The shanachie



            The Shanachie sat in the marketplace and sang an ancient song of his own devising. He was ancient, himself.  How old nobody knew, not even he had kept a count of the years.  He was simply grateful that he could still sing, as his voice carried a ballad of love and honor.  He was pale and gray, wrinkled and spotted with age and weather, with the twinkle in his sky blue eyes standing as the last remnant of youth.  He sat on his crossed legs in one of the corners set aside for begging, with his hat in front of him.  Today, only sparse coins rested in the stiff, leather cap, as the market was not crowded.  The market was the center of the obscure coastal town that the wandering storyteller had come to rest in, after years of traveling over his island homeland.  His voice mixed romance with the excited calls used by the sellers in the booths around him as they offered fish, beer and trinkets brought by the trading ships.  The singing invited people to gather around.

            It was a slow day at the market.  His neighbors had either stayed at home or put to sea on this day and he knew why.  It was because they were here. They roamed the marketplace, flaunting their shining suits of armor covered by the banner of the crusader, a red cross on a background of pure white.  The local bishop, of course, had given them permission to seek out new conscripts for yet another crusade, but the friar who led this village had voiced his congregation’s thoughts and had advised the people to hide any stout young men of their family, so that they would not be taken, never to be heard from again.  The crusaders were spread through the market, shining armor and white finery dulled by the overcast weather. Through their helmets, they watched for any who were suitable.  One of them had made a show of giving generously to the pitiful-looking beggar who sat nearby and pretended to be crippled, while ignoring the Shanachie.

            As the elderly man continued to sing, children began to gather.  They were all too young to be taken by the crusaders, not a one of them over a decade old.  The Shanachie finished his song and one child dropped a penny into the hat. 

            “And what can I do for you, lad?”

            “A story?”  The small boy averted his gaze, suddenly shy.  He wore humble clothing, had raven hair and sky blue eyes, and had the look of one who would grow to be a strong man.  “A story of ancient heathen magic,” the boy requested, innocently.  Others behind him whispered as the Shanachie had their attention.  “A story.”

            The Shanachie spoke in a loud voice, so that the crusaders could hear.  “The lad wants a story of the ancient heathens, so I shall give him one.”  He had not wanted the Christian knights to hear only the middle and accuse him of spreading the pagan beliefs.

                        He cleared his throat.  “T’was long ago, perhaps more than ten centuries, when Nachlil became a man. The time before Christ and salvation it was and the ancient chiefs ruled the families of our island, led by the heathen monks who worshipped the mighty trees of the forest.  This island and its chiefs were part of a vast empire, fighting a war in a far-away land.  The war was against the troops governed by Caesar and a vicious, unrelenting struggle it was, heathen against heathen with no gentle chivalry to be found.  Nachlil became a man in a time when men were being slaughtered.  He was a simple farmer who had enjoyed the trade of his fathers.  However, Nachlil was a strong man, larger than most others and the plow had made his body strong and his hands hard.  His chief decided that he was suited more to fighting than growing and herding.

            T’was on the night of the autumn festival, when his work was finished, that the heathen monks came to fetch him.  Told his folks, they did, that he was to be taken.  That night his mother wailed, reminding the neighbors of the banshee, and his father took comfort in ale and bent any ear that would listen regarding his sorrow, as though his son were already killed.  But to refuse the monk was to refuse the gods and taken their son was.

            Nachlil was taken into the forest, along with the others chosen.  Run them till they dropped, the heathen monks did, and then pulled them to their feet and made them to swing the heavy swords of iron and throw javelins with all their might.  Nachlil’s hands grew harder, along with his heart, as he learned to kill in every way, from the mundane to the creative.  Those heathen monks did meet and discuss their soldier charges.  They chose the hardest, and the strongest, to receive a gift only the truest friends of the Gods could bestow, and Nachlil was among the chosen.  The heathen monks did pen the chosen behind a stone fence that they had consecrated, as they feared what they would create.  Day and night the heathen monks prayed to their queen of the gods, their mother-dragon, while Nachlil and a dozen others languished in the pen, with neither food nor sleep.  They became mad and quarrelsome, but the heathens did nothing for their comfort.

