Webcomics and Stories
Heroic & Dark Fantasy and Science Fiction Character created by Kevin L. O'Brien
Word count: 5,890
This high fantasy / sword and sorcery short story was originally written for submission to Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress anthology series, but it was not accepted. It takes place in the Dreamlands in the city of Ulthar.
The clearing in the grove of the garden surrounding the Temple of the Great Ones in the city of Ulthar was a familiar sight to the massive woman. A baker's dozen of smooth and polished marble pillars sat in a semi-circle just off-center; on top of each lay a cat, while within the concavity lounged a mob representing every known breed, including various mixed breeds. As soon as she entered the assembly, a male, apple-headed, sable-point Siamese stepped forward from the pillars and cried, "Medb hErenn! You have been summoned before the Council of Elders for Her Most Serene Feline Majesty, the High Queen of All Cats Great and Small. Approach so that you may be interrogated." He spoke in the Sacred Tongue, which his people used for religious and civil ceremonies, but Medb had been initiated in the Central Mysteries of Bast long ago, and knew the language very well.
The former queen made her way through the mob without protest. She had in fact been invited to render the Council a service, for which she would receive a handsome reward. She knew that the Herald's words were euphemisms meant to maintain an air of feline superiority over mere humans such as herself.
Twelve of the pillars were only three feet high, and on these rested the members of the Council. Medb stepped up to the leader, a huge, scarred, gray and blue tabby tom, with ragged ears and one missing eye. He rose to a sitting position as she came near.
She gave him a polite nod and asked in the Tongue, "How may I serve this Council?"
His reply went straight to the point: "We need you to raise a spirit."
She narrowed her cold, emerald-green eyes. "To what purpose, Cúcath?"
"It has information that we need."
Medb turned her head towards the last pillar on her right. It was twice the height of the others, and on it, sitting in a pose identical to that of an Egyptian statue, was a sleek, cream-furred, female cat with tan points. Medb was tall enough to look directly into her golden eyes, which stared back at her with a look of majestic calm. "What sort of information?"
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The Queen spoke in a low, sultry voice. "That will be revealed when you have called it up before us."
Medb turned to face her. "You know as well as I do, it is extremely dangerous to call up a spirit ill-prepared and for no good purpose."
"You have the knowledge to accomplish it, and the power to protect yourself. And we shall aid you as necessary."
"Very well," Medb acquiesced, "where is the grave?"
"There is no grave; this is not a human spirit."
"Then what is it?"
"The banshee Croidhedubh."
Shocked, Medb flinched as she exclaimed without thinking, "You must be mad."
Neither the cat queen's expression nor her posture changed, but the assembled mob erupted into squalls and yowls of indignant protest, joined by a few council members. It wasn't until the Herald called out, "Let there be silence!" that the tumult stilled.
"You may well be correct," the Queen conceded, "but if so it is a madness born of desperation."
"It would have to be," Medb agreed, "to take such a gamble."
"We understand the risk."
"I doubt that."
"Then let us say that we are willing to take the risk, however much we have misjudged it."
"But I am not."
The Cat Queen cocked her head to one side. "So, you defy our command?"
Medb responded with a tight smile. "You forget, Selgach Mór, the bansidh is not a spirit of the dead. It is one of the Daoine Sídhe, masquerading as a ghost."
"On the contrary," the cat replied with an edge to her voice, "the day I forget anything is the day I return to the Great Mother."
"My point is, I refuse as much for your safety as for my own. To summon one of the Daoine Sídhe against its will is to court disaster."
"And my 'point', O Daughter of Cruacha, is that you have no choice."
Medb sneered. "Are you threatening me?"
"Yes," the queen replied with perfect calm, "I am: you will raise Croidhedubh before this assembly, or you will not leave this clearing alive."
Alarmed, Medb took an involuntary step back. The Queen had never threatened her before, and while she had no doubt she could escape with her life, she also knew that the mob would do her considerable harm before she could get free, and that she would have to kill a considerable number to do it. That would make her a fugitive, forever on the run, fearful of feline justice, with no place to hide.
Still, Medb's first thought was defiance, and she would have spoken out so if Cúcath had not spoken first. "It is the advice of this Council, that should the woman Medb be reluctant to render us this service, the nature of the emergency should be explained to her, so that we may gain her enthusiastic cooperation."
