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.

* * * * *


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 halt.

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 right hand.

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 emptied.

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 creature would!"

"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 light."

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," Powyll said.

"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 Scailtara!"

"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 voice."

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 Abnoba?"

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 heather.

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 night.

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 Morrigan's bane.

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, right now.