            In the pen they stayed, until the night of the full moon.  Made to sleep under the round, blue orb they were, though they had already been mad.”

            “My Mum says never to sleep under a full moon,” I small girl interrupted. “T’will make of you a sickling.”

            “And mind your folks, you should,” The Shanachie instructed her.  “T’is dire to sleep under the moon and the heathen monks did use that power that rules the night to their own ends.  For the warriors in the pen became berserk and did howl, leap and fight each other with fury.  One by one, as the monks chanted, they did transform to something not unlike a wolf, but larger and more formidable than any wolf of God’s creation. They surged against the wall and, were it not for the consecration, the beasts would have leapt over and set upon the monks even as they prayed to their heathen gods.  Come morning, the beasts were overcome by sleep and transformed back into mortal men and women as they lay.  Come noontime, the heathen monks did rescue the Berserkers from the stone pen that had been their prison, singing joyfully as they rolled open the entrance and let the warriors out.  Nachlil and the others were given a feast in celebration, as well as time away from their warrior training to rest.  The heathen monks told them that they were now very special and were now Berserkers, the highest ranking and most formidable fighters in the Empire’s army. As the sun went down, the Berserkers were placed back in the concentrated stone pen, along with a single sheep.  They were told to work together, to vent their beastly fury upon the helpless animal rather than on each other. This they did and the beasts became a pack, chasing the lamb and toying with it as they howled to each other in the pen, before devouring the creature.  On the third night, they were not penned, but permitted to roam loose in the forest.  They hunted a stag, as wolves do, by surrounding it and running it until it fell and then setting upon it together.

            From that time on, Nachlil spent his days training to fight as a man, in armor and with sword, shield, bow and javelin, and his nights learning to fight as a beast, with tooth and claw, and the sneaking ways of the hunting animal. Under the heathen monks’ patient tutelage, he and the others learned not only to act as a single pack, but to control the actions of the beast they became, so that they could achieve the transformation when it suited them and the beasts would follow commands given them before.  In this way, each warrior did choose the actions of the beast that dwelled within. 

            When the heathen monks decided they were ready, the pack of Berserkers was sent away to fight.  The battle was underway when they did arrive.  Warriors of the local chief, with the support of warriors called up from around the Empire, were facing Caesar’s soldiery.  The soldiers had dug trenches and erected walls made by bags of earth, while the chief’s army worked up a fury.  A forgotten herb, which had once been a familiar secret to the heathen monks, was passed around and the warriors did partake of it.  They also whipped themselves with chains and danced a ferocious war dance until madness overwhelmed them and they roared like animals and chewed on the edges of their leather shields.  Only then had they swarmed forth.

            To their dismay, the army of Caesar was prepared.  The soldiers did set lances against the maniacal horde, allowing them to impale themselves with their own fury.  The warriors had withdrawn and the soldiers came out from behind their fortification and formed a line of overlapping shields.  With swords ready and javelins thrown, they did march forward.  T’was then that the pack of Berserkers was delivered onto the battlefield, as the moving wall of soldiers was advancing, pushing into the din of warriors.  The Berserkers saw this and shrieked, forsaking their armor and rushing forth even as they became wolves.  Around they ran, with the speed of four legged monsters, and they did sneak into advantageous positions behind the enemy soldiers.  As the furthest beast howled, the pack advanced, falling upon the soldiers from behind, as they held off the horde of warriors before them with their oaken shields.  The wall of men crumbled as the beasts made holes for the ocean of maddened warriors to flow through and surround the soldiers of Caesar’s army.

            A great victory it was!  A portion of the invading foe had been lost and their engines of war captured for use against them.  The chief who commanded in that place did declare celebration, while he and his warriors praised and thanked their heathen gods for sending the Berserkers.”

