The enigmatic lady settled herself comfortably in her chair and sipped her drink, nodding wordlessly to Bram in thanks. She appeared to be ready to begin, but suddenly turned and glared at the man who had just given up his seat, who was still lurking hopefully nearby. She asked in clipped tones if there was something he wished to communicate to her. The old man reddened immediately, spluttered something unintelligible, then downed the last of his pint and rapidly left the bar.
She returned her full attention to the three young men, leaning forward over the table and speaking in a low voice to avoid being overheard.
"My story is a tale of a group of companions, travellers from England in an age long past, who came to Ireland on a mission of vital importance."
It became rapidly clear to Tom that the inscrutable lady had originated from the Emerald Isle, or at least had spent a considerable amount of time there. He could hear her accent broadening noticeably as she relaxed into her story, or perhaps it was merely the effect of the port and lemon.
"My tale is set in the island of mystery, many years ago, when all of Ireland was a single country - when, indeed, Ireland was still the gateway to the world of Faerie."
Tom and Alistair were both immediately spell-bound by her words, leaning forward to make sure they missed nothing. Bram too was listening intently.
"In those days, the journey across the sea to Ireland was perilous in itself, with storms at sea and huge waves. Ships frequently sunk, and a voyage set out in fair weather could still end in excitement, danger and death. But yet people came over the water."
"If it was so hazardous, then why did people risk the journey?" Tom asked.
"Oh, there were many, many reasons," she explained, "Most of them entirely mundane - trade, curiosity, people seeking their fortune. But a few, a very few, came to seek knowledge of the world of Faerie or even to gain access to that world."
"Entering a Faerie world?" Tom gasped disbelievingly.
He was unsure how to react, although the strange lady seemed entirely serious. Alistair seemed struck dumb. Sunk in the gloom of the bar, it was difficult to tell whether Bram had reacted at all.
"That is so," the mystic replied calmly, "And a few sought it out. Some came from England, others journeyed from further afield, having travelled great distances across the world, with the crossing to Ireland being merely another part of their journey. These selected few had heard of wonderful things from the world of Faerie, strange and exotic, complex and magical, and wished to see them all for themselves."
The woman paused, presumably, thought Tom, for effect.
"But all was not well. A war - or something like it - was under way between two different factions from the Other World."
"A war?" Tom parroted.
"Oh yes, I'm afraid so. There were many different peoples from that world - I will not insult their memory by calling them Fairies. Some of those people were friendly and helpful, some much less so."
"Those from the land of Faerie were of different aspects, different shapes - all human in basic form, but often-times different in their behaviour and appearance to our eyes. There were those who flew, who almost never walked but preferred to transport themselves on ephemeral wings of magic attached to their backs. There were those who could appear and disappear in the blink of an eye, who had mastered the art of invisibility. And there were many others, each with their own traits and characteristics."
The woman took another sip from her drink, and peered closely at the young men over the top of her glass.
"But all these people, whatever their aspect, were divided into but two factions," she continued, "The first were those who wished to command the obedience of the common folk of the land, for them to give up a tithe of their produce every year for the support of the Other World. And the second were those whose only desire was to help those same Irish folk, to work alongside them, and to trade peaceably and equitably."
"The common people - the peasants and workers - were confused and nervous. They could not tell from their aspect whether a Faerie person was from the benign faction or the autocratic one. Some of the Faerie folk were frightening - even sometimes harming - the commoners, while others carried out all kinds of good deeds and merciful acts, often with the aid of powerful magic."
The companions remained silent while the mystic sipped again at her drink.
"In those days, many different places in Ireland were somehow magically linked with the Faerie world. And those who had power, and the responsibility that has always gone with it, determined that the magic of Faerie must not be allowed to pass unhindered into the land of Eire," she said, toying with her glass as she spoke, "For, in their view, it was certain to attract the attention of those who would seek power and control, and those who misuse the intention of the magic."
"Those in authority set about constructing barriers between the world of Faerie and our world, at all of the points of crossing, to restrict the use of magic in Ireland. Or, I should say, the authorities instructed that such barriers should be erected. For this was a long and arduous task, requiring many years of labour, and countless skilled and resourceful people."
She set her glass back on the table so forcefully that both Tom and Alistair visibly started.
"But, before the task could be completed, there came one who did not seek either knowledge or access to Faerie, but came to conquer the Other World."
