Long before the rest of it--in the swirling, sea-bred mists of the uncertain past--it began.
The great iron cauldron of Tir-na-nog steamed upon the blazing magic fire. The bile-green ooze of divination within it roiled and burbled and spat in a sullen way, belching up trailing yellow wisps with a most vile stench.
"Sorry it's got to be so awfully unpleasant," apologized a lanky man of curling silver hair. "Seems that's part of the wonderful atmosphere of enchantment."
He and a dozen other cloaked figures were clustered close around the pot. They peered down cautiously into the heaving slime as images bloomed and swelled on the churning surface. It was a swift, jumbled series of scenes they viewed as separate bubbles, born, inflating, glistening at full bloat an instant before popping away to be replaced by rising new ones.
There were views of a long ship struggling on an angry sea, its sail tattered, its crew laboring at oars. A rugged foreland appeared ahead of it. The ship made the shore, grounding in a sheltered cove.
From within the vessel stepped a single figure, thick and large, clad in a simple hooded cloak of brown. He climbed onto a rock at the water's edge to look around him at the land, tugging back the hood. The revealed face was swarthy of complexion, with coarse, roughly chiseled features and black hair slicked back over a huge skull. Most striking were the eyes, deep-set below shaggy brows, like polished spheres of iron with a hard, chill glow.
There followed a welter of images of war and fire. The horrible scenes flared up in scores of swollen pustules, crowding the surface, changing the green muck to a glowing red with licking flames and spurting blood, tinting the faces of the watchers with the ghastly hue.
Then the rising bubbles joined in one final, swelling mass, growing larger, larger, to fill all the surface. And in that one, glistening orb showed a single image--the gloating face of the dark man, eyes now blazing with the molten red-gold glow.
The last bubble burst suddenly, spattering hot, viscous liquid in all directions. Those bent over the cauldron flinched quickly back. One, a young woman of flowing, white-blond hair, staggered away and nearly fell.
The silver-haired man caught the woman. He supported her as she recovered, panting to regain her breath.
"I...can do...no more," she gasped out. "It was my whole strength used to bring this much up for you, and that with Danu's help."
"What does it mean, Fedelm?" asked a powerfully built man of braided brown hair and cleanly handsome features.
"Chaos. Destruction," she told him grimly. "A keening for the dead rising across all Ireland. An evil like no other known before descending on the Blessed Isle as would a fierce storm. And, in the end, all that it is and it has been swept away."
"Do you believe, then?" asked the tall man. He let go of the recovered Fedelm and stepped forward to gaze searchingly around at the others.
All of them stood on the brow of a small, rounded mound, in the center of a circle of twelve upright stones. Around them stretched a vast landscape of streams and woods and fields, somehow encompassed within an enormous dome.
"Is that why you called us to your Sid, Manannan?" the brown-haired man asked.
"I called you, Angus Og," another voice said.
All turned toward it to see a new figure coming up the slope to them. It was a man of boyish looks, bold-featured, with light blue eyes and a thick wave of pale gold hair. His supple form was clad in a deep green cloak, and a sword with a bright-jeweled hilt hung at one hip.
"Lugh!" the one called Angus said in surprise. "We thought we'd never be seeing you again."
"When Manannan's prophetess showed these images to him, he sent for me," the blond man explained.
"This so concerned you as to bring you back, Long-Arm?"
This came in a tense, shrill voice from a sallow, sad-faced man whose frail body vibrated with the latent energy of a tightly strung harp string.
"It did, Bobd Derg. This foretelling is of great destruction for the men of Ireland. Their duns will be laid waste. Their warriors will be killed. Everything that now makes their life will change--their beliefs, their laws, even their speech and the clothes they wear. It'll become an Ireland that we don't know."
"And why do we care?" asked Bobd Derg sharply.
"Why?" Lugh echoed in astonishment "Because it is our Ireland too!"
