THE WORSHIP OF THE LORD OF THE ESTUARY AND THE WAGES OF HEROISM



THE WORSHIP OF THE LORD OF THE ESTUARY AND THE WAGES OF HEROISM, by James Frederick William Rowe:

It came from the sea, a thing of cold, slime, and teeth. Declaring its presence through murder, it took the lives of three men fishing on the open water before it claimed as its home the estuary at the orifice of the Mor Oirthearach River in Cacke. Ever since it has held this body of water, permitting none to pass but those who pay it in blood.

The people called him Tiarna Inbhear, the Lord of the Estuary, and their fear swelled to such a panic that it became necessary to convene a special assembly of the tuath so as to provide for what could be done. Petty-king Osgar thus sent out runners to the holdings of the families, alerting them to the assembly and urging them to haste, but such was the compulsion of the general panic that no such urging of haste was necessary. It hardly took but two weeks for all of the hundreds of families to muster on the plain where they congregated to hear his ruling.

Addressing the crowd, Osgar declared, “It has come to pass that a fierce creature has taken abode in the estuary. Of this we all are aware. But what we should do with this creature is unknown. The hardiest amongst you have called for a band of men to be dispatched so as to face it in combat.”

Here, the petty-king paused to gesture to the band of men so mentioned. A small assembly of warriors nodded grimly at the king’s recognition of their suggestion, but none strode forward to speak.

Osgar continued, “Whether we should accept this suggestion, however, is not suited to royal decree. My most trusted priest, Calbhach mac Breacan has told me that the proper way to choose what is to be done is to consult the soothsayers, whom in turn have told me that they must sacrifice a man by the threefold death in order to be certain on a matter as grave as this. Accordingly, they are now called to perform their divination in front of us all, so that the matter might be put to rest.”

Upon the declaration of the petty-king, a trio of soothsayers emerged with their sacrifice bound at the wrist and elbow and drawn forward with much reluctance. He was a captive of war and even at this final hour he struggled mightily, but his bonds proved to render him impotent and he was soon forced to his knees. The brutal affair then commenced with the first soothsayer strangling him with a woven rope, the next bludgeoning him with a short staff, and finally the last slitting his throat with a ritual dagger. He died convulsing upon the scarlet stained grass until the open wound pumped only air and his heart gave way at last.

The crowd retained a stony, reverent silence throughout the affair of the sacrifice and the subsequent huddling of the soothsayers. This latter sequence took several minutes, throughout which the soothsayers hid themselves by way of their robes. Only after their consensus was met, which was signaled by a joining of hands followed by a series of three nods, did the soothsayers come to the petty-king to whisper their verdict.

Osgar declared then their decision, “The soothsayers have discerned by means of the sacrifice the path that ought to be taken. Tiarna Inbhear, as he has been so named, is not a mere beast, but like unto a god. As such, on the third night of every crescent moon a sacrifice of a man captured in war shall be made directly to the creature, in honour and fear of its might. So long as this is maintained it will largely be placated and attack infrequently, if at all.”

He added, “If there are any amongst you who oppose this course of action, let them speak now and argue their case before all.”

Amongst all of the throngs none raised an objection. Not even the warriors spoke out against the course, for though they may have contested against a brute, they were cowed by the declaration of its divinity. The matter thus decided the king turned to his priest who declared it law.

And it remained so for 20 years.

* * *

Garbhan mac Earnan was yet still in his mother’s belly when the institution of sacrifice was announced, but it is widely thought that were he a man then, he would have challenged the ruling if only to boast that he alone had seen fit to do so. As it stood, it only took him till near his twentieth year to end up doing the same regardless.

He announced his attentions to face the Lord of the Estuary upon returning from a hunt, from whence he had killed an aurochs so large that it took a team of twenty men to hoist it back to the people. Garbhan insisted on this course of action so that none could deny that he had brought in a kill of such majestic proportions, for the people of Cacke were ever suspect of the claims of men, though they entirely swallowed the proclamations of the supernatural. But faced with such proof as the carcass of the slain beast, none could deny what their eyes had witnessed, and lavish praise was hoisted upon Garbhan till it came to pass that he boasted:

“There is nothing in land, sea, or sky, either man or beast, that can match Garbhan mac Earnan.”

This was all it took for a rival, who was highly envious of his success in felling the aurochs, to chime up a challenge to this claim, “There is something which would contest that, braggart.”

Garbhan looked venomously upon the interloper and his hand flew to his sword handle, “Scoithin, you speak as if you would challenge me.”

