THE MAN IN CHAINS



THE MAN IN CHAINS, by Harry Piper

 

This happened many, many years ago, when I was still young. When I still had fire in my blood and thunder in my soul.

It was the spring after the death of High King Llewellyn. Bad times for our nation. Anglisc men were coming over the border in great packs, killing and thieving, whilst our lords bickered amongst themselves for control of the dead king’s lands, even as their country burned around them.

The nobility could never be trusted at the best of times but that spring they were worse than ever; blinded by greed, jealousy and pride. The Anglisc could not have asked for better allies.

A devils brood, the lot of them.

But there was one man who stood firm against the tide, who carried out his duty when few others even bothered to try. And I was blessed enough to serve him.

Lord Rhaig ap Madog, of Powys. Rhaig, to his men, his family and his people. Surely you have heard of him? His near-miraculous defeat of Harald Forkbeard’s raiders, his establishing the great monastery at Rhonaby, his skill with the blade, his generosity…

Ah, but listen to me prattle on. Rhaig had that effect on people. We would have marched straight into hell for the man.

Though it is true that there are many who would speak ill of him, for Lord Rhaig was never reluctant to take up the blade. Whether it was the Anglisc or even fellow Cymrians who opposed him, Rhaig had left more than his fair share of widows and orphans in his wake.

But such is the nature of leadership. Ours is a harsh world, and it is only through bloodshed that justice and law will be upheld. Every warrior knows this, even as we pray for forgiveness at the closing of each day.

I was a member of his teulu – his personal guard. In those dark days Rhaig led us out again and again against the raiders. He worked tirelessly to drive the other nobles to action and took as many of the common people under his protection as he could.

There was no other man in Cymria who did more against the Anglisc, nor loved his country more than him – that’s God’s truth.

But it was not enough. Too many raiders, too much land to cover and too many people to protect; Rhaig was trying to uproot a mountain with his bare hands.

We all knew that from the start, but it took Rhaig some time to realise it. Perhaps he thought the other lords would rally, or that if he shattered a raiding party here and there the other invaders would think twice.

But men can be greedy and stupid, wicked and bold – the lords couldn’t see beyond their greed and the Anglisc kept coming, no matter how many of the corpses of their brothers we left for the crows across the valleys, hills and fields of our land.

In truth, I think Rhaig hated his fellow lords even more than he hated the Anglisc. The Anglisc have always been our enemy, but the lords were our countrymen – our brothers. And yet they did nothing.

It got to Rhaig. He started to withdraw from us, delegating leadership of his warriors to other men and leaving his wife to preside over the court in his absence.

He spent his hours with his books instead. Hidden away in his own personal library, Lord Rhaig pored over old chronicles and histories, desperately searching for something that would give us an edge over the enemy.

This in itself was not unusual – Rhaig once told me that everything he knew of tactics came from an ancient, battered volume on military leadership that had been written in the days of Rome – but it wasn’t good for a lord to take his meals alone, to shun the company of his people and even (if his lady’s maids were to be believed) leave his queen alone in the marriage-bed.

It worried us. Some even wondered if he were going mad.

But then, late one night, long after the fire in the hall had died down to a few glowing embers and everyone but a few lonely watchmen on the outer wall were fast asleep, I and twenty-nine of my shieldbrothers were quietly woken from our slumber and called into our lord’s quarters.

I call still see him there now – a tall, lean man with long black hair and ocean-grey eyes, hands clasped behind him, back to the fire, regarding us with an unreadable expression.

“I’ve found something,” he told us calmly. “In the northern wilderness. An old weapon abandoned there long ago. If we can recover it we will drive the Anglisc out of our land forever.”

I heard sharp intakes of breath following his words, and I myself was unable to speak. Rhaig was not a man to speak with exaggeration, nor jest in times like these. He meant every word.

And every one of us believed him, no matter how insane it may sound.

The Anglisc have been at war with us for centuries – to have stopped the raids alone would have taken a miracle, but to drive them out completely was almost beyond imagining.

But we could no more doubt Lord Rhaig ap Madog than we could doubt the rising of the morning sun.

Rhaig let our stunned silence play itself out, waiting for an objection. When none came, he smiled and nodded.

“Excellent. You do not doubt me. But I must warn you, any man who does not feel prepared to do whatever is necessary to save our nation should leave now. I will not begrudge him it.”

Of course no-one moved, and I remembered thinking that it was a bizarre and even insulting offer. Rhaig knew us and we knew him – our loyalty and devotion were not in doubt.

When he saw that we were committed, he smiled again – but there was a sadness in it that discomfited me.

But then he was speaking again, and all my doubts were buried under a great rush of love and total, unquestioning trust.

“Very well,” he said. “You all do me a great honour. Go now, gather your things and meet me at the stables. We mount up within the hour – before the first light of dawn we’ll be in the wilderness.”

Of our subsequent ride I can recall only a little – I was in an ecstatic daze. Any Cymrian would be, with what Rhaig had offered us.

But there is one moment I can remember quite clearly – indeed, I don’t think I shall ever forget it.

Our company had stopped for a moment on Saint Dewi’s bridge after several hours in the saddle. That is a very special place – not only has each stone of that bridge been blessed by the saint who built it, but it is said that the very water of the river below has been made holy.

So went the story, anyway.

It stands high up on the slopes of the first foothills that lead into the wilderness, and if you are there on a fine day, look south and you will see many wonderful things – verdant valleys, soaring hills, gleaming rivers and deep forests.

When we arrived mist shrouded much of this from view, but as we rested the first rays of the sun began to creep over the mountains to the west, slowly bathing the land before us in warm, golden light.

The early morning mists began to recede at the light’s touch, slowly revealing the many treasures of our land. I felt as if I could have been standing there on the First Day of Creation; as if all of Cymria were being made anew by the hand of God.

I can tell you I don’t think I’ve ever seen my country look as beautiful as it did that morning.

