The Journey of the Leanaí i Ndán
III. The Shadow Hunter and the Ídhireac
THROUGH the Middle Lands the remaining Leanaí i Ndán traveled; the nights grew longer and the days colder, until ice began to rim the windows and breath clouded in the air even in mid-day. White snow dotted the golden grass and the black skeletons of bushes and trees were scattered across the landscape—and then little by little even these began to disappear.
It was when night nearly overtook day entirely, when their steps sank into the snow up to the knees, and when their hunting yielded less and less quarry that they knew they had entered the Lands of Eternal Winter.
Fortunately, they were well-prepared: An Sharmh’s craftsmanship was such that it could move through snow that came up to a man’s shoulder, shield its passengers from even the harshest winds, and remain as warm as a hearth inside even when the cold outside could freeze the sweat from a toiling brow. Thus the Leanaí i Ndán proceeded, pausing only to hunt and to rest.
In the midst of one long night, as An Sharmh was still and within slept, Mársélu awakened with a start as if some noise had roused her. Though she strained to hear what could possibly have awoken her, she heard nothing; even Samhraidh was quiet and still. Her uneasiness grew to dread. She left her bed and reached into her daughter’s cradle.
It was then that she found it was empty.
At once she went outside to question Fearghal.
“Have you or your crow warriors noticed anything amiss?” she asked.
“Would that we had!” replied Fearghal. “Does nothing live in these forsaken lands? Not long ago I thought I had spotted a hare out of the corner of my eye, but it proved to be nothing but shadow.”
“Are you certain you have seen nothing?” pressed she, agitation written on her brow.
“I lament that I am most certain,” answered he. “Why do you ask?”
“My daughter is not in her cradle,” Mársélu said. “Have your crow warriors search around our vessel at once.”
Without another word, Fearghal did as bidden. Quickly Mársélu returned to the vessel and roused Braonán and Meadhbhín. They began their search. Fearghal and his crow warriors were to patrol the perimeter, Braonán and Meadhbhín were to search the immediate vicinity, and Mársélu was to search the vessel.
While inspecting the vessel carefully for any signs of Samhraidh’s crossing, Braonán saw a flickering of movement out of the corner of his eye. When he turned to behold it, however, he saw nothing. Then his eyes fell upon the hole in the hull, which they had repaired as best they could before leaving the Middle Lands. The repairs had been chewed through just enough to let in some small creature. He turned to the snow then. Apart for his own footprints, it appeared as if it were fresh-fallen. However, a most curious thing happened as he turned back to the hole in the hull: out of the corner of his eye the snow seemed to have many footprints aside from his own. But when he looked directly again, the snow seemed unmarred.
Braonán knew at once that this was a seeming; he touched the hilt of Fragarach to anchor him to truth, and, after a moment’s concentration, the seeming fell away from before him.
There were indeed tracks in the snow, pressed lighter than any prints Braonán had ever beheld before: a hare’s prints, leading into and out of the vessel, and a fully-grown human’s tracks, barefoot despite the cold, following the hare.
With haste Braonán set out after the footprints, unsheathing Fragarach.
Not long after the vessel had dropped out of sight, Braonán came upon a man with the head of a great stag, bearing strange antlers shaped like hands, clad in nothing but for his own fur and a seeming drawn around him like a cloak of shadows. He was crouched in the snow, a bow strung on his back and a quiver of arrows at his waist.
Braonán quickly overcame the deer-headed man and pressed Fragarach to his throat.
“Why were you at our vessel?” demanded he.
The deer-headed man spoke in his language, a strange tongue which sounded like desolate winds and crunching snow. Braonán turned his questing mind towards the task, and soon he was able to decipher his words.
He learned that the deer-headed man was a hunter from a people who called themselves Táriacsuc, the Shadow Folk. When Braonan asked if he had stolen their child, the deer-headed man swore he did not; it had been his quarry, the Ídhireac, a powerful sorcerer with the ability to change its shape at a whim to whatever it pleased, who kidnapped children and gave them as offerings to the remorseless Frost Spirits. Braonán knew this to be truth, as not a single soul—god, beast, or mortal—could speak false with Fragarach the Answerer held at its throat. At once, he released the deer-headed man.