Scoithin but laughed and held an open hand up as proof that he held no intention to draw arms against Garbhan. “You mistake my intentions: I do not challenge you. But it is evident that you have forgotten something.”

“And what, pray tell, have I forgotten?” asked Garbhan, who though he drew his hand from his sword, yet retained the threat in his bearing.

The laughter was retained in Scoithin’s voice as he defiantly retorted, “That the Lord of the Estuary would rip you to shreds ere you landed a single blow.”

Garbhan minced no words, nor restrained his anger. He spat upon the ground at the feet of Scoithin and matched his defiance with his own, “I spit at you and your fears, coward, which alone can account for this foolish accusation.”

Scoithin was unmoved. “If you disdain this claim so, then prove me wrong.”

Without a thought, Garbhan declared, “I shall.”

“Do you hear?” Scoithin appealed then to the crowd, his arm sweeping across the assembly as he turned to them. He pointed back at Garbhan as he continued, “Garbhan mac Earnan has proclaimed he shall face the Lord of the Estuary. Let he be known as a coward, a liar, a fool, and an empty braggart should he not match his boast with action.”

“You do not need to bear the pressure of the people upon me Scoithin,” replied Garbhan who himself turned to the crowd. “For I would pursue this path were I alone the witness to my intentions. You have implied the Lord of the Estuary is mightier than I, and my honour and pride shall admit not of it. I shall, afore the next sacrifice to be made in three weeks, match the beast in mortal combat. Let this be known throughout the tuath — nay, let be known even by the whole of Cacke! — that Garbhan mac Earnan shall slay Tiarna Inbhear.”

* * *

On the account that his summer service in the war-bands was not due for a whole month, and his winter hunting haul had been especially fruitful, it took merely a week and a half for Garbhan to ready himself for his departure. In point of fact, it would have even been sooner, were it not necessary for him to sell meat and skins to finance the furnishing of a fit set of travelling clothes, a spear equipped with a harpoon head, and half a dozen javelins. A shield, sword, and dagger he had all ready, but the latter two were also in need of sharpening, such that this added to the expense and the time necessary to procure things.

Still, a week and a half sufficed for the furnishing of these necessities and he did not tarry upon finding himself outfitted in full. Therefore, he set out alone and on foot the very morning after a celebratory feast that some had remarked sardonically was better to be conceived as a funerary one.

His departing words were themselves a boast, “When I come back you will bear witness to my triumph. I will prevail.”

He left in high spirits while singing a jocund hunting song, such that few would have conjectured, based on sight alone, that he was pursuing a path many would reckoned would terminate in his death. Still, those who knew him would know that the very joy expressed by Garbhan was indication of the challenge he faced, for the prideful young man sought and faced such with eagerness. Indeed, Scoithin even remarked, “The damn fool is just happy to hunt the greatest quarry!”

However, in contrast with the goal of the jaunt to the sea, the journey itself should not prove challenging. All together, the trip from Garbhan’s home to the point of sacrifice was reckoned as twenty one miles as the wolf runs. Walking from sun-up to after nightfall, Garbhan intended to cover this distance in a day of travel and take his rest by his foe so as to meet him bright and early the morning next. The way, he conceived, would be rather easy, consisting of a relatively gentle walk over land which only softly rolled with few points of difficulty and only light forest for obstruction.

He travelled at a steady pace until mid-day.

* * *

The mysterious standing stones, whose crafters and purpose even in those days were unknown, would be counted by others as a place entirely unfit for rest. Superstitions as to their nature and purpose, as well as the Strange Folk which frequented them, were enough to dissuade the common man of the tuath from doing little else but pass them in reverent silence accompanied to ritual repetitions of warding signs. Indeed, men would make a point to rush their steps when they came to these jutting masses of weather-beaten, stained rock, lest they fall victim to their native power, or else fall foul of a band of the strangers the common folk feared so.

But Garbhan was not so inclined towards such fears, but found his back soothed and his feet well calmed by the strong, smooth surface of the stone which supported him at rest. He could even prop his spear and sword against it and unburden himself of these heavy arms while he dined on coarse bread and dried meat, with but cool spring water, collected in his skin, for drink.

As he partook of his traveller’s fare, the sky slowly darkened with the gathering of rain clouds. Thereafter, gentle rumblings preceded a quiet rain, which fell with a perfumed wind bringing with the refreshment of the storm. It was a mild shower and one which did little to disturb Garbhan, who in fact seemed to welcome the cooling droplets of water upon his face. Indeed, he even closed his eyes to feel the caress of the drops which stuck to his beard and played upon his hair.

