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Theodric's Regret

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The season had turned, and warm summer had fallen to cool nights and frosty mornings, the sun’s glow dimming with each passing day as they came closer to the start of winter. Mist rolled down from the mountains, covering the land in a blanket of white fog, like the steam that rose from a roaring fire, making everything cold and quiet, softening the rough edges of the now barren trees. The darach Theodric pulled his cloak a little tighter around his shoulders, the hood already casting his face in shadows as he stamped his feet on the hard ground to bring a little more warmth into them.

He looked up, taking his eyes from the fading embers of the small fire and glancing around at the charred wooden stakes and crumbling stone buildings that were scattered around the ruined settlement. The outer palisade had fallen long ago, and now the remaining structures were at the mercy of the elements. Theodric stood up fully, his fingers tapping the bags attached to his belt lightly, as though reminding himself that they were there. He frowned as a sound reached his ears, one hand quickly darting to the dagger on his other side. “Hmm?”

“Oh.” The darach relaxed when the noise revealed itself to be a rabbit hopping slowly across the carpet of charcoal chips that was once the wall of the half-collapsed stables he had taken refuge in for the night. He dismissed the animal’s presence and instead walked across the abandoned village towards the large stone altar that dominated the space in front of what had been the Chieftain’s roundhouse. It still had a dull, bone-white sheen, the dark stains of blood and other fluids not washed away by the many seasons that had passed since the living worked their magic over its surface. “This is it.”

Theodric drew a deep breath and slipped his hand into a secret pocket in his black robes, pulling out a small, square, wooden box that Iordáin had made for him. The darach looked down at it, tracing his thumb over the warmth of the wood before he nodded and placed it on the stone altar, pulling off the lid as he did so. Theodric moistened his lips, hearing the whispering moans and sighs of the long dead around him raised into louder cries and protests. “Be still, now, I am returning him to you.”

The darach reached out a hand, gritting his teeth when he felt his fingers become suddenly chilled, the bones aching along his fingers and into his forearm. “I come before you, spirits of this battle-scarred place, to ask that you make room among your scattered bones for a druid of great and mighty power! His deeds echo throughout the Northern and Southern lands on the tongues of travellers, and the voices of storytellers and singers alike. Stiles came from this village; and its destruction was what sparked the flame of justice that burned within him until at last he gained retribution for all who died here!”

Theodric paused as the spirits stopped their endless chittering and he looked carefully left and right as the shadowy spectres made themselves manifest, gathering around the altar in an eerie recreation of how they would have once worshipped. He cleared his throat and raised his hands above his head. “This great druid was my friend and firmest ally, a hero of valor and honor who sacrificed himself so that all who died in service to the destruction of the dread-sorcerer Findabair would be recalled from death. I place a part of his ashes here so that all of his kin may now pass into the peaceful embrace of the Otherworld and haunt this place no longer. An chuid eile i síocháin.

The final words were whispered and Theodric shivered as he felt the magic take hold; a howling gale flooded in from the direction of the ocean to wash against the side of his body and send the trailing wisps of black cloth of his cloak fluttering to and fro. It swept through the village, the unnatural wind tracing fingers of ice across his face, but the darach closed his eyes and let it pass through him. There was a collective sigh from the gathered spirits and Theodric looked back at the altar, his lips parting in surprise as the wooden box with Stiles’ ashes began to peel apart and vanish into thin air. The druid’s remains were taken into the wind and Theodric smiled, a sense of peace filling him as warmth returned to his body. “It is done, my friend. Now, to return south, the ritual of Samhain is almost upon us and your apprentice is still not quite prepared!”

Theodric turned to leave, going still a moment later as a strange sensation caused him to glance quickly over his shoulder. The village was as lifeless at it had always looked, and the darach frowned after he felt the skin on the back of his neck prickle uncomfortably. “Hmm, these northern winds…” He shrugged and gathered his cloak tighter around his body, not reassured that it was nature at work in the ruins of Stiles’ birthplace.

 

Korey wiped the sweat from his brow as the sound of hammers smashing onto red-hot metal echoed around him. He looked critically at the axe blade that had been put in front of him, turning it over and back with his tongs, before glancing up at the eager expression of one of the younger smiths. “Hmm.”

“What is wrong with it?”

“The head is too thin here.” Korey pointed, and then gestured at the other smiths working the forges around them. “See? You’ve beaten the metal out too much and there’s not enough to make a hole for the haft to go through. Try and wield an axe like that and you would be fortunate that it did not fly off on its first use!”

“Sorry, master smith.” The shirtless youth hung his head dejectedly, but Korey forced a smile and clapped him on his shoulder.

“Do not concern yourself with the mistake, Oisín, simply learn from it.” The smith picked up the misshapen axe head with the tongs and carried it back to the forge, casting it inside to lie on the fires. “Let it heat up again and reforge it. Make a nice thick blade and heavy head, so that if it needs a keener edge, we can beat it out later, understand? Better to have too much iron than too little, hmm?”

“Yes, master smith.”

“I’ve told you to call me Korey a dozen times now!” He smiled as Oisín gave him a sheepish grin. “Good. Has your sister returned from foraging? I need to speak with her about the torc she asked for.”

“Oh good, Goll will be back from his trading with the far southern clans in a few days and she wants to use the torc to make her offering.” Oisín replied eagerly, looking to one side as Iordáin entered the forge. The youth pulled his gaze back down to his hammer when the hunter greeted Korey with a raised hand.

“I’ll go with you in a moment, Iordáin.” Korey nodded, reaching out to touch Oisín’s arm, fingers grazing along smooth, hard muscle until the other smith lifted his eyes to meet Korey’s own. “Keep trying, it took me many seasons to reach the level of skill I have now, and much of that was making mistakes along the way. With all the craftsmen here, you’ll be a master smith by the time of the next Beltaine! I will find you later, Oisín, agreed?”

“I’ll meet you by the cliff’s edge before dusk.” He nodded and offered Korey another smile before turning back to his work.

Korey gestured for Iordáin to leave and the two of them stepped out of the heat of the forge and into the cooler air of the tunnel that ran from the heart of the mountain up to the surface. The hunter didn’t speak until they were midway up the tunnel and the sound of hammers had faded away, “He has great affection for you, you know?”

“Oisín?” Korey arched a brow at his friend’s tone and shrugged. “I have noticed some things he has done and said.”

“Hmm, Theodric would tell you to not wait around, if our darach was here, of course.” Iordáin smiled to himself as Korey’s cheeks flushed, the light from a nearby torch throwing his face into illumination. “Indeed, when he returns from Scotti’s clan in a few days hence, I may have to say something to him!”

“Iordáin…” Korey groaned and cast him an exasperated glance once they left the tunnel and emerged into the cold, wintery air. “Oisín and I…there is not even an ‘and’ to speak of! Besides, you would cast my affections off so easily?!”

“Hardly,” The hunter nudged him and directed them towards the stony path that lead out of the village and further up the mountain. “But I have noticed that you join with myself and Theodric less and less. After the frantic desires you gave into on our victory over Findabair, I welcomed such relief for a while. But now, I worry for you.”

“Don’t.” Korey muttered, his cheeks heating again as he thought back to those first few days after the battle, after Stiles had… He shook his head furiously to stop his mind going to that place of sorrow. Instead he looked at Iordáin with a scowl, “It was not as if we were the only ones celebrating; the armies just about made it back across the Divide before Íosác was stripping off and his warriors were fucking anything that moved!”

“Celebrating!” Iordáin grinned. “It was a victory, Korey, even with the druid’s sacrifice.”

“Huh.” Korey walked away from him as they stopped on the gravelly rise above the village. He kicked a stone from the well-trodden path with a grunt, watching it sail out over the edge and disappear from sight. His hand unconsciously dropped to his waist, grasping the handle of the dagger sheathed there. Korey glanced at Iordáin when the hunter moved up beside him. “What?”

“You still haven’t taken it out.” He pointed at the weapon. “Not since Theodric gave it to you after Stiles’ body was burned to ash.”

“Do not remind me.”

“Theodric said that Stiles wanted you to have it.” Iordáin continued. “That it was the druid’s dying wish; I do not think he desired for you to merely hold onto it, but to use it. Perhaps there is-”

“Stop!” Korey glared at him, feeling tears prick the back of his eyes. He blinked them away furiously. “There was no reason for him to do that; I barely knew Stiles. He was our druid, a powerful magic user, that is all.”

“He was a hero. He rescued you from the werewolves that lived in the Otherworld.” Iordáin replied sharply. “A feat like that alone would have earned him fame and stories; but he made a pact with the gods, he destroyed the greatest enemy any have faced since the Tuatha Dé Danann themselves walked among us! Do not dismiss him out of hand, Korey.”

“I’m not.” The smith sighed and took his hand off the blade’s handle. He unbuckled the dagger and pulled it away from his belt, holding it by the sheath. “Stiles saved me so many times, but I don’t understand why he cared so much. I don’t know why he wanted me to have his dagger; he told me himself that it wasn’t magical.”

“Perhaps it carries a different meaning?” Iordáin suggested.

“Maybe…” Korey murmured. He looked at the well-stitched leather scabbard, shrugging as he clasped the handle and drew the blade. “Finely made, but-”

Ahhhhhhh….

A ghostly whisper whirled around them, carried on the mountain winds as the two men looked at each other, before turning away from the cliff to look up at the craggy rock stretching above them. Korey rotated the dagger slowly and his eyes widened when the runes along the golden blade burned with a startling green fire. He almost dropped the weapon in alarm when he heard the whisper again.

Korrrrreyyyy!

“Did you…”

“Yes!” Iordáin nodded quickly and they both twisted back to the cliff’s edge, swallowing hard as a transparent figure hung in the air before them, a smile playing about familiar lips. “By the gods!”

“It cannot be!”

 

“Ahhh!” Liam stretched, eyes opening to see the warm, morning sunshine peeking through the interlaced boughs of the trees above him. They formed a lattice across the ceiling of the natural housing the River Clans lived in, the days always sunny and warm, favor granted by close affinity with the Aes Sídhe who lived in the great forest surrounding the river. He rolled onto his back, a smile touching his lips as he felt his muscles tense and then relax, his naked skin rubbing against the soft blankets underneath him. Crusty white stains dusted his stomach and naval, castoff from the previous night’s revelry and pleasure, though an exploratory finger trailed between his thighs, under his smooth ball sac, and up into his still-moist butt crack proved that not all of the manly seed had spilled from his well-fucked hole.

He thrust the finger inside himself with ease, grunting when the action made his morning hardness tense and quiver in front of him. Liam moaned softly, recalling the passion and erotic delights of the night before. While he had been with the River Clan since the season’s turn towards Samhain, and indulged in the pleasures of the flesh before, this had been a singular night. The night when several of the clan’s youths became men and received their special gift from the Chieftain; Íosác’s magic tongue was almost as much fun to watch in action as it had been when he used it on Liam.

They had moaned and shivered and spurted their essence as Íosác licked and sucked and played with their at first tight puckers, and then later, their loosened holes had opened to him, providing endless pleasure for all who witnessed the erotic feat. Liam grasped the shaft of his cock as the next set of memories came to him; Íosác had looked at him, had attested to the strength of the Guardians of the Nemeton Clan and the prowess that they carried within. He had invited Liam to pass that gift of strength and courage onwards to the new men of the River Clans, and the warrior had quickly agreed, moving from mere watcher to slipping his engorged cock into the wet tightness of the first man and filling his ass with his seed as the youth panted and yelled his pleasure. Others had taken the rest of the newly made men as Íosác watched with a smile playing around his lips, waving them away once their cream had been unloaded into the willing holes.

“Mmh!” Liam moaned softly, his hand working up the shaft and across his precum-slick head, smearing the slippery substance around the sensitive tip before resuming the pumping motion. His eyes fluttered, and his asshole clenched tight around the fingers of his left hand as his mind’s eye replayed the memory of Íosác getting down on his stomach again, magic tongue at the ready. Liam increased his pace, his chest tightening as his heart pounded; the sight of Íosác once again eating out the recently filled and then sharing the loads in a series of sloppy kisses had made Liam come undone with ease the evening before. The mere memory of it was enough to send him over the edge and the warrior grunted loudly as his cock shook in his hand and arcs of cum fired out, splattering across his chest and stomach. “Ugh!”

Liam stood up after a moment of hard breathing and waited for his heart to stop racing. He made his way carefully across the house, stepping around the sleeping clan-members and smirking towards Íosác, seeing the Chieftain surrounded by his naked lovers. “Haha,” Liam laughed quietly at the sight, before pushing back the entrance flap and jumping across the stream that ran along the front of the Chieftain’s home. He strolled through the village, nodding at those who were awake, grinning at those who were enjoying their morning stiffness with one another, and picking up the scattered pieces of his clothing that he had cast off during the previous evening’s festivities.

Even before Íosác’s gifts had been presented to the new men of the clan, Liam had been enjoying himself, as was the way of the River Clan. Their strong and blessed-by-the-gods fishermen had agreed to share him amongst themselves in return for sword practice that afternoon. To them, it had not seemed like such a good bargain for the handsome warrior, but Liam relished each chance he got to be filled with cock and cum, taking mindless pleasure whenever he could take it. He smirked to himself as he saw the same trio of handsome, young fishermen set out from the nearby shore, their naked bodies making his cock twitch again and his hole clench needily. “Ah, that reminds me…”

 

Once his body was clean and his crotch covered by short pants, Liam picked up his sword, shield, and long spear from the clan’s small and unused forge. He nodded at the nearby group of boys who were practicing throwing their spears into the water to catch the fish that swam close to shore. “I am off to the forest, should the Chieftain be looking for me. You will tell him?”

“Yes!”

“Can we come with you?!”

“Not today,” Liam shook his head, smirking at their disappointed expressions. “Tomorrow perhaps, but only if you all catch a fish today. Practice your throwing, build up your strength, and show me your determination!”

“We will.” They chorused together. “Farewell, Liam!”

“Hehe.” The warrior chuckled to himself and set off into the forest. He walked through the always-green trees towards the grove where he practiced his sword and shield techniques, refusing to just give in to the life of pleasure and entertainment that Íosác had provided for him. “Not if another Findabair comes, or the feral wolves, or any other such threats.” Liam muttered grimly and placed his weapons on the forest floor next to a satchel of food and his waterskin.

Liam unsheathed his sword, eyes lingering on the fine craftsmanship of the iron blade. He knew it had come from the Mountain Clan, though he often wondered if it was a sword that Korey had made. The warrior began to work through the forms of his training, using both his hands to grip the weapon, slashing and cutting through the air, turning swiftly and ducking as his mind provided him with images of the terrible battle they fought to defeat Findabair. “Argh!” He shouted out, startling nearby birds as he buried the blade into a tree trunk.

Sweat rolled down his naked torso, muscles aching as he switched from sword to spear and back again to sword and shield, his training continuing as the sun rose ever higher in the pleasantly warm sky. Liam danced around the clearing, his weapons taking chunks from the trees and scoring furrows along the earth. He continued until his stomach growled loudly and Liam finally dropped his sword and shield next to a fallen tree. The warrior pulled his meal of mead and fish and bread towards himself and began to eat, chest rising and falling as he recovered both strength and breath, his mind no longer filled with the sights and sounds of the past battle.

A whisper filled the forest, the magic on the air not disturbing Liam, used as he was to the Fae being near. Though they never approached him, Íosác had told him that sightings of the Aes Sídhe were more common in the winter as they tended to their forest and cared for the animals that lived within. He continued to eat for a moment longer until the ghostly sighs sounded closer. “Huh?”

Awwwww!

Liam reached for his sword, holding it loosely in one hand. “Who’s there? Show yourself!”

Hmmmm?!

“Argh! Forest ghosts!” Liam yelped and dropped his sword, diving over to hide behind the fallen trunk as the air shimmered and tore apart in front of him. He squeezed his eyes shut to block the ethereal spectre from his vision, but when he slowly raised his head to peep over the tree, the apparition was still there. “Aed protect me!”

“Come forth, you have nothing to fear, warrior.” The faded, translucent spirit turned to him and Liam frowned, recognition dawning over his face. “Good, come closer.”

“Um,” Liam stood up, watching the ghostly visage of the druid as he smiled encouragingly at the warrior. “Stiles?”

“It is I. Or at least, what is left.” The druid laughed, gesturing for Liam to resume his seat. “Tell me, Liam, have you enjoyed your time among the River Clans?”

“Um, yes?”

“And have you yet had your fill of cum? Has the fire that burns within been quenched by the many pleasures that the River Clan can offer?” Stiles continued, his piercing eyes locked onto Liam’s rapidly flushing cheeks. “Or do you still yearn for a certain master of metal and flame?”

“Korey?!” Liam stood up quickly, his fear and embarrassment flashing away in a sudden haze of concern. “What has happened to him? Tell me!”