Without taking her eyes off Medb, the Queen said, "Very well, I shall heed the advice of my Council. You are familiar with the machinations of the Fomorians."
It wasn't a question, so Medb held her tongue. She wanted to make some suitable sarcastic remark, but she decided it wouldn't be prudent under the circumstances.
"They once ruled the Waking World," the cat went on, "but now they are scattered, their numbers greatly diminished, and in hiding, fearful of being discovered by humans."
Again Medb said nothing. These facts were already familiar to her, having played a significant role in breaking their power. Also, she recognized that the Queen was being pedantic.
"In this they share common cause with the Fairy Host, who also once ruled the Waking World long before the Fomorians, and are also in hiding, fearful of human intrusion."
This Medb also knew. She wished the cat would come to the point.
"In the past, their mutually exclusive goals kept them apart, sometimes at war with each other, mostly just ignoring one another. Recently, however, we have received intelligence that Elatha, the leader of the Fomorians in the Lands of the Dreams of Men, is seeking an alliance with the Fairies. He has offered to allow them to claim the Waking World for themselves, if they help him and his brethren take over the Dreamlands. In this way, the two races may both achieve their ends without either discommoding the other."
"Damnaigh!" Medb felt her blood chill. "I understand," she said in a soft voice. Then, louder: "But why take the risk of raising Croidhedubh?"
"Among the Fomorians, only Elatha and his son, Bres, know the full details, but we have not the time to travel to Hazuth-kleg and seize one of them. Therefore, we must consult the Fairy Host."
"Perhaps, but the bansidh is unlikely to know anything important either."
"True, but through her we may be able to extract what we need from those who do."
Medb shook her head, her long, straight, loose gold-tinged bronze hair waving like a flag behind her back. "The Sídhe are not a . . . damnaigh, I forget the word."
"Hive-mind," the Queen replied. "No, they are not, but their mutual telepathic link will allow us to search the minds of the leaders through her."
"I cannot do that."
"I can. All we need you to do is summon Croidhedubh to our presence and hold her; we will do the rest."
Medb looked around the clearing, at the mob, the council members, the herald, and finally Cúcath. In the light of the full moon, their eyes shown with eerie green or red glows, and she saw determination in their taut bodies and alert faces. She recognized that they were going to do this, with or without her help. She also realized that they stood a better chance with her cooperation.
Turning back to the Queen, she said, "Very well, I will do as you request." With her words, a deep, throbbing murmur filled the air as every cat began to purr. It sounded to Medb like a great sigh of relief.
However: "I cannot guarantee success. I have only a small chance of binding her, and I must first find her and force her to come through the gate I will open, which will be difficult. The best way to do so is to attract her attention; then I may be able seize her after she appears, but she will be forewarned, and thus forearmed."
"We understand. How long will it take you to prepare?"
"Only a few minutes, and I can open the gate as quickly, but I cannot predict when or even if Croidhedubh will come, and the longer I leave the gate open, the greater the chance something else will come through instead."
"We appreciate your concern; please proceed."
Medb looked around the clearing. "I would need to work in the center; could you have the mob form a circle around me?"
"As it has been spoken," Cúcath announced, "so let it be done!"
The Herald stepped forward and called out, "Form a circle!"
The mob dispersed, then surrounded the massive woman as she move into the center. Removing her foot-long, heavy-bladed, double-edged dirk from her black leather belt, she thrust it into the ground and stepped three paces from the center to draw a circle on the bare ground with her cloth-yard-long, leaf-shaped sword. She retrieved her knife, then stepped out of the circle to stand with her back to the marble pillars, so that the Council and the Queen could face the banshee. She drove the sword point first into the earth and stuck the dirk back into her belt, before stepping out of her shoes and pulling the hem of her smooth, long-sleeved, gown up to mid-calf, stuffing the folds in her belt to hold it in place. She rubbed her hands together in an idle manner as she looked around to make sure the circle of cats was unbroken, before clasping her hands, closing her eyes, and commencing to take deep, rhythmic breaths.