“Let me and my companions join you,” he said. “We have many skills which will aid you on the hunt; I swear to you we will ensure this Ídhireac will not steal another child.”
After some thought, the deer-headed man agreed.
With haste, Braonán returned to the vessel, the Shadow Hunter by his side. He instructed his companions to look just to the side of this hunter, to his shadow; while they did this, they found they could see through his seeming, otherwise he was invisible to them. Braonán quickly explained what he had learned from the Shadow Hunter, and at once the Leanaí i Ndán set off to find the Ídhireac.
All through the night they hunted before finally coming upon the Ídhireac in the form of a giant hart, whose fur was as white as the snow but whose eyes were blood-red. It wore the same seeming as the deer-headed hunter, so the Leanaí i Ndán could not behold it except by its shadow. At once Braonán drew Fragarach and Fearghal summoned his glaive—but the deer-headed hunter stopped them. He warned them that, should they kill or harm the Ídhireac, they may never see their child again, for its home was protected by powerful deception magics that would lead even the most skilled tracker or navigator astray. They needed to subdue it and force it to guide them.
“What should we do, then?” Braonán asked.
The hunter then described what a great Táriacsuc hero once did in the past: after many days and many nights the Shadow Hero tracked down the Ídhireac, and once he came upon it, in the form of a great stag like this one, he instantly seized it by the throat. The great stag bucked as violently as the blizzard blew, threatening to break the Shadow Hero’s grip. However, the Shadow Hero clung fast to the Ídhireac, whereupon it changed into the form of a bear. It tore at him with its wicked claws, scoring a great many wounds, but the Shadow Hero would not let go. Then it became a whale and dove into the water under the ice. The chill and the lack of air warred with each other to overcome the Shadow Hero, but still he held onto the Ídhireac’s neck. When it seemed that the Shadow Hero might finally die, the Ídhireac surfaced and, at the edge of death itself, told the Shadow Hero that it would obey a single command if he would release it. The Shadow Hero thereby commanded the Ídhireac to lead it true to its home. When it had done so, the Shadow Hero turned to fell it with a blow of its axe, but he found it was gone.
Upon hearing this tale, the Leanaí i Ndán drew into conference.
“I shall wrestle the Ídhireac,” said Fearghal. “I am strong, quick, and clever, and will have the assistance of my crow warriors.”
“Strong, quick, and clever though you may be, your crow warriors will not be of much help underwater—you will surely drown,” Braonán said. “I am a son of Manannán, and so I can breathe water as air. I shall wrestle the Ídhireac.”
“But will you survive that long?” Fearghal asked. “Let me wrestle the Ídhireac, for I am stronger and quicker than you.”
“And I am cleverer than you,” Braonán retorted.
“Perhaps we need not wrestle it at all,” said Meadhbhín. “Allow me to ply it with food and wine, and coax it to lead us to its home; and if it will not, its wits will be thick and movements slow—and surely much easier to subdue.”
Fearghal asked, “Who is to say it will not refuse the food and wine?”
To which Meadhbhín responded: “What creature would refuse food and wine?”
While the others argued, Mársélu approached the Ídhireac alone, her sorceress’s dagger hidden up her sleeve. She gazed directly upon it, feigning as if she did not know it was there—and thus the Ídhireac did not move, for it knew that one could only see it but indirectly. When she was close enough, she quickly drew her blade and cut the creature’s flesh, weaving her potent magic with its freshly spilled blood. It was instantly smitten with an overwhelming love for her, and so forgot that she had wounded it but a moment ago.
“Is there no one that can help me find my daughter, my sweet Samhraidh?” Mársélu lamented to the wind as she crossed by the Ídhireac. “It is as if a cruel, jagged spear had been driven through my breast, making each breath a more painful endeavor than the last and each step a fresh world of agony—if I cannot find her soon, my heart will break and I will surely die of grief.”
At once it changed to its natural form and prostrated itself beside her. Similar to the hunter, it had a woman’s body covered in fur and a deer’s head, with the same sort of strange, hand-shaped antlers.