“Calm yourself, warrior.” The ghostly spectre of Stiles turned away from him and waved one hand in the air. Instead of the view of the trees and distant mountains that were on that side of the clearing, Liam was able to see a great body of water, waves turning to white foam as they crashed against the rocks that lined the shore, several of which reached high into the sky to form a giant fist.

There was water as far as he could see, the sun glinting off the surface in a startling blue, and along the long vast, stretching shoreline was a familiar figure staring out into the far distance, his left hand gripping a hammer, while something red and wet was clutched in his other hand. The image shimmered, and Liam was suddenly closer to Korey. He grimaced when he saw that the smith was holding a split and ruptured heart in his right hand, bright red blood pooling around his feet.

“Ah!” Liam pulled his eyes away and stared at the ground until the vision faded. “What was that?!”

“Go forth to the ocean, to the great sea at the edge of the world.” The druid intoned ominously as his ghostly figure began to disappear from view, like wind blowing salt from a table. “In three days hence, you will find the master smith Korey at the place I have shown you. Three days, Liam, he will be there…”

“Wait!” Liam cried out as the druid faded from view and he was left alone in the clearing. “Stiles, wait! Wait!”

 

“Where’s the Chieftain?!” Liam called out as he raced back into the village. He threw his weapons down next to the group of boys training with their spears. “Where’s Íosác?”

“Uh, I think he hasn’t risen yet.” One of them offered and Liam nodded furiously, sprinting away from them.

“Thank you!” The warrior called out as he dodged around the other members of the clan and leaped over the various streams that criss-crossed the village and fed out into the wider river that the settlement was built along. Liam took the steps up to Íosác’s house three at a time and propelled himself into the large structure woven naturally around the biggest tree in the village. “Íosác!”

“I am here.”

“Oh…I can…see that.” Liam stopped, breathless as his eyes took in the sight of the Chieftain lying in the middle of the room on a pile of furs, his legs spread apart as Big Donn, the girthiest of the River Clans’ many fishermen was buried inside him. Íosác’s own cock was equally well lodged inside one of the River Maidens, the female warriors of the clan. Liam swallowed hard and walked inside slowly as he felt his cock swell in his pants. It must have been obvious because Íosác grinned at his crotch and gestured for him to join them. “Err, I have no time. I must speak with you urgently.”

“Surely it can wait until after this, though?” Íosác arched a brow at him and clenched his butt cheeks, forcing Big Donn deeper inside him and the River Maiden to bounce more energetically on Íosác’s cock. “If you will not join us, at least watch and enjoy it!”

“I suppose it would be a shame to let such an ideal opportunity to go to waste.” Liam muttered and stripped off his pants. He lay down close to the trio and fondled his now fully erect cock, eyes wandering over Íosác’s tensed muscles and the well-endowed fisherman’s thick cock as it speared the Chieftain’s willing hole. Liam spared a glance or two for the woman though her body did not interest him, he still admired the way Íosác’s cock slotted into her, and the slapping of their flesh together was an enjoyable sound to contrast against the high moans and loud grunting of their pleasure.

“Mmh, ride him harder!” Liam groaned, nodding at the River Maiden when she looked at him with lust-heavy eyes. He grinned when she leaned back, her hands caressing Íosác's chest and stomach, Liam's eyes following along as her fingers teased the Chieftain's hard nipples. Íosác raised his hands too, one arm stretched out straight to grasp Liam's cock, prompting the warrior to groan in pleasure. His other hand reached under their grinding bodies to drive the River Maiden's movements up and down on his cock with greater speed.

"Ah!" Liam moaned, Íosác's hand managing to pull such pleasure from him as he usually only got from a talented mouth on his cock. He shuffled closer, watching with increased interest as more of Íosác's cock was pulled inside the woman.

“Ah! Ah! Ah! Yes!” Her cries grew louder, and higher, needy fingers reaching out to touch flesh and have her own grasped in return. Íosác's hands moved upwards, across a tight stomach and reaching for the bouncing breasts and their large, sensitive nipples. She moaned loudly when his fingers grasped her there, Liam taking over the work on his cock as Íosác gave the River Maiden his full attention. “Yes! Yes! More! Harder!” She bounced up and down, moving back and forth as Big Donn finished with a grunt, the fisherman barely missed when he pulled out, the Chieftain so focused on the waves of pleasure that came from his own cock. Íosác was able to lay fully on his back now and drive his cock deeper into the River Maiden with a chorus of needy groans.

"Aww, yes!" Liam cried out as he saw Íosác's expression and focused his attention back on the man, allowing the rhythmic sounds of skin slapping on skin to drown out the River Maiden's enthusiastic demands for Íosác to go harder. The Chieftain responded quickly, bending his knees up and hammering his cock in and out of her with fast, deep thrusts. Her hands continued to glide across Íosác's chest and arms, Liam's eyes following the movements as he felt his balls tingle and his ultimate pleasure approaching.

"Ahhh! Ahh!" He frowned when he saw her free hand return to the bare mound between her legs, an action he had seen her take many times in the heat of their passion. The warrior shrugged, leaving the mysteries of the female body to those who had the desire to untangle them. Instead he rolled closer to Íosác and concentrated on his face as Liam began to feel the cum powering up through his cock, primed to erupt onto the Chieftain's body. "Uh! Uh! Uh!"

A moment later and Liam's eyes shut, a burning spear of pleasure firing through his cock and out into the open; thick ropes of cum drenching the Chieftain's face and chest. This seemed to drive Íosác and the River Maiden wild, Liam smirking as he laid back in the furs to the sound of their furious sex.

He waited until the sounds stopped and the River Maiden stood up, her grin matched by his own. She walked away from them and Íosác rolled over to fix Liam with a smirk. “Now…you had something, hmm, ‘urgent’ to tell me?”

“Oh, uh, yeah.” Liam flushed, remembering the judgemental look that the ghostly druid had given him when he asked if Liam had taken his fill of mindless pleasure. “I saw…something in clearing where I go to train.”

“What was it?”

“A spirit.” Liam paused and wetted his lips as Íosác smeared the fresh cum across his chin, neck, and chest. “It was Stiles, the druid.”

“What?” Íosác paused and stared at him. “Are you certain?”

“There could be no mistake, I tried to talk to him, but my voice was frozen in shock.” Liam admitted, lowering his gaze. “The druid had a vision for me, and a quest, should I choose to take it. He told me that Korey will be on the shores of the great ocean in three days’ time. I simply need to decide if I wish to meet him.”

“And do you?”

“I…I think I do.” Liam nodded slowly, looking around the room as the smell of sex invaded his nostrils. “Do not mistake me, I have enjoyed my time among the River Clans, but I think I need to try and heal the damage I did to Korey during the Cursed Season. I did not explain things, my actions, myself, to him clearly. Even if we should never join again, I wish him to know that my heart aches without him.”

“Hmm, the great ocean, you say?” Íosác’s brows furrowed as he listened to Liam speak. “In three days…we will need to take one of the boats and cross the rapids by Silver Rock. You will need my help.”

“But I can’t ask you to leave-”

“Nonsense!” Íosác stood up quickly and pulled Liam to his feet. “It will be a great adventure, and I’ll have you all to myself again!”

“Err, as you say.” Liam whispered, blinking as he thought back to the vision Stiles had shown him of Korey and his bleeding heart. “We should leave soon then.”

 

“You are certain?” Scotti asked as the acoyl-druid, the Chieftain corrected himself mentally, as Yeshua prepared to speak again. “Yes?”

“I am certain.” He nodded at the carved bones and smooth stones laid out on the roughly hewn table that sat between them. “Reading the auguries was one of the first things that Master, um, that I was taught.”

“Of course.” Scotti murmured, ignoring the druid’s flush as the pain of losing Stiles hit him again, somehow fresher this morning. He gestured at the table, “So, heavy snow and a storm just after the cycle turns anew. Anything else? Anything sooner?”

“They are unclear.” Yeshua frowned and ran his open hand through the air above the portents. “Something…powerful will be revealed on the night of Samhain, something…familiar.”

“Dangerous?”

“I do not know, Chieftain.” Yeshua shivered and looked up at him. “This…whatever it will be, it carries great strength within, be that a boon or a threat I cannot be sure. The signs are veiled, it could be the magic of another at work. But Theodric will arrive today or tomorrow and he may know more about such things.”

“Hmm, as a darach he would have a better eye for approaching evil.” Scotti agreed with Yeshua and got to his feet. “Come with me.”

“Yes, Chieftain.”

They left the smoky interior of the druid’s roundhouse, walking across the muddy ground at the center of the village. The bonfire was blazing merrily between the roundhouses, warding off the cold and damp of the midday drizzle that threatened to come in from the mountains in the far distance. Scotti smiled at Malia as she strode past, sword by her side and shield strapped across her back, a proud warrior of the clan since the battle with Findabair.

Others were gathered around the fire, some warming themselves, others preparing meat and game for the festival, baking bread in large, round loaves and placing them to rest among the embers and around the edge, while the younger members of the clan darted to and fro, trying to swipe roasted hazelnuts from the unsuspecting cooks.

Scotti smiled to himself as he watched their antics, looking around at his clan with a sense of growing pride. Although he had lost almost half his people to sickness and desertion after the clan had displeased the gods, the victory over Findabair and the stories of Stiles’ famous sacrifice had returned many and brought more new faces each day. Most were from the desolate Northern lands beyond the Divide, though Scotti was careful to take in only those who showed no signs of influence from Findabair’s evil magics. Malia had been invaluable in separating the innocent from the guilty and Scott had come to rely on her more and more to fill the void left by Stiles’ death.

“This way.” He gestured for Yeshua to follow him up to the largest roundhouse and past the new dwelling that was being constructed on the hill alongside it. “I will be away this evening and into the morning tomorrow.”

“What about Theodric?”

“Malia will greet him in my stead, should he arrive sooner than expected.” Scotti wetted his lips and looked over Yeshua’s head at the village below them. “I will return in time for the festival and whatever great power will be revealed on Samhain in three days hence. You may tell Malia and Theodric of the auguries, but no one else.”

“When they are cloaked, such news would only cause panic.” Yeshua nodded slowly and turned to leave. “I must go and prepare for the ritual, Theodric will help me, of course, but I expect Gaibriél, Macen, and Nolan to arrive tomorrow evening along with the sacrifices they have gathered for us.”

“Hmm, the darach does not trust the Aes Sídhe.” Scotti murmured to himself as the druid offered an awkward half bow and retreated back down the hill towards his own roundhouse. The Chieftain pushed the thoughts from his mind, allowing Malia and Theodric to deal with the issue as memories of Stiles filled in the gap. He would know what to do, Stiles always had a plan or an idea, some magical defense to call upon in times of danger. Scotti gritted his teeth and he felt his stomach tremble and emotion tear at him.

“Gah!” Scotti hurried away from the sight of his clansmen and around to the back of the roundhouse. He squeezed his eyes shut and bowed his head against the rough thatch of the roof as the tears escaped his desperate attempts to hold them inside. Scotti managed a few shuddering breaths before the sobs escaped and the tears fell in earnest. It was as though he was back in those days after the war was over; Stiles lying in a magical warding at the foot of the Nemeton, protecting him from decay and damage as all the Southern lands assembled to witness his cremation. It wasn’t until after his friend had been burned and the ashes gathered by Theodric in accordance to druidic tradition that Scotti had truly mourned. It had been as well that Liam left with Íosác after the ceremony, Scotti was unable to face anyone save his wives and children for days.

“Scotti?”

“Huh?” He jumped at Malia’s unexpected touch and quickly swiped at his eyes. Scotti cleared his throat and kept his face close to the thatch. “What is it?”

“I…are you well?”

“I, of course, just, uh, making sure the roof is secure.”

“Very well,” Malia’s footsteps retreated away, her voice carrying back to him. “I have prepared the supplies for him now, they’re in the basket by the door, and those children stealing the hazelnuts won’t get to them!”

“Haha,” Scotti laughed shortly, and he stood up straighter, looking back at her in gratitude. “Thank you. Anything of note this morning?”

“Winter draws close and though it is milder here than in the Northern lands, we should have our traders back from Aiden and Éatán’s villages before the first snows come down.”

“Their supplies have been invaluable.” Scotti joined her in walking back to the entrance. “Though the harvest was better than expected, it would have been a long, hard winter without their help.”

“The River Clans provide much needed variety too,” Malia reminded him gently. “Liam’s time there has been of benefit to us, hasn’t it?”

“It has.” Scotti nodded shortly and stepped inside, smiling at the warmth that greeted him. “He is doing well away from the memories of this village, and it gladdens my heart that many of our alliances are intact after the war.”

“Hmm.”

“I know.” He met her eyes and shrugged. “The Mountain Clan have made their position clear; let them stay on that peak, Fionn has no appetite for war and neither do I. Their iron is strong, but I pray to the gods each day that Stiles’…that his death would bring peace to all the clans north and south.”

“Here it is.” Malia picked up the basket and presented it to him, keeping her thoughts of what he just said a secret. “The hunters report seeing strange visions in the forest after dark and Ardghal claims that a ghostly spectre appeared to him under the full moon two nights ago.”

“That boy is always making up tales.”

“Yes, but he was white as milk and shaking.” Malia replied quickly. “He said the spirit echoed a long cry at him, a name he did not recognize, before racing over his head and vanishing into the darkness of the trees.”

“Hmm.” Scotti frowned and secured his sword to his belt. “What was the name?”

“Dictone.”

 

Scotti left the village, travelling over fields that were left to recover during the winter season, and out onto the grassy hillocks and rocky outcroppings that bordered his lands with those of the Keepers of the Divide. He turned south, following the slope of the ground until he entered the oppressive gloom of the forest. The Chieftain slowed his pace, hearing the sounds of the river nearby, instead trying to see if he could catch a glimpse of the spirit that Ardghal had spoke of. Dictone…why him? Why that old druid? Scotti thought to himself as the puzzle occupied his mind, feet finding the familiar path without his attention. He didn’t stop searching for the apparition until he reached the edge of the fast flowing river that marked the outer boundary of his territory with the River Clans. “Well, maybe he has seen this spirit…”

The river bank smoothed out and Scotti was able to walk along the side without too much trouble, continuing onwards until he reached a split in the river where the main current swung right and swept down towards the lake and larger rivers that made up the bulk of Íosác’s lands. Instead, Scotti kept left and followed the slower and shallower stream into a narrow gorge, steep walls of carved rock rising up on either side of him. He lifted a hand, tracing his fingers across the patterns and faded pictures of men and gods and monsters. After a few more moments of silent walking, Scotti stopped next to a stone-strewn beach with sandy edges and a deep pool of water at the end of the gorge. There was a cave just beyond him, woodsmoke furling out of the entrance from the small fire that was burning among a circle of rocks. “Are you here?”

“I am.” Coltún emerged from the cave and smiled at the Chieftain, “Good of you to come, Scotti. Hmm, is that food I see?!”

“Your appetite hasn’t changed.” Scotti smirked and approached Coltún, holding out the basket of supplies. “Here; bread, meat, fish from the river, salted beef from the twins’ clan, mead and honey and a variety of fruits and nuts taken from the bounty harvested these last few days.”

“Generous indeed. Thank you.” Coltún smiled wider and placed the basket inside the cave. He returned to the entrance and gestured for Scotti to follow him. “Come, rainclouds from the mountains will not be far behind you.”

“Yes,” Scotti replied as he followed Coltún inside. “I was worried I might not get here before the gorge became impassable.”

 

There was another fire burning deep inside the rounded chamber of the cave, larger and brighter, the smoke twirling upwards and taken outside by some natural opening in the closely placed rocks above them. Scotti had found this place with Stiles some cycles before, when they were exploring the river and the forest. The druid had told him that it was a constructed place, somewhere one of the ancient tribes had lived in. It seemed fitting that it be once again occupied by a Chieftain in need of shelter. A former Chieftain.

Scotti looked back at Coltún as he pulled a roughly woven willow barrier over the entrance of the cave to keep the worst of the bittering winds and thick sheets of rain that were now falling from getting inside. The other warrior returned to him a moment later, placing a brace of freshly caught rabbits next to the supply basket. “Good hunting?”

“Yes, though I only keep to this side of the river.” Coltún explained as he sat down across from Scotti. “The Aes Sídhe on Íosác’s side will not tolerate the harming of the animals they protect from hunters, and that is a curse I would not wish to bring upon myself.”

“Indeed.” Scotti agreed quietly. “I can help you prepare them, if you like?”

“I’ll take that offer.” Coltún pointed into the gloom at the back of the cave. “There is a deep pit and fast flowing water that leads into the earth, away from any of the rivers. I found it only four nights ago when I was digging to expand the cave. You can use that gut the rabbits, or to relieve yourself.”

“That’s useful.” Scotti grinned at him. “I do not enjoy having to leave the warmth in the depths of winter just to piss.”

