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HAMMERED STEEL CRIMSON FIRE – is two stories. One within the other. The true story of Brian Boru’s life from insignificant orphan to the only True and Rightful High King of Ireland, united in peace – book-ended, as you watch over Geoffrey of Monmouth’s shoulder, as he steals Brian’s life – His dreams, deeds, and glory; to fabricate a Hero for King Henry Ist – King Arthur of England. HAMMERED STEEL AND CRIMSON FIRE ~ 6 Book Series The Life of Brian Boru High King of Ireland 951-1014 Based on a true story High Concept, Commercial Fiction History, Biography, Adventure, Romance, Intrigue, Mystery, War (No fantasy) Braveheart of Ireland meets Uhtred of the Last Kingdom, and the Da Vinci Code (Solving the mysteries of the Real, King Arthur, and the nature and location of the original Grail) Concerning ~ A boy who would never be King, A “certain most ancient book” that would never be found, A thief in the night who would never be caught, The most compelling mystery never solved, The most successful and perfidious fraud ever committed, The two most famous, enduring, and beloved, imposters of all time, King Arthur of Britain, and the Holy Grail, And the truth. Fact: - Geoffrey, cleric, of Monmouth Wales, in 1136, penned the first account of 5th century King Arthur of England. Despite what 800 years of historians, nonfiction books, documentaries, and scholars, claim – there is absolutely no mention of 5th century King Arthur, Hero, Defender, Uniter of Britain, before Geoffrey – not one. - Though, for centuries, historians and archeologists have searched England, for any evidence, the real King Arthur lived; or of Camelot, his castle; Avalon, the place of his burial; or Camlann, the site of his great final Battle – though some has been, speculated or fabricated – nothing has ever been found. - To date, experts have declared Geoffrey’s account of King Arthur of Britain, a king who: united his people, defended, won, restored his country, for a period of peace and prosperity, and finally gave his life in a final battle for the homeland he loved – a figment of Geoffrey’s imagination, a literary device, a myth, or compilation of several men. They adamantly claim – there never was a real man behind the larger-than-life legend, nor could there have been. - However, Geoffrey states quite clearly in his introduction, his source for King Arthur of Britain – “a certain most ancient book”, given to him by Walter, Archbishop of Oxford. - Norse, Njal’s and Thorstein’s Sagas, with accounts of the Battle of Clontarf, known as King Brian’s War, reference a book for their recounting, called – Brjans Saga – Brian’s Story. One of the great mysteries of Norse Literature, is what became of it. Although many Sagas of this period survived – Brjans Saga was “lost.” - Scholar, Einar Olafur Sveinsson, and academic Donnchadh O. Corrain, experts on Norse Literature and History, claim there must have been such a book, referenced by Njal’s and Thorstein’s Sagas, based on their accounting of events, from the Irish perspective, leading up to the battle of Clontarf. They hope one day it will be found. - The few Norse and their allies that barely survived the apocalyptic battle for Ireland, King Brian’s War, on Clontarf field, Dublin, Ireland, Good Friday, April 23rd, 1014, and made it to their ships, headed for the closest landfall – the Norse longphort, just across the Irish Sea from Dublin and the battlefield – Anglesey Wales. Book 1 ~ INSTIGATOR OF IRELAND ~ The Twelfth Son ~ And so, it was . . . That all of Killaloe lay smoldering in embers and ashes, And the Shannon ran red with blood of the sons of Cennetig, And blood red, the hills, and meadows of Erin. In years to come, the old ones would say, looking back at the time of dragonships, That was the day the Banshee of Craig Lia, who loved the boy, The last, and least of twelve sons, found him trembling, burned, and broken, And drenched in his mother’s blood, And she drew him to her breast, and wiping his tears away, blessed him with her own, For she could see the days to come – the evil, the horror – the seas of blood rising! And vowed she would be with him – even unto the end. Then Avril, of the high crag – guardian of the crumbling ring fort of Beal Boru, Shee of the ancient ones – riders of the white horse, mound builders, chariot racers, Raisers of stones – and the child of the last Thracian King, Issued forth a keening wail . . . an oath of reckoning . . . a vow, Even as the thinnest veil of moss, covers the ancient bones of Erin, So too, the sprinkling of a priest, binds the Warrior’s heart, All that is needed – a single thorn, borne on the wind . . . Then she placed her mark upon, The heads of his enemies, The soul of a priest, And in the hearts of three women. Then raging in wild and savage fury, Scored their fates, into the face of her cliffs, By thunder, of hammered steel! And lightening, of crimson fire! For the courage in the heart of the boy, Destined – him to be the one . . . The Instigator of freedom for Ireland! Part ~1 The Boy, The Book, and the Thief in the Night ~ The Saga-teller ~ Hill of Tara, Ireland April 23rd, 1137 “Tell us a tale,” the people called out in the night, and drew back like the tides of the Red Sea, “Of myths and monsters . . . of demons and dragons!” The old man, gnarled and weathered as a druid oak, made his way to the top of the windswept hill, drawing near to the fire. Then placed his hand upon the ancient pillar stone, gently as a grandfather caresses the face of a child. “I have no fairy tales,” he said. So, the people turned away, and went down from the hill. And the old man bent his head, so that his tears fell at the base of the Stone. But Eireann was listening . . .. And she summoned the wind and the waves from the edge of the world, over the Western Sea, and flung them into the cliffs, and hurtled her breath up and over the hills and valleys, tumbling in fits and torrents, and blew in their faces, and tore at their clothes, and fanned the flames of the fire, till sparks flew up into the night sky, to dance with the stars. Just then . . . The old man felt a tugging at his gown. A thorn in the wind, he thought, and tugged back. But the pesky thorn would not be denied and yanked harder still. So, he set his jaw, to give it a righteous thrashing – but . . . when he looked down, he saw, not a thorn bush but . . . a boy . . . a small boy, a thin and grimy and raggedy child, hair standing on end, eyes bright with longing. “Have, ye a true tale then, Sir?” the boy asked, “Of a real hero?” But he hesitated then, shivering in his thread bare rags, and looked down at his dirty feet, ashamed for he had no shoes. When he looked up again – ‘twas with eyes bright with tears . . . “Who was once an orphan child, that no one wanted . . . but, because he was brave, became something else, entirely?” The old man looked around the hill, but the child was alone, neglected and forgotten as the old stone. The strings of his heart tightened, even as his eyes stung. Fingertips traced along a scar upon his cheek, as if a touchstone to his memory, “Ah so,” he smiled, “I have a tale, of a boy who was brave. . .” He squinted then, and looked up into the night sky, searching the stars, and hesitating, as if he might have forgotten something – then, remembered. And looking down with a sly wink and a nod, “And a girl.” Then the old man looked out from Tara’s hill, to where moon shadows of clouds, raced in rippling waves over shimmering seas of grass. His rime-frothed hair, and cloak, and gown whipped madly about him, as sparks burst and swirled, blazing, but not as wild and brightly as his deep blue eyes. As though what he saw, belonged not to this night – but to another long ago. “The truest of tales,” he murmured, searching the stars, for just the right one, “The only kind told, by real heroes ‘round campfires in the sky.” But the people had gone down from the hill and turned their backs on the boy, the stone, and the stars. When the old man spoke again, ‘twas a fearsome thing – a rumbling, come from way down deep in the earth, up through the hill and the stone. The growling of a feral beast, to scold, and score, and shake the earth from its slumber, and wind blew over Hill of Tara, hurling his voice