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On an ice-blue winter night full-mooned and frosty, when well-meaning folk were huddled by their firesides, a spirit of the Otherworld awoke. Roused by the scent of fear carried on a chill wind he emerged from his sanctuary in the depths of the earth.
Around the bare rocky hills a distant wretched cry echoed desperately. A delicious shiver of excitement drove off the last vestiges of the creature's long sleep. His mind now sharply alert, the ghostly shadow tarried at the entrance to the stony hill he called home and begged for another sign.
A horse neighed wildly on the far side of the forest. This dark spirit hummed with satisfaction. His senses drank deep after cold confinement within the ancient mound of rock. Eyes once shallow sparkled cool and green like two emeralds dropped in the bottom of a clear well.
For countless generations this ethereal creature had haunted the west of Innisfail. He knew every field, every valley, every lonely cairn dedicated to the Old Ones. In his time he had wandered the darkest places deep beneath the earth and the lofty mountains kissed by the clouds.
His nostrils twitched and his eyes shone bright as he tucked in his head and turned slowly around toward the fields. The midnight walker stiffened, straightened up and smiled. If he'd had a heart it would have been beating hard against his chest. A tremble took hold of him as he tracked down the disturbance that had interrupted his rest.
Through hard-driven snow a mighty drafthorse thudded down toward a stand of sturdy oak trees. Sleet and frost flew about as the animal bellowed in dismay. On the horse's back a thin weakling of a lad clung hopelessly to the mane to save himself from falling. He was only a golden-haired boy too frightened to call out and too unsteady to bring his mount to a halt. His frail frame was buffeted about on the back of the bare unsaddled animal like a sack of oats. It was all he could do to stop himself sliding off into the snow.
The spirit-walker watched in absolute silence. His prayers had been answered, and now all his dreams would surely come to pass. This was the moment the creature of the dark hills had so long awaited.
Suddenly the panicked horse charged toward a small mound of snow-covered rocks. Then just as abruptly the animal leapt high just two steps off disaster. The young rider's hold weakened as his mount lurched forward on the other side. His hands ached from exertion but the will to live was still very strong in him. By some miracle when the horse came down the lad had kept his seat.
Far behind him in the night the young horseman heard a girl call out his name. He struggled to reply but he was too breathless to speak. His head was swimming and his mind clouded as the horse turned round again to charge the trees. It was clear the animal meant to dislodge him by dragging him through low branches.
Foam streaming from its mouth, the horse ran on, making for the first great oak. The boy clung tight to the animal's neck and whimpered. In that instant, halted by an unseen threat, the mount stopped still in its tracks, and cried out in a frantic, almost human, voice. Somehow the shaken boy managed to stop himself from slipping into the snow. The horse was perfectly motionless now, breathing wild-eyed steam in the wintry air. It grunted from the back of its throat.
The lad made a move to dismount, but as he shifted position his sharp eyes caught a glimpse of something black flitting from beneath the trees. He did not have time to see clearly what was moving swiftly toward him but his heart filled with a dread such as he had never known. At last he found the breath to call out.
"Help!" It was a soul-chilling shriek.
The horse reared up, sharing the lad's terror, eyes bulging with fright. It twisted its body in one last attempt to shake off the rider, lost its footing on the icy ground and fell hard on its side. All this happened so fast the boy had no chance to jump clear. In moments the heavy animal had rolled over on top of his thin frame.
A loud gut-wrenching crack, a painful gush of air and the poor lad was pinned beneath the fallen beast. Then just as easily as it had stumbled, the horse was on its feet again, pounding away into the night.
A few short gasps, noisy, strained and desperate. A shadow passed across the snow. The lad looked up. The spirit halted not far off and waited.
"Fearna!" A girl's voice, muffled by the night, drifted across the moonlit fields. The Otherworldly creature was unmoved.
Helpless in the snow the boy uttered a dozen feeble urgent cries. He saw his own breath clouding in front of him and through the steam he glimpsed a stranger dressed in black.
"Where are you?" the girl wept in the distance.
There was defeat in her voice. Fearna heard it plainly.
Among the exposed roots of the oak grove the young rider was already beyond an answer. His lips moved slightly as they formed her name but there was no strength left to make a sound. Fearna frowned as he coughed. His mouth was full of snow and blood. A shudder shook him, then the last breath left his body and the steam abruptly ceased.
The spirit-watcher waited for a moment longer, searching for any sign of life. Satisfied there was none, he strode directly over to where the cold boy lay on the soft white shroud of winter. There he knelt down beside the still form where it lay partly concealed in the shadows of the mighty oaks.
"Fearna!" came the cry once more.
The creature turned a nose to the breeze and sniffed, instantly judging the girl and her brother were a good distance away. To be sure the stranger scanned the line of snowy hills and the edge of the distant forest. Reassured, he turned his attention back to the young corpse before him.
The crisp white ground all round was stained red with blood. Frigid air quickly turned Fearna's skin to gray. The stranger bent over to make sure there were no stirrings of life. He caught the stench of mead on the lad's clothes and recoiled slightly.
"Well, my dear Fearna," the creature said in a low, rasping voice, "it seems you have not ended your life in an honorable way. What will your father say?"
The black spirit laughed gruffly under his breath.
"Your death has not been in vain, if that is any consolation to you. Your passing will enable me to rebuild my fortunes and save myself from an eternity of isolation and misery."
The creature turned his head sharply, senses alert, like a wild animal keeping watch for hunters. It was some moments before he relaxed and regarded the corpse once more.
