The Journey of the Leanaí i Ndán
VI. Mársélu Tames Nuculabhí
MANY days and many nights passed as Fearghal’s storm raged overhead, the angry waves tossing An Sharmh to and fro. Frothing waters washed over the decks as lightning crackled across the dark skies and rain pounded on the vessel’s hull. Braonán laid in perilous slumber, suspended between life and death, tended to by Mársélu’s careful eye and Meadhbhín’s gentle hand. Lámhghala fought the seas to keep the vessel on the last course Braonán had set for them, but the dark stormclouds hid from them the stars which would guide their way.
Doubt began to douse the courage in their hearts when at last death’s grip loosened its hold over Bold Braonán, and upon awakening he got to his unsteady feet and righted their course. Once more Éiru was in their sights; and after some time they saw rocks and islands in the featureless ocean. The Leanaí i Ndán embraced and rejoiced at the prospect of once more setting foot on soil, and Braonán’s and Meadhbhín’s hearts ached with longing for that good land, that sacred ground which called to their blood.
But it was night still, cloudy and moonless, casting shadows that clung to An Sharmh, and carrying their whoops of joy and laughter far into the deep black.
“Hush,” bid Mársélu to the others, drawing her child more tightly to her. “Hear you that?”
“I hear nothing," replied Fearghal.
“Indeed," spake clever Mársélu, “though we sail near Éiru, no calls fill the night. Be silent, one and all, and strain your senses for that which animals dare not disturb.”
Thus the Leanaí i Ndán ceased their celebrations, dark foreboding hanging heavily over them. Fearghal sent his crow warriors out in search of the perils that lay hidden. For a long time they drifted onward in silence. Samhraidh, sensing the grim stillness that had settled over An Sharmh, stirred restlessly, but made no noise. And so the silence went unbroken.
Then, from some distance off, Mársélu heard the stirring of waters and a noise like the crashing of great waves upon the shore, except full of a fury unmatched even by Fearghal’s mighty storm. It was still far, however, and so she resolved to await the crow warriors’ return before changing course. Once more the babe stirred and began to make noise, but she was promptly calmed by Lámhghala’s tender and protective touch.
They drew ever closer, however, and still there was no word from the crow warriors. At once, Mársélu resolved to set the course around the source of this noise. But Samhraidh, sensitive to the urgency that had overtaken her mother, began to cry. It was then that Mársélu broke the silence to soothe her child with gentle words. After a time Samhraidh began to still; however, the great crashing of waters grew loud enough for the others to hear. At once Braonán drew Fragarach from its sheath, Fearghal called his glaive from the sky, Meadhbhín unbound the clooties from her fair feet, and Lámhghala brought her mighty white fist to bear.
It was then that one lone crow warrior returned, enfeebled by a strange illness, and collapsed on the deck. A pernicious fever rendered it nearly incoherent: it spoke of a terrible demon, of its fellows being snatched out of the air and crushed by a terrible strength, or taking suddenly ill and dropping into the waters. Mársélu’s soothing words ceased and once more Samhraidh’s wail pierced the night.
The waters roiled around them, and from the depths rose a thing which was neither horse nor man but both, with the upper part of a man growing from the back of the horse. It bore a single baleful eye; fins rimmed its horse’s legs, and its long, reaching arms dangled between on either side of its flank; its man’s head rolled from shoulder to shoulder as if it were about to tumble off; and no skin covered its raw flesh, revealing white sinew, and yellow veins through which pumped black blood. It opened its steaming whale’s mouth and let out a terrible cry that sounded as if the whole ocean were crashing upon them at once.
“What foul beast be this?” Fearghal marveled.
Cried Meadhbhín: “This be dread Nuculabhí, who terrorizes the waters while the Mother o’ the Sea rests!”
Nuculabhí swung its arm at An Sharmh.
At once Braonán lept forward, Fragarach at the fore—however, Nuculabhí opened its great mouth and its rancid breath rolled over him. His lingering wounds festered and oozed, and he faltered beneath the sudden agony. Nuculabhí seized him then. Lámhghala rushed to Braonán’s aid, smiting the demon’s fingers with her white fist. Nuculabhí let out a terrible cry, dropping Braonán into the water. It swept at Lámhghala with its other hand, dashing her against a rock so strongly that the rock split in twain and she splashed senseless into the sea.
Quickly, Meadhbhín looked to Fearghal.
“Can you match your strength to this creature’s?” asked she.
“I will,” Fearghal swore.
“Then I will retrieve Braonán and Lámhghala while you face Nuculabhí.” Meadhbhín turned to Mársélu. “Mársélu, you get Samhraidh to safety; and then let us meet and devise a plan with as much haste as we can muster.”
At once Meadhbhín dove into the water.
However, clever Mársélu, whose keen gaze sees that which is hidden to others, bade Fearghal to hold. “Take my child, Fearghal,” she instructed, “rock her, speak softly to her, and ensure that no harm befalls her.”
“But only I can hope to match Nuculabhí’s strength,” Fearghal protested. “Without me, Meadhbhín will surely be overcome.”
Mársélu turned the full force of her sharp tongue upon him. “As I have trusted you with my child, whose life is much more precious than mine own, trust me with your life and the lives those who are as my kin. And you had best see to it that your reward to my trust match mine to yours.”
Fearghal fell silent at the weight of her words, and then rocked the child as bid, singing his battle song as he would a lullabye.
Meanwhile, Mársélu turned to face Nuculabhí and walked out over the water. It turned its baleful eye upon her and opened its steaming mouth.
Cried she: “Enough, child!”
Lo! the terrible creature drew back in surprise.
Commanded she: “Hold your temper!”
Lo! the demon closed its mouth.
Demanded she: “Have you no manners?”
Lo! Nuculabhí rolled its head in shame, drawing its smitten hand to itself.
Mársélu saw this and softened her tone. “Pray show me your wound.”
As bid, the demon presented her its injury. With her magics, Mársélu knitted its bones together, and eased taut sinew, and soothed flesh made raw by the ocean’s salt. The terrible beast let out a long, rancid sigh which fogged harmlessly over the water and it laid its great, rolling head against her as a child would its mother. Mársélu reached up and stroked its brow tenderly. The baleful eye closed and the sound the beast made through its immense mouth was as waves washing calmly upon a beach.
When Meadhbhín surfaced with Braonán over her shoulder and Lámhghala’s wrist clasped in her hand, she laid eyes upon the terrible creature thusly becalmed, and upon Fearghal with Samhraidh nestled in his arms; and she marveled, “What world is this that warriors soothe children and demons are laid low by a mother’s touch!”
For a time the beast and the sorceress stood as such. Then, Mársélu drew back, ensured An Sharmh was set in motion again, and helped tend to her fallen companions.
And thus they proceeded to Éiru, with Nuculabhí following them as quiet and docile as a duckling; and no other beast dared disturb them.