Prologue – The Dream
4000 years ago…
Eochaidh mac Eirc, Ard Ri, High King of Ireland and leader of the Fir Bolg, stood on the cliff edge and looked out to sea. The night was clear, the water was calm, and the moon and stars observed the scene like many bright eyes. There was no sound save the hum of distant waves washing against the shore far below. A faint breeze, drenched with the salty scent of the sea, tugged at the hem of his cloak. Behind him stretched a small array of tents and cooking fires, where the men of his hunting party slept, or ate, or gathered in small groups to drink and talk.
The world seemed at peace. Nothing seemed amiss, yet as Cesard approached, he observed that Eochaidh seemed troubled. The King frowned, shrugging his cloak closer about his shoulders.
Cesard spoke in soft tones. “You sent for me, Lord?”
The king turned, his silhouette casting a large shadow against the deepening night sky, for the Fir Bolg were made of tall, big shouldered, broad chested men.
Alarm prickled along the sorcerer’s spine. The king feared nothing and no-one, was mighty in battle, and swift in his decisions. He was not given to lonely midnight vigils. It was clear that something was worrying him.
“How may I help you?” he asked.
Eochaidh turned his troubled gaze back to the horizon.
“Tonight I had a dream,” he said. “A dream so powerful, it kept me from sleep. I believe it to be a message, a warning from the gods, and I tremble at its meaning. You are my most trusted and learned advisor. You are accustomed to communing with the gods. Give me your interpretation, for I would have what I suspect confirmed or denied by your expertise.”
Cesard swallowed, a deep feeling of foreboding flooding through him.
“Tell me your dream.” He wrapped himself firmly in his cloak against the sudden chill he felt.
“It seemed,” Eochaidh began, “that I walked in daylight through this camp to this very spot where we now stand, and I looked out to sea, just as I do now.
“On the horizon, a dark cloud formed, and began to blow towards me. It moved very fast, faster than the winter wind across the plain. As it approached it became larger, its shape ever changing and undulating, until I could see that it in fact contained a multitude of smaller shapes. A great din arose from it, a rough harsh sound that struck terror into the hearts of all who heard it.
“As it came upon me, I saw that this dark shadow comprised a swarm of black crows, all crying their loathing. The host descended from the sky upon us, even as we reached for our weapons. They were a force of magic we could not fight against with our mortal weapons, and many of our tribe fell that day. But Sreng, my Battle Champion, cut a wing from the body of the largest, noblest bird, and then… I awoke.”
Eochaidh turned to his sorcerer and their eyes locked.
“Tell me, Cesard. What does this mean?”
Cesard disengaged his gaze from the King’s and returned it to the horizon.
“I fear it to be a bad omen.”
The king gave a hoarse laugh.
“I don’t need magical arts to see that,” he barked.
“Well, it would seem to me that the dark host represents an enemy that will come from the air and the sea, and wrest this land from us in battle, using a powerful magic we cannot withstand. Perhaps we will clip their wings, but not cut out their hearts.”
The King’s voice was harsh.
“Are you foretelling our doom?”
“I am merely interpreting your dream,” returned Cesard mildly. “Perhaps that’s all it is, just a dream.”
“No. It was more than that, and you know it. Besides, your skills have never failed me before. We must ready ourselves for war.” Eochaidh brushed past his advisor, resting his hand briefly on his shoulder, before striding off back through the camp.
Cesard shivered, eyes scanning the horizon for enemy ships, but finding none, followed hurriedly after his King.
Some way further north along the coast, at Killary Harbour in Connemara, the Tuatha de Denann were landing their first ships.
Chapter 1 – The White Room
the present day…
In a small town in the centre of Ireland, a boy in a wheelchair was waiting in a hospital corridor for his physiotherapy session to begin.
He looked up and down the corridor; no-one in sight. Just a row of dull grey plastic chairs with black iron legs and no-one sitting in them to his right, a door on his left, and a door opposite. Past the chairs, the corridor ended abruptly in large, heavy double doors, with a security keypad on the wall beside them. To his left, the corridor took a right turn out of sight. That was the way he had come in. No signs on the doors, no windows, no noticeboards, no community artwork on the walls, no vending machines.
And no people.
Conor was, for the first time in his life, entirely alone.
His special needs assistant, having brought him over from school, seemed to have silently and unobtrusively slipped away instead of remaining to make the handover. Conor’s mother would be furious.
Conor’s mother was never late, having a tendency, even after all these years, to be somewhat overprotective, much to his annoyance. So where was she?
