by Lara Schembri
“This is the night…in which all the horses…are sickly white.” The voice was placid and flat like dead calm in open water, though the context led one to hear an imaginary satisfaction in the tone, a hint of cackling. It didn’t fall out of an open maw, it floated inside a sealed, condensed space between tight air particles, compressed behind permanently closed fishlips. The battle was almost won. A silvery-blue man sized fish stood hunched over and limp, frowning a blank fish frown at its addressee, Freshcorpsey.
There was no answer from this stiff mounted on horseback, though the shroud of discoloured, beaten flax draped over his leathery skull seemed to get inhaled a little further into his mouth. It moulded itself, momentarily, around a pronounced toothpick lined jaw. He had never been known to dismount his fatigued ride, and the crude fabric which obscured most of his leprous body made sure that no one could tell whether he was in actual fact fused to the beast by birth. Sir Dean took a floppy step forward, pressing his slimy torso against Freshcorpsey’s pale, diseased horse. It reacted by exhaling asthmatically, which tended to happen every so often. Some speculated that the equine’s wheeze was married to Freshcorpsey’s lungs, if any he had, but it was never clear to either comrade or enemy.
“It is time…al-most”, mind-whispered the fish lord of this random collection of wild, half-abandoned Fomorian physiques which dubbed themselves the Underworldies.
Freshcorpsey clenched and raised his bony fist. A draft billowed his long tattered veil into a series of jellyfish movements while his trembling wrist pulled at a heavy unseen force in the air. Amongst this grim rider’s repertoire of talents lay many which were unnervingly concealed. Those of lower rank in the troop suspected that this “creature”–since his origins were uncertain even to his own people–drew most of these tricks out of himself latently, that they sprang from sudden need rather than conscious knowledge of his own abilities.
And now it seemed that he also had the power to conjure spheres out of the very minerals of the earth! Slow but forceful, a shape of golden sheen tore its way out of the soil and engulfed the summoner and his ward. Sir Dean and Freshcorpsey came to be contained inside a long translucent oval on the grass, bubbled off from the hordes of savage men who swung and pummelled forward, a helpless and desperate lot against the ghoulish army. The common Fomorian soldiers were not any prettier than their leader and his faithful protector. Minions is what they were, and somewhere at the bottom of the gene pool even by the standards of ghouls. They were all of them misfits bent on committing mayhem in the guise of a grander plan of action.
Bound to the service of the morose fish there were, however, two warriors of note. In the middle of the chaotic horde they served him well and had history remembered their ruthless swing and thrust they may have taken their place upon a pedestal of villainy.
To the left of Freshcorpsey’s protective circle loomed Ganginott, commander of the troops, who with a makeshift axe, sharp flint mounted on wet driftwood, was getting ready to flay the skin off another clone of barbarian male virility. The cruelty of Underworldy weaponry, you see, was amplified by its crudity, requiring a heightened sense of creative frenzy for it to be employed towards an effective end. Ganginott’s opponent momentarily gained ground, breaking his arm free and bringing his weapon down upon the creature. No sooner had the enormous knife pricked the demon’s serpent head, than he proceeded to shrink to the size of a caterpillar. He squirmed beneath the legs of the now colossal man whilst whistling a merry tune, and re-emerged life-sized behind his back. The barbarian warrior growled and looked around, but a quick whip of the tail and a whack of flint saw him swiftly dispatched. Ganginott widened his bulging, lopsided snake eyes, one pebble sized, one gravel sized. With axe entwined in tail, he then threw a graceful little bow in Sir Dean’s direction—right before bouncing up and whacking the cranium off another charging warrior.
And right in front of the slowly marching twosome was Fangrii, engaged in a gladiatorial embrace with a fierce example of manhood, who, to prove his mettle, wore a beaten leather breastplate dull with blood spatter and indentation. Fangrii wished to prove himself above the contorted collection of miscreants which were his peers, and this made him even more murderous on the battlefield. His body was a white mass of jagged edges, all lightning sharp, and in a moment of spontaneous bravado, he allowed himself to drop his weapons. The enemy laughed at this apparent surrender from inside his copper safe house. Fangrii’s response involved the breaking off of a white spine from his own head, which caused the warrior to betray a hint of confusion. With the largest of his spines now removed, the Fomorian warrior was able to roll himself into a ball and crash into the still vaguely amused wearer of armour. He bumped along, a ballerina on prickles, until he ran into Sir Dean and Freshcorpsey’s shield. He too focused his eyes on the pair, composed his limbs and bowed to them. In mid-bow, a slight twitch of his nose caused a bleach-white spike to shoot out of his back and skewer the screaming ambush of a man who thought he could creep up on him.