like rolling thunder, across the plains, over the mountains, and beyond the seas. “Oh, you foolish children, who seek what is not there, and never was – a reflection in the pool, a shadow upon the meadow, an echo in the hills – has no beating heart! Don’t you know, there can be no courage, nor valor, nor Hero, nor deeds worth remembering, nor story worth telling without truth. All else is chaff in the wind.” And Eireann’s breath whispered all around them, quickening every blade of grass, ruffling the leaves silver, and tumbling the clouds in moon-glow. . . “Listen well!” The old man roared, a mighty stag upon the mount. “For, I will tell you of a myth that is true, and of the monster who fed upon it, Of a boy who became a giant, and of the serpent who dragged him down to Hel, Of a light, a brilliant light, as bright as a blood-ember, glowing, And of a demon in the darkness, black as a tomb in a new moon, And of the shadow he conjured, that grew upon the wall, Twisting and writhing, and slithering through the cracks, Until it spread o’er the land, extinguishing the light, And with it came a pestilence, a poison, a plague, on the children of Eireann, To scorch and shrivel every meadow and flower, and dream and dawning, For every dew drop in Erin, turned to blood! And the most sacred of all fell on this hill, on this stone, on this very night . . . And it all began – the day the dragons came.” So, the people gathered once again around the Lia Fail Stone, the Stone of Destiny, upon the Hill of Tara. The crowning place of the ancient High Kings of Erin. The high hill between the Seas, where more blood and tears, lay shed, and dreams born and shattered, than any other. The old man put his arm around the shivering child and drew him into the folds of his gown. Then, borne up by the rushing wind, and the longing of a boy, he drew himself tall and straight as a yew mast, arms outstretched, cloak beating around him like billowed sails. His hoar-frost hair, a glowing banner of moonlight, whipped about like sea-frothed surf in the fury of a winter storm. Voyagers all – a ship in the offing – bound for the stars . . .. And the old man stirred the dying embers of their cold and empty hearts, searching for a Hero, as all men do. And set them ablaze with forgotten memories, and abandoned dreams, as his voice shattered the night, and shuddered the earth, even as thunder waves pounded the sea-cliffs to sand. . . “O’r the lap of the land, o’r Sea-kings’ road, From sea-eagles’ nest, on cragged mount, To fen of troll, in Hel-fires below, Dwell many thieves, Ring thieves, who steal a man’s silver and gold, Fiend thieves, who ravage homeland and savage loved ones. Demon thieves, who lie in wait to blood-eagle his soul, No matter, These treasures belong to the man and will fade soon enough. But – the most craven of all – are the Liar Thieves! Robbers of treasure that belongs to all men, for all time. Cowards, who claim another man’s glory, His courage, And his dreams, And the deeds that were his life, And call them their own. This I know. I saw. And I tell you now, the truth of it. For I, Sword-Dane, and Spear-Dane, and brother to God’s dastard, Was there in the beginning . . . the middle . . . and the end . . . I knew the boy, the young Rebel and Outlaw, the Warrior and the King, I held the book in my hands, I touched the blood-smeared names . . . And, I saw the Coward, thieving in the night!” Chapter 1 ~ PLAGUE RAVEN 1134 ~ Anglesey, West Coast of Wales ~ 3 years earlier Geoffrey of Monmouth, cleric to Walter, the Archdeacon of Oxford, perched on his stool like a plague raven gargoyle, casting a loathsome eye back and forth between the piles of musty manuscripts, and the trencher of spitted piglet carcass on the table before him. The corners of his right eye and mouth ticked spasmodically, like the twitching of maggots flicked onto red embers. And rightly so, for he drew nearer to a spit-scorching himself, every day. He’d exceeded his deadline for the King. There by, reneged on his contract, betrayed the trust, and spat in the face of the King’s generosity. Ah yes, and how had the First Henry put it? Coyly, with one arm about his shoulder, and his dagger in his other hand, the tip of the blade, darting about his face like a poison-fanged adder, as he walked him to window gesticulating East, over Wales to England. His broad sword and small mace jingling; and compliment of soldiers with all the aforesaid, as well as battle-ax, boar-spear, neck-cuffs, chains, and gaffing hook, helped to make his point. “You, Geoffrey, hold not only the outcome of my war with France – in your right hand – but my very life, and the future of all Britain, as well.” His eyes narrow-slitted, and glinting, “Do you think you can manage?” Geoffrey, his right hand usually occupied with himself, let go to wipe the sweat from his upper lip, and flap at his gown to fan the water running down his legs and moth-eaten stockings, into his scuff-worn sandals. Indeed, Henry 1st, King of England had decked the Tower of London, for Yule – with bowels and bollocks – for far less disappointment, than this. How his entrails would be removed to garland the Great Hall, and his cods to roast with the chestnuts, during the hymn singing, evoked in Geoffrey intolerable pain and a constant sweating, so that he wondered if he might be bleeding from every pore. He quickly crossed himself over the blasphemous thought, turning his gaze away from the waning sun’s rays, palely illuminating the three crucifixes hanging upon the stone chamber wall, above the fireplace before him. A thief on each side, and Christ in the middle, who loved scabby lepers, filthy Samaritans, and poxied prostitutes, diverted His gaze from Geoffrey as well. Glistening like a freshly boiled tripe, bald as a bladder and mottled as mange – pocked as a sea sponge, and as white and dimpled as a leavened loaf, needing to be punched – Geoffrey possessed the sweaty sheen about him of a cooling corpse, and the odor of a rancid sausage casings. His eyes bulged, black and bloodshot as festering buboes. Jowls hung swollen and hairless as milch cow udders. Nose inflamed and purple-veined, as a cankered teat with mastitis, he tended well with copious amounts of Sacramental red wine – the pilfered blood of Christ, meant for the poor. Pouring from a large pewter pitcher, he filled his Rhineland glass goblet, a parting gift from the King to the brim, and gulped greedily. Balm for his tormenting physical incarceration and mental self-flagellation, within the piddling tower chamber. With a pang of self-pity, Geoffrey acknowledged he’d seen horse stalls bigger and more congenial than this, and far less foul smelling. His chamber, a flue for the kitchen below, cow-pen, pigsty and stable just outside and up-wind, possessed stone walls stained with several hundred years of smoke and greasy soot, and infused with the smells of rotting rubbish heap, rancid swine slop, and pungent horse dung. In one corner, the stone floor opened to a steep and winding staircase down, contrived so that one Kingsman, with a sword in his right hand, could defend the tower against an upcoming horde of Saxons. Perhaps left-handed, he’d obviously failed his task, the filthy drunken Saxons having used his chamber for a privy for three hundred years, and the stench remained. In the other corner – a rudely constructed cot, lumpy with infested horse-hair mattress, home to bed lice, and other small vermin, attracting certain barn foul, which in turn deposited defecated remnants of said vermin, all over the contents of the chamber. Next to the bed, a small chest contained everything shabbily made and thread bare, he owned. And beside it, a wicker basket with his only other set of grimy linens, which the Archdeacon’s cat, following the Saxons lead, befouled on a regular basis as well. No, he’d had one thing and one thing only, of any value, his entire life – his mother’s little copper pot, he kept on the windowsill. Geoffrey sniffled. Every meal she had ever made for him, simmered in that pot, from nettle soup to mealy-worm gruel, and frog-broth when he burned with fever. She would cradle him in her arm while she stirred at it, telling him he possessed a poet’s heart and one day, he would be a great man, important to the King. And after she