AN: For those who read my first story, this one actually follows the events
of the movie. In fact, there's a break in the narration during which you
could just sit down and watch it, at least until the scene in the Escher
room. Once you start reading, I'm guessing you'll probably say "Hey, I
thought this was a Labyrinth story! Where's our favorite Goblin King, or
Sarah, or anyone who looks remotely familiar?" No worries, they're on the
way. This story borrows heavily from Irish and Welsh mythology, with
significant tweaking of legendary figures to get them to fit into the
narrative, and I hope no one is offended by the liberties I've taken with a
culture that is not mine but which I think is really cool. This story was
written just for fun, not for profit. On with the show.
* * * * *
IN THE WINNOWER'S GARDEN
The sun was just beginning to dip down into the west as a lone traveler set
his foot onto Lugh's road. His shadow stretched out before him like a
giant's footprint on the rough path, its long lines a parody of the bent
body that cast it. Strewn with boulders and steadily uphill as it was,
this was the easiest going of all his long journey, and if he seemed bowed
down as with a great weariness or heavy burden, at least he went swiftly.
His bronze-bound boots rang on the stony ground and echoed from the dry
mountain. Harvest season was nearly past and there had been no rain for a
month, and what brittle leaves were left did nothing to dull the sound of
his progress. Just as well - it was unwise to come upon Lugh unannounced.
The air cooled quickly in the mountains, and the traveler found himself
shivering in the breeze that sprang up at dusk. He pulled his leather
jerkin tighter about his body and bent his mind to the road, forcing his
tired legs onward. "Just a little further," he promised himself, making
the same promise again fifty paces later, and then again, until it became
his only thought, burning in his brain like a smoldering coal. Even the
longest journey, however, is a sum of single steps, and he had now come
very near the end. So intent was he on putting one foot in front of the
other that he failed to notice the looming bulk of a tower in front of him,
three times the height of a man and by this time hardly more than a darker,
more solid piece of the night. In fact, he was only saved from going head-
first into the door by a bell that hung above the lintel, which rang out
far louder than the evening wind warranted and brought him stumbling to a
He stared slack-jawed at the high wooden door of Lugh's hall, not quite
believing that he had actually arrived, and the strength that had carried
him all this way suddenly gave out. He fell against the door as his knees
folded beneath him, striking his head on its smooth grain. His ears filled
with a roaring noise and the world began to spin. A children's rhyme, old
as the hills, came into his mind: "Lucky rowan picked at dawn, Merrow with
his red cap on; copper penny down a well, found at last by Lugan's bell."
Images of leaping, leering Merrows surrounded him, red caps blazing, and as
he raised his hands against them, the door behind him opened.
The figure of a tall man stood silhouetted in yellow light, one hand on the
doorjamb and the other hidden in his robes. The traveler pitched forward
over the threshold and the tall man sprang with the speed of a hawk to
catch him as he fell. A voice called for wine, servants scattered in a
flurry of activity, and in the blink of an eye the wayfarer found himself
in a chair by a roaring fire, a fur on his lap and food and drink at his
At a gesture from the lord of the hall, he fell upon the meat with a
ravenous appetite, for it had been nearly three days since his supplies had
given out. As he ate, his host sat down in the chair opposite, waiting
until his guest was sated before asking his business, and the two men
watched each other warily. The traveler had never before met one of the
people of Annwn and Lugh was the tallest man he had ever seen, as broad-
shouldered as an ox, and the sense of physical power draped him like fine
robes. As Lugh turned to the fire, the strong lines of his face were
thrown into sharp relief and his hair shone the burning red of molten metal
- just as his son's had. There was no use delaying the inevitable. The
traveler swallowed, put his hand to his breast, and gave the half-bow
appropriate for a lord who was not his liege.
"Don Righ," he began, using the title in Lugh's own language (his host
smiled a little at the words), "you can only be Lugh of Wechnow, he of the
Tuatha de Annwn. Your hospitality surpasses all thanks, and it is a poor
guest who rewards his host with ill news. I am called Fothaid, fortunate
enough to have been much beloved by your son, who was my captain and
dearest friend. I see by the darkening of your face that you suspect what
I have to say. My lord, your son fell in battle. Cuchullain is slain! As
the breath left his body, he bade me come to you with all speed and tell
you of his fate." Fothaid turned his gaze to the hearth, tears coursing
unheeded down his cheeks.
Lugh gripped the chair so hard that its dark wood groaned beneath his
fingers. "How can this be?" he demanded of his suddenly unwelcome guest.
"There is no warrior living who could overcome my son in battle!"
"You speak the truth," Fothaid said, lowering his voice and motioning with
his hand that Lugh should come nearer. "The Firbolg had broken treaty and
marched from Connaught, intending to invade Kellarach - "
"Yes, yes," Lugh interrupted impatiently. "All this is known to me. My
son leads the defense against the barbarian invaders."
"My lord," Fothaid continued, almost in a whisper, "more than just Firbolg
came out of Connaught. I realize now that we saw her three times - once as
a carrion crow that flew high above us as we marched to the ford, once as a
washer woman at the shore, once as a crone standing on a high green barrow.