He felt the vague prickling of unease at the nape of his neck.
Why had he been brought here, instead of to the usual place? And where had his assistant gone? Perhaps no-one knew he was here. Here he was, sitting alone, in an eerily deserted corridor of an unfamiliar wing of a normally very busy hospital. His mother would be running around in a blind panic, looking for him. But would anyone think to look here?
The silence and solitude were unnerving.
This is my life. I am a thinking, feeling human being like anyone else, but because I can’t let anyone know it, I have to endure being dumped in an empty corridor until someone remembers I exist.
Where was everyone?
He could feel his disquiet morphing into anger. He was normally afraid of his anger, but right at this moment, it felt like company.
It’s not my fault that I’m trapped inside a body as unresponsive as a lump of wood. I can’t help it if no-one understands me when I try to talk. I can’t help it if my legs don’t go where I want them to when I try to walk.
He glanced down at his legs with distaste. Although they looked the same as everyone else’s, they just didn’t function like anyone else’s. It wasn’t that he couldn’t move them at all, he just couldn’t make them do what he wanted, when he wanted. He could walk fine with his walking frame. Ok, he was a bit stiff and jerky, like a wooden puppet, but what could anyone expect from a boy who spent most of his time sitting in a wheelchair? He loathed the walking frame. It looked just like one of those things they gave to old people. Kind of like a backwards Zimmer frame. His sisters had tried to funk it up a bit, and make it look trendy, but it was so not cool.
Bad as it was, the walking frame wasn’t the worst thing. Oh no. Worse than that, and quite the hardest thing about standing and walking, was balance.
How on earth does everyone else manage to stand without instantly keeling over? Man, they make it look so easy.
But he just couldn’t get the hang of it.
Sometimes, he imagined what it would be like to be Brian O’Driscoll. Now there was someone who really knew how to use his legs. Conor often watched the rugby on telly with his dad, and could only imagine the sheer thrill and exhilaration of being able to run like that, how it would feel to be able to have so much control over one’s body.
Sometimes, too, he wished he could use the Force, like Luke Skywalker, and will his legs into action. And yes, there had been moments of sheer frustration and desperation in the past where he had tried, really screwed up every ounce of concentration that he possessed, and still nothing had happened. Well, he supposed, magic only existed in the movies.
Anyway, that was how, once a month, Conor came to the hospital for his speech therapy and physio. He didn’t see the point any more. All the exercises and manipulations he had endured during his fourteen years seemed to have made not one bit of difference.
I am like Stephen Hawking, only without his technology. I bet I would amaze everyone if they only knew what was going on inside my head.
Suddenly, the door opposite opened just a crack. A face wearing glasses peered through the gap, caught sight of him, and paused.
“Conor?” a woman’s voice enquired, sounding very loud in the deep silence of the corridor.
Conor stared at the narrow stripe of person he could see through the door. He supposed the voice must have come from her, although it was difficult to tell when the door hid more than it revealed.
The woman on the other side of the door blinked behind her glasses, and pushing open the door, stepped into the corridor. “Are you ready?”
Her words were slightly accented, as if she couldn’t quite get her tongue around the language. She removed her specs and stowed them safely in the pocket of her tunic. Her eyes, Conor noted, were too large for her face, like a character from a Manga cartoon. In colour they were grey-blue, but so pale he would have described them rather as silver.
Looking uncomfortable under his scrutiny, the woman retrieved her glasses, wiped them on the edge of her tunic and replaced them. Her nose was so small that they kept sliding forward, and she had to keep pushing them back.
He noticed her hair next. Nothing unusual about the colour, lots of people in Ireland had jet black hair, but hers was so long, he imagined she must trap it beneath her every time she sat down.
As if he had spoken aloud, the woman reached back with her hands, looking a little self-conscious, and deftly tied her hair into a loose knot.
“Right then,” she said hurriedly. “Will we go through?”
She quickly moved to the back of Conor’s wheelchair. Without waiting for a reply she grasped the handles and propelled him through the doorway.
The room was unlike anything Conor had been expecting. It was a large window-less square, and all the walls, the ceiling and floor were painted a dizzyingly bright white which made his eyes ache just to look at it. There were no floor mats or cushions, no benches, hand rails, walking frames or tread mills, no therapy balls, hoops or bean bags, just a large, white, empty, featureless room. Most alarmingly, the harder he stared, the more the perimeter of the room seemed to swim out of sight and blur into a distant shimmering haze. Conor felt quite disorientated, like he was floating in a cloud. In fact, he could have sworn that the walls weren’t walls at all, but great towering banks of undulating fog. He blinked.