Ganginott and Fangri were a deadly combination and together they served their lord well. The pair guarded the sphere from left and right, side-stepping through the debris of slush and helmeted heads. By this time the sphere had become flecked with a red splatter that dulled its sheen. The centre of the battlefield was composed of pure chaos. Bindru, the fat red baby goblin, rolled on her back and chuckled in the mess while every attacker’s weapon became red hot within one metre’s distance from her. Cochiall, feeble and grey, robed in filthy blue cloak and hood, trudged between sets of opponents. He waited with his eyes to the ground–waited for those cowards who would see it fit to take advantage of his apparent frailty–and before they could raise their sword to the height of their knees he would engulf them in the blue fabric and pick them clean. Sir Dean was proud. Even in his condition he managed to throw up a snippet of laughter–a hoarse sound and something about the end and the beauty of the day. It felt as though their time had truly come.
Freshcorpsey’s mount, exhausted and broken-backed, supported the fishy leader who waddled by its side. The horse proceeded to plod through the middle of the battlefield with infinite slowness and bouncelessness. Very occasionally, it tilted its head upwards, and then to the side, like a shivering bird with a large flesh wound. But the expression was different, smiling sleepily through a drooping, one-fanged muzzle and bearing a neck weighed down to the ground by a defect in its vertebrae. Flailing and falling at the periphery of this evening stroll were more enormous warriors, all deemed colossal among men, and now beaten to the ground by the few lank, double-bent and crouching critters which gleefully bobbed around them, tapping their shoulders from behind and bursting into laughter. Magnetised to their designated positions by a mixture of hatred and ambition, the warriors Ganginott and Fangrii kept close to their charge and fended off those who fought past the lower ranks. Before the wounded men fell for good some stared at the smirking horse, which appeared to know them all very well. When this happened, the creature raised its head a little higher than comfort allowed and shot sly eyes into theirs–that was when their breath went out.
The sun was setting into the pretty green hillside and the battlefield screamed erratic and glowed doubly red under the bright shafts which sank around the tangled armies. All through this little walk Sir Dean was dying. His jelly belly had been gutted by a large blunt seax and thick juices leaked in gibblet drops over his fin feet. None of his underlings were distraught by the attack on Sir Dean, though the perpetrator was swiftly dispatched in the most gruesome manner and his body dashed against the ancient rock formations–all this without the usual indulgent merriment.
It had been a long war in which the Underworldies fought relentlessly and where they glutted an insatiable desire to be beheld and feared. Sir Dean had therefore gained their loyalty if not their love. Like the battle itself, it was all very political: there should be nothing left of Man for history to tell and retell. They would not have their day yet again. For too long had the Fomorians been driven into hiding, into subterranean sea caverns and forgotten palaces under the hills. From here they watched, bitterly, and when they could no longer wait, a bloody appetite gradually grew to replace the slow. Defeated. Tempo. Of the leaking stalactites.
This is where the war with Man had brought them. A tiny dark shape flitted back and forth atop a jut in the hillside. It waited for something.
Freshcorpsey’s horse finally crossed a space on the grass where the blood began to thin out so that it stood with its forelegs above green and its hinder parts over red. Its rider raised his chin to the air and nodded almost imperceptibly, but his signal had already been received and recognised.
It was Egglebelly, the watcher from the hill, who began the procession. He produced a large black drum from some invisible pocket of air and, with a gesture of finality and resolve, gave it one violent blow with a wooden fist. The air, by this time already palled in battle blood, became ever more unnatural as the beaten drum resounded like a church organ pregnant with tambourines. Incessant, and claustrophobic as swaddling to grown ups, the sound was felt to travel in watery waves across the stretch of sky only to crash down to the ground in sudden dips of volume–a complete inversion of logic or direction. Those below dodged the heavy blows to their ears. Suddenly, and without point of audition, a horn sounded deeply, as though in response to the long sonority of the wave-sound. A call had been issued, one so finely calibrated to the electric snapping of each Underworldy’s brain fluid, to the intricate bond of knotted psychic tissue, that its pull was the highest order and command. They would attend their master’s funeral march.
And so that misshapen gang smashed the last of the men to the ground, seeing them as inconvenient slower-downers of the ritual urgency that was welling in their crooked limbs. These final opponents were spared the more creative demise generally thought up by the Underworldies in favour of a speedy bludgeoning, though mercy was not their aim. A slow trance came upon them, a force not felt since much older days when ritual was firmly rooted in the living muscle. Their adherence to the laws of yesteryear is what would at that moment, and in the battles of other Fomorians to come, lose their kind a place in the world.
The ant line was led by the rhythm of Egglebelly’s drum, luring Freshcorpsey’s dull golden bubble closer to the hillside. Fangrii and Ganginott stood like pillars at their master’s side and all eyes were on the mouth of the cavern at the base of the jagged grey hill. This would be Sir Dean’s resting place. Onwards they marched; yapping, barking, gargling, growling and muttering without the ability to look sideways or dislodge their legs from the pull.
