The Journey of the Leanaí i Ndán
IX. Here Meadhbhín Charms the Court
THOUGH Crom Dubh indeed seemed welcoming, he carried nothing but duplicity in his avaricious heart. The food was meager and tasted as ashes, the drink was but a few watery drops, and the hearth was ever cold. Each feast was held in silence and each night was a grim affair; but each night Crom Dubh spake thus to the Leanaí i Ndán:
“T’ough his back be crook’d, t’ough his children be dust, t’ough t’fare be simple, Crom Dubh declares t’is feast is finer t’an t’last. T’ere be more food on t’table, t’drink be well-aged, and t’company be most respectful.”
It was thus that Crom Dubh worked his insidious magic—whenever he said this, the Leanaí i Ndán, not discerning any difference, conceded to their host’s words. And once they conceded there indeed seemed more food on the table, the drink was indeed richer than before, and the silent dust-men indeed seemed inoffensive companions. And they lived thus in the Veiled Court as seasons passed in the world above; and the Samhain Seat’s twisted branches bore not even the smallest bud.
One night a dream came to Meadhbhín, a dream of bright halls lit by fire, of fine foods and plentiful drink laid out on a table surrounded by lively companions, and of beautiful music lifted to the air, sending guests to their feet and dancing with delight. When she awoke she saw the others sallow with cold, pinched with hunger, and dour with silence. And not a word was shared among them of the barren blackthorn throne, nor of the lost souls, nor the missing gods. Her heart ached sorely at this sad sight. At once she resolved to set this aright: she summoned the Meaige far from prying ears.
“How long have you served Crom Dubh?” she asked of the madwoman.
Answered the Meaige: “My geas binds me to t’Seat, my white-feathered kin.” She tilted her head. “Not t’arse be seated t’ere.”
“When has the Samhain Seat been known to bloom?”
“Craven deception and miser’s jealousy make bark peel and soil t’irsty,” spake the Meaige, her black eyes glittering. “Only a fitting seat seated is fit for t’Seat’s bloomers.“ At this she tossed her feathered head and cackled in delight.
“And when planned you to bring this to light?” demanded Meadhbhín.
Answered the Meaige: "Ah, t’magpie’s black feat’ers are ill-suited to light; and t’ough her harsh and mocking voice commands attention, oígidecht favors not t’direct reproach; and, more, she has neit’er t’grace to dance t’at perilous jig, nor t’charm to win hearts.”
This cooled Meadhbhín’s temper and set her to much ponderance. With the Meaige’s words in her thoughts, she devised a plan. That night, just as the Leanaí i Ndán were about to be called to feast, Meadhbhín approached Crom Dubh before and bowed in deference.
He turned his lake-sized eye toward her and took in her visage. “Ah, magnificent Meadhbhín! Each time ye grace t’is room Crom Dubh t’inks to himself: never will t’Crook’d One know greater joy. But t’en you grace his presence anew.”
“It pleases me to bring such joy to you, Crook’d One," spake Meadhbhín. “Indeed, if I could but share the pleasure it brings me!" She stopped as if struck by a thought. "There is something that will bring me such joy as I have brought to you, if you wish to hear it.”
“Ye need but to ask,” said Crom Dubh. “Be it in t’Crook’d One’s power, he will grant it.”
Meadhbhín bowed in gratitude and said: “Though you have proven a willing host, and no other hall could compare to this Veiled Court, my heart—and the hearts of my companions—still ache for home. Though we will honor our word as we always have, I would know no greater joy than if you were to allow us to abide by the customs of our house for a single night. And surely my joy will please you in equal measure.”
“No wort’y host would deny such a gracious guest her joy,” said Crom Dubh, utterly smitten. “Tonight, t’Veiled Court will abide by t’customs of yer house.”
Once more Meadhbhín bowed; and then she turned and bade the Fír Deannaigh: “Let us be seated, and I will serve you presently!”
At this Crom Dubh’s prideful heart filled with anger. He spake: “What nonsense be t’is!?”
“Ah!" At once Meadhbhín smiled at the Crook’d One, and he was once more he was smitten. “In our home all would be gathered about the table and be served by my hand. This custom always chased away my sorrows.”
“Very well," said Crom Dubh.
Upon Meadhbhín’s touch, the dishes grew hot and gained color and flavor, and gave off scents that pleased the nose and tempted the tongue. Once everyone’s plates were full, she took the first bite, and her companions each followed; and then the dust-men ate their fill, for it was the custom of her house.
It was thus the Fír Deannaigh learned what it was to have hunger sated; and color began to return to the Leanaí i Ndán’s cheeks.
And then Meadhbhín raised her goblet, calling for attention. “Let us each speak and then seal our words with a drink!”
At this Crom Dubh’s miserly heart filled with anger. He spake: “What folly be t’is?”
“Ah!" Once more Meadhbhín quelled the Crook’d One with her smile. “In our home everyone spoke of their gratitude and then chased their dry throats. This custom always invited great solace.”
“Very well," said Crom Dubh.
Meadhbhín poured out the drink, and each goblet around the table became filled to spilling with mead that was rich and thick. Once everyone’s goblets were filled, she spoke the first words and took the first drink, and her companions each did the same; and then the dust-men followed their example, for it was the custom of her house.
It was thus the Fír Deannaigh learned what it was to become giddy with drink; and warmth began to return to the Leanaí i Ndán’s bones.
And then Meadhbhín stepped away from the table to the open floor and invited her companions to join her. “Let us make merry and chase away the night!”
At this Crom Dubh’s bitter heart filled with anger. He spake: “What foolishness be t’is?”
“Ah!" A third time Meadhbhín turned her smile upon him, and a third time the Crook’d One’s anger fled him. “In our home it was our custom to dance and make music. The other customs but prepared the path; ’tis this custom that brings joy unmeasured.”
“Very well," said Crom Dubh.
Meadhbhín bade her companions to join her: Braonán played his pipes, Fearghal sang, Mársélu and Samhraidh set to clapping, and Meadhbhín and Lámhghala danced to the music they created; and as they did, vigor began to return to the Leanaí i Ndán’s hearts. But, though it was the custom of her house, the dust-men did not move. This pleased Crom Dubh’s spiteful heart.
“Why do your dust-men not dance?” Meadhbhín asked of Crom Dubh.
“Alas!” cried the Crooked One, insincere in his sorrow. “Would that they could! Crom Dubh did not t’ink to shape t’em for such frivolity. T’ey are built to serve and worship, not to eat, drink, and make merry.”
It was thus the Fír Deannaigh learned what it was to feel shame.
“All feet can dance,” spake Meadhbhín. “Which one among you will be my partner, that I can show you how?”
A lone dust-man stepped forth. At once Meadhbhín began to show it how to dance; and as she did water drew up from the dry soil, making the dust-man’s clay grow softer and thicker, and fire sprang to life in the cold hearth and reached toward them, baking the clay as it was shaped. A young girl emerged from that wondrous dance, upright and well-formed, and bore a grace heretofore unknown to the Fír Deannaigh; and from then on the girl would not be parted from Meadhbhín.
With haste the dust-men filled the open floor, clamoring to be Meadhbhín’s partner. Crom Dubh nearly leapt from his seat, and brought his great crooked fist upon the table.
“Enough!” cried he. “T’night be t’rough! Crom Dubh was true to his word, t’ough t’ese customs ill-fit t’is house! Children: cease yer frivolity at once and clear t’mess ye have made!”
It was thus the Fír Deannaigh learned what it was to love one and resent another; and the Leanaí i Ndán were restored.