She cursed our swords so that all battles went against us and cursed our
boots so that we lost our way. At the last, she settled about Cuchullain's
head as he fought the Firbolg captain, distracting him at the vital moment,
and his enemy's sword found its sheath in his breast. As he died, he
commanded me to tell you this, for only one of Annwn has such power. The
Firbolg name your kind necromancers and swear to drive you from this earth,
but they have found themselves an ally in your midst. Hunt down this
renegade witch and slay her! Avenge your son's death, Lugh of Annwn!"
Fothaid's eyes burned in their sockets as he uttered the last, his hot hand
pressed against Lugh's own.
Fothaid's speech fell like a millstone in Lugh's breast, weighting his
heart as it bent his back. "You must tell me the full tale, neglecting not
a single detail," Lugh said in a grim, hollow voice. Fothaid dipped his
head in assent, and in pity Lugh reached out and laid his hand on the other
man's shoulder. "Tomorrow will be soon enough," he said gently. "You have
the beginnings of a fever and have come a long way bearing a heavy load.
Now you must rest." Lugh beckoned to his steward and the weary man was led
from the hall, mumbling his thanks.
A few minutes later, the steward reappeared and told him that Fothaid was
sleeping. "Good," Lugh said. "Have medicines ready when he awakens. He
has the look of a man one short step ahead of his death. Now bid the
servants to their own beds. I wish to be alone." The steward bowed and
motioned to the lads standing at the door, and the hall was swiftly
Lugh sat in his chair and listened as the sounds of activity throughout the
house slowly subsided. At last there was nothing left to be heard but the
popping of the fire in its hearth. He watched its glowing heart as his
mind filled with memories of Cuchullain, who went to war singing and now
lay silent beneath the hills. As one of his people's mightiest warriors,
Lugh had himself led and lost his own sons in battle, and a lord of Annwn
was not supposed to shed tears for mortal deaths, not even those of his own
children. So, dry-eyed, he brooded before the fire as his right hand
slowly curled into a fist. Of all his issue, only Cuchullain, his youngest
son, had had hair like red flame burning in the dark. In him Lugh's Annwn
blood had flowed thickest, vying against his mother's mortal taint and
making him the greatest hero this land had ever seen. Lugh felt a sharp
stab of regret that he had ever fostered the boy to King Conor, thus tying
his fealty to Emania and its constant wars, but it had been Cuchullain's
deepest wish to serve in Conor's court and march with the Knights of the
Red Branch. His deeds would surely be sung for generations to come,
although that was scant comfort to his father.
As his thoughts turned to the creature who had betrayed his son, the knot
of bitterness in Lugh's breast began to harden into anger. Standing
abruptly, he strode to the hall's entrance and flung the door wide.
Golden light flowed into the darkness until the fire in the hearth
extinguished itself at his harsh command. Lugh welcomed the wind's portent
of the coming winter, using its chill to bring his mind to focus as he
looked up at the stars and thought about what should be done.
Cuchullain had not been able to put a name to the one who had orchestrated
his death, but Lugh knew her very well indeed. He had fought under her
banner, more lifetimes of men ago than he cared to count, and had rebelled
against her when the Tuatha de Annwn rose to cast off her tyranny. She was
old, perhaps as ancient as the world itself, and Lugh clenched his fists as
rage swept through him. She aided the Firbolg against her own people, and
she had killed his son! Raising his arms to the sky, Lugh called out her
name. "Macha," he cried. The air around him stilled. "Badb," he shouted,
louder. The rustling of the night creatures ceased as they pricked their
ears in terror. "Morrigan!" he bellowed, and the earth shuddered. "You
have robbed me of my son, and so I swear this - that I will never rest
until I destroy you! I swear it on the Old Powers and on my blood!"
At this, he drew out the knife from his belt and pricked his palm,
squeezing three drops onto the dry ground. His blood looked black in the
starlight. Where each drop fell, there came a hissing noise and Lugh
stepped back in alarm as three branches reared out of the earth like thorny
snakes. They twined about each other in an intricate knot, rattling like
dried bones before settling into stillness.
Lugh stayed where he was until the normal sounds of the night resumed.
Moving very carefully, he reached out a finger and touched the little
triple-stemmed thorn bush and found it icy cold. It seemed that the Old
Powers had been paying attention when he made his oath. Lugh forced
himself to brush it aside - after all, he had every intention of carrying
through on his promise - but he could not shake off a feeling of uneasiness
as he came back into his hall. For the first time since Cuchullain had
gone to King Conor's court, Lugh barred the door behind him.
* * * * *
Nearly a week passed before Fothaid was fit to ride. The household bustled
with activity, for Lugh could not say how long this errand of theirs might
take and the company must be outfitted against all eventualities. Fothaid
had instantly pledged his support to the venture and was more irritated by
his slow convalescence than anyone else. If the servants noticed the
thorny addition to the doorstep, they were too wise to mention it. Lugh
gathered his fifty liegemen and they, along with Lugh's best hunting
hounds, rode southwest toward the Dala Road.
