad shoulders.
Anael had been patrolling the perimeter of the village. From a short distance away, she watched the children fighting for several moments before heading towards the long hall. Sheathing her sword at her side, she hefted the large sack at her side so that it sat over her shoulder. It was particularly heavy today, the weight pulling backwards and towards the ground as she moved. Still, having had long practice, it gave her no trouble.
Wearing a locally-made chest plate over a simple tunic and trousers, with her hair tied back in a tight braid and no suggestion of wings on her back, only the fact that her skin was darker suggested that Anael might not belong in the village. But everybody there knew her, and she knew all of their names. Several of them waved in greeting as they passed her to go about their day’s work. There were others though, mostly older members of the village, who avoided her gaze.
“Anael!” Elisedd called as he stepped out of the long hall. “A good night’s work?”
She dropped the sack on the ground and gestured to it. “See for yourself!”
He knelt and opened it to peer inside, grimacing as he did so. There were six severed heads in the sack, all of them with red eyes, grey skin and lips peeled back from pointed teeth. Anael had left the bodies where they had fallen, feed for the crows. Elisedd closed the sack again and stepped back from it.
There were more lines on his face now than when she had first met him, and his short, thick hair might have been showing the first signs of going grey were it not already stripped of colour by the frequent use of lime to bleach it. But he was as stout and strong as ever, a silver torc around his neck the only indicator of his rank.
“Is there no end to these creatures?” He asked.
“As long as there are men, the Sons of Cain can always make more of themselves.” Anael said.
“Then we are lucky to have you with us. Come.”
He led her into the long hall, now empty. She followed him past the long table and the benches which ran along either side of it, where several serving girls removed empty plates and wiped away spilled food, and up to a second, much smaller table in front of his high seat. He sat and gestured to a stool at his side.
“You must be hungry after a hard night’s work.”
As she sat down, Anael conceded that she was. So Elisedd had a joint of meat, a bowl of stew and a horn of beer brought out for her. As she ate and drank, Elisedd stared off into the distance, thinking. Clearly something weighed on his mind, but she didn’t stop to think about it as she filled herself up. The chief was uncomplicated, and would no doubt divulge what was on his mind soon enough.
“You’re set to begin training the boy.” He said once she had finished eating. “Have you broached the subject of his destiny yet?”
She shook her head. “He knows that he is being trained to be a Champion of Man. But what that means, and the future it gives him – no, I haven’t talked to him about that yet. It’s a lot to place on anybody, let alone a child.”
“Yes, of course. But he won’t be a child for too much longer, and as a man he needs to be prepared for what he will face.”
“He will be.”
“Good. I’ll be frank, Anael. I’m glad to have you here, not only for the protection you have given us from these Sons of Cain, but for the training that you have given our warriors. We are all the richer for it. But there are others who don’t think as I do. They view you and the boy as the reason that we were attacked, and that these creatures continue to threaten us.”
Anael thought back to those who avoided her gaze and her company. Overwhelmingly they were older; old enough to remember the night that the Adversary invaded and to have lost people then. Not all of them, by any stretch, but enough.
“The boy did nothing wrong except to be born.” Elisedd said, reading the look on her face. “I will not tolerate any harm coming to him, just as I wouldn’t to any other of my people. But it doesn’t help that he is always the ringleader when there is nuisance and mischief.”
“Children always create nuisance and mischief.” Anael said. “But my training will teach him the need for discipline as well as strength.”
“I hope so, Anael. I want to be able to show that he offers more protection for our village, rather than putting it in greater harm. I expect that you will be able to help me with this.”
She nodded. “Of course. But first, I’ll need to dispose of last night’s spoils.”
When he agreed and dismissed her, she stood up and walked out of the long hall the way she had come. Only once she was outside, in the air, did her calm façade fail her. Her arms and legs were trembling, and she had to resist the urge to yell obscenities into the air.
The very idea that Nuadhu could be blamed for the circumstances of his birth appalled her. He was a child, and even if he were more of a handful than many others, she simply couldn’t comprehend how anybody could contemplate getting rid of him simply to ease their own unspoken fears. At least it appeared to only be a minority, as far as she could tell.
A dog, little more than a pup, was sniffing at the sack of heads and whining as she came out. It looked up when she stepped close and, appearing to sense her mood, slunk away.
To begin his training, Anael had asked Nuadhu to meet her outside of the village at dawn the next day, on the far side from the river. He arrived on time, which was a promising start, but when he did his younger brother was trailing in his wake.