She concentrated on a mental image of Croidhedubh, using it to focus her will. She began chanting under her breath, keeping the sound just above a whisper. She matched the rhythm of her speech with that of her breathing, then pushed her consciousness out into the circle as she sought the resonance of the Otherworld. It wasn't hard to locate; she was acquainted with its feel, having spent seven years there, a prisoner of the Sídhe. Once she had it, she focused her mind on it and matched the rhythm of her chant to it. Then she unclasped her hands and spread her arm wide apart.
The air above the center shimmered, as if from heat rising out of the ground, as the fabric of space between the two universes stretched and grew thin. She felt her body pull energy out of the earth to meet the demands of piercing the dimensional barrier and she directed it into the circle, using the ring of cats to contain and concentrate it. The sound of the chant began to come out of the very air itself, soft at first, but growing louder, and the shimmer intensified with it. Then without warning, with the crash of a huge wave breaking against the shore, it tore in half and spread open, to reveal a lush, twilit garden, that appeared bright against the backdrop of night in the council clearing.
The chanting stopped. In a strained voice, Medb said, "The gate is open." She felt as if she was holding a great weight she dare not drop.
Cúcath said to the Herald in a hushed voice, "Have the Legion stand by; I will signal if they are needed." The Siamese flicked its ears in acknowledgement and dashed off out of the clearing.
Sweat beaded Medb's face as she again concentrated on the banshee. "I will now attempt to summon Croidhedubh." She pushed her consciousness through the gate into the Otherworld, then pursed her lips and began to blow. A thin but sharp whistle filled the clearing, its reedy, monotonous tone clear and unmistakable. Medb directed it out into the Otherworld, where it pierced the stillness for many leagues.
She kept it up for over a half-hour, now and then pausing just long enough to take a deep breath. Finally, at an unexpected moment, she cut herself off. She cocked her head, as if listening to something. "She is coming. Be ready, we will have only one chance." All the cats present tensed, as if ready to spring.
Through the gate, Medb spotted a small, faint, silverish glow, that grew larger and brighter the closer it approached. Soon it resolved itself into a figure, which became more distinct the larger it became. By the time it had reached the gate, she could see it was a beautiful young girl, surrounded by a thin mist that was the source of the radiance. Her body was clothed in a delicate, translucent shift of light gray, her skin was as white as milk, and her eyes were bright silver orbs without discernable pupils. In sharp contrast, her hair was as black as a raven's wing. She floated rather than walked, and her tresses hovered in long, snakelike locks around her head as the hem and folds of her dress swirled about her legs.
Croidhedubh came right up to the gate and paused as she looked out into the clearing. Her eyes focused on Medb and she glowered at the massive woman. Medb hoped the fay would recognize her. Luring her to the gate was not the hard part. The real trick was enticing her to come through, and simple annoyance would not be enough. So the former queen used herself as bait, hoping the banshee would remember their first meeting and seek retribution.
Croidhedubh float through the rip and bore down on Medb, a look of ferocious delight on her face. When she emerged completely, however, she saw the cats for the first time. She stopped dead, glaring at the assembly of felines as her features twisted in rage. Then she opened her mouth and began to scream.
The sound went through Medb's head like a white-hot iron rod. The pain was so intense she couldn't think. Around her the cats cried out in agony. The circle wavered and the gate began to weaken.
"Hold fast!" she heard Cúcath yowl. "Do not break!" Somehow, the cats found the strength to resist and the circle stabilized.
Then the Queen sounded a long, mournful, drawn-out moan, but not from pain. As soon as she heard it, Medb found she could think again. The sound could not drown out the banshee's shriek, but it did mask it to some extent.
Focusing on Croidhedubh, Medb shouted, "Sétim!" and a bright disc of light slammed into the fairy woman, stunning her. It briefly cut off her squall, but she threw it off and started wailing again. Medb drew additional energy from the earth and shouted the word again. This time the banshee was knocked senseless. She blinked and shook her head, then snarled as she opened her mouth to shriek anew.
Before she could, Medb cried, "Ciúnas!" The banshee exhaled, but no sound came forth. Her eyes wide with shock, she clasped her throat, but try as she may she could not force any noise from her throat.
