XI. Here the Leanaí i Ndán Best Crom Dubh

The Journey of the Leanaí i Ndán

XI. Here the Leanaí i Ndán Best Crom Dubh

UPON Braonán’s return to Tír na Marbh, he crept through the halls of Crom Dubh’s castle to where his companions were chambered. They crowded him and greeted him with relieved hearts and eased minds, whereupon he revealed Crom Dubh’s duplicity and his retrieval of the Cailleach’s cracked white staff.

“Poor hospitality indeed, to plot against one’s guests!” cried Fearghal.

“Let us go to him at once and retrieve our due,” said Lámhghala. “He will have no choice but to give it to us.”

“Surely this will invite yet more deception,” said Meadhbhín. “His halls are poor, his kitchens are sparse, and his drink is stale. Was there ever any intention in his heart to be as a host should be and to make good on his word?”

Spake wise Mársélu: “Even so, we have but the word of a thief to with which to accuse him.”

“Then I will ensure that his foul plot once more falls from his own lips,” said Braonán. “With this cracked white staff I will disguise myself as the Cailleach.”

“You have not attended dinner for several nights,” said Lámhghala. “The Meaige has urged us to claim you ill, and has excused you in numerous ways; but Crom Dubh’s suspicion grows. He insists on seeing you this very eve, for it is his duty as host to ensure his guests’ good health.”

Spake Braonán: “Then I will give my seeming to another. Who among us will be as the Cailleach?”

“Not I,” said Meadhbhín. “My absence would be marked, for Crom Dubh is smitten with me.”

“Not I,” said Lámhghala. “I would not fool Crom Dubh, for my cunning does not match his.”

“Not I,” said Mársélu. “My absence would be marked, for I have not left my daughter’s side since our arrival.”

“Not I,” said Fearghal. “I would not fool Crom Dubh, for I know not the nature of this Cailleach.”

“Then that leaves only I,” said Braonán. “And we will have to endeavor to find a way to avoid suspicion.”

While the Leanaí i Ndán were in their secret counsel, the Meaige had approached with Fragarach borne in her hands so as to fulfill her promise; and she listened in secret outside the door. It was thus that she came upon them and spake: “I will be as t’Cailleach, for I know her nature; I have no daughter; my cunning exceeds his; and he be not smitten wit’ me.”

As one the Leanaí i Ndán realized that she was correct; and so Braonán bestowed upon her the Cailleach’s cracked white staff and wove over her a seeming unlike any other he had done before, taking care to ensure that even the shadow she cast would be able to fool Crom Dubh.

Thus disguised did the Meaige fly from the window and approach Crom Dubh’s halls from the outside.

There she spake to the guardsmen: “Go to Crom Dubh and speak t’us for me: the Cailleach summons t’master o’ t’house t’at she might be greeted wit’ t’esteem t’at is her due.”

At once the guardsmen delivered their message to Crom Dubh.

“Ach!” cried Crom Dubh. “Were I to greet her wit’ t’esteem t’at is her due, she would not enter for yet anot’er day for t’offal t’at she would have to clean off her plaids!” He smote the arm of his Blackthorn Throne with a fist. “But nay: I require her enchantments. I shall send an escort which not even one such as she would complain of.”

And so a company of the Men of Dust brought her to the throne room; and he stood to greet her, kissing her knuckles as if they were dear friends.

The false Cailleach chided Crom Dubh: “T’is journey which I undertook at your behest has cost me t’ree risin’s o’ t’sun and t’ree settin’s o’ t’moon. Was I not wort’ t’personal greeting o’ he who called me here?”

“My dearest Cailleach,” Crom Dubh began. “My crooked back and crooked feet lend not to t’long halls and t’is castle was not built for someone my size. But wit’ my creations go more t’an my limpin’ step and greetings offered wit’ winded breat’: wit’ t’em go t’sweat o’ my crooked brow and t’labors o’ my crooked hands. Mayhap you’ll accept such an offering from your humble host?”

“Sweat, offered for travel-stained plaids? Labors for achin’, aged bones?” asked the false Cailleach. “And what offering have you for a t’roat dried and stomach emptied?”

Spake Crom Dubh: “Again I shall match you! T’kitchens be preparing a feast for t’is very night! All the meal requires is a most fine garnish: a blessing from t’is hall’s most esteemed guest.”

