The Gathering of Nations 1101
Being in full measure an account of the deeds and accomplishments of the realm of Albion and her peoples at the great Gathering of Nations held in the land of Norsca in the year 1101AF. A true-telling of the heights and depths of the mortal spirit; a celebration of courage and sacrifice and honour, and a condemnation of cowardice and perfidy and treachery dire. A tale then of the Dream of Albion, and the resilience of that dream at the darkest moments of oppression and perilous circumstance.
And dedicated well to the wisdom and grace of Lord Marshall Hugo Charenten and Baron Robert Falcon of Warwick, who have placed their full support and kind attendance to the truth of the account herein.
Away beyond the realm of summer, deep within the hard lands of the Wolves, there lay a magical valley of gentle winds and clear blue sky, and there before an ancient temple and the surrounding majesty of glacial peaks was held a great gathering of chiefs and warbands and all of the finest warriors and bards and enchanters and villains of all the world and worlds beyond close assembled in their might and power.
And there came the peoples of the Lion and the Gryphon and the Unicorn, full-appointed with ready wargear and puissant arts of hearth-splendour and dauntless quest. And there came the peoples of the Tarantula and Viper and Dragon, demons and tyrants rubbing shoulders with worthy warriors and star-struck poets.
And last and best there came the peoples of Hart and Wolf and Bear, bright heroes and cunning lords, fair singers and far-famed warlike bands.
And in a great camp did these nations rest, and there rose feast-halls and council-chambers and entertainments far and myriad, and though enemies were close at hand, the wisest men of the nations caused a great ritual of magic to suffuse the ground beneath that no man struck should suffer loss of blood or loss of life to blade or bludgeon for the duration of that joyful festival.
And between the encampments of the nations there was a market of such diversity and wonder than neither word nor song might do justice to the manifold pleasures and darkling fey wonder conjured whole in fact and fancy. And carved meat in many forms was served to chieftains and kings and ready wound-reavers in the night of the summer moon, and flesh taken from the greatest of beasts of field and forest was spiced and braised and cooked for the pleasure of those close arrayed. And everywhere was music and the rhythm of drums, that a man might not walk hither and hence that he not feel the stirring of passion to speed his step or drive the heart to acts of glorious folly and enduring valour.
And the finest encampment of them all was the territory of Albion and the Harts of ancient Prydein; and though the campaign-dwellings of the Lions might be edged in cloth-o-gold and appointed with fine gemstones and precious filigree, they were the abodes of brigands and beggars in comparison to the pavilions and dream-dominions of gentle Albion and her knights and ladies of ready wit and hand. And though the feasthall of the Wolves was renowned and revered for the heat of its broth and the dark savoury salivation of its cuisine, that fair was judged the mere leavings of lepers and scrapmeat of the slaughterhouse when measured against the glorious creations and bounty of Albion’s cooks and mead-vendors and publicans of bounty and tantalising grace. And though the songs and feast-poetry of the Bears might tempt the spirits of the ancestors and powers of the otherworld themselves to descend to sample the delights and mysteries, when heard in comparison to miracle-verse of the firesides of Albion, those arts were they dry prattling of withered felons and the low cant-cawking of avian throats.
But as glorious and wondrous as these appointments and attributes were in truth, the gathering of nations in the Ice Valley was not to be a peaceful reverie or splendid feast of restful means. No indeed, for many factions brought plans and designs of cunning violence and wished great ill upon their neighbours; assassins and men of scant honour were hired in coin stained with innocent blood, pit-fiends and crawling terrors from the deepest hells were summoned and bound to the bidding of wicked lords and treacherous nobles. Narrow lips sneered maledictions and bestial brows beetled in feral spite; everywhere the droop-jawed dragon ingrates toiled under the direction of their waddling war-leader, and never a shade nor dank crack was seen, were it not filled with the pallid uneven faces of brigand-killers of little worth and nithling measure.
And thus the Lords of Albion surveyed and there made plans to erect a stout palisade and sturdy gatehouse to prevent the entrance of these despoiling wights and carrion-eating villains of swarthy mien and low bitter means. Marshall Hugo commanded that gate captains be chosen for honour and valour and high-arcing duty, men of dauntless arts and ready war-talents, women of dangerous beauty and hard warlike feats. A ready teulu-band of Albion’s children, their blades and their bludgeons thrice-ordained to the service of their comrades and kin. And chief amongst these champions were bright-feral Aisla “cat claw”, her sharp talons the death to the foolish and the foul alike, her blade of tears the architect of many a foeman’s weeping kin, and broad-grinned Pelleas, the Priest of the Raven, the axe-wielding killer of Albion’s ravagers and the scourge of those already dead, and noble-browed Sagramore, the war-deputy of Hugo and plotter of carnal massacres, and long-locked Corax, the battlefield bane of greedy conquerors, and fine-mannered Wattaro, the master of tea-serving and wound-rending, and shaggy-shanked l’Ume, the blood-poet of Dreams, and laughing-girthed Lucien, the admiral of the foeman’s misfortune, and beautiful Piers, the Captain of fashion and distant slaying, and mead-drinking Ebric, the bard of hard slaughter, and sharp-toothed Auriel, the maiden of marrow-quenching, and an unseelie King named Finn Drachu, and these all and many more besides, were the finest of Albion’s soldiers and the brightest of her children, and so pledged to the defence of liberty and love they swore obedience to Hugo’s wish and named the camp and palisade the sanctuary line of honourable death and the limit of their hard mercy.
And there were the Lords of Dukes and Barons and their Ladies assembled, and a bright and burning company of splendour was arrayed and deported nobly upon a list protected by the spears of the sky and the warriors of the four quarters of earthly heaven. And foremost in the Land of Albion was the Grand Duke Cadarn Pendragon and his bride the Warrior-Queen Elspeth Pendragon and it was said that the Duke bowed him demons to his manservant’s and the Queen had dressed her scarlet robes in the blood of her enemies, and together they had overthrown all of the nations of the world in battle and honourable fray, and thus in cause was it fair that their pavilions were the finest in the world, and their feasts the greatest, and the songs of their bards and poets the sweetest of all.
And there stood also the Chancellor and chief killer of men in gentle Albion, the full-noble figure of Martaine Quarrier, and though his dress was subtle and of shaded hue, his teeth were sharp and shining and his gaze was sufficient alone to drive the thoughts of evil from the minds of those who wished it.
And there stood also in pomp and earthly beauty the be-ringed Chamberlain and chief romancer in gentle Albion, the gilt-garbed war-singer Jay Wychwood, and his dress was a considered affront to the vanity of gods and spirits and those ancestors of distant warmer climes who craved the touch of silk and gemstone close to less than mortal skin, and though Lord Jay smiled the gentle welcome of an easy feast-companion, his eyes were sharp and hooded and his lips told well the taste for quick blood-killing.
And there also gathered the company of officers and courtiers and diplomats and wise women and cunning men schooled in the arts of herb-sorcery and poison-divining; and chief amongst these were the Lady Corina, whose quiet diplomacy had slain a host of assassins in seasons past, and Lord Nevyn, whose friendship with the Cymrijian Dragons had never yet tainted his manners with the full scent of bile, and Lady Glycell of demonkind, who had proved herself a mistress of unearthly ritual marvels, and Lord Tig the Seneschal whose warfeats with the knife were full-legend, and Lady Grimmir whose gaze alone had made warriors wish for skirts to hide behind, and Lady Kia of the dreaming pastures, whose sorcery caused birds to sing in droplets of lead and gold, and Lady Arianrhod, those voice could tame the fiercest of beasts, and Lord s’Kalion the leaper, whose knife had slain more than his wisdom had schooled, and Lord Jharik the Alchemist and keeper of the black book of souls, and these councillors and officers and more besides, who were the most famous wits and minds in all of the heartlands and all of the courts in all of the lands subject to the eyes of heaven and the jealous lusts of the demonkind unbound in the uplands of hell.
And there around stood the fair folk and citizens of Albion and her green and pleasant lands; and there were the folk of Cornovii and Warwick, of Eton and of Winchester, of the highlands of the Cymrijian border and the lowlands of Trell, from the cities of Londinium and Clausentum and Brighthelm Stane, from the forest depths of the Greenwood and the Vale of York, from the mysterious uplands of the Spine to the primal landscape of Norhault and the Wellspring at the centre of the world. And the folk of Albion were possessed of manifold worthy traits; their bearing was noble and honest, their eyes and brows as clear and clean as the summer brook on the lonely hillside. Their voices sweet and their spirits burnished with simple generosity of soul unknown to many regions in the wider world. It is no exaggeration to say that when creation was young men and women such as these walked proudly in the gaze of the heavens and the spirits of bird and sky and verdant woods, truly and forever at one and full union with the fairest mysteries of the living dreams which shaped the world we know today.
And into the arms of this glorious race came exiles and kinsmen returned from a far and darkened land; the Household of the Falcon marched in brazen pomp and matchless order to the ring of Lords and Ladies and noblemen and common heroes, and there knelt as one to pledge renewed fealty to the throne of Cadarn and Elspeth, their Lord, Robert Falcon, receiving fair welcome and royal favour and position and nobility returned, for the rulers of Albion recognised their kinsmen but lately estranged, and there by grant of land and faith and service returned, welcomed back to the body of Albion a household but lately delivered from the outer darkness by the wisdom and sacrifice of its Lord.
And high and proud did the Household of the Falcon stand then, and three mighty cheers rang out in golden peals to startle the lowering fiends elsewhere in the valley from their own depredations and petty evil. And above the Falcons flew a banner of dressed silk and golden cord, and to the right of their lord stood a ready warband of battle-knights dressed in hard warlike array of silver, blue and sable, and to the left of their lord stood a ready company of forester-skirmishers of cunning wit and heroic garb of burgundy and emerald and shadowed hue. And between these wings of the falcon power lay protected the wealth of wisdom and beauty encompassed by the eldest and wisest of the household standing close to those maidens and fair ladies of courtly arts and subtle smiling grace. And together the household of the Falcon was a sight of surpassing grandeur and breathless beauty, and in truth, a mortal eye knew pain and discomfort to gaze whole upon a household that knew marvels for its feast-bread and drank glory for its evening wine.
And then Duke Cadarn smiled and the dark powers beyond the camp leapt away in fear, for the Lord of Albion knew then that his name was a thing of power to attract and bind such households to his service and his duty.
Then the peoples of Albion came together to greet their kin returned and great was the celebration and swearing of comradely oaths, and the clashing of swords swung in play and battle training, and loud was the acclaim for the arts of one and all, and true was the flame of kinship that burned then in the camp of Albion. How fortunate a dream for those so blessed, how terrible the curse for those who even then looked with envious eyes and planned the darkest deeds of all in treachery and woeful harm.