It struck Rhaig in the same way, I believe. Dismounting, he leant heavily on the side of the bridge, hands gripping the stone tightly, staring intently down at his nation as if it were a puzzle that vexed him.

There was indecision on his face – a most strange and troubling thing to see on such a man.

Then Rhaig opened his mouth and turned to us, as if to say something. But, apparently thinking better of it, he shut his mouth, mounted back up and wordlessly motioned for us to continue, his face set like iron.

Years later, I still think on that moment, and ask myself whether all that happened later might have been averted but for what had been left unsaid.

 

* * *

 

I shall spare you much of the details of our journey – an overabundance of cold winds, rain and broken country make for bad travelling and bad storytelling both.

It was not entirely uneventful, however, for every now and then we caught sight of black smoke and fire on the horizon; the tell-tale signs of another village burning under the Anglisc onslaught.

We itched to ride to our countrymen’s aid, but Rhaig forbade it. We could not afford to draw attention to ourselves, he told us, and in any case we were too few to be of aid.

He spoke true, but it still pained us to slink past our foes like whipped dogs, abandoning our people in their time of need.

It weighed heavily on Rhaig, too. You could tell. Throughout our journey he exchanged no pleasantries with us. He didn’t smile. Nothing that was not an order passed between his lips.

We had no clue as to the nature of his supposed weapon, and every time we asked he merely told us to be content with his guidance.

My faith in him remained strong, but as the days and nights wore on with nothing to show for it I began to wonder if Rhaig was leading us on a fool’s pilgrimage.

I should never have doubted him, for it was on the morning of the fifth day that we found it.

He woke us early, brimming with an enthusiasm that we had seen little of in the previous days and nights of weary travel.

Leading us down a barren hill through a heavy mist, we came upon a forest so wild it seemed that no-one had set foot in it since the days of Adam.

But that didn’t slow Rhaig. He pointed out a narrow trail barely wide enough for us to walk it single-file, and plunged straight in. We followed.

It took some time to pass through those trees. Thick roots and tangled branches fought for every inch of spare ground, while vicious thorns and brambles fed eagerly on our flesh.

We muttered our complaints to each other but an oblivious Rhaig stormed ahead like a man possessed, a hungry and eager look on his face.

But all our grumbling was silenced the moment we staggered out of that forest – the words were struck from our tongues and our jaws went slack at what loomed out of the mist ahead of us.

A gigantic dark stone wall at least seventy feet high, with an imposing gatehouse like a cavernous mouth in its centre. Around it, four towers twice as tall and so wide you could have comfortably fit a barn in each one.

And in the centre of these defences a massive, towering keep that loomed over the landscape like a giant from one of the old tales.

Our world is one of straw, clay and wood – this was something else entirely. If I were a heathen, I probably would have believed it to be the work of the gods.

But Rhaig only seemed satisfied, and little else. He allowed us only a few moments to stare before saying –

“What we search for lies inside. Come.”

 

* * *

 

What could I tell you about the Black Keep, as we came to call it? A hundred things, and none of them pleasant.

There were the bodies, to start with. We found the skeletal remains of men, women and children littering the entrance hall, and discarded weapons everywhere. Rhaig said not a word about it.

Entry proved no difficulty – the doors had been barred from the outside. When we opened them a cloud of dust billowed out that brought the stench of carrion and decay.

We had to light torches to continue. The keep did not let in as much as a single errant ray of light. Those who had lived there must have been content to dwell in darkness.

I did not see any spider webs while I was there. No rats scavenging among the bones that littered every chamber and no birds in the rafters, either – nothing lived in that place.

There were strange and inexplicable sounds; whispering, weeping and sometimes snatches of mad laughter, but never another soul to be seen.

In one bed chamber – a noblewoman’s, by the look – one of my companions caught sight of something in a handmirror that sent him into fits of screaming. He didn’t stop until we hauled him outside, where he collapsed into a dead faint.

I could go on, but there’s enough darkness in the world without me adding to it. Let it all fade with an old man’s memories – I shall continue with the tale.

Upon entering, Rhaig had told us to be on the lookout for a well-hidden and strongly bound door. It was I – may God forgive me – who found it, after hours of fruitless searching; a great trap door made of strong iron, carefully hidden away under some debris in a small chamber.

I called Rhaig, and when he saw what I had found he actually laughed and embraced me.

As he leaned in close with a torch to examine it, I saw that runes had been carved into its surface – I was an uneducated man, but I knew the language of the Northmen when I saw it.

It made me uneasy. Theirs is a bloody land, and a pagan land. Little that is good comes from those frozen shores.

I asked Rhaig what it meant.

“A warning to the unwary, that’s all,” he told me, with an unconvincing smile. “Something to frighten off the ignorant.”

We called the others to us and we slowly hauled it open, our muscles straining with the effort.

A circular staircase leading down into darkness lay on the other side, along with a horrid smell; like mouldering flesh and excrement blended together.

But Rhaig did not falter. He practically threw himself down those stairs, with the rest of us following reluctantly in his wake.

We descended deep into the darkness – I stopped counting after a hundred paces. The walls were covered with damp moss, and the stairs had were slick with moisture.

I was afraid, true; indeed, I can think of no other place that shook me like the Black Keep. But there was a burning desire within me to finally lay hands on this mysterious weapon that would be my people’s salvation.

It was the same with the others, I believe – love for our land driving us forward even as every natural instinct told us to run.

The stairs ended in a narrow tunnel, with Rhaig’s torch lighting the way from somewhere up ahead. We followed, stumbling over more bones scattered over the ground.

We emerged into a great cavern, with rocks like sharp teeth jutting from both floor and ceiling, as though we stood in the jaws of a great monster.

A crudely wrought stone table with twelve thrones of black oak behind it stood before us, illuminated by the flickering light of our torches.

Eleven thrones were empty, but one was still occupied.

At first I thought it nothing more than an unusually well-preserved corpse. A dead man with deathly pale skin – like fresh snow, it was – and long hair the colour of straw. His mouth was open in a silent moan.