“Especially when that warmth is given by many strong and comfortable bodies!”

“Yes.” Scotti held Coltún’s gaze for a moment before shifting his eyes back into the fire. “Do you think you will winter here before moving towards the Eastern Lands?”

“I think so.” Coltún nodded slowly. “There are several passes and ways to get there, but I do not want to risk getting lost or stuck up in those mountains. We have few allies there.”

“I don’t consider Fionn an ally.”

“I know.” Coltún shrugged. “But he would aid you if you asked it of him, that is just their way. Do not forget that I lived in the shadow of their mountain my entire life. When I was a boy, the Mountain Clan were terrifying; the greatest warriors in all the lands. They would come down out of the mists, covered in dark and smoked metal, the best weapons in their hands. And then, then, Scotti, you would cower in terror and hope that they crossed the Divide and were not coming for your village.”

The Chieftain listened to Coltún’s story in silence as a shiver crept across his skin. “There were rumors, but I never thought…look at Fionn now.”

“A sickness came upon them, ravaging their village and taking most of their powerful warriors.” Coltún explained. “But up there on that mountain, they’re secure, and they have Theodric now. He may have lived in the shadow of Stiles, greatest druid of our time, but that darach has great power of his own.”

“I’m beginning to understand why you wanted to leave!”

“Lidia will make a good Chieftain,” Coltún replied with a shrug. “And since the affliction that cursed my people was broken when Findabair was killed, I could not stay on. I…I made bad decisions and people suffered because of it.”

“Hmm.” Scotti didn’t argue with him, instead reaching for the first rabbit. “Malia has made it clear to me that she would not object to you coming to live amongst us in the village, and I agree with her. Once the winter snows set in, it will be difficult to make this journey, especially if the river floods and the gorge becomes impassible. Come back with me, there are plenty of new faces to blend in among, should you wish for a new life.”

“I…I will think on it.” Coltún agreed reluctantly. He grabbed the second rabbit and lifted a burning stick from the fire to light their way. “Come, I grow hungry.”

“As do I.” Scotti smiled at his back. Far better this time than the other occasions I have tried to convince him to return!

 

Coltún smacked his lips, savoring the taste of the rabbit as Scotti offered him another hunk of bread. “Thank you.”

“It’s good!”

“Yes, even better with good company to share the meal with.”

“That’s why you should come back with me.” Scotti pressed him again and Coltún just smiled non-committedly.

“Perhaps, but not tonight I think.” He pointed at the barrier next to the entrance. “That is some very heavy rain out there.”

“Indeed. I had best be off soon if I wish to get out before night falls.” Scotti muttered, making no attempt to get up.

“Hmm, that seems ill-advised.” Coltún shook his head severely. “The weather is too bad, and the sun will be obscured by those rain clouds.”

“Yes.” Scotti replied slowly, the edges of his lips twitching upwards as he ran one hand across his chest, revealing his smooth, tanned skin. “Staying here would probably be for the best.”

“Especially with us being so close to Samhain, the spirits are able to cross over, and strange monsters stalk the darkness at night.”

“What?” Scotti looked at him sharply, flirtation forgotten. “Have you seen the spirit that is walking these woods? Did you, did you recognize it?”

“I only saw it from afar.” Coltún whispered, looking into the burning red embers of the fire and drawing his cloak tighter around his shoulders, confidence falling from his voice. “It was two nights ago, I was hunting for moon mushrooms in case I took ill from the winter weather. I was standing by the edge of the bank of the large river and I saw the spirit as it came bursting through from the Otherworld.”

“Go on.”

“It was indistinct; at one glance it was wearing a long, flowing cloak like druid, the next, it was clad in magnificent silver armor that shone so bright I was blinded.” Coltún gestured grandly as he continued his story. “The spirit hovered in mid-air, as though it rode a mighty steed, but I could not see clearly. It looked straight across the river at me, eyes of piercing blue that chilled my very blood. I stood in fear for as long as that death glare was on me, and then, as soon as the spirit arrived, it was pulled back into the Otherworld as easily as you are pulling apart that loaf of bread.”

“Gods…” Scotti whispered, shaking his head and putting the bread down. “Stiles always said that he maintained the wards that kept the village safe from wandering spirits and he told us never to go out at night alone around Samhain. I think I understand why he wanted us close.”

“You had better ensure Yeshua knows how to keep those wards up!” Coltún reached down and put more wood on the fire, shoring it up and causing sparks to fly. In the brighter light, he caught Scotti’s gaze. “You are welcome to stay with me, Chieftain.”

“Thank you, Chieftain.” Scotti returned the formal phrasing, the words slipping onto his tongue easily as they had been spoken many times since the battle with Findabair and the breaking of Coltún’s clan. He tried not to smile too obviously, but Scotti could feel his cock hardening in response to Coltún’s knowing smirk. “Um, give me a moment to prepare myself for the night to come.”

“Of course, I’ll be waiting.” Coltún grinned openly as Scotti stood up and slipped away towards the back of the cave. He reached a hand into the small pouch hidden near his sleeping pile and pulled out the tiny clay jar containing the last of the magical slippery substance that he had bought from his former clan. “Only one night’s protection left? It seems that I will have to return with Scotti to his clan to gather more potion. Oh, well, best to enjoy tonight then…”

 

The cave warmed up at night, the fire piled high with sticks and branches, flames dancing into the air in flickering movements that sent long plumes of light and shadow across the sandy floor and over to where Coltún was on his hands and knees among a pile of furs. Scotti knelt behind him, one hand on the former Chieftain’s pale, smooth, muscular ass cheek, the other hand gripping his own cock as he smeared the slippery oil along the shaft out to the sensitive, flaring tip. “Are you-”

“I am prepared,” Coltún replied quickly, looking over his shoulder at Scotti. “And eager too; your visits are far too infrequent!”

“Hmm, a situation that would be remedied by you returning with me.” Scotti grinned at him and shuffled closer, a moan escaping his lips when the head of his cock brushed up against Coltún’s ass cheek. He adjusted his hand and gripped the man’s hip to angle his approach better, hearing Coltún draw a deep breath in preparation for the first thrust. Now that Scotti was no longer as endowed with the blessings of the gods, he always pushed in deep and hard, rushing through the pain and pleasure to seat himself well inside the tightness as quickly as possible. Tonight was no different and the Chieftain rocked forward, uniting their bodies with a grunt. “Ahh!”

“Ugh!” Coltún cried out, his back arching at the same time as his head lowered, face pressed into the furs. “Oh, yes!”

They remained still for a moment, Scotti breathing hard as he waited for Coltún to signal that he was ready to continue. The tightness of his ass surrounded Scotti’s cock and the slippery feel of the special substance that was smeared across them both seemed to maximise the pleasure without either of them having to move. Slowly, Scotti began to rock back and forth on his knees, increasing the speed and depth once Coltún started to moan encouragingly.

"Ohhh!" Coltún groaned again, adjusting his position so his body was more horizontal, one arm supporting himself, the other reached underneath to allow his hand to slowly work his already drooling cock. Scotti still hadn't started fully, his movements slow and deliberate, as though he was just enjoying the feeling of being buried deep inside Coltún's ass. He clenched hard and grinned as Scott yelled out loudly. "Haha, we may have the night to ourselves, but the need is strong right now, Scotti; pound me! Fill me! Fuck me!"

"You are too used to having your demands met." Scotti mumbled as he gradually pulled his cock out until just the tip was lodged inside Coltún's smooth hole. "Though with an ass like this, I am hardly surprised. Ugh!"

"Aww, yes!" Coltún moaned as Scotti slammed back into him with a hard slap of flesh on flesh. "That's it! Again! Harder!"

"Gladly!" He growled in response, clenching his abs and using the motion to slide in and out of Coltún's asshole, bending slightly so the top of his crotch rubbed against the tips of the other man's butt. Coltún's soft, smooth skin was a dream to run his hands across and Scotti let his hips and cock do the work as his fingers explored the supple muscles and pale flesh that was laid out in front of him. "Mmmmh!"

"Aww, yes!" Coltún groaned, arching his back when he felt Scotti's lips touch the base of his skull, the hot breath dragging along his spine and towards his neck, a tongue of warm wetness leaving cool air in its wake as every part of his body became inflamed with lust and desire. "Ahhh, again, harder! Harder!"

Scotti grinned and straightened up, his hands gripping Coltún's hips tight enough to leave red marks that were barely visible in the flickering firelight. He watched the shadows dance across Coltún's back for a moment, entranced, before he felt the man's ass bounce back on his cock and Scotti began to move with more purpose. "Yes! This is what you want, isn't it?! To be taken hard and fast and be filled with my cum?!"

"Yes! Yes! Fill me!"

"As long as you promise to return the favor?!" Scotti rammed into him and held his cock buried deep inside Coltún's ass until the former Chieftain nodded furiously and Scotti slid almost all the way back out, precum slathered across the shaft of his cock. "That's what I needed to hear! Oh, Coltún, I am close to release!"

"Good, good!" Coltún groaned, biting his lip as words turned into endless cries of pleasure. He pushed his body upwards with extended arms, sliding back onto Scotti's cock until he could feel the press of bouncing balls against his skin. “Mmmmh!”

"Aww, yes!" Their pace was fast now, not quite rough, though not as gentle as before, both wishing for their pleasure to be made manifest soon. Scotti was sliding back and forth into Coltún with as much speed and strength as he could manage; each time that his cock almost left the hole, Coltún clenched hard and made Scotti gasp. "So close!"

"Aw! Uh! Yes!" Coltún moaned, his face tilted up, eyes closed as his hand worked his own cock. Scotti's torso was pressing against his back now, the touch of arousal-hardened nipples made Coltún rock back onto the buried cock as Scotti suddenly went still. "Aw, yes, finally!"

"UGH!" Scotti shouted loudly again, not needing to care about holding his pleasure inside for fear of waking others who shared his roundhouse in the village. His own ass cheeks spasmed and clenched tight, driving his cock deeper as cum exploded inside Coltún's ass and provided a sloppy sleeve for Scotti to continue fucking him. "Ah! Ah! Ah! Yes! Oh, yes, that's good!"

"Feels even better!" Coltún groaned, collapsing onto the pile of furs. He had pulled his hand off his cock as soon as he felt Scotti spurting inside him. Instead, he rode the wave of denied pleasure as the other man continued to rock back and forth inside him with a few final, sporadic thrusts. "Ahhh, I needed that."

 

Scotti stroked his cum-covered cock as it stiffened again with ease. He was watching Coltún rearrange the furs closer to the fire, eyes lingering on the trails of milky wetness that wound their way down his thighs and legs from his filled hole. Scotti’s attention snapped back to the large cock that stood out from Coltún’s body, his brows arching. “I did not realise that you gained no pleasure from that coupling.”

“Oh?” Coltún looked down his chest, smirking. “No, I gained plenty of enjoyment from your cock, Scotti, I simply wanted to make sure that I prolonged the pleasure we would gain from joining again, this time with my cock in your ass!”

“I won’t argue with that.” Scotti grinned and stood up, walking over to lie on the pile of furs. They were much closer to the fire now and the heat washed across his skin, caressing his cock in a strangely erotic manner. The Chieftain laid on his back and spread his legs, bending his knees as Coltún stared hungrily at his body. “Are you going to devour me with your eyes all day or will your tongue get involved too?”

“Oh, I have been drooling at the thought!” Coltún’s eyes flashed with lust in the firelight and he knelt down, gaze sweeping across Scotti’s dark skin as the sweat glistened in the dance of shadows and flame. This was always Coltún’s favorite part of their nights together; once the initial desire and burning lust was sated, Scotti was content to let Coltún explore his body with his fingers, his cock, his tongue. “Mmh, spread your legs wider, just like that.”

“All yours.” Scotti grinned lazily and clenched the muscles of his torso, abs flexing and cock shivering as Coltún got down on his stomach between his legs. Their eyes connected for the briefest of moments before Coltún lowered himself further and Scotti moaned when he felt the man’s nose touch against the relaxed skin of his scrotum. “Ahhh…”

Coltún smiled to himself and tilted his head up, drawing a fresh round of yearning moans from Scotti when his tongue licked a wide strip from the base of his hole towards his balls. He repeated the motion quickly, feeling his cock harden back to its full strength after the momentary lull during their conversation. Coltún reached his hands upwards, roaming across Scotti's body as his lips kissed and sucked on the flesh between the Chieftain's balls and hole.

His tongue slid naturally south and dug into the puckering hole of Scotti's ass, lapping at the smoothness he found there. Coltún's hands withdrew from Scotti's body as the man arched upwards, feet planted firmly to lift his ass and give Coltún plenty of room to eat his hole. He gripped the round, muscular cheeks and spread them further apart, shoving his face in deeper. Coltún closed his eyes, losing the sight of Scotti's writhing, tanned body glistening in the light of the flames, but the sounds of lust and desire that filled the air when Coltún's tongue speared through Scotti's hole made up for the lost visual. "Mmmmh!"

"Aw yes! Right there! Aw yes! Mmmh!" Scotti moaned loudly, bouncing his ass up and down against Coltún mouth as the tongue dug deeper and lashed strips of pleasure into his hole. The Chieftain writhed back and forth, one hand jerking his cock, the other flung out behind him, eyes looking down his sweat-streaked swarthy body at Coltún's bobbing head. "Ughh, more! More!"

Coltún smirked as he pulled back, letting Scotti rest for a moment, before diving back onto his ass and swiping his tongue in big, circular motions across his hole and spread cheeks. The wetness glinted in the firelight as Scotti continued to groan and moan for more pleasure, but Coltún could feel his own cock leaking against his stomach and knew that they would both erupt if he continued to eat Scotti out. "Hmm, do you want me in you?"

"Fuck!" Scotti groaned at the question and then nodded quickly. "Hurry! I feel so wet and sloppy, put your cock inside and let's make it even more!"

"Ugh, I may not last long with that mouth of yours!" Coltún smirked and got to his knees. "Mmh, you look so relaxed and ready to be taken!"

"Take me! Take me now, Coltún!" Scotti cried out dramatically, a smile playing about his lips as he reached down to pull his legs towards his chest. "I'm all yours!"

 

"Ahhh!" Scotti cried out loudly as Coltún's spear pushed inside his hole, momentary pain falling away as a deep, searing pleasure ignited in his stomach and wrapped around his cock. He was still on his back, his spread legs sitting on Coltún's thighs as the man rocked back and forth into him. "Mmh, just like that!"

"Ah, yeah, still tight, Scotti, am I the only one who fucks you now? Is this the real reason you want me in your village, so I can be in your ass every night?!"

"Shut up and ram me!" Scotti grunted. He saw the way Coltún's eyes were concentrating on his chest and stomach, aware that Coltún found the play of firelight and shadow across his naked skin to be intensely arousing. Scotti smirked and threw his hands behind his back, armpits exposed, and his pectoral muscles pulled tense. "Mmmh, fuck me deep!"

"Aw, yes, stay like that!" Coltún groaned, impaling Scotti's ass on his cock and reaching forward to slide his hand across the Chieftain's smooth, sweat-slick skin, his eyes devouring the way the nearby flames threw shade and brilliance across the sun-darkened skin. "Mmh, ah!"

"Ooooh!" Scotti cried out when Coltún's fingers found his erect nipples and his ass clenched reactively around the cock that was thrusting in and out of him with swift, determined strokes. "Fuck me and touch me! Aw, yes!"

Coltún increased the speed of his thrusts in time to the demands from Scotti's gasping mouth, flesh slapping on flesh loudly in the comfort of the cave. His eyes continued to take in the erotic nature of Scotti's body, feeling it push him closer and closer to filling the Chieftain's tight ass. They were both moaning now, Scotti's eyes heavily lidded as he encouraged Coltún to use his hole and spurt his cum all over and inside him, the arousing mumblings falling from a gasping mouth as Scotti reached up to hold his legs back further and allow Coltún to hammer his ass even harder and faster. "Mmmh, yes, so close!"

"I'm going to cum inside you any moment!" Coltún grunted as he watched every muscle on Scotti's body clench tight and he reached out to grasp the cock in front of him, working Scotti's manhood in time to the frantic thrusts Coltún was making into his ass. He slowed suddenly when a strange sensation passed over him, as though a cool breeze had caressed his shoulder, but the cave and burning wood of the fire was still, and Scotti did not seem to notice anything amiss. "Hmm, did you-"

"Keep going!"

"Ah, almost there!" Coltún growled and snapped his hips back and forth once, twice, three times. On the start of the fourth thrust Scotti cried his pleasure and cum splattered across his stomach. A moment later, Coltún was splurging his cream into Scotti's ass with a roar of his own, before collapsing on top of the Chieftain. "Ahhh!"

"Mmmh." Scotti moaned contentedly and hugged Coltún's body to his own, wrapping his legs around the man's ass to keep his cock and cum from slipping out. "Perfect..."

