Yet the Old Ways linger and their ancient hues, vibrant as ever, may still be found in certain places away from the well-worn paths.
The glade was such a place.
For those without the Eye, it would have seemed no different from the rest of the forest, simply another clearing with a small circle of stones set at its centre. But I knew it. Emerald and umber, sable and azure; a place of meeting for the Aos Si – those whom men sometimes call the Bright Folk, or the Fey. My own people.
The woman who stood in the midst of the stones had the cast of magic about her, not so vital as my own, but there nonetheless.
“Good day to you, mistress,” I said.
“And to you.” She studied me for a moment, taking in the colourful clothes I wore, the swords I wore at my hips and, most of all, the small harp slung across my back.
“A fine day for a walk, is it not?” I said.
“Aye, if that is your pleasure.” She held a ball of yarn in her wrinkled hands, the threads woven around her fingers in an elaborate pattern. “You are of the Bright Folk,” she said. A statement, not a question.
“Elathan, bard of the Aos Si,” I told her. “And who might you be?”
She chuckled, a low, soft sound deep in her throat. “I might be many people,” she said. “But you may call me Mual.”
Her hair hung in a long braid almost as far as her knees, deep lines marked her cheeks and forehead, yet she stood straight as a staff, her movements fluid and easy. Her clothing – a straight dress and a short cape – were a patchwork of various colours and materials, some smooth and strong, others coarse and faded.
The sight of her disturbed me in a way I could not give voice to and I wished for nothing more than to be away from this place and this strange woman.
“I have been waiting for you, Elathan of the Aos Si.” As she spoke her fingers were never still, twirling and twisting the twine between them in ever more elaborate patterns.
“I doubt that, Mistress Mual,” I told her. “For even I am never sure which path I will travel until my feet take me there.” I threw her a gesture of farewell and made to pass.
“Nevertheless, I have been waiting for you – or someone like you.” She made a final twist of the yarn and stepped close to me, looping a string around my arm so swiftly that I could not stop her. “You will walk with me a while.” Again, not a question but rather a command that I could not – dared not – refuse. A glamour that brooked no refusal.
“It would be my pleasure,” I said, but the words did not sound like my own.
“I knew that it would be.” She turned and walked away from the grove.
I followed, having no other choice.
The paths we walked were bathed in warm sunlight, like those I had trod years before in the days before the Aos Si had abandoned the world for the security of our barrows. Birds sang in the trees, insects buzzed and, once, a red squirrel crossed our path, peering at us with inquisitive eyes.
“Where do we travel, Mistress?” I asked after a while.
“Not much further, bard,” she said.
Moments later the forest began to thin and the sharp tang of salt reached my nostrils, although I would have sworn that we began our journey nowhere near the sea.
Yet there it was – a wild expanse that surged and thrashed against the shore as if the water were jealous of the land's stability. To the east, gulls whirled around a great jagged cliff, and at its summit, mere feet from the cliff edge, stood a tower house surrounded by a high stone bawn.
“My home is there,” Mual said, indicating the tower. “And I would have you stay there with me as my guest.”
“It would be my pleasure, Mistress Mual,” I said. My trepidation had vanished and I saw no reason not to accept her hospitality and the small whisper in the back of my mind, telling me that I had walked into danger, could barely be heard above the screech of gulls and the crash of waves.
We moved along a narrow path that spiralled upwards. Mual led and I followed in her wake, guided by the length of yarn that connected us.
The walls of the bawn were encrusted with salt and guano, thick moss grew between the stones, yet in spite of this the place had no sense of neglect about it and the thick wooden gates opened without so much as a squeak of protest.
“Welcome, Elathan,” the white-haired woman said, and we stepped into the courtyard.
There were a dozen servants there to meet us. Tall and slender each one of them, and their features – high cheekbones, tapering chins and slightly slanted eyes – resembled my own. Yet these were not the Bright Folk. How could they be with their drab clothes and all-but expressionless faces?
Mual turned and, with a quick snip of long iron scissors, severed the string that bound us. “Go with Uallach,” she said, indicating a grey-clad woman. “She will make sure that you are comfortable. And tonight I will allow you to play your harp for me.”
“Nothing would give me greater pleasure,” I told her, bowing as I spoke.
A brief, cold, smile flashed across her face, then she entered the tower.
When she had gone Uallach said:
“Come with me.”
I followed her into a cool, damp cellar beneath the tower. Mottled light crept though barred windows barely illuminating the place, but I could see a dozen or more rough beds and an equally crude table, cluttered with clay bowls and cups. A curious smell, reminiscent of meat on the verge of rotting, tainted the air.
“You will not need your swords here,” Uallach said.
