The living word
The horses snorted, their breathe heavy and hanging in the cold air near the peak of the devil’s ladder.
Ogma climbed down from the coachman’s seat, he took some time to inspect the horses and tug at their bridles to make sure they were secure.
Once he was satisfied he trod the deep snow and stopped for a moment outside the door of the carriage before calling out. “My lady, we have arrived.”
Ogma then opened the carriage door and stepped back to kneel in the snow holding his hand aloft for princess Ernmas to take.
His hand was large and wrapped in a thick riding glove covered in filth, dried blood and snow. Noticing this he took it off and discarded it in the snow.
His hand was lithe but looked strong and nimble, she filled it with her smooth dainty hand the colour of milk, almost weightless. She made her way down from the carriage, carrying herself with regal nobility but with a slight smile that betrayed her sadness. Her eyes carrying the same wisdom as her fathers but also an innocence that bared hiding from the world.
Standing alone now she walked through the snow coming around the other side of the carriage.
Ogma reached into the carriage where sat a square package wrapped delicately. He retrieved it with the utmost care and lifting it gently with both hands and climbing down from the carriage as slow and gracefully as possible.
“I don’t see it.” She said softly.
Ogma went to her side, the package in his arms “Look closer my lady”
The princess turned and instantly looked at the package, a wave of regret and sadness passing over as she seemed to smile and sigh. “I’d almost forgotten about that” She said wistfully, melancholy hanging heavy on her delicate features. Turning back to the shape unfolding in front of her she narrowed her vision and slowly as the snow thick white wind abated she saw a contrast. A line forming around a white shape.
“I see it, it’s amazing, it must be some sort of sorcery.” She gasped with childlike wonder.
“Perhaps, an illusion, possibly the weather and a trick of the eye.” Ogma said.
Before them stood a castle naturally camoflouged by the weather. It seemed to be designed to do exactly that. The castle itself was low slung and seemed to follow the natural curve of the mountain plateau it rested on. The buildings jutting out unevenly to mimic the shape of a natural rock formation. The light colour of the stone and the snow making it seem almost invisible against the skyline. A narrow path towards the portcullis too was shielded by a thick embankment of trees and it snaked up the sheer face of the cliff at odd angles. A wall surrounding the castle seemed to melt into the snow covered trees. The castle itself rising only slightly higher than the wall but for one white spire which stood at it’s highest point.
“The spire, I bet he can see the whole valley from that point.”
“Most likely.” Ogma agreed.
She turned with a whimsical smile and said “This is the top of the devils ladder.”
“Yes my lady.”
“Well lets see if he’s in” She smiled.
Cur’s laughter echoed through the hall. The room was vaste, the ceilings seemed higher than was possible due to the squat nature of the castle. The hall was stark, naked of any furnishing but for one cyclopean door cast in bronze and gold with a carving of a giant evil eye on it. Cur’s laughter abated as he looked around the oversized room. The floors and walls seemed to be slicked with some strange viscous substance and there was an odd smell. The walls and floors bore deep scratches not made by any man. The smell, it was faint but it was familiar, blood and something else much worse.
“Is this Balor shaking, does he fear me?” Cur croaked grinning.
“Balor fears no man” The strange voice under the veil said.
“Then he can show himself to me” Cur laughed staring at the strange gaunt figure in the mask.
“You will see my face, although I have many.” A child’s voice said.
The robed woman and the man in the mask stepped to aside and in their place stood a small redheaded boy wearing a long green tunic made of spun silk. The face of the boy child was pale and freckled but the eyes and the expression were that of a man certainly. The eyes shining an evil purple, their glare seeming to pierce through Cur. The childs smile presented as innocence but betrayed a deep malevolence as he surveyed the barbarian coldly. As if he were a bull being readied for gelding.
“Does this face please you firbolg?” The child smiled but there was something unnatural about it, it was just a little too wide and the way his face moved didn’t move as skin and bone should. The movement was almost akin to how an eel or a snakes flesh moved. His face moved as if it had no bones at all. “Perhaps you’re wondering why I had you brought before me, but I suspect you already know.”
Cur began to laugh morbidly, his eyes wide and mad.
The boy smirked once more with his ghoulish unnatural face, pale and bonny the mask covering ancient horror. “I have heard tale that you are undead and cannot be killed by mortal weapon.” The boy smirked and walked closer to the barbarian. “My eye is no mortal weapon, tomorrow morning at sun rise you will feels its power and be but ash.” The boy smiled.
Cur laughed again.
“I have been tasked as your executioner, a job in which I relish and comes with it a certain poetry” The boy smiled wickedly. “As it was I that dealt the final blow to the clan firbolg.”
