The lower hillside was covered in a patchwork of vivid greens with hues of brass, and in the distance, the ocean waves crashed along the beach. His brow creased as Wylyn looked over the top wall of the hill fort. It was hard to believe that in all of this beauty, death lay just beyond his sight. Fear grasped at his gut. Knowing what the future may hold for his people, he turned and ran down the rock stairway and through a tunnel entrance into the ground below. Wylyn’s vision quickly adjusted to the dimness of the underground passageways. The damp walls rushed past him as he raced through the dark cave.
After several minutes of running he was panting, nearly breathless as he came to a halt at the entrance to a large chamber. Wylyn stood, waiting patiently for a sign to enter. At sixteen the boy did not have the typical appearance of his fellow clansmen. Where the Dummonii people were proud warriors with strong broad builds, Wylyn was slender and lanky; his features were almost delicate. In the past season he had shot up a full head taller than most of the other men of the tribe, and he continually found himself slouching and tripping over his own feet as he had to learn how to use this new body. Unlike his father, Wylyn was shy, almost gentle, a rare quality for one of the Dummonii.
This civilization of brave warriors held their position in relative isolation at the southwest end of the island. Sometimes, emissaries would be chosen to accompany the Druids to visit the other tribes in the region. The Druids would trade and collect rare ingredients for potions. If allowed, they would partake in the ritual practices and the sacrifices of these other tribes to learn about their Gods. The Druids feared that the strength of their history and might of their God, Dumnonos, were not enough in these dark times.
Over thousands of years, the Dummonii clan had never once worried about an oncoming force-until now. Brave warriors from other tribes had been arriving in their territory over the last few months, each bringing with them the same tales of bloodshed and horror. Their conquered villages were now nothing but ash, the bodies of their people violated, and monuments to their Gods destroyed. These stories were a poison infecting the minds of Wylyn’s clan. The ferocity of his people was being replaced with uncertainty, and this uncertainty was now a growing fear.
They fortified their settlements with the aid of the refugees from the neighboring Durotriges. News of the battle at Mai Dun had confirmed the worst of the Dumnoniis’ fears; it would not be long before they would lose their culture, their lands, and most terrible of all, their Gods. The Romans showed no mercy in their vigilance. Where their weapons could not reach mattered not: they would choose to make camp around the villages and hill forts, cutting them off and forcing the men, women, and children to starve to death before moving on.
Clan Chief Emrys Faol was in the midst of preparing his finest warriors for an attack on the raiding parties, positioned a day’s march to the east. It was his hope that he would incite fear in the Romans and secure more refugees to help bolster his defenses.
Wylyn always felt to be a disappointment to his father; his lack of eagerness for bloodshed and battle, and his inability to wield his sword without hesitation were only a few reasons Wylyn felt inadequate in his father’s shadow. He stood near, listening to his father’s brave speech. The way he was able to enthrall and inspire his men was almost magic to Wylyn. How could he possibly help? Expecting to be berated once more, he finally stepped forward. A silence met him as he entered the council room. The face of his father was different; he could see a look in his father’s eyes that he had never encountered before, as if recent events had changed him.
During events of great importance, Wylyn’s father was always accompanied by eldest of the Druids. However, Wylyn was not surprised that today he was absent from the great hall. The old man was now the last Druid of their settlement and would need to be as carefully protected as their lands. His father would instead find strength through his most trusted warrior: the metal smith towering at his side. As Wylyn approached, in the full hearing of the gathered clansmen, his father addressed him with respect, as he had rarely done before.
“My son, Wylyn, and the future ruler of our people. Tonight we leave for battle, and if our gods are true we shall return in greater numbers. Striking a blow against our enemies will be the turning point in this war.” He paused. Wylyn could tell his father was unsure how to continue. “If they choose-I may not return, and you must do what is necessary for the survival of our people. Do you understand?”
Wylyn nodded solemnly. Though he understood it all, this would be a poor time to confess that he was not ready, and believed himself incapable of such a grand request. Emrys had very seldom ever laid any true responsibility on Wylyn since he began his approach to manhood. His father had lost faith in his son’s ability to follow in his footsteps long ago and cursed the gods many a night to be damned with such a child. It was only the reassurances of the Druid that gave Emrys the courage to give this responsibility to Wylyn. To think that their circumstances had come to this left the clansmen in despair. As if this frail boy could somehow rise to the greatness of the man they now followed into battle.