They were hard in the saddle for three days before they turned aside at the
town of Belsreach and headed for Belinslaw Keep, where they were welcomed
with open arms by Lord Belenus and his lady Belisama. "Bless my eyes!"
roared the master of the keep, clapping each and every man on the back as
the party dismounted in his courtyard. "I've been heckling young Lugh for
a visit, and when he comes at last he brings a small army! Welcome,
welcome each man! We've food and fire and means to meet your every need."
Heartened by this reception after a hard road, the men grinned at each
other and trooped cheerfully inside.
As Lugh and Fothaid passed over his threshold, Belenus clasped his
kinsman's hand and said, "That's a heavy shadow laid on your back, Lugh.
It has the look of the Old Powers. They're partial to thorns."
"I laid it on myself, Belenus," Lugh said ruefully. Being of Annwn, he had
little need of sleep, but after more than a week of wakeful nights Lugh was
starting to think the Powers had taken him too literally. "The Morrigan
has taken my son from me, and I judge it high time her blight is removed
from this earth once and for all."
Belenus laid a hand on Lugh's shoulder. "I'm sorry, cousin," he said
gently. "We heard of the Firbolg victory at Kellarach and knew it must
have come at great cost." He ushered them to a small table set in front of
the hearth and his wife brought them bread and cheese, her golden hair
shining as brightly as the sun as she bend to kiss Lugh's forehead before
leaving to see to the lodgings for his men. The lord of the keep poured
the wine himself, then leaned back in his chair with a heavy sigh, twisting
his goblet this way and that between his thick fingers.
"It's clear why you've come to me," Belenus said musingly. "I always
recognized the Morrigan for what she is, even at the height of her power in
Tara's golden age. Black-hearted witch! Carrion-crow! Why, I've longed
for an excuse to hunt her down ever since she fled Annwn. Don't get so
excited, lad," he cautioned at Lugh's fierce grin. "Not long ago I'd have
ridden out with you in a heartbeat, but our new High King doesn't turn half
the blind eye his mother did. The Ard Righ doesn't want his people
fighting, says there are too few of us as it is. And it's a serious thing
to go after the Morrigan - she built Scailtara, after all, and was the
first to unite Annwn under one throne. She's the oldest of us all after
the Dagda, and would you care to go up against him? No, for no sane
"But she rides now with the Firbolg against her own people," Lugh argued.
"She makes fair-seeming assurances to mortal kings, urging them to make war
on each other and then reveling in the bloodshed of their armies. The
Firbolg have sworn to drive us from the earth, and if the Morrigan gives
them aid, who can say what they might do?"
Back and forth, back and forth Belenus spun his goblet. "I need little
convincing," he said slowly, "but the High King is another matter."
"He needn't hear of it until the deed is done," Lugh persuaded.
"Yes, well," Belenus shifted uncomfortably. "That's an issue, because by
sheer luck I have another guest in my home tonight."
Lugh frowned. "Surely not the High King himself. . ?"
"No, no," Belenus waved the suggestion aside. "Ard Righ is safe and snug
at Scailtara. But," he added with a grimace, "it's almost as bad. Arawn
and Hafgan have declared war on each other again, curse their eyes! It
seems they mean to finally settle it this time, and Ard Righ wants no
killing. He's sent his man to feel out where all the Folk stand, and those
that are neutral are being shepherded back to the capital to put diplomatic
pressure on those two numbskulls. Most here don't care one way or the
other what happens in Annwn or we'd still be there, so we're being summoned
back to Scailtara by the handful." He lowered his voice, glancing toward
the guest quarters as he said, "Powyll is here now, and my wife and I are
to cross the border in three days' time."
Lugh swore and pounded his fist on the table, but Fothaid held up a hand to
stay his anger. "Your High King will be much occupied with the conflict in
his own country," he said slowly, "and it seems unlikely he will spare any
thought for two of his folk who slipped away at the last moment. Besides,
opinions change. Who can say that one who initially had no preference for
one side over the other may not suddenly develop a bias?"
Belenus stared at him for a moment, then let out a great guffaw and slapped
himself heartily on the knee. "By thunder, I like this fellow! Come to
think of it, I always did consider Hafgan to be an impudent rascal with a
bee in his bonnet and no good claim to Arawn's throne. Damned if I'm not
partial after all! But we must be cautious," he continued in a sobered
voice. "Powyll is liable to be suspicious, especially if he gets a look at
that thorn bush you're carrying around, Lugh. By firelight it should be
easy enough to hide, but as for tomorrow. . . "
"Never fear," Lugh said grimly. "I have business in your smithy at first
When they met the Ard Righ's envoy that evening, Powyll struck Fothaid as
an honest, open man, very agreeable, and he began to feel wrong about their
planned deception almost immediately. Lugh noticed it and muttered, "Do
not pity the Ard Righ's agent. His honest face is the reason he was sent!"
