Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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The Way of the Warrior

by Michael G. McLaughlin


In spring the dark green came again to the land and the sun hung high, the air warm and sweet. Wildflowers in red, yellows and violet colored the gentle slopes with the promise of renewed life. Above, fluffy white clouds silently drifted across the heavenly blue skies.

Below, the clans warred, and spring, too, was a time of blood and madness. Finally, when all life threatened to be torn apart with fighting, the Druid priests interceded and called a meeting of all the clans and chieftains. The clans would meet on the Hill of Tara, the ancient site that was older than any memory. The Clans would meet on the night of the month with the second full moon. No clan would dare not come, for the other chieftains might see weakness in their absence and conspire against them.

On a hilltop, a large round wooden hut was built. There all the chieftains sat around the large bonfire while the women from all the clans brought food and drink. In the center next to the great fire sat the chief Druid priest. Unlike the chieftains who sat on the ground, the priest sat in a wicker chair made of dark oak branches, his head was covered in a red hood. In his hand he held a great wooden staff.

All around the clans ate, laughed and told stories of great battles and their prowess while eyeing each other with suspicious gaze. Seated directly behind each chieftain was his warriors and they feared no death or gods.

Seated across from each other, half hidden by the seated Druid priest were the clans of Coinneach and Broadhagh. They were the most feared and largest and they killed one another in sport and war. Most of the other clans had vague alliances with one or the other, or both.

The head of the Coinneach clan was Kilian. He was one of the youngest and biggest, and killed many a man in hand to hand combat. Part of one ear had been hacked off and he had lost two fingers in battle. He had brilliant blue eyes and long flowing dark head hair. Around his neck he wore a solid gold necklace.

The head of the Broadhagh clan was Trahern. In his day he was celebrated in song and story as the most fearsome of all warriors. Now he was old and gray, a testimony to his skill in battle through the years.

The sons of Trahern, of the clan of Broadhagh, had killed Kilian’s father, of the clan of Coinneach. Kilian in turn, killed both sons. Then the land erupted and clans set off in raids, warfare and revenge.

The night the clans meet, the moon passed overhead, the fire roared up and spirits filled the men with laughter and boasting. Several times clan warrior had to be restrained from fights. There was always an uneasy peace whenever the clans met.

All night Briana of the Broadhagh clan kept her eyes down and her emotions under control. She was the only child of Trahern now that her brothers were dead. Her mother had died giving her birth. Every time Briana filled the goblets of the Coinneach clan and their chieftain Kilian, she was afraid that if she looked at him her hatred would boil up and she’d draw her knife and cut his throat for what he had done to her brothers. Her father had warned her about her temper and that there would be a time to avenge their deaths. But not tonight.

Even though a chieftain’s daughter, Briana was required to serve food and drink to all the clan members. She was tall and beautiful with full breasts and auburn hair she kept wrapped like a cord. Like all women of the Broadhagh clan she carried a knife at her side and knew how to use it.

As Briana filled the goblet of a Coinneach warrior, Kilian shouted, “Bring me some food, woman!” Then he reached out and tried to grab her, but she twisted away, her eyes still down. Again Kilian shouted so all could hear, “Sit down next to me Briana, daughter of Trahern and feed me and I will make you a fine baby.”

This time Briana raised her eyes and stared with as much hatred as she could call upon. She grabbed a bowl of food, spit in it, and then tossed it to Kilian. All the clans laughed. Without taking his eyes off Briana he smiled as he slowly took some of the food from the bowl and put it in his mouth.

Briana’s eyes widened and her hand slowly moved to her knife.

“Draw your knife woman and I will treat you like a man.” Kilian said in a low menacing voice. Then he said, “Is this the way the daughter of Trahern treats her guests?” He laughed loudly and then said, “Such courage in a woman. She is good in bed!” He laughed again and all the drunken Chieftains laughed too.

“Be careful Kilian.” Trahern said with a smile. “All women of this clan have fire in their veins. Are they good in bed? That is something you will never know.”

“Marry her to me, Tehran and our clans will never fight again. The killing will stop.” Kilian shouted out.

“And take the fun away from killing Coinneach?” Tehran said with a laugh.

“Yes, your daughter is good in bed. That is what I am told from many men.” Kilian said with a thunderous laugh.

Briana drew her knife and swung wildly at Kilian. Then Coinneach warriors jumped up and raised their swords. Other clan members leapt up with weapons in hand and quickly the entire place became a cauldron of boiling anger.

In the midst of the melee, the seated Druid priest, his head still down and covered with a hood, rang a small bell. Again he rung the bell, dropped his staff rod and threw something into the fire that made it flared up. He yelled, “To the earth return! Sit!” Finally the priest threw something into fire and it flared up. All the clan warriors quieted down and begin to sit, some still hurling insults and dagger looks.

