Autumn – Chapter 6 – 06

            It was like listening to a bard of old, a teller of tales and guardian of history.  I wondered, briefly and not for the first time, if he’d been a druid in some long ago past life—with his power, his staff, and all those tattoos, he certainly could have been mistaken for one.
            “Long ago in Ireland, there was a holy man named Bréanainn.   He gathered to him fourteen men to go on a grand voyage across the sea to places unknown.  It’s an old tale, doubtless one you’ve already heard.  There’s more to the story than that, though.  The fourteen men each had a ship apiece, each carrying fourteen others, to begin a new life far away from the old.  Men and women, children, hounds and chickens and all the rest.  We knew that it would be a long journey, but it would be worth it to escape the coming bloodshed.”  Phelan’s eyes focused distantly, as if he could see that long-ago past.
            “Two hundred and twenty-five souls boarded fifteen boats and sailed into the sunset one fine summer afternoon.  Bréanainn was much like all of you—his blood carried gifts from beyond normal ken.  I had watched him for a time.  He was a great leader, an inspiring man, a dreamer.  He believed me when I spoke of wars beyond imagining, wars that had lasted thousands of years, of hates older than time itself.  There was another war coming, I could see it, could feel it in my bones.  Pieces on the boards were moving.  He could feel it too.
            “I sailed with them.  It took us seven months to make the crossing and we almost didn’t make it.  We landed somewhere on the coast and then walked and hunted our way inland, finally settled on a rocky slope overlooking fertile fields with a forest at our backs and for a time, we knew peace.  We traded with the natives—they were fascinated by us, by how we looked and spoke, by our instruments, our songs.  We of course were equally fascinated by them.”
            Phelan grew quiet then and just stared at nothing, his pain over what came next almost palpable.  I knelt down next to him and rested my hand on his shoulder.  He flinched slightly and shivered.
            “We had been there for seven years when it all began.  Strange ghosts in the darkness, the sound of spears against shields.  Then the dragon ships came, sailing up the river.  We could see them from the hill, so different from the war canoes of our neighbors.  I knew what it meant, knew what they’d come for.  Vammatar…Vammatar and I’d had words in the past, though so long ago that I’d dared to hope she’d simply forget about me if I wasn’t in her path, wasn’t standing in her way.  I was wrong.  She came for war and she brought warriors with her.  I had farmers and holy men, women and children—innocents.
            “One night, I went to Bréanainn and told him he had to flee, to take as many as he could and steal away in the night.  I was almost too late.  As it was, some of the refused to leave—they were as loyal to me as they were to Bréanainn, much to my eternal regret.  I never meant for that to happen.”  A tear trickled down his cheek.  “The night Vammatar came, every one of them that had remained to stand with me were slaughtered, save for two women and a child.  The boy—gods and monsters, I pray his line lives on—put my spear through Vammatar’s shoulder before she could end me once and for all.  She’d sworn vengeance on me for a slight that had happened before the boy was ever a glimmer and he saved my life.
            “I woke up four days later in a native camp.  The two women and the boy had been taken up the river to another settlement where they might be safe.  As soon as I recovered enough, I crossed back to home and didn’t return for another three hundred years.”  He swallowed hard.  “Just in time for the Vikings to show up in Ireland and make a mess of things.”
            I squeezed his shoulder gently and he laid his hand over mine, squeezing my fingers.  “Forty-seven people died for me that day.  Vammatar’s words cut to the bone.  I didn’t want it to happen, but it did, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.”
            He looked at me.  “That’s not going to happen here, even if I have to sacrifice myself to make it so.”
            “That’s not going to happen,” I said.
            He made a quiet noise in the back of his throat.  “You know, I never did know if they actually made it back to Ireland.  Bréanainn and the rest.  I hope that they did, but I was in no shape to try and find out, and my uncle had a right fit when I came back and he found out what had happened.  Tried to forbid me from ever coming back.”  He smiled humorlessly.  “Of course, it didn’t work.”
            Matt snorted softly.  “You know, Phelan, sometimes I wonder about this uncle of yours.”
            A wry smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.  “He loved us, but he didn’t do a very good job of ruling his own family.  Then again, he always said that I reminded him too much of his sister, who could be ruled by no one.”  He waved his hands and shook his head.  “It doesn’t matter now, anyhow.  He is gone and the ways are closed.  There’s no going back again, not that I would ever want to.”  He straightened.  “My place is here with all of you.  I just hope that I can withstand her, or at least turn her back for a time.”  He swallowed hard, then said quietly, “I have to.”
            I squeezed his shoulder again, heart aching, but knowing that if it came down to it, there were some of us who would already die for him—whether he wanted it or not.
            It would be our choice, and that was all there was to it.

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