The firecircle grows silent as the encompassing darkness of night tightens like a battle drum around them all. Close to the fire, shining in that golden heat, the elders of the village elbow and coax one of their number to stand. He rises like a reluctant jumble of sticks, smiling as the people cheer and drum their feet. As he begins to speak, his audience feel the stars above them vanish and see through his eyes an ancient shore, barely recognizable as their own…
Black, furious tides swept the shores for many weeks before Alisca was born. In the last days of her mother’s long labour, a roaring storm churned the sea and filled the air with water and ash. Her name was Anya – a powerful figure in the village of Farralone since her sixteenth birthday. As Earthmother, she had shown a renowned ability to foretell the seasonal moods of the land and sea. With her mystical cunning guiding the village, Farralone had thrived. But on this night, Mother Nature seemed bent on a terrible rebate. The winds wailed about the huts and slashed the walls of the crannog.
As Alisca filled her lungs with air for the first time, the sky overhead gathered itself into a fist. A shining lightning bolt with streaking arms of yellow sulphur struck the hut. The roof exploded, filling the interior with flying chips of wood and folding the world in upon itself…
Four months later, Alisca had mastered walking and running and it was soon clear to the Firehut elders that she was not destined to follow the Path of the Deer or the Flight of the Sparrow. By the time she was ten years old, her teachers were struggling to keep themselves upright during her wrestling sessions. Her height and agility prompted the Firehut to give her a Fighting Name – ‘Tisoha de Grandal’, which means ‘Tiger In The Tree’.
She mastered body combat and the sword as easily and as quickly as walking. But it was the spear with which she truly excelled. Marking her ground at twice the distance of her teachers, they soon began to stand aside and learn from her about wind and weight. She spoke in a new way about the methods of throwing spears. She taught that the spear is not thrown like a stone, but is made to fly like a bird. And a fighting spear does not fly like other birds. It must know its target; it must hear the heart of its prey on the wind. A fighting spear must be gifted with the spirit of a hawk. It is the task of the warrior who throws the spear to bestow this gift.
In this way, Alisca taught her father and brothers to use the spear to defend their village without ever resorting to the sword. Only during raids of their own was the sword unsheathed and the men who returned all claimed that their swords were thirstier for the lack of use. No woman had ever attended a raid, but on the night before her sixteenth birthday, the Firehut decided that an exception would be made for Alisca. The next raiding party would hold her within its ranks.
Late the following evening, a young Prince halted with twenty horsemen in the meeting glade of the village. A group from the Firehut rode out to meet them. Alisca accompanied them, her red hair tied back from her high cheek bones with a brooch made from willow. Caohimin, the young man riding beside her, had presented it to her that morning. On her back, she carried her Birthspear for the first time. She had been deemed a ‘Spear Ready’ member of her clan, ready to defend her village.
The Prince approached alone with his weapons tackle left in the care of his lieutenant and his chest bared, as was the custom when demonstrating peaceful intent. He presented a gift of fresh red apples to the head of the Firehut, a man named Finbar, Alisca’s father. In return, he graciously drank cold water from a gourd filled from the village wells. Only then did the young man speak.
“With the permission of your elders, I wish to ride through your village. My destination is the next village down the coast, a village named Inniscraigh.”
The elders remained silent. With his intention stated plainly, they waited for him to introduce himself, as was the custom.
“My name is Prince Oisin, a nephew of your King. The coastal regions have fallen silent. I have been tasked by the King to discover the truth behind tales of a terrible invading force. I have been sent to find the invaders strength, if they exist. My command and I have ridden hard for two weeks before arriving here…” He swept his arm in an awkward ceremonial manner that made Alisca smile under her hood. “… in the meeting glade of Farralone, between the ancient twin forests of Allias and Menerale. Many great stories are told in our courts of your warriors’ bravery and of your Elders’ wisdom. I beg you to accede to my request.”
(The King was wise and fond of his nephew. He had ordered him, in the event of meeting superior forces, to fall back immediately and return with at least half his troop intact. In this way the King hoped that the courageous young gelding would not commit to open battle and lose his first command and his precious head before the court could hear his tale. Oisin elected not to relate this to the local people.)
Finbar stepped forward. “We commend the young Prince for his courtesy and honour. The King is wise and untroublesome and, although distant, we are his loyal subjects and have always acceded to his call to arms.”
The young Prince smiled but Alisca could tell he was not sure how to take these words. She knew her father well – he was teasing the young man and she felt her heart go out to him in his discomfort. She hoped her father would not keep this up.
“However, I am afraid that I cannot let you and your men pass…”
The Prince froze. Alisca winced.
“… without providing rest and food for you and your command. You have travelled a great distance in a short time.”
The Prince beamed, greatly relieved but Alisca bit her lip as he suddenly spoke out of turn. “I thank you kindly for you generous offer but we – …”
“I insist on hearing more about this dark shadow you hunt. And if you are to meet this new enemy, you and your command must be rested. I insist.”
The custom was old and simple – to insist was to invite insult if the offer was spurned. Her father had cornered the young Prince. But to his credit, he barely blinked before replying. “We gladly accept your offer. Allow me to lead my men to your dwellings.”
Alisca decided this Prince would go far.
The Firehut was greatly disturbed by the news of an unknown enemy so close to their homeland. They led the Prince and his men back to the village, trailing their horses through the long grass and listening as the Prince told them all he knew of the attacks.
Alisca dismissed the strange fluttering in her chest as she caught glimpses of Prince Oisin. She had seen handsome men before; in fact there were many graceful men in the village, equally tanned and tall. Although he and Caohimin, her best friend since before she could remember, had much the same broad shoulders, Caohimin’s eyes were more candid and he lacked the rough bristles growing around this visitor’s mouth. Despite this, she still thought it very strange that while the Prince spoke of very grave matters, his voice made her feel like laughing.
Beside her, Caohimin felt a seam of jealousy burst out in his heart. He could not believe what he was witnessing. He had loved Alisca all his life – silently, passionately – and had fought with her many times, but now her eyes where captivated in this stranger’s face. All he could do was watch and twist the reins of his dim-witted horse.
The Firehut insisted on sending a raiding party under ‘Peacebranch’ terms into the Inniscraigh headland to help find this new enemy. The Prince would enforce the Peacebranch truce and join the three forces under one command. They would set out the following morning under a joint flag….
To Be Continued…. PART II