The Sword of Paracelsus: Traveling Companions, Part 1

Sidhe Map 001

At first light they rose, breakfasted, and struck camp. Using the skills she had learned among the Fir Bolg, Eny swiftly smoothed, tucked, tied, and refolded the yards of flapping leather until the tent was a small bolg once more. Then she refilled the wondrous satchel with gear and supplies, last of all stowing her sling, her sack of stones, her fiddle, and the shadowy Feth Fiada. Then, hitching the bag to her belt, she followed Brighid down the rocky slope.

Ahead of them and just above the western horizon glimmered the crescent moon, pale and moist behind a veil of melting mist. Behind them and to their right stretched the eaves of the Hill Forest. In the distance, beyond the waving yellow grasses of the plain, Eny could see the early sunlight running like flame across a rippled sheet of liquid silver and blue.

“Is that a river?” she wanted to know.

“An arm of the sea,” answered Brighid. “The Firth of Eochaill. It juts up into the plain of Tuiread from the curving headland of the same name in the north. If we follow it we should come by nightfall to a small patch of woodland atop a gentle rise overlooking the ocean. It’s a lonely place, unlikely to be frequented by Fomor or Fir Bolg.”

As they drew nearer to the water Eny could make out the cries of sea-birds. Squinting against the glare of the sun she saw flocks of gulls wheeling in the rainbow-spattered air—gulls similar in shape to those she had known in Santa Piedra, only bigger and with feathers of glittering purple and green. In amongst the gulls dipped and soared great silver herons, blue-green cranes, and yellow cormorants, their long, graceful necks ringed with glittering gold, their broad wings skimming the tips of the laughing waves as they flew.

“Those big birds!” exclaimed Eny, pointing at the cranes and herons, her scalp tingling with a sudden twinge of alarm. “I’ve seen birds like that twice before. Once in the Sidhe and once in my own world—Only they weren’t really birds at all. They were Fomorians. Do you think these are safe?”

Brighid shaded her eyes and studied the darting and diving waterfowl. “I don’t suppose they are anything more than what they seem,” she said thoughtfully. “But you are right. It is broad daylight. We ought to go veiled.”

With that, she produced her own invisible cloak from the folds of her gown. Casting it over her head, she instantly vanished from sight.

“How do we stay together,” said Eny, “if we can’t see each other?” But the moment she donned her own Feth Fiada, she discovered that she was able to see Brighid again, only in a shadowy, ghostly form. The rest of the world, however, looked sharper and brighter than ever.

Above the beach they hit a rough, stony path and followed it northward. Huge green rocks rose up in broken and serried ranks along the sandy bank. Down below, in the middle of the firth, stood three sharp, steep piles of stone, white as snow and teeming with braying seals and squawking birds. A salty breeze came up, tossing the hems of their cloaks about their ankles as they walked. Eny wondered if watching eyes might be able to see their feet.

On and on they trudged, one hour, then two, while the sun sailed higher and higher, hiding from time to time behind scattered shreds of ruddy cloud. At length it grew so hot that Eny was compelled to throw off her Feth Fiada long enough to shed the woolen jacket she had put on in the cold dawn.

It could not have been more than a minute later that Brighid touched her arm. “Look up,” she said. “Do you see?”

Eny gazed up into the searing blue dome of the sky. High in the upper air, directly above them, wheeling in slow, lazy circles like a patient, hungry hawk, soared a great black bird.

“Do you think it saw me?” whispered Eny. “Is it dangerous?”

“I cannot say,” Brighid answered. “But I do not believe we will be in any great peril as long as we remain covered.”

But the next time Eny looked up there were two black birds circling overhead. And not long after that there were three.

At noon they came to a place where a chattering brook cut across their path and fell in a silvery cascade over the edge of a low cliff before emptying into the firth. There, in a fragrant earthy dell between cliff and stream, grew a low-spreading tree of a kind Eny had never seen. Those of its leaves that still clung to their stems—and there were many—were of a deep scarlet color. But those that had fallen to the ground glittered like piles of gold coins around the thick, twisted roots. Here on this rich carpet under a canopy of shifting red they stopped to rest and take their midday meal.

When they stepped out on the road again there were five great birds in the sky.

“What does it mean?” said Eny. “Are they following us?”

“It is odd,” said Brighid. “I have never heard of any creature that could see through the Feth Fiada. But perhaps we should get off the high road and walk in the shadows beneath the bluff. The Fomor may be stupid, but they have many powers and abilities—some granted to them by the Morrigu. It would be best to take every possible precaution.”

So they left the path and slid down the steep embankment amid a skittering landslide of pebbles and sand. Upon reaching the bottom they glanced up and saw eight black birds soaring overhead.

(To be continued …)

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