was gone, her cherished copper pot would be his, to remind him of her forever. Up until the day the King’s men burned the hovel down about her. She would not leave her only gift for him behind. And although she managed to fling it out to him, from the window, she succumbed to the flames. He scraped up what was left of her, after, with a scorched wooden spoon, and carried it with him in her pot, always placing her gently upon the windowsill, so she could see the hills of the west-lands, she loved. Geoffrey snorted, then poured liberally, raising his goblet, and toasted the barren sill. Then sloshed down another draught. All in all, his world – up until Henry Rex had trodged up the Saxon stairs, stood perusing his realm, took a piss out the window, and deposited the rancid eel he ate in France, into his mother’s little copper pot, could be summed up in two words – awful and offal. A tear rolled down his cheek, at least he had been blessed with the poet’s heart she longed for. But that was two years ago. And after Henry had trodged back down the stairs, Geoffrey vowed to rid himself of the pot, its contents, and all sentimentality with it. No more copper in his life – shimmering, pale green, Rhineland glass, silver chalices and golden adornments, crimson silk and finely laced-linens hovered on the horizon before him. Even, as odious as the task of extracting a credible history had become, the plethora of manuscripts piled high around him, lay upon a beautifully carved and highly polished table of English oak. The King’s Oak. And everyone in England knew to pluck even a branch of the King’s Oak, meant being skinned alive and boiled in oil. The table, yet another gift from Henry, to grease the skids, he said, of the project, along with a silver ring inlaid with a large sapphire and engraved with the King’s initials, HR – Henry Rex. And no one doubted Henry’s ability at . . . skid-greasing . . .. He’d the reputation of procuring whomever, and whatever he wanted, in the class of human, flora or fauna, Abbess, novitiate, or mutton, in several kingdoms. Lucky Geoffrey, he reminisced, dabbing at his forehead with his sleeve, and pulling on the chaffing neck of his gown, receiving a commission from the racking, and disemboweling King, Henry I, to write a History of the Kings of Britain from the Trojan horse, to time remembered. “A gift to his people, from their beloved Monarch”. Henry gloated, displaying brown teeth, and purulent gums, “A beacon of inspiration for the ages! Something for them to revere me by!” But Henry lied. For his “Historia” was to be a scheming far more insidious than that – and he, Geoffrey – complicit. His innards grumbling, and outards shriveling, he considered what would happen if he failed to deliver the wherewithal for the King’s intrigue . . . "Concerning Geoffrey of Monmouth – Oath-breaker! Procrastinator! Renegar! Of the King’s good grace! Shall be taken to the Tower, forthwith. To be mutilated, drawn, and quartered! Each limb to the four corners of the Realm! Head on a pike, cods on a skewer, what is left, interred in an iron basket, to dangle above the castle gate, until his maggot-ridden flesh should rot, and bones fall to the ground to be eaten by worm-infested dogs, carried away, buried, and pissed on by drunkers and scabied crones, from this day, and henceforth!" Geoffrey poured another goblet full, the translucent pale green, shimmering in the firelight, his eyes stinging, a knot rising in his throat. What else could he do? Thanks to Walter, the Archdeacon, his superior and benefactor – from whom all moldy porridge, runty-piglets, and slatternly necessities in life flowed – The King of flogging England had promised him, upon completion of his task: The Priesthood, an anointing in Westminster Abby to Bishop, consecration to Archdeacon, with a position at Aslaf, and – his pending missive, Historia of the Kings of Britain to be published, to the far reaches of Christendom, ad infinitum. Not to mention, recognition and acceptance in the courts of Kings, with good food, fine robes, a feather bed, no doubt his choice of belly-warmers, and everyone genuflecting before him, and kissing his right hand all the time, bearing the bejeweled ring from the King. He, Geoffrey, lowly cleric from Monmouth, who would otherwise be trapped in the cave-infested, midden-heap of Anglesey, in the farthest foul dregs of west Wales, beyond the outer edge of the Roman Empire and civilization, and the closest landfall to the barbaric Irish. Even mighty Caesar, though he conquered the rest of the world – loathed to go to Ireland. And if he refused? His future loomed bleak. Nothing had ever come from puking Wales, beset with superstitions, ghosts of ghoulish Danes skulking in the mists, and wailings echoing throughout the hills of evil otherworldly demons. The last of the headless Celts, festering in tombs, and bansheeing about in vile winds, forever blowing over from the Irish Sea, with the fetid breath and blustering bowels of the Irish! Geoffrey sloshed himself another glassful, consumed with melancholy, tipped, and guzzled. And why should he alone, bear the burden of the fate of Britain? The fact of the matter – Henry 1st, King of England, Scotland, Wales, and Duke of Normandy – 4th son to bastard, William the Conqueror, and some whispered, father to at least 22 ill-conceived gammy get out of bowlegged sheep on both sides of the Channel. Though over-sexed and nonselective, remained incapable of producing, even one living legitimate son. Geoffrey grunted – that made Henry, 0 for 22 – an astounding feat in any wager hall in all of Christendom. And with a new wife, pronounced, pox-free, womb-worthy, sluice-sanctified, younger, and ever more virginal than her predecessor. And although, with everything considered, and the odds favorable for his success upon his return from war; many of his subjects lined up to accept the wager – against their King. In fact, Geoffrey mused blurrily, jokes aplenty were chortled in the shadows of every castle, ale house, and sacristy. And written on privy walls from Cardiff to Whitehall, inspiring him to wax poetic – a ditty concerning the new odds of the King managing a legitimate son, in his own bed. He sneered sadistically. A hymn of sorts, from the soon to be Archbishop, to his beloved benefactor – Henry Rex. Refilling and swilling, abandoning for a moment his besotted melancholy, and normally dour and petulant demeanor, he raised his goblet to the Crucified, jowls aquiver, and broke into an unholy, hand slapping, foot stomping, slurry of tone-death, song . . . “Whilst Henry was off fighting his wars and tending his wounds, His nobles, guards, and grooms of the stool tended his wombs, So, by the time he returned in the spring, His odds had taken an insufferable swing, His fields – over tilled – and amply slung, Well seeded – and deeply plumbed . . . Possessed a far greater square acreage, Then his entire Kingdom!” “Ha!” Geoffrey smirked wickedly at the poetic irony, tinging the glass goblet with his crusty brown, rat-gnawed, third fingernail. Thus, Henry’s once favorable odds for success – Now, down the privy – floating with Mum!” The fact of the matter – the King of England, brutally successful in all things base or unconscionable, waxed undisciplined in all things kingly or sanctified. Simply put, Henry I, the rutting old whore-hound, lived to run trash – in the hunt, and out. And now out of money for his wars, sporting a raging brothel disease, with only one legitimate daughter, and in dire need of his people accepting his eldest bastard son, Robert 1st Earl of Gloucester, as heir – he expected Geoffrey to rectify the rat's nest, of all his many bastards – in his family tree, buried in the roots, and stinking up the place. And he expected him to accomplish this feat, a fortnight ago, before he returned to England from France. . . any minute now, still steaming from battle, sword bloodied, pissed off, broke again, with a full bladder, itchy crotch, empty bollocks – the apparent curse of his Viking forefather, Ivar the Boneless – and a frustrated yearning to mutilate something! Geoffrey swiped at his tears and sweat, mixed with pigeon dung, dripping down his barren pate with a malodorous sleeve. Then deposited it again with two swipes across both