 

Theodric looked over his shoulder again, it was the same feeling as before, as though someone was following along behind him. But the rolling hills of the North were empty save for the encroaching fog banks. "Nochtann an bhfolach!" The darach glared at the air, words of power slipping from his lips to enhance his already powerful ability to see the spirits of the dead trapped in the world. But there was nothing save the whisper of a breeze in the still air and the sensation of familiarity that would not fall away. “Bah! Lingering ghosts from that village no doubt, why your ancestors remained tied to that place, I have no idea, Stiles!”

Hahahahahaha…

Theodric whipped around and searched the treeline in front of him, the fading sounds of laughter drifting along on the wisps of fog that surrounded him. “Ugh, it is too close to Samhain, maybe, maybe he is listening.” The darach pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulders and flipped the hood up over his head, casting his face into shadow as he climbed a hill that led towards the Plains of Cooley.

He continued onwards, hands drifting down to pat the pouches sewn into his robes, the granular sensation of Stiles’ ashes under his fingers reassuring Theodric’s clenching stomach. Four piles had been made from the druids remains that been burned in accordance with druidic lore; one portion was to be buried in the tomb in the forest that Dictone was interred in, another had been scattered around the roots of the sacred Nemeton, the third taken to Stiles’ village in the Northern lands, and the final part was for Theodric to secret away in a hidden place deep in the forest.

Theodric was closer to The Divide now, the jagged points of the faraway mountains drifting in and out of view as the clouds and fog mixed together. Night was drawing close, the wind picking up as Theodric descended onto the site of their battle against Findabair and Balor. "Dóiteáin!" The darach muttered and a gout of spectral flame erupted in front of him, lighting his path and banishing the creeping shadows that trailed across the yellowed grass of the Plains of Cooley. He could see the strange, hardened patches of fire-blackened earth in the center of the battlefield where Stiles and Findabair had stood opposite each other, summoning Balor back to life.

“Hmm, you should not be here.” The whispered words were directed at the ghostly figures that rose from the ground, gathering around Theodric like moths to a flame. Their faces were stretched and broken, fixed in rictuses of fear and horror, their armor rent and tattered, shambling ruins of the warriors that had followed the Halh clan into despair, forsaken by the gods, and destined to roam the battlefield for all eternity. “No, no, too many to banish by myself. Better to gather the twins and return…”

The darach waved his hands in a complicated pattern, smiling grimly as the spirits were brushed to one side by the unnatural gale he had summoned. “Begone, I have nothing for you.”

 

The rest of his journey was uneventful, travelling through the Divide unhindered, the cured Keepers letting him pass without comment, their heads bowed in respect. The path from the fortified village at the base of the mountain was clear of bandits and free from other travellers, only the chirping of the evening birds adding a sweet note to Theodric’s walk along the winding earthen trail. He glanced around himself now and again, the same presence that had been lingering since Stiles’ village had vanished and the darach felt strangely alone in the forest.

Theodric sniffed the air, the scent of woodsmoke drifting along the breeze that shook the bare limbs of the trees, sweeping down from the mountains behind him. It was a promise of a hard winter ahead; deep snows and violent storms to test the strength of clan and hearth alike. But the darach was not so concerned as he would have been a cycle ago, for now he had the Mountain Clan to care for, and they would care for him in return. The blessings of the gods from the Samhain sacrifice will do much to protect us from winter’s icy embrace. Especially since the threat of war and death has passed away with Findabair’s defeat.

He smiled to himself as the path brought him out of the trees and along the river, the rise in the land joined by the low stone walls that marked the boundary of Scotti’s village. The darach drew a deep breath and his eyes searched for the tops of the roundhouses as he turned the last corner. “Ah, waiting for me.” Theodric muttered to himself, catching sight of twin bonfires burning on the crest of the hill that overlooked the village. There was a figure dressed in the flowing white robes of a druid standing between them, his back turned to Theodric.

“Greetings to you, druid.” Theodric said as he finished climbing the hill and stood next to the other man, his breath frosting the air in front of them. “The season turns quicker than expected.”

“Greetings to you, master darach,” Yeshua bowed slightly at him. “Winter draws in closer, Samhain is at hand, and the gods hunger for their sacrifice.”

Chapter Text

Éatán rolled onto his side, feeling Aiden’s hand fall from his shoulder onto the furs and blankets that they were snuggled into. He blinked his eyes, the dream fading from his mind as the familiar surroundings of their home fell into place around him. The room was dark, and the druid whispered a fire spell, smiling slightly when the embers in the basins around the edges of the roundhouse erupted into flame with brief, blinding flashes. Éatán glanced back at his brother’s face, but Aiden was still sleeping, his countenance unruffled and Éatán smiled again, letting his gaze slide down to rest on the smooth, tanned skin at the base of Aiden’s neck.

“Hmm.” Aiden mumbled sleepily and raised his hand, reaching for Éatán to pull him back against himself.

“As you wish, my perfection.” Éatán whispered and turned more fully onto his stomach, aligning his naked body with Aiden’s. He closed his eyes as he felt Aiden’s hand glide across his shoulders and lower onto his back. “Mmh.”

They stayed in the loose embrace until Éatán was able to feel the rising heat inside the roundhouse and he shifted slightly to kick off the furs and blankets that covered their naked forms. The druid smiled and wetted his lips, looking hungrily over his brother’s body. “Mmh, perfect!” Éatán raised the hand that wasn’t resting between them and ran his fingers gently down Aiden’s face, his lips twitching as his brother frowned in his sleep. He moved closer, bringing his hips up so that he was looking at Aiden more equally. After taking another moment to drink in his twin’s appearance, Éatán leaned forward and pressed his mouth against Aiden’s own, full lips. “Mmph!”

“Mmh?” Aiden blinked, and his lips parted easily, accepting Éatán’s tongue inside to glide against his own. He smirked as sleep dropped away and reality greeted him with a pleasant surprise. The darach pulled his arms around Éatán and hugged his brother closer, groaning softly when his morning stiffness brushed against something equally as hard and aroused.

A moment of passionate kissing later and Éatán was resting against his brother’s chest again, idly kissing at his skin along the edge of his pectoral muscles, hands roaming across Aiden’s body to maximise the contact between them. It was something Éatán had begun to do more and more after the battle against Balor and Findabair; as though he wanted more than just closeness, like he needed to make sure that Aiden was still there, still…perfect, like his brother. Aiden swallowed and reached over Éatán to grasp the nearby goblet, taking a mouthful of water to loosen his dry throat. “Do you know the hour? Is it still before dawn?”

“Still.” Éatán murmured, his fingers creeping south along the narrow valley between Aiden’s clenching ab muscles. He stopped short of the trimmed patch of hair and rolled his head back to smirk at Aiden. “And yet your morning hardness is up before the sun!”

“Who do I have to blame for that, hmm?!” Aiden retorted and shifted his weight suddenly, rolling Éatán onto his back and straddling his waist, their hard cocks now pressing against each other in pleasurable conflict. He gripped Éatán’s wrists with just enough force and pinned his arms over his head, eyes narrowing in on the bulge in his biceps as Éatán tried half-heartedly to get free. “Whatever will I have to do with you?! Waking up your older brother like that!”

“Older? Bigger, perhaps!” Éatán snorted and arched his waist to grind into his twin’s cock. “Mmh! And you are not older by more than a hand’s turn as the midwife pulled you out first. It was chance and nothing else!”

“Ah, but you at least admit that I am bigger!

“Certainly.” Éatán grinned at him and gestured with his hand at Aiden’s body. “I know you are bigger and stronger, even if we look so alike. But this morning, I think I need to see it to make sure I was right.”

“See it, eh?” Aiden smirked and reached down, adjusting his posture to let his cock rest on Éatán’s stomach, the glistening tip pointing towards his face. “Is this what you mean?”

“Not quite, my perfection.” Éatán, his arms now freed as Aiden played with himself idly, lifted his right hand and dragged his fingers over Aiden’s stomach and chest, feeling his own cock spasm when his questing fingertips brushed the developed flesh of Aiden’s pectoral muscles. He swallowed excess salvia from his mouth as his fingers crept higher, rolling the sensitive bud of Aiden’s nipples from side to side, finishing each movement with a delicate pinch enough to make his brother moan and thrust against him. “Mmh, I love you like this.”

“Hmm, haha, only you know how to get me here so quickly.” Aiden muttered, his eyes lidded heavily as he arched into Éatán’s touch. “Do you want me to fuck you again, as we did last night?”

“To fall asleep with your hardness still lodged inside me is the highest form of pleasure I know.” Éatán purred and pulled his hands away. He shook his head when Aiden arched a brow. “No, not yet. I want more of your body.”

 

Aiden laid on his back, smiling as he watched his brother lick his lips, the intensity of his desire was almost strong enough to taste. Neither of them had gone soft since they first woke, cocks kept hard by each other’s presence, streams of precum trailing down from the tips whenever they kissed, or touched, or their skin slid against the other’s. He gestured for Éatán to climb into his lap and groaned softly when their cocks slipped past each other, his brother’s dick resting under his full balls and pressing deliciously on the space between his cock and ass. But they would not experience that pleasure yet, soon, but not yet. “I am yours, brother.”

“I know, my perfection,” Éatán murmured and leaned down to kiss him briefly again, just enough to get his twin’s taste in his mouth. “And I am yours as well.”

“Do what you will then.”

“Mmmh.” Éatán bit his lip and drew his hands down from where they had rested against the warm flesh of his brother’s neck. Aiden was smiling at him in that knowing way of his, the grin that made his eyes sparkle and seem like there was more than mere mortal life dancing inside him. Éatán could spend his whole life looking into his brother's eyes, mesmerised by his beauty. By their beauty; they were perfectly alike after all, even if Aiden had a little more muscle than him. Though that was how Éatán liked it, it allowed him to enjoy Aiden's body with greater pleasure. "Hmm?"

"You're just looking at me." Aiden frowned and ran his hands gently down Éatán's sides. "Are you well?"

"I'm...I'm perfect." Éatán muttered, his stomach clenching hard as Aiden smiled again, his lips parting just enough to show his upper teeth, white against tanned skin. He touched his tongue against his own lips and reluctantly pulled his eyes away from Aiden's handsome face. Instead, the druid let his gaze slowly wind down his brother's neck and onto his muscular chest, feeling his cock pick up where his heart had just left off.

Éatán rubbed his hands across Aiden's chest vigorously, his speed catching his twin off-guard and causing them both to moan. His hands paused half-way down Aiden's stomach and crawled slowly back up to rest on his pectoral muscles, the skin hot to the touch and raised nubs of his aroused nipples making for a target that Éatán could not resist. He rocked forward, leaning left, and sucked the nipple into his mouth as Aiden arched his back and hissed loudly. “Ahhh!”

His brother's hand was soon on his head, guiding Éatán's wet mouth from teasing the first to then leaving a wet trail across his tanned chest to suckle on the other nipple. “Mmmm!” Éatán's hands were never still; gripping Aiden's shoulder for support, caressing his biceps, or sweeping up to touch Aiden's neck, allowing Éatán to lick a long, sweet strip up the smooth, tanned skin of his brother's collarbones and neck to once more join with his mouth in a chorus of pleasurable moans and needy groans. “Ah, Aiden!”

One hand still played with Aiden's nipple as Éatán sucked the other, his free hand no longer caressing his brother's flesh, but rather grasping his own. Éatán played with his engorged cock slowly, knowing that he would come undone from the intense pleasure that came from worshipping his twin's perfect body. His ass clenched needily and Éatán changed angles just enough so that Aiden could reach down and slip his equally hard cock into Éatán's ass, still moist from the night before. “Ahh!”

 

They rocked back and forth, increasing the pace as Éatán adjusted his body into a more comfortable position; his ass speared by Aiden’s cock, his hands reaching up to grip his brother’s shoulders for balance, while his knees bent, and legs slipped down on either side of Aiden’s muscular thighs. Aiden grunted as Éatán rammed himself back onto his cock, the darach’s hands resting on Éatán’s smooth ass cheeks, occasionally gripping hard and spreading the cheeks in time to a stuttering of his hips and a union of passionate moans. “Ah! Yes!”

“Mmh, aw, yeah, aw, Aiden!” Éatán mumbled into his twin’s chest and let himself go slack, using his weight to press his drooling cock onto Aiden’s clenching abs. The pleasure was blinding him as stars exploded beneath his closed lids, his brother moving backwards and forwards rapidly, Éatán’s cum-slick cock rubbing against the hard ridges of Aiden’s muscles. He cried out senselessly when Aiden pushed his body up his torso so that his ass was almost off Aiden’s cock, before his twin slammed back into him with force enough that Éatán’s teeth rattled. “AW!”

“You like that, brother?” Aiden growled, hammering in and out of him in fast, powerful motions. “Tell me that you like that!”

“I love it!” Éatán groaned and turned his head, one hand alternating pectorals as he teased Aiden’s erect nipples, while he planted a row of sloppy kisses along Aiden’s collarbone and up his neck. “I love you!”

“I know you do, ah, aw!” Aiden moaned and sat up suddenly, using his strength to hug Éatán closer to him, his cock still buried in his brother’s ass. “Oh, fuck, uh, I’m close!”

“I can feel it.” Éatán mumbled, clenching his ass and wrapping his arms around Aiden’s neck to bounce on his cock frantically. “Fill me again! Bring me to the point of our perfect unity!” He groaned as Aiden increased the pace again, this time, Éatán kept his eyes open so he could look up at his twin's face. His gaze lingered on Aiden's parted lips, the expression of mingled concentration and pleasure that furrowed his otherwise perfect brow, the set of his jaw and the contours of that unblemished skin. Éatán bit his lip as he felt his chest go tight again, almost disconnected from his ass as Aiden fucked him deep, the movements natural and rhythmic; they were close now, Aiden was close. He knew that look, loved that change across his brother's face, loved the way that Aiden would look at him in the moment of ecstasy, a connection forged so strong no one else could ever challenge it, a moment of such perfect harmony and love that was only topped when they used their magic to merge together and unify their bodies.

"Ah! Uh, Éatán! Yes!"

Éatán was jolted from his desire-fueled thoughts as Aiden hugged him tight and then suddenly went still, only his cock pounding into him. The sensation of his brother's cum filling his ass made Éatán gasp and reach up to pull Aiden into a deep kiss, their tongues lashing against each other as Aiden rode his pleasure deeper. "Ahh, yeah, Éatán!"

“Mmmh!” Éatán moaned and pulled away from him, keeping his hands resting on Aiden's shoulders, thumbs brushing against his neck. He could still feel his brother moving in and out of him slowly, his own cock slick and demanding attention. Éatán dropped one hand to jerk himself off, his gaze lingering on Aiden's face, waiting for the moment when his brother would open his eyes and look at him again. A moment of slow pleasure passed and then Aiden smirked and looked shyly at him, "Do you-"

"Shush, don't." Éatán whispered, biting his lip as he felt sentiment well up inside him and tears prick the back of his eyes. His brother was frowning now, unsure of why he was so emotional this time, but Éatán didn't care. The druid bounced up and down on Aiden’s still hard cock and his brother groaned along with him.

"Aw! Aw! Aw! Yes, Aiden!" He gave his cock one final, desperate pull and splattered his cum across Aiden's chest and stomach. They both cried out in pleasure and Éatán slumped forward, squeezing his eyes shut as he buried his face in the crook of Aiden's neck. His brother was kissing his cheek, whispering something that Éatán couldn't hear over the pounding of his heartbeat. "I love you, Aiden, I love you so much."

 

Aiden frowned at his brother as they washed the sweat and cum from their bodies using the metal bowls at either side of the doorway to the outside. It felt like Éatán was trying to be closer to him than they had been before the battle on the Plains of Cooley, as though Aiden’s temporary death had somehow strengthened and deepened the emotional bonds between them in some, new, strange way. Éatán had become more insular too, preferring to spend time with him instead of roaming between their clan’s villages as he used to; now whenever there was a problem, the clan had to come to them. But balance was the core of their people, and Aiden had taken over his twin’s role. As a darach, Aiden was received more cautiously, although as they grew closer to Samhain, he found that the farmers and craftsmen were warming up to him, that he was gaining their trust as Éatán had done.

The darach glanced at his brother again, watching the shadows from the lit fires dance across his face, highlighting the beads of water that dripped down his cheeks, flawless skin a warm glow. Aiden wetted his lips and nodded at the doorway, “The sun is up, and it is the day before Samhain, I must check the village near the mines, ensure that they have enough wood for their bonfire.”

“Ah, good.”

“Will you remain here and light the fires in a ring around the village?”

“Of course.” Éatán nodded absently, tying an embroidered belt across the white robe he had put on. “We are still sacrificing the calf?”