Sir Dean would be buried in the very mouth of the land he had conquered. Men were now either rended to pieces and sent to hell or too demoralised to crawl out of their hovels. It was almost done.
But now, for the first time since his renegade band of anarchic daemons began its rule of mayhem, Sir Dean sensed a twang of doubt: a watery gargling crept upwards from the back of his mouth. Distant trampling mingled with the funeral drum and all of the Underworldies’ limp and inconsistent marching. Freshcorpsey felt the hint of discomfort emanating from Sir Dean and with a short throaty grunt and a tilt of the head sharpness flooded back into his head. Alternating between nostrils, swaying his head from side to side, he snuffed the air deeply and then produced a feeble croaking sound. It was the smell of something alien; something like men, but different. It was a new combination of scents. No man he had ever encountered smelled like this, for in the mix he recognised that level of ferocity for which he had developed a highly sensitive palate. He sniffed again. There was no fear. Again. There was no doubt. But there was an excess of pride which surpassed even Sir Dean’s and his own. Freshcorpsey turned to Sir Dean as though accusing him of bringing something into being through the very act of doubting. The blankness of the fish turned into fear without shifting a scale. They were being ambushed!
Fiery red heads bobbed and sunk over the horizon of the hills far behind the Underworldy procession. The disciplined synchronisation of the marching began to creep up on the scattered rhythms of the deformed fighters. On a landscape quickly darkening, a banner made itself known before the bearers of arms themselves. It displayed a broad sword emanating rays of light. Whoever the symbol represented, the Underworldies had no chance, for bound as they were by tradition, they could not turn and fight.
The unknown army charged over the remainder of the hill looking as strange and new as they smelled: straighter, taller and rounder in muscle and face. Their entire physiques foretold a nobility which their predecessors had looked for in the skies and their magic lay not in their bodies but in the twanging and vibrating of their shields and their swords. The Fomorians had no tricks left. There was nothing to be done but wait for the end of the affair. Not even Freshcorpsey, who was only Fomorian by virtue of hearsay, could break the ancient conditions to which he was enslaved by loyalty. His rage was incandescent and Sir Dean’s spirit had all but departed from that leaking body.
It felt like the longest day of the year. The clouds were red against a dark blue sky but the sun was not yet gone. The fresh warriors of Man, looking as though they had just emerged fully formed out of a new seed, closed in on the once feared Underworldies. Fomorian after Fomorian was reaped down like unresisting wheat. Fangrii and Ganginott were next with an easy shove and a club. Egglebelly’s drumming was cut short by a spear which tore towards the hillside. The sphere dissolved into a fine shower of gold rain and Sir Dean gave out his last breath. Only Freshcorpsey and his horse remained, standing in a pile of blood littered with white spines and innards. Fading fast, the last line of bright red was drawn on the sky like a violent rent in its blackness.
“What are you?” demanded Freshcorpsey, who was known to know everything.
A haughty young warrior stepped forward.
“A shivering old woman demands that I introduce myself!” He beamed around for moral support.
The strange men laughed from deep within their bellies at what they took for a shrivelled leper on an old mare and a dead fish.
“Why, fair creature, I am Nuada of the Tuatha Dé Danann! Having sailed from lands you could never know, I will soon be your beloved ruler and king!” He smirked and circled the now pathetic and humiliated being. “And as such”, he turned and winked to his men, “I would ask for your hand!” Nuada reached out to plant a mocking kiss on Freshcorpsey’s hand, but was cut off by a whip-fast grab to the forearm.
Freshcorpsey dug the tips of his claws into the flesh:
“Nu-a-da…by the deep rooted forces beneath this rock I curse you! I am not the last of my kind! In time, you will see, you too will be part us, and one of our blood will rule over you!”
Nuada drew a brilliant sword from his sheath and lopped the creature’s arm clean off. Freshcorpsey’s wound hissed and bled but he still laughed manically as though the sight of the amputated arm had only made his prophecy more tangible.
The future king could not have known the weight of this incident at the time, but he would know soon enough.
They left Freshcorpsey to die as the rent in the sky finally sealed itself off. It was time to continue their long journey towards the battlefield at Mag Tuired.
Based on the track entitled “The Burial of the Sardine” by Nurse with Wound / Current 93 and the painting entitled “The Fomorians” by John Duncan.
Lara Schembri is a 24-year-old English student who writes scripts for a children’s TV show. She went to Catholic school, which is why she relates to horror films. She also likes bright clothing and songs which sing about love like it’s real, because it is. Lara thinks birds are awesome and hopes to be a writer some day. That’s about it in a tiny, tiny trinket box.