The Journey of the Leanaí i Ndán
V. Fearghal and the Storm Birds
LONG did the Leanaí i Ndán sail across the endless, roiling ocean in search of Eiru with dauntless Braonán at the helm and the crow-men scouting their way ahead. In turns the sun threatened to dry them and great, restless storms threatened to blow them off course. And when the seas were calm the horizon conspired to raise their hopes with false visions of Eiru; but Braonán, guided by Danu Herself and empowered by the magic of Fragarach the Answerer, cut clean through any falsehood.
As they crossed into the throes of spring, however, the sky proved restless. Dark clouds gathered in the sky and rain pressed at them with a relentless fury within the space of moments. The Leanaí i Ndán were very nearly swept away in their attempt to descend into the hold of their magic vessel—and indeed some crow-men were caught in the sudden squall and tossed abroad to parts unknown.
Fortunately, they were well-prepared: An Sharmh’s craftsmanship was such that it would float no matter how crushed by waves, shield its passengers from winds that would scour a barnacle-laden rock smooth and pitless in the space of one breath and reduce it to half its size in the next, and remain as dry as a wasteland burrow inside even with a dozen seasons’ worth of pounding rain and crashing wave. Thus the Leanaí i Ndán proceeded with Braonán’s guiding hand keeping them true to their course.
And then one day, Fearghal noticed something amiss in the song of the storm. He spake:
“Friends, something in the storm has changed. I will brave the storming waves abovedeck to see if I might catch a glimpse of this strangeness.”
Lámhghala spake: “Then I will accompany you and lend my strength so that you might not be carried off by the water.”
The Leanaí i Ndán then crafted a rope and harness for Fearghal, and Lámhghala held fast to the end of the rope.
With luck bidden to him, Fearghal ascended to the top of An Sharmh’s deck. Indeed, the waves crashed upon him and threatened to tear them away, but Lámhghala and the remaining crow-men held him fast to the surface of the vessel.
There he saw a towersome bird whose body was as a tempest: her great wings, which spanned a half a league in each direction, brought the crashing of thunder with each beat; her eyes streaked like lightning; her beak brought sparks with each parting; and her talons were so sharp that the sky itself rent with each slash. She descended upon them as quick as lightning, and in the space of Fearghal opening his mouth to call a warning its beak snapped around the vessel, cutting the rope and sending Fearghal immediately to the mercy of the waves.
But so quick was Fearghal that he seized onto a feather. Lightning danced over him, but as he was lightning’s child it recognized him and danced harmlessly over him, merely teasing his hair and clothes. And though the raging winds of flight and storm and the buffeting of wings tore at him, he held fast with all his strength.
Long did the storm-bird journey, streaking lightning wherever she went and stirring clouds into angry restlessness. Clever Fearghal climbed the length of her shoulder and half-way up her neck in an attempt to get to her beak so that he might open it. But then she lifted into the clouds and slowed, lighting within the closed confines of a tempest.
Within the tempest waited fledglings, and Fearghal knew this to be a nest at once.
The great storm-bird deposited the magic vessel among its offspring and flew away in short order; and Fearghal released the feather to which he clung, dropping into the nest before he could be carried away.
“What manner of shellfish is this?” asked one birdling.
“It bears a strange luster,” observed another.
The third pecked at the magic vessel and cried: “What pain! Its shell is surely the hardest in the entire world!”
The first pecked at it and also cried out in pain. “Indeed!”
The second, the wisest of them all, spake: “But the harder the shell, the more sumptuous the flesh.” Thus it, too, pecked at the vessel. “Let us all each take turns cracking it, and surely we will succeed.”
With each peck, Fearghal could see the widening cracks which formed in An Sharmh’s hull, and knew at once that the fledglings would split it asunder in short order.
He stepped out before them and cried: “Stop!”
At once the three fledglings turned their eyes to him.
“What is this?” asked one.
“A worm!” answered another.
And clever Fearghal answered: “I am a bird, like you! And this is no shellfish—it is my nest, which you are splitting open with your beaks!”
“Outrageous!” cried one.
“Can this be true?” asked another.
Then the wisest of them all spake: “Truly you are the strangest-looking bird I have ever seen; but I have only ever known my mother and my siblings and have yet to witness the world outside. But a bird must have a beak. Pray, if you are a bird, where is your beak?”
“I keep it safe, for it is my surest weapon and I only have the one,” Fearghal responded. “But for you, I will reveal it.”
He took on his demon aspect, with a great, long, pointed nose and a wide mouth that split from end to end.
“A beak!” cried one.
“Truly, tis a bird!” quoth another.
Then the wisest of them all spake: “You bear a beak so indeed you are a bird! However, this is truly the strangest nest I have ever seen; but I have only ever known my nest and have yet to witness the world outside. But a nest must have fledglings. Pray, if this is your nest, where are your fledglings?”
“They are within, of course, away from the seeking eyes of predators,” Fearghal responded. “But for you, I will call them out.”
He entered the vessel and brought out the remaining crow-men, while counseling his companions to stay inside and make no sound.
“Fledglings!” cried one.
“Truly, tis a nest!” quoth another.
Then the wisest of them all spake: “You bear a beak so indeed you are a bird; and these fledglings have emerged from this vessel so indeed it is a nest! However, this is truly the strangest resemblence I have ever seen; but I have only ever known my people and have yet to witness the world outside. But fledglings sing like their mothers. Pray, if they are your fledglings, will you all not sing?”
“Certainly,” Fearghal responded. “For you, we will sing our song.”
He sang his song, and his crow-men each took it up in perfect harmony. The cloud-nest roiled and crackled with lightning in response, tickling over the storm-bird fledglings.
“What a song!” cried one.
“Truly, tis this bird’s fledglings!” quoth another.
Then the wisest of them all spake: “You bear a beak so indeed you are a bird; these fledglings have emerged from this vessel so indeed it is a nest; and you and they sing like one another so indeed they are your fledglings! Please sing more for us, for your song is pleasing!”
And so Fearghal and his crow-men sang for the storm-bird fledglings.
At once the mother returned to her nest.
Cried she: “What is this?”
The fledglings responded: “You have brought us another bird’s nest, Mother! Look upon them, listen to their song!”
Indeed, she looked upon Fearghal and his crow-men and listened to their song.
And then she spake: “A nest of strange, sweetly-singing birds they may be, but you must still eat, my children, and this is the only food I could find. This is the way of things.”
Quoth Fearghal: “This is because the hunting grounds you have chosen is the endless sea, and all its bounty lurks beneath the surface, out of your reach. But I know the way to more fruitful hunting grounds; if I show it to you, will you spare us?”
The great storm-bird turned her eye upon Fearghal and then spake: “If you speak true, then I will spare you.”
And so Fearghal entered An Sharmh with his crow-men and besought Braonán to guide their path; and were held safe in the nest of the storm-bird for the length of their passage.