But forces beyond the camp of Albion had been stirred to action foul and terrible and elsewhere in the ice valley, ghosts and shades of the past had been seen to manifest in bitter battlefield strife with assailants unseen but no less horrific for their lack of visual presence. Howls and screams rang up in the darkening evening and the cursed valley seemed a gaping mouth to the unquiet wraiths of slaughters untold and loss unlamented. And into this chaos came word that a party of Albion’s warriors had been trapped by forces of the dead with jealous hatreds of the living and surpassing taste for mortal flesh; word alone was enough to rouse the heroes present, and in short order a force was arrayed to contest the souls of kinsman from the icy grasp of grave-bound revenants and their cold-eyed lords.
Great was the battle that was done then, and all of Albion’s heroes fought well and with Levin-fire in their eyes that their comrades should know release from the clutches of abomination and fell corruption. Three mighty battle-shouts rang out and the unliving line was broken and torn to ragged tatters, as with howls of rage and derision for the obscenity raised against them, the warriors of fair Albion fell upon their foe and slew and slew again the bodies of those slain long before. And where power lurked yet in the diseased breasts of these lumpen ovens of filth a greater power yet prevailed, for Lord Tig the Seneschal leapt fearless beneath the shields of the warriors and laid final rest upon those unquiet spirits with the golden touch of King Stephen’s Dagger, an artefact of puissant might and conduit to all of the powers of life and light and earthly energy. And so the battle was won and Albion stood triumphant, with all returned and the foe scattered and broken and laid low in disordered clumps of scattered dry-bone refuge.
Not long the respite when the troops of Albion returned to the camp, for in scant moments another more lengthy assault began, and this one summoned by a legend of distant Caer Glas and the cursed actions of the Beomarisian line. Time and time again a brood of great golden boars threw themselves against the fortified palisade wall of the camp, and though many were slain in the attempt to breach the defences, still more were able to climb and leap upon the bodies of their dead to reach the circle of pavilions and fires within. Terrible foes these! For the golden boars knew nothing but feral anger and burning rage, and they fought with murderous strength and quick unchancy blows of horn and tooth and hoof and main strength. Many times the folk of Albion mustered to drive them away or slay them in their madness, but each victory was diminished as still another band would follow in the course of their fallen beast-companions, and many the wounds and maiming injuries done to the warrior-strength of Albion that night.
Then a matter of honey-words and fair emissary, for men of Albion in the garb of Falcons were sent to negotiate terms of honour with a grandee of the Gryphon Nation. But though hospitality was offered and accepted, and though straight-words were exchanged with men of good name and renown, no agreement could be reached, and in part sorrow the matter was passed to knife and twilight deed. And even while mead was exchanged and guest-gift be offered, an insult was delivered to Aisla “cat-claw” by another visitor to the Gryphon hearth, and an insult without forgiveness it was, and blood and death alone the payment returned for the bitter sound of the telling. And death indeed was the result, for no man or woman of the heartlands could offer slight to the champion of Albion and see yet the dawning of another day.
And then fresh news of the plague of golden boars from Caradoc of the Braich Bras and with that Lord his kinsmen and women in forest green and grey-mist hue. A messenger had come to the camp of Albion while the early fight had carried most away, a rider of unearthly pallor with hounds of milk-white flesh and crimson ear-tips, a glowering countenance and bold-cut arrogance and ready demand. This emissary had demanded the golden horn of the Beomarisian line for his master, and had threatened and inveigled, had quick-cast insult and aspiration, had sworn bloody curse and worse to any who would deny the demand. And for the Braich Bras worse yet, for the emissary had laid an injury on the faith of that exiled people, that they might no longer know the voice and blessing of their ancestor Dalamor, and that their incantations and workings might know little success and short lonely failure.
Council was sought and received and many tales were told and much that was unknown became known, and many words were exchanged, and some of them passing harsh, and some of them best forgotten. And at last the chieftain of the Braich Bras sought aid far and wide about those nations gathered in the dark valley of violence and receiving some, grew wiser in the matter, and made plans to seek the golden horn for payment and tribute to the emissary. But the Braich Bras knew not the support of all, for the horn was not a thing of their people, but a treasure of the folk of Beomarise, and Lady Branwen de Gales made claim for her family upon the treasure before ever such a thing might be delivered to nameless riders and hellish powers of the underearth and beyond. But Caradoc, for his part, was concerned only with the acquisition and disposal of this treasure, and bade Branwen and the Bard Eburos seek the horn in Cornovii, where druids exiled from Caer Glas were known to settle and make their homes in the boles of ancient trees and the beneath the stones carved by men forgotten in these more enlightened times.
And as the night grew old the surviving exiles of an ancient land spoke quietly of dreams and portents and tales were told anew, and amidst the dark reflections pleasure too, for though death had come to Caer Glas and snuffed away the bright hopes of a people for peace and liberty, no tyrant may extinguish the bright tales of heroic mischance and mortal folly that preserve names and reputation for days beyond number. Nothing told in song or poem is truly lost. No deed unknown, no fate escaped, no crime unpunished, and no false victory won.
And elsewhere within the marketplace between the nations another song was being sung, and listening to words of unkind import and wanton wicked slander were two of Albion’s men, and as they listened they grew angry and their faces dark with rage and killing lust. For the singer was a creature belonging to the Ard Ri of Erin, the dog-faced ingrate Lord named Digby, a foul-featured despoiler of a fair land, and the servant of Chaos-spawned mercenaries and those who would wield cold-iron terror in affront to custom and ancient tradition. And the song he had commanded was a grievous insult to the Queen of Albion, a bitter slap to the honour and reputation of her husband and indeed to all of the men and women of that fair land. The words of the song cannot be repeated without worsening the crime of their singing, and the meaning of the song cannot be passed without becoming party to the dire insult intended by its performance. Suffice it to say that it was not possible for these men of Albion to listen and not be moved to action, and though they were men of different means and measure, their actions were equally sure, full driven by the desire to answer this affront with action and swift reprisal.
One man, an advocate of law and loyal servant of the crown, returned to the court of Albion within the protections of her fighting men and reported the matter to Duke Cadarn. Dark then grew Cadarn’s countenance, and though his temper remained under control, he spoke a certain promise to exact fitting retribution for the misdeeds of the Ard Ri and his villainous coterie of capering bandy-legged rogues.
The other man, a new-made knight of House Falcon, had partaken well and deeply of the hospitality of many hearths that night, and resolving to punish the words of the song misspoken in his presence, immediately approached the camp of the Dragons with the intention of taking the Dragon Banner from under the noses of those slothful villains and presenting the device as a latrine-rag for the court of Albion in fit retribution for the insult done by wayward tongues and puling nithling fools. But alas for this brave (if foolhardy) man, others of Albion were present within the camp of the Dragons that night and as he approached the banner stealthily by moonlight, a whisper passed between conspirators and the lardily-appointed form of Cymrijia’s overlord Eomear “the bull” Morghun. Alerted and forewarned the Tyrant and his guard were able to effect the capture and swift imprisonment of the unfortunate knight. Eomear smiled broadly then and envisaged dark torments for his captive before returning with pleasure renewed to discussions of matters wide and diverse with his guests in the livery of Albion Hunters.
The morning dawned bright and an early council within the Albion camp brought diverse matters to the attention of all.
Overnight the perils from various quarters had been assessed and considered, and now steps were ordained to resolve the worst and most immediate issues.
Master l’Ume of the Beastmen was tasked with confronting the threats delivered to Albion from a faerie power known as the Story Fae who had demanded the destruction of the written word across the realm lest war and invasion not follow with the twin banes of sword and fire.
And in response l’Ume assembled a brave company of bards and magicians and poets and far travelled wayfarers to assemble a bold narrative legend to placate the Story Fae to deliver peace in this dispute.
Of the golden boars and the demands of the emissary of the dead, Lady Branwen de Gales and the Bard Eburos returned from their quest empty-handed but for the company of a druid of the Circle of Gweneddyn, who tasking them with riddles and poetic games delivered an enigma wrapped in a mystery and departed with a secret smile. Caradoc listened with confusion to these fragmentary hints at hidden truths and merely snarled defiance at the gods and powers of the otherworld, resolving instead to evoke the powers of ritual and enchantment to conjure a weapon of power to teach Anwynn’s emissary the error of his methods and arrogant manner.
Then word arrived of a more immediate danger still, and it was told that an ancient foe of the Lion nation and the once-dwellers in Avalon had been spotted by scouts in the surrounding tundra. A warleader of the Nosta-Ka race, who had been successful in driving the descendents and followers of Corvus from Avalon, was approaching the valley with the intention of carrying slaughter to the gates of those Lions who crouched now in exile and sought only the leave to rebuild their shattered nation on the isle of Lantia in the southern seas. Though many had no cause to love or protect the people of the Lions, the gathered nations were affronted that the Nosta-Ka barbarians should dare to disrupt their own disputes and negotiations and so resolved to confront this power with armed force and strong resolve. The plan was twofold; the leader of the Nosta-Ka, a creature named “progenitor” was to be destroyed by a force of champions recruited from the nine nations of the heartlands, while the bodyguard and warband was to be engaged and overthrown by a force composed of all of the nations and led by warleaders to common cause.
Forewarned, the plans were laid, and Albion provided a strong force of warriors to join the battle, and committed a champion to the fray carrying the bright-blade Excalibur and the hopes and best regards of those arrayed. The “progenitor” was said to be a fearsome adversary, with mighty magic and the power to destroy mortal men with word and gesture alone. An ambush was laid with the armed forces of the nine nations mustering high on a hill overlooking the pass through which the Nosta-Ka would enter the valley, and all the while the nine champions laying in wait close by the route with the intention of striking and killing the “progenitor” from surprise and sudden violence once formal battle was joined. Might and power lay close to the hands of these champions, each equipped with an artefact weapon of vital energy and deadly potential, one man from each nation, joined for a time in common cause and imminent and personal risk as might attend a man alone in the midst of an enemy host.
But when the time came for the attack the plan was spoiled by the Dragon warleaders of the allied host, who could not control their unruly troops and thus allowed their forces to commit too early to the fray. Spent uselessly, the dragon warriors were quickly routed and driven from the field, but the damage had been done, the ambush triggered early, the Nosta-Ka line formed between the champions and the “progenitor” guard, and for time matters seemed hopeless. But at last reckless valour made up for the Dragon failure, and the nine champions charged thoughtless of their own safety and cut their way through the Nosta-Ka lines to reach the “progenitor” amongst his guard. A sharp and brutal killing followed there, with bright blades and gleaming spears and brutal hammers raising and descending in unison against the flesh of this most potent of Nosta-Ka chieftains and warleaders. Noise and chaos reigned and many fell victim to the terrible power of the “progenitor” and his death magic, but the bodyguard were taken by surprise and by the time they rallied to the defence of their lord the death blow had been clean-stuck with the head hacked clear away from the neck of the horde.
