The devil's ladder
“I say if you cross the devils ladder you must pay the devil!” A voice carried over the howling of the cold wind coming down the mountain.
The carriage halted it’s horses, the carriage driver was a large broad man wrapped up tightly. He got down from coachman’s seat to see what the ruckus was about.
The coachman cautiously scanned the snowy trail that passed through the rocky cliffs. The trail lead up the Carrauntoohil mountains known colloquially as ‘the devils ladder’. There was nary a soul to be seen. Only the rocky crags dusted with fine snow and the cold wind blowing in the coachman’s face. He wrapped his face tighter and climbed back up onto into the drivers seat and mushed the horses to continue up the trail. They whined bitterly and the coach creaked as it climbed the steepening trail.
“That is I, I am the devil!” A voice called out and then a man appeared as if from nowhere. The snow and the wind made it hard to see but the man had been laying in wait behind a large rocky outcropping. The hiding spot has blended into the rest of the mountain under the snow.
The coachman pulled his face covering down to gawp at the strange man.
“Be done with this foolishness and get out of my way!” The coachman called out.
“I will get out of your way” The man said. He was of average height but had a long bedgraggled beard and wild eyes rubbed red raw. The man just stood there but as he did more of his ilk came out of their hiding place behind the outcropping and joined at his side. They were savage looking carrying scythes and pitch forks and large butcher’s knives and woodcutters axes as weapons. “As soon as you give us all that you carry and then a little more.” The wild man said wide eyed
“Highwaymen then?” The coachman shouted over the roar of the wind.
“Call us what you like but you will not leave Carrauntoohil alive this day unless you give us whats in that carriage.” The highwayman said gesturing with a large rusty butchers knife.
The coach driver looked back thoughtfully at his carriage and then turning back to the highwayman he said. “I’m afraid I cannot do that, this day or any other.”
The highwayman laughed and wiped frost from his large unkempt beard. “You speak such honeyed words for a coachman, perhaps we will cut out your silver tongue and fashion a necklace from it.” The wildman chuckled with his shaggy cohorts.
The coachman seemed to slump in his seat exhaling deeply. Not from fear or doubt but instead a profound resignation that washed over him. Again the coachman climbed down from the carriage and landed heavy footed in the snow in the shadow of mount Carrauntoohil.
“You may take whatever you want after you kill me.” The coach man said as he drew an iron warclub from his belt. “But not before.”
The bearded man laughed and nodded “But not before, you are a brave one.” He looked eitherside of himself and said to his cohorts “Kill him!”
The bandits were a disorganized rabble and their attack was that of desperate fury. They leapt into battle as if the coachman were the cold and the wind and their empty bellies personified. Their feet crunching the snow as they charged.
The coachman did not flee their shouts, he stood his ground and waited his distance. They fought without formation or strategy, relying on numbers, surprise and brute force.
But none of these factors phased the coachman. The first bandit came at him with a pitch fork. He expected them to be cowards and encircle him and strike at his back but the hunger in their eyes betrayed their savagery. They were thin and starved and cold, their desperation had turned them into little more than wolves. They struck out as dying men struck out at the living, mindlessly and with unrelenting ferocity.
But they were slow and weak and the coachman was neither, he caught the head of the pitchfork and twisted it away from his body. The wooden shaft of it was so damp from the snow and the cold it snapped off in his hand. Not to break off his attack the bandit attempted to skewer the coachman with broken haft.
The coachmen’s strike was a perfect measured brutality, in stark contrast to their own. He struck the bandit with military precision to the side of his head to soften his skull. Then he struck it again in the same place to completely obliterate it. The blow sending shards of skull and brain matter at the other bandits.
Something that would have deterred other men, but not hungry wolves. They kept coming, spurred on by the steady roar of their bellies.
“I have no desire to kill you all, but mark my words, I will do so!” He was tall and stood firm like the mountains and the cold winds rushed through his words but they were too far gone to hear it.
They kept coming like an avalanche of pure need striking at him with tattered old scythes covered in rust. Axes with burred handles and knives that were as blunt as spoons. They did not stop, but neither did the coachman. He struck them down one after another with the cool clinical disinterest of a butcher slaughtering lambs until but one remained.
