A hundred torches and a large central fire filled the great hall of Tara with a ruddy glow. It fluttered nervously in the fretful gusts of autumn wind that batted at the fortress hill of kings.
The many wavering lights cast multiple shadows of the thick roof pillars against the outer walls of the immense, circular room. They created patterns that writhed and altered constantly in a grotesque dance whose music was the keening of the wind itself.
Not many days before, the hall had been the scene of a victory celebration, filled with the rejoicing people of the Tuatha de Danann. Now, no bards sang, no harps played, no ale was passed. The long tables ranged about the fire pit were empty. Tara’s hall was deserted except for a single group of men gathered on the dais of the High-King.
Some fifty men were on this royal platform, seated or standing around the table where the High-King and his champions sat when feasting. They made a spot of brightness in the gloom of the cavernous space, a grand collection of colors and textures in the tunics and woolen cloaks, the finely wrought brooches and sword hilts of the chieftains, the multihued robes and golden torcs of the druids. All were intent upon the large chart of the island called Eire spread out upon the planks.
Nuada, High-King of the Tuatha de Danann clans, stood over it. The firelight painted the strong features of his long face in broad, emphatic strokes of light and dark. It turned his eyes to flames gleaming in the deep shadows behind his shaggy brows. He indicated locations upon the chart with the slender, glinting point of his own sword as he spoke, his voice booming hollowly in the vast space.
"Our rising against the Fomor has succeeded-so far. We’ve broken their companies at every place they’ve tried to stand." The sword tip touched lightly at several points across the upper third of the isle. "Now they seem to have given up resistance altogether and are all fleeing toward the north."
He lifted his gaze and cast it around at the circle of stolid faces. The gathered leaders were of a type with their king, long-featured, intense, tall and lean of body, golden-haired. And the eyes of all glowed alike with victory.
"But we mustn’t be too ready to believe we’ve won yet!" he cautioned them sharply. "Until the Fomor are defeated totally, their last warrior driven from Eire, we’ll not be done with them or properly revenged for the years we lived as their slaves!"
There were murmurs and nods of agreement at that. All there had felt the cruelty of the Fomor, and none underestimated the brutal power of that enemy.
"Our scouts have told us that right now they are gathering," he continued. His sword point stabbed down into the chart, impaling a spot on the northern coast. "Here. Their last and largest city in Eire."
He looked to the others again, his voice taking on a grim intensity. "I don’t have to tell you that if they choose to stand against us there, the battle will be a long and bloody one. There’ll be no making peace. The Fomor will have their backs to the sea and they’ll fight with the savageness of the beasts they are."
One of the warriors exchanged looks with his fellow chieftains, then spoke in reply.
"My King, our people are ready. They are armed and trained and their full strength is restored to them. They want nothing more but to finish this war and have Eire at last!"
The High-King nodded. He had expected nothing else.
"Very well. Then be prepared to march. We have had word from the Fomor that they will accept a truce and discuss terms of surrender. Lugh Lamfada and our other comrades have agreed to go to their city and meet with them. But if they refuse to make terms, we will have to fight."
"I hope our friends survive," said a cunning-looking little druid who sat beside the king. "The Fomor are treacherous."
Nuada’s expression gave way to a grin at that.
"Findgoll," he replied, "knowing Lugh and his company as we do, I think it’s the survival of the Fomor we should be wondering about."
The little band strode purposefully down from the last high ridge of hills toward the Fomor stronghold. It lay far below, at the base of a wide trough of land that ran to the sea, a square patch of filthy linen dropped on the soft green plain along the shore.
It was an odd collection of people who now approached this goal, although the couple who led it did little to create this impression. Those two seemed a quite pleasant, harmless sort of pair. The young man was cleanly and boldly featured, his fair hair swept casually back in a thick wave. The young woman had an open, guileless face accentuated by large, bright green eyes and a fine dusting of freckles across her small nose and high cheeks. There was nothing about them to suggest that he was Lugh Lamfada, champion of the de Dananns and she the veteran warrior called Aine.
It was the three who followed them who created the air of strangeness.
One of this trio was the Dagda, most powerful of the de Danann’s warriors. He was an enormous man, with a body hard as bog oak and a face like a rocky cliff softened and seamed by years of Eire’s rain.
Beside him strode Morrigan, another woman, though this was barely discernible. Her lean body was closely furled in a black cloak, and her glowing blue-black hair was pulled back tightly, emphasizing the gauntness of her face.
On the Dagda’s other side loped the one known as Gilla the Clown. A baggy, battered cloak of faded stripes billowed around his long, loose-jointed frame. Outsize shoes flapped loudly on his feet. A tangle of beard and hair masked all of his face save for his eyes, his nearly constant grin, and the tip of a long nose that jutted from the growth as if striving desperately for air.
As the five drew nearer to the Fomor city, the patch of linen began to resolve itself into a town. The separate buildings were tiny squares of dirty white set in rows, dividing the whole area into exact segments. It was all shrouded by a thick yellow-gray haze that hung low above it.
Something swooped suddenly down from the sky and directly at the travelers. In a flurry of wings it swiftly checked itself and settled to a landing on the arm Lugh lifted toward it. It was a small falcon, and it ruffled its feathers in a nervous gesture as it turned a sharp gaze toward the young warrior.
"I’ve been over it, and I don’t like it at all," the bird announced in a sharp, uneasy voice. "The look of the place is bad enough. But the smell!"
This talking bird was in fact a Púca, one of that extraordinary family of beings who could assume any shape at will except that of a human.
Lugh had to admit that the creature was certainly right. Even at this distance the breeze off the sea managed to waft the awful stench of the city up to them. It was most reminiscent of something long dead left under a hot sun.