“Aye?” asked the false Cailleach. “And who might t’at be, t’en?”

“T’one who stands before me, of course,” replied Crom Dubh.

“Oh! ‘Tis a host wit’ a discerning heart he should express favor for one guest over the rest,” said the Cailleach.

“Would not a discerning host strive to know of his guest’s station?” asked Crom Dubh. “After all, a king should not be treated as any ot’er guest.”

“Oh aye,” responded the false Cailleach. “If I be king, t’en, I would see t’lesser subjects which also occupy t’is hall—for your summons spoke o’ t’children o’ Danu, did it not?”

“It will soon be as t’Cailleach wishes,” said Crom Dubh. “For every evening at dinner t’ey come to feast and make merry.”

“T’at must do, t’en,” said the false Cailleach. “But if you wish a blessing from t’one who is as your king, you must offer gifts wort’y o’ a king. If t’is hall and host please me better t’an t’last time, I will gladly grant a blessing at dinner.”

Spake Crom Dubh: “Ah, but I ask not any blessing—I seek a particular enchantment of yours.”

The false Cailleach moved her staff towards Crom Dubh. “I will not hear of requests for blessings or enchantments, however humbly t’ey might be issued, until an equitable offering has first been given.”

“And how will I know what offering is equitable if you know not what I ask?” asked Crom Dubh.

“Oh, clever Crom Dubh!” cried the false Cailleach. “Indeed clever enough to know t’at it is an equitable offering I require for t’privilege of asking—it is only t’en will you know what recompense follows for t’enchantment you wish.”

And so Crom Dubh was left to contemplate how he might win the Cailleach’s enchantment. As he plotted, the resentment in his avaricious heart grew.

Finally, at dinner, the Leanaí i Ndán and the false Cailleach sat before the feast. Crom Dubh spake:

“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.”

Cried the false Cailleach:

“Aye? T’is feast be finer t’an t’last? Were t’y prior guests mice, content wit’ crumbs? Was t’y last guest a beggar seeking only to moisten a dry tongue? Did t’y last guest suffer a fever, and request t’heart’ be doused? I am no mouse and no beggar and indeed, I would ail not but for t’hunger t’at will gnaw at me, t’t’irst t’at will scratch at me, and t’cold t’at will nip at me at t’is night’s end!”

Humiliated, Crom Dubh said, “I offer a t’ousand apologies to my guests, t’at t’is dinner not be pleasing. As a humble host, I will bear t’is shame over my crook’d back. As an eager host, I would serve you better wit’ my crook’d hands. If each of you would grant me but one boon: return tomorrow evening so t’at I might redeem my name.”

“Aye, I shall grant you this boon,” said Meadhbhín.

“Aye, I shall grant you this boon,” said Braonán.

And the other Leanaí i Ndán followed suit.

“T’guests do t’host credit,” said the false Cailleach. “If indeed t’ey trust your word, t’en I will too, t’ough my patience grows t’in.”

And so Crom Dubh was left to contemplate how he might win this privilege without showing the Cailleach the least bit of generosity. As he plotted, the resentment in his avaricious heart grew. Whereupon he went to Meadhbhín and spake:

“I have t’ought longer on the customs o’ your house and realized I hat’ misspoke. T’ey are suited quite well indeed to t’is house—and, more, pleasing you indeed pleases me in equal measure. I invite you to lead me t’rough your customs once more… save t’dancing for which crook’d forms are ill-fit.”

Meadhbhín replied, “It is my delight to serve my host’s house as if it were my own. I will lead you through our customs once more.”

And so Meadhbhín turned the crumbs into a sumptuous feast, turned the drink into rich mead, and lit the hearth with a roaring fire. Finally, at dinner, the Men of Dust and the Leanaí i Ndán and the false Cailleach sat before the feast. Crom Dubh spake:

“A fine crop from t’larder, a great yield from t’cupboard! Do not t’victuals smell pleasing? Does not t’mead have t’texture o’ molten gold? Does not t’crackling o’ t’fire sound merry? Please, take part in t’is bounty, my beloved guests.”

The false Cailleach ate enough to feed a dozen healthy men and drank seven barrels of mead. Still there was more, for the bounty came from Meadhbhín, whose heart was ever generous and bright, and not from Crom Dubh, whose heart was ever miserly and withered.

