(Unfinished) The Flame by the Roadside

The traveler had been walking for miles without rest, determined to reach his destination before nightfall. Now in the dying light of the sun, the path had grown shadowed and  unclear, causing him to quicken his pace and grip at his coat to keep warm against the building wind. Despite his best efforts, these cliffs were unfamiliar and misleading, forcing the man to turn heel and retreat in search of a more reliable route. Ireland was tamed and fenced, but had not lost her wildness just yet.

By the time he had doubled back it was already late evening, the howling of wolves signalling the beginning of their hunt and the moon’s rising. A beautiful pale marble cast shaky beams of light through the canopy of birch trees, who stood themselves as ancient reminders from a different time. He could see his breath rising in uneven puffs of heat, and somehow this brought a flicker of light into view. Just off the path, a small campfire burned not too far away; certainly close enough to make the traveler shiver with jealousy. Cautiously, he approached, resigning himself to the fact that he may have to spend the night here.

The flames were well kept, dancing obediently within a small circle of wood and ash to provide heat. The traveler crept closer, trying to catch sight of the figure nearby, but struggling to see past their hooded and cloaked appearance. “Excuse me…” He said quietly, repeating himself when there was no answer. “Excuse me but I was hoping to warm myself by your fire, if I may?” He dipped his head, both in a show of gratitude and a sly attempt to see a face beneath the hood. Though he didn’t quite catch sight, the figure was revealed to be a man when they finally spoke back. “Oh ‘I mayyy’, is it? Well you may sit, you may stand, you may entertain us both with a jig if you prefer. Join me, my friend.” There was a kindness to that voice almost unheard of, with a natural warmth and booming depth that reminded the traveler of a father he had never known. Before he could respond, the man looked up at him, and gestured to a nearby stump.

“Thank you.” He said simply, regarding his new companion’s face with curiosity. It hadn’t seemed obvious at first, but this man was well over 7 feet tall, and even beneath a long cloak it was clear to tell he was strongly built as well. There was a smile on his face, but an almost tired expression that marked his skin with dry wrinkles that cut through a light dusting of freckles. His messy, copper beard reminded the traveler of the dancing embers below; spread like flame across the stranger’s smiling face. Even so, something about him didn’t feel right, and he found it impossible to shake the uneasy feeling in his stomach.

“I really don’t mind you staring at me like some clueless child, you know.” The tall stranger interrupted the traveler’s worrying with another volley of noise, before rummaging around in the tall grass by his seat. “But at least have something to eat first.” A modest little cauldron was eventually produced, and placed on the flame while the stranger retrieved a matching iron spoon. Both were blackened with use, and he hummed cheerfully as he stirred the contents. “Now that you’re my guest, I probably shouldn’t let you starve to death tonight. Not while there’s lamb and potato to be had.” He grinned toothily, allowing his hood to slip just enough to reveal thick, messy flame for hair, matching his beard. The traveler had barely spoken, though managed to nod by way of a meager reply.

A few moments passed in silence, the tall man busying himself with cooking and humming, while the traveler watched the mixture bubble against the heat. “You haven’t had stew in years, have you? Not since your Mother last made it.” The stranger spoke as if he had known this man all his life, nonchalantly stirring the pot without even bothering to look up. “No I…That’s not…” Again, the traveler was left struggling for words, and felt that unease build up again. In the light of the fire, bright green eyes shone like jewels, and for a moment it seemed as though the trees edged closer to the tall stranger. They offered their branches to him, their golden leaves practically wrapping around his shoulders. Something was wrong. “How could you know that..?”

“Eat.” The stranger demanded, dunking a bowl into the cauldron and passing it over to the traveler. “You’ll enjoy it, truthfully. Don’t act like it’s some kind of fool’s poison – see?” The stranger took a handful straight from the pot and slurped it down hungrily, just to prove his point. “If I can eat it, you can eat it…or I put you in the pot for tomorrow!” Thankfully a great, hearty laugh followed the threat, which hopefully made it out to be some kind of joke. The traveler certainly wasn’t smiling, but put his lips to the bowl and drank the broth out of hunger and no small amount of fear. It was delicious, beyond anything he had ever tasted before. That first sip soon turned into starved, desperate gulps for more, and chunks of meat and potato only added to the flavour. His senses lit up, his mouth watered and his body flooded with shivers of delight as the meal lasted a lifetime. Flashes of happy memories rolled by, of laughter in houses and comfortable beds, fireplaces and friends, a childhood by the ocean. In reality it had taken less than a minute to finish the bowl, but it had changed everything.

