by Stephen J. Herron

The Charge of the Giant's Ring & The Fall of Belfast

Saturday May 18th 1996

The Giant's Ring lies south of Belfast, just on the edge of the city. It is ancient, and commands an impressive view of the Lagan Valley as it cuts through the countryside to Shaw's Bridge.

It is a full mile around the top of the earthwork, and people used to race horses along the inside of the ring. A small pile of stones in the middle is covered in graffiti, and any magic that was here is long gone.

At one end of the ring a group of figures loiter, preparing themselves. There are perhaps ten of them. They are clad in dark clothing, and would look suspicious enough to mortal eyes. If you had Fae eyes, you'd see warriors, clad in armour, hefting large axes and vicious looking swords. They look like hate wrapped up in leather and steel.

The place is empty today. There's no real reason for it, at least none that mortals would understand. They're just being kept away, while The Vikings prepare to launch an attack on Belfast later. In the middle of their swords and axes, plastic explosives wait for detonation.

One of the Trolls who is on watch whistles sharply through the early morning air. The Vikings look up, around, alert, ready.

From the other side of the ring, nearly half a mile away, the sounds of a dozen swords being drawn sends out a steely slither. Horses appear over the rim of the earthwork ring, and there are as many Sidhe Knights as there are swords raised in defiance. Clad in Sidhe Full Plate, they shine with an inner light that glints of their armour and swords.

Their leader raises his faceplate. He glares at the gathered Vikings. They can feel the pressure of his gaze, that presence only the Sidhe possess.

"I am Kestry. You will leave this place now, or stand ready."

His voice booms across the center of the ring to the Unseelie Warriors on the other side. The shape of the ring makes his voice appear to come from all sides as the sound bounced off surfaces. This rattles the Viking's nerves, but they raise their own weapons in defiance. One shouts, loud and clear, back to Kestry.

"Come and die then."

From behind the Vikings, dark shapes rise, pulling themselves together from shadows and dew. They shiver in the morning light, dark reflections of the Sidhe Knights, chimerical counterparts. Their horses are as pitch black as their riders, and only red gleaming eyes peer out of the Knights visors.

"Dark Knights ? You would raise Dark Knights against us?" booms Kestry, his voice filled with anger and bitterness. The late spring sunshine falters and then vanish behind sullen clouds high above, and the Dark Knights freeze into solid forms. They scream in hate, and their horses charge.

Kestry slams shut his visor, and leads his Knights into their Dark foes. They meet with clash and thunder. Three of Kestry's Knights are on the ground now, dark blades through their chest plates. One has a Dark Knight on the ground, and drives a steel long sword through his visor. The Chimera flickers like a bad tv screen and is gone. Two more Dark Knight steeds run out of the fray with out riders, and fade into nothing.

The Vikings begin their own charge, and are on top of the Sidhe a few moments later.

Kestry leaps down from his horse, and draws a long glass sword. He throws his shield to the ground, and pulls his flintlock pistol from his belt, firing it immediately at a Dark Knight that is throwing itself at him. The blast from the pistol scatters the Chimera like a wind through ashes, and it is gone.

Steel meets steel, and Kestrys' Knights are gathered around him. Most of the Dark Knights are scattered, but too many of Kestrys' friends lie unconscious around him, lost to the Mists.

And now the Vikings are upon them.

Kestry is on foot, but some of his Knights remain on horseback. They circle around him and two other foot soldiers who stride forward into the blades of the Vikings.

Kestry punches one with the hilt of his sword, and the redcap falls back, his teeth broken. A troll swings a huge axe at the Sidhe, and Kestry winces then cries out as the blade bites deep into his sword arm. He drops the longsword, as his right arm hangs useless. Count Antony, at Kestry's side, thrusts his sword through the Troll's chest, and steps back as the giant figure falls to the group. Countess Alexis, who flew in from the US yesterday, parries a blow meant for Count Antony, and swings back, breaking the Nocker's nose. The three stand, with Kestry flanked protectively by the Count and Countess. Smaller melees are taking place across the field, but most of the attention is being paid to Kestry. Somehow the Dark Knights know he is the key.

Steel sings as it flashes through Shadow, and the air itself seems to shimmer with the glint of morning sunlight off armour and blade. Alexis cries out, her voice wracked with pain and despair as a Dark Knight plunges its shadowy sword deep into her chest. No blood rises, but her soul is extinguished, and the look of loss in her eyes pulls a cry of anguish from his mouth. She falls back, unconscious, safe but forever mortal. Kestry lifts his pistol into the Dark Knights black face, and fires. It is gone.