“A bountiful harvest is all we are looking for.” Aiden explained and opened the door to step out into the crisp morning air. The sky was blue in front of him, though the usual fading purple was absent as the sun rose behind the sunken roundhouse. “Hmm.” The darach climbed the stairs to the surface quickly, his frown deepening as he saw a bloom of orange and red twist through the sky in an unnatural motion. “Come!”

“What is it?” Éatán mumbled, following his brother outside and still fumbling with his belt. “I don’t-”

“Aiden!” The shout came from across the clearing in front of their roundhouse, a farm boy sprinting towards them. The youth took a ragged breath, almost collapsing until Aiden reached out to support his shoulder. “Come…quickly! There’s a…monster!”

“Monster?” Éatán replied, suddenly alert. “Where?”

“By the…granary.” The farmer panted and pointed back the way he had come. “A man, but, huge and glowing, holding fire in his hand!”

“Let’s go.” Aiden nodded for the boy to stay next to the roundhouse and then the twins ran forward in the direction of the strange lights in the sky.

 

“Over there!” Éatán hissed, pointing towards the groups of villagers who had taken refuge behind the well, under the chariots, or cowering next to the stone walls that marked the beginning of the fields. The druid skidded to a stop and grabbed Aiden’s arm to slow him too as they both looked up at the towering figure that paced back and forth in front of the granary. “By the gods! What is that?”

“I…” Aiden paused, searching his memory as the maddeningly familiar figure turned around and they were able to see its face. The features were male, though the hair was less natural and more animalistic; turned into rising white braids that were spun together to form several horns. But it was the eyes that captured the darach’s attention the most, two burning embers of flame in pits of utter darkness. They seemed to sweep over him before the monster turned and stalked towards the granary. “I think I know who this is, but the legends say that he was destroyed long ago.”

“Who is it?”

“Um,” Aiden glanced at the monster’s hands before answering, nodding as soon as he saw the burning torch held in the left hand and the ornately decorated harp in the other. “Aillén Mac Midgna, a fire-breathing goblin from the Otherworld.”

“He looks strange, as though he is not truly there.” Éatán whispered as the twins crouched low and inched forward together. “Look, I can see the granary through his body!”

“A spectre.” Aiden stood up and glared at Aillén. “The veil between this world and the Otherworld is weak at Samhain, he must be pushing out from there.” The darach picked up a stone and flicked it towards the lofty figure, smirking when there was a loud impact on the wall of the granary behind Aillén. The goblin turned to him with a snarl of annoyance, but before Aiden could summon a protective ward, a cloud of thick, green smoke erupted beneath Aillén and the goblin was snatched from their sight. “Bah!”

“Aiden…” Éatán called out as he approached the place where the goblin had stood. “You need to see this.” He was pointing at a series of lines that were forming in the hard, dusty ground in front of the granary. Bright blue magic zipped back and forth, up and down as the image was revealed. The twins looked at each other and then back down at the earth. “What does it mean?”

“A sacrificial blade,” Aiden pointed at the figure, the man, depicted in the center of the image. “That belongs to a druid, and the creature he is facing off against…it must be Aillén; that is a pillar of flame that is coming from the mouth.”

“And this?” His brother stepped back as the magic continued to weave around him, creating the elaborate drawing. “A mighty tree, the Nemeton? And…is that-”

“It can only be the stone rings.” Aiden cut across him, shaking his head. “With a sword at the center of the rings, it must mean the Alliance. Aillén seeks to strike at the heart of the allied clans, at the Nemeton; at Scotti’s clan.”

“Why?” The druid frowned when the magic stopped suddenly, and the lines blazed with azure fire. “The war is over and Aillén was said to be killed by Fionn mac Cumhaill long ago, what is happening, Aiden?”

“I do not know,” His brother shrugged and gestured at the villagers as they emerged from hiding. “Reassure our clan, I will go and make the preparations for the spell.”

“What spell?”

“We need to speak to Theodric and Yeshua,” Aiden explained as he started to walk away. “If the gods will it, he will have arrived at the Nemeton to complete the ritual and we can warn them in time!”

 

“So, Scotti is treating you well?” Theodric asked as he dipped a piece of bread into his soup and looked over at Malia. They were sitting around the bonfire as the morning fog gave way to cold drizzle and the sky went from charcoal to slate grey, promising more rain. He had spoken with Yeshua the night before, but Theodric did not wish to impose on the clan at the late hour of his arrival. Now, however, Malia was awaiting Scotti’s return and invited Theodric to dine with her in the center of the village. “Malia?”

“Oh, apologies.” She murmured and tore her eyes away from the flames. “My mind was wandering.”

“Anywhere of interest?” The darach smirked and took a bite of his bread.

“I was just thinking about Stiles, about the time you and he rescued me.” Malia looked at him and shrugged. “Scotti is…still mourning the druid’s loss, though he does not want anyone to know.”

“Hmm.”

“But to answer your question, yes, he is treating me well.” She patted the sword by her side and nudged the shield leaning against her leg. “His wives have children to raise, and with Liam having left to be with the River Clans, I have taken over the training of the warriors.”

“Good.” A smile touched Theodric’s lips and he lowered his voice. “I assume we can expect great deeds from you since you come from such strong northern warriors?”

“I do not speak of my past or my family.” Malia answered stiffly. “None here know where I have come from, Theodric, and I intend on keeping it that way. The elder Halh was…”

“It matters not,” Theodric shook his head quickly. “I did not mean to upset you. Tell me instead of these new additions to the clan.”

“Yes,” Malia nodded gratefully and gestured at a group of shirtless young men sitting together on the other side of the bonfire, drying their wet tunics on rocks facing the blaze. “They were the last to come through the northern pass and then along the river to our lands. That way is treacherous now; already the northern snows have blocked the pass over the mountains. They claim to be hunters and farmers, but their hands have the callouses of miners, and the strength of their arms attest to that.”

“Why would they lie?”

“Findabair,” Malia murmured the name, leaning close to Theodric as he finished eating his soup. “She ordered them to dig deep and recover the pieces of Balor’s body from the dark places underground. Many died and many more went mad from the whisperings of the god drawing them closer and closer. These were lucky; likely tasked with removing rubble from the upper shafts. I have spoken with many with similar stories.”

“I see.” Theodric sighed. “It is good that Scotti has you here to judge the worth of those who join the clan.”

“Mmh.”

“And I think I see the Chieftain now.” The darach stood up and pointed in the direction of the fields, his eyes widening as another figure came into view alongside Scotti. “Is that…Coltún?”

“Scotti said that he has forsworn his title as Chieftain and seeks to adventure in the Eastern lands.” Malia explained as the duo came closer. “For now, he has been living in a cave on the edges of our territory, supposedly waiting for the thaw after winter’s end.”

“You do not believe that?”

“I would prefer to have him here with us,” Malia replied carefully, seeing Theodric frown. “Scotti has…they have become true friends; a bond forged in battle and the shedding of childish arrogance.”

“A deep friendship then?” Theodric smirked suddenly as Malia nodded with a smile of her own. “I see. Well, since Liam has left him, I can understand a desire for comfort and cock!”

“I told him to try the new members of the clan,” Malia glanced at a trio of well-built Northern hunters that went past, each one winking at her. “Their arms and bodies are strong, and their seed is thick and plentiful.”

“Indeed?” Theodric arched a brow.

“Yeshua told me that you always had a price for balancing the sacrifice with Stiles,” She explained as Scotti and Coltún stopped to speak to Domhnall, the herdsman leaning on the boundary stone wall. “He said that you took it in willing warriors and handsome youths. Is that still the case?”

“Ah, no, that will not be necessary.” Theodric shook his head and turned back to the bonfire, hands held out to warm himself. He smiled as an image of Iordáin flashed past his mind’s eye, soon it would a full cycle since they began their joining in earnest, but it was not the hunter that stopped Theodric from accepting Malia’s offering. The darach sighed, a different memory coming to him; of Stiles and Korey and the aftermath of the rescue they had undertaken into the Otherworld the previous Samhain. He cleared his throat and glanced at her. “I do not need gold or food or other payment, I am here because Stiles wanted me to be, because his acolyte is a druid in name only; he does not have the years to yet honor the gods and offer the sacrifice.”

“As you say.” Malia nodded and picked up her shield. She swung it onto her back and abruptly began to walk towards the Chieftain’s roundhouse. “We will speak again, Theodric, I must make sure the feast will be ready after the sacrifice is complete, apologies.”

“Of course.” The darach replied, a sudden grin tugging at his lips as he noticed the group of Northern hunters had circled around the village and were heading in the same direction as Malia. “I imagine you’ll want to inspect the meat first!” She did not appear to hear him, and Theodric turned to greet Scotti and Coltún as they finished with Domhnall.

“Master darach,” Scotti bowed formally to him as Coltún mirrored the motion. “That is the right term, isn’t it?”

“Darach is usually enough.” Theodric shrugged and nodded at them. “I hope you fared well last night; the rains were heavy.”

“Indeed, but my cave was warm and dry,” Coltún explained, rubbing his hands together as he stood next to the fire. “I was-”

“Theodric!”

The group turned as the darach’s name was screamed out loudly, Yeshua running towards them, his robe flapping, cheeks flushed. “What…”

“Theodric! The twins!” Yeshua panted and pointed back towards the Nemeton grove. “Aiden, uh, he says that there’s something terrible coming for us! The portents are coming to pass! The evil is almost upon us!”

“Calm yourself!” Theodric snapped and grabbed Yeshua’s arm, pulling the young druid away from the staring and frightened expressions of Scotti’s clan. “You are a druid! You have to hold their respect!”

“But-”

“Calm…” Theodric half-dragged, half-marched Yeshua back towards the grove. “Now tell me what this is about.”

Yeshua gulped down a breath and nodded. “Aiden says that something called a goblin is coming for us, uh, um, Aillén, that’s what he called it.”

“Are the twins still at the Nemeton?” The darach asked quietly, feeling his blood run cold at the monster’s name. He saw Yeshua nod and clenched his teeth in determination. “Take me to them.”

 

The rain washed down from the mountain and fell in thick, uninterrupted sheets. Korey was already soaked through by the time they left the forests a day and half’s travel from the mountain. He could see only a little way in front him, following the reassuring figure of Iordáin as the hunter guided him through the changing landscape. They were traversing the rolling hills that separated the Southern lands from the coastal regions. On a clear day, Iordáin had said that they would have been able to see all the way out to the great ocean in the far distance, perhaps even catch a glimpse of the islands rising up like mounds of grey and green stone amongst the dazzling azure. But today was not such a day, and Korey trudged on in silence, his mind dulled by the cold water trickling down his back.

His hood provided little shelter from the wind that suddenly whipped along the crests of the hills and gathered in powerful gusts in the gullies between each one. But the rain seemed to be lessening and Korey sped up, so he could walk alongside Iordáin instead. “Will we reach the ocean today?”

“Perhaps.” Iordáin shrugged and glanced at him. “In the evening, maybe. But the spirit said that tomorrow was the day when your heart would return, whatever that means.”

“It was Stiles.” Korey insisted as Iordáin frowned. “He looked different and sounded distant, but it was him, Iordáin.”

“If you say so.”

“Hmm.” Korey glared at the hunter’s unconvinced expression. “Fine, who did you think it was? And why did you agree to come with me if you don’t believe it was Stiles?”

“I believe it was a spirit.” Iordáin answered carefully as they crested another hill. “Whether it was actually Stiles or just a messenger to carry his words, I do not know. But it made sense that the druid would reach out to you, especially now.”

“The veil is thin.”

“Exactly, the spirits and monsters of the Otherworld will be at their most powerful over the next few days, able to break through the veil and deliver their messages and warnings, or to affect the minds of lesser warriors and smiths than you, Korey.” Iordáin nudged him playfully until the younger man finally gave in and smiled at him. The hunter grinned back, gaze lingering on the way Korey’s face seemed to light up with a happy glow whenever he smiled. “And there is also the fact that I would never hear the end of it from Theodric if something were to happen to you out here in the wilderness.”

“Thanks,” Korey replied drily. “I suppose it’s good I have a guide. Though I don’t understand why we’re going this way; I thought you said that you travelled through the Marshes of Cuilbeg the last time you went to the ocean?”

“When did I tell you that?”

“When you first came to Scotti’s clan and told me and Liam about your adventures.” Korey answered, barely hesitating over his once-lover’s name. “Why are we going around it?”

“I was lucky to enter that marsh and leave it alive.” Iordáin replied after a moment of looking around and changing their direction. “This way, we’ll find shelter under the trees over there.”

“Oh.” Korey followed his outstretched hand and saw line of trees along a narrow river bank nearby. “Why were you lucky?”

“The gods must have been looking out for me.” Iordáin smirked and continued to speak as they descended the last hill. “A long time ago, a great battle was fought on the flat plains above the ocean and dunes, where the marshes now stretch, during the night and day of Samhain. Magic and metal clashed in brutal combat that spilled the blood of hundreds of warriors and druids alike across the ground, poisoning the soil.”

“Who was fighting?”

“I do not know,” The hunter shrugged. “I heard the story from a darach in the lands south of where the twins live. She said that it was a war between men and women, beasts and spirits, all were called upon by the Chieftains to fight and die for scraps of land and chains of gold. Neither side won the battle; fighting themselves to a bloody standstill.”

“That sounds grim, and somewhat familiar.” Korey muttered, hurrying forward to get under the canopy of still-green trees. “What happened to turn it into a marsh?”

“The story goes that as the last of the druids were dying, they tried to call upon aid from the Otherworld, but died before they could complete a spell of summoning.” Iordáin joined him and indicated that they should keep walking. “One of the Tuatha Dé Danann almost came through to save them, but was instead stuck, half in and half out of the Otherworld. Time moved on, and the blood of all those who died on the Plains of Cuilbeg turned the ground to mush and water that formed in the pits and craters formed by the magical spells has remained blood-red until this day.”

“And the Tuath Dé? What happened to the god?” Korey was looking at Iordáin in fascination, barely glancing at the ground as they stepped over roots and rocks. “Did it escape?”

“Yes, after countless cycles of the seasons, some wandering magic broke the god from his prison and sent him spiralling back to the Otherworld.” Iordáin replied, pausing his story in order to reach out and stop Korey from tripping over. “But the Tuath Dé that returned to the Otherworld was not the same as the one that had left it so long before, and his time stuck between the worlds had driven the Burner insane. He was supposed to guide the lost souls of the dead back to the entrance of the Otherworld, using his torch to light the way and his harp to soothe the frightened spirits of those who had recently died.”

“Ah!” Korey grunted as his foot got tangled in a root and he twisted out of Iordáin’s grasp, falling onto the ground and hitting his knee off a mossy stump. “Gah! Ow!”

“We should stop for a moment.” Iordáin smirked and sat next to Korey, picking a relatively dry spot as the smith rubbed his knee. He pulled around the travel sack that was slung over one shoulder and took out pieces of salted meat, bread, and a handful of late blackberries that he had found that morning. “Here, eat this.”

“Will you tell me what happened next?” Korey asked hopefully as he accepted the food gratefully. “You’re the only good storyteller in the clan; Theodric is never able to keep a straight face and everyone knows if the hero wins or loses by the middle! Stiles was a good storyteller though…he knew them all.” The smith’s voice became a whisper as he stared at the wet ground. “Sometimes, sometimes he used his magic to show us what had happened; ghostly figures coming to life around the fire in the middle of the roundhouse, heroes battling ancient monsters, or honoring the gods, or performing some great deed.”

“Mmh hmm.” Iordáin let Korey speak, reaching his arm over the smith’s shoulder to hold him comfortingly.

“Once, it was my name-day, but I don’t think Stiles knew that, he told us the story of Goibniu, the greatest smith to ever hold a hammer.” Korey’s eyes gleamed as he remembered; it had been a few cycles before, the first time that the druid had looked at him with more than just a fleeting glance, almost as if there had been… “Um, I, uh, will you tell me the rest of your story now?” He sniffed and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. Korey leaned further into Iordáin’s warm embrace as the hunter resumed speaking, finding comfort in the man’s regular heartbeat and the cadence of his voice.

“So, the crazed Tuath Dé, Aillén Mac Midgna was his name, began to be warped by magic and madness, consuming his torch and breathing fire, his magical harp turned to evil purpose until he was cast out by the other gods and turned into a goblin.” The hunter gestured in the air with his free hand to illustrate his words. “The foul creature drifted from realm to realm within the Otherworld, emerging only into our world on Samhain to attack the descendants of those who had called him forth from the Otherworld in the first place. Aillén burned the hall of the High King of Tara each cycle until the bravest warrior that ever lived was able to stop him: Fionn mac Cumhaill!”

“And the marsh?”

“Ahh,” Iordáin sighed grimly. “It is said that the marshes remain cursed and each Samhain, the spirits of the restless dead rise up and re-enact their terrible battle. Woe to any living soul who passes through those lands!”

