CHAPTER 8 MALLAIDH
It had taken The Shadow two long years, but finally his destination was tantalisingly close.
The sinister castle was perched on a large, foreboding hill. It was bigger than any other castle he had seen, and exceptionally grand. Sheer cliffs surrounded it; the only entrance to the fortress was a steep stone walkway.
Even though he was still a great distance from the castle, he could clearly see it, its magnificence rising high into the skyline. His extensive journey had taken him over land and across oceans; his only companions had been his horse and a large black raven.
‘Yes, my friend, I can feel it too. She is watching us,’ said The Shadow as the black raven squawked from the pommel of the saddle. ‘We had better hurry. You know how much she hates to be kept waiting.’
As he approached the castle, he studied its black marble walls, and though he saw no guards, he knew they were there.
Finally, the castle’s gates were before him. They were made of solid gold and were very impressive. They were locked tight. Two large and particularly ugly bugbear guards stepped forward to intercept him.
The bugbears, although smaller than ogres, dwarfed the rider. These humanoids, unlike their kin found in the mountains of their home world, were clean. They wore fine matching silver armour and carried long spears in their bear-like clawed paws. Their skin was pale grey and was covered with a short layer of brown fur.
‘The master is waiting for you in her throne room,’ said one of the bugbears, its guttural tone only just understandable. ‘She has ordered me to take you to her.’
Without waiting for an answer, the bugbear turned and walked away.
The Shadow followed the creature. As they walked through the gates, he noticed the only visible inhabitants of the castle were bugbear warriors who were practising battle drills.
He smiled to himself, knowing there were far deadlier eyes watching his every move.
They eventually arrived at two gold-encrusted platinum doors, which were guarded by the largest bugbears of all. Without a word, each guard turned and opened a door, the sheer weight proving a challenge even to these strong beasts.
When the doors were at last opened, he stepped into the magnificent room. As always, the remarkable beauty of the woman struck him.
Her skin was so pale it was almost translucent. Sleek, long black hair, so dark it was almost blue, framed her face. On her head she wore an ice-blue diamond crown, the same colour as her eyes.
The throne she sat upon was also gold, encrusted with priceless gems. She wore a shimmering black gown, trimmed with snow-white fur that glistened against the gems.
’So Sgath has finally returned,’ she purred. She rose from her throne, gliding down the one marble step to stand before him. Her black gossamer wings became visible for the first time.
‘What news do you bring me?’
The Shadow fell to his knees before his true master: Mallaidh, queen of the duan fairies.
‘It has finally happened, master. The pixies have attacked your cousins.’
‘First things first – do the wingless ones remember my people?’
’I have studied their libraries and quizzed their scholars. Some believe that duan fairies once lived, but most believe they are a myth.’
‘Fools,’ spat the beautiful fairy. She composed herself and continued. ‘Tell me what happened between the wingless ones and the pixies.’
’The pixie king kidnapped the heir to the fairy throne and tried to force her to marry him so he could take control of the fairy kingdom.’
‘Imbecile!’ She threw her head back and laughed. ‘No fairy monarch – not even a worthless wingless one – can marry outside their race.’
‘It wouldn’t have mattered if they could; the princess was rescued by brownies from right under the pixie king’s nose. While this was happening, I was following a small but interesting group, sent by the fairy king to rescue his daughter.’
’Don’t play games with me, Sgath. Just tell me what you know.’
’There is still at least one fairy dragon in Connacht, and his name is Philproinnsias Tuatha De Danan.’
‘The fairy dragon king’s son?’
‘Was he sent by his father?’
‘I don’t think so. He left years ago, after he and his father fell out.’
’I’ll send someone to meet with the red fairy dragons to make sure the king deals with his errant son.’
‘The rest of the rescue party was made up by a handful of fairies and two giants,’ The Shadow continued.
’They look a lot like fairies but are at least three times their height. When I first saw them, the male was wearing emerald-green clothing and a green hat with a black band.’
‘Shoemakers?’ The queen was intrigued.
