Part III: The Finale
After a moment of anguish, Alisca realised that her father was only using his knife to cut his saddlebags and blankets from his horse. ‘There is no time for looking back at what might have been, young lord.’ He barked. ‘Farralone has stood for generations and it will not face this foe without a valid defence. You must go and warn the King.’
Finbar turned to his men. ‘Prepare your horses for the return journey. Drop any provisions, blankets and spare clothing you have. I intend to defy the Fates and be back in Farralone before daybreak.’
The Prince spoke quietly, his shirt still open. ‘Sir, it would be more prudent to wait for the Kings’ war machines to arrive before engaging this enemy…’
Finbar interrupted him. ‘I have no intention of defending Farralone; I plan to evacuate it.’
These words caused immediate dismay among his fellow villagers. The price for abandoning a village defence and emptying its homesteads was the drifting life of refugees. They would join the Scattered; their Stories would die.
While Finbar argued with the elders in his group, Alisca watched the Prince solemnly withdraw and prepare to leave with his men. Somehow she knew that if he returned to the mountains now, she would never see him again. She found herself dismounting and walking towards him, regretting all the distance she had kept from him.
His men spotted her approach and backed away. ‘Will you not return with us to Farralone? If we are too late, we will need your men and your cunning to aid in the evacuation.’
The Prince smiled so sadly that her heart lurched. ‘My duty. My devotion to the King. Your father has released me from my folly. Now I must consider my orders. I must return with confirmation of the invasion.
‘I will never forget you. And I will return for you at the head of a mighty army. I will seek you out.’ He held her hand to his cheek. ‘I promise.’
She stared at the devastation below as he bade farewell to Finbar and the others. When she turned back to ready her horse, her tears had dried and the Prince had gone.
Soon Alisca and the men of Farralone were driving their horses towards home. Finbar gave the mounts and their riders no respite. They had ridden hard to get to Inniscraigh in a day and a night, now he would sacrifice them all to return home before the black smoke began to rise above their beloved home. They battled their exhausted horses and their own fatigue throughout the night. Shouting encouragement and curses to each other, they crashed out of the Teacht Forest and urged their foaming mounts across the River Dorsa. All of them kept a sweat-ridden vigil on the brightening skies ahead for the first plumes of smoke.
They arrived to see the enemy vessel move into the bay. As Alisca watched, the very first fireball rose in silence from its tulip-shaped tower. The projectile climbed into the cloudless morning sky like a burning star before plummeting into the harbour wall. The detonation sent timbers and exploding boats soaring and tumbling through the air. Screams of panic echoed up the valley.
Finbar reined the group to a halt. ‘Caohimin! You have command of the group. Start pulling the entire village population out into the forest tree line.’ Caohimin nodded and, with a short hand signal, he split them up into four bands. They disappeared into the crannog.
Finbar held back two village elders and his daughter. Their horses were the freshest and still capable of a short gallop. ‘We must make for the beach. That is where our Spear-Readies will be making their stand. We must order them to retreat.’ He glanced at the sky, filled with fire and whistling wreckage. ‘Follow me, if you dare!’
Without another word, he heeled his snorting horse towards the sands. His daughter dug her heels into the flanks of her staggering horse and followed.
Soon the entire harbour area was sizzling in the water. The bombardment had walked forward and fireballs now sailed into the village buildings within the crannog. Alisca had never dreamed of such destruction. Smoke billowed around and the air crackled and screamed with fireballs.
They dismounted in the dunes of Farralone. The beach was a long golden stretch of sand, bound by chest-high surf and tall dunes. In between, the seaward crannog wall was now bright with flames. Finbar found the village defenders lurking in deep trenches close to the breaking surf. Round, white-eyed faces stared up as Alisca and the others leapt in. Finbar ordered everyone to fall back to the village outskirts.
But even as he ordered the retreat, a lookout called a stark warning. Everyone peered over the trenches to see several tall warriors stepping out of the surf. They wore strange metal helmets and heavy black and red shielding about their bodies. Seawater drained from their armour as more emerged behind them from beneath the rolling breakers. The defenders had been expecting boats to be launched from the enemy vessel, but these beasts had walked the seabed, under the cover of the waves, to emerge on shore. They drew long swords of thick metal. They were ready to fight.