A woman with a kitchen knife roaring like an evil spirit leapt at the coachman and for a moment he hesitated and he could not parry the blow. The knife struck home tearing through the layers of raggedy clothing revealing a thick plate and chainmail armor. The tip of the knife shattered on contact. But the woman, undeterred by this and driven by pure madness aimed to cut the coachman’s throat. Something he could not allow.
He struck the woman with an upward blow killing her instantly, blood erupting from her mouth as she toppled into the snow.
The coachman looked down at her as she seemed to shrink into the snow, pink with her blood.
“Forgive me, by my honor I cannot allow you to have what I carry.”
The man with the beard was the last one left alive.
“What have you devil? Should I spare your life?” The coachman called out as he approached the highwayman.
“Nay sir” He highwayman said dropping to his knees in the snow surrounded by the bloodied bodies of his kinfolk. “I will join my village” He smiled, his red eyes seemed almost relieved looking up at the coachman. “And you, I hope to see you one day kind sir, in Mag Mell.”
“As you wish” The coachman said his voice ringing with a tone of resignation.
He killed the man with one blow to his head. There was very little blood. The man slumped to his side and fell to sleep as the snow started once more, covering him and his comrades in a blanket of fine white sleet.
The scene was maudlin and the coachman felt cursed to be standing in this graveyard of his making. He wished bitterly that it could have been different. He cursed himself as he cleaned his iron cudgel with a handkerchief as he made his way back to his coach.
He stopped outside of his coach and slid his club into his belt before knocking on the coach door.
“Are you alright my lady? I didn’t frighten you did I?”
The coach door opened and as it did so the coachman took the wrappings away from his face out of respect.
“My champion did they hurt you?” A silken small voice said.
“No my lady Ernmas, my face always looks like this.” He sighed with a small smile, tilting his sunken eyes up to sneak a glimpse of her face.
“Oh Ogma, you are too hard on yourself” She laughed. Her laugh flowed like honey, soft and sweet with a tipani like a small bell ringing. Her words too flowed melodiously one into the other as if she was singing instead of talking. She touched his face which was once beautiful in its own right. Now scarred and deformed from his encounter with a brigand far worse than he had encountered today.
Her touch was soft and weightless like the caress of a flower petal lifted by the wind. It filled her champion with warmth and hope and a feeling of purpose he could not measure. As if for a moment the bodies that lay piled on top of his soul were lifted and he could breathe once more.
His lady Ernmas was beautiful beyond words, her face was as white and as delicate as the snow that coated the bandits he had slain. Her hair was white and as wild as cotton grass. Her features were perfect and symettrical as if they had been sculpted. She had a small thin nose and two large beautiful eyes that shone a golden colour. Her mouth was a pale streak of lavender and her cheeks dusted lightly with pinkish freckles. She was beautiful to Ogma but also haunting for she resembled her father so and that thought alone brought him a great sadness at his failing.
Here now the scarred knight had sworn he would not fail the daughter as he had the father.
He knew that wherever Nuada was, he would know that his daughter was safe with her champion.
“I thought Balor was a myth, an old sailors tale to scare the new blood.” Manannan said.
“Tell me all you know.”
Manannan face became serious as he contemplated the gravity of story he believed to be fanciful up til now. “Sailors talk of a boy who witnessed his father, a powerful druid mixing up a brew most foul, an evil poison that could kill any man or beast”
Tuan listened intently as the sailor immersed himself in his tale
“The boy saw his father and did not heed his cry, the evil brew took on a life of it’s own and the fumes of it got into the boys eye.” Manannan opened his eyes wide as he gesticulated wildly excited by the tale which now took on a new life of his own and a horror as he realized it was all true. “The boy did not die, instead his eye became a heinous weapon, and whatever he looked upon would surely shrivel and decay.”
“Has anyone made it into his castle and lived to tell about it.”
“Just one I know of – but the tale is so wild I never for a moment believed a word of it but I have cause to believe anything at this moment.”
“Tell it then” Tuan said staring at the fisherman.