The Druid priest slowly stood and removed his hood. He was very tall with boney fingers and a gaunt face. He was an albino with ashen hair and skin whiter than snow. A small crystal ball that was filled with a dragon egg hung from his neck. His unblinking red eyes looked around at all the seated chieftains and warriors. In the silence the wind from the night blew in and lifted his hair like wings. The hut was very quiet and only the crackling of the fire was heard.

The Druid priests spoke slowly and deliberately, “We are not content this spring to plant seed, count cattle and watch our children grow before our eyes. Raiding and war are the only seed we plant this spring. But that is the way of the clans now as it has ever been. So what say the Chieftains?”

One by one the chieftains stood and shook their fists at the other clans demanding that the Druid priest condemn the raids on their land and give them back their cattle. Many chieftains demanded that they be allowed to even a score and take a life for a life lost. When the clan chieftains had their say, only the Coinneach and the Broadhagh clan chieftains remained to speak. The Druid priest moved out of the way so the two clans and Chieftains could see each other clearly. He sat again and sighed out loud and stared into the fire for a long moment.

“And now we have only the Coinneach and Broadhagh clans to speak. But I will speak for them. The sons of Trahern killed the father of Kilian and Kilian killed the two sons of Coinneach. All would seem to be level and fair. How can we all return to peace?”

One of the other chieftains shouted out, “Let Kilian and Trahern fight to the death! They are chieftains! Let them finish it in blood!” Other chieftains and warriors shouted approval.

The Druid priest raised his hand and quieted the gathering. He paused to look into the fire again, searching for an answer in the flames. “Kilian is young and strong…Trahern is…older and strong.”

Another Chieftain yelled, “Let Trahern chose a champion!”

The druid priest looked over at the Broadhagh clan warriors. “Let the next clan member of Broadhagh speak out and he will fight Kilian.”

Kilian quickly stood and waited, glaring down at the warriors of the Broadhagh. None rose to speak.

Suddenly Briana jumped out with her knife drawn. She yelled, “I challenge Kilian!”

Kilian laughed with his hands on his hips. “Is this who the Broadhagh clan sends to fight me? A woman?!” He threw his head back and laughed.

Briana swung wildly with her knife and cut Kilian’s arm. He yelled and reached for his knife. Before the clans came to blows the Druid priest thrust his might staff between Kilian and Briana. The priest screamed, “So be it! You have drawn first blood Broadhagh clan. When the moon is full again, you Briana will fight Kilian. When the day is not yet light and not yet dark, you will battle. On the plain of Jasper. To the death! Death for one…or both!” In the flare of the fire, all was set.

On the ride home, Briana’s father was quiet and she knew he was very hurt. Hurt that he was too old to fight, hurt that not one warrior rose up to Kilian. Briana felt very sad for her father. They rode in silence until Briana yelled, “Father, what could I have done?!”

“You could have kept your mouth shut!” He whispered back. “Now I have thirty days left with my only child. I am glad your mother is not here to see the death of all her children.”

“Father, teach me the way of the warrior.”

He pulled his horse sharply up and shouted. “How woman?! The man is ten stones heavier, half again taller, been in many battles and fears no man! What do you have to defeat such a warrior?!”

“I have my wits, a warrior father to show me the way and the blood of a Broadhagh flowing through my veins! You yourself said you had a daughter that was half a man!”

In a calm voice he said, “Half a man could not defeat Kilian.”

The two rode on in silence and Briana thought, since she was sure to die, she should kill herself and another clan warrior could defeat Kilian. It was the only way.

“You do have one thing going for you in a fight with Kilian.” Her father said with a small smile on his face for the first time.

“What is that father?” Briana asked.

“You are a small target.” He laughed and it made Briana feel better to hear her father laugh again.

Briana and her father rode home in silence and when the rest of the clan learned what was settled, all talked in mute voices the rest of the night.

Very early the next morning, before there was light, Briana lay in her bed asleep. A darkened figure silently crept into her bedroom and approached her. Closer and closer the figure moved toward the sleeping Briana. Then the figure paused and slowly raised a darkened object. Suddenly a bucket of water hit Briana in the face and she quickly reached for her knife, anger in her face and voice.

Her father stood with the bucket in his hands and yelled, “You want to become a warrior woman?!”

Every morning before light, Briana was to run to the top of Moeller hill and back. She was to lift heavy stones before breakfast and in the afternoon she was to fight mock battles with men warriors using wooden swords. The men were instructed to show her no mercy in training. For hours in the late afternoon she rode a small light wicker basket chariot around and learned to handle the two wild ponies and throw spears. At night she sat cross legged by the village fires, listening to heroic struggles of great warriors, while she nursed her bumps and bruises from the day’s training.