 

Lidia sat upon the Chieftain’s chair in the great roundhouse that had been constructed in the fortified village by the entrance to the Divide. All the remnants of Coltún’s rule as Chieftain had been expunged and his proud, arrogant, self-obsessed warriors had been stripped of their titles and excesses; given over to the mines for common guards or sent on their way into the world like their erstwhile Chieftain. It was her time to lead the clan, to guide them through the troubled waters of recovery and reunion between families and friends. The curse had been lifted and Lidia intended to see that their clan would never have reason to be the target of such wrath again.

That was not to say that they had given up all of Coltún’s ways; they were still the most handsome and attractive clan in all the lands, in Lidia’s mind at least. She enjoyed seeing her people show off their restored beauty by staying loyal to the lack of clothing that Coltún had insisted on; keeping the smooth skin of muscular men and youths oiled up and gleaming. The women were similarly adorned, though Lidia had no taste for them, preferring to keep her court full of strapping young men in as little attire as possible, their skilled hands and cocks were hers to use as she desired for show or pleasure.

Lidia smiled to herself as the sounds of loud grunting from in front of the roaring fire intensified and the slap of flesh on flesh made her stomach tighten excitedly. Her new favorite, Breton, was pounding in and out of a red-haired warrior she did not care to learn the name of, his ass cheeks bouncing and clenching rapidly as his cock filled the tightness of the warrior’s hole. “Mmh…”

“Having fun, Lidia?”

“What?!” She jumped and pulled her hand from where it had drifted between her thighs. Lidia looked around quickly, taking a sharp breath when her eyes landed on a shimmering silver figure stepping out of the fire in the center of the roundhouse. She frowned irritably as Breton and the warrior stopped fucking and scrambled backwards out of the way of the transparent druid. “Bah, leave us!”

Stiles smirked at her and shrugged, his voice ethereal and strange. “Your playthings do not need to leave, Lidia, they can stay, I will not be here for long.”

“What do you want, spirit?” Lidia sat upright and glared through him, the naked men around the room looking towards her for guidance. “Fine, stay. But you are not Stiles, I saw him die on the field of battle.”

“Surely one with such a deep magical connection as yours should not discount me so easily,” Stiles smiled again and folded his hands into the opposite sleeves of his long, silver robe, the spectral fabric glittering in the light from the fire. “Besides, I come with glad tidings.”

“I am listening.”

“Your former Chieftain, Coltún, has found refuge among Scotti’s clan; they welcome him with open arms, the deceptions and schemes of the past left there.” Stiles walked slowly back and forth before Lidia’s chair, his feet just above the ground, pacing through the air. “Soon, an opportunity will present itself for the Keepers of the Divide to prove that they too are trustworthy, that they too have left the ways of war behind.”

“What are you asking for, spirit?” Lidia rested her hands on the arms of the chair. “What opportunity?”

“You shall have to keep your eyes on the world instead of on the flesh!” Stiles replied vaguely, his form beginning to fade away and vanish from view.

“Spirit?” Lidia shouted out, standing up suddenly. “Stiles?!”

“It looks as though he has gone,” Breton spoke up, one hand on his slick cock as he looked between the fire and Lidia. “Will we resume?”

“Do.” Lidia sat back down slowly and frowned as she thought about the cryptic message, but the sounds of sweet pleasure drew her attention back to Breton. He was joined by another man; this one filling Breton’s ass with a thick cock as Lidia’s hand drifted to where it had been before the untimely interruption. “Very nice…”

 

“Hmm.” Nolan frowned and looked around at the trees of the forest that crowded in on either side, his large, golden crown teetering precariously as Macen darted around him, arms held up in case the crown toppled over. “This place I do not recognise!”

“I told you that the fork is past these trees.” Gaibriél called out as he followed the two Aes Sídhe through the forest, tugging on the rope that trailed out behind him. Three bandits were bound to the rope with flaxen thread, the magical strands keeping them silent and obedient. Their clothes were torn and ragged, the men glaring at Gaibriél as he stopped behind Nolan, bloody gashes ripped across their scarred faces. “And after the fork is the brook, with the river on our right. Or we can take the other way and go through the old forest and past the tombs.”

“You do not fear the spirits that walk the night so close to Samhain?” Macen asked, turning away from Nolan. “But I suppose that the tombs would be the quicker-”

“Argh!” Nolan squeaked loudly as his overly tall crown hit a branch and toppled to the ground with a musical chiming and dull clanging. “Macen! You amadán!

“Apologies! I was talking to Gaibriél!” Macen ducked and leapt around the hunter of men as Nolan chased after him, trying to slap the other Fae. “It’s not broken at all; made of solid gold like the first one!”

“Gah!” Nolan grunted as he accidentally slapped Gaibriél’s stomach.

“Ow!”

“No!” The King of the Aes Sídhe squeaked again and glared around Gaibriél at Macen. “Now look what you made me do!”

“Enough!” Gaibriél shouted out as his prisoners looked on silently. He glanced from Macen to Nolan, both standing on either side of him, their heads only coming up to his collarbones. “It will be dark soon, and I do not want to be traipsing around the forest at night. Don’t you have a fairy fort nearby where we can stay?”

“Very well.” Nolan sighed and nodded at the other Aes Sídhe. “Macen, pick up my crown! Gaibriél, follow me.” The king placed his hand on the hunter’s bare arm and guided him through the undergrowth, off the faint trail that led through the woods. “There is such a place nearby, though I do not think that any of my kin still live there. The mound was not big enough for the sheep to move about comfortably; you will need to bend your head.”

“As long as it’s dry and we can rest for the night.” Gaibriél muttered, suppressing a laugh as he heard Macen struggling to keep up with them as he carried Nolan’s weighty crown. “Tomorrow, we can make it to Scotti’s village and deliver the sacrifices to Theodric.”

“Hmmm, the darach, yes.” Nolan nodded absently and held up a hand as they reached a dark thicket, shadows crowding in on all sides. The Fairy King whispered a spell into the bushes and smiled to himself as golden sparks erupted from the leaves. “This way.” He beckoned and guided them through the thicket into a sheltered glen, the gentle tinkle of nearby water falling from somewhere nearby gave the place a peaceful aura.

“Wow!” Gaibriél muttered aloud, looking around. There were tall, ancient trees on all sides, the edges of the glen surrounded by more thick clusters of bushes, and the grass under his feet was as soft as deep piles of winter furs. The hunter of men walked forward, tilting his face back to look up at the smattering of stars overhead; white and blue and purple ones winking down at him.

“This way.” Nolan repeated as Macen joined him at the edge of a large earthen mound that dominated the center of the glen. Verdant green grass had overgrown along its shaggy sides, the glimmer of white stone lost under hanging vines and trailing moss. Gaibriél stood next to the Fairy King as he reached up to trace a complex pattern into the dark earth that covered what the hunter assumed was the entrance to the mound. “Soon.” Nolan murmured for his benefit and then the Aes Sídhe stood back.

“We must wait for the old magic to awaken.” Macen added as an explanation. He pointed at a nearby tree trunk and walked around to stand behind Nolan when he sat down next to Gaibriél. “Yip! Yar! Gargh!” Macen grunted and struggled to lift the massively ornate golden crown to place on top of Nolan’s head. The Fae King nodded happily when he was once again crowned. “Ta dah!”

“Good, good!” Nolan chirped at him, his voice high and sweet. “Now don’t get distracted by Gaibriél again, he’s mine!”

“Haha,” Gaibriél laughed quietly as Macen glared at his king behind his back. “There’s more than enough of me to go around, Nolan.”

“Hmm.” Nolan frowned, but suddenly his expression brightened, and he jumped up, his crown wiggling dangerously. “Ah ha! The way is open!”

Gaibriél stood and turned to look back at the Fairy fort, his jaw slackening as he watched golden threads of magic peel back the seasons of creeping plants and black earth to reveal a gleaming white portal into a warmly lit tunnel. The hunter of men glanced at his prisoners and pressed his lips together. “Do you have somewhere I can keep them for the night?”

“Here.” Macen patted the ground and a large sapling grew suddenly from the earth, thickening and lengthening as it did so. “Tie them around this and I will cast an enchantment that will send them into a dreamless sleep until the morning.”

“I would have done that!” Nolan scolded Macen when he returned to see the prisoners slumped over. “Go inside and find something for Gaibriél to eat.”

“Yes, my king.” Macen pouted and slunk away.

“Hmm, he needs to return to the court.” Nolan said to Gaibriél as they stood together by the entrance to the Fairy Mound. He turned and hugged Gaibriél tightly. “There are plenty of other mortals for him to chase in the nearby villages, but you’re all mine!”

“Of course, Nolan.” Gaibriél grinned at him and kissed the Aes Sídhe lightly. “Shall we go inside now?”

“Yes!” Nolan dashed off, his crown skimming under the roof of the tunnel as Gaibriél lingered outside. “Macen! I said food, not dried bread from twenty cycles ago!”

Gaibriél chuckled at the antics of the two Fae, turning to look around the clearing as a strange sensation crept over his skin. He spotted a mist of shimmering silver and was about to investigate it when he heard Nolan calling for him. “I am coming!”

The spirit of the druid Stiles smiled at Gaibriél’s retreating back and faded back into the Otherworld, content that at least one of his old friends was on the right path to happiness.

Chapter Text

Theodric looked up as he heard voices carrying on the wind that blew in wild gusts down the path from the village to the Nemeton grove. The darach paused in his preparations and turned away from the mighty oak to see who was coming towards them. “Yeshua?”

“Yes, Theodric?”

“The sun has almost set, and the night of Samhain is upon us.” Theodric frowned at the sudden bark of laughter from the still obscured travellers along the path. “Has Gaibriél arrived yet? We need those sacrifices in place before the ceremony begins.”

“I believe this is him now.” Yeshua nodded as Theodric gestured impatiently for him to leave. “I’ll check and see.”

Theodric grunted, turning his attention back to the stone altar and the towering Nemeton above him. The darach had kept his emotions guarded around Yeshua after the druid’s display of panic and fear the day before had unsettled the villagers and sparked whispers of doom. But Theodric acted quickly to staunch any disquiet and kept his own counsel on the disturbing apparition that the twins had witnessed. It was clear to him that this was no ordinary message from the Otherworld, and though he was loathe to think it, should it turn out to be vain hope, Theodric was almost certain that his old friend Stiles was still looking out for them.

“It’s them!” Yeshua cried out from behind him and as Theodric looked his way, the group arrived along the wooded path from the village. “The sacrifices are here.”

“Good.” Theodric nodded and examined the captured sacrifices, before his gaze shifted to the lightly dressed hunter of men, Gaibriél. “Thank you, the blood of these captives will make for a fine offering to the gods. We do not seek blessings of war or power beyond our mortal grasp; only the protection from storm and snow and starvation. And these will be perfect!”

“As you say, darach.” Gaibriél replied quietly, his expression becoming sombre.

“Why were you late?”

“Apologies!” Nolan chirped, stepping from behind Gaibriél to grin toothily at Theodric, his lofty crown hidden behind the hunter’s quiver. “We found shelter last night in an old Fae dwelling and lost track of time in the morning, indulging in the many pleasures of-”

“I understand.” Theodric cut him off quickly as the Aes Sídhe caressed Gaibriél’s muscular arms in a way that was both hypnotic and somewhat disturbing. “It matters not, you are here now. Bring them this way.”

“We will not stay for your dark ritual, darach.” Macen said and tugged Nolan away from Gaibriél. “Find us on the edge of the forest when you are ready, hunter, we will be waiting for you there.”

“Hmm.” Theodric grunted and forced himself not to laugh when Nolan’s massive crown bobbled back and forth as the Fairy King bickered with his vassal along the path back to the village. “And you, Gaibriél, are you staying?”

“Of course,” He nodded and gestured at the unlit bonfires placed around the grove in a circle. “I’ll wait here until the rest of Scotti’s clan arrive for the ceremony.”

“As you wish.” Theodric left Yeshua to prepare the sacrifices, seeing the eager glint in the druid’s eyes. At least Stiles had enough time to instruct him in the basics. The darach dismissed his doubts about Yeshua and went back to standing in front of the altar. He spread his hands out along the rough stone surface and touched his fingers against the ritual daggers that were glinting in the light from the torches placed on either side of the altar.

It was not the ritual that occupied his mind, however, but the warning from the twins that darkened his thoughts. Should the Burner, Aillén, come through the veil here and set fire to the village, to the forest, to the Nemeton itself, Theodric was afraid that he did not possess the magic to stop the monster. He had some spells and allies that he could call on; enough blood had been spilled in this sacred place for the necromancer to pull forth powerful Revenants. They would buy him some precious moments to make Scotti and Malia leave, but to defeat a terror such as Aillén, that was not a feat Theodric could achieve.

He shook his head slowly and looked at the thick roots of the Nemeton, his heart leaden as he remembered the day that Stiles’ body had laid there, burning to ash. “Where are you now, my old friend, right when we need you?”

 

Liam hung on grimly to the sides of the currach and shut his eyes as Íosác skilfully rowed them between the looming rocks and sudden rapids that made up this part of the river. He felt his stomach roiling as cold water splashed into his face and swamped over his boots. They were travelling fast, much faster than the languid pace that had been set over the previous two days. Liam had been impatient then, ill-at-ease to enjoy the passing scenery and the feel of the last rays of sun on his skin before winter’s gloom took over as Íosác had been, lounging naked in the prow of the boat. Now, however, he was desperately wishing to return to the peaceful stillness of the great river beyond Íosác’s village. “Ugh!”

“Hahaha!” Íosác laughed gleefully as the currach bounced and curved frighteningly close to a stack of jagged rocks. But the Chieftain was able to steer them over the edge of another fall along the series of rapids that would guide them towards the ocean. He glanced over his shoulder at Liam sitting rigidly behind him and grinned at the warrior’s discomfort. “Don’t worry, soon we’ll be past these waters and back to calm rivers! Oh, big one coming up!”

“I really should have listened to you at lunch…” Liam groaned and took one hand off the side to rub his protesting stomach. The warrior opened his eyes in time to see the rushing, white water funnelling them into a slightly wider patch of the river. The flow was still strong and frothing around them, whooshing forward under a spray of rainbow colors. “Please tell me that’s not-”

“Hold on tight!” Íosác called out as he pulled the oars in and grasped the sides of the currach, Liam mimicking him immediately. “Here we go!”

“Noooooo!” Liam screamed as the boat soared out over the water fall, the river falling away beneath them. For a moment, it seemed as though they would glide gracefully through the air like the birds, but then the currach dropped its prow and they plummeted into the river again, landing with a deafening smack onto the water. “Argh!” Liam shouted out as he was thrown forwards against Íosác.

“I have you!” The Chieftain grunted as he grasped Liam’s arm with one hand and used the other to steer them away from the plunge pool and towards one of the sandy banks on the other side of the river. “Be calm, we are safe.”

“Safe?!” Liam glared at him as he got unsteadily to his feet and jumped out onto the shore. The warrior looked himself over and scowled at Íosác with even more heat than before, “I’m soaked! And breathless! And my heart feels like it will burst from my chest! How, how…argh!”

“Haha,” Íosác laughed good-naturedly at him and climbed out. “I did warn you that you would need my help to navigate the rapids. And your clothes will dry just the same as your body will calm down.”

“Grr!”

“This area is sheltered and safe, among the last such places we will find before we reach the ocean.” Íosác looked around carefully after he dragged the currach half-way up the shore. “And we should rest here until nightfall, then we can cross through the Flooded Forest.”

“The what?” Liam stopped emptying his boots of water and looked sharply at him.

“Savages live among the trees due west of here.” Íosác muttered darkly. “It is not safe to continue on along the river while they may be watching. Cursed by the gods and forsaken by the clans, they are barbarians, eating the flesh of those they capture, be they beast or Fae or men. No, we will not risk that fate.”

“Very well.” Liam shivered. “Can we get a fire going at least? My teeth are beginning to chatter and everything is wet.”

“Certainly.” Íosác smirked knowingly at him as they both began to strip out of their sodden clothing. “I can think of a way for us to get warm quickly without having to wait for the fire!”

“I imagine you can.” Liam matched his smirk and stretched his arms above his head, naked at last as he kicked away his drenched trousers. “Let me set the fire and then you can show me those ways!”

 

The flames from the lit bonfires jumped and sparked up into the clear night air as the clan of Scotti came together in one large group before the mighty Nemeton. Theodric took a deep breath and nodded at Yeshua, each dressed in the long, flowing robes of their calling; one white, one black. The sacrifices had been stripped and bathed, their still wet skin glistening in the light of torches around the altar they had been bound upon. In any other situation, their closeness and arranging would have been an erotic delight, but Theodric touched his hand against the haft of his dagger and turned his eyes from the men. He looked out at Scotti and Malia standing side by side in front of their clan, swollen in number and renown with the passing of the cycle. “It is time, druid.”