But he would not retain this repose for long. The strange interruption of a heavy aroma of a floral perfume stirred his senses while a light, feminine grip upon his sword-arm arrested the violence of his startled awakening. Were it not for this gentle touch preventing such an act, Garbhan’s first reaction would have been to grab his blade to the accompaniment of an outburst of shouting curses. As it stood, the curses were uttered even in the absence of the brandishing of the blade, which necessitated that the woman deal with this occurrence by whispering in a melodious, almost sing-song, voice,  “Peace, peace. I mean you no harm.”

But Garbhan, though he might not be superstitious, was yet not a fool and ill inclined to be awoken so peculiarly and suddenly. This was especially true on account of the strangeness of the woman, who aside from being bedecked with a floral crown which exuded the heavy perfume of the same, was finely attired in a gown of spotless white — which was of a cut and finery far beyond what was normal in these parts — and grew her raven-black hair down to her ankles. Furthermore, though he heard only that initial whispering, its singing delivery and strange accent made it apparent that she held no kin and converse with the locals.

All of this conspired for him to demand, “If you mean me no harm then you shall tell me who you are, and why it is that you have come upon me unawares.”

The woman did not trifle with Garbhan by evading such a question, pregnant with the threat of harm, that he delivered her. She gave her identity without compunction, “I am known as Easnadh.”

“Of what people and kind?” he further inquired.

She again held nothing back, “I am of those whom the people here call the Strange Folk.”

Garbhan came near to laughing and the threat was lost to his voice, “I do not find this at all surprising, Easnadh of the Strange Folk. It seems somehow fitting that one of your kind should meet me here.”

She did not share his humour, “My intention is not to surprise but rather to counsel.”

Garbhan’s eyebrow perked with intrigue and he gestured for her to continue, “To what end?”

“It is said that Garbhan mac Earnan seeks to vie with Tiarna Inbhear,”

“It is as they say,” he replied with a short nod of affirmation. “But I would be interested as to how you learned this and came to know my name.”

“What is to be known can be known,” she remarked.

“Your candour has been lost for riddles.”

It was her time to come near to laughter, “I speak no riddles: What is true can be determined and news travels fast. I would have to be deaf to not know of your intention. The clamour raised at your boasting was immense and you made no intention of hiding your purposes to the entire world.”

Garbhan grinned like a child caught stealing sweets, “I suppose that is so…”

“But it is not your prideful declarations that I counsel you against,” Easnadh said with a return to sobriety, “but rather against this enterprise.”

“So you are amongst the naysayers?” he asked with unhidden sourness.

“On the contrary, I think you shall prevail.”

Confusion raised the eyebrow of Garbhan, “Then I do not follow you.”

“You assume much, Garbhan mac Earnan, as to the nature of the response you shall receive from this feat of bravery,”

He was quick to question, “In what regard?”

“You rather think you shall be heralded as a hero, do you not?”

“I see no reason to think otherwise.”

“Nor do I: But do you recognize what that entails?”

A single laugh, “Honours above honours, glory heaped upon glory, and the adulation of the entire tuath. Or rather I should say: At least this much, if not more! After all, is it not fitting? I shall render an inestimable service to the people in liberating them from the foul despotism of the Lord of the Estuary and the rites he demands.”

“All of this might be conceded. But have you asked at what price?”

“The price is obvious: It is to risk my life and limb.”

“But what if it is to forfeit it?”

“Are you suggesting I fear death?” and here the ire of Garbhan was slightly raised, such that more of the prior threat entered into his voice.

She did not shirk in the face of such, but persisted in her point, “Not at all, when it is from that which you know might kill you. But what if you’re caught unaware?”

Garbhan retained his irritation, “Speak clearly, woman.”

“There are more dangers than simply those of the Lord of the Estuary.”

“And may I avoid said dangers and yet pursue this path?”

“I am afraid you cannot,” she conceded.

“Then I care not. I am resolved to face the beast, kill him, and win fame.”

“Even if they may be unworthy of this service?”

“Their worth is of no concern when it is my worth that is at stake, both in the public eye and in my heart.”

“So it must be, Garbhan mac Earnan.”

“So it must be indeed, Easnadh of the Strange Folk.”

With those words having passed between them, Garbhan rose to take his departure. But he was stopped in so doing by Easnadh’s grasp, which he saw was accompanied by a tacit pleading in her eyes. Still, he would refuse her, “Come now, Easnadh, I shall not stay.”

“I ask not forever,” she said, “but depart tomorrow at the least. The way to the estuary is long and you should not reach there until after nightfall. You cannot fight the creature in darkness and there is but a priest who lives there to provide you shelter. Tell me not that you would prefer to spend an evening with him over me?”