Cried the false Cailleach:

“Aye, ‘tis a fine crop, a great yield indeed! T’victuals please, t’mead has t’texture o’ molten gold, t’fire makes merry.”

When the feast was over, Crom Dubh sought the false Cailleach at once and asked, “Has my offering been equitable, O honored guest?”

To this, the false Cailleach responded, “T’feast was much improved, aye. Never have I eaten food wit’ such flavor, drank mead wit’ such texture, felt warmt’ with such eagerness. T’is offering has been equitable for t’boon you begged me to grant t’is prior eve. But t’host who has such a fare and does not share it wit’ all in his hall holds naught but deception in his heart: for eit’er he seeks to appear richer or more generous t’an he is, and bot’ are at t’cost o’ his house!”

Humiliated, Crom Dubh said, “I offer a t’ousand apologies to my guest, t’at my generosity appear false. As a humble host, I will bear t’is shame over my crook’d back. As an eager host, I would serve you better wit’ my crook’d hands. If you would grant me but one boon: return tomorrow evening so t’at I might redeem my name.”

“Indeed t’is night was better t’an t’last,” said the false Cailleach. “If indeed t’morrow will be better, t’en I will grant you t’is boon, t’ough my patience grows t’in.”

And so Crom Dubh was left to contemplate how he might win the Cailleach’s enchantment. As he plotted, the resentment in his avaricious heart grew. Whereupon he went to Braonán and spake:

“Son o’ Manannan, speaker of t’dead, because you and yours have been excellent guests, I wish to honor you wit’ a full house; aye, I wish to summon fort’ t’souls you seek, so t’at t’ey might dine wit’ us t’is eve. But t’language o’ t’dead falls silent on my crook’d ears. I would craft t’em into more Men o’ Dust, but such a labor would take me many more seasons t’an you and yours would have. If indeed you are amenable to t’company o’ t’souls o’ t’dead, t’en I invite you to speak to t’em on my behalf.”

Braonán replied, “It is my honor to dine with the souls of the men and women of Éiru. I will speak to the dead on your behalf.”

And so Crom Dubh summoned forth the lost souls and Braonán invited them to the evening’s feast; and so too did Meadhbhín turn the feast yet more sumptuous, turned the mead yet richer, and lit the hearth with a hotter fire. Finally, at dinner, the Men of Dust and the Leanaí i Ndán and the false Cailleach and the lost souls sat before the feast. Crom Dubh spake:

“A wondrous compliment be gat’ered here to partake o’ a wondrous feast! Where my house is not filled wit’ company it is filled wit’ the rich scent o’ food and drink and t’heat o’ t’heart’! Please, enjoy t’is bounty, my beloved guests!”

The lost souls filled the house elbow to elbow, in the festhall, through the halls, in the guest rooms, in the throne room. Not a corner was unoccupied, and many climbed upon the blackthorn tree or upon tattered tapestries or among the high rafters. Even so, there was food for all, passed from hand to hand; and there was drink for all, poured from cup to cup; and there was warmth for all, shared from spirit to spirit.

Cried the false Cailleach:

“Aye, ‘tis a grand turnout indeed! T’ere is not a space where an elbow does not brush an elbow; and I dare say t’is feast be lovelier t’an t’last.”

When the feast was over, Crom Dubh sought the false Cailleach at once and asked, “Has my offering been equitable, O honored guest?”

To this, the false Cailleach responded, “T’company was large, aye. Never have I been a part o’ such a gat’ering. T’is offering has been equitable for t’boon you begged me to grant t’is prior eve; and so pleased am I, Crook’d One, t’at you may ask an enchantment o’ me. But upon t’asking I would just as soon depart, for t’house which is so silent and grim at such a grand affair bespeaks a host wit’ a sour countenance: for only t’at can discourage merriment wit’ such food and such drink and such company!”

Thusly reprimanded, Crom Dubh’s avaricious heart once more knew humiliation.

At once, Crom Dubh said, “I offer a t’ousand apologies to my guest, t’at my countenance appear sour. As a humble host, I will bear t’is shame over my crook’d back. As an eager host, I would serve you better wit’ my crook’d hands. In place o’ t’enchantment, if you would grant me but one boon: return tomorrow evening so t’at I might redeem my name.”