Howling in glee the champions tossed the “progenitor” head into the ranks of his circling army and severing and shattering limbs to the left and to the right, they dispersed then to rejoin their ranks of their own forces in wild looping runs between the tightest fighting and the places where the Nosta-Ka ranks grew ragged and thin. There followed a great slaughter, for the Nosta-Ka wished nothing more than to avenge their leader’s death, but they were poorly led now and confused and stood often at odds with their fellows and fellow companies, and pressing close the armies of heartlands performed feats of valour and war-prowess and took many heads and slew many times their own weight in the panicked foeman. And the warband of Albion performed tight manoeuvres and formed line and arrowhead and square at the command of its leader the Grand Marshall Hugo, and as the Noska-Ka strove to wound and slay to the left and to the right, the prowess of Albion’s warriors was unmatched and many bold acts of individual skill and gallantry were lauded by poets after that day, but in the end it was battle-brotherhood and war-discipline that proved of more worth than reckless valour, and as a tight fighting unit the lines of Albion merged with the Falcons at their core and swept away the Noska-Ka scourge like so many stalks of harvest-ripe autumn corn beneath the reaper’s scythe.
And only at the close of battle was a loss recorded, and this the loss of the Falcon banner to the treacherous jealously of an allied warband from Teutonia, but not a loss for long, as the keen eyes of Lord Jay Wychwood marked well the theft and dishonour both, and swooped himself like a bird of prey to recapture the banner and the thief as well for the pleasures of more leisurely disposition.
And thus was the battle won and the honour of Albion proved in bright deeds of valour in the eyes of the nation and truly the returned heroes of House Falcon had found a fair welcome and battle-kinship with the men and women of the land they had lost once but found again, and truly the deeds done on that field would ring long in the songs of bards and the dreams of lover’s made and oaths fair-sworn. And as a shining company formed around the bright sword Excalibur and the champion to wield her, the warband of Albion returned as heroes made to the camp to take fair repast and to consider long the lessons of strife and courage bold. But some faces alone were dark, and those of an ancient family, for the Hunters had looked on the deeds of Albion that day and grown jealous, for their status was imperiled by rivals and younger lusty battlelords and heroes, and keenly did they feel the slipping away of past power and long assumed prerogative, and with it the attendant erosion and decay of courtly influence and regal favour.
Three messengers now, and each with a telling more sorrowful than the last;
The first wore a guise and appearance full known to the exiles of Caer Glas, and though his face was ashen and blotched with blood and suffering, the coming of Ceirwyn ap Nudd was not slow to rouse kinsmen to his side, and at his fall in deathlike swoon, to bring hands and eyes close to witness his words and tale of otherworldly mischance. And a grim tale it was, for Ceirwyn was close to death and worse, and told in a whisper of a terrible price paid to demons, of an ancient curse, and of a year striving against the host of Annwyn to save the legend of his forefathers from the embrace of death’s own land.
And Ceirwyn breathed his last on the verge of Cadarn’s hall, and passing his blessing to those remaining kin in the world of man, the child of Alarch “red-eyes” and Nudd ap Gwyn spoke last of three broken kings and of a broken throne standing empty when ever it should contain the presence of faerie and the spirts of wild places and the untamed wilderness. Branwen de Gales wept then, and dressing the wasted face of her uncle, she swore oaths bright and dark, and pledged service to the cause of the Mirrored Isle and the dreams held safe there beyond time and mortal hunters.
The next messenger was known to Albion, and close to the council and friendship of the line of Corvidae, and his message was worse yet than the terrible fate of the mirrored isle and the dreams of a scattered people. A child of Bacchus and bold scion of house Grimmir told of assassination and murder done in the cause of blood-purity and misplaced pride, of knife and poison and an old woman’s death dealt in warning to those who might oppose the schemes of nithling cowards too ashamed of their faces to bath their skin in the light of the midday sun. These villains named themselves “the covenant”, and spoke in writing of their commitment to the preservation of Albion’s ancient lines and families, but what fools they were in truth! For any man of learning knows full well that Albion’s lines are mixed with the ancestors of Prydein and the wider world and that nothing beyond decadent horror can issue from lineage tight and close and denied the vitality of wider union. For this fool’s cause a modest and kind woman named Gytha Ogg was slain, a small thing perhaps in the eyes of the world, but to those who knew her a tragedy and worse, for while “the covenant” carved their petty-designs in the flesh of the living, the dream of Albion’s great hopes and manifest light was diminished yet in close and hard decree.
The last messenger was the Knight Gereint, a sworn man of Warwick and House Falcon and Albion, and his face was marked with dragon-runes and curse-sigils, and he told a tale as terrible as any before, and though it told not of death amongst the living, it concerned the broader death of hopes and the slander-tarnished dream that once breathed life into the aspirations of all. Gereint was the man who had sought to take the Dragon Banner in payment for the words of the Ard Ri’s coterie of clowns, and betrayed and captured in the Dragon camp, he had been beaten and humiliated and imprisoned at the pleasure of gluttonous lords and sickly poisoned reed-like men.
Hard this torment, but not half as hard as deliverance proved, for opting to make statement of Albion’s weakness and low war-prowess, Ard Ri Digby and his Cymrijia ally Eomear paraded Gereint before a grand muster of the Dragon strength and goaded this valiant Knight with the sight of those who named Albion a weak gasping outpost of withered might and domain of men horse-whipped and broken to the whoring shrewish ways of a far-derided Queen. Gereint had suffered these words poorly, and shouting challenge and insult high returned, he had rushed unarmed at the ranks of his circling captors to no avail, for as callow warriors danced away in scorn, the dung-smeared warlocks canted syllables to drive him harmless and raging beyond the reach of eye to gouge or throat to tear in just expression of frustrated hate. Laughing their ridicule for his threat of Albion’s vengeance and iron resolve, the men of the Dragon took lead from their masters and sang out high and loud the terrible verse that was a scourge to the pride of honourable souls and an unbearable goad to those who named themselves proud sons and daughters of ancient Prydein and the children of fair Albion. At last Eomear allowed Gereint to leave the camp of the Dragons with a message burned hard in his memory;
“The dragon has returned to prominence and rises now ascendant above hag-ridden states and weakling realms, tell your masters that soon they shall bend their knees to prouder sovereign Lords than ever they have known before!”
And now this message Gereint delivered to his kinsmen and allies and their countrymen and their hearths and their holdings, and dark was his countenance and thin were his lips as he spoke of the words which had passed between the lips of Dragons and their creatures.
And as if the spirits and the ancestors of fair Albion shared his woe, the sky then filled with dark clouds and rain fell in plentiful sheets, drenching the fair encampment and driving the bright company of Albion to shelter beneath the gay pavilions and fair-bedecked awnings and banner-sheltering feast hall.
And for a time a restive and grim mood was ascendant close to the boasts of the Cymrijian Tyrant and his clench-faced Erin henchman, and men looked to their goblets of fire-warmed mead and spoke little, and women sang quiet songs of distant import to drive the moods and demons of unchancy news away from the golden dream of Albion.
But braggart-words and the Norscan rain are no match to the fair hopes and famous arts of gentle Albion, and as the night came close upon the encampment, and as the gentles and ladies of the realm gathered about the feast-hall and bright pavilions, the dark mood retreated, and spirits recovering with the joys of companionship and mutual love were further swelled by the wise bounty of Lord Jay Wychwood, who ordained a great festival of cooked poultry and a bold contest to discover the whereabouts of the fairest music and song that might be found in all the heartlands and border-realms beyond.
A bold and far-sighted vision indeed! And fair-spiced and clear-eyed were the chickens who gladly died to feed the doughty heroes and lithesome heroines of Albion. An army of serving folk prepared this most elaborate expression of feast-bounty, and no man or woman came to Lord Jay’s hearth that they did not go on their way with lips blessed with the wondrous taste of seasoned meat and nostrils tempted beyond endurance with a hundred diverse scents and cunning intricate concoctions of kitchen alchemy and carnivorous lust. And even as pure-golden meat was consumed with relish, and even as hot-baked bread was dipped in vats of dark-spiced stew to balance the pleasure of consumption, and even yet as hearth companions sampled the wondrous sweetmeats and crystalline sugar-compacts offered whole by the smiling generosity of Pelleas d’Vor, all this and more besides was known and sampled, and the wine flowed dark and red and poignant, and the mead flowed light and shimmering with honey-rich lustre, and the ale poured fresh and spiced with nutmeg and ginger, and everywhere the taste of wonder and strange tingling liquors of a hundred distinctive tangs and more besides. And though the Dragons might be more numerous yet than the fleas on a mangy worm-eaten dog, what moment, if any, those benighted starveling curs who hunkered down like scarecrow manikins to half-cooked pies of grey-gristle mixed lard? What to fear from a nation whose Lord’s bounty was lower yet than the leavings of leprous pederasts incarnated in Exeter jaol?
And when the food of this marvellous feast was full-consumed, Lord Jay called then for the attendance and pleasure of the finest singers and bards and poets in verse, and announced a purse of golden bounty for the performer who best raised the gathered hearts in wondrous pleasure, and whose expression of artistic splendour best exemplified the spirit and promise of Albion’s glorious dream. And not slow the talented voices of the heartlands to respond to this invitation. Rank upon rank they came to the hearth of Lord Jay, bedecked in feast finery and carrying their instruments and symbols of their fair trade. Bards from Caledonia and Norsca and Cymrijia (for even Eomear could not deny the movement and participation of these adepts of ancient profession), bold singers from Lantia and Estragales and Teutonia (whose verse in music forged kinships beyond the bleached expectations of mere political expedience), and poets and dreamers in song from Emperor Isles, and the Underdark and the emerald glades of Albion herself (for all the diverse races and more besides valued the sanctity of song and the enduring faith of musical legend).
And there at the heath of Lord Jay these gathered Bards and singers duelled in earnest for the high accolades and heart of Albion both; there were songs of love and loss and heartbreak and enduring hope, there were songs of war and death and striving and desolation, there were songs of the past and songs of the future, there were songs of secret things and songs of common faith, there were songs which plucked the heart to tears and songs which tempted bright laughter from the dourest throats, songs sung softly to the rapt silence of the hall and songs sung loud and lustily to the clashing of tankards and the accompaniment of mead-loosened voices raised in tribute. On and on the delightful music and beautiful words rang out into the night, and as the wine flowed the hard bounds of reality fell away and it was difficult in truth to judge the mortal realm from the splendour and strange magnificence of otherworldly appearance and golden light of burnished hue.
And the last song was sung by Eolas Eborus, a Bard of Caer Glas and an exile from that distant beloved Isle, and the words of the song told of a lover torn between feelings for land and warm mortal flesh, and as he sung the words in passion with eyes closed tight and voice breaking in emotion and recall the gathered company listened rapt, and were silent for time even beyond the last lingering words and notes of memory conjured close and earnest.
And hard was the task of Lord Jay to chose a winner from the many wonders he had been gifted that night, and at last it was to Lady Madeline Falcon and her kinswoman Lady Beatrice that he awarded the prize and his heartfelt thanks, for their ballad telling the tale of the Falcon exile had lingered longest in his mind, and he remembered the complex melody that had so entranced the attention and imagination of all. And so it was that Albion was gifted well with the blessing of Bards and singers and the attention of the fair spirits of creative vision and fair repose, and close on their arrival and acceptance into the comradely ranks of Albion’s families and noble households, the Falcons had found champions in music and poetry to match their champions and heroes on the lists of combat and fields of battle.