Medb wasted no time. She slammed her palms together and tried to clasp her hands, but they rebounded as if encountering something too strong to grasp. She tried again, and still her hands flew apart when they came too close. Sparing a moment to siphon off more energy, she tried one last time. When her hands came to together, he fingers gripped each other and held firm, but she could feel as if something she held between her palms struggled to get free. Meanwhile, the banshee reacted as if she had been caught within a giant's grasp, flailing her limbs and thrashing her body as she sought to break the grip.
"I have her!" Medb shouted over her shoulder to the Queen. "I do not know how long I can hold her; work quickly."
Selgach Mór stared at the fay, and her eyes glowed with a bright golden light. Croidhedubh's head became surrounded by a golden halo; she convulsed for a moment, shuddered, then went stiff as if paralyzed, her own eyes staring back into the cat's. Medb took advantage of the lull to tighten her grip, but she could still feel a powerful force trying to push her hands apart.
The tableau held for what to Medb seemed like an eternity, as she strained to both hold the gate open and restrain Croidhedubh. Even with her prodigious strength she could only just manage it, and her preternatural endurance was nearing exhaustion. In fact, after only a few minutes the Queen announced, "I have made a connection. I can see the thoughts of the Lords of the Host. One mind is particularly clear. He has the knowledge we seek. I shall try to extract it."
As the Queen spoke, Medb became aware of another being on the other side of the gate. Its presence grew stronger each second, indicating it was coming closer. "Do so quickly," she said, "something else is approaching."
Selgach Mór moaned in frustration. "I do not understand. His mind is open to me, but I cannot discern the information. It is as if he is keeping it just out of reach without trying to hide it."
A jolt ran down Medb's spine as panic seized her. "It is a trick; break the connection!"
"No, I can almost grasp it —"
"Do as I say! This is a trap!"
Before the Queen could react, however, a new figure stepped through the gate. He was a tall grand man with a powerful build, dressed all in black. He had a silver beard and hair, which framed a middle-aged face wearing a grave countenance accentuated by two black eyes.
"Finn Bheara!" Medb gasped. "Go gcaomhnaí na naoimh sinn!"
The fairy lord looked at her and gave her a grim smile. Then he reached out and took hold of Croidhedubh by the arms. A violent spasm rocked her body, as her back arched and her head was thrown back. The golden halo burst into a shower of sparks, and Selgach Mór was thrown off the pillar. In the same instant, Medb's hands were ripped apart and she was hurled backwards off her feet. She landed prone, then rolled over onto her stomach.
"Break the circle!" she shouted.
"Scatter!" Cúcath commanded, and the circle disintegrated as the cats ran for the safety of the surrounding grove. The energy holding the gate open dissipated and the shimmering curtain of air tried to close, but when it encountered the fairy lord it stopped as if being help bodily apart.
Medb leapt to her feet, snatched up her sword, and pulled the dirk from her belt, but she knew fighting Finn Bheara directly was futile. Instead, she ran around behind the pillars to find the Queen. The cat had been tossed a good six feet from her pedestal, but she was on her feet, staggering a bit yet apparently unharmed.
"Are you all right?" Medb asked.
Selgach Mór shook her head in the way of cats trying to dislodge a foreign body, moving so fast that even Medb saw only a furry blur. Then she looked up and replied, "I will be fine. Do not wait for me."
Medb nodded and hurried back inside the arc of pillars. The Council members had remained along with their Herald, observing Finn Bheara's actions. Medb was surprised to find he was still there rather than having taken Croidhedubh back into the Otherworld; in fact, he had moved some distance away from the gate. Even as she pondered how to confront him, his reason for staying became evident: a spot of blinding-bright light appeared where Croidhedubh's navel would have been, and began to slowly expand into a disc.
"Damnaigh," she gulped. Then a smoky-gray tentacle leisurely poked through the disc and began waving about, as if the being on the other side were probing to see what it could find.
Medb's blood froze as her skin prickled and her mind went numb. She recognized it at once. "Anam naofa bheith ionam!" she muttered.
With a sound like heavy cloth being ripped apart, the disc was pushed open as a half-dozen more tentacles forced their way through. They thrashed around like angry snakes looking for targets to strike at, and they drew closer to the Council members.