Before Finbar could wet his lips to speak, three young brothers burst forward and engaged the first wave of attackers. Like waves breaking upon rocks, these boys dashed themselves against the unblinking giants. In a few moments their brave cries turned to cries of agony. Their swords broke in two against the steel of their adversaries. The beasts swiped at them with twice the reach of their weapons. Blood sprayed the sand. The youngest of the brothers found himself alone amongst the enemy with the blood of his brothers foaming at his feet. He turned to run, but was cut down mercilessly by a sword thrust to the back of the head.
The defenders began a vicious running battle to retreat. The remains of their ancestral home now burned and spat in a blazing inferno, filling the valley with dirty smoke. Dozens of attackers had now marched out of the sea. The defenders roared battle songs and paired off to protect each other as they made a bloody, hopeless retreat up the beach.
With the flaming ruins of their village approaching at their backs, they found their aggressors flanking them on both sides. They fought even more ferociously. Encirclement had become imminent.
Alisca’s sword broke at the grip and she drew her Birthspear, using its extra length to parry her attacker. Fighting back to back with her father, a strange calm enveloped her. At first, she believed it was her mind preparing to die. But soon she noticed that she and her father were beginning to make some headway against the horde around them. She began to slice through her opponents with relish. Her Birthspear released sparks with each strike and she could feel a strange warmth within her grip. Her arms spun like the wings of a humming bird.
The longswords of the enemy shattered against its shaft. Helmets and armored limbs began to gather on the sands behind her. She noticed time around her slowing to a dream-like crawl. As if moving through waist-high water, her attackers drew towards her. She found acres of space beneath their guards. She delivered cutting blows and slices with precision and awesome power. She lost herself in a dance of death.
In horror, Finbar turned to watch his young daughter dancing with her Birthspear in amongst the pressing enemy, a grim smile on her lips. Dark blood rained on her face and shoulders.
“Rally! Rally! Rally!”
His remaining men merged together behind Alisca, covering her back and making a desperate arrow formation aimed for the burning village where Finbar hoped they could break contact.
As they approached the broken crannog walls, Alisca began to tire. She could see the enemy had turned their full attention upon her. Her Birthspear had begun to hum and flicker in her hands. Its kinetic energy was surging from a well, a center-point, deep inside her. She was not the source; she was only the conduit. But this horrible horde was endless. Their sheer weight of numbers would match her reserves of energy soon. Already her arms and shoulders ached in red flashes.
Her steps faltered. Time began to expand, regaining its original form and consistency. The cries and clash of metal began to leak into the silence. She began to see again the blood-soaked nightmare in which she was embroiled. Fear blossomed in her chest like a dark flower. She lunged at an attacker but lost her balance. “Father!” She cried, tumbling to the ground.
Her father fell to one knee beside her, flourishing his broken sword at the encircling invaders. She heard his ragged voice call up to the heavens: “Anya! We come!”
There came a roar like thunder. From behind the dwindling defenders, the Prince’s troop sprang from the smoke and ploughed their war-horses into the front rank of the surrounding enemy, driving them back with their weight and surprise. The soldiers were in full line-abreast formation and charging at speed. Their horses reared up and crushed the warriors into the sand with their hooves. The men began to carve away at the heads and shoulders of the enemy. In the middle of the broiling throng, the Prince himself could be seen, slashing with his sword. He looked up long enough to roar at the villagers to withdraw.
The defenders broke for the burning cover ahead, but Alisca turned her head to watch the Prince. There beyond in the shallow waters of the bay, the Doomsday vessel was closing on the shoreline. She hauled her father to a stop and pointed. The ship was moving into the shallows. It seemed intent on erasing the defenders from the beach with its mighty weapon. The tower, soaring high into the sky, began to glow… Alisca hefted her spear. The shaft was radiant now as if made of glass or crystal. It was throbbing in unison with the bulb at the tower’s summit. With sudden clarity, she knew what to do. After a moment, Finbar understood.
He called the remaining defenders back and they formed a tight cordon on the beach ahead of the young woman. The horsemen were retreating now with terrible losses. They joined the confused line, arraying about a space before Alisca of about ten man-sticks. She had only a few seconds to prepare herself. Between the white smoke billowing from the village, she could see the vessel and its pulsing tower. She smiled. Here was death right back into their belly. She had twenty paces of clear sand ahead, but it was draining fast as the urgent battle raged like a beast around her. She lifted her Birthspear and began her throwing run. Serenity again descended on her like a cloak. Time slowed to the heartbeat of the Ages. She raced forward through the silence and arched her arm behind her. The bright, throbbing spear-tip lay close to her ear, ready to whisper its secret message.
