"To be sure, the Emerald Isle is a place of magic and mystery," the Navvy said, slurring his words only slightly as he supped at the pint of dark ale Jean-Luc had just bought him.
The man he knew only as Mick was supposed to be the finest Irish storyteller working on the bridge. The gossips said that he was a second generation Navvy - short for Navigator, meaning one who built the "navigations" or canals that criss-crossed the English countryside, and that now transported coal and wool and pig-iron for mills and factories of Manchester and Rochdale. Mick and his father before him had laboured across the length and breadth of northern England, working hard during the day, drinking hard during the evenings and sending most of the remaining money to his extended family back in Ireland.
Jean-Luc had spent several evenings sitting in a loose circle around the fire in the tavern snug, spellbound by the tales being spun by the famous raconteur. Mick had a vast fund of stories of the Faerie folk, told always as the literal truth, stories which Jean-Luc would have been regarded as utterly fantastic had he not witnessed the extraordinary events in the Caves back in France. He had become firmly convinced that there was some connection between the events he witnessed, the bridge at Lyndesfarne and the Faerie tales he had heard in the local pubs and the mess halls that had, he had discovered, sprung up around the site of the bridge under construction.
"Tell us a tale, Mick," a man Jean-Luc knew only slightly had said, his green eyes bright and reflecting the firelight in the dimly-lit room.
"Well I don't know if I can rightly remember one," Mick had responded, rubbing his chin thoughtfully and glancing meaningfully at the near-empty beer glass that stood at his elbow.
"I'll get you a pint," Jean-Luc had volunteered, standing up abruptly and making his way to the tiny bar in the corner of the crowded room. A short negotiation with the grey-haired crone who manned the beer-pumps - and indeed ruled the Public House with a rod of iron - produced a tankard of the dark ale Mick preferred, which the Frenchman carried carefully over to the thirsty Irishman. Even the dour landlady seemed to appreciate Mick's stories, Jean-Luc had noticed, leaning on the bar and listening carefully as the man spoke, occasionally shaking her head at some of the more outlandish suggestions.
With a fresh pint of beer before him, Mick suddenly seemed reanimated. He swept up the drink and took a long enthusiastic pull, smacking his lips appreciatively. He replaced the pint pot on the table, sat back in his seat and drew a gnarled pipe and a leather pouch of tobacco from a pocket of his waistcoat.
"Let's see, then," he murmured, filling his pipe methodically, "What tale would be a just reward for a tankard of ale bought and paid for by a Frenchie?"
Mick pondered for a long moment, again rubbing his palm against the growth of stubble on his chin.
"For some reason known only to the Wee Folk, Ireland used to contain more of the passages to the World of Faerie than anywhere in the world," the Irishman began with an expansive wave of the hand, "Perhaps it was to do with the relative seclusion of a small, damp, green island isolated in the storm-swept wastes of the North Atlantic. For all I know, maybe it was linked to the aspects of the constellations or the movements of the Celestial Spheres."
Jean-Luc had heard all sorts of alternative suggestions for the prevalence of Faerie stories set in Ireland, more than a few of them from Mick's own mouth. His favourite explanation had to do with the occupation of most of the British Isles by the Romans - something he had learned a little about from Maman's schooling. The Mediterranean invaders had failed to subdue the areas now known as Scotland and Wales, and had not forged any permanent sway over Ireland.
"'Tis true, though," Mick continued, "There are many places in Ireland which are difficult to get to, even now, cut off from the world by mountains or bogs or rocky coastlines, save for a single easily watched road or path, or perhaps a navigable river or lake. Them Faerie folk sure like their privacy and, when they engage in their own affairs, they're sure to use enchanted meeting places well away from the places of men."
The Navvy paused and supped deeply from the drink Jean-Luc had procured.
"One such Faerie ring was said to be hidden away, deep in the heart of Connemara. It was a place said to be watched always and discreetly guarded, although by what or who no-one could rightly say. It was a place that even the most determined adventurer found impossible to approach."
"Without fail, a traveller would be warned away, the result of a chance encounter with a friendly stranger smoking a pipe, or an old woman gathering heather, or somesuch. Always, they would be advised to turn around, to find another path. If they ignored the warnings, the unfortunate traveller would return days later, dazed and confused, penniless or blinded, and endlessly spouting crazy, impossible tales. Or, sometimes, he would not return at all."
There was a silence in the room, broken only by the crackling of the fire in the grate. Mick drank again, then continued his tale.