The week before she was to do battle she was fed only raw meat. The day before her battle she was not spoken to by any member of the clan. The night before her battle she was left alone to find her fighting spirit. Sitting next to an open fire, Briana stared into it, her emotions running wild through her mind and body. She could still kill herself. All would understand. Then a new warrior could come forth and this would be his victorious fate. But she could not kill herself. That was not the way of one chosen. Through the night she stared at the fire flames in hope they would gave her clues of her fate. Finally fell to sleep on the floor. Before light the old women came to her in silence and stripped her naked. With their fingers dipped in stain from berries they painted blue designs over her naked body and face to protect her from harm. Her long auburn hair was cut short and teased up and white lye as put in it to make it stand up in small reddish clumps. She was dressed in he clan’s colors of orange and red plaid clothing. Her father came and brought with him a flat, white breast plate of a whale that was put under Briana’s top. It was tied around her chest to protect her from arrows and spears. Her father had used it in battle and the bone breast plate had saved his life many times. Her small chariot was brought to her and the small ponies were harnessed and made ready for battle. Two spears, a short sword, a knife and shield were put in the chariot for her weapons. Finally, she rode slowly out and away from her village, her father riding at her side, the village people walking behind her in a silent procession.

With the beautiful sun and the green hills, it was a beautiful day to die.

Briana felt strong from all the training, but still her wild emotions controlled her. Along the way her father talked to her to calm her. He too had been in her position many times. She was to fight as long as she could from the chariot. Her riding abilities were perhaps better than Kilian’s. If she had to stand her ground she would always move to her right and not take any of Kilian’s blows straightaway. Her only chance was to outlast him and maybe we would tire and her turn would come.

Her father said, “Keep moving. Make him miss. Do not be afraid to run. He will tire, daughter.”

Up ahead the plain of Jasper could be seen and the slow procession of people with Briana riding at the head, snaked their way up and onto the flat grassy plain. When they reached the area, the Coinneach clan already stood with Killian. They cursed and shouted in loud voice until a circle of both clan members was completed with druid priests separating them. In the center of the plateau of green grass the chief Druid priest stood, at his feet was a small stack of sticks. The sun was rapidly setting, the high gray clouds tinged in pink.

While Briana waited in her chariot, her father walked to the center where the Druid priest and Kilian stood. Kilian too was in his clan colors and blue paint covered his face.

The Druid priest spoke in a solemn whisper, “We have come here to settle matters for once and for all. No clan can help or hinder either warrior in any way. You both will enter and ride around in the circle of people. What happens next is up to those that battle. ” The Druid priest stared down at the pile of small sticks and it magically began to smoke and a small fire started. “When the fire is out, smoke will signal the beginning of the end for someone.” The two men and the Druid priest retuned to the circle of people and waited.

Briana and her father waited nervously, watching the small fire. Far of across the circle they saw Kilian standing, drinking from a skin bottle. Then he walked to a large saddle pack and pulled out the severed heads of Briana’s brothers and held them up so she and her father could see them. The Broadhagh clan members cursed and a great cry went out, some raising their fists. Briana calmed her ponies with the reins at the sound and looked on without displaying emotion.

Briana’s father looked at her, smiled and said, “Good. A great warrior is without emotion daughter.”

The remaining day quickly faded to orange skies and the twilight ruled now. Only the planet Venus visible in the dark sky. In the center of the human circle the small fire dwindled. The flames dwindling lower and lower until a puff of gray smoke wafted up, both clans cheered and lit torches to see in the fading light. Then both clans moved to make a giant circle with only Killian, Briana and their chariots inside.

“Time has come daughter. Remember what I have told you.”

On Kilian’s side he was still drinking and staring across at Briana.

“What is he doing father?’

“Filling himself with spirits, daughter.”

“Good, let him drink. Maybe he will be drunk.”

Briana took his daughter’s hand and looked up into her eyes. Briana looked down and smiled, then leaned down and kissed her father.

Kilian took another drink from the skin bottle, yelled and got up into his chariot. He grabbed a spear and headed out at full speed toward Briana.

“What is he doing? I thought we were to circle in the chariots first? What should I do?”

“Ride to the right! Now!”

Briana headed out to the edge of the circle of people and Kilian rode straight for her trying to cut her off. As he approached at full speed he threw a spear that just misses her.

Kilian swung the chariot around and came to a sliding stop right before Trahern. He pointed his finger and shouted, “Next I will come for you old man!”