I must be imagining things. What is this place?
He looked around with interest, and a measure of concern.
“I am taking you through the Faeth Fiadha,” said the woman in matter of fact tones, almost as if she had heard him. It was uncanny, creepy even, and Conor shuddered involuntarily.
Faith Fee-what? What the hell are you talking about? You’re taking me for my physio, aren’t you?
“No, I’m not,” she said, stopping abruptly. She swung the wheelchair around sharply to face her, and sat on the floor before him.
Now Conor had the rare experience of looking down on the person he was engaging with, rather than looking up. She hugged her knees and rested her chin on them, studying Conor intently. This was somewhat unnerving, as her silver gaze seemed to pin him into his wheelchair. He stared back as defiantly as he dared.
He saw a small, slender woman dressed in a blue physiotherapist’s tunic and black track pants. Her skin was white, but etched with dark shadows around her eyes, as if she had not slept in days. It was impossible to determine her age.
Looking into her large mirror-like eyes, Conor suddenly became aware of himself as she must see him, a thin, pale, adolescent boy, slightly smaller than most other boys his age. His reddish hair was untidy, and a bit too long. A scattering of golden freckles hurried randomly across his nose. His features were small and pointed. A faded scar from a surgery he had when he was a baby slashed his forehead. ‘Harry Potter’ his sisters would tease him. No amount of combing would entice his fringe to conceal it. Rather alarmingly, his brows and lashes were so fair and sparse they could barely be seen. He wore the standard teenage uniform of jeans, tee shirt, and skater shoes in an attempt to look ‘normal’. His I-pod, a gift from his sisters, was tucked into his pocket.
The woman’s observations did not seem to please her, however, for a look of resignation crossed her features, and she sighed.
“No physio today, Conor. I am Annalee of the Sidhe, and you’re coming with me.”
That’s strange. There’s a river near my school called the Annalee. She must be named after it.
The woman gave him a quizzical look. “Don’t be silly! They named the river after me, of course.” She sounded almost offended.
Conor jumped in surprise. How did she always seem to know what he was thinking? What a weird thing to say. How could a river, which had been there since time began, be named after a person?
Annalee waited, expressionless, silver eyes flickering.
Conor moved restlessly in his chair.
Ok, no physio, great! I hate physio, it’s a waste of time. What are we doing here, then? Must be a therapy of some kind, speech and language, occupational, music?
Annalee performed her trick again. “You are right, it is a waste of time, for no therapy will cure your particular affliction. You are coming with me into the land of the Sidhe. You will know it by another name, that of Tir na Nog.”
For the space of a few seconds, there was silence as they both regarded each other suspiciously. Then Conor erupted into laughter.
I’m being kidnapped by the fairies? Oh, that’s a good one! I guess you must have escaped from the Loony Ward; they are probably more worried about finding you than finding me.
This last sobering thought rapidly chased away Conor’s hilarity as the reality of it sank in. Suddenly he realised he was all alone in an empty part of the hospital with a mad woman. He was vulnerable, and helpless.
Anything could happen, and no one would know.
“That’s right,” said Annalee ominously, rising to her feet and calmly dusting down her trousers. Her quiet voice and detached manner now seemed somehow menacing. Conor watched her with waves of cold, clammy fear pulsing through him.
“You are entirely at my mercy. You have no choice. You are at the whim of whoever controls your wheelchair, and right now, that is me.”
As she began to push him into the mist, she leaned forward so that her lips brushed past his ear and her hair tickled his face.
“Whether you believe me or not,” she said in a whisper, “whether you are willing or not, we are going through the Faeth Fiadha, and into Tir na Nog.”
Chapter 2 – Cloak of Concealment
in the void of fairy time…
“Be wary of the mist, Conor. It is an enchantment fashioned by the great Sea-God, Manannan, to keep Tir na Nog free from unwanted attention. You are safe now because you are with me, but if you were alone, the Faeth Fiadha as it is known in Irish, the Cloak of Concealment, would not tolerate your presence.”
The whiteness about him was complete. He could see nothing. It burned his eyes. It played tricks on his mind. It danced and whirled like cold white flames, wrapping itself sinuously about him. He couldn’t tell if they were going forward or backward, or even if they were moving at all. Through it, Annalee’s voice floated eerily to his ears, muffled and distant. Her words did nothing to reassure him.