The Chieftain walked across to Wylyn, placing a heavy hand on his son’s shoulder as he looked into his eyes. His gaze intensified as though searching Wylyn’s mind for a faint sign of a warrior’s resolve. In a quiet voice he continued, “You shall be ruler when I am gone. You must find your courage, find it for our people. Without it, our ways and our knowledge will be lost, and our Gods forgotten.” Beside him, the Smith stepped to his father’s side, holding a sword. Emrys took it, offering it to his son gravely. “Stay and protect the Druid. I will have Smith guard both of you. If we do not return, you must pull the remainder of our people to the north. The Romans and their evil gods cannot sustain themselves in those lands as we can.”
With hesitation Wylyn took the sword from his father’s hands, the boy silently accepted the duties of a man and a Chieftain. It was all the answer Emrys required from his son.
As a small child, Wylyn had seen a hill fort kissed by lightning. Despite the rain, its wild nature ripped across the sky, setting one of the large round houses ablaze. He remembered the way the air had felt then, vibrating with hidden power. The air around him felt that way now as he gripped the hilt of the sword. The warriors of the Dumnonii gave a fierce and jubilant cry as their Chieftain turned to them, shouting, promising in the coming days to send the Roman hoards into the arms of death.
Before leaving, the warriors circled the Druid, listening to his prayers. As he chanted, he asked the Gods to curse the Roman soldiers and to embed the strength of their God Dumnonos inside each warrior. After the ceremony, The Druid, Smith, and Wylyn watched as the men followed his father out the gates and into the sunset across to the east.
A few hours and the warriors were out of sight. Wylyn turned to the Smith “What do I do now?”
“Order, do not ask. You are the Chief now so act like one. You command, and we follow.”
The Smith was never fond of Wylyn, nor any man or woman who could not wield a sword.
Wylyn nodded. He coughed to clear his throat and give himself a moment to think. “Take the Druid down to his chamber. I will take watch.” Wylyn’s voice cracked as he desperately tried to muster a sound like confidence.
The Smith simply nodded in agreement as he walked behind the Druid, following him back into the underground tunnels. Wylyn climbed to the top of the wall, looking again into the direction his clansman had left. This time, there would be no slacking off or falling asleep on his watch. He was not sure how but Wylyn was determined to make his father proud in his absence.
Come sunset the next evening, Wylyn’s eyes began to sting. Bleary eyed from a difficult day waiting for news of his father, he stared out to the east. A hand grasping his shoulder startled Wylyn from his duties. He turned with his sword, only to stop in mid-swing at the sight of the Druid standing behind him.
“You shouldn’t be here! Smith will have my head.” Wylyn looked around. “Wait, how did you get past him?”
“I go where I must and when I am needed. I have been your father’s advisor and his father’s before him. Now I will be yours. Wylyn, please tell me what you fear?”
“I’m scared that my father will never be proud of me.” Wylyn didn’t know why but he felt as if he had nothing to hide from the Druid.
“Your father will be proud.” The old man reassured him.
“How?” Wylyn never understood the riddles the old man had for his father, and now he would have to solve them for himself.
“In death, we see everything and have the ability to see the future of our lineage. He soon will know the future you yourself will find when faced with the eyes of death.”
It was anything but a riddle this time. Wylyn’s grip grew tight around his sword. Without hesitation, he bounded towards the stairs and the main gate. “Open the doors!” he commanded the warriors left to stand guard with him and Smith. They grabbed at the large wood log barring the gate, heaving it up over their heads to let it drop to the ground. Pushing the gates, Wylyn slipped through a small crack before they could get them open all the way.
High above the Druid watched the boy running into the sunset towards his father. “You will be too late,” his voice whispering across the valley.