He was dressed in finery fit for a king. He wore robes of gold and scarlet, and had a golden crown inlaid with rubies atop his head. Even after the ravages of time their splendour still shone through, glittering in the torchlight.

Something else– he had been shackled to his throne, his body covered by incredibly thick and powerful chains.

Rhaig stood before the throne. He looked thunderstruck.

“It’s really him,” he breathed.

I was baffled. Was this was it? This lump of rotting flesh was Rhaig’s great weapon? The others felt the same way – there was confused muttering and even a few open complaints.

But Rhaig ignored them. An expression of intense concentration on his face, he went to the corpse’s side and unsheathed his dagger. Before we had time to react he sliced open the palm of his right hand and let the blood fall into the corpse’s open mouth.

It horrified me, but as we cried out in protest Rhaig silenced us with a glare. He continued his bizarre offering until he was pale, before finally turning away and bandaging his wound.

Then he returned to our side. “Keep your eyes on it,” he said, nodding towards the corpse. “And don’t be afraid.”

We didn’t have long to wait.

The corpse came to life with a dry, shuddering moan like a howling wind. Muscles and sinews stood out across its skin like taut rope as it struggled to breathe.

You might imagine the reaction. Some screamed, others swore and most made the sign of the cross. Rhaig stood motionless among it all, a look of something like awe on his face.

It was only as some of us went to strike at this hideous abomination that he reacted – striking the weapons from our hands and cursing us as fools.

“Would you have come so far for nothing?” he growled. “Would you take away our greatest hope?”

Then the creature opened its eyes.

I can’t forget them, no matter how hard I try – for he had no pupils or irises. They were like two pools of midnight-black water.

Then it spoke to us –

“You are not of my kin.”

It had a voice like sand being poured onto smooth steel. We were speechless before it. Even Rhaig was lost for words.

“You are strangers. Trespassers in my keep. Why are you here?”

It did not sound angry. Only curious. It spoke our language well enough, but in a strangely archaic form.

Recovering, Rhaig stepped forward, and at once the thing’s head swung around to face him, swift as a serpent.

“You lead these men,” it stated. “And it was your blood that gave me life…You know of me.”

My flesh was crawling and my heart was beating so hard I was nearly breathless, but Rhaig spoke calmly and without fear.

“Aye, I know you. Your name and your past.”

“Name me, then.” It sounded amused.

Rhaig paused. “Falnir. Your name is Falnir.”

It smiled, revealing a mouth full of rotten and diseased-looking but still razor-sharp teeth.

“I had nearly forgotten. You have my thanks.”

“Do you know why I have come?” Rhaig asked.

“I knew it from the moment you spoke to me.”

“Perhaps I came to destroy you.”

A flicker of annoyance crossed Falnir’s face. “Do not take me for a fool. You gave me your blood. You woke me from my slumber. No, you will not kill me, and we both know it. You came for my service, like so many others. You have enemies.”

“Many enemies. Our land is under attack by invaders. I would have her be free of them.”

“A war of liberation. A noble cause… I am a strange man indeed to take under your banner, but so be it.”

“Our cause is desperate,” Rhaig admitted. “We are sorely pressed on many sides. Our leaders are divided and our enemy numerous. What can you do to aid us?”

Falnir leant forward, his chains clinking gently, and said –

“Put me at the head of your armies and I will not only drive these invaders out, but I shall strike back at their country with tenfold the destruction they brought to yours. This I promise.”

Rhaig nodded. “Good,” he said. “Swear loyalty to me and our cause, and I shall set you free.”

“I have a price,” said Falnir. “Knowing what I am, you know that-”

“You shall have it,” Rhaig said quickly, eyes flickering to the rest of us. “And in abundance. Only give me your oath, and quickly.”

Falnir’s head swivelled to us, then back to Rhaig. He smiled.

“Are they still ignorant? Ah, but they will learn, won’t they?”

“Your oath,” Rhaig said sternly. “Now.”

“Very well,” Falnir said. “What shall I swear by?”

“God.”

Falnir recoiled as if struck.

“You dare?” he snarled. “I refuse – I cannot, will not do it.”

“Swear by Him,” Rhaig charged him, “or we leave you here to rot.”

For a moment – just a moment – there was a look of such hellish, murderous hatred on Falnir’s face that I thought him ready to leap out of his bonds and rend us apart with his bare hands.

But then it was gone, and he was calm once more – if chastened.

“Very well,” he murmured. “You shall have your oath, but you must swear in return – to provide me with what I crave.”

“I know your cost,” Rhaig replied wearily. “I have already begun to pay it.”

And so they took their oaths – Falnir, to deliver Cymria and her people from the Anglisc and never to lay a hand on Rhaig or those in his company. And Rhaig to give Falnir, in that damned thing’s own words, “that which I crave.”

I should have killed him when I had the chance, of course – no matter my lord’s wishes. Falnir was an abomination; he crawled with darkness and wrong, and every man there knew it.

But we all sensed the power in this strange creature, and we could see that the oath he swore was not just a matter of words; he was truly bound to our cause.

To end the raids, to set Cymria free and bring the fight to the Anglisc – would any man who has seen his land suffer as much as ours look askance at that?

Liberation and vengeance beckoned. Our doubts and fears we buried.

When the oath-taking was done, Rhaig looked tired and drawn, but Falnir was bursting with life, eager to get away.

“Finally,” he growled. “Now set me free, and let us go hence.”

“Strike his chains off,” Rhaig ordered.

So we did.

 

* * *

 

 

After we had made the long climb back up and out of the Black Keep, Falnir stood outside the gatehouse, taking in the landscape as the others went to get the horses. I remained with him along with a handful of others, as Lord Rhaig commanded us.

His expression was one of fear and disgust. I asked him if he were not happy to be free once more – to feel the sunlight on his skin and hear the wind blow through the trees.