cheeks. All the while, his stomach howling from hunger, and bowels convulsing in terror Hazily drawn back to the moment, sniffling, he remained wretchedly racked by two pressing problems. The first – the didn’t know whether to eat or shite. And the second – Geoffrey concealed a secret of his own . . .. As if on cue, a spasmodic coughing echoed through the tower, from the adjoining chamber, a croaking, huffing, gaging, hurling fit of what he knew to be a greenish slurry, of phlegm, a congealant, looking considerably like moldy bread pudding, spraying the walls, oozing from the pustules of fetid rot in the occupant’s lungs. Hocked up, and spit everywhere, except into the spittle pot. Followed by an intense wheezing and choking as air was sucked in, along with whatever congealed, yet un-hocked. Just when he thought his plight couldn’t get worse – the grunting of a wild boar rooting for truffles, combined with the wheezing of a heevy horse, filtered up the stair-well. Walter, the Archdeacon, with the paunch of a pregnant palfrey, flatulent and stiff with gout, lumbered up the winding stone stairs of the keep, bracing himself against the wall at the top, scarlet faced and puffing like a blacksmith’s bellows. In one corpulent fist he pressed a lace-embellished handkerchief to his copse of sprouting nose-hair, bearing the embroidered emblem of Pope Innocent II. In the other – an item of dubious origin, and malodorous construction, he dangled as far away as possible from his person. Geoffrey sucked his tongue against the back of his teeth, waggling his own itchy ballast against the stool, resentful for the piling on of his other piles – yet another manky missive, from the puffing little pisspot. Needing fortification, he funneled more of the sacramental red wine, first into his goblet, swigged it, and then sloshed it around in his mouth and through his sparse teeth. Puffing out first one cheek, then the other, and finally down his gullet, belching loud and long, with great satisfaction at the perceived quavering Crucifixes. Even by candlelight, and brined in wine, Geoffrey discerned the hideous thing could never have been any sort of a book, as might have been passed down by a family of nobles. Newborn calf-vellum meticulously tied into folio and bound with fine leather, in any reasonable way. Nor a manuscript of venerable worth, scrolled and wrapped in velvet, and embroidered with silver thread, as one would find in the collection of the Holy Church. Nor was it finely rendered in unborn translucent lambskin, illuminated in gold-leaf, embellished with silver trappings, and ensconced in a bejeweled reliquary from the library of the King. To the contrary, it appeared more like the hideous saddle bag collection of used privy papers, belonging to a vile Visigoth in the sacking of Rome. Sneezing convulsively, Walter waddled and wheezed over to the desk, dropping the repugnant midden heap, in front of Geoffrey, in a puff of dust, and other indistinguishable flotsam. Then snorted into his linen and lace handkerchief, blowing like a trumpeter swan, the congealant from each nostril. Inspecting it thoroughly, he continued, “Some foul relic of a waesucks, looking as though he’d been tossed from a godforsaken dragon ship, a century ago, showed up at the door. Had the manner of the churlish Irish about him, mumbling codswallup about a High King . . . as if there’s anything higher than a King! . . . soused old sarder, lying on the front steps like a worm-infested dog. Had him doused with a bucket of cold water . . . then hot piss, and sicked the hounds on him, but he refused to leave until you were given this . . . this . . . sheer bloody evil . . . Heard you’re compiling a record of Kings.” Walter sneezed, spasmodically, beflummoxed by vapors in the air. . . “As if that old boothahler would know anything of Kings! I was afraid he’d die on the doorstep, let loose of his pesty bowels, and spread the plague . . . Anything to get rid of him . . . the filthy, pribbling old stank!” He turned and fled the chamber, groaning and wheezing, his slack rear sally-port flapping like wet laundry, in a stiff March breeze. At the top of the stairs, he called back to Geoffrey, “The crazed old laggard kept mumbling something about . . . the grayest . . . or gravest . . . rubbish like that . . . King that ever lived! . . . Can you imagine that . . . by Satan’s hairy ass! . . . If he’s ever been close to a real King, I’ll drink the piss pot next time . . . the gorbellied old gudgeon.” And with that, the dried-up old chitterlings, puffing and grunting, lumbered his gout-oozing legs, and dying bagpipe effluvium back down the Saxon stairs. Geoffrey sighed heavily, closing his eyes, and bowed his head, sanctimoniously, feigning prayer. Then with a momentary air of abject concentration – heaved a rancid belch, before reluctantly studying the loathsome pile of middlings upon his desk, nose twitching, striving to separate the fetid reek of the bundle, from the fomenting dregs of Walter. His entire face puckered in disgust, ultimately deeming his latest acquisition far worse – reeking as a kilted Celt’s saddle blanket, and rank and worn as the womb, of the brothel-bred, third wife of Claudius. Whatever would he want with a grayest or gravest King? Just what he needed, an account from one half-dead old scrote, to another half-deaf! Requiring further sustenance, he poured another brim full, sucking greedily, until breathless, eyes watering, belching like a bloated toad. Well, he had to admit, it would be original . . . an old and dignified King. If there was one thing, that the piles of manuscripts in front of him, and the piles in his ass, for the last two years, bore witness – in the entire privy-porridge before him – old kings, as well as dignified kings, didn’t exist. And for good reason; they were a miserable, sadistic, gold-grubbing, mank-mongering, brutish bunch. In fact, all Kings, he had found so far, waxed more of the: brutal-torturing, limb-quartering, treacherous-poisoning, eye-gouging, bowel-extracting, tongue-lopping, burning at the stake types. Hated by not only their enemies, and own people, but by kith and kin as well. And deservedly so, all of them tormenting him now with their tediously unremarkable lives. Apparently unworthy of any sort of a mention at all – the boring, abysmally inconsequential bastards! . . . What’s he supposed to do, make the rubbish heap up? He fought to swallow the lump in his throat, a fuzzy moment of melancholia, washing over him. Casting a furtive glance towards the wall, he wondered if he were being condemned to Purgatory by the all-knowing, ever-present, all-powerful Crucified Christ. In all the stacks of manuscripts and books on his desk, and four centuries of dredging up every old geezer: Gildas, the Venerable Bede, Nennius, Welsh Annals, Anglo Saxon Chronicles, and God help him – the fomenter – Ireland’s Patrick! . . . even flogging Beowulf! – Who all claimed to make record of the history of Britain, after the Romans fled; none of them mentioned a King of Britain by name, who rose to defend against the barbarians, won battles, restored peace, and united the Kingdom – not fetching one! Henry’s command: “I need a King! A great Warrior! Defender against invading Saxons, and Franks, Sacker of Ireland, Guardian of Christendom, a Uniter and Protector of his people, and Bestower of Peace and Prosperity! A Hero among men – a shining light upon the hill against the black plague of filthy Barbarians!” Then, affably placing his arm around Geoffrey’s shoulder, he slid it further along, until locking his head in his clenched elbow, just at his throat. He squeezed, teeth grinding, voice growing ever more menacing and thunderous – “What I need now, cleric – succinctly . . . is Precedent . . . to invade Ireland! . . . the ignorant little pissants would rather give their gold and silver to God, then to their King, and stubborn too . . . I’ll have to slaughter them all, to get it. And to butcher fellow Catholics – which I might add, has never been done before – even Irish Catholics – I need a Papal Bull . . . and that I need, that before my doddering, moldering, bribable, English Pope, is supplanted by the German anti Pope. He growled menacingly, “Which means you’ll have to hurry, or we’ll all be gagging