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Finnbar's Last Stand
A Short Story
Start your weekend off with some Celtic pulpy fantasy wrapped in spirit and fire. Our Poet Laureate, James Carran, wrote this short story for today’s installment which is packed with action, strong characters, and divine themes. I hope James continues to pen similar fantasy stories soon.
- Frank Theodat
But in the pass King Finnbar stood
And pass him nothing could
Till Finnbar earned the radiant rood
The last surviving excerpt from the lost ballad of Finnbar the Great.
The sunlight kissed King Finnbar's head, warming his cheeks and returning his white hair to its original gold as he watched the last of the wagons roll through the narrow pass, steep rock rising high either side. And only just in time. From his vantage point on the high rocks he could see the hell-horde flooding into the valley they'd just evacuated, their hatred like a dark cloud spreading across the plain and surging into the foothills. The smoke rose behind them, Finnbar's past burning as he watched. Four hundred years of his people building, gone in a few short months of conflict. Folly and flame, that would be his legacy.
The enemy would be there in an hour, perhaps less. It would be close, but there would be time enough. Finnbar jumped down from the rocks, still limber despite the encroachments of time and the cares of leadership. He had many good years left in him yet. Years of hard training, even in the peace and plenty of the past decades, had seen to that. He sneered to see Lord MacCallum walking behind the wagons. If he hadn’t pushed… what was done was done.
With the last wagon well clear of the pass, Finnbar nodded to Morrin. The scouts had ridden hard, finding this spot, preparing a rockslide that should block the only pass for a thousand miles of mountain. It would take months for the enemy to dig through it, even assuming they could.
Morrin set off the charges, the last of their black powder gone. The thunder of the explosions and rockfall was deafening. Finnbar drew his cloak over his mouth and closed his eyes as the dust flew past him. All was silent before he opened them again.
The narrow pass was filled with a wall of rock.
Finnbar groaned and fell to his knees as he saw the gap. Barely enough for two men to walk side by side, but it would be a matter of hours for enough of the horde to pass through that they could harry the wagon trail for miles. His people would fall long before they reached the safety of the Beruna Fords.
“Sorry sire.” Morrin’s voice came softly.
“Nothing you can do lad, God wills as he wills it.”
A shadow fell on Finnbar and he looked up to see Lord MacCallum looming over him.
“I told you we should have used the powder to set traps.”
“Aye, you told me. Like you told me to destroy the city, and you told me to sue for peace, and you told me to send tribute to the high kings of the north and you told me to flee months ago. Like you told me you were loyal… You’re always telling, and yet never acting, MacCallum. The head that wears the crown must do more than talk about it, man!”
“Well look where all your acting has taken us. You caused this with your foolish pride. Your hubris. You opened the very gates of hell itself on us, you fool. You should have stepped aside.”
“I would never have taken those steps if you hadn’t pushed me to it. If you’d been there when I needed you.”
“And now we will die for it. For your pride and folly, Finnbar.”
“The gap could be defended. A small force.”
“No one will stand against that horde. Not against them. You saw what they did to the stragglers. You heard the screams. No one will stand in the gap. You couldn’t make your most loyal subject stand there without fleeing or fainting. We will run. And we will fall.”
MacCallum turned away toward the retreating wagons.
“I will stand.”
He turned back towards Finnbar, a look of astonishment on his face.
“I will stand in the gap for my people. Whatever the cost.”
Finnbar took the circlet of kingship from his head and handed it to MacCallum.
“Give this to my son. He is a good man, MacCallum, even you admit it. Better than me. I would have stood aside for him.”
“I might hate your bloody guts Finnbar, but you can’t stay. You can’t do this, no one can.”
Finnbar turned away and walked through the gap. The horde was at the base of the hill, he had a little time. If he could but hold them for a few hours it would give his people long enough. He turned to MacCallum and Morrin standing there.
"Let these be the last words of Finnbar the King” he said, taking on his lips the formal words that every King of the Ard used before he went to die. Morrin’s eyes filled with tears.
“I have brought death and destruction on my people through my own folly, but here I plant my feet, my flag, and my body. And my blood shall water the ground in preparation to receive it as a seed for the resurrection. Our enemies will fertilise the soil with their flesh and you, my people, will live. You will live, and live well. You shall flourish in this new land for another four hundred years, or God-willing far longer. I will buy you the time you need, though it cost me all."
He turned, shield and spear in hand and he stood there with the sun behind him, listening to the tramp of feet as the men left, hearing the snarls and screams of the hell-horde coming towards him.
He would stand, and stand alone. But by the light he would hold them.
The first of the demon-kin crested the hill and raced toward him. Finnbar set his spear against his shield and waited. They could only come at him one or two at a time, but when your enemy was possessed by hell and berserk, that was small comfort. The black eyes of the demon-kin seemed to bore into him and despite himself, he trembled.