“Very well,” said the false Cailleach. “Because you have earned it, I will grant you t’is boon, t’ough my patience grows t’in.”

And so Crom Dubh was left to contemplate how he might win the Cailleach’s enchantment. As he plotted, the resentment in his avaricious heart grew. Whereupon he went to each of the Leanaí i Ndán and spake:

“Beloved guests, I could not help but notice t’at, t’ough t’fare be plentiful and good, and t’ough the walls be filled wit’ guests, no music or dancing or singing filled t’halls. If indeed you are of a mood for merriment, I invite you to bring it to t’feast t’is eve.”

The Leanaí i Ndán replied, “It will please us to be merry. We will sing and dance and make music this evening.”

And so Braonán tuned his pipes, Fearghal prepared his voice, Mársélu taught Samhraidh how to dance, and Lámhghala and Meadhbhín sought willing partners among the Men of Dust; and so too did Crom Dubh summon forth the lost souls for Braonán to invite to the evening’s feast again; and so too did Meadhbhín turn the feast yet more sumptuous, turned the mead yet richer, and lit the hearth with a hotter fire. Finally, at dinner, the Men of Dust and the Leanaí i Ndán and the false Cailleach and the lost souls sat before the feast. Crom Dubh spake:

“Indeed, t’fare be rich and hearty! Indeed, t’company fills my house! But truly my halls have not been complete until t’is eve: for I hear t’murmurs o’ speech, t’tapping o’ beats, t’beating o’ hearts at play. Aye, t’ere is to be music and dancing! Please, enjoy t’is bounty, my beloved guests!”

Upon eating their fill, the Leanaí i Ndán at once made music and sang and danced. Braonán’s mournful pipes spurred the lost souls to festivity and Meadhbhín drew out the Men of Dust, washing away their shame and granting them each a spark of inspiration.

Cried the false Cailleach:

“Before I have been a guest of Crom Dubh’s and never have I seen anyt’ing like t’is in his halls! But, even now, when all are dancing, all I have ever seen of him has been seated! Pray tell, Crook’d One, how do you inspire such levity wit’out a note o’ song from your throat or a tap o’ toe upon t’ground?”

Proud Crom Dubh declared: “’Tis my guests who are most content—my house made t’eir hearts light enough to sing and dance. T’eir music is t’eirs. It requires none o’ mine.”

“Clever indeed!” spake the false Cailleach. “Also I note t’grim dead have ever been lost or slumbering in your home, rousing for no summons. Pray tell, Crook’d One, what invitation did you issue to t’em to capture t’eir company?”

At once Braonán replied: “’Twas my invitation issued; and the dead heeded the blood of Manannan.”

Proud Crom Dubh declared: “’Twas my invitation t’at t’son o’ Manannan invited t’dead in turn!”

“Clever indeed!” spake the false Cailleach. “But once again I must declare t’feasting has ever been paltry in your home, for by your own words your crook’d hands do not lend well to kitchen work, and your crook’d back cannot stoop into a heart’. Pray tell, Crook’d One, what met’od did you use to fill your house wit’ warmt’ and drink and food?”

At once Meadhbhín replied: “’Twas my hand that made the food and poured the drink and my back that stooped into the hearth.”

Proud Crom Dubh declared: “’Twas I who asked her to lead us t’rough t’ese customs at t’cost o’ my own!”

“Clever indeed!” spake the false Cailleach. “’Tis not you who brings song or dance to your house, but t’em; ‘tis not you who brings guests to your house, but him; ‘tis not you who brings sustenance and warmth to your house, but her. So ‘tis not to Crom Dubh t’at I owe any boons, but to t’Leanaí i Ndán! T’ree boons I shall give o’ t’ee: what shall t’ese t’ree boons be?”

“We wish to be free to go when we please,” spake the Leanaí i Ndán at once.

“Oh aye?” asked the false Cailleach.

“T’first boon is indeed granted!” cried Crom Dubh. “For t’ey were always free to go when t’ey pleased, as I did not hold t’em prisoner. ‘Tis t’ey who wanted a favor o’ me, so I asked t’em to grant me a favor in turn—and it is for t’at reason alone t’at t’ey stay.”

