The Journey of the Leanaí i Ndán
VII. The Veiled Court, and the Meaige
ÉIRU was ailing: instead of rolling green meadows was black, foul-smelling mud; instead of lush rivers, beds of rock covered in a sheen of ice; instead of tranquil animals, beasts rife with gangrene and mad with hunger. Dark clouds stretched from north to south, crackling with lightning and spilling water upon the bloated soil.
It was this sickly land the Leanaí i Ndán faced when they finally drew close enough. An Sharmh found no purchase in the mud, sinking a thumb’s length deeper with each passing moment. It was only with Lámhghala’s strength that they were able to extract the great vessel; and so they left An Sharmh anchored off-shore, guarded by terrible Nuculabhí and the remaining crow warrior.
By foot they trudged for a day and a night through the foul muck before finally coming upon a strangely-shaped sidhe, which shifted continually as if water bubbled beneath its crown of earth. Braonán approached, gathered his magic around him in a mantle, and bid the hollow hill to open before them. When it did not respond, he invoked his father’s name and gave it an offering of blood. Still, the way remained shut. Finally, Braonán took up his great blade Fragarach and cut the hollow hill upon; whereupon a gagging stench filled the air and great, fat maggots burst forth as if he had cut into a rotten wound. Braonán drew back in disgust, and the maggots writhed away as if pained by the open air, leaving a gaping passage before him.
He turned to his fellows then, and spake he: “‘Ware, friends: Crom Cruach’s vile hold over Tír na Marbh may yet be surer than on Éiru.”
“Surer than this?” asked Lámhghala, who was so covered in stinking mud that her arm bore not the barest gleam of white.
Came Braonán’s grim response: “Aye.”
“Let us not delay, then,” said Meadhbhín, “for Crom Cruach will not deign to release either for sake of us.”
And so the Leanaí i Ndán proceeded through the passage, swallowed by the dark and fetid air. Deeper and deeper into the barrow they treaded, maggots wriggling half-crushed beneath their feet and falling upon them from above. Their food fouled, their drink curdled, and the water in their waterskins grew stagnant. As they continued on, mud dried to chalk so thick that even the maggots could not survive long, and each step sent up a cloud of bitter dust that coated their skin, stung their eyes, and lined their parched throats.
It was thus they emerged from the barrow onto an island surrounded by the cracked and dry bed of what was once a great river. Around them were the stones of a ruined castle, gone brittle and collapsed under its own weight. Yellow fog filled the air, darkening the night and concealing the sky, turning chalk into thick, vile paste that stole away the appetite. The castle was empty, and the island abandoned.
“Our souls are the only ones that inhabit this forsaken place,” proclaimed Braonán. “Mine eyes see neither spirit nor body, neither person nor creature.”
“Look again, Braonán,” spake Márselú. “Birds perch as statues on the walls.”
At that, a terrible laugh came forth, echoed from the beaks of the hundred shadowed birds.
“Woe! Woe!" cried a woman’s voice, dry and cracked as the soil. “How wort’y a king be ye, son o’ Manannan, if t’ine two trusted sea-clad subjects fail ye? Shall none deliver me? Woe! Woe!”
Another laugh issued forth from the birds as they flocked to the ground before the Leanaí i Ndán. They pulled away almost as soon as they’d gathered, and from them a figure stepped. A black bird’s head bore she, with a wicked carrion-eating beak, feathers coated with brown dust; but the rest of her was a woman, white skin gone sallow and limbs thinned with hunger. She carried with her a staff that was more gnarled branch than anything, which bore a head like a hooked talon.
Braonán put his hand upon his sword. “Come no further! Who are you, and how do you know me?”
“Ah, but I know ye not!” declared the woman. “And ’tis not only you I not know.”
“This wretched creature is clearly mad,” spake Fearghal to his companions. “Let us waste no more time on her.”
“Wait,” Lámhghala bade, “her voice is familiar to me. Let us hear her just a little longer.”
“Was your purpose to beset us with riddles?” Márselú asked of the bird-woman. “Or had you a message to deliver?”
“Deliver indeed!” cried the woman. “T’ere be so much to be delivered. Deliver ye; deliver t’dead; deliver all t’Tuatha!”
Fire flashed through Meadhbhín’s wheat-colored eyes, and she nearly seized the madwoman about the shoulders. “Know you where we can find them?”
