The Journey of the Leanaí i Ndán
IV. Here Braonán Divines The Way Forward
GRATEFUL to the Leanaí i Ndán, the Táriacsuc, the Shadow Folk who appeared as men and women with heads of deer and antlers in the shape of hands, and who could not be seen unless one gazed upon their shadows, accompanied them on their journey for a time. Together they hunted and feasted and caroused; Meadhbhín filled their cups with wine and danced as the licking flames that flickered the shadows of the Shadow Folk, Fearghal and his crow warriors trained the Shadow Folk in their ways of war, Lámhghala regaled the Shadow Children with many tales, and Mársélu, with her soothing voice, charmed the fish to the fishing hooks so that the Shadow Folk would eat well. Braonán, on the other hand, besought the Shadow Elders to teach him the ways of their seeming. They readily agreed, and Braonán proved an apt pupil.
But eventually, the Shadow Folk and the Leanaí i Ndán parted ways; with much fondness they bid each other farewell and the journey grew a little lonelier.
It was at this time that the remorseless Winter Spirit which Lámhghala had defeated rose once more; however, as the Ídhireac was slain it had no servant to bring it offerings, and as its heart was destroyed it could not lure another to do its bidding. In its fury it raged across the Lands of Eternal Winter in search the one who had taken its offerings from it. The farther it traveled, the more fierce its rage grew, until it became a howling blizzard which could freeze an animal that stood too long in the open with one icy breath and shatter it with the next.
When the Winter Spirit found them it had grown to a full seventy leagues wide and half again as long, and it enveloped them entirely. However, An Sharmh had craftsmanship 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.
Seeing that An Sharmh remained unfrozen and its foes unaffected, the remorseless Winter Spirit’s fury steadily grew. It blew harder, howled louder, and froze animals mid-flight with one breath and shattered them with the next. It carried snow from leagues away to pile upon the magic vessel, and it battered the hull with shards of ice the length of a great bear’s longest tooth.
Though the Leanaí i Ndán remained safe and warm, they quickly lost their way—their roadmaps could not reveal to them the paths that were buried under snow, and their star charts could not aid them through the sky’s eternal white.
“Braonán, we must stop,” urged Fearghal, “for every league we travel may be another league off-course, and this blizzard which has lasted for a fortnight shows no sign of ceasing.”
“If we stop then we will surely be buried under snow and unable to move at all,” replied Braonán.
“Can we not, then, await spring?” Lámhghala asked. “With Meadhbhín we will never be left wanting for food or drink and An Sharmh is as warm as a hearth. We will be well cared-for until the snow begins to melt.”
Protested Mársélu: “If I must do nothing but await spring alongside these noisome crow warriors, I will go mad.”
“How long are we to wander, then?” asked Meadhbhín. “How are we serving the lost gods by getting lost ourselves?”
“You two suggest we await spring in the Lands of Eternal Winter?” asked Braonán sharply. “No; we must press on, for we have little choice.”
Reluctantly, the others relented to Braonán’s reasoning. Still, this question weighed heavily on Braonán’s conscience, so much so that, when it was his turn to rest, slumber would not come. He tossed and turned in his bed so fitfully that Samhraidh was disturbed from her own sleep in the next room.
Thus proceeded the next several days. An Sharmh slowed to a crawl: fast enough to push through the endlessly building snow, but slow enough to avoid disaster. The Leanaí i Ndán quickly grew restless, however, as there was no telling if they were headed in the right direction nor did there seem to be any end in sight to this blizzard. Night after night, Braonán’s restless thoughts kept him from sleep. Not even Mársélu’s powerful blood magic could avail them, for her blood bore no trace of Éiru, and while Braonán’s and Meadhbhín’s blood did, their hearts had never known Éiru’s splendor, so the path yet eluded them. Each day that passed grew slower, and each night longer.
One night Braonán, driven half-mad by weariness and confinement, slipped quietly out of the vessel. The cold instantly bit at him, the ice shards cut wickedly at his flesh, and the winds whipped at his clothing. He stood atop the vessel, gazing out into the endless white as if to pierce through it with his eyes. He turned this way and that, trying to divine where the horizon lay. And then, when that failed, he threw out his arms and tossed his head back and cried:
“O Éiru, you who are fair and kind and good,
guide us wayward souls from the winter world
to your green meadows as a shepherd to his flock would.
O Manannán, whose fingers around Fate’s reins are curled,
tug your wild steed’s bit that it might think to turn around
and the wings of your freedom might come unfurled.
O Danu, whose heart bears mother’s love unbound,
turn to your weary children—many trials have we withstood—
and call to us so we might soon kiss your beloved ground.”
The blizzard raged, freezing the blood shed by shards of ice before they could seep from his wounds, and the breath from his impassioned cry hung from his beard as icicles. But within him he felt something akin to the small breath taken in before a reply. So he waited, even as the cold bit at his skin with needle teeth and deadly slumber closed in like a warm embrace.
It was then that Meadhbhín called to him, for she had emerged from the vessel to attempt to draw Braonán back; and as he turned to face her, he saw a vision of Éiru through the blizzard, on the distant horizon. The chill took him, then and he toppled from the vessel. Luckily, Lámhghala was close at hand; she caught him and pulled him back within the warmth of the vessel.
With Meadhbhín calling upon fire to warm his bones and water to move the blood in his veins, and with Mársélu’s sorcerous mastery over the flesh, Braonán was quickly restored. Immediately he rushed to pilot An Sharmh, turning it about. When the others asked as to what he was doing, he replied:
“I besought Éiru, my holy father, and Danu for guidance, and they have answered me: I have been sent a vision of Éiru on the distant horizon. This is the way forward, I feel it as surely as my own heart beats my father’s blood through me. For all I care this blizzard can blow through three winters hence; it will no longer cause us to stray.”
Once again denied its offering the remorseless Winter Spirit raged afresh, but even its cold anger could not last forever: the Winter Spirit had spent much of its strength and was easily driven back by the gentle light-fey who called the skies home. And so, when the Leanaí i Ndán finally reached the far shore where they would cast off into the wild seas, they witnessed the colorful lights dancing in graceful celebration.