Beltane Fire

by EJ McFall

Beltane Fire

I regret that my part in the affair was so small. I am, at heart, a coward and not inclined to great acts of nobility. But I was there and I saw what transpired. And I shall record it for the ages. It's the least that I can do for those brave few who tried to give us hope.

To begin at the beginning, we are prisoners. Not because we're thieves or murderers, but because a new power is sweeping through the land. Any who oppose the new rule "and many who do not " are captured and brought to this horrible place to exist as slave laborers. And, ultimately, to die.

Myself, I have never been any threat to any regime. I'm a simple little wood elf, uninterested in power or riches. Before the new kingdom, I spent my days dancing and drinking and spinning tales. Rulers came and rulers went and I cared not. The woods belonged to me and I belonged to the woods.

Then the new ones came. The angry ones, who had no time for tales around the fire. No, their days were consumed by greedy commerce and blind conquest. Even their god was an angry, humorless creature intent only on destroying all other gods. Still, I could have co-existed with their new god, if they had only suffered me to live free. But I was rounded up with the rest of the ephemeral folk and exiled to this abysmal place. What my crime was, I do not know.

The ugliness of the camp can be borne, along with the hunger and the homesickness. But there is no laughter here and that is slow death for me. Better to be stricken down by their solemn god than to live without joy. To live without our ancient tales shared around a roaring bonfire.

But here there is no time to waste on such frivolity. Our days are devoured by a strict routine. Up with the sun, wolf down our daily rations, then to work building the roads that will connect their glorious shining city to all the world. Roads that will bring armies to destroy those of us who still manage to hide in the dark of the forests.

Most of our kind have not the constitution for hard labor. The dwarves can carry their load, as well as some of the warrior elves. But most of us ephemeral folk spent our days before capture in artistic pursuits or in wanton revelry. Our numbers are slowly diminishing. Accidents while we slave claim some. Brutality claims more. Many more have simply given up and chosen to spread their souls upon the winds.

Most of my fellow fairies have long since given up to despair and have chosen the peace of oblivion. I think often of joining them, but I cling to the hope that better times are ahead. Our sad story is yet without an ending and I mean to be here when that last line is written. Their god may destroy our ancient ones, but he will not destroy me. Or so I tell myself during the long, cold nights.

And the nights are cold. Our captors house us in crude wooden barracks with none of the amenities of our previous lives. I share quarters with a group of warrior elves, who I do my best to entertain with my simple tales and songs. In exchange, they protect me while we work, often taking on more of the load themselves when I am too exhausted to do my share.

Often we lie in the dark singing the old ballads and I recount the legends of my home land. But on that last night before Beltane they were not interested in my meager diversions. On that night, the future of our kind was of more importance than our past.

"Do you note where we are to work on the morrow?" Arawn, the leader of the warrior elves, voiced what the rest of us had hoped to ignore.

"What can we do?" Marcan lay upon his bunk, stared listlessly at the ceiling. "Their magic is too strong for us."

"So we stand by and let them destroy our most sacred grove?" Arawn paced about our barracks, pausing near each of his comrades. "We may be outnumbered, but we still have our honor."

"Honor?" Ormand scoffed loudly. "There is no honor in a fool's mission. Their priests have butchered our druids, their magic talismans are more powerful than ours. You cannot save the sacred grove from their axes. You cannot even save us from their swords."

"You speak correctly, Ormand of Eryri. We cannot hope to save either the sacred grove or our own lives." Arawn stood in the center of the room, fervently addressed us all. "The days of our kind are over, all know that. The only choice left to us is the manner of our deaths. For myself, dying in battle "hopeless as it may be " has more honor than dying by inches as a slave. The druids are no longer here to protect our sacred lands. That duty now falls to us who still survive." He turned slowly, made eye contact with each of his comrades in turn. "What say you, my friends?"

"There is no chance of surviving, much less triumphing." Marcan stood slowly, walked to Arawn's side. "But if this is how you choose to die, I will be by your side."

"You have my sword too." Daolghas laughed softly. "Though I have no sword to offer."

One by one, the warrior elves joined their leader. Shamed by their bravery, I found myself compelled to speak. "I too will stand with you, Arawn, to protect that which the druids can no longer protect."

