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The Exiles

The Saga of Kruac and Ghul, Part One

The sun crested the grassy fells, but little light penetrated into the thick, bracken-covered forest. The sun was weak, robbed of it’s warmth by the oncoming autumn that was just starting to work it’s spell of decay upon the oak and birch leaves of the wooded glade. Such an area would have normally been a hive of activity at this time of year, with squirrels gathering food in anticipation of the oncoming winter, birds gathering for their long migration and so on, but this wood was eerily quiet. There were only two living creatures to be seen, and it was their presence that had stilled the normal hubbub of nature. Even the bravest of animals could not help but recoil and hide in fear from fiends such as these. Kruac and Ghul were Fomorians, monstrous, savage creatures that had haunted the bogs and fens of Ireland for as long as men could remember. They were far from their homeland now though, wandering the wild valleys and rocky hills of the realm men named Rheged. The fauna in this remote corner of the British mainland, unused to presence of such horrors, were wisely giving the invaders a wide berth.

Kruac was by far the larger of the two at nearly seven feet tall, not counting the long, goat-like horns that protruded above his coarsely-featured face. He was powerfully built, and the criss cross web of old scars that covered his leathery dark green and brown mottled hide spoke of a life of violence and conflict, as did the brutal axes he carried in each hand. Each one was big enough to be difficult for a grown man to wield in two hands, yet the massive Fomorian hefted them with such ease it was as if they weighed next to nothing.

The axes were named Anbhágéar and Saolgadai, and Kruac firmly believed they were likely the finest weapons to have graced the hands of a warrior. bathed in the venom of a sorcerous fiend that was older than man could comprehend, the iron heads were preternaturally sharp and the ash-hafts apparently unbreakable. Kruac himself was most certainly a warrior worthy of such weapons. At age eighty he was entering the prime years of a Fomorian’s life, and ever since he had been old enough to fight he had been the most fearsome of his tribe. A terrifying mass of muscle and deadly skill Kruac had killed more men than he could count. He was not prone to idle boasting, but he reckoned it likely that he he had killed more men by himself than any other Fomorian had in the four hundred years or so since mankind’s so-called saviour had perished nailed to his tree.

Kruac’s formidable physique, marsh-coloured skin, cresting horns and mane of hair thickly caked in grey and brown were all notable, but his most curious feature was perhaps the empty socket where his left eye should have been. He had sacrificed his eye in a religious rite some five years earlier to show his devotion to the Fomorian’s dark deity, simply known as The One-Eyed God. This ancient, malignant being was believed to be the progenitor of the Fomorian race and according to legend lurked in the depths of a dark, mysterious lake far away from the Fomorian’s swamplands. He had given up the eye in the hope of attracting The One Eyed Gods blessing, but rather than strength in combat or unnatural vitality Kruac had been blessed with dreams and visions of a glorious future in the service of his demonic benefactor. These visions had placed him at odds with the elders of his tribe which had led to a fateful confrontation, red death and he and Ghul being forced to flee Ireland in a crude coracle until they had landed upon these distant, unfamiliar shores.

Ghul was far smaller than Kruac, barely five and a half feet tall, and while Kruac was built like a bear, Ghul’s lean and wiry physique was more akin to a weasel or similar swift and tenacious animal. He too sported an impressive collection of scars and old wounds, but his hunched posture and nervous demeanour was more that of an abused and beaten victim rather than a veteran warrior. Ghul was a Dreach, the lowest creature in the primitive tribal structure of the Fomorians. Born sickly, weak and hornless he had been lucky not to have been killed for fun or eaten during a harsh winter by his barbaric family. The fact that he had lived to twenty, a remarkable age for a Dreach, was solely due to the protection of Kruac. Kruac was the only member of his entire tribe who had accorded him any kind of respect, a kindness that had won Ghul’s undying loyalty. Ghul had long since pledged to follow Kruac wherever he went – even so far away from the misty marshes of their tribal home and into exile in the woods of Rheged.