"It seems there was a young man, a bravo of the Kealy clan, who publicly declared that he would uncover the truth. His reasons were all too predictable: the brother of a local maid at whom he had set his cap had apparently disappeared somewhere nearby the Faerie's realm. In an attempt to win the lady's heart, the headstrong youth would, he proclaimed loudly, evade the mysterious guardians and return the brother to his family or at least discover his fate."
"Despite his headstrong bravado, the young Kealy was skilled and, perhaps, wise beyond his years. He set off from the village of Letterfrack in the heart of Connemara with the grudging approval of the elders and the tearful smiles of the maiden. He avoided the main roads, and the paths and tracks made by previous travellers or perhaps just by itinerant sheep. Instead he made his way, day after day, due west, guided only by the sun and the stars on the rare occasions that they were visible."
"The young man struggled over trackless wastes, forcing his way through tracts of stunted and lichen-covered trees, and over sucking bogs where a single miss-step would find him sunk over his head. With immense caution, he managed to avoid the wolves and bears that in this age still inhabited the forests and mountain-sides of Connemara."
As on previous occasions, Jean-Luc noticed that the storyteller's voice had changed during his oration. There was a sing-song quality to Mick's speech, as if he was repeating tales he had learned by rote a long time ago, and his pronounced Irish accent had all but disappeared. His English sounded strange, in a way that Jean-Luc at the time found difficult to comprehend. Much later, he would realise what this curious quality was: the pure diction of a foreigner who had been carefully taught to speak a language which was not his mother tongue.
"It had been nearly a week with neither sight nor sound of another human being," Mick continued, "And our young Kealy had begun to think about turning back. Then, quite suddenly, he found himself in an ancient forest with trees that were taller and straighter than those he had encountered hitherto, and some were of a kind he had never seen before. The sunlight seemed somehow different, too, the light more clear, making the shadows deeper and sharper."
"Following his nose, and the guidance of the sun and stars, the young man made his way between the trees down the gently sloping hillside. Eventually, the traveller came across a vast clearing, near circular in shape and hundreds of yards across, set in a bowl in the hills, with verdant forests ascending on every side. In the centre of the glade was a circle of stones: a dozen pairs of vast monoliths, each pair bridged by a lintel nearly as large as the supporting blocks."
"The brave Kealy watched carefully from the cover of the forest edge. The area around the standing stones was populated by people who at first sight seemed to be human although, on closer observation, he could see the narrow faces and pointed ears that were the mark of Faerie-kind."
"There was much hustle and bustle around the circle of stones, and it was not for some time that the young Kealy realised that the Faerie folk - for surely that was their kind - were arriving and departing the glade by stepping through the openings, disappearing and appearing with as little concern as if they were striding through the doorway of a barn. Others were flying in and out of the glade on glittering Faerie wings that emerged fluttering from their shoulders while they flew but disappeared instantly when they alighted."
"There was plenty of more mundane traffic, too: trains of pack-mules under the control of loud-mouthed trail masters, as well as mounted and foot travellers of all kinds and descriptions. The ground-based traffic was entering and leaving the clearing using a well-marked and well-worn trail to the south of where the Kealy was hidden. Curious, he looked around carefully; there were no other trails that left the clearing, as far as he could see."
The storyteller paused again, talking the opportunity to whet his whistle while the audience waited breathlessly, then resumed.
"It soon became clear to our hero that the edges of the clearing were patrolled at irregular intervals by serious-faced and heavily-armed guards, and the Kealy brave-heart had to duck back into the undergrowth pretty sharpish on several occasions. He decided to make his way around the edge of the clearing towards the southern trail. Eventually, he succeeded in reaching the point where the road met the clearing, and secluded himself in thick undergrowth nearby, at a point where he could observe all the comings and goings along the path."
"From his hiding-place, he could observe the mule trains and wagons that entered and left the glade at frequent intervals. The Kealy found himself familiar with the many of the goods that were being transported to and fro: sacks of root vegetables and cages of live birds and packages of rare and exotic spices, judging by the tantalising aromas that hung on the air. But some of the wagons seemed to contain goods which he could not so easily identify: bundles and baskets which gave no clue as to their contents."
"The young Kealy watched bemused for an hour or more, until his attention was caught by a wagon which seemed to contain just one oversized enclosed wicker basket of surprisingly robust construction. As the wagon drew closer, he could make out a figure inside; the basket was some kind of mobile gaol. Then, with a start, he realised that the man inside the basket was the missing brother."
There was a soft gasp around the fireside. Mick took the opportunity to once again refresh himself from his rapidly-emptying glass.