‘Shoemakers?’ asked The Shadow.
’Leprechauns. They came to our world a long time ago but did not settle; instead they passed quickly through portals to other worlds. It is interesting they have returned now. If there are only two of them, they can’t do much damage. What part did they play in the pixie–fairy war?’
‘I don’t know; I didn’t wait around to find out.’
’What?’ shouted Mallaidh, annoyed by his response.
’Whoever won, both sides will be weakened for years. There is something I haven’t told you yet. The fairy who led the rescue was a young female wizard of incredible power – far more powerful than anything I have ever seen in any pixie or wingless fairy.’ As he said this, he realised something about his master reminded him strongly of the young fairy wizard.
‘You fear her?’ said Mallaidh, her lips curling into a slight, but obviously mocking, smile.
‘I believe fear is too strong a word, but it is true that I wouldn’t like to stand against her, unless it was on my terms.’
The queen studied her spy intently. ‘Tell me everything you know about this wizard.’
’I don’t really know that much, but the second I saw her, I sensed her power. While they were making preparations for their mission, I subtly asked questions about her, and discovered that even though she is still only very young, most of those I spoke to believe she is already far more powerful than both her superiors put together.’ He paused, before adding, ‘I watched her teleport through a wall of force that had been formed by the pixies’ most powerful wizard.’
’No wingless fairy has the power to teleport. Are you sure that is what you saw, Sgath?’
‘I saw that and more. After a quick search of the area, the fairy thrust her hands into the wall, smashing the spell to tiny pieces. I’ve never seen anything like it before, master.’ He wanted to add, not even from a duan fairy, but wisely decided against it.
‘What is her name?’
‘Bring her to me!’
‘Bring the wizard to me,’ she said pointedly.
The Shadow wanted to say, are you insane? but knew better than to upset the queen of the lethal duan fairies. This woman could kill with a simple thought, so he composed himself, and asked, ‘How?’
’That is not my concern, Shadowman. All I want is for you to deliver the wizard to me – alive. Sgath, of all the Shadowmen, you are the most resourceful, so I’m sure you will think of something. I know you would never let me down.’
‘I won’t, your majesty.’ The Shadow had seen first-hand what happened to those who disappointed Mallaidh, and he was determined not to meet a similar fate.
‘Do you require anyone to accompany you?’
‘Only the bird and my horse. When do I depart?’
The duan fairy queen made a subtle gesture with her right hand, and The Shadow vanished. ’Vaayl, bring Macha and Mofebhis, and her four best warriors, to me.’
‘At once, your majesty,’ replied a duan fairy who had been standing unnoticed behind the queen’s throne.
As The Shadow had stood before his master, he saw the Dark Queen’s subtle hand movement and was overcome with dizziness so strong that it had force his eyes closed. Seconds later the dizziness passed, and he found himself standing in a small field next to his horse, the raven circling the sky above him.
He surveyed his surroundings, and when he was satisfied, he knew approximately where he was, he whistled to the raven. The bird circled once more then flew down, landing on his outstretched arm.
’Three months at most and we will reach Sarasidhe. You’d think if she could teleport us this far, she would’ve taken us the whole way, wouldn’t you?’
Mallaidh was sitting on her throne when six duan fairies entered the throne room.
‘You summoned us, mother?’ said a fairy dressed in black leather armour.
’Yes, Mofebhis, I did, but first I have an assignment for your sister.’
‘How can I serve you, mother?’ the second fairy asked.
’Macha, I want you to go to the king of the red fairy dragons and make sure he understands that when I said I wanted all of the dragons to withdraw from Sarasidhe, I meant all, including his wayward son. Tell him I will hold him personally responsible if his son interferes with my plans.’
’I will leave immediately, mother.’
‘Are you sure you can trust her with such an important mission?’ Mofebhis asked when her sister was well out of earshot.
‘Probably not,’ Mallaidh replied, but I have a far more important mission for you, Mofebhis. Sgath has returned. He has reported that the pixies and the wingless ones finally went to war.’