Snapping out of her hysterical paralysis, Medb turning to Cúcath and screamed, "Run for your lives!"
"Evacuate!" the huge tabby cried, and the cats scrambled off the pillars under the flailing tentacles. One lashed out and caught the Herald as he ran between the pedestals. He thrashed wildly about at first, howling and spitting in rage, but then he went limp as if all his energy had been drained away. Cúcath leapt up and caught the tentacle with his forepaws; he then proceeded to bite savagely as he raked with his back claws. Medb ran over and, swinging her slashing sword, severed the tentacle just above the old tom's head. It vanished in a puff of gray, foul-smelling mist as the two cats fell to the ground. Cúcath sprinted away and Medb scooped up the Herald, fending off more tentacles with her sword. One caught her by one of the two waist-long braids on either side of her head, and she felt it siphoning off her life energy. She severed the tentacle with a single swipe and raced after the scarred tabby. They both retreated behind the Queen's pillar, where Medb stopped and leaned against it as she caught her breath.
She felt the Herald's body; the spark of life was very dim, but had not been extinguished. Setting her sword against the pillar, she held the cat in both hands and began to sing. There were no words, just an eerie but beautiful harmony that seemed impossible for a human throat to match. As she sang, she channeled energy from the earth into the feline body; it glowed orange for a few moments, then disappeared as she fell silent. The Herald's heart beat strongly again, and in moments he opened his blue eyes and looked around.
Medb set him down as Cúcath came bounding up to her. "In Bast's name, what is it?"
The former queen shuddered as her adrenaline rush subsided. "An Archon, a Being from Between the Spheres. It feeds on misery and suffering, and has the power to alter reality as It sees fit. Finn Bheara is using Croidhedubh as a conduit for It to enter our Sphere."
"You mean, he is sacrificing one of his own people to summon it here?" Cúcath exclaimed in disbelief. "That is monstrous!"
"He is infamous for his ruthless manner."
"We must close the gate before the Archon can gain a foothold," Selgach Mór said as she sauntered over.
The Queen's words turned Medb's fear into irritation. "I know!" she spat, scowling. "But I have no idea how we can do it."
"There are a thousand cats in the grove around us, awaiting my signal to attack," Cúcath growled.
"Were it a thousand thousand thousand, it would not be enough. Nothing in this world can harm an Archon."
"Should not the gate have closed when the circle broke?" the scarred cat asked.
"Finn Bheara is holding it open. We must defeat him first. If we can break his hold on the bansidh and force him back into the Magh Mór, the summoning gate will close on its own, and the conduit he opened for the Archon should do the same."
"Then why do we delay?" the combat-hungry tom demanded. "Let's have at him!"
Medb could appreciate his zeal; she wanted to fight as well. But: "Easier said than done, Battle-Hound. Finn Bheara is the third most powerful of the Daoine Sidhe, after Mab, the High Queen, and the Amadán Mór. Even preoccupied as he is, he would be more than a match for all of us together. The only way I can think of at the moment is to surprise him. If I can get around behind him, I can stab him with this —" She laid a hand on the hilt of her dirk. "Its steel blade will shatter his power and then I can overwhelm him by physical strength. At least, I hope so; he is exceptionally strong for a Daoine Sidhe.
"But as long as he holds Croidhedubh, he can use the Archon as a shield. I will need you and your people to keep him distracted."
"As you say," the Queen replied in a deep rumbling growl, "so it will be done."
Cúcath turned to the Herald and yowled with glee, "Cry Havoc, and let slip the cats of war!" The Siamese caterwauled in reply and ran off to summon the legion.
"Do not press the attack too closely," Medb warned; "you will lose too many of your people needlessly."
The Queen favored her with a half-lidded glare. "Just concern yourself with your task, and leave us to do what we must."
"As you wish," Medb replied in a tight voice. Then she turned towards Cúcath. "Run swift, fight hard, and die well, Battle-Hound."
The scarred tom grinned and twitched his ears. "May the bosom of the Great Mother receive you warmly, Imperious Medb."
She nodded and was about to turn away when movement caught her eye. From out of the grove came a thousand furry bodies marching in a broad arc. Cúcath fell into formation in the middle, with the other Council members, and Selgach Mór slipped in at their head. The Council leader yowled a bloodthirsty battle cry, which the others answered, and they followed their Queen into the assembly area.