In the chill of the night, Wylyn was panting, his heart pounding hard as the sweat poured from his forehead and down his cheek. No matter how exhausted he was, he never gave in. He had run all night, leaving the Druid and Smith back at the hill fort against his father’s orders. Wylyn slipped through the darkened landscape, heading north along the path the Dumnonii war party would have traveled. The attack should have already taken place. Why was no one coming back this route in victory? Could the Druid be right? Wylyn started to succumb to the panic, as fear over his father’s fate haunted his mind. It was true that he was no warrior, but neither was he coward enough to send someone else in his place to look for answers. His conscience was unburdened by the fear for his people, knowing that they and the Druid would be safely guarded by the Smith, more than they ever would have been by Wylyn himself.
Just before the dawn, he came upon a field of tall grass swaying in the night’s wind. The cool breeze carried the scent of slaughter; fresh blood and smoldering ash filled his nostrils and stung his eyes. His stomach lurched with revulsion and fear at the copper scent. Like a seductress preying on her victims, the first hint of sunlight blushed across the sky and warmed his cheeks. With false hope, Wylyn parted the long grass and stepped cautiously forward into the clearing. The innocent warmth of the sun betrayed him as it also revealed the horrors before him.
Bodies of his clansmen lay scattered about the blood-soaked earth. The male bodies were headless; the women’s had been gruesomely torn apart in ways that told of a less merciful fate. Picking his way through the stiffening corpses, he scanned the heads, searching for his father among the fallen. These were men and women Wylyn had grown up with, and now they were gone. Meat for the crows and maggots.
It wasn’t long until he found it. In the middle of the killing field, driven deep into the trampled earth stood the shaft of a broken spear. Wylyn’s hands shook with anger as he stood face to face with the head of his father; a trophy on display and a warning to all who would pass by. The sun grew brighter, filling the pools of blood around his feet with the orange light of its reflection. A glow that was now the only sign of life in the empty eyes gazing back. He reached across himself, unsheathing the sword his father had given him. As he fell to his knees, Wylyn drove the sword into the ground and let his rage spill out in startled cry.
He had not given the sword much of a look until now. The handle gleamed in the sun, its hilt magnificently carved in tribute to a God that had surely abandoned him. “Where is it?” Wylyn looked around him; frantically he clawed at the mud, shifting his body in different directions. His eyes searched rapidly as he stumbled to his feet. Finally he realized that the Roman demons had taken his father’s body with them. They knew this would prevent the fallen Chieftain from ever making his way into the world beyond, this was just another sign of their cruelty.
Wylyn used the sword to stand before tearing it from the ground and sheathing it at his side. With both hands, he slid his fingers through the blood-matted hair of his father’s skull, grasping and pulling, freeing it from display. Faced with a long day ahead, Wylyn turned his back to the seductive warmth of the sun and began his journey home. Now more than ever, he needed the council of the Druid and the Smith. These men were his father’s most trusted allies, therefore now his own.
Something grew inside Wylyn that bloody dawn. The sensation of energy in the wake of the lightning, the surge he felt as his father gave him his sword, now filled body and soul with an electricity he could not explain. With new strength and a hatred of the Romans, Wylyn pushed himself onward. He would make it his life mission to fight against their every advance into his lands. During the long march home, his hand was placed on the hilt of his sword, and the severed head of his father was cradled at his side. Wylyn knew what had to be done.
It was no surprise to Wylyn that the council room was full of the remaining warriors and tribe leaders. A lookout would have spotted him coming across the valley heading home.
This time, he was not greeted with silence. This time, it was the shock and murmured chatter at the sight of their fallen Chieftain’s head in the arm of his son. With long strides, Wylyn crossed the room to gently place his father’s head upon the throne. “The Romans are coming for us next.” He turned, giving no room for anyone else to speak. “My father died protecting our people and with my last breath, I swear to protect it with my own!” He looked around the room, meeting the gazes of speculation and uncertainty.
From behind Wylyn boomed a voice that shook the room. It was the last voice he expected to hear.
“I will follow you and pledge my life” spoke the Smith, with all the conviction he could muster.
His wife, another warrior stepped forward. “And I.”
Other warriors who had fought beside the Smith stepped forward pledging their fealty to young Wylyn.