Powyll spent much of the evening feeling out Lugh's stance on the war
between Arawn and Hafgan, and Lugh did not have to pretend his preference
for Arawn. They were old friends and had often hunted together in the
forests of Maelbodh, Arawn's kingdom. Disappointed, Powyll did not command
Lugh to return to the capital, and Lugh was very careful to keep his back
to the shadows.
As promised, Lugh disappeared into Belenus' huge smithy as soon as the
first rays of dawn broke over the blue heathered hills, and there he
remained for much of the their sojourn at Belinslaw Keep. When Fothaid
inquired of Belenus what Lugh might be doing, the big man chuckled and
replied, "Lugh has it in him to be the finest smith that ever lived. I'll
wager he's forging himself a weapon to strike down the Morrigan, for she's
too clever for mortal blades. He'll be wanting my help at the end to lay
some mighty magic into it." When Lugh came searching for Belenus on the
eve of their departure, Fothaid noted the deep circles under his eyes with
uneasiness. He could not shake the feeling that his errand to Lugh's hall
had unleashed something much darker than Cuchullain had expected.
Their plan for getting Belenus away from Powyll seemed almost too simple,
but it worked like a charm. The lord of Belinslaw Keep sent three hundred
of his men to bivouac just outside of Belsreach, then 'accidentally' left
his sword in Lugh's keeping. Belenus accompanied Powyll and his lady wife
to within a few miles of the border between Annwn and the mortal world
before suddenly discovering his loss. Making quite a show of how foolish
he felt, he spun his horse about and, with a shouted promise to return
straight away, made directly for Belsreach. Lugh and Fothaid were waiting
for him there, mounted and ready. As he caught sight of the newly-forged
broadsword lashed to Lugh's saddle, Belenus grunted his approval and
reached out his arm to reclaim his own weapon.
"Any trouble?" Fothaid asked.
"None at all!" Belenus replied cheerfully. "I'm a Don Righ in my own right
and well able to cross the border. If Powyll had pursued me it would have
been a grave insult! He won't guess that I'm not coming back for a day at
least. Besides, Powyll would never believe that I left my lovely Belisama
to pass into Annwn on her own."
Lugh gave a wry smile and said, "That begs the question of how exactly you
explained this jaunt to your noble wife. It was never my intent to bring
strife into your household!"
"Ha!" Belenus roared with laughter, gathering his reins and putting spur to
his horse. "She practically shoved me out the door! Says I've been
growing testy of late with inactivity. I gave her a kiss and a promise to
return as soon as I may, and she's more than happy to be off to Scailtara
to gossip with her lady friends about the failings of husbands." Three
hundred fifty strong, the troop rode north to Kellarach, and as they had
Belenus and his stories to entertain them, it was merry going.
Their greater numbers meant a slower pace. Although Lugh coaxed every
possible mile out of them before letting them settle in for the night,
Fothaid was glad of each moment that delayed their confrontation with the
Morrigan. At first, he worried that his strange reluctance meant that his
courage had been destroyed in that final battle along with his captain.
The farther they went, however, the more Fothaid became convinced that his
unease lay with their mission itself. He voiced some of his doubts to
Belenus in secret, but the lord's clever blue eye merely winked confidently
at him, and he knew better than to bring it up with Lugh.
The Firbolg had pressed south into Emania, and the company had to pass
several miles out of the way to avoid the armies of both sides. "When
we've finished our business with the carrion-crow, we'll come back this way
and give Conor some help," Belenus said jovially. They approached the
battlefield at Kellarach from the east, under cover of night. Wordlessly,
Fothaid showed them the place where Cuchullain had fallen. Lugh unleashed
his hounds and the hunt began in earnest.
Over hill, through dale, in fog and in rain, they followed the Morrigan's
trail north and west. Fothaid saw that the dogs rarely put their noses to
earth - in fact, they kept their heads high, muzzles in the wind, and
seemed as confident of the trail in water as on land - and he had to
restrain himself from making the sign against evil. Lugh used every art at
his disposal to hasten their pursuit, both as a lord of Annwn and as a
skilled tracker, and the trail grew steadily fresher. At last there came a
day when, as the sun set into the western sea, Lugh announced that the hunt
would end on the morrow.
As the evening star hung low in the gray twilight, there came a sudden
click of hoof against stone and the rattle of rocks sliding down a slope.
They were in barren country now and echoes were liable to carry a long way
after dark. Lugh quickly gestured for silence, commanding the sentries to
him with a curt flick of his wrist. Weapons drawn, they melted into the
shadows flanking the approach to the camp and waited. Whoever was stalking
them had been cautioned by his own noise, for they heard nothing for nearly
a quarter of an hour. At length, however, the shape of a man could be seen
through the gloaming, leading his horse carefully up the gulch. They
waited until he was well into their midst, then moved all at once to
surround him, holding the naked points of their blades to his throat.
The horse startled and bucked, but the man held up his hands quite calmly.
Fothaid's eyes widened in astonishment and the tip of his sword dropped
several inches as he saw who it was. "Gods' teeth," Belenus growled.