Princess Ernmas lifted her cloak almost up over her knees and began to trudge eagerly through the snow. Slowly working her way up the snaking path lined by snow covered rowan trees.
“Wait my lady, allow me to lead the way!” Ogma shouted after her trudging the deep snow along the path, his words blown away by the terrible biting mountain wind.
Nevertheless he returned to his charge’s side within the maze. Under the chin of the overgrown rowan trees that loomed over the path, almost blotting out the sky over head. On the other hand they also shielded them from the terrible winds sweeping up the mountain.
Ernmas stood waiting and staring up at the castle which seemed to now tower high above them. They had reached the portcullis which was open. The castle was not the largest she’d seen but the entrance made it seem monstrously so. The wall around the castle at the entrance folded outward so that those in the castle could attack from either side from any of the archery slits. The bridge they were on allowed them to see that the castle itself stood on an outcropping and below them was a sheer drop. Either side of the entrance were two statues embossed into the wall. On one side the good goddess of the sky and of wisdom; Dannu and on the other, the evil god of the earth and sea; Domnu. It was unusual to see them together like that, displayed as equals or opposing forces, a light and darkness forming an uneasy balance of nature.
Ernmas turned to Ogma smiling and said “I guess they want us to come in”.
“I will go first, my lady” Her champion said dutifully.
“What danger is there? We were invited were we not?” Ernmas asked.
“Indeed my lady, but we received the invitation some time ago, perhaps the castle has new occupants we are not yet aware of”
“You mean like those bandits on the road?” Ernmas gasped.
“Stay yourself and fall behind me until I can be certain.” Ogma said stonily.
The princess did as she was told and stayed at her champion’s back as they progressed further into the grounds.
Past the wall there was a tight walkway squeezed on both sides by large stone walls. The one on the left curved upwards to form a large stone staircase leading up to the top of the wall and into the keep. Tucked behind it was a small building that was most likely a stable. In front of them was a hulking curved battery which was part of the castle but served as another inner wall. The path leading to it ending in another portcullis that was securely closed.
“You there?” A voice called out to the weary travellers. “Come out of this beastly cold why don’t you?”
Ogma turned swiftly but the voice seemed to be coming from all around them.
“I’m here up here!” The voice said.
They looked up at the curved battery and saw a figure standing in one of the arrow slits waving a hand that protruded from a thick woolen cloak.
“I mean you no harm - Oh bloody mag mell, she’s left the portcullis open again! – Please make your way up those stairs and warm yourself by the fire I’ll join you shortly.” The figure said before disappearing from the small opening.
Cautiously the two travellers made their way up the stairs. At the top on their left they could see over the walls and almost all the way down the mountain. On their right there was a sturdy oak door. Behind it they found what appeared once to be a barracks for soldiers who would’ve taken turns standing watch on the walls. But now it had been converted into something of a makeshift study with books piled up on some of the rows of cots. A fire desperately clung to life under a pot of stew that looked very simple but smelled quite appealing to the hungry travellers. But they did not partake out of caution and respect for their host.
After a short period of time waiting, the door they had come in burst open carrying with it that terrible biting wind before being shut tightly again.
“I’ll never get used to that beastly cold!” The figure in the doorway said. He quickly disrobed of the heavy wet cloak on a hook by the door and began to take his boots off exasperated as he made his way to the fire and his guests. “Oh it’s almost going out, I better see to that, oh and I’ll be sure to send someone out for your horses, wouldn’t want them to freeze to death in this blasted weather.”
The man without his cloak was a young tuathan, a slim elf of average height. A set of round spectacles sat at the end of his nose under a mop of relatively unkempt dark hair. His eyes too were a dark brown. Although his features were boyish, the lines on his face and his pale skin told a story of long hours of studious concentration. He smiled naturally but behind that smile were very serious eyes. Eyes that weighed heavy with knowledge and thousands of sleepless nights. He dressed very simply in a white caftan-like shirt that seemed to be marred with various stains and a set of dark trousers. He pushed his glasses up on his long straight nose and pursed his lips in a very serious expression before acknowledging his guests. As if for a moment he’d forgotten why he entered the room.
“Oh yes” He said finally reaching out a hand to his guests. “Miach Cecht, pleasure to meet you both finally” He said as he took each guest by the hand, vigorously and warmly shaking it. But in a fashion that was confusing and formal, as if he’d only read about such greetings in books but never actually performed one.
“Oh well we have met before, when we were very young” The princess said.
“Is that so? I must have forgotten, forgive me. It is truly an honor to be in your presence I must say” Miach furrowed his brow making that serious expression with his lips again. He then turned fresh faced to Ogma. “And of course I know who you are champion of the- oh you do look different, what has happened to your- Oh well I can see to that if you’d like?”