“I cannot, in truth, proclaim thus.”

“Then come,” her grasp shifted to his hands, “I have meat, mead, and a warm bed.”

With that, further protestations were silenced and Garbhan was lead by Easnadh to her cottage which was set away amidst a copse of trees a mile or so distant.

* * *

Garbhan rose to meet the day before dawn, but even then Easnadh had preceded him in awakening and was deep into her work. However, on the account that her form was obscured by a wrapped blanket and she worked in but the dim light of a single candle, he could not discern what she was doing.

“What are you working on, Easnadh of the Strange Folk?”

She did not reply but worked all the more quickly on what appeared to be the final part of her labours.

“All right, I shall bathe and ready myself for my departure, then,” he said and walked outside to make good on this claim.

While tending to these matters, Easnadh finished her work and followed after him some minutes later. He was by then bathed and clothed and then affixing his sword to his belt and slinging his spear and quiver of javelins across his shoulders. However, he was interrupted in the latter task upon catching sight of Easnadh, and as the darts clattered to the ground he unleashed shout which awoke a flock of nearby birds into fluttering panic.

“Your hair!” he pointed in his shock.

Gone were the flowing locks of ink which streamed down to the soles of her feet. Replaced was a patchy mess of shorn tufts, boyish in appearance, through which the white skin of her scalp could be seen. A life’s effort of growth was gone in an evening, but it was not in vain. In her outstretched arms she held proof of her labours: Woven from her own hair, a net had been crafted and strung with smooth stones for weights.

She explained, “Aye, my hair Garbhan mac Earnan, has been shorn, and from it I have sown a net that shall never break nor fail you, for I have woven my power and magic into every thread. With it, your victory is assured: You will trap the beast. Only cast it with care, for the Lord of the Estuary shall be fit to be contained by it but once, as he is crafty and a failed attempt shall not meet with success on the second trying.”

For once the prideful young man was silenced. Indeed, he knew not what to say as she pressed her gift into his arms, such was the effect it had upon him.

At last, words did come to him, “It is rare indeed for me to be silenced by any act of man or woman, but this act of devotion has so tied my tongue and I will not profane the effect by speaking more to it. Instead, I shall do justice to the gift by using it well, as shall be proven when word reaches you of my victory.”

“Fight valiantly, Garbhan mac Earnan,” she said as she pressed his hands to her chest.

“I shall, Easnadh of the Strange Folk.”

And with a passing caress of her cheek, Garbhan turned to pursue the estuary again.

* * *

Upon leaving Easnadh, Garbhan proceeded directly to the estuary — that place where sea and river intertwine and vie for dominance — which he reached by noon the same day. There he passed the sea-ruined remains of a fishing village vacated for fear of the beast but for the dwelling of the priest Calbhach mac Breacan — the very same who had declared the sacrifice law — who presided over the monthly sacrifice, and who hailed him.

“Garbhan mac Earnan,” Calbhach called, “word of your intention has preceded your coming and I shall bear witness to your exploits.”

“It is well and good this is so,” replied Garbhan, “but it would have been better a poet than a priest by my reckoning, as I intend nothing less than the greatest display of heroism ever known amongst the sons of Cacke and I should want my exploits to be well recorded.”

The priest grinned at the youth’s bravado, “I assure you: I shall relate in depth the events of the day, whether you survive or no, such that no poet would want for lack of description. Now allow me to point you-“

“No need, holy one,” interrupted Garbhan even as he began to strip bare. “It is well and apparent to me where the point of sacrifice is. All I require of you besides your eyes is that you should hold my clothes, that they might not be soiled.”

“It shall be done,” and with that the priest accepted the burden of the clothes given to him.

Upon attaining to full nudity and after having reaffixed his arms to his person, Garbhan spoke anew, “May you witness as I have boasted, or else a fine death. May I have a blessing, holy one?”

The priest raised his hand after tucking his burden of clothes beneath his other arm, “Proceed fearless, for shame endures where death is but the transition to another life.”

With such said, Garbhan proceeded to the point of sacrifice which the people called Dearg Carraig. True to his declaration, it required no guide to point it out, for it quite unambiguously embodied the meaning of its name by being a large rock which jutted well into the estuary, stained a rusty red by the blood of nearly two-hundred and fifty victims. Though subject to the often violent waves and open entirely to the sea air, the deep set stain was too stubborn to be scoured clean by salt, water, and wind and no doubt it would long endure being so coloured.