“Pwyll,” she said as gently as she could, “what are you doing here?”
The boy puffed out his chest and said, “I’m here to become a Champion with my brother.”
Anael had to suppress a smile. “But there’s only one Champion, and that’s Nuadhu.”
“Well,” Pwyll paused for only a heartbeat, “then I’ll still be a warrior and fight at his side!”
“Your father wants you to become a farmer, to take after him.”
“What did your father want you to be?” Pwyll asked.
The question took Anael completely off guard. “What?”
“Your father – what was his plan for you?”
“I – he – he was very proud of me when I became a warrior.”
“But that wasn’t what he wanted you to be, at first, was it?” Nuadhu said, with a smile on his face as though he had stumbled upon some great secret.
She willed away the heat in her cheeks and smiled back at him. “What makes you so sure?”
“It’s just a guess.” He shrugged. “Am I right?”
“You’re close.” She admitted. “Come on.”
They set off into the forest, wading through dense undergrowth, until they came to a small clearing. There wasn’t much to it, grass growing around the twisted remains of some long dead tree, but she had discovered it while exploring some years back and made a note then that it might be good as a place to take the Champion away from distractions while training. It seemed a good place to start Nuadhu off.
“Are you going to tell me, then?” He asked as he entered the clearing.
“Tell you what?”
“About your father and what he wanted you to be.”
“No. We’re here to train you.”
This didn’t put him off. “I’ve heard people say that you have wings.”
She looked over her shoulders. “Really? Where?”
“They say that you hide them, and this isn’t your true form.”
“Is it true?”
“I’ll tell you what.” She had an extra sword on her belt, which she now drew and presented the hilt of to Nuadhu. “If you can land a single blow, then I will answer one question. Just one, mind, so it’ll have to be a good one.”
Nuadhu looked at the sword doubtfully. At his side, Pwyll nudged him forward, clearly excited to see a sword fight.
“Won’t a sword stroke hurt you?” Nuadhu asked.
Anael drew her own sword. “Don’t get ahead of yourself, child, you haven’t even swung it yet.”
“I’m not a child. I’m a warrior.”
He tested the weight of the sword, unsure of the balance as he lifted it up. It was heavy, and he had never handled a real weapon before, so his grip was shaky. But Nuadhu adjusted to the weight quickly, his still scrawny child’s body belying the innate physical strength he held as a Champion of Man.
Once he had a steady grip on the sword, he looked at Anael with a wide grin on his face, pleased with himself. She stepped forward and swung her own blade to strike the tip of his. It tipped rapidly towards the ground, almost taking him with it. Pwyll laughed, until the sound earned a scowl from his elder brother.
“Your first lesson is balance.” Anael said. “Even if all you ever use a sword for is to crudely slash at your enemies, you need to be aware of its movements. It is a weight apart from your own body, and if you don’t adjust your stance to compensate for your swings, then it will topple you.”
He had steadied the sword again. She swung at it once more, this time from the opposite side, and then when he lurched with the sword, she stepped around him and kicked him in the backside, sending him face first to the ground.
More laughter from Pwyll. Nuadhu looked up, snarling and red faced.
“Are you going to try and strike me, then, or just lay there all day?”
Nuadhu pushed himself up off the ground, grabbed the sword and ran at her. She sidestepped him and moved behind him. He let out a war cry in the same manner as when playing with the other children the day before and swung the blade in a wide circle. Anael jumped back from it. She waited for Nuadhu to turn before circling around him.
He swung again. A downward slice, an upward slice, several roughly horizontal arcs, and a few rough thrusts. She dodged them all, not raising her sword at all but moving quickly and easily out of the path of his attacks. This went on for several minutes before finally Nuadhu stopped, panting for breath.
“Your second lesson is calm. Anger slows you down and makes you predictable. You told me of every attack you were going to make whole seconds before it came. It’s easy to read the body language of an angry man if you know what you’re looking for.”
“War isn’t calm,” Nuadhu said.
“No. But by the time you get to war, most of this should be instinct. Before then, you need to learn to school your emotions and draw your strength from something other than rage.”
Nuadhu stared at her, more fatigue than understanding in his face.
By way of a demonstration, she raised her sword and swung. She kept her distance from the two boys, but what they saw had the desired effect. The sword moved in loops, slashes and arcs, singing as it cut through the air. Her body moved with the weapon, each step deliberate, and graceful, a dance. She finished by running up the side of a tree into a back flip, then driving her blade into the ground as she landed. An unnecessary flourish, but one that left the brothers suitably impressed.
