“I took one small step, then another. My feet didn’t stumble or bump into anything, so I kept going. I stretched out my left hand and felt nothing but air. I reached out with my right hand and touched something rough and solid. ‘That’s good,’ I thought. ‘If I stay close to the wall, it will guide me.’ So, running my fingers along that cold, stony surface, I pushed ahead slowly, taking one hesitant step at a time.
“After a while, I came to a place where I stepped off a short ledge and lost my balance. Luckily, I fell sideways against the wall—otherwise I would have pitched forward and tumbled down a long flight of stairs in the darkness. Far, far away, about a mile below me—at least that’s how it appeared—was a faint pinpoint of light. Keeping my right hand braced against the wall, I began to descend the stairs, inching my way closer and closer to that tiny dim star in the distance.
“Down, down I went, lower and lower, deeper and deeper. And all the while the point of light kept growing. Soon it got so big that it looked more like a hole than a pinpoint, and then the light shining through it grew brighter and began to glimmer along the rough surface of the rock.
“By the time I reached the bottom, I could see that I was inside a large, narrow cavern with a high ceiling and steep dripping walls. Straight in front of me was an oval-shaped opening with broad daylight beyond. I jumped down off the last stair and stepped outside.
“I was standing half in water, half in damp sand at the top of a wide strip of pebble-strewn beach. The air was pungent with the smell of sea salt. Behind me was a tall cliff of weathered brown stone, riddled with holes and grottos. The whole place looked so much like the western shore of La Punta Lira that I thought I was in Santa Piedra.
“‘I’m home!’ I laughed as I went skipping down towards the water’s edge. ‘Eochy has sent me home!’ But I hadn’t gone far before I began to notice that something was terribly wrong.
“As I went along, I realized that the pebbles on the ground didn’t glitter and shine in the sunlight the way I thought they should. They were all dull and dingy and gray; and when I bent down to touch one of them, my fingers came away black with soot. It was like there had been a huge fire, or maybe an explosion of some kind, along that stretch of the shore. I looked up and down the beach, trying to figure out what it meant.
“That’s when it hit me that I wasn’t in Santa Piedra at all. Out beyond the surf I could see a big hump of rock sticking up out of the ocean. You know as well as I do that there isn’t any rock like that off the coast of La Punta Lira. It only took me a moment to realize what I was looking at: Rachra, the island that stands about a mile out to sea off the strand of Luimneach. I was in the Sidhe again.
“I turned back up the beach, rounded the foot of the cliff, and trudged inland over the blackened stones. I walked in what I thought was the direction of Semeon’s Dun, the village where I had once lived with Rury and Liber and Anust. But there was no sign of my friends. Everywhere I looked the land was desolate. Every inch of ground was trampled and torn and charred. The farther I went, the stronger grew my conviction that something horrible had happened to the Fir Bolg.
“My head was dizzy and I had a nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach by the time I reached the spot where the dun used to stand. There was nothing there—just a huge pit filled with slag and black clods and lumps of rock and charcoal. The hills all around were scorched and bare. The green meadows had been reduced to a crackling gray stubble. In place of the sweet fruit orchards and fragrant pine forests where Anust and I used to walk in the afternoons stood endless columns of blackened sticks, bare against the sky. I covered my face and turned away.
“Without knowing where I was going or why, I headed into the foothills of Benn Mellain, up towards the place where the stream of Inber Colpa flows through an upland valley just below the highest heights. On every side the parched and shriveled highlands were covered with the bloated and stinking corpses of half-burnt sheep and goats. All the folds and sheepcotes of the Fir Bolg herdsmen were gone, their huts burnt to the ground, their hedges and drystone walls demolished. Every last vestige of their way of life had been scoured from the face of the land. I was crying by the time I came among the shadows of the steep dells and rocky clefts of the mountains. That’s when I heard it again …”
(To be continued …)