Ogma knew he was talking to the scars on his face and his ear missing and felt self conscious for a moment as it was addressed so bluntly. “No, I carry these scars as a reminder of my failings, to remove them would do me no good.”
Miach pursed his lips pretending he understood and contemplating it for a moment before turning to smile at the princess. “Well erm, I hope your journey was a pleasant one.”
“Well as a matter of fact-“ The princess said.
“We were attacked on the road by bandits” Ogma cut in.
“Oh how dreadful, bandit attacks have been getting worse recently. Whole villages starve due to Bres’ tax, some just take to the woods or the mountains and live as feral beasts. I can’t fathom what giving away your child must do to a person, and what hunger can drive someone to.” He pursed his lips losing himself in contemplation for a moment.
The silence stretched and Miach smiled again dropping his seriousness. “But of course that’s why you’re here- with your help we’ll be able to put an end to all this misery and have peace and harmony once again.” He smiled and nodded begging that they would agree with him.
But they said nothing, the princess Ernmas only smiling and nodding politely. Ogma breathing heavily with the strange package in his arms.
“Well, lets not waste any time, I’ll give you a quick tour and show you my lab and where you’ll be staying. Oh is that?-“
Ogma lifted the box and nodded “Yes, it is indeed”.
“Marvellous” Miach said reaching out a hand “May I?”
Ogma looked to Princess Ernmas first who nodded softly. Ogma then gently placed the box in Miach’s hands and stepped back.
Miach slowly opened the box to peer inside, his eyes widening as he looked inside. “Marvellous” he said finally, almost to himself, then shutting the box and walking to the door. “Well shall we crack on?”
Miach lead them down the stone staircase walking at a brisk pace due to the cold and his excitement, forgetting his cloak. He lead them through the now open battery inner portcullis. They made their way into a large completely closed courtyard that felt like it was underground. Then turning sharply he lead them through another large heavy door. It was much warmer on the other side and Miach walked slower and felt that he could speak as he lead them.
“This is the main battery, we have rooms prepared for you here. It’s only you here so you shouldn’t be disturbed, there are others but the castle is so large you may never run into them.”
“Others?” Ogma asked.
“Yes you might have heard that Brigit and her son left Bres sometime ago, they sought refuge here and I didn’t have the heart to turn them down.”
“I had heard something to that effect but I’d never have suspected they’d be here.”
“I assume that’s why she picked here.” Miach cleared his throat as he lead them through the hall. Ernmas craning her neck to see into the rooms which seemed tightly and richly furnished if a little still and lifeless.
Miach lead them down a series of mazelike hallways waffling as he went. “Now let’s get straight to the point now the niceties are out of the way.” He spoke plainly but did not turn to look, his followerss having to discern his expression from the back his head. “Your father was a great man, idolized by many, myself in included. After he lost his arm and stepped down from the throne there were some that sought to put him back there. Namely myself and of course my father. He and Bres never saw eye to eye. And that relationship strained even more after his mother sweet talked the council into putting him on the throne. My father wanted to construct a silver arm, a magical weapon of some sort. A symbol of power and strength, a loophole around our ancient laws. Of course you can see how well that went but nevertheless he would not allow me to attempt something different. I believed through my research I could regrow his arm so he would be truly perfect once more. But of course my father wouldn’t hear, so bound up in his old traditions. Happily hacking away at the corpses of the firbolg but never allowed to experiment on tuathan flesh, it’s total hypocrisy. What I proposed was a whole new order, new traditions, magic we’ve never seen before. But Alas it was not to be, until now.” He reached a spiral staircase at which point he turned to them. “Now I must warn my research has not as of yet yielded much fruit- but do not lose hope, for there is only but to try and never falter.”
“But in your letter you said you could help us“ Ernmas said.
“I can and I will, given your patience my lady.”
He led the travellers up the spiral staircase at an excited quick hop undoubtedly into the tower observatory he used as a lab. Carefully carrying the package under his arm.
As they reached the top a strange smell occurred to them, one which the princess could not identify but one that Ogma was sure he knew.
At the top of the stairs was an almost perfectly circular room that was in complete disarray. Books and tablets and dirty tools on almost every stone surface. The shelves were littered with equipment and ingredients for alchemical solutions. And there was a large tub of some unknown opaque liquid in the centre of the room.
Miach quickly crossed the room towards a wooden writing desk hastily clearing it of books and beakers and placing the box down on it.
“With this” He said as he opened the box. “We will be able to pull inish veil out of this dark age it has sunken into” Miach reached into the box and lifted out a glass receptacle of some sort.
He held it up admiring it as he would a trophy, for he held in his hand the preserved head of Nuada Airgetlám.
He held it up to the light, his expression wondrous and delighted as if seeing it for the first time and he whispered to himself one last time. “Marvelous”