“Guardians of the Nemeton, we gather here under the sacred boughs of the mighty oak to honor the gods and ask for a boon in the coming cycle!” Yeshua called out, his arms raised above his head. “In the name of Aed, I offer these sacrifices!”

“Oh great Donn, keeper of the dead and guardian of the Otherworld, hear our prayer and accept this offering!” Theodric called out, his voice strong even as an unnatural wind whipped through the grove and pulled at the flames of the bonfires. The darach wetted his lips and continued on as Yeshua faltered. “These men are strong of arm, but weak of heart, take them and do with their souls as you will! We ask only for protection from winter’s fury and the coming of the new cycle!”

The druid and darach walked back to the altar and each pulled out their special, jagged blades. Theodric nodded once at Yeshua and together they plunged their daggers into the hearts of the two sacrifices at the furthest ends of the altar. He swallowed hard, feeling the magical energies dance and spark as the barrier between worlds began to crumble completely, Theodric gestured hurriedly for Yeshua to join him in front of the third sacrifice.

“Take this man from our world as the veil crashes down among us and spirits walk the land! Take him, Donn, take him!” Yeshua called out, his fingers splayed out over the struggling captive’s chest as Theodric raised his dagger in both hands. They chanted the words together, getting louder and louder until at last Theodric drove his dagger deep into the man’s chest and snuffed out his life. “Glory to the gods!”

The darach stepped back as blood fell from the altar in a waterfall of crimson and the air around his body felt unnatural, his teeth aching as the ancient, powerful magic of their gods uncurled itself in the grove. Theodric reached out and tugged Yeshua backwards as the Nemeton began to glow with a fierce, startling blue light. “What…”

He raised his arm to shield his eyes as a sudden explosion of bright whiteness rushed towards them and he was blinded. Theodric grunted and blinked rapidly, seeing the twisting realm of the Otherworld laid bare in front of him. There was a long, rolling plain of endless greenery under a cloudless azure sky, the landscape uninterrupted save for a silver shape that resolved slowly into a familiar figure, his white robe gleaming as though it was threaded with gemstones. Theodric felt his teeth unclench and his stomach tighten instead as Stiles smiled at them and stepped out of the broken veil and onto the ground in front of the Nemeton.

“Greetings, Theodric.”

 

Stiles looked around the Nemeton grove, his eyes passing over the suddenly prostrated clansmen and glancing across Yeshua and Gaibriél to finally rest on Theodric. The druid moved forwards, past the altar and the offered sacrifices, towards Scotti and Malia who had fallen to their knees on seeing him. He extended a hand down and clasped the Chieftain’s arm, “Rise my friends, you do not need to kneel before me.”

“But you…you came back?” Scotti asked, his voice choked with emotion, tears running unashamedly down his cheeks. “You are back, right?”

“For tonight, yes, I have returned.” Stiles brushed away the Chieftain’s tears with his thumb, the silvery glow of his hands contrasting starkly against Scotti’s dark skin. “Though I will have to go back to the Otherworld once Samhain has passed and the veil returns to full strength.”

“I understand.” Scotti shut his eyes and took a deep breath, laying a hand on his sword to steady himself. “Why have you returned, master druid?”

“I have need of Theodric.” The druid turned back towards the darach and walked over to them. He paused next to Yeshua and nodded approvingly at his former acolyte. “You have much to learn yet, and the challenge of this Samhain has not ended with the sacrifice of those men. Keep your faith and remember what I taught you, Yeshua, and the clan will see you as their druid by morning’s first light.”

“Yes, master druid.” Yeshua bowed shortly at Stiles’ whispered advice.

“Ah, Theodric, my old friend,” Stiles smiled at the darach and laid his hands on Theodric’s shoulders. He searched the suspicious expression in front of him and nodded slowly. “All will become clear soon enough, though we should speak alone so not to reveal all our secrets, hmm?”

“I was not sure until now if you were really him, or just a shade seeking to deceive us.” Theodric grinned at Stiles and pulled him into a hug.

“Haha, a wise approach.” Stiles laughed and stepped back from him, gesturing towards the parted veil and rolling hills behind them. “We must travel across the Otherworld tonight; it is the only time in the cycle that we can achieve what we must.”

“Still speaking in riddles, at least.” Theodric muttered, but he nodded his agreement a moment later and sheathed his dagger. “Yeshua, the veil is open, and the gods, it seems, have accepted our offering. Keep the village safe and watch for wandering spirits until I return.”

Stiles extended his hand and waited until Theodric grasped it, then the druid walked forward determinedly. He didn’t hesitate even as the darach slowed slightly at the entrance to the breach, instead striding through it onto the rolling hills beyond. Stiles glanced over his shoulder and waved his free hand, sealing the way behind them. “I do not want to risk anything slipping through from this side.”

“That seems prudent.” Theodric frowned at him. “Now that we are alone…I did not expect you to be the thing that escaped the Otherworld tonight. Éatán and Aiden received a message only yesterday that the goblin Aillén Mac Midgna would emerge to threaten Scotti’s clan.”

“I am aware,” Stiles smirked. “Who do you think sent that message? I knew the twins would realize the meaning of Aillén’s apparition and the image that was carved into the sandy ground of their home. The earth among our clans could not hold such magic as clearly, Theodric.”

“Hmm, so I suppose you are behind the tales of spirits roaming the forest at night too?”

“Not all of them.” Stiles shrugged and led the way up one of the hills to gain a better vantage on the rest of the Otherworld. “You know as well as I do that the approach of Samhain causes the spirits of the restless and the concerned to rise and make themselves visible in the ancient places of the world. What was once hearth and home is now forest and glen, nature retaking all that was once-”

“Stiles!” Theodric cut across him sharply. “You may have an eternity to spend thinking about the world, but I do not! How am I meant to defend the clans from Aillén’s wrath?”

“Apologies, Theodric.” Stiles offered him a small smile. “To answer your question will take us deeper into the Otherworld than you have ventured before, and we will require assistance.”

“Roscoe!” Theodric exclaimed happily as the big blue bear bounded up towards them. No longer spectral as he had been in the real world, the fearsome war bear was as solid and as real as Stiles appeared to be. The darach patted the bear’s wide head when Roscoe snorted welcomingly at him. “We’re going to ride him, then?”

“Indeed.” Stiles climbed on first and then pulled Theodric up after him, the darach wrapping his arms around Stiles’ torso. “We must make it to the outer reaches of the realm of Mag Mell where Aillén’s spirit is, hopefully, still trapped. I will tell you what you desire to know along the way.”

 

“Mag Mell…” Theodric mused as Roscoe sprinted across the wide grassy plains with endless stamina. “I know that name, though it has been many cycles since Dictone’s stories, hmm?”

“As you say,” Stiles pointed to the left and Roscoe changed direction. “Although the realm of infinite pleasure is open to me, I have not yet been to the islands to experience its delights for myself. And we will not be going there either, Theodric, only to the edge, for that is where Aillén is kept prisoner.”

“A pity.” Theodric muttered as his thoughts turned into a frenzy of speculation for the many delights offered by Mag Mell. “Still, I will not be saddened by that for I am reunited with you, Stiles.”

The druid smiled to himself as they rode on, crossing the verdant plains and onto a vast, sandy expanse that stretched as far as the eye could see in any direction. “I watched from the shore, however, and saw an abundance of handsome youths that would exhaust even the legendary appetites of the River Clans! But it is not all pleasures of the flesh; Mag Mell is a place of bounty and feasts, of craftsmanship that brings a tear to your eye, of heroes and warriors retelling the stories of their victories.”

“But what rests at the shore to keep you from crossing, Stiles?” Theodric adjusted his grip to move closer to the druid. “Why is the Burner seeking to return? Aillén was vanquished long ago, so long that the number of cycles it has been has vanished from memory.”

“It was an ancestor of mine that killed Aillén.” Stiles answered after a moment of silence. “I had always thought that perhaps more of our bloodline was spread out across the Northern lands, but I was mistaken; I was the last of our proud and noble family. Aillén was trapped in the Otherworld in a prison sealed by our living blood.”

“Powerful magic.”

“Ancient and almost unbreakable.” Stiles nodded as Theodric drew a sharp breath. “As you are thinking, with my death, the last person with living blood of the line of Fionn mac Cumhaill had passed from the mortal world. And the seals began to crack. Soon, Aillén will be able to break free and resume his terrible vengeance. But we will not let that happen.”

“So, Aillén has not yet escaped? This isn’t like Balor?”

“No, it’s not like Balor at all.”

“I hope you are right.” Theodric whispered, looking up as the sands finally gave way to a stunning vista of cobalt waves. There was an island in the center of the ocean that gleamed with bright colors and distant spires of elegant silver that made Theodric stare in wonder. He was shaken out of his reverie when Roscoe again changed course and brought them towards a massive circular disc that was buried upright in the sands along the shore. “What in the name of the gods is that?!”

“The final seal that keeps Aillén from escaping.” Stiles replied determinedly as they continued to approach the towering stone circle. It looked as though it had been carved from smooth, polished limestone and stretched almost as tall as the Mountain Clan’s rugged peak, casting a shadow across the entire beach and into the ocean. Azure waves washed against the part that was lodged into the shallows, as birds wheeled around them, flapping in an unnatural fury. “We are almost there, Theodric.”

As Roscoe slowed in front of the seal, the darach was able to see that the surface of the stone was covered in thousands of intricate, delicate runic symbols and the very center of the disc was glowing a bright orange. “Is that-”

“Aillén is close to breaking free!” Stiles cried out and flung out his right arm, a spectral sword forming in his hand. “Hurry, Roscoe, I can see sand demons appearing at the base of the seal!”

Chapter Text

“Sand demons?!” Theodric yelped, peering around Stiles to see strange shapes in the sand twisting into stick-like humans, the grains melting into liquid and hardening again. “What in Donn’s name are they?”

“Aillén’s influence grows outwards from the seal, but his power is not so great that we cannot defeat them together, Theodric.” The druid replied calmly and directed Roscoe into a charge, scattering the first wave of sand demons to the left and right. Stiles swung with his spectral blade and cleaved one of them in two. “Yarr!”

“Let me off!” Theodric demanded and jumped down from Roscoe’s back when the bear slowed to smash his head into another demon. “Much better!” He grinned as his magic sprung into his hands instantly, coronas of black fire erupting around his clenched fists. “Hahahaha! I had forgotten the power boost of Otherworld magic!”

“Attack them, Theodric!” Stiles had whirled around and was using his sword to strike down the now fully formed sand demons. They glittered and shone in the noonday sun like dazzling glass sculptures, long spikes extending from the approximation of arms to try and skewer Roscoe’s flanks. The druid roared something at them that Theodric didn’t understand and suddenly the nearest two demons were blasted into sand by spears of blistering light that came from Stiles’ outstretched hands. “Haha! Drive them back!”

“Easy!” Theodric laughed with him and vigorously crossed his forearms across his chest, sending blades of black fire outwards in a circle, cutting down another two of the sand demons. “Rawr!”

“Over there!”

“I see them!” The darach turned his attention to the base of the seal where the last wave of sand demons were struggling to rise, their formation much slower than the others. “We’re winning!”

“Aillén’s power has not yet fully manifested.” Stiles called out and slid off Roscoe’s back to join him. Together they strode forwards, spells forming in their hands as the demons rushed together to form one large shape. “Hmm, Strength of the Wild?”

“We haven’t performed that spell in a long time.” Theodric glanced at him.

“There was no need for it against Findabair.” Stiles replied and clenched his right hand into a fist. Green fire began to cycle around his torso and right arm, sinking into his hand as he raised the left to channel a different, blue-colored flame. “On my word…”

“Ready.” Theodric nodded determinedly and let the abundant magic of the Otherworld flow through him, harnessing the underlying chaotic strands to form his side of the duel casted spell. Red tendrils bled into the air around his hands and a black shadow draped across his torso as the suffocating power of the spell fought to control his mind. “Hurry, Stiles!”

”Domhan agus uisce, lasair agus scáth, eilimintí den domhan...garda an áit seo!” Stiles finished the incantation just as the sand demon tried to stand upright, their combined spell rushing out from the druid and darach to crash into the center of the monster. “Hah!”

“Good.” Theodric gasped, bending over, his hands on his knees. “That magic is stronger than I expected.”

“As is all such power in the Otherworld,” Stiles grinned at him and nodded at the motes of sand that drifted around them, all that remained of Aillén’s demonic minions. “Like going from milk to mead as a child, and never going back!”

“It will be hard to part from such strength.” Theodric muttered as Stiles helped him to stand. He swallowed hard and looked up at the towering stone disc that stood before them. “Yet I feel that defeating those monsters was the easy part; Aillén still resides within his prison and soon his strength will be enough to break through the seal.”

“Agreed, we must work quickly.”

 

“Hmm,” Stiles pursed his lips as he examined the carved surface of the seal. Theodric was running his hands across it as Roscoe sat down behind them, waiting patiently. “Do you have any ideas?”

“It’s very warm.” Theodric pulled back and looked at him with a scowl. “And clammy, I do not like this.”

“I imagine not.” Stiles stepped away and craned his neck to look up at the center of the seal. “The enchantment used to keep Aillén locked away is powerful, and with us both here to wield the magic and keep the spell balanced, we should be able to reactivate the seals and return the Burner to the depth of this realm.”

“No,” Theodric shook his head and pointed at one section of the engraved symbols running along the edge. “This piece, I’ve seen these pictograms before during past, foolish, ventures into the Otherworld. It is ancient magic, yes, Stiles, but it is powered by blood; living blood. Yours.”

“So?”

“So we cannot simply recast the spell and expect the incantation to hold when you’re, well,” Theodric gestured lamely at him.

“Dead. I see.” Stiles frowned and nodded slowly. “What if we changed the spell? Altered a part of it to work with a different type of magic?”

“Such as?”

“You are a necromancer, Theodric.” The druid held out his hands and waited as Theodric stared at him. A moment passed, and a large hammer and chisel materialised into Stiles’ outstretched hands. “We change the symbol for ‘living blood’ into-”

“Eternal spirit!” Theodric grinned excitedly and took the offered tools. “I can tap into the endless supply of souls that roam the Otherworld to bind Aillén in place, and we can use both our families to power the spell. Neither of us have any kin left alive anyway so our ancestors are many.”

“What do you need me to do?”

“Grant me your power in a moment, please.” Theodric frowned, concentrating as he raised the hammer and tapped it on the head of the chisel. He moved quickly, feeling heat blossom around his hands as the magical symbols were beaten away. The darach swallowed hard as there was a sudden, triumphant cry and the seal shuddered violently under his hands. “Stiles!”

“Keep going!” The druid called out reassuringly and turned to face Theodric fully. He stretched his arms outwards and raised his face to the sky, channelling his magic into the darach. “Cumhacht!” There was a loud howling as though a storm was battering against the shoreline and Stiles’ power manifested in bands of bright, white energy that flowed through the air and into Theodric.

“Ah!” The darach gasped and blinked as the magic poured into him and he dropped the tools, his fingers curling in on themselves. Theodric felt his feet lift off the ground and he flung his arms out wide as an endless torrent of power flooded through his limbs; all spells, all knowledge, all magic at his command. “Mwhaha! Mwhahaha! Hahahahaha! Behold my infinite wrath!” The darach cried out and smashed his clenched hand into the open palm of the other. There was a crash of thunder overhead and great balls of green fire plummeted from the sky to explode into the sand and ocean around them. “Mwhahaha-”

Theodric!

The snap of Stiles’ voice sent him tumbling back to the ground and suddenly the dizzying power drained from him. “Ugh…” Theodric shook his head and got onto his knees, pushing his hood back from his face as the disapproving expression of the druid filled his vision. “Apologies…I got overwhelmed.”

“Mmh, darachs!” Stiles muttered and pulled him upright as the last shower of fireballs impacted the water behind them with a splash. “Always looking for power they cannot control!”

“Yes, Stiles.” Theodric felt his cheeks burning and he picked the hammer and chisel up again. “Um, why don’t you wield the power and I’ll just change the symbol, and then together we can cast the spell?”

“Very well.” Stiles smirked as Theodric turned his back on him. “It may be many cycles until you join me here, old friend, but I can already tell that we will have such adventures that no storyteller would believe our feats!”

“This feat will be enough for now.” Theodric replied and finished the rune with a flourish. “It is done. Give me your hand.”

“Take it.” Stiles stood next to him and clasped Theodric’s hand tightly. He gasped as a chill lanced through his body and his stomach clenched in protest of the dark magic that the necromancer was already beginning to cast. Stiles took a deep breath and focused on the natural source of his own power, sparing a look at his feet as the dunes under him turned to fertile soil and a plethora of flowers and grasses and saplings erupted around him.