"I thank you for your sacrifice," he added sincerely. "And I beg you to forgive me for taking advantage of your misfortune. But this is an opportunity I simply could not pass by. I have been waiting so long for this chance."
A scent wafted in from the hills. The stranger sniffed the air again, then he pulled back the cowl which covered his smooth bald head and closed his eyes to concentrate.
"The girl and her brother are approaching now," he announced as he leaned down to tenderly stroke the golden locks of hair away from the glassy eyes. "Soon you will rest among your own folk."
Another cry echoed into the trees. The dark-robed figure covered his head again to keep out the frost as he turned around to face the hills. Not three hundred paces away two dark shapes struggled across the thick frozen blanket of snow making a difficult headway in the icy wind.
"Your friends have come to find you, Fearna," the stranger told the boy, "but it serves my purpose they should not tarry here too long. I must make certain that pair are gone again soon. Do not fear, I will wait by you through the night and keep you company till morning."
The young woman's gray cloak flew about her face obscuring her vision. Impatiently she threw it from her shoulders to search the fields. Soon enough her copper red locks fell loose from their binding and she had to cover her head again. Her green eyes had not lost their bright light despite the seriousness of the situation.
"Aoife!" her brother Sárán begged. "Slow down. I can't keep up with you."
She ignored him, though she slipped time and again in the deep drifts of snow. Each time she struggled to her feet and trudged on as quickly as she could manage.
"I can see him!" she cried out at last. "He's standing by the oak trees."
"Where?" her brother replied, scowling.
"There," she pointed.
"Aoife, I cannot see anything. The snowfall is too heavy."
Beneath the oaks the spirit-walker let a smile curl the edges of his mouth. Then the moon passed behind a cloud and the creature melted into the trees without trace.
The young woman stopped in her tracks. "He was there!" she exclaimed. "He was standing in front of those oaks."
When her brother caught up he grabbed her hand and dragged her forward. "It was a trick of the shadows," he told her, searching her eyes for any sign of delirium. "The cold is overcoming us. We must keep moving or the frozen night will kill us both."
Aoife nodded but she knew it was not shadows she had seen.
"There is something lying on the ground near the oak wood," Sárán added, squinting to try and make out what the shape was.
"Then let's make for the trees," Aoife decided. "At least we'll find some shelter from the cold." She trudged on, cold and wet, sweating under her cloak and woolen clothes, until the grove was just ahead.
Sárán and Aoife saw the bloodstain on the snow before either of them caught sight of the drained gray features of Fearna's face, eyes wide open to the sky, collarbone shattered, neck broken and twisted. Sárán touched the boy's cheek in the vain hope of finding life but Aoife stood back staring in disbelief.
"He's dead," her brother announced with certainty.
"I could have sworn I saw him standing by the trees," Aoife sobbed in anguish. "I know I saw someone."
"There are no footprints in the snow," Sárán reasoned. "There was no one else here."
"I saw him standing beneath this tree!" she cried again as she approached the body, convinced that the boy must still be alive.
"It was a trick of the light," her brother sighed.
"No." But Aoife drew a sharp breath when she caught sight of the young man's lips, blue and swollen.
"Fearna is gone, Aoife." Sárán took his sister by the shoulders and shook her to bring her to her senses. "Do you hear me? He is dead."
"It's my fault," Aoife whispered, warm tears streaming down her cheeks. "If it had not been for me he would be sitting by the hearth at home listening to the Bards sing their stories."
"Be quiet!" her brother snapped. "This is all your fault, I won't argue with you about that. May Danu forgive me for playing along with your game. I should have stood up to you."
"It was as much your doing as mine," she protested.
"Don't turn this on me. It was your idea to come out on this night and risk our lives for a childish prank."
"What are we going to do?"
Sárán sighed deeply as he stood up. "We must not be found with him," he decided. "If anyone so much
as imagined we were involved in his death, it could mean war."
"And Father would see us punished severely," the girl added. "There is no greater dishonor than the death of a fosterling through neglect or misadventure, and he loved Fearna more than his own."
"We must keep this night a secret," Sárán insisted urgently. "You must keep quiet. Our future and that of the Fir-Bolg may depend on it."
Aoife did not answer.
"We must return to Dun Burren before anyone misses us," Sárán hissed. "Then you must banish all thoughts of this night from your mind."
"I didn't mean it to be like this," the girl cried, turning away from the corpse. "I wish I had never thought of coming out here at midnight."
"It is done now," Sárán replied. "No one knows we were here except Fearna and he won't tell. Of that you may be certain."
With that the two of them made their way as quickly as they could to the road, careful to brush away their footprints as they went. But in the event they need not have bothered. The snow began falling heavy again, and in a short while all trace of them was completely obliterated.
The two young siblings were barely out of sight and sound when the black-clad spirit appeared again from beneath the stand of ancient shadowy trees. He crouched down beside the lifeless lad.
"Only you and I know the truth, Fearna," he sighed gently. "You see what kind of company you have been keeping? I almost feel it is my duty to visit retribution upon them."
He touched the lad's hair again and there was true compassion in the gesture.
"You have no idea of the gift you have been given," the stranger whispered. "I wish you could tell me about the lands beyond life. I wish I could walk there with you."
A brief smile touched the creature's lips. Then he sat himself down amidst the snowstorm to watch over the corpse until daybreak.
Copyright © 2002 by Caiseal Mór