But he would not direct his steps immediately to the rock, for he was in sore need of bait. Accordingly, he ducked into the woods to procure such, his javelin at the ready. As luck would have it, the detour proved extremely short, for he soon found a boar rooting for mushrooms. Coming upon it unawares was simple for Garbhan and the boar slumped dead upon the first cast of the javelin. Thereafter, it was a simple affair of hoisting the boar upon his bare shoulder and then walking swift enough to the rock that the animal would not lose all its blood from the sizable wound. He accomplished the latter task with ease and perched himself atop its uppermost prominence, which loomed some twenty feet above the water line.

From this height, the whole of the estuary could be surveyed, and though he did not spend long in looking, he noticed no sign of the creature amidst the choppy waters. Having expected this, Garbhan was not dissuaded and thus he slit the belly of the boar with his dagger and pitched the carcass off the rock with a sizable splash, which was itself followed by a spreading crimson froth from the blood and gore of the boar seeping into the water. Presently, he waited, and while he did so he readied the net of hair in hand after tying the casting line.

It took a full five minutes for the Lord of the Estuary to appear, and so subtle was he in his approach that Garbhan did not notice him till he was near fully upon the bloody bait. In fact, Garbhan did not even get a chance to cast the net before the terrible creature crested the waters with the tube of razors which consisted of his mouth opening to shred, tear, and suck the gory contents of the slaughtered pig into its bright pink innards.

However, this proved fortunate in as much as Garbhan recognized that the frenzying behaviour of the creature permitted a far easier casting than would have been able to if he had thrown prior to the creature claiming its feast. As such, he timed his casting until the boar was nearly wholly devoured, then threw the net out to cover the top most half of the creature, who was caught unawares by the man as he had not the cunning to draw his fishy eyes upwards throughout his gluttonous assault upon the bait.

The weights attached to the net drove down with surprising swiftness into the water, such that Garbhan had to pull the casting rope far quicker than he expected. Though this was critical in securing the creature, it also proved highly dangerous to the hunter. For in entwining the writhing beast, the great power of the monster nearly wrenched him clear off the rock and into the sea.

As it stood, it was only a stroke of luck which saw Garbhan react quick enough to release the line and to retain his balance by falling harshly on his rear end upon the blood-stained stone. This scratched well his posterior — adding more than a few more drops of human blood to the paint of the rock.  He was fundamentally sound of body, and more importantly retained his weapons upon his person which would no doubt have flew even as he did, and more than likely have been flung entirely from his person into the splashing waters.

He was thus well supplied with javelins when he leapt to his feet and secured his strong advantage of height over the monster. But the horrible thrashing of the beast made aiming an uncertain affair, such that he had to pause lest he waste his missiles in vain throws. Likewise, Garbhan was arrested by the fact that only then, amidst its writhing and splashing, did the Lord of the Estuary appear to him in his awe-inducing totality.

A huge set of gills holes revealed the Lord of the Estuary as definitively ichthyic, a point which might otherwise be misjudged owing to the serpentine, thirty foot long, cylindrical body that was absent any lateral fins. Instead, the monster was fitted for propulsion by a length of fins that ran along both the dorsal and ventral sides of its body immediately after its gill slits, and which terminated at a caudal fin that wrapped around the tail and united the twin sides. As for the maw previously mentioned — which was, luckily for Garbhan, entirely encased by his net — it was a gargantuan thing which began immediately afore the gills holes, and which bulged wide in a cone that was ringed by a ridged, toothy surface. Inside this cavernous hole, concentric circles of jagged, razor-sharp teeth surrounded a bone-crusted tongue that seemed fit as much to impale as taste its gory meals. Lastly, the whole of the beast’s skin was enclosed in a mail of scales covered in an unctuous slime, such that the monster appeared a shimmering, inky black.

Though impressed, and perhaps even indeed a bit scared, by Tiarna Inbhear in his revealed majesty, Garbhan was not transfixed, such that it took but a momentary calming of the beast for the hunter to shift from admiration to the pressing of the advantage. Tossing his dart with a lunge, the javelin lanced the sky and struck true with the metal tip breaking the scale and embedding shallowly in the flesh underneath. The beast bled a trickle into the waters, but such a prick as it sustained would not kill it were he to endure a hundred such barbs, and this fact caused Garbhan to curse loudly. The javelins would have to be abandoned and a new plan constructed.