He laughed bitterly. “That is your idea of beauty – ‘tis poison to me.”

What would he have instead?

He did not hesitate. “Sand and ash, as far as the eye could see. And black clouds to hide the sun.”

After that I kept my mouth shut.

But what should have been a relatively simple journey home was complicated by Falnir’s presence.

Sunlight hurt him, Rhaig told us – he could abide it in small doses, but too much of it would leave him weaker than a new-born babe.

It was therefore necessary to take a path that didn’t go over so many barren hills and valleys – we needed forestry. And that meant hewing close to the border. To Anglisc land.

We protested, but Rhaig would have none of it. Our company was small enough to pass by unnoticed, he told us, and if forced into a fight we could still flee.

In any case, our lives meant little now that we had Falnir.

“Even if every one of us should die and he alone make it back,” Lord Rhaig said coldly, “that is a price I am more than willing to pay. As should all of you. Remember – he is Cymria’s salvation.”

So our strange party made its way southeast, following a twisting path under the boughs of trees that had their roots in foreign soil.

We kept our spears close to hand, well aware that a strung bow could be behind each trunk, nursing our resentments against the unnatural creature who had brought us so close to danger.

Falnir was unmoved by our hatred. He had no desire for companionship. His only words were directed towards Rhaig – in the saddle, on foot and sat around the fire – and then only questions relating to strategic matters:

How many people in Cymria? How many in the Anglisc lands? Who were the most powerful princes? Where were the cities and forts located? The ports?

Rhaig patiently answered each question as best he could, never once having to repeat a single detail.

He was no burden on our supplies. Falnir never touched our own food or drink, and never asked for any. Instead, every night, just after the sun dipped below the horizon, Falnir would disappear into the darkness.

When he came back, hours later, he had dirt on his hands and knees, and spots of blood and hair around his mouth.

Rhaig explained that Falnir was perfectly capable of feeding himself. We thought it better not to ask for more details.

And as the time passed, Falnir grew before our eyes.

The chained creature we found in the darkness of the Black Keep had been a thin and sickly thing – there was power there, true, but he hardly looked the part; mocked by the royal robes that no longer fit him and a crown that looked almost absurd on such a wasted, weakened creature.

But with each passing night – with each disappearance into the darkness – he became more and more impressive; bulkier, swifter and with a new gleam of bold, contemptuous arrogance in his eyes.

After several days it seemed as if a lost king had taken up with our company – a figure of strange and lonely grandeur.

However, if Falnir was growing Rhaig was declining.

He had not been the same since his oath with the creature – more withdrawn, if that were possible, than he had been on the journey to the Black Keep. But worse in other ways.

He didn’t sleep. He spent his nights crouched by the campfire, staring into the flames with a haunted look, occasionally muttering to himself.

Rhaig also began to disdain food – eating only a few morsels here and there, with the occasional gulp of water. He was thinning rapidly, but didn’t seem to notice or care.

And even after his great weapon had been revealed Rhaig still refused to tell us anything of Falnir’s nature, his origins or what, exactly, he had been promised in return for his services.

Indeed, after one question too many on the latter subject, he erupted into a furious rage, ordering us to never mention it again.

“I am your lord!” he thundered. “Who are you to question me? Your place is to obey, mine is to lead- what more need be said?”

This was not the man we knew.

We blamed Falnir, at first. But we could find no real charge to bring against him, for outside of his questions the creature barely acknowledged Rhaig’s or anyone else’s existence. He simply did not care.

No, the reason for our lord’s decline, we came to realise, lay in his own will. He was letting himself go to ruin. But why?

His oath, of course. He had not been the same since taking it – since promising Falnir something that was too sensitive for even his closest warriors to hear.

We questioned Falnir whenever Rhaig was out of hearing, but the damned creature only laughed at our ignorance. We’d get no help from him.

Eventually I decided that I would have to demand an answer from Rhaig, his previous order be damned. I had shed and spilt blood with him; there are few bonds closer than that. I and my shieldbrothers were owed the truth.

But before I could summon the courage to ask him, we finally encountered the Anglisc.

 

 

One morning, our company turned a bend in the path and came out into a meadow. Facing us were five very surprised Anglisc riders.

By the look of it they had been travelling the same path as us, only in the opposite direction. Scouts with javelins and long knives. One of those strange twists of fortune, I suppose.

Mortal enemies stared at one another in mutual bewilderment as our horses contentedly cropped the grass.

In the stillness of that beautiful spring morning it seemed almost insane to start drawing blood. Difficult enough on the battlefield, but in those circumstances it was nearly unthinkable.

But this brief, strange truce had to be shattered eventually, and it was one of our own – a nervous, younger warrior who knew no better – who broke it with a hurled javelin.

It went wide, and the moment it struck the ground the spell was broken.

The Anglisc wheeled around, cursing and yelling in their own tongue, and rode back into the trees. Our company, after a moment’s hesitation, were hot on their heels.

“Not one can get away!” Rhaig cried. “Not one!”

I threw a javelin, and through a miracle it struck one of them in the heart. He fell out of the saddle without a sound, dead before he hit the ground.

My shieldbrothers showered the remaining Anglisc with spears and javelins, but they were too swift and few – our missiles scattered harmlessly into the surrounding trees.

We drove our horses until the sweat was foaming on their flanks, but they were always twenty paces ahead of us. And when they had built up enough distance they made their bid for escape.

It came as the trail wound along the foot of a great hill. At a shout from their lead rider, the Anglisc leapt down from their saddles and tore up the slope with a swiftness that only the threat of death can give a man.

We were too distant to intervene, and by the time we caught up they were halfway up the hill, hastily divesting themselves of their weapons as they went.

We dismounted – the ground was too steep and too rough for the horses – but saw that pursuit would be fruitless.

They were far out of javelin-range by then, so, cursing, Rhaig ordered us to use our bows, but that was an order born of frustration rather than any real hope of success – we had only a handful, and in any case our shafts fell pitifully short.