on head cheese, and sauerkraut!” Henry Rex, wild-eyed, red in the face and raging, bellowed into his ear. . . “No one seems to understand the stress I am under – the bloody bastards! It costs, to make war on everyone, in this country and out, and on both sides of two seas. Do you see my predicament now – Geoffrey – hopelessly insignificant, smelly little flea-infested cleric of Monmouth?” King Henry the 1st, pressed his cold wet lips, and putrid hot breath against his ear, snarling like a baited bear – “Precedent Geoffrey. He’s in your piles somewhere – find him!” Geoffrey swayed on his stool, his face puckering to fight the tears, and raised his blurry glass, delivering a swaggering toast, to the eminent specter of the King, who would soon appear at top of the stairs. “Well, come on up Harry, you boneless little bastard, and have a good and close looksee at my piles, why don’t you” . . . he garbled, gulping and welling up with melancholy, eyes brimming, throat tightening even as visions of flames engulfed him . . . the sounds of his fat crackling, the smell of his own searing flesh and singeing hair, what was left around his ears – his carcass, and little stunted pink and hairless chestnuts, crackling on a stick over the brassier of some cankered toothless hag, gummed to death, hawked out, and frog-gulped by a filthy mongrel dog, and cast off as a hairy, toothy turd. Gasping for air he slammed the goblet down on the table. It shattered in his hand. A drop of blood oozed from a tiny, imperceptible sliver of glass in his palm. Sniveling, his breath catching, he held his hand up for the three wavering Crucifixes to see, lower lip quivering, “As if any of you give a rat’s ass!” Well, he’d checked his piles. There was no such beloved British King, Defender, Uniter, Protector, Sacker of Ireland, named in all bloody Britain . . . not bloody flogging one! Geoffrey sniveled and wiped again. First his nose, then his eyes on his threadbare crusty-sodden sleeve, smearing pigeon dung anew, from cheek to crevasses of jowl. He could see it now . . . Henry’s ghost clanking up the stone stairs in his bloodied armor, spurs clinking across the wooden floor. He hovered at his shoulder with his steel-studded mace, swinging in a calculated arc, that if moved the width of a ferret’s fanny, would crush his skull . . .. “Well, let the fusty-lugging Henry come.” He drooled. If he was to be carried away to the Tower of Whitehall. any moment upon the Rex’s return, he might as well enjoy himself. He raised the pitcher, in toast, to the three blurry crucifixes – “To imposters and thieves all – and last suppers!” Then swilled his well-deserved draught to the dregs, just to spite them, wine running in rivulets down the corners of his flaccid lips. With soused and reckless abandon, he would deny himself no longer. He cast all thought of deadline and disembowelment out of his mind and pulled the wooden trencher closer. He studied the roasted little corpse before him from every angle. . . the sheen of grease, the curling of the rind around the edges, the shimmer of seeping fat. De-spitting it, his mouth watered at the bloody oozing of juice, from the gash along the belly, as he rubbed his thighs together tingling in anticipation. Tucking the white linen tablecloth into the crusty neck of his frayed woolen gown and pushing up his sleeves; he commenced the only thing that felt good all day – tearing limb from ribs, skin from breast, popping joints, excoriating bones with his teeth and tongue, his cheeks twitching like a toad-stuffed weasel. A teeth-sucking, fingernail-tooth plucking, messy business. When he realized, rather stuporously, bits of flesh, and juice splashing around the trencher upon his own ink-blotched, scratched-through, pigeon-dunged, manuscript. His bowels convulsed again, clenching in spasm, at the reminder of his own work. Two years’ worth of heartburn and bowel-bloat, a hodge-podge of wizards and dragons, Trojan Horse to Vortigern hog-swill. In a drunken quandary, he surveyed the table covered with antiquated lore, on loan from some stogy self-righteous Venerable or another. All of whom he had to bow on his knees and kiss their rings, and pimpled, hairy asses, in return for their sacred manuscripts. Always on the right hand . . . well he knew where their right hand had been, the same place he kept his! A flood of self-pity washed over him – strangely followed by something else . . .. He spied the only missive, whose mutilation wouldn’t mean his own fat, bursting and oozing in runnels of grease, into the fire. Reaching out, he stabbed his greasy knife tip into the pile of grimy rags and gaffed the Visigoth’s privy-papers closer. Upon blurry-eyed inspection, he thought it was quite possibly the most befouled pile of scat he had ever seen. It appeared to be slovenly wrapped in tatters of squalid linen, begrimed with sard knows what, and carelessly leather bound in tough old cow hide. As if a child had fashioned it from a sharp rock, a dull blade, and cured it in reechy curds. Black as pitch from smoke, green with mold, and rodent chewed along the edges; it appeared to be warped from sea water and cured with salt-scum. And for a moment . . . he could almost see . . .not blurry like everything else in the chamber . . . but clearly . . . the image of it . . . the old book washed up on a distant shore, mixed with flotsam of pink foam, and the blood and gore of mutilated bodies . . . the waves tugging and flipping the pages . . . and running the ink . . .transforming the words . . .. He rubbed at his eyes, just as quickly, the image went away. A drunken belligerence followed. He would show Walter, the King, and the old scutters on the steps, just what he thought of his newest acquisition. His brain wallowing in wine, and the room swaying, he roughly sheared the tattered covering away with his grease smeared blade. Then sliding the tip underneath, severed the layers of contracted thin leather thong, wrapped around it, binding the leaves of calfskin together. As he did, the roar of wind from over the Irish Sea throttled through the window, blowing open the shutters, banging them against the stone wall, and careening through the chamber, fanning the flames of the brasier, sparks flying, all around him, whipping loose velums from the Venerables, around the chamber, in a maelstrom, swirling in a vortex of ancient texts. Geoffrey grabbed at them, trying to keep them from igniting, or being sucked out the window. Geoffrey froze . . . He heard something . . . a voice? A wave of dread washed over him, and even – guilt, as if he were somehow – trespassing . . . or worse – violating . . . and even more than that, before the scowling crucifixes – profaning. He quickly crossed himself, sloppily missing each intended mark. Then let the pages loose. Rattled, and wild-eyed, he reached for the pitcher again, raised, tilted, and swilled long and hard, sucking at the empty brim, until slamming it down on the table, swiping at the crimson dribbling down his chin. This time, he would be master of his own destiny, rejecting the prompting to leave the book intact. He stood over it, inspecting it with all the cunning of a drunken butcher and grunting like a lusty bull; he thrust the tip of his knife into the heart of the book. He stabbed, and gouged viciously, piercing deeply, and in increasing rapid succession, as if slaughtering a tough old sow, that wouldn’t fall to her knees. The vellum pages, brown with age and welded together, seemed unwilling to give up their secrets, clinging to the leather covers, as if bound and sealed by some unfathomed covenant. Then standing to gain leverage, he put his full weight into it, prying the lacerated calf skin, open, until he had enough to grip. Flopping his weight upon it, he wrenched the covers down, splintering the spine apart. The sinew binding the leaves together ruptured. Until it lay, like a deboned chicken, filleted and flattened, a broken thing. The vellum, stiff and crusted together with what appeared some sort of mold, muddied, and darkly stained, quivered in shreds, so that various strips of flayed skin lay in mess of disparate layers, indiscernible as pages in form or content. The mutilation left him breathless, heart pounding and exhilarated, for once in his life, he reigned