The morning dawned late and grey and the rain from the night before lay damp upon the encampment, but even as the first cooking fires and murmured conversations disturbed the silence, the clouds began to lift, and with their passing the sky coloured a deep azure, and the sun brought welcome caress to limbs chilled and minds dulled by the drunken revelry of the night before.
Two councils were held by the first meal of the day; a gathered council of lords and officers of the court where sensitive matters were discussed and pondered, and then a wider muster of Albion’s strength and accomplishments and ongoing issues of concern and wide repute.
During these councils many facts and reports came to light, and though some were secret and must remain so, some others were announced proudly or attained such wide infamy that no purpose might be had by their concealment;
Following Lord Jay’s feast the previous evening, a group of cunning magicians and sorceress Ladies of Albion had gathered to perform a ritual to the benefit of the Watchers of Deepwood, and had been successful in their intentions, summoning forth a spirit of the primal forestry to oppose the ambitions of petty evil and loathsome aspect. The chief ritualist for this working was Lady Rebecca of House Falcon, a talented novice worker of magic, but proved full-able to wield the energies of the void to her will and clear design.
While ever this ritual was wrought, however, a further emissary of the mirrored isle had come to the peoples of Caer Glas and had spoken in grim augury of the fate of the Broken Kings and the land cherished by life and death both. On this figure spoke, and as many questions he answered, he raised thrice more, and at the last the matter of the horn and mirrored isle remained a vexing mystery to stir the thoughts and unquiet the resting heart.
And then by mischance the exiled Knight of Avalon, Sir Percival de Gales, had undergone a curious change and feral transformation, and had spat harsh words and offered violence at the hearth of Duke Cadarn to the estimable Aisla “cat-claw”, and not slow was the champion of Albion to meet insult and affront with clean-drawn steel and ringing strokes of blade upon skullcap. And Percival, in his transformed aspect of base and bestial manner, had flown away from the embrace of Aisla to strike instead his wife the Lady Branwen, and with cruel cuts he rendered her wounded in a bloody-swoon and had bent himself down to perform whatever dark act his twisted mind could envision.
And then by fortunate circumstance the emissary of the Broken Kings had come upon the scene and rendered Percival senseless and beyond further malice by dint of swift telling blows and taut-contrived violent measure. And bending to the rescue of Lady Branwen, the emissary had restored her to the care of Chirugeons and Healers, and brought Percival likewise, tied hand and foot like a hog, to the attention of Duke Cadarn’s court. Making an exit with a subtle smile, the emissary had left Branwen with the blessings of her uncle and the pledge of kinship and fair-design for her family thereafter.
Of deeds dark and fell, there were yet others, for Caradoc of the Braich Bras and his kinsman, having been successful in recovering the sword of their ancestors in perilous quest, had been robbed of their victory within scant moments, as the puissant blade of C’mor t’yn Gedd had been stolen away by brigands and bandits and held yet for ransom and payment. And Caradoc’s brow was dark and his eyes hooded, and he chewed with distraction upon his lower lip and thought thoughts of sinister design and carnal lustre.
But of circumstance kinder yet, the past evening had seen the meeting of kinsmen and fair-born ladies of house Falcon and house Constantine, and the laughing company of Anabella of the revered line of Albion’s martial past, had renewed pledge and alliance lost when Corvus and Roxanne sundered the compact of revered Arthur and his noble company.
And of success in stranger feats, the wizard Hemlock had completed a dream-quest and returned with auguries strange and strangely practical, and it appeared that betwixt Dreaming and Story Fae, a middle path of perilous balance might be walked with firm bravado.
And beyond the search for seers and revelation, the cause of Aisla “cat-claw” and her liberty from unkind fate was close upon the lips and thoughts of many, and Lady Beatrice and her page Aspen strove hard to encompass the unbinding of the bittersweet “sword of tears”.
A restful day but marked well with the portents of a coming storm. The sun brought relief from chill and driving rain, but the encampments of the heartlands huddled close and divided and it was apparent that more hatred than love had come to this meeting of the nations in Norsca;
Murder had run-red handed about the camp of the Gryphons and many of their citizens had been slain and consigned to hell by the means of their slaying and by the corrupted blades that had severed throat and vein even through the enchanted ritual of peace and abeyance that protected the valley.
Old alliances had fallen on the stony ground of political Falsehood, and though the peoples of Albion and Norsca had stood close as comrades and battlefield allies throughout the wars and skirmishes of past years, it appeared that such trust was fleeting, and bought for glimmering coin, the honour of the Wolves was now to be employed in the service of Teutonia and the Underdark, and where once the Wolf chieftains might have scorned the alliance of unliving legions and necromantic prowess, now they embraced the returned dead and drauger-wraiths as brothers, and made plans to sweep such comrades to victory and full-eminence on the field of conflict.
And in the valley between the camps the temple of the Morrigan was not quiet, and neither were the ghosts and sendings of past slaughters and primeval massacres brought up again in the light of day etched with the stark shadows of the looming Norscan mountains ranged about. And everywhere the wailing and clashing of spectral arms and shattered ghostly limbs brought unreal horror to the verge of conscious thought, conjuring disturbing memories and bitter emotions seeped close from the knowledge of unravelling faith and chaotic desire.
And through the twilight walked powers intent on provoking fresh murder and glorying in the gift of suffering; Ares incarnate tempted warriors with glory, death and bondage, the Queens of Caledonian wrought dark pacts with their warleaders and made plans for conquest, the Dragons gathered in number and drank to the dominion of their Tyrant-leaders, beasts were wed to demons, and demons sported with the dead, and everywhere the martial beat of sepulchral drums raised the blood and brought the lust for killing close upon the lips of all.
And in this half-light of hatred and wicked splendour a tarnished miracle yielded a terrible weapon. A nation of the heartlands discovered an ensorcelled anvil of the ancients empowered with a terrible might and dreadful capability, a cold-iron forge that could create weapons of instant and terrible destruction to those of faerie blood and worse yet, a thing to drive the wonder from the world and to tame and break the dominions of the wild places and ruin the unblemished secret glades and primal sanctuaries of Prydein and the wider world. Hideous the sound as blades were fashioned to rend immortal souls, worse yet the scent of burning malevolence to hang heavy in the air. One thing to slay a man or a faerie prince, another to consign a soul to oblivion and eternal torment. Once these weapons had brought an awesome cataclysm and pushed the world to the edge of destruction, now they were returned again to serve the whim and will of evil men and inhuman appetites – how yet to explain the wheels of politics and stately ambition? I confess I cannot.
From half-light came an evening gloom of dreadful portent and dire circumstance; voices were raised in contention within the encampment of Albion, and from far places came full-armed supporters of the Hunters, angry and resentful at their diminished status, and producing tabards and garments of forest green and tarnished white to proclaim their allegiance above their oath to Albion herself. Mustering strength growing with every miraculous arrival, the Hunters became a prominent force amongst the fighting men of Albion, the more so for they had chosen their moment of demonstration to coincide with the absence of many loyal commanders and their hosts, who were elsewhere in the valley planning strategy and honourable alliance with the leaders of other nations.
Indeed some Hunters were seen to turn their coats and livery from allegiance to other units and companies to don again the ancient colours of their Greenwood homeland. A strange sight this power summoned from the smoke, and a disturbing one, for the Hunters cared little for the approval and comradeship of their peers, and preferred to walk with arrogant poise and careless bravado as their strength waxed high and dramatic in the absence of loyal opposition.
But even as the Hunters postured and preened in the gloom, terror came to the encampment in the form of a drear emissary from the land of the dead, naming himself a power of Annwyn, and demanding tribute and obedience in the form of the “cup of souls” and the submission of Albion’s pride before him. And though Hunters preferred to plot their own schemes in safe verges, many of the remaining heroes of Albion brought violence to oppose the maledictions and whispered bile of this dead-eyed villain, and for a time chaos reigned amongst the fair pavilions, and swords fell to the left and to the right as lurid sparks and levin-fire rained like autumn blossom in a gentle breeze. And only when Excalibur itself was brought to bite upon his flesh did the emissary recoil and clap his scaled hands thrice to banish his slinking grave-revenants to the pits and cracks they had issued from, to better clear a path for wanton retreat and careless abandonment of his earlier aims. And the loyal heroes of Albion cheered then, and clapped hands upon backs and shouted great oaths to ward away the shades of the otherworld, and for a time victory was sweet, but only briefly, and then came news to sour the honey-taste of battle triumph.
In the fray the emissary’s creatures had laid hands upon and taken the Ladies Branwen de Gales and Mallory Morghun Stormbringer from this world and spirited them away to realms unknown for purposes too dark to contemplate with ease and even temper. And anger burned bright and quick, and as swiftly yet, a warband was summoned from those loyal folk of Albion who remained in the encampment, and led by heroes of the Falcon and allies, and aided by wise Faramir the sage and grim-smiling Pelleas the High Incantor of the Raven, the band of brothers and sisters in strife and noble cause left in search of hell’s emissary and the kidnapped Ladies of fair-weeping Prydein. And though the pursuit was fast and mighty, and though Faramir performed auguries to guide the way, and though aided by foreign eyes and the strangest of allies, the warband did not overtake the servant of the underworld, and learning only that the way ahead might well lead by twists and turns through the cursed valleys of the summerlands, and then by strange leaps and circles onwards to midnight forests of the mirrored isle itself, the wisest and mightiest of heroes were confounded and defeated by the absence of path or riddle-wrought adjunct.
And then while counsel was sought and taken, a flash and movement and two bodies returned from the otherworld; one breathing with shallow gasps, one silent and still. Lady Branwen de Gales of the ancient Beomarisian line, last Queen of Caer Glas, lay barely alive with her body marked with cuts and wounds of hard misuse, and beside her, unmoving, eyes rolled back to gaze forever at the void, Lady Mallory was dead and cold and slain by the hands of dark powers and a curse given flesh.
A sorrow beyond words but words must be found!
Mallory was a woman of courage and heart who had raised herself above the evil of her adopted kin the Morghun scourge of Cymrijia, to gaze with truth upon the beauty of freedom and liberty and fair-battle comrades. Mallory turned from Eomear’s dark designs to stand with Caer Glas in the hardest fight of all, and though a woman of subtle arts and easy voice she took her place in the shield-line and raised blade and heart both to confound the advance of brutal enveloping tyranny. Mallory, you live yet in the passion and love of those you thought beside! Mallory, you were the Maiden of the Waves and beloved of the Sea Prince!
Mallory, lost child of Trecastell, now you cross the bridge of swords to stand forever in the company of the Hiraeth and those bright souls who strive in eternity to raise honour and courage against the coming of the night. We salute you and bid you farewell for a time.
We will meet again.
And gathering up the unconscious form of Lady Branwen, and the slain body of Lady Mallory, the warband made return with their woeful tidings, but as terrible as the events witnessed by their own eyes, worse yet the curse that had fallen on their comrades left behind to guard the heart of Albion.