Inspiration for his next move came by way of an errant gaze directed to the shore, where the hunter perceived the mix of sand and pebble as a fitting agent for blinding the large-eyed creature. He thus scrambled down the rock face and unstrung his shield from his back and used it as a scoop and filled it with the mixture. Thereafter, he waded into the churning water — which was so agitated by the thrashing of the monster — and flung the detritus against the eye. The material delivered its payload faithfully and it painfully closed, blinding the monster to Garbhan’s approach, who proceeded forward then with spear drawn and shield pressed forward.

Blindness only doubled the ferocity of the Lord of the Estuary, whose convulsions began to churn not only the water, but the pebbles and shells of the shore floor up with it. Pelted with such debris, Garbhan protected himself by way of the shield, but found himself no less battered where the shield did not protect. He endured the sting of these missiles and the small cuts they drew upon his skin, until as such time that he closed the distance and was able to deliver a powerful lunge with the harpoon-tipped spear.

The blade sunk deep into the mouth of the monster and thick, bubbling blood flowed from the wound gouged into its maw. But an unforeseen consequence of such a fierce strike was that the blade became lodged underneath the roots of the teeth.

Garbhan proceeded closer to jerk the harpoon from where it was stuck, thinking it was key he should retrieve the spear for renewed strikes against the monster, but instead he found himself assaulted. For as soon as he draw near enough, the bony tongue jutted out like a lance of the monster’s own through the holes in the netting, and were it not for the shield, Garbhan would be skewered. As it stood, the tongue penetrated the brazen shield as if it were straw, and stabbed the shoulder so holding it.

The wound was only shallow, but the pain and shock of the assault opened him to another blow. Following up the success of the stabbing, the monster rammed Garbhan with such force that he was lifted from the water and flung back to the shore. Laid flat and bleeding well from the wound in his shoulder, he did not stir for several moments, having been rendered unconscious. All the while, monster seemed almost to gloat over this fact by shredding the shield in its mouth to ribbons.

At long last, Garbhan recovered his senses and stumbled to his feet. Testing his shoulder, he found the wound had not severed the tendons nor broken the bone, and though it was painful to do so, it could be moved freely. He likewise found that his other injuries were mild enough, save for the ringing in his ears that betrayed the severity of the jostling of the brains sustained by the ram.

Being thus of sound body, if not of sound mind, Garbhan found himself fit to continue the fight against the Lord of the Estuary. All which was lacking was a plan, and lucky for the hunter, he was provided momentary respite in order to conceive of it. This was occasioned by the renewed thrashing of the monster, which saw the creature’s attempts to not only liberate himself from the encumbering net, but also to free himself from the horrible pain of the dart in its mouth which remained lodged underneath its teeth.

Inspiration for the plan that finally formed in Garbhan’s mind no doubt was rooted more in the injury of his head rather than sense, for Garbhan intentions resolved to a desperate act of brazen risk in order to subdue the creature. He thought this plan aloud: “The Lord of the Estuary shall prohibit my advance and has robbed me of my shield. Though he is netted, his tongue can yet stab me and his thrashing bulk will send me flying again. Nor can I wheel around and attack his tail, for it will do the same and I should lose my power should I have to swim. I thus have no other option: I must take his back. And if I am to take his back, I must pitch myself off the cliff and trust that I can grasp the net that grasps the Lord of the Estuary.”

With that curious resolve that seeks hasty action, as if running ahead of the fear that would arrest one in one’s pursuit, action immediately followed declaration. Garbhan quickly discarded his quiver of javelins, as he had no more use for the darts, and sped up the rock. Upon gaining the peak, he did not hesitate even for an instant, but ran to the edge with brandished sword, and while invoking the aid of higher powers as the sun played blazing upon his blade, he vaulted over the edge with hand outstretched.

Garbhan succeeded in not only landing upon the bucking, writhing monster, but in grasping in his hand a link of the hair net which secured him across the slickened surface of the beast. He spared no time in delivering great hacking strokes with his blade, which tore through the thick scales with such ferocity that the gore was flung from the blade with every clamourous strike. The beast wildly bucked in fury and pain from being so scaled, but Garbhan managed with the aid of the net to retain himself and make bare a wide expanse of the beast’s flesh, which was then greeted with criss-crossing slashes that gouged the skin and fat until red cartilage shown naked underneath. Finally, with a great shout, Garbhan spiked the blood-coated blade down through the exposed skeleton, puncturing the thick cartilage of the skull, and penetrating deep into the brain.

The death throes of the monster were such that the blade was snapped even as it was spiked, and lost of this sure anchor, and the net itself cut to threads by the slashing of his sword, Garbhan could not retain his grip. In what might be construed as the last, desperate effort of the Lord of the Estuary, Garbhan was flung from the monster’s back and was greeted with a fall broken only by the great rock itself. Thereafter, the beast gave up his ghost, and indeed Garbhan was hardly better, stretched as he was upon the rock senseless and battered.