as the only Master and subjugator of his realm. The brutality serving to whet his appetite even more. He slid the eviscerated carcass under his trencher of piglet, so that its insignificance, might further serve his appetite. It felt good to let the bits of torn flesh and ruptured tendon fly, and the juice splatter, and the grease run all over the grimy old pages – the one bit of flotsam in his life, no one would miss. He belched, cheeks puffing, lips flapping, spitting out the bones, once slurped and sucked of marrow, upon the old book. He let the fat drip, and bloody juice ooze off the trencher on to it. The thickest grease, salty and sweet, running down through his fingers, he savored before it could get away, plunging each appendage into his mouth, one after the other. Circumventing each joint, he licked, working his way down to the fist and finally backing out, while sucking it clean. His lips pursed around each one, as pink and puckered as the tail-end of a winking she-goat in heat. Then wiped, first the front and then back of his slimy fingers, off on the pages, smudging charcoal, and soot, and foraged on, until the last, canted beam of setting sunlight withdrew from the arrow-slitted window. There! The goose flesh rising, like a plucked chicken, on his hairless arms, in mid-mastication of the suckling creature’s heart. He strained to see in the dimming light, his mouth slack and gaping, like the wanton lips of the Sheela-na-gig of Rattoo. With a taper, he lit a candle and moved it closer, straining to see in the darkening chamber, struggling to find again, the melding and morphing phrase of words that had caught his eye – now illusive . . . He pushed his trencher and assorted bones, and the worst of the bloody juice off the dismembered pages, carelessly onto the rest of the Venerables’ manuscripts. Then moved the candlestick closer, until the incandescent light, illuminated the scourged and bloody skin before him. With grease-slicked fingers, he tried frantically, to smooth out the mutilated vellum, to make sense of it. Upon closer inspection, he found it to be a muddle of mismatched drawings, words, and images, faces and places, creating a riddle of sorts, in a jumble of bits and ragged pieces. Utterly sloshed, eyes blood-shot and blurry, he thought he had seen a phrase, a run of words that intrigued him. But try as he might, he could not get them back. He licked his corpulent thumb with a thick tongue, again and again, and shoved the tattered, pieces back and forth, smudging the inked words and images, desperate to find the right combination to patch together an entire page . . . Dragon heads with tongues extended . . . mouths dripping with blood . . . flames leaping high, consuming cots of a ringfort . . . shooting out from a round tower windows . . . enfrenzied horses, eyes wild with fear . . . hideous monsters, bearded, with fangs . . . a chariot flying through the air, one wheel landing . . . the face of a beautiful little girl . . . a small boat with oars and mast . . . swords dripping with blood! He flipped down a strip of tattered vellum – not dragons but Dragonships! And the monsters – Northmen in pointed helms and chainmail, with battle-ax, and broad-sword – all rendered in the primitive hand of a child. There . . . from the fractured spine of the book, protruded the tip of a quill, feathered in variegated stripes of white and dark gray, and stained a faded and rusty pink. He tugged at it, and out it came, along with a legion of – wispy milk-weed seedlings – of all things. Hovering around his head, on his face, in his eyes. He swatted at them. To no avail, as they swirled around him, floating on the drafts, luminous in the quavering candlelight of the chamber. The tip of the quill, darkly stained, had been carved into a point. Inspecting it for sharpness, he tapped it against the vellum, a fine dark-rust colored powder fell upon the page, the pungent odor – moldering blood. Distracted, he sucked at the back of a broken tooth, spit on the tip, of the quill, wiped it on the page, then used it to pluck a stubborn bit of bowel sheath out, from between his festering gums and blackened teeth, all the while inspecting the page before him. Then slurped the bit of sheath, off the tip, fondling it with the tip of his tongue, savoring, and swallowed. Strangely, the rust-colored powder had fallen into a pool of grease, upon the aged manuscript before him. There . . . beneath the grease . . . words he could barely make out. He wiped at the pool, smearing it with a large suety thumb. It immediately turned to a bright crimson streak of what appeared to be fresh blood. He swiped again, and beneath the bloody smear – words appeared – still illegible. He reached for the pitcher – empty, save for a few drops, and frantically shook the last of the Sacramental wine upon the letters. It pooled over the stain on the page, stripping away grease and grime, time, and ages until – there they were . . . Again, came the wind, blasting the shutters open, hurting them into the wall, rupturing the hingers, in an explosion of wooden splinters, and whirling around the chamber, sweeping the pages of the Venerable ones up and hurtling them around, the flying sparks igniting them into flames! As they flew up, swirling around the tower, and out the window. But Geoffrey, paid no mind. For upon the flayed calf skin before him, streaked with crimson blood – lay the fragment of words that had eluded him, in all the venerated piles of manuscripts. Words of the pleading old scutters on the doorstep, Words the stone-deaf Walter didn’t hear, Words for which he had been searching desperately, for two years, Words that might just keep his fat from sizzling in Henry’s fire, The very words to seal his future, filled with gold and silver, crimson and lace, and Kings kneeling before him, to kiss his ring . . . Written in blood . . . Bound and sealed in blood . . . And redeemed only – by the blood of Christ . . . “. . . the greatest High King who ever lived . . ..” (Geoffrey continued bookend for end of book I) Geoffrey froze . . . mind racing in reckless abandon . . .. He began to pace back and forth, across the chamber, eyes locked upon the blood-stained, wine-blurred words, his besotted brain, sloshing around inside his skull, with him. Is it possible, he possessed the only book in the world with a record of, “The greatest High King that ever lived!” He savored the words slowly. It was true, that on the West Coast of Wales, rumors were heard in drunken ale halls, and scratched on the walls of privies, and murmured in the cobwebs and shadows of the superstitious Welsh. He’d heard tall tales of an Irish King, that all the people loved, who fought great battles, against Sea-raiders, and Irish traitors, to achieve what all knew to be impossible – peace in a united Ireland. “Ha!” He sneered, “As if anyone would ever believe that!” Only to be betrayed by his very own his wife, and stepson, enticing a huge Viking army to come and sack the Isle, steal the treasure, kill the King, and all for the very hand, of his cuckolding wife of astounding beauty! What was it the Sagas called her . . . the “balm in bed for her many Kings!” Rubbish! But they were just tales, murmurings, gossip, who would believe that an Irish King accomplished what no British King or Roman Emperor had? Ridiculous! Still . . . he could drop the High – sounded too Irish . . . The Greatest King who ever lived?” “Well,” smirked Geoffrey . . ." I’ll give old Henry Rex what he wants . . . a Hero for Britain, who invaded Ireland. and every place else!" Once the British had a Hero of their own, who would give a ferret’s fart, about an extinct Irish Hero? Certainly not England, and France, and the rest of the world! Geofrey giggled -" I'll give Henry his Hero - a bloody Emperor of all Britian! Geoffrey grabbed up the hem of his moth-eaten gown, and diddling a tone death tune, began to dance around, like a princess in anticipation of the ball. He dipped and whirled, toes pointed, lifting his skirts, in a dance for joy. As the shutter’s blew open again, and the wind hurtled in, sparks flying from the nearly dead brazier, igniting the flying pages, and the smoke and ashes and sparks flew out into the night. Geoffrey, giggled, and pranced about, in wild and reckless