As Medb worked her way around the perimeter of the grove, she watched the cat army so she could time her own actions with theirs. As the feline mass approached the arc of the pillars, the Queen leapt to the top of her pedestal to confront their adversaries. "You are trespassing on ground sacred to the Feline Race," she warned, as the legion passed between and around the pillars, and formed a half-circle in front of the Daoine Sídhe. "Leave, now," she continued; "return to your world, or face our wrath."
Finn Bheara declined to respond, and the Archon could not. It simply stretched out its tentacles, now triple the number there were to begin with, to seize her. In retaliation, her eyes glowed a fiery orange, and a shield of fire appeared between her and the Archon. She then hissed, and streamers of flame shot out from the center towards the Outré Being. It spread its tentacles to avoid the conflagration.
At that moment, Cúcath yowled, "Charge!" and the semicircle of cats surged forward in sequential waves. They converged on the Archon, throwing themselves at it as they leapt to grapple tentacles, clawing, biting, and raking like demonic furballs. The Archon fought back, seizing cats, sucking out their lifeforce, then tossing them aside like discarded rags, while others it simply pounded, smacked, and pummeled, or knocked aside with crushing force. Medb was nearly hit by an Egyptian Mau that was sent flying across the grove. And yet the cats kept coming, heedless to the danger, and those who recovered their strength and wits after the blows they received hurled themselves into the fray again. Though she was used to the carnage of battle, and even revealed in it, Medb was shocked by the savagery and total abandon by which the cats fought.
Still, the assault allowed Medb to get into position sooner than would otherwise have been possible. If Finn Bheara knew what she was up to, there was nothing he could do about it. The main problem was that the gate she had opened was directly behind him, so she could not approach him that way. She would have to come in from the side. Her long sword was useless in such close quarters, so she discarded it and pulled out her dirk. She waited until the fairy lord was looking away from her, then she dashed towards him. She skidded to a halt between him and the gate, and stabbed him underhanded in his right kidney.
He arched his back and cried out. His appearance flickered, then melted away to reveal a person taller than before, but now much leaner, dressed in a long, flowing, sumptuous robe of silver-colored silk and crowned with a diadem carved from a diaphanous blue crystal studded with diamonds. His hair had turned white-gold and hung long and straight, while his eyes shined like silver lamps. The most dramatic changes were to his head, which was now skull-like with pale, dry, mottled, parchment skin stretched tightly over his face, and his hands, which were little more than skin and bones.
Enraged, Finn Bheara let go of Croidhedubh with his right hand and swung around to strike at the former queen. But Medb had anticipated his action and ducked below the arm. Glaring, he raised his fist to hammer her. She remained crouched, pointed at his face, and shouted, "Glámain!" An intense flash of light seared his eyes. Roaring in pain, he released the banshee and slapped both hands over his face. Dropping the dirk, Medb stood up and took a hold of his robe. Pivoting on her feet, she swung him hard around and let go when he passed in front of the gate. He flew through it backwards and fell on his back. With his influence gone, the gate slammed shut with a clap of thunder and the shimmer vanished.
Whirling around, Medb saw Croidhedubh collapse onto the ground. The Archon's tentacles flailed about in a desperate manner as the disc of light began to contract. Grabbing up her dirk, she sliced through the few that still held cats, then stepped back as they slipped through the disc like snakes down a hole. The last one wasn't fast enough, and as the disc closed it cut through its width. Finally, it became a blinding spot of light again, then faded from sight.
Medb looked down at Croidhedubh. She, too, had resumed her normal form, much like that of Finn Bheara except she wore no diadem, only a thin circlet with a single diamond in its front. Medb knelt beside the crumpled form and the fay looked up into the massive woman's long, handsome face.
Medb placed a hand behind the banshee's head, and felt her life draining away. Pity soured her stomach, and she said, "I apologize for the harm I did to you, which I never intended. I ask your forgiveness."
Croidhedubh tried to speak, but could not, being still under Medb's spell of silence. The former queen raised her free hand to remove it, but the fairy woman reached up and touched her on the forehead. A brief jolt of searing pain flash through her brain, and her sight went black as she fainted.
