Airgetlám: A Retelling
by Mindy Hood
If you ever go roaming in the fog, you will inevitably find yourself somewhere you never expected to be. Every inch you gain ahead, you lose another inch from the way you came. There is the place where you stand, and there are unknowable shadows caught in the web of the fog around you, but you can never see where you are going or where you came from.
In the fog, an old place becomes new, and a new place becomes old. There is an island called Éire that is full of very old places, and the fog can gather very thickly here.
Rising from the fog are the sídhe, the tombs of the ancient kings. Inside, dead men sleep, even if their bones have already fallen into dust, and their dreams weave through the mist.
Stories are like fog – pale shades that swirl around facts just as easily as they spin over fantasies. This might be why dead men who are not even bones can still walk through them. Their faces shift with the eyes that perceive them, the flesh molded over bones gathered from dust at the viewer’s discretion. But some emerge more fully formed than others – a silver hand there, three sisters holding instruments of war here. A series of specters sit on a throne. The blink of an eye sends them back into the cloud.
But the stories linger.
What might you imagine in the face of a long buried king? What might you see reflected in the ghost of a silver hand?
The day Nuada led his people over the waves, the world was gray. The sky was the sea’s mirror, and the place they met was seen more by the imagination than the eye. Like a cradle, the boat beneath his feet rocked and dipped. Manannan stood beside him, taller and stronger in the arm. But not so fair, and not king. His knowledge of the sea had cost him his looks, and Manannan had looked worn and salted when he was still young. Nuada’s knowledge of state and governance, however, had been earned within the shelter of a hall, and he was still considered sound and comely. And so the water was under Manannan’s governance, but the land that the ships were ferrying them to would be under Nuada’s rule, just as the boats – bits of earthy things floating on the mirror-skin of the deep – and the people they bore would be under him.
There were other travelers that day. A dozen monsters had risen from the dark, each larger than the single-sailed vessels above, and swam at their ease between the boats of the Tuatha de Danann. Blunt flat spines occasionally broke the surface, gliding along above each massive beast, the rest of which remained mere feet below, a world away. When the things opened their mouths, Nuada could see the cavernous white shadows, and he watched as the flesh along their necks billowed out to enlarge their maws. Whatever prey they sought, he could not see it, and every tip of the boat caused one of his folk to gasp or curse. It was wise to be wary.
Nuada knelt by the prow and watched as each of the tremendous shadows passed beneath the boats and sailed onward with the barest flicks of their tails. They moved with more grace than the gulls in the air. Beside him, Boand, his first wife, shuddered. He turned his head to look at the other, Macha, who stood in the prow of the nearest boat with her sisters, Badb and Anu. Together, the three sisters were the Morrígna, the most terrible triumvirate of battle goddesses the world had ever seen. Rather than trying to squeeze towards the center of the crowd in the belly of the boat, the Morrígna were near the edge, watching the monstrous shadows intently.
Soon the shapes beneath the boats were gone. To what sort of place they were going the king could hardly imagine. Someplace dark, he supposed, without air or light, where the dead dwelled. Wherever they dove to, they were gone from the surface.
Then the Tuatha de Danann were again alone in the grey sea.
The first night he spent in his new hall by the sea, Nuada dreamed of the shadowy monsters that had passed under the boats during the Tuatha de Dananns’ voyage across the sea. When he first opened his dream eyes, he was already well below the surface, and the sunlight was a dim spattering of trampled diamonds churned and rumpled by the rowdy waves. The water was everything, and though he could see the surface, that was the element’s only boundary. There were no walls to hold it in, and the depths descended into the dark forever. As he floated, content to breathe the brine and rest in the current, a series of long silhouettes appeared overhead, near the surface. Slowly, they each arched their backs and began the long swim down to his depth. Eventually, they came near enough that he could recognize them as the creatures that had shadowed the boats. One was closer than the others, and when it was only a few yards distant, it opened its tremendous, toothless maw, which was pale as fresh snow. It swallowed him; he had never been engulfed by a white so dark.