abandon . . . Twas then the voice came again . . . murmuring . . . “Geoffrey . . . Geoffrey. . . What profit it a man . . . if he gain the world – but lose his soul?” Geoffrey wheezed and grinned coyly. This time he knew the answer . . . and he picked up the pitcher of red-wine and tipped it sucking at the brim . . . but it was dry. And he looked at the words of the page of the old book, where the last of the Sacramental wine, pooled across the words, that would give him all. . .. And he took his knife and spearing the page of vellum, ripped it out of the book, and holding it up so that the Crucifixes might witness, licked the page, the last drop of Sacramental wine, the ink, and the words, until they could barely be seen. Then grinning and drooling at the Crucifixes, eyes glinting black and empty and red as coals, For he knew the answer to the riddle . . . And he queried . . . “What does it profit a man, to gain the world – but loose his soul? . . . . . . “Why 30 pieces of” . . .. and he hesitated then, for he knew the scripture well – 30 pieces of Silver, was the price Judas received, for betraying Christ to the Romans. Then, feigning piety, he stood at attention, and saluted the image of Christ on the wall . . . and the two beside him, thieves, nailed to a cross for stealing a bit of bread, who would, before the end of the day, be with Christ in Heaven. Then sweeping his arm across the table, hurling the Venerable’s manuscripts around the chamber, pages igniting in the brazier, then snatched up by the wind, swirling, in a vortex of smoke and ash, sparks and flames – he reached for the only thing left on the table . . . a strange looking pouch, of indistinguishable material, shabby, and slightly hairy, and warty looking. Yet when Geoffrey shook it, it jingled like the bells, of the Sacrament in Winchester Cathedral. Because he had already chosen – crimson silks, lace, silver and gold, the company of Kings, fame, fortune, glory, and copies of his Epistle read round the world – ad infinitum. Geoffrey grinned, with his darkly, ink stained, slack lipped, lips and drooling, as he held the strange bag up to the Crucifixes . . . eyes lit up, red and glinting, as the handmaiden of Lucifer . . . “Why” . . . he giggled – “It profit me . . . 30 pieces of . . . Gold!” Chapter 2 ~ WOLVES AT THE EDGE OF NIGHT King Brian’s War ~ Clontarf Battlefield ~ Dublin Ireland ~ Good Friday April 23rd, 1014 124 years earlier Young Latean, attendant to the High King, thrust his foot up and down with all his might into the mutilated face of a youth not much older than himself, but the mass of gutted wound-slurry would not let loose of his ankle. A ghastly claw, white and bloodless, tethered him to the battlefield of blood and gore – the specter of death haunting the corpse’s eyes, plotting to drag them both down to hell. He swiped at his eyes with a blood-soaked sleeve, and kicked frantically until his shoe slid off, talon and all, then staggered on up the battlefield, towards the tent at the top of the hill. He bore a message for the Ard Ri, he’d sooner cut out his heart than deliver – but deliver it he would. The gory dead conspired to trip him up, their severed heads and limbs scattered among their own entrails. The dying moaned out to him and tore at his clothes. He slipped and fell, again and again, crawling on his hands and knees, retching, and gasping for air. Blood, warm and cold and clotted as blood pudding, oozed through his fingers. Smoke and ashes seared his lungs. Scarlet spurted from sword slashings and dripped in stringy rivulets down from tree branches overhead, upon his face. The salt from the blood, mixing with the salt in his sweat-soaked tears, ran into his eyes, stinging and blinding him so that he could not see. All around him, the great oaks of Tomar Wood grew black with ravens, as corpses twitched and writhed from hill to sea. He struggled to stand, and clinging to a sapling, looked back down the battlefield, his stomach revolting at the sickening stench of burning flesh and ruptured bowels. The pallor of death had spread over the land, strewn with corpses, gray and bloodless. For it was all on the field – all the blood in the world, oozed and gushed, and seeped onto the mud and trampled flowers of Clontarf meadow. To the West, the last of the sun, blazed like a dying ember in a windblown fire. To the South, black smoke churned, and carcass-flames leapt up from the walls of Dublin Castle into a scarlet sky. To the East on the seashore, Danes, drowning in chainmail thrashed at water’s edge, flickering silver and blue, in scarlet foam, like a bucket of bait-herring. Their dragon ships, born out and away by the high tide and offshore wind, drifted empty and rudderless. All around him, the edges of the earth, burst into flames. And all the while, Erin’s treasure, in a river of crimson, flowed down the battlefield, across the strand, and into the Irish Sea, staining the dark green, like red wine spilled onto a silken gown. For bestowed overall, meadow, man and beast, a blessing – an Irish blessing of blood, borne, on a crimson, rain-soaked wind, up from the frothing sea. Latean wiped at his eyes with a blood-soaked sleeve, looking up to the Heavens, wondering at the hand, that could offer such a benediction over the end of all dreams. At the top of the hill, wound-ravaged warriors encircled the High King’s tent. The last of the original Dal Cassians, Brian’s boys from the beginning, now gray with age, scarred, and battle battered. They listed back and forth against the gusting wind, leaning upon gore-slurried spears – splintered shields locked together, dulled swords encrusted in blood-clotted scabbards. Still, they stood bravely at the ready, loyal to their Chief until the end, their silhouettes, etched in torrents of red rain, lashed sideways upon the outside walls of the tent. Ghosts, and blood of ghosts born over the battlefield, on banshee winds hurled up from the wild Irish Sea. In front of the tent, a terrible pain stabbed at his heart – a scene more sorrowful than bearing. “Amergin,” he whispered. Three battle weary warriors struggled at the ends of ropes, around the neck of an enfrenzied gray war-horse – the King’s stallion – his valiant battle companion for more than thirty years of warring. The beast, crazed with pain, thrashed between them, dragging, and tossing them like wet rags, desperate to be free. Oblivious to his war wounds, he skittered and reared, trying to bolt. Broken shafts of spears pierced his shoulders and flanks. Deep slashes laced his powerful chest. Arrows pierced his heaving belly as streams of blood trailed down over his legs, strafed with sword cuts. The aging stallion screamed, fierce and blood-curdling, charging towards the tent. The whites of his eyes shot with blood, as he tossed his proud head. His thick muscular neck, flexing and twisting, snake like. His massive rump bunched and coiled to bolt, rearing, and pawing the air. A profuse white mane and tail, blood-drenched and muddied, churned about him like the fury of tempest-tossed waves, spraying spirals of blood over his restrainers. Even as scarlet foam blew from his nostrils – barbed arrow tips twisting in his lungs. Still his great heart would not give in, he too, fighting to get to his beloved master.