"Powyll, what the devil are you doing here?"
"I might ask you the same question," Powyll responded, folding his hands
serenely in front of him.
"Look you, Powyll," Lugh spat, "what we do here is no concern of yours.
Belisama can speak for her husband in Scailtara, so just turn right around
and go lodge a complaint with Ard Righ, all right?"
"No," Powyll said, softly but with the force of a solid blow. "You may
have business here, but when Lugh Heavy-hand and Belenus Light-bringer bear
an enchanted blade and hunt with the hounds of Annwn, then it is also the
Ard Righ's business. Now tell me what quarry you pursue." Lugh remained
silent, he and Powyll looking each other steadily in the eye until Lugh
snorted and spun on his heel, stalking angrily back to his blankets.
As Fothaid led Powyll's horse to the picket line, he saw Belenus put a
reassuring hand on his cousin's shoulder as he passed to his own bed.
Fothaid's spirits sank into his boots, but loyalty to his comrades kept him
silent. He spent a restless night, and when he rose with the dawn he was
not in the least surprised to find that Lugh and Belenus were gone and that
they had taken the hounds with them.
He watched the company stir and wake and stumble off to take care of
necessities, rummaging in saddlebags for a bit of breakfast. The sun was
halfway above the horizon by the time he made his decision. Walking
purposefully to where Powyll (who was unused to sleeping on the ground) was
trying to rub out a particularly sore spot, Fothaid said without preamble,
"They have gone to hunt the Morrigan."
The High King's man froze, then carefully straightened and looked him in
the eye. "The Morrigan. They mean to kill her with that bewitched blade,"
"Yes," Fothaid confirmed. "Because she caused the death of Cuchullain, who
was Lugh's son."
Powyll ran for his horse. "Mount up!" he shouted. "We must find them!"
He did not even wait for a saddle, simply leapt astride and took off pell-
mell up the ravine, leaving Fothaid little choice but to follow. He was to
remember that ride for the rest of his life. Powyll rode like a madman,
racing ahead with no thought for the bad terrain, and Fothaid was amazed
that neither of them ended up with a broken neck. They rode for hour after
hour and the hills seemed to blur and run together like wet clay as they
pounded onward into a hot, stinking wind. The smell of decay grew so
strong it made them gag as they went ever further into the hills.
"I had no idea the ravine went this far back!" Fothaid yelled to his
companion through a momentary lull in the wind.
"It doesn't," Powyll replied. "We're in the Barren."
Fothaid's horse was beginning to founder when at last they heard the baying
of hounds ahead of them. The ground leveled off into a round bowl, ringed
all around with smooth cliffs. There was not so much as a hairline crack
in those walls - nothing could hope to escape from that gray prison, and
the dogs knew they had their prey trapped. They circled around a black
mound that looked like a crumpled pile of mourning shrouds, baring their
teeth and howling in triumph. Powyll spurred his horse toward the hunt and
Fothaid followed as best he could on his laboring mount. As he watched,
though, he could see that Powyll could not possibly reach them in time.
Belenus towered above the small black mass, blazing with power, and Lugh
raised his sword to strike the final blow. As if in a dream, Fothaid saw
Powyll's horse, stretched in a dead run against the preternatural stillness
of the stone circle, and the light reflecting from Lugh's blade as he
plunged it into the center of the black heap.
Soundless, the pile of black rags collapsed on itself. Powyll let out a
despairing cry, and as Lugh and Belenus turned in surprise he raised his
fist and shouted a long word. Thunder rolled in the cloudless sky and man
and horse vanished, gone from the world as if they had never been.
Startled, Fothaid dismounted and began to make his way toward the others
when he heard a sound that chilled him to the bone.
A low chuckle echoed through the bowl, menacing and cruel. It began almost
as a whisper, but in no time at all it gathered itself to a shout. Without
warning, a tornado suddenly touched down in the center of the circle and
the wind knocked Fothaid off his feet. His horse screamed and bolted and
he could hear the dogs crying in terror. A black cloud was seeping from
the ruined mess of rags at Lugh's feet, swirling and gathering itself into
a tower of darkness that pierced the sky. They watched, horrified, as the
cloud coalesced into the shape of a gigantic three-headed crow. She
cackled and reached down to peck at the puny beings at her feet, and Lugh
and Belenus ran. They grabbed Fothaid where he lay stunned, and although
the monster had only the substance of mist, her dark shadow set a deathly
chill into them.
At the mouth of the bowl, Belenus raised a hand and called the word that
opened the way to the world of mortal men and they tumbled out into the
sunshine. As suddenly as the wind had risen, it passed and left cold air
in its wake. The hounds crept around them on their bellies, whimpering
piteously, and Fothaid's horse stood nearby, its flanks heaving. The other
two mounts were nowhere to be seen. The sword in Lugh's hand had turned
black and pitted and he dropped it with a curse. Belenus lifted it
gingerly and wrapped it in his cloak. The weapon was far too powerful to
leave it lying on a hillside for any wandering chief to find, but Fothaid
could not have brought himself to touch it. The three men sat together,
heads bowed, and did not speak for a long time.