There were old blades – the left of iron, the right of bronze – and I had carried them ever since I had left the barrows to go a-wandering in the world of men, yet I took them off without hesitation and hung them from a wooden hook.
“You seem sad, Mistress Uallach,” I said to her. “Perhaps a tune would lighten your spirit.” I took the harp from my back and sat on a stool close to a cold grate. “I'll play you The Reel of the Dagda, that will put a smile back on your face. It's an old tune, filled with quicksilver, the kind that would make a stone dance with joy/”
But I could not remember a single note of it. My fingers froze on the brass strings and even the simplest of refrains remained lost to me. I had learned my craft in the city of Finias under the tutelage of Arias the Fair and I accounted myself among the finest harpers of the Aos Si. Yet in that moment, under the dispassionate stare of the woman named Ullach, I could not play.
“No matter,” I said, placing the harp at my feet. “I will remember in time.”
“When Mual requires it,” Uallach said.
Time passed slowly within the confines of the bawn. Mual's servants spent their day performing repetitive, mindless tasks; sweeping the courtyard again and again, washing the small windows of the roundhouse until they sparkled in the weak sunlight. Others merely sat, lost in the mystery of their own hands or a line of dull stitching in their clothing.
Few of them spoke. But then they had no need for conversation here.
I spent the long afternoon watching gulls wing their way to and from the tower, idly trying to remember The Reel of the Dagda, determined that I should play it for Mual that evening. When the memory refused to come I tried to recall other tunes – the Ballad of Midhir and Etain, the Song of Breo-saighit or The March of the Host – but none came to mind.
The realisation caused me no concern, however, certain that the music would return to me in time.
At dusk, when the sun slid from yellow to crimson with the slowness of a glacier creeping down a mountainside, Uallach came to me:
“Bring your harp, bard, Mual would hear you play.”
She led me to a stuffy, torchlit chamber at the summit of the tower, its walls dominated by tapestries of all sizes, some no bigger than my hand, others large enough to reach from floor to ceiling. Uallach closed the door behind me and I stood alone in the presence of Mistress Mual.
She sat weaving at a large loom, the table beside her littered with scraps of material. After a few moments she ceased to work, the clatter of the loom's shuttle replaced by a profound silence.
“Good evening to you, Master Bard,” she said.
“And to you, Mistress Mual.”
She rose and crossed to me, her movements smooth and precise – once again belying the whiteness of her hair and the creases on her face.
“What do you think of my tapestries, Elathan?” she asked.
I looked to the walls. Each of the embroidered pictures showed the same thing – the tower and its walls, the cliffs and the sea.
“They are beautiful,” I said.
“They are beautiful indeed, Elathan, but their creation requires so much thread that I fear I may weave no more.”
“That would be a pity.”
“Indeed it would.” She placed her hand upon my shoulder, a touch so light that I barely felt it. “But if you were to give me cloth I could make more thread.”
“Cloth? But of course, Mistress.” I reached down and tore a ragged strip from the hem of my tunic. “Would this suffice?”
“Aye, for the moment at least.” She took it from me, studying the weft and weave of the cloth, then said: “Now you may play.” She returned to her loom and sat down.
I do not know which tune I played for her that night but I do know that it lacked magic. Oh, I played skilfully enough, but there were none of the wild flights or heartbreaking flurries that once came so effortlessly to my fingers.
And as I played Mual began to move the shuttle across the loom again, slowly at first but growing in speed, keeping time with the music. Or perhaps the music kept time with the rhythm of her shuttle. The whisper that spoke of danger returned to me again – louder than before – but nowhere near loud enough to be heard clearly above the clatter of the shuttle.
“Thank you,” Mual said when the music ended. “Both for your songs and for the thread. Go with Uallach now. Tomorrow you may play for me again.”
“Certainly, Mistress.” I rose from my stool, limbs leaden, the tips of my fingers throbbing, but delighted nonetheless that I had pleased Mistress Mual.
Uallach stood waiting for me outside the door. Once in Finias I had the pleasure of seeing Creidhne, the great bronze worker of the Aos Si, cast a statue of Etain the Fair. There had been more vigor in the bronze than in Uallach.
“I am done for the evening,” I said. “And I would rest now.”
At my words some animation came back to her, a sleeper returning from a long, grey, dream.
“Of course,” she said.
Night had fallen, bathing the courtyard in brittle starlight. A harsh salt tang hung in the air and from beyond the walls of the bawn I could hear the ocean, the waves gentle now.
“Come,” Uallach said. “I will find you a bed.” She swept her arm towards the basement and as she did so I saw a small flash of colour on her. A patch of purple – of purpure - no bigger than a lady’s kerchief, showed under the underside of her sleeve. The very sight of it gladdened my heart.