"Not anymore." This was spoken by a figure barely recognizable as a female. She was very tall and almost cadaverous of form, wrapped in a clinging cloak of glowing black. Blue-black hair was pulled tight back from the skull in long braid. Her high-browed, hollow-cheeked face was as sharply featured as a crow's, and her dark eyes glinted with a raptor's hungry light.
Lugh looked toward her, his expression filled with regret. "I am sorry to see that it's a bitter crone you've become, Morrigan my old friend. You're only a creature of darkness and death now. You glorying in hatred of the mortals and feast on the carrion of their battlefields."
"And who are you to judge what I am now?" she cawed angrily. "You abandoned us to wander the earth carefree. You left us to govern Ireland. And we did that 'til the cursed Sons of the Gael came to our shores. Where were you then? Where were you when we battled them at Tailltin and the thousands died? They routed us there. It was a slaughter there. Three kings and three queens of us died there. They chased and scattered us, left us beaten and shamed and forced to give up our land and hide ourselves away."
"The Raven Woman is right," said Bobd Derg. "Why should we help the mortals? We've no need of them."
"Strange talk from one who spends so much of his time amongst those mortals and prides himself for having them treat him as a god," Lugh answered sardonically. "What is it I hear they call you? The 'Frightener' is it? The fearsome being who puts terror on their cows and haunts their dreams? Quite the toys you've made of them."
"It's in revenge, I do it," Bobd Derg shot back. "In fighting they bested us, but in enchantments we can still have our way with them."
"Why must we be enemies?" Lugh asked. "Weren't we mortals once, like them? Aren't they people of bravery and skills?" He looked to the brown-haired man. "Angus, it's you who has kingship of the Tuatha de Danaan now. You've always been a man of thought and care. Why can't we help them?"
Angus Og shook his head regretfully. "I'm sorry for them, but it's a separate people they are. Yes, we could stop what's coming, but it's not for us to interfere in their fate." He looked around at the others. "Do you all agree?"
There were some hesitations, but all finally nodded.
"Then it's decided," their king announced with finality. He looked to Lugh, speaking solemnly. "Lugh Lamhfada, listen and be bound. The Council of the Children of Danu decrees that none of our race will take part in the troubles to come upon the mortals of Ireland. That means none will give help..." he shot a warning glance at the Morrigan, "...and none will give harm!"
His pronouncement given, Angus Og and the rest of his council made their farewells and departed. Lugh and Manannan were left alone in the ring of stones.
"They see the future, Manannan, but they don't see all it means." Lugh said in frustration. "The mortals have need of us, and we've need of them. It is all one that we are. All of us a part of what Ireland is. If nothing's done, everything will be destroyed."
"How can you be so certain that this fate's set?" the tall man asked. "I mean, this foreseeing the future trick is a shoddy thing at best. These new people ruling Ireland are a strong lot. I've been watching them. They won't easily be beaten, even without the de Danaan's help. Angus Og knows that."
"He hasn't traveled where I have these past years," Lugh returned. "To the east, great powers are sweeping over many lands. Clans and kingdoms with the same spirit as those of Ireland are being changed or destroyed. Angus and the council just don't understand."
"I'm not sure you do either, my old friend," Manannan said. He put a hand on the younger man's shoulder and spoke in a fatherly tone. "Things just as great have come and gone long before this. Many peoples, many worlds. The people of Tir-na-nog know it very well. I understand why it is you want to act. But I'm warning you that it's great suffering you'll be taking on yourself if you try to interfere."
"I don't care," Lugh answered with fierce determination. "I have to find some means of giving the mortals a chance."
Manannan sighed in acceptance and took his hand away. "I knew you'd say that. Great risk surely didn't stop you from saving the de Danaan's. But how can you help here? You're bound by the Council not to take a part."
"Not myself," Lugh said, meeting the other's eye with a calculating gaze. "But there is a way. It's someone else who can become savior to Ireland!"