All we could do was watch in helpless frustration as the last of them disappeared over the lip of the hill into Anglisc land.

Silence fell in their wake.

Pursuit was out of the question. The land was too rough, too forested and too foreign for us; by the time we found a way around with the horses they would be leagues ahead.

And it could not be long before they found an Anglisc town and raised the alarm; Cymrian warriors close to the border, no doubt preparing for a raid. They would come after us with a warband full of seasoned warriors.

It was Falnir who spoke up first.

“We must move on,” he said calmly. “No time to waste.”

Lord Rhaig swore a savage oath and struck Falnir across the face with the back of his hand. Falnir didn’t wince, although he did look mildly offended.

“Where were you?” cried Rhaig, red-faced and furious. “Why didn’t you do something? A bow or a javelin – anything!”

Falnir looked puzzled. “Why did you not order me to do so? You are a lord, and I am merely your servant. You do lead this party, do you not?” he added, the faintest trace of a sneer on his lips.

“You should have acted,” Rhaig said through gritted teeth. “Now we are all at risk. Is this the service I was promised?”

Falnir shrugged. “I am not infallible, Cymrian. The greatest of warriors and generals living, almost certainly, but not infallible. I can make mistakes.”

Rhaig stared at him for one long dangerous moment, a shaking hand gripping the hilt of his sword.

His eyes were wide-open, and his breathing was ragged and laboured.

He looked almost insane, but Falnir met his gaze calmly. The rest of us watched quietly.

And, gradually, Rhaig subsided.

“Very well,” he muttered, letting his hand slip from his sword-hilt. “Very well, then.”

He turned to us.

“It’ll be a double-march from now on,” he said. “We’ll sleep in our saddles if we have to. And for you,” he said to Falnir, “there’ll be no more nightly excursions. We cannot risk detection.”

“I need sustenance,” Falnir protested. “I will become weak.”

“You can wait,” Rhaig said. “You’ll have to.”

I expected more resistance, but after half a second’s hesitation Falnir merely bowed his head in obedience; the very image of loyalty.

“As you wish, my lord,” he smiled.

 

* * *

 

No time for questioning Rhaig about Falnir after that. No time for anything. The passage of time became a blur as we tore through the borderlands, our weapons always close to hand and our eyes always looking east for any sign of the Anglisc.

We were ragged, worn and exhausted but Falnir was far worse. Weight and muscle fell off him in waves until he looked little more than a bag of bones ill-covered by a loose sheet of skin. No lost king this.

At night I would sometimes catch him staring at Rhaig with those hideous black eyes of his, with God-alone knows what evil thoughts churning in his head.

I brought my concerns to Rhaig, but he dismissed them.

“He swore by God not to touch us,” Rhaig told me. “An oath like that binds him tighter than chains. He could no more break it than he could wipe the stars from the sky.”

Evil men thought little of oaths, no matter how serious, I observed.

“Falnir is no man,” Rhaig muttered, and that was an end to it.

I determined to keep an eye on him all the same.

One evening, after cresting a hill, we spotted a small farm below. Just a few small buildings and a handful of acres – enough for some cattle, a family and little else.

It reminded me of home; a most welcome sight after so much exhausting time spent riding through the wilderness.

I suggested to Rhaig that we could stop there for the night, and perhaps get a little food from those who lived there.

Rhaig smiled weakly. “What, expect them to provide supper for thirty hungry warriors? By God, we’d eat them into poverty. No, we’ll pass them by. But just think of the feast we’ll have to celebrate our homecoming!”

I didn’t think it’d be much of a celebration with Falnir there, but I held my tongue. It was good to see some of Rhaig’s old cheerfulness returning.

As we passed the farm in the swiftly gathering dusk I caught sight of a small figure on the edges of it, watching us go by – one of the children. A little girl. I waved, and got a hesitant wave back in return.

Later, as we set up our camp, it occurred to me that to give that child a future free from bloodshed, hunger and fear was something I would gladly die for. Something I would kill for, too.

And if I was willing to do that, then what right had I to object to Falnir’s presence? And why would I wish to? That creature, no matter how repellent, had offered us a future wherein no Cymrian child need ever fear the Anglisc again.

As I laid my head down to sleep that night, I swore to myself that I would question my lord no longer. The cause we fought for was worth a Falnir. Cymria was worth a Falnir.

 

* * *

 

I was on the second watch, and after I took up my post it did not take long for me to realise one of number was missing.

Falnir was gone.

I quickly roused the others. Some thought that he had merely abandoned us, while others believed he was lurking out there in the darkness, waiting to attack.

I went to rouse Rhaig, who was fast asleep.

“What is it?” he said, rising quickly. “The Anglisc?”

I told him Falnir was gone.

And all at once the life seemed to go out of him – he went pale then slowly lowered himself to the ground, a look of dull acceptance on his face.

“I see,” he murmured. “He wishes to make a point.”

I asked if Falnir intended to attack us.

“He won’t hurt us,” Rhaig told me. “He couldn’t. He’ll be back.”

I could not get anything else out of him, try as I might – he just sat there, staring blankly into the darkness.

But when I turned to go he reached out and caught my hand.

“Just remember,” he pleaded, looking up at me, “what you told me before we left. You said you were willing to do whatever was necessary to save Cymria. Whatever was necessary,” he repeated, putting emphasis on each word. “Remember that.”

I shook off his grip, deeply unnerved, and went to join the others who were busy readying themselves to either flee or fight.

But it was as Lord Rhaig said. Falnir returned within the hour, and peacefully.

He approached without a sound. Our only warning was a cry of horror from one of the outer sentries, and suddenly he was there – stalking confidently out of the darkness and into the firelight, a hideous and triumphant grin on his face.

He was caked in gore. There was blood on his mouth, blood on his robes and blood on his hands. His teeth were almost black. He stank of it.

I saw that he was back to full health – indeed, better than ever, as though his enforced fast had never occurred.