From time to time he would think of the monsters that had passed beneath the boats during their voyage and the dream where he sank so far into their domain. It was a pity he was not quite monstrous enough to join the creatures of the deep. He could always return to the sea, though he would be trapped on the surface. He only needed a boat if he wished to reach the other side of it. But it was down he wished to go, not across.
On sunny days he hid away indoors and did not go to the shore. If he saw his hand shine in the sun he was afraid he would weep openly. One day during his time on the shore he saw a herd of cattle in the distance, and he thought of Boand. How he had wanted to secure this good green place for her and her prize livestock. Now he imagined she was happy enough. The grass was kept short by her herds, and he was left lonely in his hall. That night he had a pig killed, but when the meat his porter carved from it was brought to him he turned away in disgust and threw it all into the fire.
Nuada eventually foreswore all domesticated meat. The flavors were dull and tasted of short wasted lives spent eating grass or slop, protected by fences or minders. So he took up his sword and went into the forest. The porter watched him with his one eye as he passed, a little water gathering under his lashes, and Nuada told him to entertain any guests in his absence as if he actually expected to receive them.
The woods were blessedly dark. The light came only in gaps, and it was easy to hide his hand beneath his cloak as he stepped between trees. Whispers and rustlings of animals were everywhere, and the twitter of birds trickled down from the canopy. Eventually he found a good place to wait in ambush, and he crouched down in the thorny bushes that bordered a tiny clearing. Any animals that had been startled by his presence eventually began to emerge, and even more noise was layered over the racket of birds and squirrels and mice in the leaves above and the forest litter below. After the dusty silence of his empty hall – newly built for guests who did not come – and the meaningless roaring of the waves, out-shouted only by the desolate gulls, the active and disorganized noise of a living wood was intoxicating. So intoxicating, in fact, that Nuada almost failed to see the deer as it stepped up to nibble berries from the bushes before him.
The sword was the weapon of another kind of hunter, but it was the weapon Nuada knew best, and the only weapon that knew him. He swung it over his head as he sprang from behind the bush, and the deer started back an inch, so the blade did not sever its head as he had meant for it to do. The instinctual urge to flee was still within the slight beast, and its legs tried to leap away through the bracken even as its body laid twitching and shivering in the leaf litter. Nuada swung the sword around and angled the blade beneath the deer’s neck. With a quick pull on the hilt, he had opened the animal’s throat, and its eyes quickly grew dull. Killing the deer was more difficult than killing a man, it seemed to have a greater will to live, and he stabbed it several times, even after he had slit its throat, just to be sure that it would not run again.
He surveyed his work with pleasure. It was meat for a king.
Then a grey shape came sidling out of the trees ahead, and Nuada looked up from his prize to see a single wolf approaching his kill. It was fat and well-muscled, clearly made sleek by the summer’s hunting, and now it had grown bold as well. It kept an eye on the former king as it approached, and it came slowly, retreating and advancing by turns, but drawing ever closer. It was wary, but clearly thought itself equal to this man, alone in the woods with blunt teeth and fragile nails. Hot anger bit in Nuada’s stomach at the beast’s audacity, and he licked his lips as it neared. He tasted copper, and he wondered if the deer’s blood had sprayed over his face in the conflict. The wolf finally eased up to the deer’s haunch and gave it a thorough sniffing. It opened its jaws to dine, and Nuada raised his sword to strike. Familiar with the threat of other predators, the wolf sensed the danger and tried to pounce out of striking distance. But Nuada had learned from his experience with the deer.
He cut the wolf’s head from its body in one heavy stroke.
The dismembered head rolled away under a hazel bush, and Nuada took a moment to clean his sword and admire both his kills. It had been a fine day for hunting.
Abandoning the deer, he hefted the wolf carcass over his shoulder and went to the hazel bush. With his silver hand, he dragged out the head, which came out decked with hazel leaves caught in the fur and stuck to the blood.
The meat fed Nuada for three weeks, and he had the porter hang the head in the center of the hall as a trophy, hazel leaves and all.