The man threw himself at Finnbar, impaling himself on his outstretched spear. Finnbar only just managed to pull it out before the next was flying at him, crashing into his shield. Again and again Finnbar struck. Again and again they kept coming. Again and again they took wounds that should have killed them and kept on coming. It was hard to fight such cursed men, with their dark-blank stares and snarling faces. Their inability to feel pain and fear. The whiff of hell around them.
So he struck and struck until his arm was sore. The bodies piled up around him but there were thousands, and they did not fear like normal men. Sweat ran down his face and the stench of blood and sulfur filled his nostrils. He chanted a low battle song to keep his mind from the fear.
An hour passed. His people needed a lot longer but when the enemy regrouped, Finnbar sagged against the rock. They had driven him back, slowly and inexorably through the chasm until he was almost in the open. He couldn't hold them for long. Not without rest. He dared not even glance to see how far the caravan had gone. Not far enough, he had not held long enough. He could not.
A heavy hand landed on his shoulder and Finnbar whirled to see MacCallum standing there, behind him six men with grim determination on their faces.
"Sorry to spoil your big moment and all. But we thought we'd help out a little."
"I'd not say no to a spot of rest, but I'll admit I'm surprised."
"Wouldn't do to let an old bassa like you hog all the glory now, would it? And I have no young that need me nor a wife to mourn. Neither do any of these."
He gestured to the men behind him. Finnbar cast his eyes over them. Aidan. Colm. The red twins, Mahon and Magnus. Tadgh. Old Aengus, barely standing straight. Heroes all. His gaze turned to MacCallum and he searched the big man’s face. The hint of a tear shone in his grizzled eyes and he gave Finnbar a quiet nod. It was the closest to an apology the man was capable of. That either of the men were capable of.
"Brother." Said Finnbar, clasping the big man by the arm.
"Brother." Replied MacCallum. He almost smiled.
MacCallum himself led the charge, driving the horde back through the gap, through between the rocks, stopping just as he reached the edge of the small canyon their rockfall had caused. Finnbar took a moment to look back at last. He could see the glistening river in the distance, and the dark winding caravan of wagons snaking towards it. They needed longer. But perhaps they had a chance.
He rested at the back of the line, watching as the men fought bravely in front of him. Mahon at the front, Magnus behind striking over. Whenever one was wounded or fell they replaced him. Soon every man bled from a dozen places, and Aengus and Colm had already slept the final sleep.
“God help us.” Finnbar prayed. “Give us strength and aid. Let us hold and keep our people safe.”
Aidan fell, a crazed demon-kin tearing his throat out with his teeth before MacCallum stepped up and took its head with his axe. Magnus and Mahon pushed past him, striking down the foe with their axes flashing in the air. They were fearsome in battle but all Finnbar could see was them tossing his son between them, the giggling lad in hysterics of joy. The vision was punctured by a spear that took Mahon’s throat, his brother roaring in rage and flinging himself into the enemy, cut down with a dozen blows.
Hours passed. Had they done enough? Only Finnbar and MacCallum still stood. Tadgh had been the last to perish, a moment too slow to turn as an enemy charged him. Finnbar lunged, burying his spear in the throat of a demon-kin. The man grabbed it in his death-throes, falling back and unbalancing Finnbar. The King fell forward onto the ground and a second demon-kin leapt forward, his sword swinging through the air towards Finnbar.
Suddenly, he was gone, as MacCallum threw himself in the way of the blade. Finnbar saw the blade erupt from his back.
He grabbed his spear and charged. Like the wrath of God himself, Finnbar blazed through the horde, driving them back in a fury, clearing the way. He spun, kneeling to lift MacCallum’s head.
He said, and breathed his last breath.
Finnbar stood and set his face toward the foe. This was the end. But by the light he would take as many of the hell-horde with him as he could.
“God grant my people be safe.”
Suddenly, the horde froze. Light shone around Finnbar, casting his shadow across the enemy. He turned to see its source, beyond him was a towering being in full plate armour, wings reaching out behind him, a sword the length of Finnbar in his hand and an 8-foot staff in his other hand. Behind him were a hundred like him and from them shone light brighter than he could bear.
Finnbar fell to his knees.
No Lord am I, Finnbar Gaelson, King of the Ard. A WarSeraph of the Most High, that is all. Your sacrifice and bravery has been seen by the eye of He Who Is. As your folly brought your people to ruin, your bravery has brought them relief.
“It will be nice not to stand alone at the end.”
You have never stood alone, Finnbar. But only now have you eyes to see it, that the glory might be known. And hear this. Our LORD commends your sacrifice. Soon you shall fall and go to your reward but this army will stand here for a time, times, and half a time, protecting the land of your people until the time of testing. You have done well, good and faithful servant of the Most High.
Finnbar stumbled to his feet, and struggled to raise his spear in salute. The WarSeraph smiled and touched his arm with his staff. Strength flooded into his bones again and it felt as if the years fell from his shoulders.
Go in glory, child. Even when you fall they shall not pass you.
He turned to see the horde cresting the wall of the fallen. Finnbar raised his spear and shield and bellowed in defiance.
And he smiled to see them come.
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