"The prison wagon drew up to one side of the trail, at a point close to a knot of armed men who gave every impression of being guards. The prisoner, who understandably seemed to be despondent about his circumstances judging by the sag of his shoulders, was given food and water by one of the guards, then left alone."
"Our adventurous Kealy pondered long and hard what to do, from the relative safety of his hiding-place. Eventually, he decided on a direct approach, balancing the risk of discovery of his hiding-place against interception when making any dramatic move. He elected to remain hidden and waited silently until darkness fell. Then he edged his way closer to the wagon and forced open the fastenings of the basketwork prison using his trusty dagger. He tugged open the gate and dragged the half-asleep prisoner from the enclosure. The Kealy half-walked, half-carried the brother towards the darkest part of the woods. They had almost reached the safety of the forest's edge when there was a loud bang and dazzling flash, and the two men instantly collapsed unconscious."
Mick stopped again to drink from his glass. The fire was by now burning low, and the stillness of the audience broken only by the crackling of the embers.
"It must have been much later when the bravo awoke. He shook his head to dispel the feeling of a long deep sleep. It was all quiet and still in the pre-dawn light, and he and his still-sleeping companion were almost completely hidden by thick foliage where they had fallen. He sat up and looked around. There seemed to be no-one about, no guards, no travellers; even the standing stones seemed to have become invisible in the wispy mist that filled the clearing."
"After a few moments thought, our hero came to the conclusion that he had been dazed by some kind of firework, but had been sufficiently concealed that he and his companion had, by luck, evaded any searchers. The Kealy quietly awakened the brother, and the two men hastened away as quickly and quietly as their groggy state allowed."
"Following the sun and the stars to the east, the Kealy retraced his steps accompanied by his companion, forcing his way through the marches and the twisted woodlands he remembered, although somehow the passage seemed easier on the return journey."
"Along the way, over their evening camps, the future brother-in-law told the brave Kealy his tale: that he had resolutely followed the barely-marked trail that rumour suggested would lead to the Faerie ring, politely but firmly declining any advice to turn back from his declared objective from the strangers he chanced to encounter. Shortly after these encounters, somehow he had become lost and ended up wandering the trails and pathways for many a week. The paths and trails seemed to be confusing, the landmarks never quite the same each time he passed them."
"But the brother had remained resolute. Without warning, he had been set upon by several heavily-armed men, who had relived him of his knives before bundling him into the wickerwork prison, although had not attempted to remove either his pack or his purse of coins. He had been bundled into the wickerwork gaol and carried to the Faerie Ring, where he had been seen by the Kealy from his hiding-place."
"After a week's travel, they two men reached familiar territory and the old road to Letterfrack. Half a day's march, in high spirits, brought them to the village itself. Arm-in-arm with the brother of his loved one, the Kealy walked to the house of the maid. The Kealy followed the brother inside, who announced his return in a loud voice. The two young adventurers were astonished to find inside a sprightly Matriarch in widow's black sitting down to take tea with a brood of grown-up children sat all around her and a brace of grandchildren at her knee."
"'The missing Kealy!' the widow cried, 'After forty years, he returns. And doesn't look a day older, neither.' She collapsed in a dead faint. Both brother and rescuer took a long look around the room, belatedly recognising other friends and acquaintances and relations: an older sister now toothless and doddery, and a younger brother now paunchy and sporting a greying beard. All were people who were young and lithe a few short weeks ago, and were now aged and wrinkled. The shock must have instantly addled their brains; the Kealy and the brother turned as one and ran away alternately screaming and howling like dogs, never to be seen again."
There was a sudden silence, then low murmurs ran around the room as the audience responded to the conclusion of the tale. One or two of the older men nodded their heads, whether at the veracity of the story they had heard related or the moral fate of reckless young men attempting the boundaries of Faerie, Jean-Luc could not tell.
The Irishman finished the last of his ale and smacked his lips appreciatively.
"Well, my friends," Mick said expansively, his accent suddenly returning to its normal lilt, "'Tis a fine night, but I needs my beauty sleep, to be sure. I'll be seeing you on the causeway on the morrow, right enough."
So saying, he stood and walked without the slightest trace of a drunken stagger to the doorway and the cool darkness of the night beyond.
One by one, the other men finished their drinks and left in twos and threes to return to their lodgings, leaving Jean-Luc staring into the flames of the fire and thinking. If the young Kealy and the brother had turned mad, their minds totally addled and undone at the instant of their return to Letterfrack, the Frenchman wondered, who exactly was it who had been able to record their deeds and adventures in such detail?
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