Trahern shouted back, “Only as a ghost. I will hang your head with your father’s. Both will make such a lovely pair.”

The two chariots raced around forcing the circle of people to move back and back. Then Kilian turned toward the center and tried to cut Briana off again. When he got close enough he threw another spear that just missed Briana. The chariots raced around the circle throwing up dirt and forcing the circle of people to back up even more. Then the two chariots turned toward each other and raced for the center. Briana took out her spear and Kilian took out a long sword.

One of the Broadhagh clan standing next to Trahern asked, “What is she doing? I thought you told her to circle and not take him head on?”

Trahern did not answer.

The two chariots raced faster and faster toward each other and nothing it seemed could stop them from striking a fatal blow as they passed. Then just as they met, both warriors with raised weapons, the horses sideswiped each other and collided---the chariots and warriors flying in all directions, engulfed in a cloud of dust. The people in the circle, their torches held high, rushed forward and the Druid priest yelled that neither warrior could be helped or touched.

When the dust settled both warriors were motionless on the ground, the chariots were on their sides. Their ponies stood motionless nearby, stunned from the impact. Neither warrior stirred. Slowly Kilian rolled over and tried to stand. His leg was bleeding and he stood at an awkward angle. He looked around, stunned and bewildered. Then he hobbled to his chariot to get another sword and shield. Briana slowly stood and then slumped down on her knees. The cracked whale bone breast plate fell from under her chest to the ground. She too staggered to her chariot to retrieve her spear. Blood covered her face and she wiped it from her eyes to see.

Both warriors moved cautiously toward each other, Kilian with sword and shield, favoring one leg; and Briana crouching low with her spear ready. The warriors circled, Briana jabbing and moving around Kilian as he parried the spear with his shield and swung at her with his sword. Then with one mighty swing Kilian cut off the end of Briana’s spear. Howling in victory he moved forward to strike her, but she stabbed his bad leg with the stick end of her spear.

He yelled in pain as Briana ran back and got another spear. Kilian tried but could not chase her with his injured leg; he stood his ground and waited for her. When Briana turned around to face Kilian, he dropped his shield and dared her to throw it at him.

Briana paused not sure what he was doing.

Again he roared and dared her to throw her spear at him.

She took aim and hurled the spear at him and struck him in the chest.

A cheer erupted from the Broadhagh clan. Kilian staggered backward but then straightened, screamed and pulled the spear from his chest. Now the Coinneach clan cheered.

Briana grabbed her sword and ran at Kilian. He swung wildly at her with his sword as Briana ran under his swing and before Kilian could turn she took her sword with both hands and struck him in the back. He fell to the ground but quickly tried to get up on his hands and knees. With one mighty blow after another she struck at his neck. With each blow the Broadhagh clan members cheered and hollered.

Exhausted, she dropped her sword and reached down and with both hands and raised the severed head of Kilian. She staggered to an overturned chariot and stood on it and held the head high for the Coinneach clan to see. The blood from his severed head flowed down her arm and dripped on her face. Completely spent and covered with blood she staggered back to her side of the circle of people. It was over and she had won. She could see her father, on his knees crying; the first and only time she would see her father cry. When she reached her father she threw the head of Killian on the ground and dropped to her feet next to her father and they both hugged. They cried in each other’s arms like babies. The warriors of the clan reached down and lifted Briana’s limp body up and every man proudly helped carry her home held high above them. Then she was placed in Terrain's bed and again the old women took her and bathed her and tended to her injuries.

She slept in her father’s bed that night as she had when she was a little girl. In the morning when she awoke she found her father sleeping at the foot of the bed on the floor.

From that day forward, until she died, no man or woman talked to Briana of the Broadhagh clan unless she spoke first. That was the way of the warrior.

THE END


© 2007 Michael G. McLaughlin

Bio: In 2005, Michael sold most of his worldly belongings in California, moved to Lake Chapala, Mexico and never looked back. His days are now filled with perfect weather, time to write and Spanish language lessons. OK, maybe a Margarita or two. While a captive in the United States he founded, directed and performed with a small comedy theater, appeared in television commercials and worked in many lackluster jobs to pay the bills. His short stories have appeared or will appear (the wily editors promised) in the Orlando Sentinel newspaper, Barfing Frog Press, Piker Press, The Harrow, Write Side Up and Sun Dog. Presently he performs with an improvisational comedy troupe Spanglish Imposition---The only English speaking troupe between Tijuana and Terra del Fuego. He can be reached at the e-mail address below ... but not promptly. Michael's shorter, lighter-of-spirit (but also Irish at heart) story How the Irish Saved the World appeared in the April 2007 Aphelion.

E-mail: Michael G. McLaughlin

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