* * *

Garbhan’s recovery from the wounds sustained at the hands of the Lord of the Estuary owed much to the ministrations to the priest. Having seen the hero flung from the dying monster, he quickly rushed to Garbhan’s aid. Finding him alive, though extremely concussed and variously injured, Calbhach brought Garbhan back to his house and there cared for him for him a few days. Thereafter, the pair set off together to bring news of Garbhan’s victory over the monster to the people.

The triumphant return of Garbhan was reckoned a cause for celebration of a type seldom had. Though the Cackes were a jolly people they rarely were extravagant, but in heralding their returning hero they exceeded themselves. Not only was he greeted with celebrants in his home village, but immediately runners were sent out so as to alert the whole of the tuath on Calbhach’s insistence that he would move the petty-king to call an assembly.

True to his word, the priest convinced Osgar — by then old, if not frail — and the people assembled within two weeks in the thousands. There they met two things: First, the massive skeleton stripped of flesh of the Lord of the Estuary, and secondly Garbhan bedecked in glory.

Indeed, Garbhan was allotted the honours of being carted upon a chariot to the assembly, crowned with a mistletoe wreath, arrayed in attire befitting the king himself, and permitted the king’s seat, which Osgar conceded for the duration of the celebrations, which were to last for three nights. Garbhan also was given the right to judge over the games and feats of skill which consisted of the distractions of the days, while feasting filled the nights. In effect, he became temporary king over the tuath, and was assured of honours to last him the rest of his life of a lesser sort.

But on the feast held in last night of the celebrations, a team of three soothsayers drew the priest from the table and retained him elsewhere for some minutes. His absence was neither a cause of alarm nor of any notice, but his return drew the eyes of all present as it saw him holding aloft a large silver goblet — representing in its artistry and antiquity a rare sight to those accustomed primarily to woodcraft of recent make — while calling to the crowd, “Silence and reverence! It has been ordained that the hero should drink of this goblet in full. Delay not, oh champion, but hearken to divine honour!”

With the goblet pressed to his face, Garbhan did nothing to refuse it. He drank it down in several long gulps, and though the liquid was cloudy, held an extremely sharp and pungent aroma, and tasted a sickening sweet intermixed with undertones of dramatic bitterness, he endured until the last drop was quaffed from the basin of the goblet.

“Honour and blessings forever and anon be upon your head oh Garbhan mac Earnan,” the priest proclaimed as he retrieved the goblet. “You will eternally be known as hero who has delivered us from the Tiarna Inbhear.”

Garbhan moved his mouth in reply but found his tongue numb and the words choked in his throat. Confusion swept over and skewed his features at this effect, and as he looked up at the priest tacitly imploring an answer, his sight doubled and blurred. Pushing himself upon weakened arms, he went to stand from the table but was promptly forced back into his chair, where he then was lost to unconsciousness.

The stunning change in events set the crowd into confusion. Several men even jumped instinctively to Garbhan’s aid, but the priest wheeled about to push them aside while thunderously proclaiming, “Stay your hands or suffer the wrath of the Gods themselves! He is our hero and it is his fate. Silence all of you! Back to your seats!”

Turning back to Garbhan, the priest quickly checked to see whether he was all right, and satisfied with his condition, only then did he address the crowd anew. He said, “Upon Garbhan’s arrival to these celebrations, the soothsayers were sent by me to offer a sacrifice to determine how he should be honoured. They returned to inform me that he was no longer to be amongst us, and that the Gods have chosen him for exalted honours and that he might protect us from the monster’s return. For be forewarned, though the monster is but bones, he shall return with a force far more terrible if the spirit of his slayer is not honoured!

He continued, “It has also been proclaimed that we, who are of his kin, must assure his seed passes to the generation next. As such, every family here present must render up a virgin daughter to lay with him, such that his line might not be extinguished with the ashes of his pyre which shall be lit upon the same day of his triumph on the next cycle of the moon.”

What followed then was a week-long enterprise which saw the hunter kept in a constant daze, such that complete agency was robbed of him. Indeed, he was retained in utter insensibility, and kept up in his efforts with the small legions of maidens only by an invigorating drink forced down his throat. At no time was he permitted a return to sensibility, but dreamily he acted upon the urgings of the priest and attendant holy men who assisted him even to the point of moving his limbs.
Thereafter, upon the month’s anniversary of his triumph, Garbhan mac Earnan was lead to a pyre constructed atop the Dearg Carraig. Bedecked as majestically as at the victory assembly and while the people sang aloud a sacred hymn, Garbhan had first his throat slit by the priest and then was thrown into the flames.