            The old storyteller paused.  His audience had grown and some of the sellers had abandoned their booths to come and listen.  He reminded himself to be cautious, as a crusader stood on the outer reaches of the crowd.  The Christian soldier showed no interest, and his helmet covered his face, but the Shanachie’s instincts told him the man was hearing the tale.  The man had strayed closer as the details of the ancient battle were told.  The old man waited, expectantly, and one of the adults tossed a gold coin into his hat.  He licked his lips and continued.

            “The pack of Berserkers did aid their heathen comrades against Roman forces and achieved many a victory.  However, the soldiers were too many in number and did keep returning in spite of defeat.  New ways they did try in conquering the stubborn land.  They brought engines of war with them, great walls of stone on wheels, as well as Greek fire, that mysterious burning jelly that was made to fly from their catapults. Hardest of all to fight, the invaders did consult the seeing witches of their temples, to find the best time and place to attack.  Using these clever ways did the invaders conquer that land in the end and make the Berserkers to return home.

            T’was said that not all had been lost, as Caesar’s victory was costly and his soldiers never conquered this island.  Nachlil had a home and his father’s land to return to.  The young Berserker was welcomed as a hero and marriage to a fine woman was arranged for him by his family.  As was his desire, Nachlil returned to the farming life and began to raise a family.  Soon there was gossip, though.  T’was said that Nachlil had a harsh temper.  Also, when the full moon gave its light to the green hills of his homeland, Nachlil disappeared from his marital bed and the wail of the beast could be heard out doors.  Soon, Nachlil’s neighbors did shut themselves away from the night, when the full moon rose, for fear of that hunting beast.  They did arm themselves and avoid Nachlil and his family.”

            “How lonely he must have been!” a small girl in the audience exclaimed, interrupting the Shanachie.

            The old man squirmed, adjusting his thin legs.  “Yes, yes.  Lonely he did become and less than prosperous.  To whom could he sell his produce?  Only to the wandering merchants, who would pay, but would not pay well.  In this separation from neighbor and friend, Nachlil’s wife did become temperamental.  Any small problem could light the fire of her fury and her husband’s anger did often match hers.”  Adults in the audience exchanged knowing looks.

            “One evening, Nachlil’s wife and only son were found wandering in the village and taken in by a local merchant, who felt he had nothing to fear from the woman and boy, without the husband around.  Injured the woman was and the merchant’s servants tended to her.  She told her tale.  She and her husband had quarreled over the proper way to cook a meat pie that afternoon, when he had returned from the fields.  During the quarrel, her husband suddenly fell to the ground and ordered her out of the house.  Thinking him childish, his wife refused and before her eyes he became the beast.  A swipe of his claw had knocked her against the wall of her humble cottage and she had fled, locking the door behind her, carrying her infant son.  The next day, a shepherd found the burned remains of the cottage they had shared.

            Nachlil was never seen again.  His wife and son did sell the land and retreat to another town, where they were not known.  Some say that Nachlil died in the fire, having knocked over a lantern as he raged in the form of the beast. Others say that he fled to the places known to the heathen monks.  That they restrained and cared for him.  Still others believe that he haunted the wilderness, more beast than man.  There are some who have told tales, that when two lovers quarrel without cause, a sad howl of warning might be heard.”  The Shanachie ended the tale there, pausing as some of the audience members donated coins.  The children stayed. 

            “T’was such a sad tale about poor Nachlil”, the boy who had asked for the story spoke up, sounding disappointed.
            “Aye, T’was,” Answered the Shanachie.  He whispered just loud enough for the children to hear.  “Sad and frightening, but a lesson it has.”  He threw a conspiratorial gaze around the marketplace.  The crusaders had found their conscripts and were taking them away.  The children gathered around.  “Beware those that would make a killer of you for their own ends, for even when the battle is decided, that making cannot be undone.”



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