in the void of fairy time…
Conor leaned over the edge of his chariot and stared. He had never seen anything quite like it. Standing beside him, Ciara was equally entranced. Conor stifled a grin; she had been walking around in a daze with eyes as wide as dinner plates, and a mouth as big as a train tunnel ever since they had stepped through the portal.
“This is Tir na Nog,” she had told him at one point, as if he hadn’t yet worked it out, her voice wonky with wonder. “We really are here.”
His own feelings about the magical realm were rather more complex; he knew, as she did not, that Tir na Nog was every bit as dangerous as it was beautiful and enchanting.
After parting with Finegas in Ballyfin, they had gone in search of food to satisfy his body’s ravenous hunger. The only place open at that time of the morning was a roadside garage, but they had all devoured the stale sandwiches and chocolate as if they were a fine feast. They had then driven into the foothills of the Slieve Bloom Mountains, abandoned the car, and Conor had opened a portal directly into the clearing in Gori where Annalee’s cottage was located.
The hounds had gone hunting, anxious to renew their old skills and stretch their muscles in ways they had long been unable in the mortal world. Conor suspected they would all be eating wild boar that night for dinner.
A telepathic message to his friend Darra soon had a group of excited Sidhe milling about in the clearing, all delighted at his return.
Darra had hugged him like a long lost brother. “You have returned to us, and just in time,” he exclaimed. “During the weeks you have been away, Faolan has been in secret negotiations with the City of Fal, and we ride to their aid within the week.” The young man’s cheeks were flushed with excitement.
“Weeks?” exclaimed Conor in dismay. “It’s only been a couple of days, surely?”
Darra gave him a puzzled look. “Your time-keeping is poor, to say the least. You want to get your body clock checked out, friend. Don’t you feel the passage of time in your blood?”
“Never mind that. We need to get to the forge, at once. We found the missing piece of the Borabu, and we need to join them back together.”
Darra gave a long, low whistle. “That is great news. I will send for a chariot.” He gestured to a boy hovering nearby. “Hey, Tiernan, fetch a chariot for the Treasure Seeker, will you?” As the boy skipped off, he turned back to Conor. “But the forge is very busy, I’m afraid. Seamus is in his element, I can tell you, preparing weapons and armour for war. He will not take kindly to interruptions of any kind, particularly to repair something as trivial as a musical instrument.”
Conor shivered. He was not looking forward to dealing with the angry Seamus Dubh again. “What is it with blacksmiths?” he complained. “I hear Goibniu was bad tempered, too. Is it something to do with the heat of the forge? I don’t know how I’m going to cope with the two of them on my case.”
“Ah, well rather you than me, my friend,” replied Darra sympathetically.
Conor eyed his new chariot with distaste.
“Try not to destroy this one, Treasure Seeker. We need it for the war,” Darra said with a wink at Ciara, as he bundled Conor unceremoniously into the vehicle.
“Destroy it? I think it’s more likely to destroy me; the suspension on these things is rubbish. I think it will be more than just my legs which are disconnected by the time we get there. I’ll be lucky if I have any teeth left in my head. Is it far?”
“Not far,” promised Darra, taking hold of the pony by its mane and leading it forward. Ciara walked beside the chariot. Conor had never heard her so silent.
He didn’t know quite what he had expected to find at the forge, but it certainly wasn’t anything on so grand a scale. In a vast clearing on the edge of the Sidhe village, the forge was a hive of activity. In the centre, a workshop stood open on all sides, containing not one furnace, but many.
As they drew closer, Conor saw that each furnace consisted of three low clay walls built around a fire in which the ore was smelting. The fourth wall of each furnace was pierced by a set of clay tubes attached to large bellows made from bags of leather.
“We call them ‘builg’,” explained Darra as he led them through. “See, some furnaces have two bellows being worked by two people alternately to keep up a steady flow of air; some have only one person working a double bellows with his feet. Thus are the furnaces enabled to reach the high temperatures needed to melt the ore.”