She saw an enemy break through the cordon. He raised his longsword ahead of her and stood directly in her path. Determined but defenceless, she accelerated. Caohimin suddenly burst across her path on his horse. The warrior turned in surprise and desperately swung. Caohimin grabbed the sword and seemed to press it to his breast. The sword sank deep into his embrace and blood clouded the air. Her friend, his horse and the warrior crumpled to the ground together with bone-crunching finality.
Alisca turned her head to find her release point at her feet. She uttered a blood-curdling roar of pain and loss and thrust the spear high into the air: clean and true. Even as her eyes blurred with tears, they remained locked on the enemy tower.
The spear sailed into the ravaged sky, carried on the wind of Alisca’s grief and glowing like a setting sun. Her cry followed it into the heavens. At its hawk-high apogee, it vanished completely from sight.
A cataclysmic concussion filled the air. A lightning bolt, streaked with purple and yellow fingers, sprang from the vault above and hammered the top of the enemy tower. It quivered like the string of a bow and grew pregnant with light. It seemed to drink in the lightning from the sky, sucking it into the belly of the ship. Effervescent flames crisscrossed the bay. With the sound of squealing metal, the vessel itself turned a brilliant blinding white. The villagers could see its afterimage against the water. The final explosion was almost a relief when it came, showering the whole valley with tiny fires.
There was no time to react before a boiling wall of water folded onto the beach and wrenched everyone into its grasp. Alisca tried to find the surface but a heavy blow from spinning timber brought her blessed relief from her struggles.
Alisca woke to find the Prince staring down, worry adding to the blood and grief on his face. She lay on a litter, deep in the cool air of the forest. Around her the villagers bustled, caring for the wounded and preparing the dead.
It took time to find her voice. ‘What happened?’
‘Prince Oisin would not rest until he had found you.’
She turned to see her father lying next to her, his arms bandaged. ‘You were unconscious, pale and barely alive, high up from the shore. He was able to rescue only a few defenders from the water.’
The Prince took over. His voice trembled with reverence. ‘His band saved most of the villagers before he had leapt onto his horse and raced towards the sea, crying your name. We found his body, clinging to the warrior he tarried. He saved us all. He will be remembered in song.’
Alisca lifted her head. ‘What about the others?’
‘Only five of my men survived. We found several invaders. We’ve kept only one alive. Nothing of their vessel could be found.’
‘What are we doing now?’
Her father spoke. ‘Now? Now we must prepare to move on. Our valley and shoreline have devastated by the battle and the destruction. We must travel into the forest to find a new destiny.’
‘No!’ Alisca sat up in her litter and raised her voice. The villagers around her stopped to listen. ‘To leave now means defeat. After all that had been sacrificed. After all that had been saved. To leave now means joining the Scattered. If we leave now, we will die as surely as if the enemy had slit our throats one by one, like lambs.’
The Prince helped her drink some water and she continued. ‘I promise the fish will return. I promise you all that the land will recover and grow again. Let tomorrow be a new day for our village, not the first day of our forlorn wanderings. The Stories of our village have not finished, I say. No. All we did today was add a new one to their store and wealth.’
‘But the shore line is gone,’ came a voice.
Alisca smiled. ‘Give the tide a chance to recover its balance.’
Others raised their voices but even more were looking back towards the sea. The Prince listened to Alisca beginning to guide her people. He saw a woman now, not a young girl. He marvelled at how the battle had changed her. She was their leader, their new Earthmother. She had restored Order after Chaos.
His lieutenant appeared at his side and they stepped away from the others. ‘The prisoner has been trussed and tied, my lord as you ordered. What are your orders?’
‘Are the men ready to depart?’
His man was excited. ‘Yes, my lord. The horses presented to us by the villagers are of an excellent breed. Our provisions have been stored. Glory awaits us in court my lord. We won a glorious battle.’
‘We won nothing. We only survived, Patrick.’
‘Yes, sir. Of course.’ His eyes flickered at Alisca as she ordered shelter to be erected in the trees. ‘Shall I give the sally order, sire?’
The Prince listened to the trees and breathed the salty sea air. He loved this place. But duty lay upon his shoulders like an iron bar. He was from another world.
Alisca must have felt his stare. She turned to look at him and they shared a gaze which spoke of everything between them, everything separating them. She smiled at him in the speckled tree light and then turned back to her father. They were both bound to their duty now.
The prince led his waiting lieutenant towards their horses. ‘Yes. Mount up. We depart at once. And get me my maps. I want to re-write them. We must mark this place with its new name.’