Yearly, the sacrifice would be renewed.

* * *

Near to a year later, the famed poet Loman stood by the estuary for inspiration. To him fell the task of composing the song to commemorate the deeds of Garbhan, but he had found that life at the court of the petty-king was ill conducive to the task of composing a heroic poem. But here by the site of the monster’s demise and near the blood-capped rock of sacrifice, he was beginning to feel the inklings of inspiration. Yet as he began to so compose his verses he was arrested by the appearance of a woman with swaddled child held in her arms. A heavy veil obscured her features.

“Hail to you,” the poet called out, “young mother.”

The woman nodded a greeting, “Hail to you. Tell me: are you Loman mac Marcan, the poet charged to relate the deeds of Garbhan mac Earnan?”

“Yes, I am doing such and I am he.”

The woman drew her child nearer to her breast, “And you knew him in life?”

“In truth, I knew him but in passing,” the poet conceded.

“Then listen well, poet,” said the woman as she unveiled her face to the man, her chopped hair barely past her ears and her eyes alive with disdain, “to one who knew him better than his people. Garbhan mac Earnan did not die for you. He faced death, but he did not die for you, your priests, or your Gods. He fought that you might be free of the monster — an animal which you cravenly served with the sacred blood of man — and with the thought that you would honour him for rendering such a service. Instead, in your foolishness and superstition, your honours were to bring him to the pyre.

“Fools and savages! Those honours mean nothing to the one you betrayed so you might commemorate and live through him as any man amongst you ought to have lived, but only Garbhan dared! Your cowardice, your baseness, your meanness of soul is not assuaged by your supplications of the hero, but indeed becomes more monstrous, because you will never be as he by your ludicrous sacrifices. If truly you wish to be a hero as he, act as he did rather than celebrate your murder of him!”

She continued even as tears welled in those hateful eyes and the child at her breast wailed at the piercing shrillness of her tirade, “Would that I could have saved him from this fate, but he was naïve. Naïve that such evil lurked in your hearts, though he knew of your despicable practices.  He could not fathom your wickedness, for though he might have known that a people may be moved to commit atrocious sins in the face of terror, and indeed be forgiven on account of this, no man of his spirit could countenance that cowardice could spur them on to retain these practices when they have been freed from terror. He died for your freedom from those rites and you dishonour him by their retention!”

“But I tell you this, poet Loman: His heir, his true heir, shall not be so naïve. This,” she held the struggling, crying babe forward, “is Garbhan mac Earnan’s true son and he will avenge his father.”

“Aye, you savages may have given him your daughters that his line may forever persist amongst you, but I tell you that alone is this child his heir. Garbhan himself chose to lay with me, whereas your priests merely worked the senseless body to consummate the union of man and woman. And I will honour my son’s father and so shall my people.”

“Be forewarned: The sons of Cacke are the enemies now of what you call the Strange Folk. My father is king over my tribe and my mother his witch-bride and they have commanded it so. So tell your king, your Osgar the Fool, and his priest Calbhach the Idolater, to hearken to their superstitions. For the man, woman, or child to come to our dwellings or sacred stones shall be killed, until it comes to pass that the blood of Garbhan mac Earnan be redeemed by his son. So has Easnadh of the Strange Folk, wife of Garbhan, and all her people spoken.”

All throughout Easnadh’s lambasting the poet held silent. Indeed, he did not answer her even as she left, only nodded once before she turned away and then watched in like silence until she was met by her people near the border of the woods and was embraced by both her father and mother. Only when they vanished into the tree line did he turn then gaze over his shoulder to the Dearg Carraig and declared:

“Evil is ever wrought when man does not aspire to ascend to the height of good, but beseeches the good to condescend to his level. Let the hero be mindful the wages of his heroism in the land of the coward.”

_____________________________________________________________________

James Frederick William Rowe is a young and up and coming author and poet out of Brooklyn, New York, with works appearing in “Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine” and “Big Pulp”. When not writing fantasy, science fiction, and horror fiction and poetry, he is pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy and works as a freelance combat sports journalist.

Dedicated to the memory of the author’s grandmother, Elizabeth Sundberg (1918-2011), “The Worship of the Lord of the Estuary and the Wages of Heroism” is his first work of fiction published in the genre of heroic fantasy, and the first story set in a developing fantasy world of his design with aspirations for many more to follow.

You can learn more about the author by visiting his website.


banner ad


Comments are closed.