Slowly the energy in the room shifted, and the people were filled again with frail hope.
“What about the Druid? What does he think of this?” A voice came from the crowd.
Behind the speaker, in the entrance, the old man slowly shuffled to greet Wylyn. “This was always the will of the Gods; this was your destiny. I always told your father this day would come.”
Wylyn turned to the room. “Does anyone challenge?”
This time, when the room fell silent, it was in the form of acceptance and solidarity to their new leader.
“I accept your allegiance. We will honour our fallen when we’ve won. The Romans will come. Every able bodied person must help fortify the walls and prepare for war. I want a small group to take all the children unable to fight along the northern coastline and around the soldiers coming from the east.”
Once everyone was set on their tasks and the room mostly emptied, he turned to the Druid, asking for private council and inviting the Smith and his wife to join them. On hearing this, the remaining tribes-people left the room to give them their privacy.
“Tonight we go to the Gods and demand help.”
The Smith looked above at the ceiling as if Wylyn’s word would bring punishment from above. Wylyn never took Smith for a superstitious man, but his gestures spoke otherwise.
“We ask the gods for guidance and help, it is not for us to demand.” The Druid spoke in a tone that suggested more of a question than a fact.
Wylyn’s mind was made up “They have no choice, and I will not give it to them. We have worshiped them for thousands of years, countless offerings, and blind faith. The Romans will destroy everything and with that our Gods will die. No one will be left to remember them if they do not help us now.”
“Our death would mean theirs.” Siobhan spoke in support of Wylyn.
The Smith silently nodded alongside his wife.
“Then you’ve agreed. We shall go tonight to the stone alters by the sea. Each one of you must call upon a God of your choosing. If they appear to you, only then can you place your demands and deal with the consequences of our actions.”
“It’s settled. We go to the Alters tonight.” The words of the Druid would not budge Wylyn’s resolve. The Gods would listen, or perish with his people.
Just after the sunset, as the full moon rose in the darkening sky, Wylyn placed their fallen leader’s head upon the central stone. Each member stood on a side, creating four points around the stone table. The Druid took his oak staff and pushed it into the ground between the table and himself, chanting words to implore the Gods to bear witness.
Siobhan took a dagger from her belt, running it along the palm of her hand. She chanted, calling to the Old White Mother Caridwen, the wise goddess from the lands across the channel. She placed her bloodied palm down against the stone, closing her eyes in concentration.
The Smith followed his wife, cutting deep into himself from across the table. With his blood, he called upon Govannon the Smith God. In rhythm with his wife and the Druid, his chanting grew louder. The sound of their voices echoed across the valley and over the hills.
Now came the time for their Chieftain to make his offering of blood. Wylyn drew his sword. Placing it against his forearm, he swiftly sliced it open, exposing the muscles and tendons beneath. He called upon Dumnonos and placed the ornate sword toward the center of the table, point towards his father’s head. The blood gushed from his arm and down his hand, running along the sides of the sword.
Each member’s blood flowed along the carved channels in the table toward the center. The Druid’s voice grew louder. The pain lent itself to their cries as his voice joined with theirs, urging those Gods who would live on in worship to answer to their loyal followers.
Wylyn shouted into the sky. “Our people have given you their fealty. They have given you countless sacrifices honoring you time and time again. They need your help in order to survive the dark days ahead. Grant us our requests: avenge my father and we will continue our faith and life-long dedication to those Gods who would come to our aid.”
Wylyn’s father’s head now rested within a ring of blood, just as the trio and the Druid were wreathed by the ancient stones and stars that circled above. From within the eyes of the lifeless face now sparked an intense light, as though the moon itself had somehow fallen into their sightless depths.
Wylyn, Smith, and Siobhan fell to their knees, stricken with a wave of energy cascading from the center of the table. A pale blue flame engulfed the center of the stone, spreading down along the blood and onto the hands of the trio themselves. The painless flames flickered up their arms until it encircled them like an aura, connecting them all together.
The Druid lifted his staff from the earth, raising it high. “Behold!” he cried out as they raised their heads. In front of them were the gods made whole, high above the flames. They would voice their demands, and live with the consequences of this night for eternity.