The Sword of Paracelsus: The Ultimatum, Part Three

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“Pardon, King,” said the sentry, bowing his head.  “An emissary stands at the door craving a hearing.”

“What emissary?” asked Ollamh.  Morgan could see that, for all his poise and grace, the King was not quite sure what to make of this unexpected interruption.

“From the enemy.  Bearing a token of truce.  She claims protection.  She also insists that she must not be kept waiting.”

“She?” said Ollamh, raising an eyebrow.

Morgan turned and looked at Eny.  Eny looked back, and he knew that her idea was the same as his own.  Surely this she could not be the Morrigu herself?  Surely she would not be so bold as to walk straight into the Danaan fortress?

Forgetful of the unshakeable optimism that had so lately swelled his brain, Morgan suddenly found himself trembling like a dry leaf.  He was afraid for Eny—afraid of what might follow if the enchantress should somehow snatch her away.  But he was also thinking of himself—wondering what he would say if this were his one and only chance to confront the woman with a demand for his father’s release.

“Yes,” he heard the guard say.  “The messenger is a she; though—if I may speak freely—hardly recognizable as such.”

The King nodded.  “Send her in.”

The sentry withdrew; and before Morgan and Eny had a chance to exchange so much as one hastily whispered word, they saw a small, dark, misshapen figure appear in the wide doorway at the further end of the Tellach.  Slowly this shadowy shape advanced through the confused buzz and hum that went up from the benches as it passed by, drawing ever nearer to the platform where Ollamh stood waiting with crossed arms.

As it came into view, they saw clearly that it must be of a race or kindred closely related to that of the Fir Bolg:  a dwarfish creature with bandy legs and a large head that wobbled from side to side as it walked.  In its spidery hands it carried a drooping lily, the symbol of truce.  Its long black gown, which seemed woven of raven-feathers, trailed behind it in a ragged train.  Its unruly hair spilled out from under a shapeless red cap like a mass of frizzled and knotted black wool.  Its appearance was altogether uncouth, uncanny, and repulsive.  But when the face came into view Morgan caught his breath and Eny jumped as if stung by a wasp.  Never in their lives had they seen anything half so ugly.

The eyes were two dark hollows overshadowed by bushy black brows.  At the center of each was spark that glowed like a distant star through a pestilent green mist.  The forehead was low and broad and almost completely overgrown by the encroaching black roots of the hair.  The nose was bulbous and irregular, the cheek-bones protuberant, the mouth unnaturally wide, the lower lip thick and pendulous.  Most disturbing of all were two long teeth that protruded upward over the thin upper lip like the fangs of a serpent.

As the she-thing moved forward, sweeping the crowd with a chilling glance, Morgan saw Rury bend and hiss something into the ear of his shrinking wife:  “Cundri.”  At the sound of that name, the other Fir Bolg shook their heads and curled their lips in disgust.  Sengann spat on the floor.

“A message I bring, Ollamh Folla,” said Cundri when at last she stood facing the King.

Ollamh nodded, eyeing her grimly.

“A message from the Queen it is,” the emissary continued.

The King said nothing.

“To the boy she would have me bring it.”

An audible gasp went up from the assembly.  Every head turned.  Every eye fixed itself upon Morgan’s face.  He felt the blood rush up his neck and into his cheeks.  Out of the corner of his eye he saw Baxter slip from his chair and duck underneath the table.

“Speak,” prompted Ollamh Folla, his brow darkening.

“To the boy, then,” Cundri proceeded, regarding Morgan with a toothy grin.  “A greeting from his Mistress.  She knows that he is here, and she bids me speak this word in his ear:  ‘I have your father.  Bring me the girl if you wish to see him alive.’”

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