There are no easy ways to tell of treachery and black-hearted betrayal, no gentle words to caress the sensibilities of traitors and villains who would murder hope for political advantage. Instead the stark truth must suffice, and here then is the tale of the Hunters and the Dragons and Dream of Albion.
Almost too simple the humbling of Albion to the mercy of the Tyrant of Cymrijia;
The Hunters looked well on the absence of Albion’s finest warriors and most noted warbands as their plans came close and hard to fruition and awful revelation. Their mood was high and angry, they reasoned amongst themselves that Duke Cadarn and the court of Albion had Paid them scant respect for the nobility of their blood and the sanctity of their ancient line.
“We Hunters”, said they, “have ever held our lands by force of arms and ancient prerogative, and never yet have we suffered a King or mere Duke to place limits on our rights and privileges – the land is ours without question or debate or legal restraint”.
And on they spoke amongst themselves, and murmuring resentment built ever into a rage of dark import and wide hatred for those they considered new-made lines and fragile claimants to the friendship of the crown and the Dream of Albion.
“And yet we know scant reward for our battle-service and past deeds”, said they.
“For while Elspeth would be whoring yet for Corvus and Roxanne if we had not taken the field by her banner, today we are treated like dogs who must contend for every bone of recognition hurled disdainfully from the tables of the mighty”.
And now the Hunters grew dark of mien and dour of face, and men amongst their number remembered allies made and common cause with those their oaths had once pledged them to oppose in all things.
“And if we are scant valued in ancient Albion”, said they.
“There are Lords and Kings and Princes of the wider lands who will know our rights and reputation with better recall, a humbling time for Dukes and creatures of court this eve!”
And strengthened by their numbers gathered from strange parts and cunning sleights, and emboldened by drink and the absence of many heroes of Albion, and resolved by the discussion of grievance and smouldering anger, the Hunters moved then as a force to replace the under strength troop of loyal men guarding the gate with a strong body of warriors sworn to the Hunter cause. And there the Hunters seized weapons of power and dread capability from the gate captain with smiles and assurances, and made all the appearance of outward loyalty to the duty their hearts were once sworn to uphold.
And then from the darkness, in columns of lurching arrogant bravado, the Dragons came.
Not handsome these bands of foreign pillagers invited by traitors who opened the gates of their country to invasion and foul deprivation;
Row after row of distended bellies and uneven jowl-laden faces twitching with wicked mirth at the horrid despoilment to come. Eyes bulbous and shot-through with streaks of lurid scarlet and milky pustule-hued tint, noses twisted askew with nostrils flared and wide, hard-trained in the sniffing out of innocence and the breaking of faith and beauty, mouths narrow and blanched or blotched instead with the full-gage of pestilential smear, clammy-damp lips like paired worm-eaten trout laid end to end on slabs of privy-house marble, ears ranged outward from scabby-scalps running with vermin under lank-oily locks fit only for the scrubbing of filth, chins in bony slant anointed poorly with whisp-like thronds masquerading as beards, chins in triple-jowl array flapping grease and spittle beneath rank ratty whiskers and gnarl-knotted hemp, and these alas were only the women, and full scion-denizens of Eomnuda’s taint were they!
And then came the male warriors, and even the Hunters drew aside in horror as these shambling lard-soaked things pushed aside the timbers of the opened gate to menace the outraged citizenry within, with bellies of pallid-rippling undulations, and spindle-shanked limbs of unchancy angles and evil-tufting clumps of sprouting wire where other men of the world knew eyebrows and fine-dressed mustachios of flamboyance and poise. Oh horrible vision! How men of Albion wept to see this brood of Dragon outcasts laid bare to sight and examination in the full gaze of their Ladies and the honour of their houses. And on they came, their garb and costume seized from a dozen victim nations, their hands like pudding-paunch claspers of unblemished flesh, their flanks rolling like gorged bullocks in the mud, their faces clenched and warped about eyes half-closed in pig-like anticipation of the gluttonous privations imagined well in minds as twisted as criminal madmen consigned to deep asylums in the labyrinths of the earth. Sweating well and dripping yellow ichors upon the cringing soil of their passing, these unmanly acolytes of Morghuix drew close now to the command tent of Albion’s court, and as the chife and vapours of their coming drew alarm and consternation from the courtiers within, the lines of bloated flesh and disproportionate aspect parted to reveal the presence of their masters, come now in the full panoply of corruption to extend the curse of tyrannous venom to the fairest land of them all.
And between the walls of quivering unsightly-blemished flesh, stood Eomear Geffrin Morghun, and his lieutenant of infamy, Ard Ri, Digby “dog face”, of Erin. Eomear standing proud and silent, the true-chosen master of the girth’s gathered there to oppress gentle Albion, the self-styled “bull” of Cymrijia, chosen as King by the subtle manipulations of Queen Maeve of Erin and the Unseelie Court, and who had, at the biding of his own whim and hatred, chosen to break liberty and destroy the bright hopes of celtic-courage and independence on the bleak distant Isle of Caer Glas in the Erin sea.
And beside this monarch of malevolent strivings, stood high and close the lank-vagabond figure of the Ard-Ri Digby. A tragic figure of a man eaten by strange lusts and dark pacts with forces beyond the ken of bright mortal knowledge this; a stringy-black beard below a scalp hung with drooping locks and raven-feathered bunches of tangled hair, deep-shadowed eyes towering above his followers, a mournful drooping mouth of thin blanched lips and cheekbones pressed-in like the visage of a starving wolfhound ill-fed and mistreated at the hearth of a callous master. The Ard Ri did not often chose to speak in his own stead, and merely acted close and attendant to the whim of his Cymrijian master; sometimes granting land to Erin’s foes at a sharp whistle, oftimes rushing to fetch back a hurled stick in loyal service, treating well the wielders of “cold-iron” terror, and making close hearth and rich lands availed to the rudest of mercenary killers and avowed worshippers of chaotic forms and means.
And behind these two, the champions and lords of the Dragon Nation, and what paragons of their people were these! And how the champions and heroes of days past wept and tore their hair and beards in wet clumps from the otherworld beyond the bridge of swords. Alas the fate of the Dragon! That men like these ruled Cymrijia and Erin now, in stark and poor contrast to those who had come before. And of those champions and lords who stood closest to their masters then, these names were the foremost;
Kellyn blood-banner and Cullen the blind and Culwych branch-foe and Hengall wound-axe and Gereint landless and Uther dead-beloved and Gull sea-shrike and Tremaine broad-thighs and Kellen worm-disgorger and Yewen the mimic and Oengus shield-turner and Llandah false-blemish and Tadgh woman-poisoner and Kerrigan honey-lies and Devaroe wind-billow and Calis crow-breath and Dafydd barren-field and Talyn ebon-skin, and Lennard braggart-lips and Delryn the catamite and Tacticus iron-skin and Damon truth-declaimer and Veerak hearth-murderer and Elgion maiden-dresser and Usher bone-beloved and Ellyn gusty-rage and Valarion nose-breaker and Rikka the small and Jalin mead-spiller and Alistair crow-face and Kyle word-despoiler and Da’shen word-preserver and Calaby slight-valour and Tryfan crow-devourer and Corinthian childslayer and Raziel demon face and Walker mead-despoiler and Owain stern-brow and Devlin coin-beloved and Mortarach twin-banner and Bracken of dark waters and Sebell of discordant chimes and Cynddylan of seven fates and Lleod knife-provider and Faith dream-pursuer and Bradamant the bold.
And behind these, two more ranks of Dragon men and women and whose sex was impossible to judge beneath beetled-brows and shuffle-hunched menace, and full close they came in warlike array to surround and dominate the brightest pavilion of the encampment, to therein imprison those Lords and courtiers of Albion that were not elsewhere planning warlike strategy with allies and men of honourable means.
And then beside Eomear and Digby rose a terrible, ominous, shameful, and full traitorous sight, for the Hunters had come to stand beside the Dragon invaders and took close rank with the Cymrijian brigands and the Erin blackshields and named their cause in full accordance with the aims and plots and schemes of the “Bull” and his faithful “Hound”. And at the hearth of Duke Cadarn and those lords who remained, the Hunters brought their banner to stand in blazon challenge to Albion’s heart, full-flanked by lines of Dragon troops, full-aligned with vassal obedience to the might of Cymrijia and Erin. And at this gesture even some amongst the Hunters thought the gesture too ill and too foul to bare in conscious sight, and there before the Dragon might allied with the Hunter flag of war, Master Manawyddan and Lady Ailish du Beaumaris did quit their allegiance to the Hunter cause, and named their love for Albion sufficient honour and reason not to take a foreign lord into their beds.
But the Hunters were not stinted by this noble choice, and coming close to Duke Cadarn, well-confident in their allies and speaking with brash and burnished arrogance, their leaders demanded high concessions and severance from their oaths of obedience, and full-recognition of independent statehood within their bounds and dominions. Declaring the territory of the Greenwood theirs and theirs alone by ancient right, the Hunters named their claim to every fortress and road and sole command of all military and civil forces within these bounds. Further yet, the champion of the Hunters, a narrow-faced scarecrow figure named Loraq of the tenebrous glades, then admonished Duke Cadarn and Lord Jay for their disrespect in dealings with an ancient and revered house of Albion, and demanded political representation at court, high ranks and promotions within the army, wide concessions across many issues of state, and last a full and formal grant of land in perpetuity for the biding of centuries and the fate of nations.
And as if this was not insult enough, now Eomear came forward to support these claims with military might and Dragon avarice. Threatening Duke Cadarn with warriors in great number and imminent strife, the “Bull” spoke lovingly of his allies the Hunters, and repeatedly made suggestion that Albion should cede the Greenwood to the protectorate of Cymrijia, and that if the Hunters were not valued in Albion, well, they would find welcome and fair reward at the court of Gorsenydd.
And such matters were debated at length and as words passed between the rulers of Cymrijia and Albion, the Hunters present joined ranks with the Dragon soldiers to seal the command pavilion and deny access and aid from their once-countrymen who yet remained loyal to their Duke.
And beyond the Duke’s pavilion confusion and indecision was rife; The Dragon troops outnumbered the loyal forces by a considerable weight, and the Hunters at the gate still controlled access to the encampment. No senior commanders of the Albion military were present and free, and even if they had been, it would surely have been sheer foolhardy suicide to force a confrontation with the Dragons and Hunters in close alliance still imprisoning the poorly-armed courtiers and officers of Duke Cadarn’s court. Gnashing their teeth and raging with frustration the loyal Harts of Albion waited out the confrontation, and even as they waited, fresh assaults on the encampment came not from Dragons or Hunters, but from laughing demons, and capering ghouls, and unquiet spirits of the dishonoured dead, and hard and desperate this fighting was, for neither Dragon nor Hunter raised hand or sword or word or gesture in support of the beleaguered defenders, and in truth, many Dragons laughed and smiled and rolled their eyes in simple mirth to see the loyal sons and daughters of Albion wounded and harmed by terrible foes while their leaders were imprisoned and sealed away.