He showed no fear as he was surrounded by my shieldbrothers, wild-eyed and frantic, bellowing threats and warnings.

“No need for steel,” he said, still grinning. “You have nothing to fear from me.”

“Falnir!”

It was Rhaig, staggering towards Falnir with a look of utter grief on his face.

“In the name of God,” he croaked, “what have you done?”

“I have eaten.” Falnir replied simply. “And on fine fare – not the birds and beasts you would have me grow sick on. No, I have gorged myself on what you promised for my service. I grew weary of waiting.”

Rhaig had no words. He looked deathly ill.

“Do you wish to make me say it?” Falnir taunted him. “But it must come out.”

Rhaig looked panicked. “No, you cannot – I forbid it!”

“This man,” cried Falnir, ignoring his protests, “knows what I am, and what lineage I sprang from. He knows what my kind needs to thrive; as do you all. You know it, though you have tried to bury it.”

Oh, that we didn’t cut him down then! Wiped him from the face of the earth like the cancer he was. But his voice wove a spell over us, and we listened in horrified silence as he continued –

“This night, I have tasted it for the first time in centuries,” he continued. “Mere beasts will do for my needs, but I want – I need – better. This night, I have feasted on men, women and children. I ate their flesh and drank their blood, and it was good.”

The image of the farm flashed in my mind, and of the little girl who had waved to me. In an instant I knew – we all knew – what he had done.

I fell to my knees and vomited as my shieldbrothers groaned in grief and horror. Falnir laughed.

“Do not be so troubled, brothers,” he said. “There will be many more before the end. Your lord knows this. This is what he promised me.”

Of course it was true. What else could a beast like Falnir have wanted – riches? Land? Even so, I tried to convince myself that it was a lie. That Lord Rhaig would never even consider such a bargain.

But when I turned to face him in mute appeal as the others demanded answers, the man could not even meet my gaze.

“Innocents die in war,” he said softly, staring at the ground. “That is the way of things. Sacrifices must be made, even unwillingly.”

Silence reigned. Rhaig continued, still in that small, defeated tone –

“It is an ugly thing, but necessary. It will even save much suffering, in the long-run. With him leading us the war shall be won quickly.”

I don’t know what he had expected from us. Promises of obedience, at the very least. But still there was silence. I had to turn my eyes away. I couldn’t bear to look at him.

“We are all bloody men,” Rhaig said desperately, voice rising. “Surely you can see the wisdom in what I have done?”

Still nothing. Then he began to scream – rage, frustration, guilt and anguish blending together in his voice.

Do you want to save Cymria? Do you want victory? This is the price. He,” he roared, gesturing towards that hateful creature, “is the price.”

He paused to take several deep, shuddering breaths, until he had regained a measure of calm.

“If you wish to strike him down, I will not prevent you,” he murmured. “But you will be taking Cymria’s best hope away from her.”

Falnir did not flinch as we turned to face him with our hands on our weapons.

“Your lord speaks true,” he said, almost gently. “I am your country’s greatest friend. You may recoil at what I am, and what sustains me, but the greatest of armies is as nothing compared to what I offer Cymria. I will lead your country into glories that will humble the world. Choose wisely.”

But we never had the chance to make our choice, for at that moment the bellow of a great horn, perilously close, broke the silence of the night, followed by a chorus of wild war cries.

The Anglisc were upon us.

 

* * *

We were too close to the border, too few and too exposed. There must have been at least a hundred of them, surrounding us on every side.

Lord Rhaig was one of the first to die. He was struck down without even having drawn his sword, going to Judgement more martyr than warrior.

When I saw him fall I gave myself over to the blood-frenzy with more fury than any berserker could ever muster. My shieldbrothers fought just as hard, and together we made sure to give the Anglisc more than their fair share of grief that night.

But they had the numbers, and one by one my brothers began to fall. Bravery and honour can only do so much in this world.

Throughout it all, as I parried, dodged and hacked, my mind was nearly empty, my body driven by fury and instinct. But one dimly present question remained – where was Falnir?

He had disappeared the moment the fighting started. I remember feeling faintly disappointed I would not get the chance to put an end to him.

But just as the last of my brothers fell before the Anglisc, Falnir returned – striking out of the dark like an avenging angel.

He moved among them like a god among insects – swifter than any man or beast I have ever seen. I saw spear, sword and dagger strike and rebound from his pale flesh without leaving so much as the faintest mark.

With his bare hands he literally tore them limb from limb – and as they screamed and their blood arched through the air, he roared with laughter.

It was the first time I had seen him truly fight, and at once all my battle-courage turned to absolute terror. It did not matter that he was on my side; I realised that a man could no more make an alliance with that creature than a sheep could befriend a hungry wolf.

The Anglisc were in utter disarray, some running for their lives and others turning to face the new threat. But one of them still had enough presence of mind to club me on the head, and so I fell into darkness and knew no more.

 

* * *

 

I awoke to quiet birdsong, the smell of blood and a dim, mist-shrouded sunrise.

I rose from the dew-covered grass slowly, bones and joints crying out in protest. When I was back on my feet I surveyed the field.

Bodies littered the ground, Cymrian and Anglisc – the latter in such a horrific state that I could hardly bear to look at them. Butchered cattle were treated more tenderly.

I searched carefully among the dead, waving off the birds that fed on them, but I could find none of my shieldbrothers still living. I was the last of our company.

When I found my Lord Rhaig, I knelt down next to him and let my grief spill out of me for a long, long time.

All I could offer him and my fallen brothers was prayer. I did not have the time to bury them. I would have to leave them to rot in the open air.

Our horses still remained – which, meant, I belatedly realised, that Falnir had totally routed the enemy. It had been a victory, of sorts.

But that meant nothing to me. Lord Rhaig was dead. My brothers were dead. I didn’t know where Falnir had gone, and I did not care. Stunned by grief, I told myself the only task left to me was to return home and relay the awful news.