There were no words to be spoken together, no ritual of unified purpose as Theodric muttered the dark, harsh tongue of his secret magic, weaving the threads of necromancy into the heart of the seal, and binding Aillén tight with the weighty dead of endless cycles. All Stiles had to do was stay strong and act as the counterbalance to Theodric, to stop his friend from being consumed by madness or fury as the spell began to manifest around the darach’s body. Long, disturbing tendrils wove in and out of the air in complicated patterns, almost transparent in places, until Theodric lifted their clasped hands as one and uttered the final word of his spell. “Nast!”

The tendrils shot out as one and buried themselves into the stone seal with a sickly squelch. Nothing changed for a moment as both druid and darach struggled to hold the balance in the strange, silent battle for control, and then as suddenly as the chill had swept through his body, Stiles felt warmth returning to his limbs and he looked at Theodric, seeing him grin in relief. “It worked?”

“I think so, look!” The glow faded from the surface and the duo scrambled backwards suddenly as more massive stone discs appeared around the seal and slotted together to form an immense box. Theodric grabbed Stiles’ arm as they splashed into the waves at the edge of shore and stopped him from going any further. “I think we are safe.”

“So it would appear.” The druid and darach watched in awe as with a final groan, the entire stone structure sunk into the ground and vanished from sight. In a matter of moments there was nothing for them to look at save a vast expanse of smooth, unblemished sand. “Praise the gods! And praise to you, Theodric, I could not have stopped this evil without you!”

“You are welcome, Stiles.” Theodric’s grin faded a little. “I trust you will not speak of my weakness to the others, yes? Your power was unlike anything I had experienced before and it was-”

“Do not be concerned, I will tell no one that you are still a darach at heart, Hero of the Mountains!” Stiles flung an arm around Theodric’s shoulders as his friend scowled. “Is that not what they call you? Many tales of the Southern clans’ valor in battle have pierced even the veil between the worlds.”

They may call me that, but I do not.” Theodric moved away from him and pointed at the beckoning island of Mag Mell, attempting to distract the druid. “It appears that you are finally free to indulge in all the pleasures of this realm, Stiles!”

“I can see that.” Stiles replied slowly, turning to watch as a bridge of crystal and silver rose from the frothing white waves to join the shore to the isle. “Hmm.”

“An invitation if ever I saw one.”

“Yes, but not one I shall take up yet.” The druid shook his head and gestured for Theodric to join him. “There is still time before the sun rises in your world, and I would speak to you and Scotti under the boughs of the scared Nemeton as we once did.”

 

Theodric stood on the rolling hills of the Otherworld, the great expanse of the dusty plains were behind him and Stiles was crouched by his side, preparing to reopen the breach to deliver them back to Scotti’s village. He wetted his lips and asked the question that had been plaguing him since they returned from the seashore. “You are not coming back with me to stay, are you?”

“Hmm.” Stiles finished drawing a pattern with his forefinger in the dirt and stood up, glancing at him. “A darach such as you should know the answer to that.”

“Yes, but,” Theodric frowned. “But I’ve never encountered any spirit that can fully materialize in our world. You were able to touch Scotti without going through him, I just thought that-”

“No, Theodric.” Stiles shook his head and waited for the pattern to glow with purple fire. The air in front of them began to ripple and peel apart, the flickering of the bonfires in the Nemeton grove slowly coming into sight. “I may have greater power than before, but I am bound to the Otherworld just like all the other spirits. Well, there are two times in the cycle when the veil is thin; Samhain and Beltaine.”

“And you can visit us then?” Theodric asked hopefully as Stiles nodded and smiled at him. “Truly?! That is not so bad.”

“No, it is not.” The druid offered his hand. “Shall we step through?”

Theodric slipped his hand into Stiles’ grasp and walked through the breach with him. The change was immediate; the darach felt his Otherworld-enhanced magic sucked away and he was returned to the more mundane powers of his practiced arts. Stiles too felt different, no longer as solid and intact as he had when they were inside the mystical realm. Theodric hid his sorrow as he saw shards of pink light up the eastern sky, dawn was almost upon them. “I did not think we had been in the Otherworld so long; the midday sun was still over us as we crossed the sands.”

“The Otherworld obeys its own rhythms among the cycles,” Stiles replied and released his hand. The druid was surrounded by an aura of silver light and he gestured for Scotti to join them. The clan had been shepherded away by Yeshua, back to their homes in the village, leaving only Scotti in the clearing in front of the altar. “Come closer, Chieftain, I see that the clan survived the night.”

“Yeshua kept the fires burning and the wards powered,” Scotti acknowledged the retreating druid with a nod and looked back at Stiles. “I had my doubts about him after you…after the battle. But I am glad to say that I was wrong; he will serve the clan well.”

“And in return, the clan will honor him as they would me?” Stiles asked pointedly as Scotti nodded furiously. “Good, good. I have only a little time before the sun rises on a new cycle and my power to remain here drains away.”

“What would you ask of me?” The Chieftain bowed his head, staring at the silver glow of Stiles’ feet rather than look at his face. Scotti blinked when he felt the druid reach out and tilt his head up again. “Huh?”

“I would have you mourn me no longer.” Stiles smiled at him. “Theodric will explain the details, but know that I have not forsaken this clan, or any of the clans of the Southern lands. I will watch you from the Otherworld and when the veil parts, I shall return again, two nights each cycle. And then, Scotti, then we can converse as we did in the days before fertility and war dominated our lives.”

“Forgive me, master druid!” Scotti cried out and flung himself onto the ground. He clutched desperately at Stiles’ robe and sobbed uncontrollably. “Apologies! A thousand apologies! You would have never died had it not been for me! I, I have to-”

“Shush, shush, be calm, Scotti.” Stiles knelt down and gently took the Chieftain’s hands in his own. “My death was not your fault, and I did not tell you before the battle because I needed you to believe that we were only fighting Findabair. My bargain with The Dagda was struck long before the wrath of the gods afflicted our clan.”

“Our clan…” Scotti repeated as Theodric moved to the other side of the Nemeton. “Still our clan?”

“Of course, of course it is.” Stiles lifted him upright effortlessly and smiled confidently at the warrior. “Do not doubt yourself anymore; rely on Malia as you have been doing, and use Coltún for more than just pleasure, and I can foresee a life of peace and plenty for the clan of Scotti: Guardians of the Nemeton!”

 

Stiles looked at his hands as sun’s first rays broke through the forest and crept up along the grass of the Nemeton grove. His form was beginning to turn fully transparent and soon he would be pulled back into the Otherworld. Scotti had left a few moments earlier, his spirit repaired after Stiles had forgiven him. But Theodric remained nearby, the darach holding his emotions in check as he always did. “Theodric?”

“Yes, Stiles?”

“You know that I will return soon, don’t you?”

“It is one thing to know it,” He swallowed awkwardly and uncrossed his arms. “But it is another entirely to watch you disappear and wonder if you will come back. I am a darach, I know that I can find you in the Otherworld, that our paths will cross again in that realm, I only wish that Iordáin and Korey were here with me.”

“The smith will not enter this village again.” Stiles said and walked slowly back towards the altar, the offerings still placed on its stone surface, dried blood turned black. “While the future is ever in motion, of that I am certain. But I am not bound only to this place.”

“Your ashes are scattered far and wide.” Theodric nodded and blinked the water from his eyes. “The Mountain Clan would honor you, should you decide to visit us on Beltaine. I believe that is where Korey belongs.”

“With you and Iordáin?” Stiles asked as his eyes showed him an image of a strange rock formation and four men walking slowly towards each other in the rising sun. “Or do you think his path could be intertwined with another’s?”

“That I cannot say, I don’t have your gifts of foresight.” Theodric walked forward and stepped into Stiles’ line of sight. “Half a cycle will have to pass before you stride across the ground of this world and we can stand together as we are now.”

“As you say.” Stiles grinned at him and pulled the darach into a hug, breathing deeply as their magic flared against each other; light and dark blooming into their auras. A tightness seized Stiles’ stomach and he felt his grip on the world fall away. “It is time, my friend. But do not despair, for one day soon I shall return. Look to the turning of the seasons and I will be there!”

“Stiles!” Theodric called out, his voice raw as suddenly the druid was gone, and he was left holding empty air in the middle of the Nemeton grove. “Stiles…I miss you already.”

 

Korey poked and scratched at the sand with a piece of driftwood that had washed up on the nearby shore, drawing pictures of hammers and swords and armor to pass the time. The sun had risen fully and was casting long beams of warmth across the great stretches of sand that reached out around them. Iordáin was behind him, gutting a freshly killed waterfowl that Korey didn’t recognize and didn’t want to either, based on the size of the bird’s large, hooked beak.

They had been here since late the evening before, camping above the tideline with a large fire to keep the roaming spirits of Samhain at bay. He had slept well, using Iordáin for warmth, the hunter holding him close in a comforting manner, respecting his decision to sleep instead of joining together. Korey hummed to himself as he examined the hammer he had drawn, before making a change to the direction of the cutting edge. “Hmm, a little sharper, perhaps.”

“Do you think your sign will be revealed today?” Iordáin asked him as a sizzling sound erupted behind Korey; the hunter must had propped the meat onto the fire. “The spirit said that it would happen on the day after Samhain, and there is nowhere else along the coast with this rock formation.”

“If that’s what Stiles said, then it will happen.” Korey replied confidently and stood up, turning around to face him. “I trust in him, and his message.”

“Did I miss the part of his message where a currach was to approach us from the sea?” Iordáin was looking over Korey’s head and the hunter quickly pulled the meat from the fire. “Get your weapons, there are few people in this part of the world, but those who do live here are far from friendly.”

“Gods!” Korey swore and picked up his warhammer, a gift from Fionn after the battle against Findabair. He looked at Iordáin as the hunter readied his bow and arrows. “What do we do?”

“Wait until they get out and then we’ll charge them!” Iordáin squinted into the distance at the boat bobbing up and down on the waves. “It looks like there’s only two of them, be ready!”

 

“I think I see it!” Liam called out excitedly as he pointed towards the cluster of rocks that rose from the shoreline to form an ominous fist. He looked back at Íosác as the Chieftain propelled them over the rough waves towards the beach. “Thank you, I would never have made it without you to guide me.”

“We have not made the shore yet,” Íosác grinned at him and nodded at the chipped sides of the currach. “The crossing of the Flooded Forest was worse than I remember, or perhaps the savages have just got better at aiming.”

“Hmm, that was too close.” Liam muttered and stood up in the prow as movement along the shoreline under the large rocks caught his eye. “There’s someone there!”

“Is it Korey?”

“I-argh!” Liam threw himself to the floor of the boat as an arrow whistled overhead. “That was Iordáin!”

“Gods! Of course!” Íosác groaned to himself and immediately turned towards the shoreline. “They must think we’re savages, that’s the only group of people that live here. You hop out once we’re on the sands and run at them!”

“What?!”

“Call out and let them know who we are!” Íosác responded urgently as another arrow impacted heavily with the side of the currach. He rowed furiously until the oars got stuck on the sandy bottom. “Now, Liam! Go!”

“He better not shoot me!” Liam growled to himself before leaping over the side into the cold water, soaking his trousers up to the knee. “Gah! Korey! Iordáin! Stop! It’s me!”

 

Korey frowned at the approaching figure and held up his hand as Iordáin prepared to fire. “I think that’s…Liam?”

“Stop shooting at us!”

“Yes, that’s Liam.” The smith sighed to himself.

“I can still shoot him.” Iordáin offered with a smile as Korey shook his head. “I wonder who else is with him?”

“Does it matter?” Korey watched Liam continue to sprint towards them, the warrior red-faced and breathing hard until he collapsed into the sand a little way off. He looked away from Liam to see Íosác running towards them as well, their currach left high on the beach. Is this what you wanted me to see, Stiles?

“Korey! Korey, I…it’s good to see you.” Liam panted as he was helped to his feet by Íosác. The smith and the hunter were facing off against them, weapons still held loosely in their hands. Liam swallowed hard as his racing heart began to slow, “We mean you no harm. Can you lower your weapons?”

“Very well.” Iordáin spoke first and placed his bow on the ground as Korey hesitated for a moment longer and then the smith sheathed the war hammer back into a loop on his belt. “A strange place to find two of the River Clan.”

“Liam is still part of Scotti’s clan.” Íosác replied for him, shaking his head. “And it is equally strange to find two sons of the Mountain so far from their legendary forge. What brings you to the edge of the world, friends?”

“Stiles.” Korey answered, his tone cold despite Íosác’s friendly voice. He looked away from Liam and out towards the waves crashing against the nearby rocks. “The druid appeared to me and Iordáin, and told us to come here, that I would receive a sign. That my…” Korey scrunched up his nose as he glanced back at Liam. “My heart would return.”

“Oh!” Liam grinned at him, his words rushing out in an excited tumble. “That sounds like my vision! I was training in the forest and Stiles appeared to me too; he showed me you and this beach, and those rocks and you had a bleeding heart in your hand, but I don’t know what that means!”

“I think you should speak alone.” Iordáin said and gestured for Íosác to join him at the fire. “I hope you brought some salted fish, River Chieftain, I doubt you’ll enjoy the waterfowl I captured earlier.”

“Err, no, I don’t enjoy that type of meat!” Íosác winked at him, but the hunter remained stone faced and Íosác sagged. “I’ll just enjoy your fire then.”

 

Liam glanced at Korey frequently as they walked slowly along the beach, the sound of the rolling waves to his right filling the otherwise awkward silence. Eventually the warrior broke it, “So, how have the Mountain Clan been treating you?”

“Better-” Korey cut himself off from what would have been a nasty retort and instead just grunted. “Better.”

“As you say.” Liam muttered, feeling his cheeks heat. He wetted his lips and spoke again. “Scotti and me, and the rest of the clan too, we never treated you the way we should have. We never thought of you as one of the clan, when we should have. Your parents died along with mine and Scotti’s and Theodric’s and Stiles’ when Findabair attacked the clans all those cycles ago.”

“And?”

“And we should have been nicer,” Liam swallowed hard as Korey glared at him. “I know it doesn’t change what happened and how I behaved when the gods placed their curse on the clan. I wish…I wish I could say that I had plans to get you free, but I thought Scotti would come around, I thought I could convince him to release you.”

“But you didn’t.” Korey ground his teeth together to stop the fire from entering his voice, to stop himself from lashing out at Liam. The moment passed, and the smith took a deep, calming breath. “Stiles came back for me, Fionn rescued me, and Stiles and Theodric both used their magic to save my life. You did nothing, Liam, and worse, you pretended like nothing had ever happened afterwards.”

“I apologized!”

“Is that what you call it?!” Korey snapped back at the affronted warrior. “I’ve had better apologies from apprentice smiths who mangle an arrowhead!”

“Yes, I know, it was awful.” Liam bowed his head as shame gripped his heart. They walked along in tense silence until the warrior stopped and reached out to touch his shoulder. “Korey? Would it help if I said it now? That I am truly sorry? I lie awake at night and think about you, think about the mistakes I made and the way I destroyed what we had. I wish, I wish I could turn back the cycle and undo everything.”

“Hmm.” Korey looked at him with hurt eyes; not the sharp, sting of a fresh cut, but the deep, old ache of a mortal wound. “I am…I accept your apology.”

“But?”

“If you thought that I would accept you back?” Korey arched a brow at him as Liam slowly shook his head. “You hurt me that day, and every time since then, you did not seem to take what had happened seriously. But I am glad that you told me this.”

“I am living with the River Clan now, Korey.” Liam lowered his hand as the smith frowned at him. “I’m not saying that you should return with me, just that I…I would like that.”

“I know you would.” Korey snorted to himself. “What is it with the warriors of Scotti’s clan that they are so arrogant?”

“Hey!”

“Fionn and the Mountain Clan are my home now. I have a life, friends, family, respect-”

“A lover?”

“No. Not a lover.” Korey muttered, shaking his head slowly. “There is one who could fill that space, but I cannot…” He said no more, and Liam sighed.

“I think I understand Stiles’ message now.”

They stood in silence for a long time as the sun beamed down overhead and cold winds picked up from the crashing ocean waves. Then the warrior and the smith turned around and walked back towards the fire under the rock that looked like a fist, neither of them speaking until they returned.

 

Stiles watched the group as each man sat down and shared their meal around the fire, their words like musical notes on the wind; sorrow, joy, contentment, lingering hope. The druid stood on the crest of incoming waves some distance off the shore, a doorway to the Otherworld staying open behind him as the disparate spirits flooded back to their eternal rest after the end of Samhain. Stiles felt a smile touch his lips when Iordáin and Korey stood up to leave. He watched as Liam also got to his feet and Korey accepted the warrior’s embrace. The druid stepped back inside the Otherworld, grinning openly as contentment flooded his mind, a feeling that everything would work out after all for the clans of the Southern lands.