To this lamentable circumstance returned the warband that had gone in search of the kidnapped ladies, and not knowing the truth of the Hunter treason, and met with comradely smiles at the gatehouse, the warband passed back the guardianship of the bright blade Excalibur to the gate captain, who quickly passed the weapon beyond the sight of men to reside with the other spoils and treasures of that dark evening’s work. And in great confusion and anger the warband discovered too late the truth of what had come to pass in Albion’s camp that night, and rushing to inform the court of the threat from the emissary of the underworld and the highlands of hell, they were prevented by a triple-rank of Dragon bodies pressed close and stinking beneath the eaves of the Duke’s pavilion.
Grinding teeth and spitting curses at the treason-wrought wound to the dream of their homeland, these returning warriors tried thrice to force an entrance to the presence of their Duke and his courtiers, but as hard as they strove to overthrow that grotesque mortal barrier of flesh there arrayed, more dragons pressed outwards, and the triple-line strengthened and no amount of panting and heaving and hurling the malformed invaders aside could prevail and forge a path between through an entranceway draped in bilious visage and lumpen pallid bulk.
And thus Cadarn learned nothing of the death of Mallory, or of the threat against Branwen, or of the emissary’s demand for the “cup of souls”, or of the suspected alliance between the enemies of the mirrored isle and the undead lords of the summerlands, and so imprisoned, the court of Albion heard nothing but the whispered threats of Eomear, and the arrogant windy-boasting of the triumphant Hunters. But not all of Albion found the Dragon invasion distasteful, and aside from the Hunters themselves, Sir Percival de Gales found apparent pleasure and amusement with the company of Cymrijia’s Lord General, and for a time they swapped compliment and gentle witticism, and as the heroes and people of a fair land tasted a draught of bitter bondage, and as his wife Branwen dwelled darkly on Mallory’s slaying and mused on the threat to her own life and freedom, Percival smiled and made comradely jest with the “Bull” and his henchlings, and more eyes than one looked coldly on this shameful collaboration with a would-be conqueror.
But at last the occupation came to an end, and not through strength but wile, and dealt as poor a hand of cards as any great Lord might be, Duke Cadarn played a bluff and perilous strategy but played it well, and proved the master to Eomear’s cunning and ever a worthy protector of Albion’s dreams. Reminding “the Bull” of his debts to Albion’s past kindness, and of the restoration of territory lost to the Fomor, and of the recovery of the spear of light, and of past forbearance when Cymrijia was weak and widely assailed, Cadarn spoke of the anger that would be felt and wielded like a deadly knife in response to Dragon aggression at such an inopportune braggart posturing. And more yet, that with the discovery of the cold iron forge, Eomear himself would need allies to oppose the nations who would seek to wield those dire weapons against the faerie powers of Erin and Cymrijia, and with the forces of Caledonian and Teutonia and Norsca arrayed in close alliance to support that evil, where else would the Dragon turn to seek aid in opposing such a design?
Eomear looked uncomfortable then, and his allies in the Hunters the more so, and realising again that he had scorned the interests of his own people in the pursuance of personal aggrandisement, the Lord General of Cymrijia turned his cloak in familiar reversal and gazed with cold abandonment on the Hunter cause. And Cadarn looked then on the Hunters and promised in a quiet assurance that their request for recognition would be considered in the light of their past actions and war-service and that justice would surely be done.
And Eomear swore an oath then, full aware of the eyes of the Erin men watching his deeds with care, and committed the forces of the Dragon Nation to alliance with Albion on the field of battle to oppose those nations who wished to protect the cold iron forge in the face of all civilised complaint and all lawful opposition. And thus by strange mischance, the armies of Cymrijia, Erin, and Albion were joined in common just cause, and for a time a least, it seemed that raw-malevolent politics might occupy a respectful second place to the common interests of those who wished to defend the heartlands from the influence of cold-iron and scourging ambitions of those who would see the world cleansed of wonder, and scrubbed-clean of mystery and ancient revelation.
And then the Dragons marched away, quitting their posts of occupation and leaving the Hunters to enjoy the victory of their machinations, full secure that their Duke had promised a just and fitting reward for their deeds and faithful service. For Eomear and his lapdog Ard Ri, the victory was stunning, they had taken and pressed advantage over a resented neighbour and once-mighty country. Before the eyes and attention of all of the gathered nations, the Dragons had demonstrated a capability to imprison justice and freedom behind with a mailed gauntlet of wicked intention, and though they chose to release the grip before mortal wound was caused, the lesson remained, the “Bull” would trample wherever he chose.
And the Hunters? Well they smiled a honey-sweet victory, for their cause had brought a mighty faction from across the border they were sworn to protect to menace concessions from a Lord and court they resented with bitter pain and crooked glances. As the night grew old they celebrated well this mighty feat and spoke expansively of the lesson they had taught the upstart Duke and his court of sycophantic whisperers and devotees of unmanly fashions.
“Never again”, announced Loraq with a wide grin and flashing eyes.
“Will Albion forget the power of the Hunters, now we wield the whip to drive the lords to dance our pleasure!”
And elsewhere in the camp the loyal sons and daughters of Albion spoke quietly of their distant country and mourned the deaths that had taken friends and comrades in times past, and drinking dark wine and strong ale they listened well to songs mournful and happy and dreamed the dream of Albion, biding for time evil that had lately come amongst them, and taking strength from the company that joined them in reflection and unspoken resolve.
But in truth, the departure of the Dragons did not heal the wounds dealt that night, a trust had been broken, and a dream had been damaged. The rule of law had been flaunted and the custom of court and faith and tradition had been taken and hurled to the mud beneath the tramping feet of foreign conquerors and dishonourable allies in treacherous plot and malign intention.
There would be a reckoning.
The morning of battle dawned bright, and the Lords and Princes of Albion called their knights and nobles to open counsel with resolution and fateful dispatch. Duke Cadarn was brief in his assessment of this most poorly-augured engagement, and declaring the conflict to come a matter of honour and resistance against the dire forces at work elsewhere in the heartlands, he called every warrior and bold auxiliary to do their best in the difficult circumstances ahead.
The Duke tried manfully to inspire some little faith in the strength of the alliance sworn to destroy the cold iron forge, but in reflective honesty Cadarn ruefully admitted that he trusted the Lord-General of Cymrijia,
“…about as far as I could comfortably spit him!”
And on that less than encouraging endorsement, the Duke’s officers and warleaders rose up to continue the briefing and selection of battlefield tactics.
Lord Marshall Hugo described the plan in detail, but even that seasoned warlord appeared unsure of the elements in a battlefield strategy resting as it did upon a coincidence of diverse and entirely unlikely events. The Harts were to hold a firm shield line to the left of the allied forces, the Lions and Gryphons were to hold the right, and the Dragons and Unicorns the centre. It was vital that the Dragons were to use their superior numbers to confound and hold the Caledonian and Viper forces enhanced by dark ritual and unchancy beast-powers of blood and horror, while ever the two strong wings of the army were to sweep through and around the flanks and support the Dragons by assailing the weaker rear of the enemy strength. Now alas, one has no need of an education in military strategy to see the flaw in this plan, for in two vital aspects the matter was chancy and ill-favoured; in the first case the Dragons had to prove better fighters by far than they had previously demonstrated under the generalship of Eomear, and in the second, well, it took the confidence of a hardened gambler to bet against the Dragons turning their coats and betraying their allies for a third consecutive occasion on the field of honourable strife!
But the die was cast, and Albion did not have in her heart the thought of failing an alliance agreed between men of honour. The Lord Marshall concluded that in faith, all that might be achieved was to preserve Albion’s name and reputation as a home of hard-fighting heroes bound close to the cause of right and justice. In truth, that little was enough to fire hearts and gird away doubts in stubborn resolve.
For the battle Duke Cadarn chose the banners of the Hunters and House Falcon to represent Albion in her aspects old and new. And proudly flew those pennants in the windy sunshine, and beneath the Hunter banner gathered those still celebrating the concessions won through dishonourable plot, and beneath the Falcon banner gathered those resolved to prove again the name of Albion in their deeds and courage and stern resolution. Perhaps Cadarn wished to reunite the hearts and desires of two families driven apart by war and ideal, or perhaps instead, the Duke thought to forge a friendship in shared peril where none had flared in peace, or perhaps indeed, the cunning prince of Albion thought well to contrast the deeds of the brightest with the foulest deeds of all. If this was his intention then it would prove effective beyond the musings of mordant curiosity in the hours to come.
And for sub-generals and commanders of the wings, Marshall Hugo chose Sagramore of the Spears of Lugh and Corax of House Corvidae and Wattaro of the Sake, and for captains and lieutenants of detached units Hugo chose Captain Piers of the Boar Company, and Finn Drachu of the Tuatha, and Captain Aisla “cat-claw” of Caer Glas, and to command the vanguard and fighting centre of the Harts line, Hugo chose Knight Commander Geoffrey Walker and Sergeant Longbow to muster the Falcon strength in direct means and warlike pattern.
And of units detached and auxiliary; the archers of the Harts were commanded to make cause with similar companies in the allied factions, the Foresters under Master Ricketz were ordered to form skirmish array and to provide battlefield intelligence, and some few Knights of Cathol and certain Albion irregulars were tasked with the protection of Lord Jay Wychwood on the field.
Last of all, Marshall Hugo asked Eburos of Caer Glas to perform a special duty and function on the field, and that task was to watch the Dragon faction for signs of treachery and to give warning if they intended to betray their allies as they had done so many times in the past. The warning cry was to be the name of a notorious coward and felon, and at its brazen utterance there would be no doubt in the minds of the Albion soldiery that grim deceit and betrayal was loose upon the field.
And prepared as ever they could be for a battlefield of chancy moment and a loose-allied force of uncertain motivations and dangerous unpredictability, the commanders and officers and heroes of Albion marched then, proud and bedecked in the heraldry of their home and families, singing out in joyous voice to drive away the gloom of death and hard travail, clashing swords upon shields and making a clamorous uproar to fully announce that Albion had taken the field!
An interlude then, and as Albion marched to battle position, and as the flags and pennants and banners of five nations were raised into the sky, so drew up the shield lines and spearmen and auxiliaries and skirmishers, and there for time was an impasse as the commanders of the armies conferred and discussed intelligence and strategy made from last minute observations and feelings of the gut and fancy both.
And there before the swords and spears of Albion came the households of two noble lines; the bright-armoured splendour of the Falcons, full-attired for war in the liveries of Warwick and Lord Falcon, and there also a smaller company of men and women who revered the blood of Beomarise and named themselves exiles of Caer Glas and now proud sons and daughters of Albion in her glory and her woe. And between the Falcon of Warwick and the Hawk of Beomarise there was a marriage there ordained, and therein to forge the union of two ancient lines, and a betrothal of love it was in truth, for between Lady Rebecca Falcon and her exiled suitor had flared a kinship of passion and fair affection, and no drear political ends had carved this love from need, but the merging of laughter and tears and a love sworn in famous oaths and hand clasped to hand and breast clasped to breast.
