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The Song of Magnus Burnsides

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“Hail, sword of Cerbhall !
Oft hast thou been in the great woof of war,
oft giving battle, beheading high princes.

Oft hast thou gone a-raiding in the hands of kings,
oft hast thou divided the spoil.

Many a shield hast thou cleft in battle,
many a head, many a chest, many a fair skin.”

-Dallán mac Móre

Be it known: that which follows is the history of Magnus Burnsides, chosen warrior of the great goddess Istus, defender of Pictland. He was born to our land in the Roman year 350, son of Cormac and Lili, hale and hearty. Raised in our ways, he lived simply as an artisan, carver of wooden tools and furniture. Peaceful was the land into which he was born, ere the haunting of empire reached it.

Lo, the Romans did sweep over Britannia, conquering all. Long before the time of our tribe, all of the island south of Caledonia did descend into their clutch. Here shall we find him, savior of the realm, as Rome expands north and his home in Raven’s Roost doth burn.

...

“Julia! Julia!”

Magnus was lost. His whole world was engulfed in flame, and without his wife at his side, Magnus knew naught. The Romans had come swiftly, burning homes and slaughtering his people. The meager guard they had posted was overrun by ballista and bow, and then the imperial cavalry had swept in to murder his kin in the street. Magnus awoke to the crashing of stones and shot against his walls, had charged outside to find his Julia lost, and the great crash of battle all around him.

He rushed inside, seeking his spear, his spear, where was his spear? Missing, lost, looted? He found his sword, his shield, and his leather armor, made for him by Mungan, the smith, whose body was lying on the step, but his faithful spear was not to be seen. Now armed, Magnus charged again into the street, ready to fight. Where was Julia, and her father Stephan? Were they well, and could he help them to escape this inferno?

A sword was thrust into his face at once. “Hold, villain!” cried the Roman soldier. “Disarm thyself!” Magnus’s sword drank of his chest before dragging across his throat. The Roman died at the feet of the carpenter.

“Julia!” he cried again, casting about for his darling. A scrap of cloth in the muddy street, the hem of her dress perhaps? The smell of her perfume mixed with the blood in the wind. She was all around him, and nowhere to be seen. “Julia!” he cried again and again, and again and again he found no answer.

“Magnus!” A solder grabbed him; a fellow Pict, painted blue with woad. “To arms, Magnus! Your Julia is safe, fight beside me!”

“Ay, friend Barry. To the grave!” And so Magnus and Barry, alone in the city square fought until their position became impossible, and they were surrounded by men on horseback on all sides. Magnus planted his sword into the Earth, and Barry his spear. A rider in golden armor strode forward.

“To your knees, worms. Know ye not your betters?”

“My betters?” begged Barry for pardon. “Nay. Only a dog astride a nag do I see. My better is beside me.” He clasped Magnus’s shoulder in his hand.

The rider smilled, a grim look on a face as hawkish as his own. He dismounted, handed his helmet to a subordinate, and stepped forward to face the warriors.

“You speak bravely, and you fight like a pair of demons. I would offer you one chance to survive this day. Many of my legion did you kill with your own hands. I would recruit your hands to fill these vacancies. Ride with me, and I will spare your lives.

Magnus and Barry exchanged a look, first of questioning, and then of certainty. Barry answered with Magnus’s sentiment.

“I was born a Pict, Roman. And I will die a Pict, though it should be today.”

The Roman nodded. “Very well. It shall be today.” And he drove his sword into Barry’s guts. Barry stared him in his eyes as he fell to his knees, and finally broke his gaze as he collapsed.

“You’ll die for that, villain,” Magnus growled. “You’ve slain a brother of mine, and for that I’ll have your head.”

“Remember the name of Governor Kalen, slave. And when you’re ready, my sword shall await yours.”

And away Kalen and his band rode.

Magnus searched his village for another survivor, found none. Julia, though, he did find. His spear was broken beneath her, and she was cleft across the chest. Magnus wept, and held his fallen bride.

...

Take heart, brave warrior, for your quest has just begun. To war shall you go, far from your home and near, to the very gates of Hell. The head of Kalen is your prize, and at no length will you cease your search. Bold Magnus, bear arms, and avenge your home!