At last, Lugh tipped his head to look up at the sky. "We must return to
Annwn and tell the Ard Righ all that has happened," he said in a low voice.
"There may be a way to avert this evil we have unleashed."
For once, Belenus had nothing to say. Upon investigation, they found that
they were less than a mile from the company they had so recently left. The
men were waiting anxiously, for both horses had returned riderless, but the
rousing cheer of welcome died as the soldiers saw their grim faces. They
wasted no time, and leaving the cursed sword in Fothaid's care, Lugh and
Belenus set off for the road that passed into Annwn.
* * * * *
The Palace at Scailtara has been described by the poets as a rare jewel, an
exotic flower set above a green city in which the dazzling court displays
itself like facets in a gem. As the Ard Righ stormed through his alabaster
halls, a much less appealing metaphor was foremost in his mind. "Fish in a
bloody barrel," he growled as he opened the high doors with a wave of his
hand. The press of people in the Great Hall turned to him and released a
collective sigh, genuflections rippling through the crowd like wind through
wheat. Hell's teeth, there was barely enough room for him to squeeze
through to his throne! If there is war, he thought grimly, at least there
will be fewer of them! It was absolutely unbelievable - surely there were
no more than a few hundred of the Folk gathered in his capital, but they
each insisted on bringing a positive horde of retainers, courtiers, cooks,
baggage boys, shoe shiners, chicken pluckers, and a host of others who did
nothing but stand around and gawk. His city was filled to overflowing with
fey denizens from kingdoms he had scarcely heard of, and every day he
encountered some new creature he was sure he had never seen listed in the
Annals of Fairy Races. The trouble was, of course, that courtiers were
liable to turn everything into a party. It was just as well that the main
force of his diplomatic envoy was camped in the Fertith Fields outside the
city walls since he could barely breath as it was. Just a few more hours,
he promised himself. Today's business consisted almost entirely of moving
the rest of the court to the Fields in preparation for tomorrow's march to
Maelbodh to stop that idiot Hafgan from putting a large hole in King Arawn.
With only a few thousand true-blooded Folk left, Annwn simply could not
afford a war.
Bleyvys greeted him as he approached his throne, looking as haggard as the
High King had ever seen him. "Jareth Ard Righ," the willowy Dryad said
hoarsely, "Lord Halban has brought a delegation of Ganconagh who insist
they cannot march with Skin-changers, and it seems a band of Pooka got into
the paddocks. People are being thrown right and left and half the
delegation say they won't sit a horse unless it's been proved to be just a
horse - "
"Business as usual, Bleyvys," Jareth said, clapping his seneschal on his
mossy shoulder. "Let's see if we can get this mess sorted out, hm?" The
High King sighed and cast a jaded eye over the glittering court, sweltering
in its own numbers. "This seemed like such a good idea at the time. Look
at this place - stuffed to the gills, and Powyll hasn't even returned with
the last of the expatriates."
They set to work, and by late afternoon it looked like things might sort
themselves out after all. Scailtara was nearly emptied, even its lowliest
citizens making a holiday of the event and taking any excuse to spend the
day out on the green fields. As the courtiers dribbled out of the city to
take up residence in their elaborate pavilions, Jareth inhaled his first
unrestricted breath in many days and heaved a sigh of relief. Relaxing in
the afternoon rays of the westerly sun, Jareth and Bleyvys were poring over
supply lists in the west library when suddenly the king felt an icy hand
close around his heart. Dark mist descended in front of his eyes and he
saw an old hag, chained and fettered in a silent circle of stone. A golden
sword flashed in the gloom, cutting her bonds like a hot knife through
butter, and with a terrible scream of glee she cast off her shackles and
hurtled into the sky.
Jareth came back to himself abruptly to find that he was on his feet in his
own library, shouting incoherently as a very alarmed Bleyvys gripped his
arm in one hand and rang for the servants with the other. Blinking in
bewilderment, Jareth struggled against his seneschal's hand as he fought to
make sense of the vision. No sooner had his eyesight cleared than his
heart skipped a beat as Powyll invoked the magic that the Ard Righ had
given him to spirit himself directly back to Scailtara, eschewing the long
and fickle road to Annwn. Jareth knew that Powyll would only use that
spell if he were in dire need, and he dragged Bleyvys toward the throne
room, yelling, "Something's happened, or just about to - sound the alarm!"
Just then, he felt the substance of Annwn tremble around him as something
crossed into it from the Barren. He flung the door to the Great Hall wide,
crying, "Powyll! What the devil is it? It's huge and it's headed for
"My King," Powyll gasped, practically tumbling from his horse's back. "It
is the Morrigan. She tricked that fool Lugh into destroying the body that
your mother used to bind her in the mortal world, and she comes now to take
possession of what was once hers."
What Jareth lacked in patience, he more than made up for in decisiveness.