"The squabbling of the two factions had attracted his attention - the existence of the lands of Faerie had not been kept sufficiently secret. The invader had dreams of control, of great power. He desired the use of the supremacy of magic to cement his authority in this world, and to use the might of his armies and force of arms to ensure the cooperation of the Faerie world. The Conqueror was guided by rogues and traitors from the Other World, renegades who did not want their magic taken away by the barriers the rulers had declared it their duty to erect."
"So how did the Conqueror capture the Faerie kingdom?" Alistair asked, fascinated by the story.
"He didn't," the woman replied, "Let me explain what happened. Even in those days, access to the world of Faerie was variable and unpredictable. One pathway was widely used for trade and commerce, with many travellers crossing with goods and returned with much money in silver and gold in their purses. This crossing could only be used under certain weather conditions. When the sun shone from the Faerie lands and lit up the rain in our world, then - and only then - was it safe to cross. Truly, it was necessary to follow the rainbows to reach your goal."
"And so, now I can say why the group of travellers came and why they travelled with great speed. They came ahead of the Conqueror, to warn the people of Faerie and their rulers of his approach. They journeyed in a great hurry, riding hard over difficult roads. They carried much gold and bought horses, paying far too much for them in their haste to reach the pathway while the weather held. And finally, they followed the rainbows and went through to the land of Faerie."
"Their message brought confusion and disarray amongst the Lords and Ladies of Faerie. Representatives from both factions were contacted, and a meeting - a Faerie Council - was rapidly convened. Those in authority realised that they had scant days to make their decision: whether to defend with military might the routes to the Faerie lands, or to close the crossings. And they were well aware that, if a decision was made to close the paths between the worlds, then they may never be re-opened."
The mysterious woman paused for a moment. The silence was broken by Tom's voice in a near-whisper.
"So what happened?"
The teller of tales looked sad for a moment.
"The crossings between Faerie and Ireland were closed, every last one."
The collective sign from the young men was clearly audible, even over the noise and bustle of the pub.
"It was quite a dramatic event, my all accounts," she explained, "There were fires and huge explosions. Strange lights in the skies were reported everywhere."
The lady from Ireland adopted an extremely sorrowful attitude.
"It is said that some people from Faerie elected to stay in Ireland, continuing to live amongst the common folk and working the land, husbanding their diminishing magic and concealing it from their neighbours, and passing on the remnants from parent to child until it was all gone."
"So, where were the crossings?" Alistair asked.
"Where these paths were, now no one knows," she said slowly, "Although, in the west of Ireland, there is a lake - a lake nearly circular in shape, and said by some to filled with mystery, even now."
"But who was the Conqueror?" Tom enquired.
Once again, the mystery lady smiled enigmatically.
"History knows him as Oliver Cromwell," she replied, "Thanks to him, the fantastic world of Faerie is now all but departed from us."
"Is there nothing left?" Alistair asked in a hushed whisper.
"Oh, there are some ghosts and echoes," the woman replied, "A few lingering effects of Faerie magic in infrequently-visited places."
Tom was fascinated.
"What kind of effects?" he asked.
"There are some places where, sometimes, it is possible to perceive strange sights and sounds, where voices speak from the rocks or the air," the mysterious lady replied, "Or where machines unaccountably fail - electric torches go out, motor vehicles stop unexpectedly and cannot be started. It is said that in the depths of the lake I spoke of earlier can sometimes be seen, or more usually heard, strange phenomena as if there are people somehow beyond the water, trying to get out."
The extraordinary woman again looked sad for a moment before continuing.
"It's all a pale shadow of the wonder and mystery that was known knew before," she concluded.
"I don't want to sound unappreciative," Alistair began, "But why are you telling us this tale, magnificent though it is?"
The mystic lady threw her head back and laughed aloud.
"Of course, everything I have said is just a retelling of myths and legends, a bedtime story for tired children. Indeed, my grandmother told me this very tale when I was a girl," she chuckled, "But sometimes, just sometimes, there is a nugget of truth in such a tale - a truth about history and about consequences, too."
She took a final lady-like sip from her drink and then moved to stand up. All three young men immediately also stood in a gentlemanly fashion.
"Well, I must now be gone," she said, smiling benignly at the three of them, "But, who knows? Perhaps we will meet again in another time and place?"
With that, she turned and swept out of the bar, the noise in the room again diminishing noticeably as she passed.
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