The Journey of the Leanaí i Ndán
VIII. Here The Leanaí i Ndán Face Crom Dubh
AND so, in the hollow hills of an ailing Éiru, at the center of rotted Tír na Marbh, within the crumbling walls of the Veiled Court, the Leanaí i Ndán faced the vast black doors that led to the shriveled heart of the Veiled Court, with the Meaige standing before them, stooped nearly in half by an imagined burden. She turned a lone black eye towards the Leanaí i Ndán. “Kin o’ Danu, what seek ye?”
Mársélu let out a beleaguered breath. “Need we repeat it?”
The bird-woman cackled and hopped to one side and tilted her head towards the dust-man beside her. “Speak t’us for me: We seek yer generous oígidecht, for our journey has been long.”
Sayeth the dust-man: “We seek yer generous oígidecht, for our journey has been long.”
“What fresh madness is this?” cried Fearghal.
“Fresh madness is this!” The Meaige tossed back her bird’s head and cackled.
Fearghal stepped forth to seize her about the shoulders.
“Be calm, Fearghal," Lámhghala said, quelling her companion by placing her white hand upon him. “She has helped us thus far; maybe she is helping us still.”
The Meaige ceased her cackling and peered at Lámhghala through her glittering black eyes.
“O white child o’ t’blackened god!” she spake, solemn. “Delivering ye I be; deliver me will ye.” At once she straightened to her full height and tapped the butt of her gnarled staff upon the black tile. Several men of dust stepped forth and pushed open the towering doors. “Deliver we from he.”
Beyond was a vast, grove gone brown and brittle, circled by tall blackstone walls, upon which more misshapen figures lurched in eternal patrol. In the very middle of the grove climbed a tree with bark of darkest sable and naked branches as twisted as the Meaige’s staff, which bore thorns as sharp as teeth. At the tree’s base was a great throne, its seat shaped by the crook of its trunk, and its low-hanging fingers seemed woven to interlock each other, with which to receive the back of the one who sat there.
Ill-seated was the giant upon the Morrígan’s blackthorn throne: so big was he that only one thin, crooked leg could fit the seat, with the other over the arm, and his knees came to his ears. He was stooped nearly in half under the great weight of his back, which was the shape of a vast, lumpy mound. His long, narrow arms hung limp to either side of the throne, pointed elbows brushing the dead grass and gnarled hands resting on the dry soil. He regarded the Leanaí i Ndán through uneven eyes the color of pitch, and drew his cracked lips back from his broken, yellow teeth.
“What visitors be t’ese?” demanded he.
“Visitors be t’ese!" answered the Meaige, hopping to the opposite side of the Leanaí i Ndán, as if all solemnity had been chased away.
The giant drew down his misshapen brow. “No wort’less bauble brought t’is servant, but somet’ing valuable to Crom Dubh’s halls?”
“Somet’ing valuable!” quoth the Meaige.
The giant rose from his throne and crossed the grove in a single stride. He jutted forth his face towards the Leanaí i Ndán and took a deep breath in through his snubbed nose. “Ach, t’at smell! More blood o’ Danu stands here. What fortune!” He turned his cunning boulder-sized eye towards them, and closed his lake-sized eye.
“What fortune!” echoed the Meaige, crossing under his nose.
“Silence, bird-witch!” cried he, swinging a crooked hand as if to smite the Meaige. “Bot’er not yer master!” She hopped back from his hand, flew to the throne, perched herself as a statue upon one of its low branches, and fell silent.
Braonán nearly put his hand to blade, but Meadhbhín quelled him with a look and addressed the misshapen giant. “I hope our blood does not offend you, respected Crom Dubh. We are all well aware of the bitterness between the Tuatha and you.”
Crom Dubh’s cunning eye searched at length over Meadhbhín’s radiant beauty. “No bitterness could be long held at such a sight.”
“Or at such well-chosen words,” replied Meadhbhín.
Crom Dubh bared his crooked teeth in a smile. “Well, kin o’ Danu, what seek ye from ol’ Crom Dubh?”
At once Lámhghala stepped forth and recited, “We seek your generous oígidecht, for long has our journey been.”
“Indeed? Aye, as befits a king o’ t’Veiled Court!” Much pleased, he drew back. “How, t’en, can Crom Dubh serve ye?”
Braonán said, “Answer us this: where are the lost dead who should be tending these lands?”
“T’ey are where t’ey belong, giving Crom Dubh his rightful due,” answered the Crook’d One. “What concern be t’at to ye?”
“What concern be t’at to ye!” cried the Meaige, coming to life once more. “Behold t’righteous king o’ t’Veiled Court! So well he follows oígidecht, t’old laws of hospitality; surely no traveler will come away wit’out Crom Dubh demanding his deepest secrets!”
“Ach! T’bird-witch crows such ugly disgrace!” At once Crom Dubh prostrated himself before the Leanaí i Ndán. “Please, travelers, stay and allow Crom Dubh to restore his face. If ye be at want for anyt’ing, ask and, be it in t’Crook’d One’s power t’give, ye shall have it.”
At once Braonán demanded: “Grant us every last spirit under your protection.”
Crom Dubh fell silent.
“Surely that is within any worthy king’s power,” pressed Mársélu.
“Aye,” Crom Dubh answered at once. And again: “Aye.” He regarded the Leanaí i Ndán through his cunning boulder eye. “Just please accept t’is humble request, kind visitors: stay till t’next bloomin’ o’ t’is blackt’orn t’rone. If Crom Dubh not please ye by t’en, well-earned be his dishonor.”
The Leanaí i Ndán’s hearts softened at the Crook’d One’s pleas and they accepted.
At their generosity he fell prostrate before them, and spake: “No kinder guests have t’ese halls seen! Tis with a heavy heart Crom Dubh must ask one more t’ing of ye: he has but two crook’d hands and two crook’d legs and a crook’d back ill-fit for t’many demanding labors o’ oígidecht. Surely he has no chance to restore his name wit’ a house emptied o’ servants. Happily will he grant ye what ye ask, aye, but will ye delay t’askin’ until ye depart?”
Again, the Leanaí i Ndán accepted. At length Crom Dubh thanked and praised them; and with their soft hearts they began their long, ill-fated stay in the Veiled Court.