Muffled laughter circulated throughout the room as I stood shaking before the bravest elf I have ever known. Bravest, and most kind, for he accepted my pathetic offer in the spirit in which it was given. "You are indeed brave and honorable, little one, but we warriors will do the fighting. You must do what you do best. You must survive to recall the tales of our kind. Soon we will all have vanished from the face of the Earth and it will be for you to remember our brave deeds and to condemn the evil that was visited upon us. Will you do that for us " for the elves and the druids and the dwarves and all those who have been destroyed to make room for this new god?"

"I will, Arawn of Craignish. You have my most solemn word."

"In that case, Arawn will need a warrior to replace you." Ormand chuckled as he moved to Arawn's side. "I will go on your fool's mission, Arawn. As long as the little one promises to remember me too in her tales."

"I will, most assuredly." I gestured to all those brave enough to stand by Arawn. "I will record all your names."

There was little sleep that night. Arawn and his followers knew well what would befall them on the morrow and spent their last hours quietly singing the old elvin songs. Though our captors strictly forbade it, we kindled a tiny Beltane fire in our barracks to welcome the sunrise. We had no druid to lead us, so Arawn whispered the sacred words to welcome back the sun after its long winter absence. Then we filed out into the compound for our daily rations.

The new god is a jealous one and will allow no other gods their due. A pair of woodland elves from another barracks "revelers, not warriors " dared to sing the old Beltane songs while waiting for their pathetic rations. The guards silenced them on principle and that might have been the end of the matter, had not one of their priests been present.

Revulsion crossed the holy man's face and he signaled for the guard nearest the offending elves. "They sing of Beltane. Take them to the punishment box."

"No." My protest was choked by fear and barely audible. I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned in terror, but it was no guard behind me. Only Arawn.

"Silence. There is room in the box for one more."

"But to punish them for singing..."

"Not now, little one. Remember your vow to live to tell our story."

I nodded and resumed my silent shuffle along the bread line. The guards were extra vigilant this morning. Their priest prowled the compound, seeking any signs of Beltane observance. None dared even glance at the sun.

I felt the growing anger around me as we were marched to our work assignment. The ancient grove towered before us. The guards stood safely away, crossbows at the ready, as axes were distributed. The command was given to fell the trees. And none moved.

"To work, you pagan dogs!" The foreman shouted, gesturing significantly at the guards and the arrows that were aimed at us.

"These trees are sacred to our kind." Arawn stood as proudly in his ragged clothes as any elvin prince in finest regalia. "You have butchered our druids, but the grove still stands."

"Not for long." The foreman snickered. "Guards!"

I was shoved to the ground before the arrows flew. Who my savior was, I know not. But coward that I am, I stayed there as the warrior elves charged with their axes. They were all felled before reaching the enemy, save Ormand, who managed to kill one guard before dying himself. I cowered on the ground as our wounded heroes "Arawn among them "were butchered as they lay helpless at the guards' feet.

I shivered in fear, waiting for my own turn to die, as a guard hovered over me. I stared at his feet and whispered forbidden words to our forbidden gods.

"On your feet, you. There's work to be done. Unless you'd rather join your heroes in Valhalla or wherever it is you godless pagans go."

I shook my head and crawled to my feet. An axe was shoved into my hands and I was pushed towards the nearest tree. I had to step over Daolghas' corpse. Marcan's body lay sprawled against the first oak. I tried to veer off to the next tree, but the foreman snickered and dragged Marcan away.

"There now "nothing blocks you. Get to work."

The axe was too heavy for me and normally one of my stronger friends would have taken it, directing me to busy myself clearing the brush. But all those fit enough to do the work were now gone and those of us left could barely swing the axes. But none of us dared complain and from somewhere we found the strength to do that which our hearts bid us not to do. We survived that day, but the price was more than we could bear. Many spread their souls on the winds that night, but I forced myself to continue. So our tale would not be lost.

So let me record now that which happened. Let it be known here and for all time that in the end days of the ephemeral folk, Arawn of Craignish, Marcan the Younger, Daolghas the Red, Ormand of Eryri, Bedwyr the Wise, Gogannon of the Dark River and Lubdan the Lame stood before our most sacred grove of oak trees and gave their lives trying to save that which was lost. And let it be known that Beltane fire --set by our captors but secretly blessed with the ancient words -- consumed our fallen heroes and freed their souls to go in honor to their fathers.

And let it also be known for all time, that after killing these brave spirits, our most base captors then slaughtered those few warrior elves that did not fight beside Arawn. The strongest among us dead, our captors are left only with dwarves and those of us ephemeral folk who are too weak to fight them. We slave still, extending their road of conquest into the wild places. But our numbers diminish daily.

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