Lan-dùnan, T.A. 1976
Abb sat in the dust and ashes outside the tower of Lan-dùnan. The stonework was very good. His people had learned much about the craft from the Tall-men of the old kingdom, but he doubted even they could match the handiwork here. And this was just an old armory, long abandoned and taken by the Ruadh when his ancestors had thrown out their cruel overlords and seized the realm for themselves. Those were the days…
And now, it was not even that. Just a pile of rubble as the wooden supports inside smoldered. The smoke was abating at last, joining the column of dust which slowly spread over the tall cliffs surrounding the vale. The dying forests beyond would likely get coated with floating ashes over the next few days.
“How did it come to this?” he wondered aloud, his voice wracked with pain. He glared at his companion sitting beside him. “That was not a rhetorical question. I want to hear your answer.”
Guinokh groaned and clutched her side. “What do you want me to say? You were right!” she growled.
“He was right? I was the one who warned against this from the beginning! We knew the North-men would break their promises.” Another woman limped to the pair of them, struggling with a large man who could barely stay on his feet. “It was only a matter of time. Once we defeated their enemies for them, we became their prey.”
Abb grunted. “Good to see you made it out, Innis. Did you have to bring that one with you?”
The large man stirred. That was Kolmak, to be sure. Drunk, not injured like the others. “I knew they were trouble. The Tall-men cannot be trusted. They always come to take our land. First the men of the kings, and now these… these… sorceror’s servants!” he spluttered.
“That didn’t seem to stop you from joining with the rest of us when the swords were handed out.” So Kevoka had made it out of the debacle as well. Of course he did. The sanctimonious bas—
“It was always going to be a long shot,” Mánas interrupted his thoughts. “If we had only submitted as wisdom dictated, we would not be in this position now.” Wait, Mánas had survived, too?
“Did any of us actually die in that fire?” Abb asked suddenly. “Not to sound disappointed, but I thought at least one of us would have been caught in that deathtrap. I suppose it was not so bad, after all.”
“No, there are only six of us here,” counted Mánas.
“I only see five,” muttered Kolmak sleepily. Innis looked at him with disgust and let him collapse into the dusty ground, brushing off her shoulder where he had been leaning. The drunken man snorted and snapped back to reality.
“Where is Ánraig, anyway?” Kevoka mused. “This was his idea, after all. To lead us back here to claim back our heirlooms and restore our kingdom. With him as our king, of course.” He smirked. “If he alone perished in that fire, it would be almost poetic justice, wouldn’t it?”
“I would imagine you had something to do with it, you faithless beithir,” spat Guinokh. “What? Would you hope to claim to be the king yourself, now? Who would follow you? The Rite has failed!”
Kevoka pretended to study an imaginary clot of blood under the fingernails of one hand. “The clans really do need more imagination. A few old scraps of armor which were not even made by our hands…these are to be the tokens of rule?” He laughed. “Why shouldn’t I simply claim to be the king? What say you all to that?”
The argument was cut by a loud, wordless scream. Abb grinned and looked back at the smoking tower. “It looks like we did all make it out, after all.”
Sure enough, it was Ánraig. He seemed to be in hysterics, kicking at the ground and beating the air with his fists, all the while shouting curses at the fire, and the rocks, and the sky, and the Witch-king, and the Tall-men, and the corpse of the treacherous rat who had lured them to the tower in the first place.
Innis cocked her head and smiled, listening. “It has been long since I had heard the words of our own tongue,” she remarked.
“It is rather refreshing,” Abb agreed. “Tell me again why we’ve spoken in this one for so long?”
“Because the North-men would not stoop to learn our own,” grumbled Guinokh.
“I actually was being rhetorical that time,” Abb sighed. “Oh look, Ánraig finally noticed us here.”
The warlord stalked over to his six peers. “It was all for nothing,” he said heavily. “I thought we could do it. I thought we would do it. But now all of our hopes have gone up in smoke.”
“I do not see why we need the armor to unite the clans,” Abb replied. “Why should our peoples not come together once again? We were a strong, mighty people before the wars. We can be again. The North-men are busy under siege, and the Tall-men south of the mountains have been driven away. The lands are open for us to begin again.”
Guinokh shook her head, grimacing in pain as she moved. “Not my people. They followed me into the madness because they believed in the strength of a king to come. If that king is not coming…well, I do not even know if they would follow me still when I return.”
Innis knelt by her comrade, inspecting the wound. “And my people have already settled among the refugees of the plains to the west. I do not think even if we had recovered the armor, they would leave their new lives behind.”
Kolmak muttered something from his prone position. Mánas rolled his eyes. “Of course, Kolmak. Of course. I still don’t see why we shouldn’t stay here. The North-men have not been so terrible, have they?”
“Excuse me?” Innis glared at him. “Do you not remember what happened ten minutes ago? That creep with the missing eye told us to our faces that they had always planned to betray us from the beginning!”
“He said that was the plan at the beginning,” Mánas glared back. “But consider this: we had pledged our loyalty to them, exchanging our own tokens — the armor — for their gift of seven swords. But then when Ánraig here saw the opportunity to take back our armor, spurning their gifts—”
“Enough.” It was not a request. Abb got to his feet. “It is clear that the clans are still divided. Perhaps it is better that they remain apart.”
“How can you say such a thing?” Ánraig seethed. “We have come a long way already. Too far to turn back now.”
“A long way,” Abb nodded. “But so did the Tall-men. They had a great kingdom, a prosperous one. We prospered under it as well, did we not? But they were not truly united, and they divided their kingdom. And once divided, they ceased to be great.” He gestured at the two women. “As our sisters have said, even if one were to claim lordship now, we would not truly unite.”
Kevoka stroked his long beard thoughtfully. “Then we return to our homes as the leaders of seven peoples.”
“It would seem that way,” agreed Guinokh. “To our own destinies, then.”
“We will reunite someday,” Ánraig said forlornly, staring back at Lan-dùnan. “The way to the armory is shut, but bring back the Rite of Convocation to your peoples. One day, the armor will be recovered, and each clan will be sent its piece as a token that the time has come.”
“Assuming our people last long enough to ever see that time,” scoffed Innis, “but it is well. We shall keep the lore of the Rite alive.”
“After all, it went so well this time,” Kolmak slurred.
“And when the summons come, let them dare not to spurn the call,” Kevoka said darkly. “There would be no greater treason.”
The leaders said their final farewells and departed, each going their own way out of the forsaken vale. Abb and Ánraig were the last. “Where will you and your people go now?” Abb asked. “Will you stay here in your homeland?”
“No,” Ánraig replied, wearily. “Too many ill memories here. We will depart for the south-lands. Live in exile. Atone.”
Abb clapped a hand on his shoulder. “You cannot blame yourself, Ánraig. We all share in the guilt of the treachery.”
“Guilt?” Ánraig snorted. “You saw some of the others. Not everyone is so regretful.”
Abb nodded solemnly as they left the smoldering tower behind. Perhaps one day all of these mistakes would be left behind. Nobody had profited from the centuries-long struggle. The Tall-men? Their kingdom was crushed and they had fled to die in the frozen ice-bay. The North-men? Their realm was invaded and their great armies shattered. The seven clans? Again they were set apart, scattered across the lands.
Perhaps one day their descendants would make wiser decisions than they had made now. Perhaps.