Ghul hacked another slab of bloody meat from the carcass of the sheep he’d caught the previous evening and handed it to Kruac. Several other piles of clean-picked bones showed that the Fomorians had been living in that copse for a few weeks, and that they had eaten well in that time. Kruac gobbled down the raw meat in a few bites and wiped his massive hands on the filthy, rough woollen kilt that was his only clothing. Ghul, with an appetite tempered by years of occupying his society’s bottom rung, contented himself with licking the blood from his crude knife. Breakfast done with, Kruac strode to the edge of the woods and looked out across the barren landscape to the east. He sniffed the air a few times and then rubbed his bristly chin in contemplation.

‘I can still smell them, Ghul,’he growled. ‘I think they’re getting closer.’ For the last few days Kruac had been catching the scent of a band of men, no doubt warriors raised by the local lord to investigate the farmers tales of missing sheep and monsters in the woods. Now it seemed the men were not far from those all-too real monsters wooded refuge.

‘How many do you think there are, Mighty Kruac?’ asked Ghul, his voice quiet with something of a natural sneer. Kruac shrugged.

‘Twenty? Twenty-five, perhaps. Moving towards us if my nose tells true.’

‘Your nose rarely tells false, Mighty Kruac.’ replied Ghul respectfully. A scatter of birds burst up from a rocky ridge to the east. Less than two leagues away, Kruac reckoned.

‘Maybe they have our spoor, Ghul. Maybe one of those cowardly farmers saw us carry off one of his flock in this direction. Or maybe this wood is simply the last place they have to search for us, it matters not. Our time here is done regardless. Today we seek the lake.’ Ghul looked up, his rat-like face full of wonder.

‘Has The One-Eyed God spoken to you once more, Mighty Kruac? Does he show you the way?’ Kruac nodded solemnly.

‘He has spoken to me in my dreams these last few nights, Ghul. The mists part and understanding dawns. Very soon our exile in this wretched land and all that has led us here will be shown to have not been in vain, when we stand before the lake of The One-Eyed God.’

‘It is already not in vain, Mighty Kruac,’ spat Ghul with feeling. ‘The memory of you beheading King Finear while I gutted that cruel witch that served him when they doubted the divinity of your visions is worth a thousand years of exile in a land far worse than this.’ Kruac smiled, showing his crooked, yellow, but still dangerously sharp teeth.

‘You may yet witness more beheading by my hand, loyal Ghul, and very soon. The men that hunt us will likely crest that ridge in the next few minutes.’ Ghul cowered slightly, instinctively moving behind Kruac.

‘Could we not slip away into the woods and evade them, mighty Kruac? They are at least twenty strong, and there are but the two of us.’ Kruac shook his head.

‘No, Ghul. If I am stand before The One-Eyed God then I should prefer to do so bathed in blood of my foe, rather than as skulking coward. Besides, it has been too long since my axes tasted flesh. We shall meet our pursuers and show them what it means to hunt a Fomorian.’ Ghul nodded reluctantly and retrieved his short-bow and quiver of barbed, black-flighted arrows from where it hung on a nearby tree.

‘As you wish, mighty Kruac. But I shall as ever leave the glory of iron-on-bone combat to yourself and instead assist in my usual, humble manner.’ With that, the Dreach vanished into the undergrowth with barely a rustle of leaves to mark his passing. Kruac took up his axes and moved to the very edge of the tree-line. The scent of the men was becoming clearer now, and judging by the odours of fear and nervousness Kruac supposed they must have been confident they had found the lair of their quarry. The Fomorian’s unnaturally keen ears could also pick up indistinct fragments of conversation as well, the short, clipped tones echoing the trepidation in their scents.