Replied the madwoman: “Are ye not Tuatha, cygnet o’ Brigid? Is not Manannán’s get? Am I not, bitter plum o’ t’Morrígan’s t’orned tree? Indeed, if not, ’tis more I know—or not know!”
Spake Márselú: “Bearing this taunting is fruitless. Let us make our way from here at once.”
“No, I am certain I have met her before, as a friend,” insisted Lámhghala. “I can very nearly recall.” She turned then to the bird-headed woman. “I am Lámhghala.”
“Aye!” cried the woman. “Lámhghala: white child of t’blackened god! ‘Tis ye I know not least!” She let out a great cackle. “Joy! Joy!”
Lámhghala pressed forth: “What do they call you?”
At this, the woman neither laughed nor responded; she crooked her head to the side. Silence greeted her ears. Finally, answered she, solemnly: “‘Tis ye I know not least.”
At once Lámhghala understood. “What do you wish to be called?”
She turned then to the birds which had perched themselves upon the castle walls again and thought for a moment.
“The Meaige—aye, it suits; for like t’magpie I know little o’ t’meaning o’ t’words I must repeat.”
“Will you repeat these words for us?” Lámhghala asked.
“Aye! Aye! I remember: t’at is why I am here!” At that, the Meaige laughed, and it was echoed by the hundred beaks surrounding them. “Follow me, Leanaí i Ndán. I shall deliver ye to t’Veiled Court, and to t’Samhain Seat. It is t’ere ye will find t’at which was lost, and it is t’ere ye must wrest it from crook’d hands.”
With some consternation, the Leanaí i Ndán indeed followed the Meaige through the blasted wastes of Tír na Marbh. Though no bitter chalk clouded at their steps, the riverbeds had dried, leaving naught but sucking mud and stagnant, infested pools. The thick yellow fog grew only thicker, hiding not only horizon but large, hulking shadows that moved around them. Over hill and under mountaintop they traveled, over brittle brown grass and under withered trees; their only company was the Meaige and her flock.
At last, as the fog grew heavier and heavier, it sank to the ground around their knees, revealing a great black keep, standing tall upon the cracked, sickly earth, and upon its walls patrolled strangely-shaped figures, staggering as if drunk. The Meaige led the Leanaí i Ndán onward, to the entrance of the keep, and the way to the dark halls of the Veiled Court opened before them.
Through the black halls did they travel, led on by the madwoman. As they crossed, the men that guarded the keep lurched to bowing. They appeared misshapen, as if sculpted from poor, dry clay by a careless hand, and left unbaked—wherever they moved they left behind a trail of dust.
“Lo!” cried Braonán. “These men’s spirits belong not to these bodies. They are not alive—and yet they are not dead either. Prithee, what is this?”
“Ye see before t’ee subjects, son o’ Manannán,” replied the Meaige. “Crook’d men got from crook’d eart’ by crook’d hands, with deat’ crook’d to fit life.” She reached out with thin fingers and stroked one on the head. “What are ye and yer kin not called, child?” She tilted her head. “Speak t’us for me: Fír Deannaigh, t’men o’ dust.”
Answered the crooked man: “Fír Deannaigh, t’men o’ dust.”
“Are you their sculptor?” Meadhbhín asked.
The Meaige cackled, and her laugh was carried on myriad wings through the black halls of the Veiled Court. “Am I so crook’d myself, cygnet o’ Brigid?” She held up her hand to examine it, and a crow lighted upon it.
“Aye,” quoth the crow.
“Aye,” spake the madwoman, tilting her head. She pet the crow and loosed it back to the halls. “Nay. No sculptor am I, crook’d t’ough I be, bowed by t’weight of my failure.” She stooped over nearly in half, as if bearing such a weight, and hopped around the Leanaí i Ndán as if in play. Around her the flock cackled.
“Is this the fate of the lost souls?” asked clever Márselú.
The Meaige laughed once more. “Fates are myriad as souls.” She tilted her head to the opposite side, towards another another man of dust. “Speak t’us for me: Some o’ us.”
Answered the dust-man: “Some o’ us.”
“And the others?” Braonán pressed.
The Meaige halted before looming double-doors and turned then to the Leanaí i Ndán, staring with her glittering black eyes. But it was the dust-man who spoke: “Beyond.”