"I don’t much like it either, Shaglan," Lugh told the Púca firmly, "but it’s my feeling that we must do this. We can’t let the bloodshed continue if there is any possibility this can be settled peacefully. If Bres is willing to talk with us, we have to try to convince him that surrender is best."
"Well, it’s the maddest thing we’ve ever done," the Dagda growled. "And going in there without my war-ax, I feel like a naked babe in a wolves’ den!"
He wasn’t alone in that feeling. None of the party carried sword, spear, ax, shield, or any other weapon, as a condition of the truce with the Fomor.
The outer limits of the city were just ahead now. The roadway they followed entered it through a break in a row of close-set square buildings. At their approach, a group of figures moved into this opening and stopped, blocking the way.
"Our welcoming party," Lugh commented, examining them with interest. "Who are they?"
"It’s the Serpent’s Head Clan," the Dagda supplied. "One of the hardest in the Fomor companies. Very difficult to kill."
They were all tall and cylindrical in body, well-muscled, and wiry in build. The blood relationship was clear in the facial characteristics that had given them their name. Their heads were flat and broad, nearly without chins or foreheads. Most were bald. Their eyes protruded from the sides of their heads, and their noses were only thin, moist, pulsing slits above wide, lax mouths.
"A lovely family, they are," Gilla told the Dagda cheerily, drawing only a glare from his large companion.
As the little band came to a halt, one of this clan moved forward. One side of his face was covered by a scabrous mass of dead white tissue, leaving him only one eye. But this protruded so far from his head that he could direct it forward or backward. He lifted a heavy, barbed spear before him and challenged the arrivals in a low, lisping voice.
"Are you the ones come to see King Bres then?"
"We are," said Lugh.
"Are you unarmed, as agreed?"
"We keep our bargains," the Dagda told him irritably.
The single eye swiveled toward him. "We’ll see," the Fomor said. "Let’s have a look."
Reluctantly, Lugh and the Dagda pulled back their cloaks so the clan leader could peer about for hidden weapons. Gilla the Clown readily lifted the skirts of his voluminous coat and smiled his most inane smile. The Fomor passed him over quickly as an obvious lunatic. Morrigan unwrapped her cloak to reveal a gaunt but sinewy body that the searcher found amusing. He turned to his companions.
"Look at this one. All bones, she is."
She fixed him with the glittering stare of a raptor spotting prey, but made no reply.
With Aine, the Fomor suddenly grew much more interested. For she threw back her coat to expose a woman’s form that belied her girlish looks. And the short, belted tunic that she wore did very little to disguise it.
"Well, well!" the Fomor said. "This is better! This one will take a bit more searchin’."
He started toward her, hands out, saliva dribbling from the corner of his sagging mouth.
Aine stepped away, warning him in sharp tones: "Keep back, snake, or I’ll pop out that only eye of yours!"
He laughed and kept moving forward, but in another instant he was on the ground, rolling about, screaming, flailing wildly to drive off the attacking falcon that had launched itself upon him.
"Get it off! Get it off!" he wailed, trying to keep the tearing claws away from his eye.
"We’re here under a truce to see Bres," Lugh told him coldly. "Leave off your games and take us to him now!"
"I will! I will!" the hapless being promised. "Just get the bird off!"
"Bird!" Lugh said simply, and the falcon instantly broke off its attack and flapped back to his arm.
The disheveled warrior got up, eyeing the falcon warily.
"All right then," he said sullenly. "Follow me."
They moved after the Fomor, passing the outer line of buildings. Beyond it they entered one of the city’s main thoroughfare. They found it a scene of confusion and horror.
The street was congested with uncountable milling Fomor. The appearance of the beings who made up this close-packed mass made the Serpent’s Head Clan seem almost pleasant in comparison. For the Fomor of Eire were a people doomed to bear the burden of an ancient curse, and its mark was clear upon them. Each one was touched by it in face or form, and some in both.
Backs were twisted, shoulders bent, limbs stunted or distorted into gnarled claws or clublike hooves or webbed fins. Some lacked arms or legs altogether and made do with crude substitutions of metal and wood.
The faces were of a variety that a human might find in only the deepest and most perverse of nightmares. The greatest number were victims of malformations that gave them the look of beings other than man. Sea creatures seemed to predominate, with an abundance of popping eyes, pulsing gills, and hairless faces lacking ears or noses. Reptilian characteristics were also much in evidence in squat, toadlike heads and drooping mouths. And there were some who simply lacked the essential parts to make up any kind of face, though most of these wore face coverings to hide what even their own brethren couldn’t stomach.
It was altogether as if some particularly malicious creator had poured their essences into the cauldron of life with those of whatever loathsome creatures could be found, given the whole a vigorous stir, then poured out the resulting mixture haphazardly.
Still, for all the terrible nature of their deformities, there was nothing pitiable about the Fomor, and there was certainly nothing weak. They were hard and ruthless warriors, heavily armed, more than able to cope with and even use their handicaps to their advantage: Their awful appearance had long served to intimidate their enemies.
But now, for the first time in their memories, they had met defeat, and it had sent the survivors fleeing here, to this final refuge. The influx of hundreds of Fomor from all of Eire had created a situation of overcrowding and disorder. Many arguments, scuffles, and outright fights with weapons were taking place among the violent beings. At one spot a dozen warriors were engaged in a bloody melee over a pile of booty looted from the once-enslaved de Dananns.
The dreadful nature of the beings was only intensified by the loathsomeness of their setting. Lugh and his companions walked a street turned to an open sewer by refuse, past alleyways clogged with mounds of trash. They breathed a heavy, smoky air made foul with the odor of rot.