“Oh, aye,” said the false Cailleach. “One boon granted to t’ee; what shall t’second boon be?”

At once the Leanaí i Ndán realized that Crom Dubh was not yet defeated and would yet use his duplicity to lead them into foolishly squandering their boons. They conferred for a time and said, “We wish the lost souls to be bequeathed unto us.”

“Oh aye?” asked the false Cailleach.

“T’second boon is indeed granted!” cried Crom Dubh. “For t’is was t’favor t’ey asked o’ me upon entering t’ese halls! I told t’em I would release t’lost souls unto t’em upon t’blooming o’ t’blackt’orn t’rone; and, as you can see, it is not yet bloomed!”

“Oh, aye,” said the false Cailleach. “Two boons granted to t’ee; what shall t’last boon be?”

Furious that again their boon had been wasted, Broanan called: “I wish for the blackthorn throne to bloom!”

“Oh. Aye,” said the false Cailleach.

“T’final boon is indeed wasted!” cried Crom Dubh. “May as well ask a summer sky to fill wit’ rain, or t’oceans to part to allow you passage! T’t’rone blooms for its own pleasure, not at t’summons o’ any upstart!”

“I will grant t’is boon,” said the false Cailleach. “Come one and all, to t’chamber in which t’Samhain Seat sits.”

And so every last guest in Crom Dubh’s house gathered around the blackthorn throne.

“Braonán, son o’ Manannan, I bid t’ee sit upon t’is regal chair,” said the false Cailleach.

Braonán did as bid. At once, delicate white blooms sprouted upon the blackthorn throne and its branches dropped its rich blue, bitter fruits.

“Behold!” cried the false Cailleach. “T’Samhain Seat blooms only for a wort’y king seated upon it! Bear witness, all: not once has it bloomed for miserly Crom Dubh, and straight away it blooms for t’son o’ Manannan! T’us have I granted t’last boon; your agreement has been fulfilled and you are free to go, and t’lost souls to go wit’ you. Or will you protest and destroy t’miniscule wort’ o’ your word, o Crook’d One?”

Knowing he was bested, Crom Dubh said, “Nay.”

To the last, Braonán gathered the lost souls about him, so that they might leave Crom Dubh’s house to join his.

But at once Crom Dubh sought to seize victory from defeat. “However, t’souls wit’in my children, t’Men o’ Dust, are no longer lost, for t’ey have shape and purpose and will. T’ey shall remain wit’ me!”

“Aye, you indeed have given t’em shape and purpose and will,” said the false Cailleach. “Since t’ey are no longer lost, I declare t’ey may stay should t’ey wish. Or will you protest and deny t’sweat o’ your crook’d brow t’ose very gifts you granted t’em?”

Knowing he was bested, Crom Dubh said, “Nay.”

To the last, the Men of Dust gathered to Meadhbhín, so that they might leave Crom Dubh’s house to join hers.

But at once Crom Dubh sought to seize victory from defeat. “However, t’Samhain Seat cannot leave these halls, for it has rooted here since t’beginning o’ t’is court! It, and its cursed servant t’Meaige, shall remain wit’ me!”

“Aye, t’Samhain Seat is indeed rooted in place,” said the false Cailleach. “Since it is rooted deep, I declare it and its cursed servant will stay unless t’ere be an arm strong enough to uproot it. Or will you protest?”

Knowing he was bested, Crom Dubh said, “Nay.”

Lámhghala stepped forth, seized the trunk of the blackthorn tree, and with all her might tore it from the earth.

Upon the uprooting of the Samhain Seat, the Meaige filled the halls with her cackling. She threw off her seeming and spake: “Listen well, Crom Dubh! T’deception you sowed bore a lovely crop o’ betrayal; t’indolence you planted bloomed into beautiful flowers o’ decrepitude; and your seeds o’ jealousy grew t’ick and tall and dropped such ripe fruit o’ loneliness! Indeed, had you heeded me, t’is fine harvest would have been lost to you! May you get full joy o’ it, Crook’d One!”

And so the Leanaí i Ndán left the dark court with the lost souls, the Men of Dust, the Blackthorn Throne, and the Meaige; and Crom Dubh was left with nothing but empty halls, once more acquainted with humiliation at the hands of the children of Danu.

XI. Here the Leanaí i Ndán Best Crom Dubh

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