"Brace yourselves," he snapped. Powyll had just enough time to look
startled before Jareth summoned his magic and sent every creature in the
palace, other than himself, to the green fields outside his city.
Scailtara itself was simply too big for him to empty it with sorcery, but
hopefully the few citizens left inside its walls would flee when they saw
the Carrion-crow coming. The King knew he had very little time. If the
Morrigan thought she could take his city without a fight, she was in for a
shock, but beneath his arrogance Jareth actually had a fairly reasonable
idea about the world and the Powers that moved in it. He knew he was good,
and he knew the Morrigan was certainly much, much better. It had taken ten
thousand years of building strength in secret before his mother led the
revolt against the Phantom Queen's grim rule, and more than half of the
Tuatha de Annwn had died in that insurrection. One thing was perfectly
clear - he could not allow it to happen again. Jaw set and eyes flashing,
Jareth began to weave his magic.
The Morrigan struck like a thunderbolt. Hurricane winds howled around the
palace as her shadow blotted out the sun, pouring in through the windows
and staining the walls black. He felt her presence congeal into a
tottering old woman who suddenly appeared at the threshold of the Great
Hall, looking deceptively small. Her head bobbed and swiveled as she
searched the hall with rheumy eyes. "Abnoba," she cackled softly. "Abnoba
dear, I know you're here. Come out, my darling, and greet your old
friend." She peered this way and that, reaching out with her magic as well
as her senses for her former adversary.
Jareth felt the seeds of panic stir in his breast. If she found his spells
before they were complete, she would destroy them with a breath. He needed
to distract her. "Ah, Morrigan," he said as calmly as he could, keeping
behind the throne so that she couldn't see his hands. "It's an honor to
meet you. I regret that Abnoba will be unable to join us. You see, I am
now Ard Righ of Annwn."
"What?" hissed the crone. "Who are you? A young one, by the sound of your
Sweat stood out on his brow as he answered, "I was not yet born when you
were so cruelly exiled from Annwn."
She laughed mockingly. "Don't pretend you're on my side, boy. I can feel
your animosity. But no fear, hm? Come out here and let me get a look at
you, brave sir."
"Well," Jareth temporized wildly, "I would, but an unfortunate accident as
a child makes it painful for me to walk. I'm sure you understand."
"Oh yes," hissed the Morrigan, "I certainly do. Tell me, boy, where is
Jareth rolled his eyes in relief. This was a safe topic. "She loved
nothing better than to ride in the Wild Hunt," he began, determined to spin
out the story. "One day nearly a century ago, she received word that the
fabled White Stag had been seen in Lugirroch, and so she gathered her - "
"So Abnoba died in the Wild Hunt," the Morrigan interrupted thoughtfully.
"Er, yes," Jareth said, nonplussed.
"And you are her son," she continued, menace building in her voice. He
opened his mouth to issue a false denial but she forestalled him. "Abnoba
is beyond my reach, so I choose to revenge myself on her issue!" Springing
forward, she ripped the throne from its dais with one crooked claw and
advanced on the king, but Jareth was ready for her. As she reached for his
throat, he released his magic.
The Morrigan was pulled and pinched every which way, feeling herself
growing larger and larger but also spreading thinner as she sank into the
earth, screaming in anger. Outside the walls of Scailtara, Powyll and
Bleyvys blanched as a ripple of magic spread out from the palace to engulf
the city. There was a blinding flash and the entire court gasped and
shielded its eyes, and when they could look again they gazed out over an
empty plain. Even the low hill on which the palace had stood was gone,
leaving dry dirt in its wake. Within the palace, Jareth fell to his knees
in exhaustion. Annwn was safe, at least for the moment. He had locked
Scailtara away in its own time and place, irrevocably sealed inside a magic
barrier for a thousand and one years - he and the Morrigan, in exile
together. He bared his teeth in satisfaction as he felt the rage emanating
from the stones beneath his feet. Just as his mother before him, Jareth
had bound her in a physical form - he had trapped her within the very
stones of the city. She wanted to possess Scailtara and possess it now she
certainly did, powerless to leave until the spell gave out at the end of
its allotted time. As he ransacked the library in search of a spell that
might lead to her ultimate overthrow, Jareth only hoped that Powyll and
Bleyvys could puzzle out what he had done.
As it turned out, it was easy for them to realize what had become of the
Ard Righ and his capital city, but not for a reason that Jareth had
anticipated. Scailtara is the city at the heart of Tara, which is the
kingdom at the heart of Annwn. Therefore, the city is a reflection of the
entire land, and now the city was sealed away in complete isolation. As
Powyll led a small company back to the mortal world, seeking to find the
weapon that had freed the Morrigan in hopes that it might still be used
against her, he made the startling discovery that the border was gone. He
could feel the presence of the other world like a shadow in his own, could
almost reach out a hand and touch its substance, but it would not open to
him. He could not cross, and slowly it dawned on him what Jareth had done.