“Do you want to be able to do that?”
Both nodded vigorously.
“Then make sure you follow what I say and do what I tell you to.”
As they walked back through the forest later in the day, Nuadhu lagged a little behind and snapped a branch off a tree. Then he ran forward and whacked Anael on the arm with it before she had time to react.
“What was that?” She demanded.
“A single blow.” He said.
She rolled her eyes. “Very funny. Go on then, what’s your question?”
“What are you, if you have wings and can hide them?”
“Ah, clever. If you’d have just asked ‘have you got wings’ I could have said ‘yes’ and that’s all you’d have known. This way you get a better answer.”
“I’m not stupid.”
“I should hope not, if you’re going to be the Champion of Man.”
“You still haven’t answered the question.”
She smiled. Today was the first time that she had had any prolonged interaction with Nuadhu, and she was already growing fond of him. “Okay, well I do have wings and I can hide them to look like this because I’m an archangel.”
“I don’t know what that is.”
“Well, that’s a different question, isn’t it?”
He hit her arm with the stick again. “What’s an archangel?”
She laughed. “Okay, from now on only striking a clean blow with a sword during training will get you an answer to a question.”
“Fine. But tell me what an archangel is first.”
“Very well,” she said with a smirk on her face. “We’re not from your world and –”
Pwyll cut her off. “You’re from the Otherworld? Are you a spirit?”
“Don’t be stupid. Spirits can’t touch things. She must be a sídhe, because she’s beautiful and strong and graceful,” Nuadhu said, and Anael found herself blushing. “Can you do magic? How old are you?”
“I’m not a sídhe.” She said. “Things aren’t quite the way your legends tell them. My home is called Elysium, and we’re at war with Pandemonium, which is where demons come from. As Champion of Man you’ll play an important role in that war here in your world.”
Nuadhu looked thoughtful, trying to absorb this new information. Pwyll looked disappointed, and Anael remembered that his mother’s stories about the Otherworld and the sídhe had always captivated him. That he and Nuadhu had both been named for heroes of myth probably helped the fascination.
She put a hand on the younger brother’s shoulder. “Just because I’m not a sídhe doesn’t mean that they’re not out there. There are many mysteries to your world that I don’t know, and creatures here that you’ll never see in Elysium or Pandemonium.”
That seemed enough to put Pwyll at ease, and he grinned. “Can we see your wings then?”
“You’ve had far more answers already than you should have gotten.”
“Come on,” Nuadhu intoned in support of his brother. “What do you look like, really? Let us see! Let us see!”
She stopped and looked around. They were still in the forest and away from other eyes, so she leaned down towards them and whispered, “Can you keep a secret?”
Both boys nodded.
“You won’t tell anybody?”
They shook their heads.
She closed her eyes and stretched out her hands. Mentally, she reached deep within herself and drew upon the great reserve of power and energy there. She didn’t pull it all up, only a fraction – the psychic equivalent of drawing back a veil to allow a peek at what lay beyond.
To Nuadhu and Pwyll she would appear much the same, except that the brown shade of her skin was now overlaid with a golden glow, which also encompassed the two enormous wings on her back. Anael opened her eyes and smiled at the sight of them both staring at her in awe. Then she clapped her hands together and at once she looked human again.
After continuing to stare at her for several seconds more, they continued out of the forest and back to the village. As they came out of the trees, she heard Pwyll whisper, “I told you she was a spirit.”
Nuadhu could see the vein in his father’s temple throbbing. Caiside was doing his best to look calm, but he could never hide it from his sons when he was annoyed. Perhaps because he was usually annoyed because of something they had done.
“Pwyll,” he said. “I know why being a warrior appeals to you. But life isn’t always the way that you want it to be.”
“Why not?” Pwyll demanded, sullen.
They were in their house, the fire enveloping them in a drowsy warmth as the night got ever darker outside. Genovefa had hold of Caiside’s hand, sitting next to him but saying nothing as he tried to set his youngest son straight.
“Things work a certain way. You can’t just ‘be’ a warrior.” He said. “The village needs people to be warriors, but it also needs people to farm the land, to hunt and to fish. It needs us more because we’re the ones who keep everyone fed.”
“So why do I have to be one of the people who farms instead of one of those who fights? Why can’t we choose?”
“Do you think that would work? Every boy wants to be a warrior, not a farmer. If you could choose, then we’d have lots of fights and no food. Do you really think we’d be better off if that were the case?”
“No…” Pwyll said. “So why does Nuadhu get to be a warrior?”