Conor was not sure that he wanted to know the consequences of getting lost alone in the mist, but despite this, the thought formed itself in his mind regardless. Annalee’s reply was swift, and unemotional, as he had come to expect.
“You must have heard tales of humans straying into the land of the Fairy? They can get lost in the mist for what seems like eternity, and come out one day quite mad. Or live for a year with the fairies only to return home to find hundreds of years have passed in their own land. Magic can seem quite malevolent to those who don’t understand it. It’s a necessary protection.”
Conor listened in growing alarm. Neither fate felt particularly appealing to him. The Faeth Fiadha was stifling him and he could hardly breathe, which made him panic.
What about me and my family? When I return will they all be dead?
“Of course not. You will return at exactly the moment you left.”
That’s not possible.
“Not to you, but this is Tir na Nog, the Land of the Ever Young. Anything is possible. Here, time moves differently. It can speed up and move hundreds of years faster than time in your world, or it can slow down so that centuries can pass in your world while only moments pass here. It is a very ancient earth magic, something over which we have no control, yet which seems sensitive to our needs and adjusts itself accordingly.”
Conor did not reply.
Best to humour her. Who knows what she might be capable of if she gets angry. Maybe she really is a fairy, or maybe she’s just crazy. Either way, she is reading my thoughts. And what about this fog? You don’t generally get fog inside a hospital building.
“The problem with humans is that they always try to look through the mist, to get through it to the other side,” continued Annalee, “but it is an entity in itself. If you were to look at it, you might be surprised at what you see.”
Look at it? There’s nothing to see but a white-out.
Conor turned his head crossly this way and that in an attempt to stare at the mist. It was so dazzling it was hard to keep his eyes open, and he had to keep blinking. It shimmered and sparkled, beguiling him and luring him on into its depths. It showered him with the gift of tiny diamond dew drops, and wreathed itself around his limbs like a living, silky garment. He felt like he was being absorbed by it, becoming a part of it. He was no longer a separate being of warm blood and flesh and breath, but a wispy white wraith, an insubstantial parasite on the body of this living, vaporous creature. Strangely, the prospect felt comforting. He would be rid of his heavy, cumbersome, prison-like body once and for all.
Gradually, after an indeterminate length of time, he detected with reluctance a shudder in the ethereal embrace of his new companion. The mist was being stirred by a breeze. The slight trembling became the folding and unfurling of a ship’s sail out on the ocean, and the fog began to blow apart like great ragged clouds. Beyond them Conor saw colour, which swam about dizzily before his parched eyes, until it resolved itself into a glorious panorama of sea and mountain.
Is this Tir na Nog, Annalee?
There was no reply. Turning his head, he found that she was nowhere to be seen. For a moment, Conor felt giddy with the shock of this realisation. She must be either lost in the fog, or had abandoned him.
Someone brushed past him, almost knocking him out of his chair. Looking around, Conor became aware of a procession of people walking away from the sea into the mountains. They all ignored him. There was something strange about them. Staring, Conor’s heart missed a beat. It couldn’t be. They looked like… well, like warriors from Ireland’s past. Many carried swords and spears, men and women alike. Some rode horses, there were even some two-wheeled chariots. There were carts pulled by oxen, laden sky high with boxes and baskets and cloth-wrapped bundles. There were children, too. Huge, hairy hunting dogs ran around barking. Herds of cattle and flocks of sheep were being driven up into the hills. The smell of wood smoke choked him, and he saw a whole fleet of boats, too numerous to count, on fire in the bay.
What the hell is going on? Where am I? Why does no-one notice me? Can’t they see I need help?
Then it dawned on him. They couldn’t see him. This was what Annalee meant. The Cloak of Concealment had chosen to reveal something to him…
Chapter 3 – Invasion
4000 years ago…
Nuada turned and looked back out to sea. Three hundred sailing ships lay burning in the bay, their blackened hulls sinking into oblivion below the surface. A column of leaping flame and thick choking smoke rose skyward, announcing their arrival, before the wind caught it and swept it inland towards the mountains in great billowing clouds. His men followed where it went, bringing their families, weapons and possessions.
The message to anyone watching is clear. The Tuatha de Denann are here to stay.
Even Fomorian magic had not prevented them from landing, although they had to sail around the island nine times before they spotted a weakness. Then, the Denann had used their own magic to blast their way through. Nuada was not concerned with the Fomori, for the two races shared a history.