Kruac was checking the leather bindings on his axe hilts when the men crested the ridge, and began scrambling down the scree-covered slope. They were a ragged band, thought Kruac when the last of them came into view. Clearly farmers and herdsmen for the most part rather than true warriors. The majority were armed with little more than stout wooden clubs, six of them carried spears and one had a shield. The shield-carrier also wore the only armour obvious in the group, a poorly-made iron helm. Kruac was disappointed. A gang of lice-ridden sheep-herders in ill-fitting homespun rags were not fitting opponents for an average Fomorian warrior, never mind the Chosen of the One-Eyed God – even if there were twenty-three of them. Still, he reasoned, he would make the best of the situation. He would offer these souls to his god in swift, bloody sacrifice and seek greater challenges in the future. The men were less than a hundred yards from the tree-line now, and had slowed considerably. They approached the woods with great caution as if they expected a horde of monsters to spring from the trees at any moment. Kruac kept his bulky form hidden behind the bole of a great oak tree, and peering out through the branches he watched his foes draw closer, fear etched on their bearded faces. The men were less than twenty yards from the woods when Kruac chose to pounce. He crashed through the branches and into the open, howling the war-cry of his tribe with his axes held high. Confronted by the sudden appearance of a huge, horned, one-eyed, roaring creature of nightmare the men froze in horror, too awestruck to even flee or cry out. This hesitation cost them dear, as within seconds Kruac was amongst them and three had already fallen to his axes.

The Fomorian’s attack was lightening-fast and as fierce as that of a wild beast, but it was no frenzied, uncontrolled assault. Each axe blow was precisely placed so that each stroke killed or incapacitated it’s target without any wasted motion. Kruac dropped two more as the men finally snapped out their shock and began to react, severing one man’s arm at the shoulder with his Anbhágéar while simultaneously decapitating another with Saolgadai. The battle was scant seconds old, but already five men lay dead or dying and Kruac’s weapons and green hide were slick with blood.

Much to Kruac’s surprise his initial charge did not send the remaining hunters fleeing in terror. Instead, once they came to their senses the men stood their ground and surged at the Fomorian, sounding their own battle-cry. Kruac neatly sidestepped a thrusting spear-point and laid open the wielders stomach with a backhand swipe. Ignoring a blow to his arm from an oaken club that would have broken the bones of an lesser creature he pressed forward into the midst of the men, howling in delight at the unexpected challenge. Kruac caught sight of the man with the shield and helmet – he was clearly the leader of this band as he had also drawn an iron sword that was too expensive a possession for any sheep-herder. The man was a brawny fellow and his thick, braided black beard and fine accoutrements gave him the appearance of a fighting man, but for the moment he seemed content to hold at the rear of his band and issue orders. The man was barking commands in Cumbric language which meant nothing to Kruac, but that mattered not. The Fomorian felt no need to adjust his strategy to account for the men’s actions as he smashed one axe through a spear-shaft as if it were a dry twig, burying the blade into the spear-man’s face. His other axe took off an oncoming attackers lead leg at the knee, sending him crashing to the ground in a screaming heap.

Two more men fell to deadly dancing axes and Kruac was starting to think it a shame that the men’s fighting ability did not match their courage when the spear plunged into his back. Grimacing in pain, Kruac cursed himself for not paying better attention to the positions of his foes and for his carelessness in allowing one of the spear-men to get behind him. Kruac tried to turn to face the spear-man but his foe turned with him, gripping the spear tightly as he continued to twist and grind the point into the Fomorian’s swamp-hued flesh. With a grunt of pain Kruac beheaded an oncoming farmer who had thought to take advantage of his vulnerable position, then twisted again to try and reach his tormentor without success.

Suddenly the spear-man gave a choked cry, released his weapon and fell to the ground. With a quick glance over his shoulder Kruac noted the black-flighted arrow protruding from the man’s throat, and knew that Ghul had finally found himself a suitable hiding place from which to join the battle in his own sly manner. Two more lethally-accurate arrows came whistling from somewhere in the woods and felled their targets as Kruac dropped his left axe and and yanked the spear out of his back with a spray of thick, dark red Fomorian blood. The prospect of facing a raging, horned giant while also being in the sights of a keen-eyed archer seemed too much for even the brave men of Rheged to face, and the last few warriors turned and fled. Taking AXE in both hands Kruac chased them down,crashing into the panicked knot of men and laying about them with powerful two-handed sweeps that sent limbs and heads alike flying.