Behind it, an Eshu stands with long cruel knives drawn. Kestry pushes forward, and punches the Eshu in the face with the butt of the pistol. The Eshu screeches, and Count Antony pushes his sword into the Unseelie Fae's torso, his eyes blinded with tears and anger at the loss of Alexis, friend and lover.

The rest of the Vikings break for it, and move quickly into the trees outside the Giant's Ring.

Three mounted Sidhe give chase, but soon pull back.

Kestry surveys the scene, and is deeply upset by what he sees. six of the twelve Knights are dead or unconscious, lost forever to the Dreaming. Six Vikings are dead, though their bombs still sit within the bags they left as they ran.

Kestry doesn't really notice as his arm is bandaged, nor does he feel the healing magic flow through him. He is just bewildered at the death that the Fae have just handed out to each other.

He feels cold.

Lorenzo stood on the steps on his Manor, waiting. The Smoke Dragon appeared from the clouds, and landed before the Duke, eyes keen.

"The explosives team at the Giants Ring have been routed. The Sidhe Knights, led by Kestry were sorely wounded in the fight. Many are dead or lost to the Mists."

Lorenzo nodded. "The other teams ?" he asked. The Dragon beat its wings. "They have managed to enter the city. They stand ready." Lorenzo frowned, and walked down the steps until he was beside the Dragon. "The Rebels ?" he asked. "They have left the city. They are most likely in hiding." The Duke tapped his chin thoughtfully. "That bitch Duchess, no doubt. Well, her day is coming." The Dragon shifted uneasily. "Orders ?" It asked casually. Lorenzo looked up at the Dragon. "Get ready. Today we break the back of the resistance." The Dragon nodded, and lifted up into the sky. Lorenzo walked back to the Manor House. He put on his armour, and belted his sword to his waist. He loaded a 9mm pistol with rounds forged from ice that shone unnaturally cold. Then he put on his sunglasses, and walked out to the Silver Ghost that sat waiting in the courtyard. Folly was tapping the steering wheel with impatience, which Lorenzo noted. "What's the hurry ?" asked the Duke. Folly jumped, a little surprised. "Er, well, I'm just eager to get on with it. You know me, before a fight." Lorenzo nodded. "Just don't get ahead of yourself, Folly. I'll need you to direct the teams from here. If you get into a fight, then something has goen wrong." Folly muttered doesn't it always under his breath, and drove away.

Signs on the gates to Belfast Castle told mortals that the Castle was closed for renovations. Peter Gibson, their Garou ally had offered the Castle, which was still in his charge, to Kestry and his people. Malcolm Fletcher was gone, in County Down with the Rebels, protecting Ardry.

Since the start of the war, there had been several small skirmishes. The Charge at the Giant's Ring had been the largest single battle so far. The Vikings were testing Kestry's forces in small encounters. The fights were swift, bloody and usually accomplished nothing.

When Kestry arrived back at Belfast Castle, Galway was waiting with herbs and magic to heal the Sidhe Knights. Kestry was hurt, but not as badly as some of the others. "How did it go ?" asked Galway quietly.

"Well, we forced them back. They raised Dark Knights against us."

Galway shook his head in disbelief. "They have the support of the Shadow Court then." Kestry nodded, wincing as a shy boggan girl tended to his arm. She started, looked guilty. Kestry smiled warmly at her, and apologized for his wince. She blushed, and went back to his injuries. "We suspected as much. I would have preferred another type of proof. One not quite so painful." "It was a Dark Knight blade that did this ?" asked the Troll, pointing to Kestry's bandaged arm. "No, one of Sir Vasrik's Trolls." Galway's expression was dark, but he said nothing. They took a walk through the wounded who were draped around the ballroom. Their wounds had been tended, where possible. Some were unconscious, lost to the Dreaming, and these poor souls would be left in hotel rooms with some money and clothes, ready to start their lives as mortals, bewildered and lost. Kestry would make the transition as easy as possible for them.

The battles and skirmishes of the last few days had been costly. Kestry had many healers here, but they could only do so much. There were fifteen wounded Fae here now, out of the thirty who had come forward to help. Even Galway wore a deep purple bruise on his forehead.

"This morning was costly. Six of us for six of them. Six of the best Sidhe Knights I've ever known, for six of Lorenzo's rabble."

Kestry was angry. Galway was angry too, but he put a hand on his friends shoulder.

"And there were twelve Dark Knights. Easily a match for any Sidhe Knights, and yet you defeated them also."

Kestry sighed, and sat heavily on the floor, head in his hands. He looked defeated.

"Don't lose hope, Kestry."