And thrice was the marriage blessed, and thrice more the oaths sworn in light and witness between the lines of battle and before the fate of hard conflict. And the first blessing was made by Pelleas D’vor, High Incantor of the Raven of Albion, and his voice rang out with pride and mirth renewed, and the second blessing was made by Eolas Eburos, Bard and Druid of the circle of Gweneddyn, and his voice rang out rich with moment as he named aloud the ancestors of Caer Glas, and the third blessing was made by Abbot Hugo, Patriarch of Cathol and protector of the Falcon faith, and his voice was reflective and profound as he shared the waters of life with the lover’s now united.
And then cheers rang out and swords were raised anew in salute and martial blessing, and a song was sung by the ladies of the Falcon Household, and bright laughter roused the spirits of all. And there before the hopes of her family and the gaze of the nation, Lady Rebecca Falcon became Lady Beomarise, and the cause of Falcon and Hawk became one by blood and sacred oath.
And Lady Beomarise smiled then, and her hair was rich copper-red shining in waves of light and shadow, and her eyes were laughing orbs of sparkling grey-green mystery, and her skin was smooth and white as the breast of a forest dove, and her breasts were full and ripe with promise as golden harvest, and her hips strong and firm and shapely as the willow-tree, and her lips were red as burnished sunset, and her voice the silken trilling of chords plucked gently by the fairest hand.
But not for the court or the bedchamber was Lady Beomarise dressed, for she honoured the customs of her husband’s country, and the noble Ladies of lost Caer Glas had ever mastered warlike arts in times past from the union of Llyr and Cartimandua. And now she bound her hair in a warrior’s tress, and wore a tunic of Falcon midnight blue, and carried a knife as weapon, and bound a warlike token close to her belt and dressed her body close with leather and protective bands the better to turn a foeman’s blow to harmless effect. And smiling bold rebuke for those villains and fiends and debauchers who sported with fell beasts now arrayed across the field from Albion’s line, Lady Beomarise took her place amongst the auxiliaries and kissed her husband of short moments fair well and fair fortune in the test to come.
The signal was given! The allied lines began to move quickly and with accurate discipline, the host of Albion guided by the commands of her Lord Marshall, arrayed back by generals, and then steadied by the courage and presence of Sergeants and Line Commanders.
Forward a space, a wheel to left flank, a wheel to right, a rest, then forward once more. The army was responding well, and as it traversed the battlefield in search of the distant foe a constant stream of intelligence arrived from scouts and skirmishers deployed ahead and to the flanks of the vanguard.
The shield line was firm and eager to fight, the men responding to shouts of guidance with rousing cries and marching boots, and from behind came the songs of bards and minstrels, the passionate words of “albion forever” and the beating of drums and sounding of horns and trumpets.
Away to the left however, the Dragons had adopted a strange formation in a square with swords and spears pointing outwards in all directions, offering menace to all on that field, including their “allies”. Lord Hugo at once sent men to discern the cause of the Dragon formation, and was told that Eomear had decided to keep his oath by inviting the attack of any power who wished to throw themselves upon the Dragon square. Eburos also took the opportunity to move close to the Dragon troops and espied that barely half of their strength had mustered on that field, the rest, including the bodyguards of Ard Ri Digby and notable companies of Erin, were entirely absent.
Several times the Albion line moved forwards to align itself with the Dragon square to maintain an unbroken allied front, but each time Eomear gave the order for his troops to scuttle away in their defensive square to the open ground between the allied forces and the distant mustering of the now visible enemy factions.
And worse yet, news now came from the skirmishers that some Dragons had already turned their shields and joined the Viper host in anticipation of a wider treason no doubt!
Away to the right of the allied force the Gryphons and Lions had formed their own preparations looking downhill to an expected flank attack from the enemy. Joined as they were, these two factions looked under strength and in truth they had suffered many casualties from the depredations of villains and murderous fiends during the course of the gathering of nations.
Then fresh orders, the Albion line was now to form on the left of the uncertain Dragon square, to hold the extreme left flank against the expected attack of the fearsome Norscan warband of the Wolves. Moving swiftly, the orders were followed and with battle now imminent, the Albion auxiliaries and reserves fell back to give fighting space to the first two ranks of the shield line and support. Looking right from the line, the Unicorns fell in behind the Dragon square, and away in the distance the Lions and Gryphons formed a defensive formation to guard the right flank.
Hot sun, sweat under armour, shield straps biting the flesh of palms hot with the anticipation of deadly fray. Eyes peering across shield rims, hearts beating fast with excitement and fear, at first the enemy is a distant thing, like a storm-cloud or a sea-fog, or a forest verge, but then it comes closer and you hear sound and music like our own, and then shouts and voices of foeman raised in challenge and bloody-welcome, and then faces across the narrowing gap, angry and red and screaming and beating their swords upon the edges of their own shields to drive away the demons of peace and hesitation. A last moment to raise sword and dress your weight against the clash of lines, “closer, close that gap!” screams the sergeant, then a deadly impact, you stagger back a pace, then push forward, your blade driving up and down and meeting metal and wood and perhaps a softer yielding bed in the flesh of a foeman. Each side of you a friend’s face is twisted in effort and concentration as the battle narrows to a tiny circle with your shield at the centre, and the pain of limbs knocked and bruised and calloused and running with unknown blood.
Then it stops, the lines draw apart to leave a narrow gap scattered with the bodies of the fallen, across the way the enemy line glares back, faces tight with hatred and anger and raw voices coughing insults and curses and dire imprecations. Your own shield is broken and shattered, you take another from a dead man at your feet. Your sword is notched and buckled, not fit for duelling or war-feats, but none of those things will matter here, it is rare to see the face of the man you kill.
From the right of the line, past the Dragons, there is confusion and terror, no sign of the Lions or Gryphons, the Unicorns are engaged to their right, the Wolves, before us, move close again and there is no time to do anything but fight.
Harder the press this time, drums beat close from the Norscan line, shields to the left and right are broken and discarded, long pikes and spears swoop down to stab death into our scattering ranks. Our line is turning, folding up from the right, man after man goes down, crushing blows, half-men leaping from behind the enemy champions, shouts of fear and confusion now, no rally is possible when death falls like rain upon the bodies of men isolated in the fray. A glance behind, a step backwards, a cry of treachery, another shout of fear to be drowned by a chorus of fury from our advancing foe. Stooping to carry out a comrade felled, a buckled shield drops discarded, a burden living yet, legs surrendering to fatigue, stumbling backwards, a soldier no longer, an irregular perhaps, a cry for chirugeons and healers, a fallen man left, a lone one to turn against the tide of flight.
Later the story would be told that the Dragons had fled like sheep before the wolves and bears and had recoiled from their square formation to abandon their oaths and honour on the field of battle. What is certain is that the Dragons were never steady allies and their leaders had wished dearly to be aligned with the Vipers and the Bears, but had found it impossible to justify such an act to their own populace at risk from the cold iron forge and the wielders of ancient bane. The result was a commitment at best, half-hearted, and at worst simple blatant treachery. The result of the Dragon square failing was to allow the enemy troops free access through the sundered allied line to assault healers and lightly armed auxiliaries. Worse yet the Dragon actions then, as Eomear wheeled his troops and ignoring the plight of the allied reserves, he drove against the Tarrantulan host in search of an easy victory and gained nothing save humiliation and a brutal scourging at the hands of the nation who had once held him a slave and lowly body servant.
Then, as the remainder of the allied force buckled and strove mightily against the overwhelming strength brought against them, the Dragons approached the Vipers and surrendered en masse without raising sword or shield to the fray. Lord Caine of the Vipers smiled broadly and knew well that the day was won. But the infamy of the Dragons had not ended, and many of their companies and bands took on the appearance of Viper auxiliaries, plunging back in the battle against the beleaguered remnants of the Gryphons and Unicorns.
For Albion, the battle had been lost with the envelopment and destruction of the shield wall, now all that remained was to fight free of the trap and ensure that loss of life was minimised in the rout that was sure to follow. Of the banners brought onto the field by Duke Cadarn, the Hunter standard had vanished in the chaos, but the Falcon standard remained aloft, and now the surviving soldiers of Albion mustered there, and gathered their strength in an attempt to break Cadarn from the press between Caledonians and Vipers driving the Gryphons and Hart auxiliaries to their destruction. For a time all was flux, but with the Falcon banner directing reinforcements close, and with the fighting men of Albion performing war-feats and acts of individual bravery and courageous risk, Duke Cadarn was saved for a time, and winning clear of the Vipers, now began an ordered retreat off the field, with the Caledonians and their monstrous allied fiends pressing close and rancid in pursuit.
Fine heroism attended now the hearth of war-prowess, and Sergeant Longbow struck left and struck right with his long-axe exacting a deadly price for each step of ground yielded, and Marik Taranis howled derision at the foe and named them “callow wights of pallid face and mien” and menaced them well with a great sword of prodigious reach, and Durnor Taskan the healer thought it better to rend than mend and carved infamy from attendant flesh, and Ebric “spine-splitter” proved worthy of his name and broke backs aplenty amongst those foeman recoiling from Albion’s stern resolve, and Sagramore stood proud and slashed high and wide with his sword, daring the enemy to approach with flashing eyes and a dangerous chuckle, and Solarian fought there close and rained mighty blows upon those who cared to risk their flesh to his brutal embrace, and Marshall Hugo, away from his troops in the midst of the fray, screamed challenge and hacked in wild abandon with blades twinned in hard-killing, and Yoso of the Sake brought death in swift array with sweeps and curves of his name-blade, and Pelleas D’vor grinned a deadly smile of warlust and smashed helms and weapon arms with each downward stroke of his broad-axe, and Lady Katrina Grimmir lifted villains by their throats and hurled them back to scatter their countrymen, and James Harper fought as well as any, and turned blows meant to maim as his own strokes landed clear and hard, and Captain Aisla rushed forward and wide to cut the throats of the foolhardy before ever their thoughts could acknowledge the approach of death, and Marcus de Bracey killed with consummate flourish and broke his blade-tip on the brainpan of a great-scaled fiend, and Gereint of Warwick wielded a barbed war-spear in perilous lunge to cut legs from beneath shields and push throats through ragged punctured flesh, and Corrigan stood his ground with pride and exchanged blow for blow with twice his number, and Lord Jay and his guard ranged far and deep in search of what glory remained to that field with shining war-cunning, and Henry du Bois faced a dozen foes with a polite smile of invitation, and Geoffrey Walker stepped back in rank with his Lord, cutting fine strokes of crimson gore from the breastplates of villains and turning his eyes in distain from the stench, and Eburos, his watchful duty discharged, now cutting wrists and flanks with deft knife-work, his voice singing challenge in bold resounding notes, and Auriol Henbane laughing pity for her victims plucked in rapid slaughter, and Master Owen breaking skulls beneath a brutal maul, and Isagore Calvi bringing death to make the close acquaintance of those to meet his gaze, and Lord Falcon shouting challenge fresh and ready, hating every backward step and wringing a scathing price in blood for this hard retreat.