The end came as Kruac’s axe took a man at the waist and cleaved his body clean away from his legs while one of Ghul’s arrows thudded into the back of the last man standing, who had managed to put some fair distance between himself and the savage Fomorian warrior. The fight over, Kruac took a moment to despatch the few men he had not killed with one stroke. He’d been impressed by their bravery in not fleeing before his initial charge, and so it felt only right to accord them a quick death rather than allowing their lifeblood to bleed away through severed limbs and torn-open stomachs. With the dying silenced the moor was quiet once more as Ghul slunk out of the woods to join Kruac. The whole fight had taken less than a minute, but in had transformed the the small patch of land into a gruesome tableaux of corpses, blood and body parts. Ghul however, saw only opportunity.

‘A noble victory, mighty Kruac,’ he said. ‘Shall I inspect the the remains in order to to obtain your well-deserved spoils of battle?’

‘I doubt that there will be much of any value, loyal Ghul.’ replied Kruac. ‘These appear to be simple farmers for the most part, though they had the hearts of warriors. One of them was some kind of chieftain though, with a good sword. Too small for me, but perhaps suitable for yourself?’ Ghul cowered slightly, vigorously shaking his head.

‘Oh no, no mighty Kruac, a sword is far too noble a weapon for a the likes of me. Better I keep to my short bow, I think, yes.’ Kruac laughed heartily, having known fine well what Ghul’s response would be to the suggestion of him taking up a sword and engaging in hand-to-hand combat.

‘Very well, Ghul. See if they have anything worth taking, but be quick about it. The One-Eyed God awaits.’

Ghul unstrung his short bow and stowed it in his quiver, then set about searching the corpses. When he came to one that he had killed himself he pulled the arrow out with a sharp twist and inspected it carefully to see if was fit to be used again. Even when an arrow was damaged in some way he still kept the parts of it that were intact, be it the fletchings or bodkin, to use as spare parts. Ghul had searched most of the bodies and come up with nothing worth taking. The last few lay in a heap where they had attempted to flee Kruac’s wrath and Ghul opted to drag them apart to make them easier to search. As he grasped the first corpse and and pulled it aside , Ghul yelped in fear and sprang back towards Kruac, fumbling for the bone-handled knife at his belt as he did so.

‘Mighty Kruac! Mighty Kruac! One lives!’ squealed Ghul in terror. Kruac looked up from cleaning his gore-slicked axes and strode angrily over to the cowering Dreách.

‘Balor’s Bones, Ghul!’ Thundered Kruac. ‘If one of the wounded yet lives then that is a task for that feeble knife!’ But as Kruac looked down a the form that had so startled his companion he saw that the man was in fact not wounded at all – the blood he was slathered in was not his own. Kruac realised the man must have been bowled over by his final charge and trapped under one of his eviscerated brethren. The survivor was recoiling in fear, barely able to even look at the Fomorian towering above him. As he stared down at the prostrated warrior it dawned upon him that this was the leader of the band. His helm had been lost but Kruac recognised his braided beard and noted that his round wooden shield lay under him and his sword was but a few yards away.

The sight of the chieftain hiding under the bodies of the men that had fought and died well incensed Kruac greatly.

‘On your feet!’ he bellowed. ‘You skulk like a worm! On your feet and fight as your followers did!’ The chieftain raised his hands defensively and babbled something in his native language. Kruac spoke several languages besides the Old Tongue of the Fomorians, including that of the Irishmen and even the hissing cant of the Lloygor, but he had not yet attempted to master the local Cumbric dialect. Kruac paid no heed to the language barrier however, and continued to berate his foe.

‘I am Kruac, warrior of the Black Mire Tribe, killer of a king and chosen of The One-Eyed God! I wield the twin axes Anbhágéar and Saolgadai, washed in the venom of Scuthac of the Lloygor and blessed by the Hag-Queen herself! I have faced and killed men, beasts, Fomorians and even the many-armed horrors of the deep swamps without fear, and I now challenge you to face me just as bravely! Take up your sword and fight!’ Kruac pointed one axe at the discarded sword and yelled ‘Fight me!’ once again.