Manannan got closer as if imparting some taboo secret, hardening his gruff voice to a scratched whisper. “Well this fisher I met swore he was there, he told me so, he said Balor had robbed him of a magical cow or some such thing.” Manannan waved this detail away as folly. “Word is that Balor is a gambler, but he’s no good and he cheats like Domnu himself.” Manannan smirked. “He said the cow belonged to Balor but the fisher, I think his name was Cane or Cian or Cean? I don’t remember, but he told me he won the cow fair and square but Balor cheated him.” He said waving his finger to buy time as he recounted or invented the rest of the story. “Ya see this magical cow he said came with a magical rope and without it the cow could not be housed and would just wander wherever it pleased.”
Manannan raised his fat gnarled finger “Ya see Balor may be a bad gambler but he is no fool and although he gambled and lost the cow he didne’ gamble the rope. So all he had to do was wait for the cow to wander on it’s merry way and reclaim it with the rope. And that’s exactly what he did.”
“So what did Cean do next?” Tuan prodded.
“He told me in revenge for stealing the cow back he would have his way with Balor’s daughter, princess Ethniu.” Manannan smirked.
“Why would he ever do a thing like that?” Tuan said raising a bushy red eye brow.
“Oh did I forget to mention the bit about the prophecy?” Manannan mused scratching under his bushy beard. “Well he told me that a seer prophecised that Balor would be killed by his own grandchild. So Balor built a tower made of glass to lock his only daughter away and he charged three hundred handmaids to watch her day and night. One hundred blondes, one hundred brunettes and one hundred red heads.”
“So how did he make it into the castle?”
“Aye well he was a bit fuzzy on that.” Manannan shook his head and started pulling at his beard as he tried to remember the details. “He said something about a magic belt that gave him the stamina of a randy goat. Apparently he got it into his head he had to have his way with the three hundred hand maids before he could get to the princess.”
“Did he make it?”
“Of course not, he said the belt broke around two hundred”
“How does any of this help me? I still have no idea how he made it inside.”
“Well that’s the thing, I recently heard that a man in the village over just won a cow.”
“So? It could be any cow”
“True but not many cows I know are white with green spots and if I’m told correctly it has a near infinite amount of the most delicious milk you’ve ever tasted.”
Manannan smirked “So I’m told he’s well aware about the cows wandering and of Balor’s trickery. He’s wisely hiring men to follow the cow around make sure Balor doesn’t try to steal it back.”
“Won’t Balor just kill the watchers?”
“Balor is bound to his agreement, he cannot be seen taking the cow back, who would dare play against him if he just killed to get the cow back?”
“You think I should impersonate this cow?” Tuan said stroking his chin.
“Balor is no fool as I said, and he has the power to kill you with a look, you’d be putting yourself in grave danger.”
“So what are you suggesting”
The fisherman rose from his stool with a groan and a sigh, his knees creaking and cracking like the maste of a ship in high winds.
He breathed out and grinned as he patted the Tuan on the shoulder and said “You’re a resourceful chap, I’m sure you’ll come up with something.”
The sound of scraping feet, the smell of damp. The Firbolg awakened partially from his stupor and saw the raw smooth cut stones that made up the castle floor flowed under him like a sea of black blood.
His eyes closed again, heavy as they were, he opened them and looked about him to see the fomorian guards stooped to carry him by his shoulders.
His captors strained to hold him up and hold their weapons at the same time but did so with great effort. They dragged the hefty barbarian through an oddly decorated arch which seemed to be carved from one piece of stone. It was made to resemble that of a thousand eyes staring down from all angles.
Before him stooped a robed woman over a ceremonial stone dish with a thick red liquid swirling about in it.
He dozed and not sure if it was something in his food or the blows to the head that dazed him. But he woke with a start as he felt the cold hard megalith floor rushing at him as his captors threw him down at the base of the dish.
“Lift him up” a strange and warbling voice said with difficulty, as if the mouth the words escaped from had some abstract deformity.
His jailors did as they were told, the one on grabbing his arm and shoulder the other on the side with no arm lifting him by the restraints around his neck.
Between the two of them they lifted him awkwardly.
He looked upon the robed woman and saw nothing as their face was covered with a veil, but the figure was hobbled and projected frailty.
“Bow your head, as you are in his presence” the strange figure hissed with some difficulty. “The presence of king Balor” she hissed through crooked teeth.
Cur looked upon the misshapen figure at first with disgust and then he grinned broadly. Baring his teeth to laugh a most distasteful laugh which echoed through the grand hall.