I was saddling one of the horses when I noticed it – a trail of bodies, bearing Falnir’s bloody marks, leading out of our camp and into the trees.

For no good reason I picked up a spear and followed them.

More bodies lay in heaps under the branches – men caught fleeing with no armour and no weapons. Blood was thick on the ground here, and hordes of flies greedily ate their fill.

But the trail still had not reached its end. Continuing onwards into a clearing, I came upon a handful of fallen Anglisc who had died fighting – splintered spears and shields lay everywhere.

And something else – spots of a strange midnight-black liquid scattered across the earth. I prodded at one with the head of my spear, and the metal spat and hissed at contact.

Small pools of the stuff lay around a broken wall of foliage at the edge of the clearing, where the ground sloped sharply downwards into the cool darkness of the inner forest.

Slowly and carefully, I picked my way down, careful not to step in any of the black liquid.

I followed the new trail deeper into the trees. And it was there that I found Falnir.

He lay propped up against the trunk of an old and twisted oak with a long iron spear lodged deep in his belly, with black blood streaming from the wound.

His hands lay folded across his chest. His eyes were closed, and he was totally still.

But as I approached, he began to chuckle.

“Fate has her little jokes, doesn’t she?” Falnir said, slowly opening his eyes. “The only Cymrian to survive is the one who despised me the most.”

“That spear,” I said, nodding at it. “Will it kill you?”

“Eventually.”

“Why don’t you remove it? I have seen your strength.”

“A saint has blessed it,” he replied. “I can tell. The pain it gives me is more than you could ever know, and I cannot bear to touch it.”

“You prefer death over pain?”

“Over that pain, yes. You could not understand.”

“You betrayed us, didn’t you?”

He said nothing.

“That day in the meadow,” I continued, “You could have killed every one of those riders, but you didn’t. You wanted them to find us, because you could not harm us directly. Your oath prevented you.”

Falnir smiled, and indicated the spear. “A poor plan, then, considering the result.”

“You said it yourself. You aren’t infallible.”

Falnir shrugged. “Believe what you will. But consider this – even with Rhaig gone, I still have an oath to fulfil. I am still charged with defeating Cymria’s enemies. The only thing that prevents me from carrying out that mission is this spear. I am powerless to remove it, but you could.”

Even after everything, I had to laugh.

“You want me to help you?” I was incredulous. “Why, in the name of God and all His saints and angels, would I do that?”

“Because,” Falnir said calmly, “Cymria is doomed without my aid. Rhaig knew it.”

“You’re a liar.”

“Think on it,” replied Falnir. “Why was Rhaig so driven to recruit me into his service? Why would a man like him fight against his own nature to do such a thing? You saw him near the end – what he had done was killing him. And he knew that would likely be the cost when he set out to recruit me.”

“Lord Rhaig was driven by his love of Cymria’s people,” I argued. “He would do anything to end the raids.”

“It wasn’t about the raids. Rhaig told me all about the Anglisc – how numerous they are, how wealthy, how unified, especially compared to Cymria…”

“Nonsense,” I muttered, with growing doubt.

“Rhaig knew it,” Falnir repeated. “He was a man of learning. He knew what would happen to a small, divided nation if it went up against a larger, unified land. I myself have seen it happen time and time again throughout the centuries.”

“Lies,” I said weakly, but Falnir was not finished.

“It needs no prophet to see what will happen to your nation, Cymrian,” he said savagely. “The Anglisc will swallow it up. It may take a century. Perhaps two. But it will happen, boy – as surely as that accursed sun shall rise tomorrow.”

I tried to persuade myself not to listen, but his words had an awful and overwhelming wisdom to them. And Rhaig had believed it – the man who I loved and respected above all others.

And how could I question him?

“A broken land and a subjugated people,” Falnir continued. “That is what awaits you if you do not accept my aid.”

He had me. He knew it and I knew it. But the spectre of those he had murdered restrained me still.

Falnir knew my thoughts.

“You are reluctant,” he said impatiently. “Very well – I’ll touch no more innocents. This I swear. Only warriors from now on. Does that assuage your qualms?”

“I can’t,” I whispered. “I won’t.”

“You will,” Falnir said simply. “You can and you will. I know this because I know men. Brave, cowardly, stupid, clever, wise, and foolish – I’ve known them all, and I know you. I have your measure, Cymrian.”

And God help me, he was right.

God help me, I drew that spear from his belly knowing that I would never commit a greater sin – and when that monster stood tall once again, his wounds already healing, I knew that I was damned as surely as he was.

But I still had the spear, and for one brief moment I had hopes that I could use it against Falnir – to perhaps control him.

Then he tore it from my grasp as one might snatch a dangerous tool from the hands of a child.

As I watched, he broke it apart in his hands – wearing an expression of immense suffering as he did so, his limbs trembling with pain.

But that did not stop him.

“Come,” he said curtly when he was finished, moving away and leaving the shattered weapon on the ground behind him. “We have work to do.”

Desolate beyond all words, I followed.

 

 

* * *

 

It was a silent journey home. Falnir had an occasional question for me but nothing else.

My one and only task was to bring Falnir back to my lord’s hall. He assured me that he would take care of the rest.

Falnir meant to take control of Lord Rhaig’s land and people, but who would support this stranger? This unnatural creature, who brought both news of Rhaig’s death and a demand for the dead man’s throne?

It would be bloody, I knew. Quick, bloody and merciless.

The spear had slowed Falnir a little, but not much else. He still hunted each night, returning just before dawn with the same bloody marks on his hands and mouth.

He gave me nightmares.

I dreamt I was in the firelight with my brothers all dead and dying around me, and Falnir was just outside of the light, in the darkness – laughing as he got closer and closer…

For Cymria, I had to tell myself when I awoke with a scream caught in my throat, over and over again, like a simpleton’s catechism. For Cymria.

I was becoming like Rhaig – a nervous, haunted and guilt-wracked wreck. I knew now what burden he had borne. But like him, it was a price I paid willingly, if not gladly.