Kestry looked up at his friend.

"I'm just tired, that's all." He sat for a moment, then stood, renewed a little.

"I need to meet with the Harpers. Arrange it for me, please ?"

The Ducal Manor in County Down was a large old house in the grounds of Castewellen Forest Park. The grounds included a lake, fields, forest and a small mountain, part of the Mournes. It was a beautiful setting, and open to the public, all except for the Manor itself.

Duchess Aishling lived there with her Kinain brothers, and with a dozen or so friends, all Fae. There were some mortal Dreamers who stayed there, but Aishling would never have called them servants. They helped out.

Usually there would be several visitors to the Duchess, either from elsewhere in her Duchy or from further abroad.

Now, however, with the word of the war between Kestry and Lorenzo, there were no visitors.

Apart from the Rebels.

There was an arboretum beside the Manor House, with one of the few redwood trees in Ireland. The Rebels were playing between the trees from across the world. Matthew stood by the redwood, gaping up at its vast trunk. It seemed to go on for ever.

"It's impressive, isn't it ?"

Matthew turned. Standing behind him was the Duchess Ashling. She wore a simple brown dress, her long brown hair tied back without flair or decoration. She looked for all the world like a simple mortal woman, not the Duchess of Down.

"It's very big," commented Matthew. He didn't really understand the whole Duchess and Duke thing that seemed to be going on around him. He trusted Ardry, though, and while Ardry was happy, he was happy.

Aishling nodded, and looked up at the tree.

"How are you ?" she asked. Matthew smiled.,br> "We're both fine," she told her. Aishling raised a questioning eyebrow. "What's it like ?" Mattheew thought hard. "It's like he's... in my mind. Sometimes he wants to talk, so I let him. Most of the time he's just there, watching and listening. Sometimes it's scary, like there's not enough room for both of us." Aishling nodded. "Do you know what's going to happen ?" she asked carefully. Matthew shook his head. "I don't really understand what's going on. But Ardry does, so that's okay." Aishling bit her lip thoughtfully. "Can I speak to him ?" she asked. Matthew was silent as he asked his passenger. Aishling waited, her hands behind her back. "He says that you'll be speaking soon enough. Sorry." Matthew shrugged. Aishling smiled warmly at him, and placed her hand on his shoulder. "That's alright. Walk with me." They walked and spoke, Matthew asking child's questions, Aishling answering as best she could. And in the trees, watching and following quietly, listening with supernatural hearing, was Malcolm.

Elsewhere in the Arboretum, Robin sat in the bushes, in her bird form. She twittered and sang, then fluttered off into the branches of a high tree. She sang to the other birds, and told stories, and was told stories. She felt safe here, and her heart was as light as it had been in a long while. She felt different since she became a Wilder, and it was a good change. Slowly, she was becoming a woman, and that was worth it for the singular reason that Kestry would notice her more. She shivered with delight, her feathers getting ruffled in the process.

Below, Rocky and Giant sat, talking about fighting. At least that's how it started.

"I've never been in a fight before," admitted Giant. Rocky grinned.

"I've been in dozens... maybe more," he laughed. Giant nodded.

"So, what do I do ?" he asked. Rocky thought for a moment, and shrugged.

"Hit people."

He thought for a moment.

"You were in a fight. That one with the spiders, when we found Matthew."

Giant nodded. "That's true, I suppose. But..."

"But what..." Rocky prompted him.

"They weren't real. I mean, they weren't other Changelings, other people."

Rocky nodded. "Giant," he said quietly, "I've been in several real fights. And I don't mean boxing matches. They're not real either." He sighed, and shrugged. "The other fights, well, they're nasty. It's never fun or good or anything. But we've got a good reason to fight. We're trying to save the Dreams of everyone."

Giant nodded, but was still unsure. Rocky looked around, and leant in close to the young Troll. "Fight for Eithne. Do it for her." Giant blushed furiously. "Hey, don't worry. I won't say anything. She's nice and all, but not my type at all." He patted his friend on the shoulder, and Giant grinned, still blushing. "I can do it for her," he smiled. Rocky grinned. "That's the spirit !" They laughed, and talked about less serious things.

Lady Eithne walked through a different part of the vast garden with two young Sidhe nobles, who were paying court to her, with broad gestures and fancy words. She loved it, having rarely been given the opportunity to be courted in Belfast, not with the current atmosphere.

But in the back of her mind, she thought of another person, the true love of her life. His face filled her thoughts, and she smiled, blissfully unaffected by the chattering of the Sidhe that followed in her wake.