The chieftain looked at his sword and back to the massive monster in front of him. Seeming to understand he was being challenged to combat he slowly reached out and took out his weapon and stood cautiously before Kruac, displaying little appetite for a duel. Kruac held his axes wide, exposing his broad chest.

‘Strike then!’ he demanded ‘Take your fire-forged blade and try to drive it home! Prove yourself a worthy leader of the brave men you herded forward to die under my axes!’ The chieftain hesitated, his gaze flicking between Kruac and Ghul. His sword was half raised but without commitment. He took a small step backwards, which further stoked Kruac’s fury. With a roar of frustration he threw his axes to the ground, the blade of Anbhágéar severing a corpse’s hand as it bit deep into the bloodied turf.

‘Come now, I am unarmed!’ he snarled. ‘Step forward and fight me!’

As Kruac stood bellowing at him, urging him on, the Chieftain seemed to understand that he was not going to escape without fighting. Grimly he planted his feet, his features tensing. Kruac immediately recognised this change in the man’s deportment.

‘At last!’ he cried. ‘Come now and fight so that you might meet your ancestors proudly!’ The leader bellowed his war-cry and lunged forward, thrusting his sword towards Kruac’s exposed belly. The Fomorian neatly sidestepped the thrust but his opponent showed a strong arm and quick reflexes as he turned the thrust into a backhanded swing. The very tip of the blade skimmed across Kruac’s chest opening a shallow cut about six inches long. Kruac grinned happily. He’d thought the man a coward, but now he’d been goaded into action and he was fighting for his life, and may prove to be a worthy foe. The iron sword was now being swung up towards his head, forcing Kruac to duck quickly. The blow came very close, deflecting from Kruac’s left horn. The Chieftain was mounting a furious attack now, frothing at the mouth and roaring in the Cumbric tongue as he swung again and again, the sword gripped in both hands. Kruac was just equal to each swing however, and avoided any significant blows albeit barely.

After about a minute of the duel Kruac decided that as much as he was enjoying himself the time has come to end matters. After all, if the man had failed to hurt him after so long even when he was unarmed, it was unlikely that the outcome of the fight was really in any doubt. As the chieftain made a powerful overhead swipe, Kruac stepped forwards rather than dodging backwards. The Fomorian’s left hand shot out like a striking snake and caught the wrist of his opponents sword arm. Kruac squeezed with all of his inhuman strength and felt bones pop and grind in his crushing grip causing the chieftain to cry out in pain, his sword to tumbling from his lifeless fingers. Not wanting to prolong the suffering of what had turned out to be a somewhat entertaining opponent, Kruac grabbed the top of the man’s head on is other huge hand and twisted it sharply. Neck broken, the chieftain was dead before he even crumpled down on to the blood-soaked grass.

Kruac stopped a moment to check the cut on his chest and decided it was nothing to worry about. Like the wound to his back, it was already starting to clot thanks to his thick Fomorian blood. He’d had much worse than these two nicks without requiring the attention of the tribes healers, which was for the best as he no longer had access to any such assistance. As he retrieved his twin axes Ghul came to stand beside him.

‘Another fine victory, mighty Kruac,’ he said reverently. ‘A victory that brings great glory to The One-Eyed God.’ Kruac shrugged.

‘They showed heart, loyal Ghul,but they were not our equals. It will take more than this to forge a legend equal to that of Balor, or to prove ourselves worthy of the blessings that the One-Eyed God has bestowed upon us.’

‘As you say, mighty Kruac. And have your dreams and blessings laid out our path to glory? Where do we go from here?’

Kruac looked around at the craggy outline of the fells with their slopes of sharp slate rubble, and at the dour grey skies of the strange land in which the Fomorians found themselves. He thought of all the dreams and omens that he had witnessed since he had sacrificed his eye to the the God under the lake, and especially those he had experienced since arriving in this foreign realm. He recalled the cryptic words he had heard in his sleep and the images he had dreamed – the faces of men, the form of monsters and the impossibly deep, coal-black lake in which his God lurked that he knew was their ultimate goal. He considered all this for a long time before replying to Ghul’s question. Eventually, he spoke.

‘North, loyal Ghul. We go North.’

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