They are just a bunch of undisciplined pirates and shaman living on the western isles. They squabble amongst themselves and form and switch alliances at the drop of a hat, depending on which way the wind is blowing. No, it is the Fir Bolg we must either win over or defeat.
This island, which the Fir Bolg called Inis Ealga, was big enough and bountiful enough for them all to live peaceably side by side. Eochaidh, the Fir Bolg High King had established order and peace from chaos. Nuada doubted he was about to welcome them with open arms. Moreover, he was a well-loved and highly respected man amongst all the lesser local clans, who were bound to support him in battle.
Nuada was a good and fair man himself, and bitterly regretted the conflict which would inevitably come. He gritted his teeth.
My people need a home, and this is the place they have chosen.
Turning his back on his burning ships, he squared his shoulders and marched on.
The acrid smell of smoke in the wind swirled around him as he walked, filling his lungs and stinging his eyes. Up ahead of him somewhere, his wife Macha walked with their four sons. He smiled fondly, remembering how the boys had flourished on their long voyage, how they had bravely found their sea legs, throwing themselves into the arts of mastering a ship, and how they had all practiced their battle skills on deck together.
The lads are becoming mighty warriors, although somewhat too eager for battle.
All four had enlisted in the Fianna, an elite band of young men who had formed themselves into a formidable fighting group. They were arrogant, buoyed up by the spirit of their adventure and their own prowess, although some, his own sons included, were yet unproven. The looming battle would soon address that. Macha herself was fearless with her sword, as strong and ruthless as any man, some said more so.
We will have need of every warrior we have, man or woman, no matter how old, or young, experienced or not.
The Denann had sent advance parties months ago to explore this land, and they had returned with tales of wide open spaces suitable for cultivation, jagged mountain ranges and dense forests teeming with boar and deer, plentiful lakes and rivers, and a mild climate.
We will not lack for meat, fish, fowl or grain.
Nuada smiled with satisfaction.
Most importantly, they had identified a place they called Sliabh an Iarainn, the Iron Mountain. Here they could mine the metal so prized for weaponry and tools, the very stuff which gave them such an advantage over everyone who still worked only soft bronze or brittle stone.
Nuada’s reverie was broken by the weight of a friendly arm being thrown across his shoulders. He looked up into the grinning face of his brother. No-one called him by name anymore. He was simply known as the Dagda. It meant ‘the Good God’, as he was multi- skilled, with many talents.
“We made it, brother! We are finally here. Welcome to your new kingdom,” said the Dagda, giving him a shake.
Nuada laughed. “It’s not my kingdom yet,” he replied. “This is just the beginning.”
“Oh, Nuada, you are cautious as an old woman,” scoffed the Dagda.
“And you, brother, are still as impetuous as ever. Never count your chickens…”
“… before they hatch, yeah yeah! But look at this place. See this river? See those mountains? They are ours. What a great place this is. We should celebrate.”
“And we will, but there will be battles and building first, brother.”
The Dagda groaned. “Give me fighting any day. I’ll show those Fir Bolg a thing or two!” He head-locked Nuada and ruffled his hair before bounding away.
Watching from sheltering trees, the small, dark native people wondered at this strange new race of God-like people. The Denann were tall and slim in stature, with broad trunks and shoulders, and muscular limbs. Most were fair haired like Nuada, or red haired like the Dagda. Now, their pale skin was tanned and their hair unkempt from their long months at sea. Their eyes, the colour of summer skies, seemed all the more piercing for the sun’s treatment.
It was a tough journey, as Nuada knew it would be. The going was slow, for although the women of the Denann were as mighty as the men, there were also many children with the clan, and livestock too. Nuada consulted with his trusty elite, and decided to split the Tuatha into smaller groups. Progress would then be easier to manage. He placed plenty of fighting men and women in each group, along with one of his best men as leader.
They encountered the occasional ambush, but these were no more than amateur skirmishes, led by local tribes or bandits chancing their luck. These people had no mind for serious battle, quickly melting into the countryside when they encountered the strange weapons and fierce might of the Denann.
No doubt running straight to Eochaidh with their tales.
They could easily have run them down and killed them all, but Nuada wanted as little killing as possible. These people were to be their neighbours. He wanted the Denann to be respected, not feared. Besides, there was no hiding the arrival of so many people, and had they not already announced their intentions with the burning of their ships?
No, let the stories circulate. Any potential enemy might think twice before attacking.
And still they saw no sign of the Fir Bolg, although Nuada was certain they would be watching.
Why do they not hurry to attack?