“Please forgive me,” besought the Ídhireac, speaking in Mársélu’s tongue. “It is I who have taken your child to my house, and left her as an offering to the remorseless Winter Spirit! I would fain return her to you, but I fear that by the time I arrive the Winter Spirit may already have accepted my offering.”
“Alas, my pain is so great that I can think of nothing but finding my daughter,” Mársélu replied. “If I am reunited with her, surely my heart will no longer ache and I may be able to find forgiveness.”
“Then I will lead you to my home,” said the Ídhireac. “And if the Winter Spirit has already taken her, I beg you to kill me, for I cannot live knowing I have caused you such sorrow.”
“Very well. Allow me to retrieve my companions, for they too seek her, and I do not wish for them to be lost in the Lands of Eternal Winter.”
Not once did it occur to the Ídhireac to deny Mársélu anything. Together they returned to the hunting party and set off at once towards the Ídhireac’s home. Though there was nothing in the snowy wastes, the path was still winding and incomprehensible. The hunting party grew uneasy, wondering if the Ídhireac was not leading them astray—but Mársélu’s blood magic was more powerful than the Ídhireac’s guile. True to her word, the Ídhireac led them to her home.
When the hunting party searched it, they found it was empty, devoid of any children deer-headed or human. In utter despair the Ídhireac submitted herself to Mársélu, who, with a resolve as cold as the snow, cut out the Ídhireac’s heart with her sorceress’s dagger and burned it upon a pyre while it still beat. The Shadow Hunter then took the Ídhireac’s antlers as a trophy to present to his people upon his return.
It was the fire’s light, stoked by the Ídhireac’s heart, that revealed to them bootprints leading away from the Ídhireac’s home, which had been kept intact despite the fresh-fallen snow—and they were surrounded by many other, much smaller footprints which could only be spotted by their shadows.
They began following the tracks at once, knowing them to be the tracks of the Shadow Children. A half a day passed before the Shadow Hunter marveled that, whoever it was who had led the Shadow Children from the Ídhireac’s home was headed towards his people’s camp!
Surely enough, they arrived at the home of the Shadow Folk, where they found them in preparation for a celebration. There they learned that the Shadow Children had been reunited with their parents, lifting their hearts with joy, and that a strange hero, whom they called Ínúcshuc for they could not understand the language the hero spoke, had been the one to lead them and currently had possession of Mársélu’s daughter. Yet more rejoicing took place as the Shadow Hunter reported the details of the Ídhireac’s defeat and showed them his trophy as proof; and the Leanaí i Ndán were led to a tent where they would be honored for their heroism alongside Ínúcshuc.
Within, they found none other than Lámhghala, her wounds having been tended to by a healer, with Samhraidh wrapped snugly in her coat to shield her from the cold. Tears of joy ran from the Leanaí i Ndán’s eyes and laughter filled their throats and buoyed their hearts as they saw that not only was Samhraidh alive and safe, but so too was Lámhghala.
When she was asked how she’d survived and managed to find her way through the Lands of Eternal Winter to rescue Mársélu’s child, Lámhghala spoke thus:
“I know not how long it took me to awaken after I had fallen into the canyon; but after I did, I spent two full days climbing out. I sought you then, following the tracks laid by our magic vessel—but I was behind by many days and had little hope of catching up. Still, I pressed on, knowing that if I did not any hope I once had would fade entirely.
I had only just reached the outskirts of the Middle Lands when I sensed that Samhraidh was in danger—so I moved the earth beneath me to reach her side. I found myself in a strange house, surrounded by imprisoned children whom I could not see but by their shadows. I freed them, and they began to lead me here.
On the way, however, we were waylaid by a great blizzard with the face of an old man which blew shards of ice as sharp as teeth; once I made sure the children were safely hidden I fought him. He scored these wounds you see upon me, but eventually I found his heart and crushed it. The winds died and we continued onward until reaching the camp, which is where I hoped we would be reunited.”
The Leanaí i Ndán rejoiced; that night they celebrated alongside the Shadow Folk, feasting, singing, dancing, and carousing by the firelight.