There was nothing for it but to ride back to Fertith Fields, which had
already become the interim seat of government, for none of them possessed
the power that was the Ard Righ's birthright to cross unaided. Behind them
they left the lady Belisama, her pale face marked by the silver tracks of
tears, who rode unceasingly up and down the border until her horse fell
underneath her and then continued walking, day and night, night and day,
looking for a way through, her feet wearing a bare path through the
On the other side of the barrier, Lugh and Belenus soon made the same
discovery. They gathered on the green hillside where Annwn's presence was
strongest felt, the seven of the Folk who were left in the mortal world.
Danu was the first to speak, shrugging her shoulders as she said, "I never
intended to return anyway, I have my own people here. They call themselves
the Tuatha de Danann. Isn't that sweet?" She wandered away to rejoin
them, and many years later, having taught them marvelous things, she fell
in battle defending them against the invading Milesians.
Cernunnos was the next to leave. He never spoke a word, but his great
horned head bowed as he blew the horn to call his hounds to him, their red
ears flat against their skulls as they ran into the gathering night on a
Hunt that was now without quarry. Angus and Brigit each laid a hand on
Belenus' shoulder, who stood staring numbly at the fading hills, before
turning back to their warm cottage and the comfort of each other, which was
all they really wanted anyway.
When the sky overhead had filled with glittering stars, Lugh finally
stirred. "I will bury that weapon where no hand shall ever find it again,"
he said into the heavy air.
"Lugh, my spirit has gone out of me," Belenus responded, his voice a
mournful echo of spent mirth. "It has flown to my wife, and I have no more
will in the world. Let me follow you, and return here once a year to try
the path until it opens to me." Together, the two kinsmen moved off into
The one who was left harrumphed, lifted her ragged skirt to scratch her
ankle, then hobbled over to a convenient boulder with the aid of her trusty
stick. Settling herself onto it with a sigh, she lifted her wrinkled face
to look up at the night sky, speaking to the constellations as if they were
old friends. "Bah!" she muttered. "Young folk today, they think they know
everything. Well, we'll just have to wait, won't we? She'll come in time,
my dears, never fear. I make it, oh, a thousand years or so, not long at
all. I just hope that poor boy doesn't get into trouble, though trouble's
what he's got, right enough. Let's see, she'll need a map, hm, a compass,
and what else, what else?" Pushing herself upright with an effort,
Cailleach puttered away into the hills to await the coming of the
As for the Morrigan herself, she soon found that her jailer had been just a
tad overconfident. In his defense, it should be noted that Jareth had very
little time in which to come up with a plan to protect his kingdom and that
he was quite willing to trade his own safety for that of his people. He
had assumed wrongly, however, that by trapping the Morrigan in the land
itself he had limited her power. Their battles raged without end until the
city was smashed to rubble, the palace to ruins, and the scattered remnants
of its unlucky citizens dug themselves in as deep as they could to escape
destruction. She gave the king no rest, no respite, and she began to
rediscover her old ways of tormenting an enemy in mind as well as in body.
This was his capital and he reigned supreme, but the Morrigan had become a
part of his kingdom and therefore a part of his power. Both together,
master and slave, though which was which was impossible to say. She had
the advantage, though, of being cruel and vicious as well as determined,
and she was adept at the ways of the Old Powers.
He resisted her torture for centuries, but little by little she slipped
under his guard, pushing him to a truce here, a pact there. She knew the
spell must end eventually and she wanted to be prepared to reclaim her
kingdom when it did, and that meant she needed an army. Jareth had sealed
the way into Annwn too well, but he had not considered the mortal world.
She cleverly disguised her contracts as overtures of peace, waiting with
terrible patience, and once in perhaps fifty years he slipped and agreed
too hastily. At last, when a weary woman with eight hungry mouths to feed
said the right words, he suddenly found himself trapped in a web of his own
concessions. The snare of the Old Powers wound itself around his heart.
He took the children, and then huddled in the ruins of his palace as their
mother failed the Morrigan's test as accorded by the Law. The Old Powers
have strict rules about such things: there must always be a test, a chance
to win back what was stolen. He only emerged when the Carrion-crow had
finished changing them into the first recruits of her new army.
After that, something inside him died. He lost count of how many children
he stole and never remembered a single one of their faces. They were only
mortal, after all, their lives pitifully brief under any circumstances.
The important thing was the safety of his kingdom. Over time, he grew to
enjoy the sense of power as their desperate mothers and fathers cowered
before him, begging for mercy. He even began adding his own frills here
and there as they scuttled about like rats, thinking up impossible riddles
and raising false alarms to send them astray. His hatred for the Morrigan
burned hotter each day, but so did his love for the maze of stone she had
created for the testing. Thwarting her schemes in subtle, clever ways
became almost like an art to him. She desired her army to be swift and
strong, so he learned to nudge the changing to make her creatures weak and
foolish. She wanted giants, so he made midgets and then hated them because
they were evidence of his weakness, his collaboration. And so it went
until, on a stormy night nine hundred and ninety-one years after Jareth had
sealed Scailtara against the Morrigan, a cross and tired fifteen-year-old
girl wished that the goblins would come and take her baby brother away,