The Sword of Paracelsus: The Washer at the Ford, Part 3

Sidhe Map 001

The lower slopes were thickly covered with pine.  This suited Eny’s purposes precisely, for there was no doubt in her mind that Ollamh Folla and the Danaans would raise a search as soon as they found her missing.  How long it might be before they made that discovery she couldn’t tell.  But she was encouraged to think that the confusion in the Tellach was working to her advantage.

Eny had, of course, covered this stretch of ground once before, during her first visit to the Sidhe.  But she had been under enchantment and delirious with fever at the time, and so had no memory of the terrain this side of the steep pass of Na Cupla.  To make matters worse, the night was exceptionally dark.  Once among the trees she lost even the faint illumination of the stars.  She was traveling blind in the truest sense, with nothing to guide her but instinct and the gift of Second Sight.

Fortunately, both told her that she was headed the right way—due north.  She had made up her mind to go in this direction because she felt sure no one would expect it.  They would be far more likely to seek her to the south, she thought, in the caves above the ruins of Semeon’s Dun—or in the east, perhaps, where the bare red rocks of Tory Island and the black spire of the Morrigu’s tower rose stark above the waters of the strait of Camas Morraigu.  Setting her jaw and gritting her teeth, she trudged straight up the hillside, groping her way from branch to branch and bole to bole.

Long into the night she climbed, pausing from time to time as dim pricks of light, like the glint of amber eyes, or strangely fleeting threads of glimmering blue, like the tails of will-o’-the-wisps, went flitting among the trees or darted out at her from between the frosty pines.  Often she was aware of the softness of large moth-wings fluttering against her cheek.  Once she saw what looked like a pair of glowing red antlers go floating past her in the dark.  On another occasion she felt something sleek and furry brush against her leg.

After a while the rough pines gave way to what felt like smooth-skinned birches, all of them bare-limbed, their leaves having dropped to the ground in a rich and fragrant blanket.  As in Hollywood and Santa Piedra, it was autumn in the Sidhe—something Eny had not anticipated.

When she felt she could go no further she sat down under a tree to rest.  Though her sense of direction was still strong she had lost all track of time and had no idea how long she’d been traveling.  It seemed to her that a faint gray light, barely perceptible as yet, was filtering down through the tangled canopy of twigs above her head.  Trembling with exhaustion, she leaned back against the tree and shut her eyes.

When she awoke, broad daylight was exploding through the naked white branches in a profusion of glittering splinters and sparks.  Good, thought Eny, noting that the light was pouring in from the left.  She was indeed still facing north.  Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she undid the flap of her bolg andtook out an oatcake.  Then, pulling herself up by a tree branch, she set out again munching her breakfast as she went.  I’ve wasted enough time sleeping, she said to herself.  There simply isn’t a moment to lose.

By noon she stood in the shadow of the Twins, two rocky spires that rose up from a sharp ridge overhanging a tilted expanse of bronze tundra.  Gone were the tiny white blossoms that had covered these high slopes during her first visit to the mountains.  The long green grass had faded to purple and brown, and though the sun shone bravely, the bright air was sharp with the expectation of approaching winter storms.  Eny followed the narrow white road, which threaded its way between the two peaks, passed over the roof of Benn Mellain, and then wound its way down the other side through lofty redwood groves and ferny dells.

On and on she trekked, over rocks and roots and clumps of withered columbine and honeysuckle, past scattered dogwood and liquid amber trees luminous with leaves of flaming scarlet, down cathedral aisles overshadowed by the deeply fluted columns of towering redwoods.  All through the afternoon she pushed ahead, coming at length to the thickets of white-stemmed aspens that occupied the lower ranges of Benn Mellain’s northern slope, many of them still clothed in robes of rippling gold.

The sun was dipping low over a range of hills far to the west when at last she broke out from beneath the eaves of the forest and looked out across a yellow plain traversed by a winding thread of shimmering red-gold.  This was Mag Tuiread and the brook of Inber Duglaise, where once she had put the Fomorians to flight with a sling and a stone.

It’ll be dark soon, said Eny to herself, and it probably isn’t a good idea to spend the night in the open field.  Maybe I’ll camp here under the trees.

But even as the thought passed through her mind, while she was still gazing out over the flat terrain to the north, it seemed to her that she saw a figure standing beside the meandering stream.  Squinting against the glare, she looked again; and as she did, a vivid scene flashed across her memory.  The Fir Bolg running ahead of her.  Giants thundering after her.  Pebbles glistening in the shallows.  A sheen of enchantment descending through the air.  And in the midst of it all, a woman in a blue cloak washing a pile of rags in the clear purling water.

“It’s her!” breathed Eny.  “The Washer at the Ford!”

Those words brought another flood of images crowding into her mind—not only of her own nightmarish experience in this very place, but of her mother’s many stories about that dark, mysterious person, that weird, uncanny harbinger of doom.

“It’s the Morrigu herself in another form!”

Instantly she took off running.  Down the scrubby slope she plunged, the woods behind her, the level plain before her, the slanting rays of the setting sun throwing her long rippling shadow far out across the rustling brown stubble.  Faster and faster she ran.  As she drew nearer the bent figure dropped a bundle of rags in the water and straightened up.  At the sound of her approach it turned and peered sharply at her from under the brim of a large, floppy hat.

“It’s me!” Eny cried breathlessly.  “I got your message!  I’ve come of my own free will!  Go ahead and take me!  Do whatever you want with me!  I don’t care anymore!  Just let my friend’s father go!”

Sunset 001


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