Kestry met with the other Harpers on the grassy slopes of the Castle grounds. Below lay Belfast, its Dreamers unaware, consciously at least, of the War that was being fought on their behalf.

The three Eshu sat in a circle, murmuring between themselves, as Kestry talked with Divis and Magpie. Euan listened to both groups, fingering the torc on his arm that was the Enchantment that brought him partly into the world of the Dreaming.

Divis laughed. "I can't get the Sentinels involved," he chuckled, referring to the Garou Sept to which he belonged. "They'd only give Finn the opportunity to call in the Armagh Fianna, and the War would escalate. You know that." Kestry nodded sadly. He looked at Magpie. "Don't look at me," he sighed, "There are few enough Mages here without getting them involved. I'm the only one that believes in Faeries anyway." Kestry sighed. "Well, I had to ask. Thanks anyway. Shanachie," he said, getting the attention of the Eshu, "any reports from your contacts ?" The Shanachie nodded, his face dark. "Not good ones. Something is going to happen later, and it's going to be big. No one knows exactly what." Kestry nodded. "Alright, get the word out to our allies and supporters to be careful." He looked at the faces of the Harpers looking up at him helplessly. "We can't really do much more. We are drawn to the battlefield by some inner force, when a battle is to be fought. But in a War like this, direct confrontations will not happen often. We must use guile and wit to battle the Shadow that hangs over us. Fight fire with fire."

The Shanachie shrugged, and grinned. "We're trying to be as Unseelie as we can, Kestry."

Kestry shook his head, but he was smiling.

"I'm concerned that Lorenzo has the backing of the Shadow Court. The raising of Dark Knights is compelling evidence for that. Which means he's not acting alone. And the King may be in a kind of danger we hadn't considered before."

The Harpers were silent.

Kestry nodded. "Although the Harpers are my responsibility, we were still formed by King Finn. He was our first leader, which most of you won't know. We are his quiet army, his subtle touch and careful eye to protect the Dreamers and the art they create, and even when he is corrupted- in fact especially when that has happened- we must try and protect the source of Glamour that remains the most pure. Because some day, it will be the Harpers who save him."

He looked faraway, remembering the past. "Just before he fell into his current darkness, he came to me, and gave me the Harpers. He withdrew his Glamour, and gave me his Brooch. He knew what was going to happen, and by giving up the Harpers, he saved us from being lost when he Fell."

Kestry looked at the Harpers. "Remember this in the days to come. The King is not our enemy. It's Lorenzo and those behind him. We will save the King if it kills us."

He drew his sword, and raised it "For King Finn and the Kingdom of Ulster."

The others followed, drawing their own blades. "For Finn and Ulster."

Kestry sheathed his blade, and paused. Then he smiled.

"Go on, get out there. Be careful. We know it's coming, whatever it is."

Lorenzo and Folly parked in a housing estate high above the city. It was a less well off neighbourhood, and people stared at the Rolls Royce. Lorenzo ignored them, while Folly just looked nervous.

"Cheer up, Folly," said Lorenzo in cheerful voice, "We've got the best seats in the city !"

Folly shook his head, and tried to ignore Lorenzo. He was on the mobile again, coordinating the several small groups of Vikings in the city below. Lorenzo liked to be high up, it made more sense to have the city laid out. And he was sure that the view would be good. As Folly chattered into the phone, Lorenzo studied the cityscape. He wished that he could just point and blow things up. He glanced at his watch. He smiled. He aimed his finger at a building near the city centre, probably a good two miles away, and clicked his finger back like the hammer on a gun.

He grinned. Timing was everything. "Bang." He fired his imaginary gun.

And the building exploded.

At 5;30 pm the bombs went off. It was rush hour, and the bombs were placed in the perfect places across the city to stop the traffic, all of it. The emergency services were paralyzed, and the buildings selected by the Vikings burned fiercely. They would not have looked like much to mortal eyes but the pub was a freehold, used by the Seelie of Belfast as a meeting point. The art gallery contained the works of upcoming new artists, and the Dross contained within hissed and died. The green-grocers belonged to a married boggan couple who sold the best fruit in the city, placng Dreams in the hearts of those who ate it.

Other bombs just tied up traffic, or created fear, or just hurt.

It was terrible.

And all the while, the strike teams of Vikings stormed into the known Freeholds, kicking out the Changelings within and nailing the doors closed, or setting fire to the building.

Within ten minutes, twelve Freeholds or sources of Dross were captured, closed or destroyed. Only the Freeholds set up in secret, or too well guarded to attack were left, and you could count those on one hand.

The Seelie of Belfast were homeless, or captured, or just dead.

Belfast had fallen.