“Not bad at all, is it?” The stranger smirked, now appearing as a far younger man with a staff by his side. “Now, I believe it is time for a story. I know a good one.”

With a curious pause, he reached inside his cloak and revealed a handful of stones, displaying them for a half-moment before placing them down on a small stump by their side. “Good stories deserve a stage.” He mumbled, knowing that the traveller could now feel the stew warm his body and numb his concerns. It was enough to bring him some measure of peace and comfort, even as the dark stones began to shudder and take new shapes. The tall stranger continued to speak, his voice calling a thin mist to spread over the woods, and dance around this makeshift stage of stone and wood.

“On that day, great ships arrived on the horizon,  broad and strong. It was a massive fleet beyond imagining, piercing the clouds with determination, withobsession. The call had brought them from a distant land, to seek out this new, fertile home.” Four of the mysterious stones rolled neatly into line, a formation matching the tale as they splintered into new shapes. Sharp, jagged representations of ships slid across the uneven surface, the stone figures bobbing and lifting as if being shifted by the sea’s command. “Their journey was not one of water and storm, but of the air. These vessels were built with purpose, and wreathed in mist they arrived against the shores of Éire with a fleet that danced across mountains, far far off the ground.”

The stranger’s words echoed unnaturally, lifting the tiny stone ships into the air and surrounding them on all sides by a silken covering of dark mist. With wide eyes the sole audience member could only watch in amazement, and in his heart he knew this tale was true, however fantastical. To him, these stone ships were regal, worthy vessels for an ancient race, the story taking on a form of its own with visions of the past. Tendrils of smoke wrapped around his body, curled against the flickering embers of the fire to blur reality with this impossibility. The hooded stranger’s stage was far more than it seemed, and his story had only begun.

“And so we arrived.” His face slipped into an earnest smile, fondly recalling the details. “The Tuatha De Danann, finally home. It had been a long journey, but our ships swept against the shore as light as feathers, brushing the grass before slipping away entirely. Bare feet touched soil, we filled our lungs with air and the mist slowly parted.“ As soon as he spoke the words, that dense mist around the campfire began to fade away as well, leaving the stone ships in a new form. Like pewter chess pieces, they now represented tall, graceful humanoids in fine garb, though the largest seemed to wear only a simple, very familiar cloak. “But that’s…” The traveller found it difficult to speak, but somehow managed to muster up a few words before he was interrupted again. “Yes, it is. My name is Dagda.“ In an act of some vanity, the cloaked man lifted up the matching piece and held it gently in his palm, now clearly showing the similarities between them.

He turned it over, glancing at the detail with pride and tugging idly at a strand of hair from his beard. He allowed the fire to cast some light on the piece before setting it back down and continuing. “I have been here for quite some time… But we were not the first, nor were we the last. When we arrived, men of war and suffering arrived to greet us, The Fir Bolg. Their lifetime of grief and hard labour was worn clearly on their withered expressions, they were unable to hide it.” Suddenly, a long finger was pointed in the traveller’s direction, as Dagda spoke directly to him. “Have you ever truly fled from something? Have you hoped for more, and ran tirelessly to try and catch it?” The man froze, looking towards the ground to avoid further accusation. His silence was telling, and Dagda let it linger for a moment before speaking again. “We called them the ‘men of bags’, these Fir Bolg. Their lives had been spent as Greek slaves, labouring away in the scorching heat, backs hunched over from the weight of their burden. They were forsaken for having left Éire, in search of a brighter sun. They fled, and found it not to their liking.”

It seemed as though Dagda took some pleasure in recounting their story, perhaps savouring a feeling of superiority, but allowing a measure of sympathy to flow as well.

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