For I had seen Falnir in battle. I knew his cunning and intelligence. Imagine what he would be like, I told myself, with ten thousand of Cymria’s finest warriors at his back. Imagine no more squabbling lords. Imagine no more raids. Imagine a Cymrian army with an immortal king marching straight into the heart of the Anglisc lands…

No, my course was decided and my fate sealed. I would serve Falnir. I would follow in my lord’s footsteps. Or so I thought.

So I thought until we came to Saint Dewi’s bridge.

It was dusk – Falnir’s favourite hour – when we arrived. We halted on the bridge at his order.

I just wanted to continue, barely acknowledging the sight of my own land even after so many painful and weary days away from it.

But Falnir was fascinated. He dismounted, and bade me do the same.

As we stood looking out over the land as the sun slowly fell, Falnir began to speak, more to himself than to me.

“I have been a king without a country and a general without an army for so long,” he said. “And now, to be given so much…”

His mouth was slightly open, and I saw that he was drooling.

“Oh, I will do great things with this land,” he whispered rapturously. “Great things.”

He placed a hand on my shoulder. I recoiled, but he did not let go, even as I screamed when I felt his alien presence push itself into my mind.

Falnir was giving me a gift. In that moment, I had a vision – I saw Cymria and her future through Falnir’s eyes.

I saw a people united under a single king – a king of such dark, cruel and violent power no man would dare challenge him. I saw a people no longer known for their love of God, song and poetry but only for their love of war.

Falnir would hammer the land into shape, remoulding my people into his image. The raids would end within weeks. The Anglisc lands would fall soon after.

And why we stop there? Why be content with mere victory?

Falnir would build a new empire atop the ruins of the old – but something far stronger, crueller and long-lived.

Cymria would no longer be a weak, forgotten little nation on the edges of the world. The peoples of the earth would know our name – and tremble at it.

In an instant I saw this – saw the awful grandeur, and felt the terrible appeal of it.

And in an instant I knew that if this was the price for saving Cymria, it was far too high.

His hand left my shoulder and I staggered backwards, reeling from the experience. Falnir paid me no mind – his eyes were still on the land.

I could not hope to destroy him with spear or sword. Holiness was what hurt him.

Then I remembered the old story of the bridge – how it had been supposedly blessed by Saint Dewi, with even the river itself being made holy…

The bridge had had no effect on Falnir. I prayed that at least one part of the story was still true.

For Cymria, I told myself as I stepped backwards, before slamming into Falnir with all my strength, sending us both tumbling over the bridge and into the river.

Looking back I can see now I was driven more by exhaustion, grief and guilt rather than reason. I had little expectation of success, and none of survival – for even in mid-fall his hands had found my throat and begun to squeeze.

But the moment Falnir hit the water, it set him ablaze.

We sank deep into the river, but the fire did not go out. It was as bright and as pure as moonlight, and so strong it nearly blinded me. But it gave me no pain, even as it consumed Falnir.

He never let go of my throat for a moment. His black eyes bored into mine as we struggled silently under the water, his skin slowly turning black and dissolving into nothingness as I sought to break his hold.

For a few terrifying moments, I thought this was how my life was fated to end. But then the pressure on my throat suddenly lifted and, through a dimmed vision and using what little strength I had left, I swam up.

I broke the surface choking, spluttering and half-blind, with something still weighing me down. It was only when I dragged myself onto the river bank that I saw what it was.

The remains of Falnir’s grinning skeleton, clinging to me like a jealous lover.

I tore it off with trembling hands and gave it to the river.

Then I laid myself down on the ground and stayed there for some time, just staring up at the stars as the water drained off me, before forcing myself up to start the long and lonely walk home.

 

 

* * *

 

There were fewer questions than I had feared. My people’s grief over Lord Rhaig’s death dulled their suspicions, and in any case my loyalty was not in doubt – why question my story?

I don’t think I ever actually lied to them. I told them Rhaig had died in an Anglisc ambush – that was as much of the truth as I could bring myself to reveal.

My people thought Rhaig a hero to the end; a man of honour. That was not wrong, exactly.

And his death and my killing of Cymria’s best hope didn’t herald the end of our nation. Quite the opposite.

When the lords of Cymria heard about the death of one of their own at the hands of an Anglisc company so close to home, they decided that something had to be done. They finally put aside their quarrels and united to deal with the new threat – selfish fear accomplishing what the call of conscience and duty had failed in.

I was there for the Battle of the Crossing – I myself cut down the Anglisc standard-bearer in the waters of the ford, and I roared ‘till my lungs were sore when they finally broke ranks and fled.

I thought that God had given us a reprieve. That perhaps Rhaig had been mistaken and Falnir a liar.

And so I went on to live an honourable, peaceful and thoroughly unremarkable life. Few things to boast of but fewer things to regret. I have been happy in my time.

I have even lived long enough to tell my story openly – I am pitiable enough to be dismissed as a senile old fool with a fertile imagination.

So why do I tell this story? Truth be told, my nights of late have not been so peaceful or happy. I am haunted in my dreams by a voice which whispers –

It may take a century. Perhaps two. But it will happen, boy – as surely as that accursed sun shall rise tomorrow.

I have begun to ask myself whether Lord Rhaig was a man to be mistaken over such a grave matter as the survival of his country. Whether Falnir’s words should be dismissed so easily, bound by oaths to God as he was.

I have begun to ask myself if Cymria’s fortunes may be changing once more – Anglisc warbands have been making incursions into our lands again, and now they have themselves a new king of great ambition.

And I have begun to ask myself – may God forgive me – whether I should have done what I did on Saint Dewi’s Bridge so many years ago.

 

_______________________________________

Harry Piper lives in Wales and is constantly surrounded by too many books than are good for him.  He has long enjoyed reading and writing fantasy-  even more so ever since he discovered people are willing to pay him for the latter.  He hopes to continue doing it for a very long time.

 

 

THE END

 

 


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