“Listen,” exclaimed Ciara in delight. “They’re singing.” The bellows workers sang as they pumped the bags, their complex harmonies twisting together and drifting with the smoke up into the sky.
Darra smiled at her pleasure. “Yes, it is how they keep their efforts in sync.”
The third member of each team, the smith, kept the furnace loaded with ore and fuel. Baskets of ore surrounded each furnace, along with piles of charcoal. These were constantly being replenished by workers who were producing the charcoal in fires beyond the forge, whilst others sat at large flat stones and broke the ore into small pieces with chisels.
“The ‘goba’, or smith, takes many years to learn his skills,” continued Darra. “Not only does he know how to obtain all the different metals from the rocks in which it is found, but he can tell just by the colour of the heated metal whether it is ready or not.”
They stopped to watch a particular team of goba at work.
“See here, as the metal melts out of the ore, the clinker that’s left is scraped out of the furnace. Watch now, as the goba lifts the glowing metal from the flames. That giant set of pincers he is using is called a ‘tennchair’.”
The smith set the lump of metal on a nearby anvil, where a team of three people stood ready and waiting with sledgehammers to beat it into shape.
“We call the great hammers ‘ords’. Shaping the metal involves much reheating in the furnace, and much cooling of the pincers in the ‘umar’, the water trough. The metal is turned, folded and refolded many times during the process, to strengthen it. It’s back breaking work,” explained Darra.
“And deafening,” added Conor.
Darra nodded. “Surely. Come, in the next cerdcha you can see how the metal is worked into tools and weapons.” He led them a short distance to the next workshop.
“Here, molten metal is poured into clay or stone casts.” Darra indicated the smiths ladling liquid metal into prepared moulds. “You can see over there, some workers are heating and beating the raw cast products into their desired shapes, while beyond, still others give these objects their final polish and decoration. It can take many, many days, weeks even, to produce a single sword.”
“But it’s not just metal workers here, is it?” asked Ciara, taking in the hustle and bustle out in the clearing. “The whole village is involved.”
Darra laughed. “It seems like it now, because we are so busy preparing for the war.”
Conor noticed woodworkers scattered about the glade, carving, whittling and sanding, producing handles and spear poles and arrow shafts. Women and children were treading clay, mixing it with straw until it was the perfect consistency for building new furnaces. Men were chopping wood for making charcoal, and tending smoking fires where the charcoal was being formed. A chain of people were involved in fetching water from the nearby Silverstream. Conor supposed they got through quite a lot of water in the forge.
The heat was intense. Conor could feel the sweat trickling down his back and neck, just watching.
“The workers toil in short shifts, and are relieved by colleagues regularly,” said Darra. “They need to rest and refresh themselves often, for the work is so hot, thirsty and physically demanding.”
“Yes, I can see that,” agreed Ciara. “But, where does all your wood come from?”
Darra indicated the environs of the vast clearing. “Initially, we cleared the wood from this space to build the forge, and used the wood it provided. The forests of Tir na Nog are not fond of the use of fire, but it is permitted in times of war. In our current situation, the forest is dying off at a phenomenal rate, so we are using the dead trees to fuel our forges. When the war is resolved, we must plant many more to replace them.”
One figure stood out from all the rest; that of Seamus Dubh. He danced between furnaces like a whirlwind, shouting out orders, lending a hand here, offering advice there, inspecting the quality of the product, and praising a team when he was pleased with their handiwork. Judging by their reactions, praise was less easily come by than criticism, Conor thought.
“Father,” Darra called, leading them through the clearing. The old smith shaded his eyes and stared at them, frowning.
“So. You came back, then,” he said grudgingly to Conor as they approached.
Conor held up the horn. “The Borabu needs reforging.”
Seamus threw out his arm, impatiently indicating the flurry of activity in the clearing.
“You think I am going to stop all this for the sake of a horn?” he barked. “We go to war inside of a week. Come to me when the battle is over, and then we’ll see.”