‘He didn’t wait around to find out.’
’He thought it was more important to tell me about a wingless wizard who possesses the power of a duan fairy.’
’You don’t think …?’
‘I don’t know,’ said the queen, cutting her daughter off mid-sentence and giving her a not in front of witnesses look. ‘That is why I’m sending you, and your guard, into the heart of the fairy kingdom.’
’Do we travel with The Shadowman?’
’No. He doesn’t know about your mission and I don’t want him to – not yet, anyway. You will be in Sarasidhe months before him. I want you to find out everything you can about this wizard. You’ll be well disguised, so it shouldn’t be too hard to make sure The Shadowman doesn’t discover your presence in the wingless-one’s city.’
The duan fairy queen rose gracefully from her throne and walked forward until she stood directly before Mofebhis. Mofebhis was not only her daughter, but also her most trusted aide, and the only living being alive who would dare question the Dark Queen.
From a well-concealed pocket in her gown, Mallaidh pulled out a small glass marble. ‘Do not lose this, my daughter, or we will have no way to communicate with each other.’ She handed the glass orb to Mofebhis. ‘Now, it’s time to do something about your appearance.’
The fairy queen placed her hand on her daughter’s shoulder and whispered something so softly that not even Mofebhis heard what she was saying. There was suddenly a blinding flash. Mofebhis’s appearance changed dramatically. The queen repeated the spell four more times, then stepped back to study her handiwork.
Mallaidh then tenderly placed her hands over those of her daughter. ‘Take care, my daughter. Return to me safely.’
Before Mofebhis could reply, she and her guards vanished at the hand of her mother’s spell.
The petite shepherdess sat on a grassy knoll, watching her flock of sheep in the tiny meadow below. A familiar figure carrying a wicker basket wandered across the meadow.
The shepherdess jumped to her feet and ran to meet the young stable hand. ‘I was beginning to think you weren’t coming,’ she said, throwing her arms around him in a loving embrace.
‘You know I’d never miss one of our picnics, Millie,’ he replied, hugging her tightly. ‘I’m only late because your father made me finish fixing the barn door before he let me have lunch.’
‘What’s in the basket, Eamon?’
‘Goat’s cheese, some of your mother’s walnut bread, dried fruit, a small bottle of fruit nectar, and all that was left of the roast chicken your family had for supper last night.’
Millie squeezed Eamon’s hand as she took the picnic basket. They walked hand in hand to their special place beneath the single oak tree at the top of the hill. The two sweethearts were enjoying their lunch when five strangers suddenly materialised before them.
‘Wizards,’ gasped Eamon.
Millie felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up with excitement. ‘It must be the wizard Niamh,’ she whispered. ‘No other fairy wizard can do that, can they, Eamon?’
‘I don’t know,’ he replied, shrugging his shoulders. He had never taken any notice of anything that happened outside his small part of the world.
One of the wizards stepped forward. ‘How far is it to the city?’
‘Twenty miles to the south,’ answered Millie, slightly confused. She knew Niamh would have known where the city was. Who are these strangers, she wondered.
The wizard nodded to two of her companions.
‘Who are you?’ Millie asked, suddenly frightened.
‘Travellers from a distant shore,’ Mofebhis answered.
Millie was about to ask which shore, when she was grabbed from behind. A strange-smelling cloth was placed over her nose and mouth. The last words she ever heard were Mofebhis saying, ‘Make sure it looks like an accident.’
Millie’s dead body was heartlessly discarded next to that of Eamon, whose neck had been snapped like a twig.
No longer concerned about the fairies, Mofebhis took the small glass orb her mother had given her and placed it in the palm of her right hand. She watched as it grew to the size of a small watermelon. As soon as it stopped growing, her mother’s face appeared inside the glass ball.
‘We have arrived, mother, in the wingless-ones’ kingdom, and will reach their city late tomorrow.’
She heard her mother’s voice inside her head. ‘Were there any witnesses to your arrival?’