When Medb awoke, it was daylight. She was stretched out in the clearing, a soft pillow under her head. Someone had also covered her with a blanket. She looked to her left and saw a golden tray lying on the ground, with a silver platter of sweet meats and a crystal decanter of rich mead with a matching goblet beside it.
On her right sat Selgach Mór and Cúcath. "Thank Bast you are all right," the huge tabby said, an uncharacteristic note of concern in his voice. "When you fainted, we could not be sure how badly you were hurt."
Medb sat up and leaned against one of the pillars. She felt a little light headed, but was surprised she had not been harmed. "What of Croidhedubh?" she asked.
"She died," the Queen explained, "after she touched you. We asked Atal and his priests to bury her in a secluded part of the grove."
The news saddened Medb more than she expected it to, but she was not surprised. No power short of divine intervention could have saved the banshee, and Medb did not believe in gods.
"I will go to pay my respects later. How many of your people did you lose?"
Cúcath sighed, but it sounded more wistful than sad. "A dozen returned to the Bosom of the Great Mother; a few dozen more were injured, but most will fully recover. I am disappointed."
Medb frowned. "How so? It sounds like you were lucky."
"It was not the battle I hoped it would be," he replied, and he sighed again.
Medb could not help grinning, but her humor vanished when the Queen moaned, "We have failed. We did not gain the information we needed, and now we have no further means to acquire it."
Something flickered in the back of Medb's mind. When she focused on it, she startled in surprise.
"We have not failed," she said. "When she touched me, Croidhedubh imparted everything we needed to know. She must have retrieved it from Finn Bheara's mind while you used her as a conduit. It was her revenge for his sacrificing her."
Excited, the two cats leapt to their feet, their tails twitching in a frantic manner. "Then you know their plan."
"In intimate detail," the massive woman confirmed. "However, I also know that they laid a trap for us. Your spies were found out; the Fomóraigh fed you false information, hoping you would take the action you did. The Daoine Sídhe were ready for it; their plan was to use the Archon to destroy us all, thereby removing the only two obstacles that could thwart their scheme. It very nearly succeeded."
The two cats looked at each other, then back at Medb, their tails, now still, bristling.
"You mean, it wasn't an retaliatory act?" asked Cúcath. There was a tone of menace in his voice.
"So it would seem."
"The Fomorians and the Fairy Host conspired to commit an overt act of war," he snarled. "This can neither be forgotten nor forgiven."
"We cannot fight them both alone," the Queen stated. "We will need allies."
Medb tapped her right temple. "With the knowledge I have, it should be no problem to convince others to join us."
Selgach Mór looked Medb in the eyes. "How long do we have before they put their plan into effect?"
Medb scanned her memory. "The plan is already in motion, but it will take a number of years for it to come to fruition, perhaps as much as a decade. However, the longer we delay, the more difficult it will be to stop them."
The two cats sat, wrapping their tails over their front paws. "Then we should discuss who we could approach," the Queen suggested.
Medb picked up the goblet and decanter, and poured herself a generous libation of mead. "You read my mind," she jested as she took a sip.
Amadán Mór (AH-muh-dawn mohr) Great Fool
Anam naofa bheith ionam (AH-nawm NEE-fuh veh IH-nawm) blessed spirit be in me
bansidh (BAHN-shee) — Faerie woman; banshee
Ciúnas (KOO-nuhs) silence; a thaumaturgical word of power that makes people unable to talk
Croidhedubh (KRAY-ih-duhv) — Black Heart
Cúcath (KOO-kuh) — Battle Hound
Damnaigh (DAWM-neye) — damnation
Daoine Sídhe (DEE-nih SHEE-ih) — Fairy People
Finn Bheara (feewn VAH-ruh)
Glámain (GLAW-man) devour; a thaumaturgical word of power that consumes organic beings leaving only ash
Go gcaomhnaí na naoimh sinn (go GEEW-nee nah neev sheewn) saints preserve us
Medb hErenn (mayv HAIR-rain)
Selgach Mór (SHEH-lih-guhck mohr) — Great Hunter
Sétim (SHEH-teem) blow; a thaumaturgical word of power that affects people like a physical blow
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