Conor felt his anger rising, and struggled to hold it at bay. The old smith’s reaction was exactly what he had been expecting.
“Your war effort is as good as useless, if the Borabu is not repaired. You cannot hope to defeat the Morrigan. She is too powerful, and for all your magnificent weapons, you are not.”
Seamus Dubh snarled. “The magic I work here is of the highest order. I take the bones of the earth and transform them into shining metal through the application of fire. There is no greater magic than that.”
“Your magic is mighty indeed,” agreed Conor. “But I hear the Morrigan’s smiths are equally gifted. Your weapons may destroy your physical enemies, but the Morrigan works with magic more stealthy and ethereal than that. How will your blades of iron perform then?”
“We will kill her with them before she has a chance.”
“Don’t be a fool. You won’t get anywhere near her.”
The old smith and the disabled boy glared at each other. Around them, the activity slowed, as the Sidhe watched the stand-off with bated breath. Few came out victorious from a brawl with Seamus Dubh.
Conor played his trump card. “Do you want to be the one future generations will talk of as responsible for losing the war, simply because you were too full of your own importance to pay attention to a centuries old prophecy?”
Seamus snatched the Borabu from Conor’s hand. “This is delicate work. It calls for the services of a brazier, not a smith.” He thrust the horn back at Conor, and turned to his son. “Darra, take them to the brazier’s workshop. You may do the repair yourself; I have no one to spare, and your hand is suited to such work.”
Darra gulped. “But father, this work calls for a master, not an apprentice.”
The old smith rested his fists on his hips, and contemplated his son from beneath heavy lidded eyes. “True enough, but as you have reminded me often enough, we have no Master Smith here, so you will have to do.” Turning to survey his forge, he raised his voice. “The rest of you, back to work. The show’s over.” He strode off, yelling angrily, his voice soon lost in the clamour of hammer on metal and roar of fire.
“What now?” asked Ciara, looking worried. “Can you fix it?”
“Well, I can physically make the repair to the best of my ability, but whether that is good enough, I don’t know. Besides, there is more to this repair than just metal and rivets, and in that respect, I am sadly lacking,” replied Darra nervously.
“Leave that to me,” said Conor, rather more confidently than he felt. “That’s why we need this Tri de Dana. At least we now have a forge in which to work, and that’s a good enough place to start.”
They passed through the clearing to the far workshop where Darra commandeered a newly built furnace in the furthest corner of the building. “You two will have to work the bellows,” he said. Ciara helped Conor into position, then sat opposite.
“We don’t have to sing as well, do we?” she asked, her face a mask of horror.
“No, but it does help the time pass quicker,” replied Darra with a grin, as he showed her how to work the leather bag in a rhythmic manner.
“No it won’t. You haven’t heard her singing,” retorted Conor. “Anyway, I need to concentrate.”
“Why? What are you going to do?” Ciara looked suspicious.
“Imbas Forosnai,” announced Darra, before Conor could answer.
“Imbas for-what?” Ciara had replaced her look of suspicion with one of alarm.
“It’s something the Druids do, to contact the spirit world for advice or prophecy. ‘Imbas’ means ‘inspiration’, or ‘knowledge’, and Forosnai means ‘that which illuminates’.”
Ciara shook her head, her eyes pleading. “No, Conor, please don’t. Every time you try something like this, it all goes pear shaped.”
“It’s Ok. I’m not leaving my body, this time. It’s a kind of trance, that’s all. It’s just…”
“I’m just not sure how to get started.”
“I hear they use sensory deprivation, and chew the raw flesh of a hound,” said Darra with gruesome enjoyment, to which Conor pulled a face of disgust. “But if you’re not willing to do that, we can always go and call on your best friend, old mad Orla Mor.”
“No way,” declared Conor emphatically. “I’ll work it out myself.”
He closed his eyes. Trance inducement. How hard can it be?