Prologue 13 Years Ago 7:08 PM Liz Liz hated sunsets. And the late September sky was already awash in bruised hues, outlining rows of gnarled apple trees against the slash of dark horizon. She knew most people enjoyed the colorful blurring of day into night, but those same people had clearly never hunted—or been hunted—by dragons before. They were deadliest at dusk, when mottled dragon scales became nearly invisible in the riot of color. Somehow, creatures with wingspans larger than most commercial aircrafts were rendered almost undetectable. Liz was hot beneath her fatigues; sweat pooling at the base of her spine as she lay flat, propped up on her elbows, rifle pressed into her left shoulder. She had orders, like the half dozen other strike teams peppering the ridge overlooking the valley on either side of her. Whatever they were looking for tonight was supposed to be big—big enough to warrant pulling most of her class out of training for a rare demonstration. She blew out a slow, measured breath. “We probably won’t see anything anyway,” Joseph grumbled. Her older brother sounded listless, agitated even. She settled deeper into the shadow of the nearest apple tree, peering through her scope, ignoring the sour smell from rotting apples strewn about her. “You ok?” she asked instead. He sat just a few feet from her, back pressed against some of the large rocks that formed their cover, rifle laying placidly in his lap. His gaze drifted down into the valley too, but he didn’t look happy about it—also unlike him. Joe loved the hunt, and he’d been waiting for an opportunity like this his whole life. But his hazel eyes were faintly glazed with ... boredom? Worry? She was used to him being assured—the oldest, the best of them. Her skin tingled, and she shifted her weight nervously, repositioning her sights. She concentrated on her elbows sinking into the damp earth, the sound of the wind rustling leaves around them, and the steadiness of her own breathing. The orchard trees were getting murkier by the second between the dark and fog that seemed to be drifting in. She frowned. The fog was moving in fast. Too fast. Something snapped to their left, and their bodies simultaneously sharpened with motion. Liz swung her legs around and focused her rifle, wincing as her headset crackled to life in a too-loud gurgle of static. Her hand flew up to her ear to silence the garbled commands struggling to coming through. Static flared painfully, and then the line went dead. “What the—“ She looked back, and paused. Her brother’s face had formed a sort of wordless question, eyes wide and mouth parted slightly. “Joe?” He launched to his feet without a word—and without his gun—bolting through the tangle of branches behind them in a frenzied burst of motion. She didn’t wait. She should have waited. He’d always been faster than her—damn him—but she ran anyway, ducking fruit laden branches and slipping on slick, smushed apple beneath her boots. He wasn’t even trying to be quiet. They were trained to cover ground quickly and quietly, but Joe was crashing through branches and trees. They might as well have been shining a spotlight on their location. It didn’t make any sense, and the full realization of what that meant slammed into her as she rounded the trunk of a particularly large tree and barreled right into Joe’s broad back. Siren Song. Her brother was standing in the middle of a small clearing, face turned skyward, gaze cloudy. They’d always been decently matched for height and strength, but even as she threw both arms around him and shoved him towards the treeline, he scrambled away from her. “I’m here,” Joe shouted upward, the fog curling around them. “I’m sorry,” he said, but not to her. She tried to wrestle him towards cover, ignoring panic sluicing through her at the noise, at Joe’s Siren-addled brain, at the way the orchard seemed to writhe and breathe around them with every sound they made. “Don’t listen to them—Joe, it’s a Siren Song.” Only one kind of creature sent out a Siren Song, robbing you of reason right before the kill. She raised the butt of her rifle, prepared to knock him out if it meant saving him—but then he was looking at her, eyes clear and confused. “Liz?” he asked hoarsely. She opened her mouth to respond, but never got the chance. Pain exploded above her knee as something big and sharp pierced her leg. Her vision went white – shit, shit, SHIT as she hit the ground hard and felt a sudden warmth saturating her pant leg. And she was bleeding …. dragging … dying … against pebbles and something was pulling her towards the trees. She writhed and clawed at exposed roots but she couldn’t catch her breath, couldn’t catch hold of anything as her nails split and fingertips muddled, couldn’t wriggle around to see what had a hold of her, even though she knew—she knew. Blood streamed down her thigh and pooled at her stomach, fire streaking through her veins, as she managed to finally stare into the face of a dragon too large to have crept up silently behind her. But there he was, his dark snout streaked with her blood and his toothy grin clamped firmly around her thigh. Green eyes the size of saucers gleamed in the coming dark. He hoisted her up several feet into the air before she even had a moment to draw a dizzy breath, acid burning in her throat. She’d dropped her gun. She reached weakly for the Dragonsbreath grenade attached to her belt. She looked down the nose of a grinning marbled grey and black dragon, whose pointed snout and hand-sized teeth were sunk firmly into her leg as he beat his powerful wings and rose into the air. Class 3. Young Male. He rumbled in his throat, but he hadn’t roasted her, which either meant he couldn’t manage a strong enough flame to reignite his sparks so quickly, or he didn’t want her dead … yet. She groaned as she tried to reach up and beat at his nose, gasping as his bite tightened, blurring her vision. She was going to throw up. This was all wrong. Her brain still rattled off the stats anyway: Wingspan 30 feet. Controls weather patterns. And, in a moment of blinding clarity, she realized: you’re too small. You’re not the dragon we’re looking for. The dragon rumbled again, in a gurgle that almost sounded like laughter. She hung five feet off the ground—ten—as her reaching fingers finally closing around the Dragonsbreath. Her hands shook as she met the Class 3’s glare—her fingers slick with her own blood as she yanked it free and pulled the pin. Green eyes narrowed. “Boom.” she hissed. All of her was screaming—burning—as she wrenched her arm back and hurled it towards his stupid grinning face. B O O M. She hit the ground hard, gasping. She could hear the furious roar of the Class 3 overhead, watched as the Dragonsbreath’s green fire climbed up the side of his maw, the acid burning through scale and bone as it raced up snout to spine. She watched until he drifted out of focus, the glow of the green fire illuminating the frantic beating of his wings as he tried to escape the flames. Breathtaking. She just watched the dragon burn, his agonized screeching splitting the night. It was the most beautiful thing she’d ever heard. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see straight. She lay gasping, aching everywhere—her ears ringing. She blinked once, twice, trying to clear her head as the Class 3 drifted hazily out of focus. Her limbs were leaden, and her hazy vision was abruptly replaced by the alarmed face of her brother. “Liz? Liz?” His dark hair was askew, eyes wet and wide. She’d never seen him cry. His hand was heavy on her thigh, pinching and tearing; his face tightened in horror, “Your leg—” She didn’t know specifics: specifically where she was hurt, specifically where fire coursed through her, specifically where residual Dragonsbreath acid was eating through her own clothing. Everywhere was pain and fire—acid and burning nausea building in her chest, and she would be sick ... she would be sick and— He pressed a finger to his mic, calling for help that roared to dullness in her ears. She wouldn’t be conscious for long. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, to her this time, yes. She tried to grasp the hand that had wrapped around her own, his fingers tightening. Joseph was screaming again for help, for backup, for anybody, and then there was another shattering roar, one she felt as much as heard through her entire body. But it didn’t matter. Joseph never even saw it coming. In one snap of too-large teeth, his entire torso disappeared in a maw that emerged from the fog and engulfed. Dragon saliva hissed as it sprayed the ground. Teeth the length of her forearm, three times bigger than the Class 3’s, missing her by inches. Its immeasurable form darkened the too-bright sky—incomprehensible. Impossible. No matter how much she tried after, she couldn’t recall what happened after. Did she reach for him? For her gun? Her radio? Did she scream? She must have screamed. Did she just lay there and wait to die? She wished she knew. Would it make a difference if she knew? All she could recall was how her brother’s legs had dangled as they drifted, almost lazily, before disappearing into a muddied swirl of a sherbet-colored sky. She didn’t remember the moment when he ceased to be. She couldn’t seem to forget when she realized he was gone.