Backwards, step, backwards, step, the Albion line regrouped around the Falcon standard, and time and time again the slashing venom of benighted demons and Caledonian wights was deflected away from the noble prince of the Harts by the shield-work and ready swordplay of his bodyguards, but now the full weight of the Bears was assaulting the flanks of this retreat, and steps became stumbles and stumbles became every more desperate as the situation worsened and order dissolved in a full rout of horror and confusion.
A flesh-golem of dreadful aspect attacked then, and Lord Robert Falcon and two of his men were struck down with hideous wounds streaming blood and crying pain and anguish at the nature of the foe that came against them. Lord Robert, for his part, refused to retreat further and shrugging aside the arms of his remaining bodyguards, rushed back into the hopeless fray in full accordance with his oath to Cathol and the ancestor of his house. To the right the Caledonians overtook Duke Cadarn and the Falcon banner was surrounded, and to the left a skirmish force of Vipers overtook the remnants of the Foresters and hacked in glee and wild arcs at limbs and rushing flesh.
All looked hopeless and then a flash and a gleam of recognition, and Loraq the Hunter champion came on from the rear, brandishing the bright blade Excalibur and aiming hard blows at the shoulder and flank of the Caledonian golem, and for a time it seemed as if Duke Cadarn’s faith in the Hunter banner might prove justified. But then Loraq was felled by a backhand blow from the golem and as Albion men came close to raise up the artefact-sword again into the fray, the Hunter bodyguards stood away from the Caledonian line and lowered themselves to shield their fallen comrade from sight. Hidden from the gaze of friend and foe alike, Excalibur vanished and was not seen again on that field, and as for Loraq’s comrades in arms, well, they chose to hunker down low like scavenging dogs and covered their livery to best wait out the enemy rush, watching silently as the remnants of Cadarn’s bodyguard were slaughtered and cut down with brutal efficiency.
Then tragedy rose upon tragic wings to drag down the last of hope, consigning well the day to hopeless rout and bitter flight. And even as the Hunter banner fell to earth and dwelled there beneath the gaze of foemen, the Falcon banner stayed high and proud as the remainder of the Albion line and dwindling champions were driven back from the advancing enemy. And holding the Falcon colours aloft with a fixed and resolute gaze was Abbot Hugo, and with him stood none of his bodyguard for they had been cut down or had fallen elsewhere upon the field of battle, and though he carried no weapon or armour, and though he moved his lips in sole benediction of peace and courage mingled, and though he carried aloft the spirit and grace of his ancestor amidst the fray, alas indeed, for all this meant nothing to the fiends who came close and ripped the Abbot with talons of dark venom and dire enchantment, rending his flesh and passion and crushing the bright beacon of hope upon the field beneath a bloodied gauntlet of drear war-tyranny.
And even as Abbot Hugo died from his wounds he would not release the Falcon colours to the earth or to the embrace of monstrous foes, for knowing well that the end was close, the good Abbot had bound his body with silken ropes to the shaft of the banner, and thus as his murderers shouldered their burden with gleeful malice, they raised also the body of Hugo aloft with their pride, granting well and wide a last image of that courageous man in death’s embrace but stinting not his sworn and noble duty.
Full close now the knowledge of certain defeat; and with the fallen banners and the capture of Cadarn, the remnants of the Albion host could do little but quit the field. But still wounded heroes and battered champions lingered yet, pacing the bounds of the enemy host in search of the fallen and living, risking death and capture themselves to ensure that none of Albion breathed their last in lonely abandonment and bitter solitude.
Till at last it was sure, or sure as faith and mortal eyes could be, that none remained to die alone on those killing fields, and the last of Albion’s men and women left with heads and spirits raised high, for in defeat the character and resolve of courage is tested more surely then than in a hundred victories known.
And the battlefield was left then to the conquering armies of Teutonia and Caledonia and Norsca and the Underdark, and well and hard had the Kings and Queens and Princes and Generals of those nations fought in the cause they close espoused, and in victory they had defended the right of their citizens to forge and wield weapons of cold iron, the better to smite and despoil the wild places and ancient races of the heartlands and wider world. And more yet, in burning confidence and full-martial pride, Lord Caine of Teutonia declared that to mark the victory and rout of his foemen, the next great gathering of nations would be held within the bounds of his own country, the better to demonstrate the supremacy of his nation’s warlike prowess to the close attention of the lesser nations of the world.
And hearing this the people of Albion felt sorrow and regret and bitter anger, for until that moment they had never known defeat in battle upon the fields of the gathering and the realisation of that truth taught a hard lesson indeed.
At last, and in scattered remnants and weary bands, wounded and battered from the fray, fatigued to the edge of exhaustion, but unbowed yet, and walking proudly back to the encampment of Albion, the warriors and auxiliaries and champions and yeoman of the land returned and awaited the address of their lord Duke Cadarn. As a people these warriors had tasted defeat and found the experience a bitter draught indeed, and everywhere around the returning muster eyes blazed with quiet anger and faces shone with firm resolve for future reckonings.
Fair news and foul came hard upon this last muster of the gathering; for though the Duke and his courtiers had been safely ransomed from their captors, there had been losses and chief amongst these was the cruel slaying of Abbot Hugo by means of pattern-corruption and foul despoilment. And hard this news came upon the company of the Falcon, for though kind fates had delivered Lord Robert himself from almost certain death, the women of the household wept yet for the gentle Abbot and his quiet enduring wisdom, now vanished forever from the world of men.
And then Duke Cadarn spoke difficult words of conciliation and encouragement to his country and its dream; praising well the war-feats done in the service of justice and honour and speaking boldly of his own pride in the spirit of a people unbowed by the cruel assailment of treachery and unkind fate. But Cadarn did not favour the mere rattling of empty boasts and promises, and assuring only that certain matters would shortly receive royal attention, he turned his words to invitation, and summoned his officers and close counsellors to speak their own hearts, and to make those pronouncements that yet remained to be addressed.
And Lord Jay spoke then of those worthy of honours, and named those citizens of Albion he chose to raise in rank and station, and handed fine rewards to those most deserving, and distributed praise wherever praise was due.
And Lord Martaine spoke then and announced his decision to resign the position of Chancellor of Albion, and named his own choice of a replacement, and so named, Lord Nevyn Brock of the household of Charenten was raised to high esteem, and granted the heavy responsibilities of the office.
And Lord Hugo spoke then and his words were brief for his eyes burned yet with fury at the events of the battlefield, and of those words he chose to speak aloud, he named full measure of satisfaction with the conduct of those men and women he had led into combat, and pledged himself to the quest of ensuring that such things as had but lately come to pass would not be easily repeated.
And then the lords of the households and companies of Albion were called to name their own choices of commendations and praise, and many fine heroes and heroines were honoured in the ready shouts and generous esteem of their countrymen and women.
And last, Knights of the realm were chosen to guard the dreams and liberty of Albion, and these were ready war-champions of proven worth and honest courage, and their task to guard the land of Prydein’s children in days and years to come, to spend their lives in the service of honour and dutiful strife.
And with this last, the great gathering of nations was ended, and the hosting of the peoples and countries of the world was over, and with the closing of lists and breaking of encampments and the mighty abandonment of that remote valley this account must draw to a final close.
This is a true tale of the gathering of nations in the year 1101AF, and I, Gwalchmai ap Maelduine of the line of Rhydderch ap Cathbad and the blood of Beomarise pledge it thus, for I was witness in flesh to these words and circumstances; I learned the names and places and wonders therein by the truth of my eyes and ears, and I felt the passions and fast feelings described with the beating of my own living heart. And I saw the hosting of Albion upon that bright field, and I carried the sword Excalibur in battle against the Nosta-Ka at the biding of my Duke Cadarn, and I lost the bright blade to the cunning and false words of the Hunters during their betrayal of hearth and kin, and I listened with wonder to the singing of the bards at Lord Jay’s great feast, and I counted with horror the bellies of the Dragons swinging in arrogant poise during their hosting and invasion, and I marched with the Falcons and fought close to Lord Robert during the fray, and I gazed close and well upon the beauty of Rebecca, for on the eave of Albion’s first defeat in war, I took that Lady to my wife, and bound thereby the hopes and dreams of Falcon and Hawk in a sacred oath of silver and gold.
These words, spoken and scribed to parchment by the hand of my beloved wife Rebecca Beomarise at Caer Llwydd in Cornovii during Autumn of 1101, I offer now to the commendation and pleasure of Lord Marshall Hugo Charenten the commander of Albion’s armies and master of the sword of war. And to the court of Warwick and the kind attentions of Baron Robert Falcon, that a noble gaze might fall with pleasure upon thoughts and remembrance given form from memory close and manifest. I hereby dedicate this account of the Gathering of Nations 1101AF to the liberty of Albion, and the dreams made flesh in the striving of her children.
Lords and Ladies of the Heartlands, the Dragon heroes have made wide comment upon this account of the Gathering of Nations in Norsca. In words of foemen yet the grains of truth. Perhaps the language of poetry does cross the frontiers of dark villainy without leave or let!
I leave you then with the true-spoken testimony of that hardest audience of all, the court of Eomear and the coterie of villainous cutthroats masquerading as a nation benighting the dreams of those unfortunate lands.
But at the last, let us recognise that rousing narrative knows of no boundaries or limits, and deeds of courage and daring have meaning in all the languages of the wider world!
Sebell of the Discordant Chimes;
“I must say it is the most eloquent piece!”
Talyn Ebon Skin;
“I’d recommend reading Sir Gwalchmai ap Maelduine’s tale, it’s amazing!”
“That Gwalchmai person writes!”
“Quite a story … amazing!”
“I feel flattered!”
Tremaine Broad Thighs;
“I don’t care if it IS true!”
Ellyn “Gusty-Rage” Roberts;
“Gwalchmai is a man who loves his faction!”
Lennard Braggart Lips;
“The account below is of great value!”
Alistair “Crow-Face” Crowlee;
“Most entertaining … a work of great fiction!”
Damon “Truth-Declaimer” Morghun;
“Not entirely fictional!”
Devaroe “Wind-Billow” Morghun;
“Bardic craft and traditional satire!”
Delryn “the Catamite” Morghun;
“I must applaud you on a marvellous work!”
Kellen “Worm Disgorger” Morghun;
“Not the pretty words that the easily flattered will want to hear … I must, however, applaud you!”
Dr Robert “Bone-Beloved” Usher;
“Oh Happy Man!”
“A most amusing story!”
“I dunno what he’s talking about either!”
“I would have died to have a way with words such as his!”
“An vastly entertaining satire!”
“Gwalchmai’s pure spirit is … strong!”
Owain “Stern-Brow” Craig;
“Surely, true satire!”
“Impressive … that epic tale of the gathering!”
Lleod Knife Provider;
“Your creativity is inspiring and your account is vividly descriptive!”
“As one of those Dragons who held the Hart Command tent … I found that part of the tale far and away the most entertaining!”
Bradamant the Bold;
“Sweet and gentle … mighty and valiant …beauteous and wise!”