Caiside threw up his hands in exasperation and looked to his wife for support.
“Nuadhu isn’t training to be a warrior.” Genovefa said. “He’s a Champion of Man. It’s not the same.”
“Well – warriors fight for the village, and for Brigantia if Judoc calls on them to. They fight other warriors from other tribes who want what we have or have what we want. Nuadhu is going to fight for everyone, against an enemy much greater than other people.”
“But. But that sounds dangerous. He’s my brother and I need to help him to make sure he wins.”
Caiside and Genovefa shared a look of affection. She shifted position so that she could embrace her younger son and comfort him. “That’s sweet, my love.” She said. “But we need you to help us here. Nuadhu will always be okay.”
“Will he, though?”
Pwyll’s eyes met Nuadhu’s then, and the worry in them made Nuadhu tense up. His back went cold and then a shiver traced up his spine. Would he be okay?
That night, despite being wrapped in furs and full from the evening’s meal, Nuadhu was still wide awake when the rest of his family drifted off to sleep. He lay staring up at the ceiling, where the fire cast strange shadows on the thatch. As his eyes grew heavier, they saw the shape of the flames, of birds moving through the sky, and of men marching and waving weapons.
One of these shapes grew larger than the rest, until it was the only shadow on the ceiling. All he could see was the head of a man, but it was no ordinary man. The head was broad and sharp, with the chin jutting out at an angle. It had a horn on either side of the face, curved like the horns of a ram. It had red eyes, lips drawn back from teeth that pointed like daggers and dark red skin the texture of leather.
Nuadhu wasn’t sure when what he was seeing had stopped being a shadow and become a clear image, but now the thing had a body as well. Arms ripped with muscle that ended in long claws, thick legs with knees bent backwards, and a body covered in moulded black armour. As it loomed over him it spread the two wings on its back out so that it blotted out the light from the fire.
He looked around him, desperately, but neither Pwyll nor his parents stirred. It was just him, with the beast leering hungrily at him. He tried to cry out, but his throat was hoarse, and no sounds came out. The beast chuckled, a deep rumble, and Nuadhu shrank into his bed.
“Champion.” The best said. “A pleasure to meet you at last.”
“Who are you?” He managed to croak out.
“Why, I am your Great Adversary! Didn’t our dear Anael tell you about me? I am disappointed. Still, I suppose you are young and under her protection will have plenty of time to learn before I tear your throat out. I can hardly wait!”
The Adversary leaned down with one massive hand, and gently traced its claw over his cheek. Now, at last, Nuadhu did manage to scream.
Nuadhu’s scream brought Anael sprinting from the outskirts of the village straight into Caiside and Genovefa’s house. There, she found the boy sitting upright amidst a bundle of furs while his parents and younger brother looked at him, still groggy from having been shocked out of their own slumber. There was nobody else in the room.
“Are you okay?” She asked Nuadhu.
He nodded, looking ashamed. “I had a bad dream.” He mumbled.
Of course he did, she thought. He’s only ten, a child, and I’m teaching him to fight monsters. Even if it all seemed like a big adventure in the daytime, it would play on his mind in the darkness. How was it fair to place this burden on him?
She bent down and kissed him on the cheek. “You’re safe.” She told him. “And I’m on watch outside so nothing can get to you. Go back to sleep.”
“What’s the Great Adversary?” He asked.
She hesitated then. There was a look in his eyes that worried her. He saw something, in the dream. But if she told him now then he wouldn’t sleep at all.
“I’ll tell you in the morning.” She said.
He looked doubtful, but his parents agreed eagerly, urging him to go back to sleep. He lay back down, but the haunted look didn’t leave his eyes and his eyes never left Anael. She looked away, nodding to Caiside and Genovefa before turning and leaving the house.
Outside, several villagers were gathered outside their homes, and all turned to look at her as she left the house. Again, she thought back on Elisedd’s warning about the feeling of some in the village regarding Nuadhu. How many were looking now thinking that this disturbance was only more proof that they would be better without her and the boy here?
“A child had a nightmare.” She told them. “Nothing to worry about.”
With some grumbling, they turned and went back to their beds. Only Elisedd didn’t. He walked with Anael as she made her way back to the perimeter of the village.
“The Champion of Man screams in his sleep?” The chief said, his voice thick with cynicism.
“He’s still a boy. You were never scared at his age?” She asked.
“Not of shadows.”
“Well, of course not. You were never destined to protect people from the horrors that lurk in those shadows.” With that, she stalked away to stand guard against the threat of Sons of Cain attacking the village in the night.