“So you know colour after all, Uallach,” I said.
“Aye, bard, the blue of the sky, the yellow of the sun and the grey of our walls.”
She frowned. “I know it not.”
“Yet you wear it.” I took her hand and placed it upon the patch.
Her face changed the moment her fingertips touched the fabric. The gold of her eyes blazed brightly and the skin which had until then been pallid took on the hue of fresh cream.
“The witch,” she said. “The witch took our colours.”
Her words, and that small patch of enchanted colour – elder magic woven smooth as silk – swept through me, clearing my mind, as though I, too, had awoken from a dream and could once again see the world around me.
“We were beautiful once,” Ullach said, “bright with colour. Until she brought us to this place.”
“And who are you, Uallach, who are your people?”
“The last of the Nemed,” she told me.
The Nemed, older even than the Aos Si. Their magic had been powerful, far stronger than anything I could summon, yet Mual had trapped them.
As she had trapped me.
“Of the First People. Corca-Oidce, The People of Darkness.”
Uallach’s hand slipped from her sleeve and her face became pallid and expressionless again.
The Corca-Oidce; they had walked the plains and mountains of Orialla hundreds of centuries before the coming of the Aos Si. But where we had arrived in mist they had come in darkness and at their will night had covered Orialla. The Cruithin had fought and conquered them – as we had conquered the Cruithin in turn - and most had died beneath their crushing spears and sharp swords.
Most, but not all.
Stolen magic - bleached of its colour and softness – pervaded every stone of this place. More powerful than the magic of my harp. More powerful, certainly, than simple iron and bronze. Worse than that, my performance before Mual had already weakened and drained me: she had begun to take my essence in that first strip of ragged cloth and I knew that if I allowed this to continue I would soon become as grey and impassive as Uallach and her kind.
Yet the magic of the Bright Folk still persisted here. I had seen it in the patch on Uallach’s dress; and where there was one patch there would be more.
My reawakened senses saw it all around me in the courtyard. Each of the Nemed, grey as they were, still held flashes of colour. Here, a red diamond on a sleeve, there a patch of green on a hem, a blue square on leggings.
Little enough. But if taken together…
That night, as the Nemed slept, still as corpses, I moved among them, taking a piece of coloured cloth from each – no more than they could afford to lose, though, for they had suffered enough and I had no wish to hurt these poor bright folk.
I worked by the cold light of the moon, stitching the cloth together. Green as the plains of Orialla, blue like her lakes and skies, red as raspberries, yellow as wildflowers, purple the royal robes of Lugh himself.
But my fingers were clumsy and the little strength I drew from the sight and feel of it could not replace what Mual had already stolen. I slept for a while, my slumber deep and dreamless, and when I awoke dawn had come.
The day passed with maddening slowness. I sat in a corner of the courtyard and searched my memory for the music I knew lay within, sneaking sly looks at the bright rag stuffed inside my tunic for inspiration. Gradually, snatches of melody returned to me, but I dared not practise them, dared not allowed the Corca-Oidce witch to know that I had begun to fight her enchantment.
Dusk came and Uallach with it.
“Come, bard,” she said. ”Mistress Mual would hear you play.”
“And I would have her listen,” I replied. “For I have a new song to play.”
As before, Mual awaited me in her chamber, seated at the loom. She smiled her cold smile when I entered – the grin of a predator who knows its prey is trapped.
“Welcome, Master Bard. Come and sit beside me.”
I did so, though the very nearness of her made my flesh crawl. On the loom before her she had begun a new picture, identical to the others that hung on her walls. Eldritch images – powerful enough to hold a bawn apart from the world.
“What will you play for me this evening?”
“Whatever is your pleasure, Mistress.”
“Then play me a lively, old tune, Master Bard. The oldest you know.”
I struck the first notes of The March of the Host.
An ancient tune, the self-same melody that had been played when the Aos Si crossed from the Dark North to the shores of Orialla, filled with the same enchantments held in the cloth of the Elder Folk.
Once again, Mual continued to weave as I played, the shuttle keeping time with the music, the beat gradually increasing as the shuttle flew faster and faster.
But this time I did not follow its dictates. The Nemed cloth lay pressed against my chest, its touch cool and invigorating in the stifling confines of the chamber. I altered and bent notes as I played, varying the tempo from quick to slow and then back again without warning. Try as she might, the witch could not keep pace with it.
The shuttle moved slowly.
I played a quick flurry of notes, each one pin sharp and fleeting.
It moved swiftly.
I played slowly, mournfully; I played in the gaps from thread to thread, or allowed long, deep notes to linger in the air.
“The music does not please you, Mistress?”
Her face contorted into furious mask, lips drawn back from sharp little teeth, long fingernails gouged at the wood of the loom.
“No, bard, it does not.”
“Then what would you have me play, Mistress Mual of the Corca-Oidce?”
The snarl froze. “And what would you know of that?”
“Only that you should return to the darkness that spawned you.” I took the cloth from my tunic and held it up. Warm colour radiated out from it, dulling even the hues of Mual’s exquisite tapestries.
A feral snarl escaped from her lips and she rose, the iron scissors in her hand, their point directed at my throat.
“You know nothing of the darkness, bard,” she hissed. “But I will teach you.”
Her first furious jab missed me by a fraction, but I could feel its raw power as it passed. Iron has ever been the bane of the elder folk, a fatal metal, for the wounds from an iron blade never heal.
I had not dared to bring my swords into her presence – knowing they would have alerted her to my awakening – but the oak of my harp was strong and I swung it against the side of her head. The blow staggered her though she did not fall, but another blow sent her to her knees, rolling away from a third, regaining her feet in one fluid motion.
And I saw her true face for the first time.
Her skin sallow and pitted, hair white as freshly fallen snow: eyes black as midnight. A creature never meant for the light yet who yearned to walk in the sun. The iron scissors were still in her hand, the blades open. They made a soft whistle as they slashed through the air.
“Your magic would have sustained me for a long time, Elathan,” she said. “But no matter – even the cloth of a dead man has power.”
She leaped, almost too quickly for my eye to follow, and I brought the harp up to meet her. Iron struck against brass strings, the sound discordant and agonised. I twisted the harp to one side, entangling the blades, then back again with all the strength I could muster.
Her wrist snapped with a sound like dry wood breaking. She did not scream, for the Corca-Oidce were ever strangers to pain, but her hand flopped uselessly by her side and the scissors clattered to the floor. I struck again, smashing the harp into her face and forcing her back.
I snatched up the scissors, cold metal scalding my skin like ice. Then I turned, slashing at the nearest tapestry with the long blades, releasing the stolen magic with every cut and tear.
Mual screamed as though she had been wounded. Behind her the loom shuddered and split along its length.
I slashed again and again, tearing the tapestries from the wall, trampling them underfoot, and by the time I was done the room stood in ruins. The centuries – held at bay for so very long – came rushing back into the place, shattering furniture, touching the corners with mould and decay, tearing great gaps in the roof and walls.
And Mual herself?
The First People had walked the hills and valleys of Orialla in the days when the sun shone young and weak, when the moon stood greater than she is now. They had been a proud, fierce folk.
The creature that squatted in the far shadows of the chamber was neither fierce nor proud, but a wizened thing of dry flesh and drier bones. Only her eyes retained any capacity, glittering balefully from her shrunken face.
I should have killed her there and then, but what purpose would that have served? Her magic had gone – drifting away with the threads that fluttered through ruined stones – and she would trap no more of the poor bright folk. I allowed her to live, for even the darkest of the elder folk are my kin.
The scissors continued to scald my hands. I stood in a gap in the wall, staring out at the calm ocean beyond, then flung the foul metal things as far as I could. The seas would keep them safely out of reach.
“Farewell to you, Mistress Mual. May we never meet again.”
She did not reply. Nor did I expect her to.
The Nemed stood in the courtyard, gazing at the ruin around them. The walls of the bawn had toppled, shattered glass jutted from crumbling frames, the gate hung from broken hinges.
Uallach came to meet me.
“It is time for you to leave this place,” I said.
“And go where?”
I shook my head. “I do not know, Mistress Uallach.” I took the bright rag and gave it to her. “But this may lead the way.” At its touch her face took on a new cast – her skin whiter, her lips touched with carmine – and she smiled at me.
“Aye, it may.”
I found my swords where I had left them. The iron blade prickled against my skin, even through its scabbard. A dangerous metal for the elder folk to carry but as capable of doing good as doing evil.
The Nemed had gone by the time I emerged from the cellar. I hoped they would find their path, wherever it led.
Then, without a backward glance, I left the bawn and its tower. Back along the sunlit paths to Orialla, where they were still songs to be played, memories to be stirred and magic to be found.
© September, 2015 James Lecky
James Lecky is a writer, actor and (occasional) stand-up comedian from Derry, Northern Ireland where he lives with his wife and cat. His short fiction has appeared in a number of publications both online and in print including Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Arcane, the soon-to-be published anthology Chilling Horror Stories and the upcoming Sword and Sorcery anthology from Robot Cowgirl Press, as well as previously in Swords & Sorcery Magazine. You can find his musings on various topics at https://jameslecky.wordpress.com.